Sitting outside one of his favorite haunts, Tempe's Stinkweeds Records, on a bright December afternoon, Eli Kuner is clearly on edge. He seems relaxed at first as he chats about mundane, getting-to-know-you things, like how he's a history major at ASU, and how he's lived in Mesa all his life.
But when the 20-year-old drummer starts talking about his band, Asleep in the Sea, he stares off into the distance, his pale, jade-colored eyes half-obscured by shaggy brown bangs. He's wearing his favorite gray hoodie -- the zipper's falling off, the hood's frayed, and Kuner tugs nervously at his sleeves. And all the while, he fidgets with a piece of white plastic straw until it resembles a nugget of miniature origami.
His body language states the obvious long before his words finally do.
"Being in a band is my favorite thing, and at the same time, there are some things I just hate -- like having to talk about it, mostly," Kuner says, smiling half-apologetically. "It's awkward. I don't talk about myself to people, but then people wanna know, 'How's your band?' I like being in a band to record and write songs, but I don't like being in a band to talk about it. And then there are some people that only associate me with the band I'm in. That's part of what I do, but that's not who I am."
But unfortunately for Kuner, what he does as part of this up-and-coming indie rock threesome is only going to continue getting attention in the local music scene -- and more people are bound to ask him about it. (It turns out that, compared to his bandmates, his schedule is more flexible for interviews.)
Asleep in the Sea has only been around since late April, when Kuner and 21-year-old guitarist Tom Filardo, friends since high school, found a much-needed third band member, keyboardist Owen Evans. Evans, 20, had just moved to Phoenix from Chicago, where Filardo used to live, and where the two first met. Inspired by bands like the Flaming Lips, Deerhoof, and the Unicorns, the trio went on a remarkable songwriting frenzy, crafting enough material to play their first show in June, at Modified Arts, and even to record a five-song EP over Fourth of July weekend.
In its brief existence, Asleep in the Sea has already opened for some outstanding national touring acts, including the Good Life, Helio Sequence, and the Fiery Furnaces, and has performed with prominent Tempe indie band Reubens Accomplice, whose members discovered Asleep at the Sea through a MySpace Music page.
Kuner says he loves playing live shows, especially since they've given the band such good exposure, but admits he can hardly handle the flattery that follows. "I don't react well when people talk to me about it," he says. "If anybody tells me anything good, I'm like, 'Well, thanks. Okay. Shut up. Leave me alone.'"
Kuner eventually loosens up and dishes the dirt on the band's inner workings. "We disagree about just perspective. I think Owen takes it more seriously than I do, or Tom does," he says, explaining that he's just enjoying the fun of it all without any major goals. Filardo and Evans both write the songs; Filardo usually records on a four-track at his house and brings ideas for Evans and Kuner to play around with. Filardo and Evans also split singing duties, although Kuner occasionally joins in. "I sing the least because I've never sung before and I'm the worst, and I don't like to," he says, cringing at the thought.
On the EP, though, it's hard to single out Kuner; his voice is woven together with Evans' and Filardo's into melodic, humorous call-and-response verses and quirky harmonies. The lyrics and song titles come across as slyly ironic, especially in the way they're presented: "Dance On" is damn catchy but way too slow to actually dance to (although the end of the song will compel you to clap and shout along), and "Punch in the Face" starts off with dreamy, soft, high-pitched synthesizer plinking before knocking you down with powerful guitar chords. Recorded at Audio Confusion, the home studio of Mesa engineer Jalipaz (who also did the Peachcake EP and CDs by a number of AZPunk.com bands), Asleep in the Sea's untitled EP is as oddly endearing as the music on a typical Wes Anderson soundtrack.
The disc started off as a no-frills demo with a handmade insert on colored paper that unfolds into the shape of a heart. Song titles and a simple thanks to Jalipaz "for recording us OK" are written in loopy cursive script along its edges. Kuner says that now the band is getting it professionally pressed, and is self-releasing it this month with an actual title: Yay! O.K. Yeah?.
With that accomplished, Kuner's biding his time until the band's West Coast and Southwest tour in January, sporadically recording tracks for an Asleep in the Sea full-length due out in late spring, and now volunteering at Modified Arts, where he's a fixture at the door. Kuner says he goes to a lot of shows anyway, so he figures this is a good way to meet a lot of new people. That meshes perfectly with his role as his band's "Team Mom," the unofficial manager who handles booking, the band's Web site, and in this case, even interviews.
This weekend, he gets a break from stamping hands -- maybe -- when Asleep at the Sea and other talented locals pay tribute to the club that spawned them at a Modified benefit concert.
Feel free to clap, shout, and dance all you want. Just don't ask Kuner to talk about it afterward.
This music speaks for itself.
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