Sleeper Agent’s Alex Kandel on Hair Dye, Hair Disasters, and the Original Women Who Rocked

"On stage you can get away with anything."

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Alex Kandel is the only girl in acclaimed six-piece Kentucky band Sleeper Agent. Everyone in the band has notoriously great hair, but it’s Kandel’s purple locks you might recognize from the front of Sleeper agent’s much-anticipated second album, About Last Night, which dropped last week as a followup to the 2011 debut that saw them ranked #2 in the Rolling Stone‘s 2012 ‘Best New Band’ reader’s poll — and Kandel nominated for the “Women Who Rock” contest that same year.

Sleeper Agent’s biggest North American tour yet kicks off in New Orleans this Friday. Ahead of her month on the road, I stole Kandel away to talk about girl shit and the original women who rocked.

How many shows are you playing on this tour?
I know we’re going to be gone a month, for our first headline tour. Then that will lead into a bunch of radio shows – basically we’re never going to stop touring again. I love being on the road. As soon as I’m home I’m like, “Why aren’t we booking more shows?”

Is it strenuous touring with five guys?
No, I mean they’re all my best friends. We used to live in a house together. I would say it’s hard to get personal girl time. There are moments when I’m like, “okay, Alex, you’re kind of getting a little too masculine. Maybe let’s call up your best friend and have an hour chat.”

If you’re going on stage, too, you want the chance to wear some great makeup.
There are two times of day when I get to feel like a girl again. The shower, because I stock up on crazy amounts of bath and shower stuff, all from Lush.

I love Lush, I always thought it was Australian and was so happy it existed here. 
It started in the UK, and then the North American branches out of Canada – I know way too much about it. So that is what keeps me sane. Bath bombs, shower gels, shampoos – that is my moment of getting myself together. Then for the gig I have my makeup case. It’s fun because when you’re a musician you can do anything. I can just decide to see what happens if I wear black lipstick, or orange, or whatever – I get to wear ridiculous eyelashes, because on stage you can get away with anything.

What’s your favorite look you’ve tried?
Well this record was the first time I decided to do something different with my hair, by adding the purple in a different way. That was the first time I started to let myself think in different ways. On the first record I was wearing a lot of flannels, and it took me a long time to learn that to be respected as a male and female band you don’t have to be masculine and aggressive. It’s almost more badass to be feminine and still make guys think you can kick their ass. So that’s kind of the mindset I was in for this record. And sometimes it’s weird, getting out of your comfort zone, but all it takes is just trying something on. Sometimes you’ll be like, “these leather shorts do look good on me!”

Does trying on things like leather shorts mean you’re more inclined to make bolder decisions off stage?
When I’m home, I wear no makeup, I’m just lounging around – because I’m only home for two or three day spurts. So it’s really just being on the road when I get to try out new things. I’m kind of a tights junkie. I’ll buy tights on tour as we go. I never start with too many, but every time we stop somewhere I’ll be like, “I’m just going to go check out this store,” and I’ll come back with like, three more pairs. I have a giant suitcase that I can fit into, and all the guys hate it. If we’re in a hotel that doesn’t have an elevator, which happens, I literally have to take two hands and pull it up step by step.

The guys don’t even take one end?
No, they’re like, “it’s yours! You decided to bring the giant suitcase.”

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Do you ever color your hair yourself?
No, I don’t trust myself with that. I never have. Well, there have been two times in my life when I’ve used a box color, and it’s just gone horrible. My mom taught me, she makes friends with every hairdresser she meets. Her best friends are all hairdressers now, so she has a hairdresser in Ohio, in Kentucky, everywhere. I have to bleach my hair every time I do purple, and Goldwell is the best. Goldwell bleach. It doesn’t strip my hair as much as some others do. When I bleach it, you’d think it would feel like straw, but it feels like my hair still. But it took me a long time to figure that out. I’ve done horrible things to my hair. Actually, I have a picture to show you – it is the first picture we ever took the first time we played a show together, so I had just turned 17 that week [she pulls up a photo, which is very 2005 but nowhere near as bad as some of the terrible haircuts I’ve had.]

Don’t worry, I’ve done worse. The first time I came to the U.S. I paid $600 to get hair extensions from a MySpace celebrity, then when I got home I couldn’t even wear them because it was always so windy where I live and I permanently had tracks showing.
I begged my mom in high school to let me do the raccoon thing.

Oh no! I remember there were always big disputes on Livejournal about who invented that.
And the feathery extension things… I think that’s over, right? I’m glad that’s gone, and that my mom never let me do it.

I think when fishing stores stopped selling them to teenage girls because there were none left for the fishermen. So how do you feel like your music has evolved between recording the two albums?
We really pushed ourselves to change in every way, and to come up with something different. Especially me as a vocalist, the whole band and I talked about proving that I could front a band. They were like, “let’s put you in the forefront.” So it’s less Tony and me going back and forth, and more me taking a lead. That was challenging. Then for the songwriting, we really pushed ourselves to. There are some songs that were crazy, out-of-this-world stuff that didn’t even make the record. But through that, we were able to figure out what the next step was. With the first record we spent a week in the studio, and with the second we spent over a year recording and rewriting. It was a hard record to make, but we intended it to be like that. To see what we could do.

Do you do vocal lessons?
I just started. I would always act too tough about it, but really I was kind of terrified. Somewhere in the back of my head I thought I was going to show up and he would be like, “Why are you in a band? You can’t even sing.” But it’s helped a lot – mainly with stamina, and with learning the proper way to warm up so I don’t throw my voice out.

Which other female vocalists do you admire?
It’s hard, because female vocalists are far more common, which is great – it’s often someone who is super sexualized and people don’t talk much about the actual music all that much. I like girls who are a little bit tougher than that. Anita O’Day was this amazing jazz singer, way back in the day. She was the first woman to insist on being a part of the band, rather than being seen as separate. Also Ronnie Spector, because reading her autobiography made me fall in love with her. She was so tough, probably the first really rock ‘n’ roll chick. Fiona Apple is who probably made me want to be a singer. I was 12 or 13, this way back before I even tried to sing, when I met the guys [from Sleeper Agent] at a Fiona Apple concert. That was my first concert. I found a diary entry from that night, and in the diary I was like, “I wonder what it feels like to be up there like she was, I can’t imagine what that would be like…” I think that really planted the seed.

Related links:
Shirley Manson on Social Media, Female Provocateurs, and the Power of Makeup
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Mad Men Parodist Kyle Supley on His Collection of 600 Vintage Disco Shirts

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