The Cover Story

While She Sleeps: “We’ve been grinding for a long time, and we’re in a really good place”

For almost 20 years, While She Sleeps have given everything to achieve their dream. Through multiple throat surgeries, untold miles travelled, and restructuring the very business in which they operate, a lifetime of grit and graft is paying off. And with new album SELF HELL, they’re poised to take the next step in their constant, unwavering ascendancy by any means necessary…

While She Sleeps: “We’ve been grinding for a long time, and we’re in a really good place”
Luke Morton
Andy Ford

While She Sleeps are climbing over a fence – a fence with a no trespassing sign attached – in search of the perfect location for their Kerrang! cover shoot, marking the release of new album SELF HELL. Firm believers in the motto that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission, the band have already been politely told to sod off from one particular location (secretly grabbing a few more snaps on the way out), and now we find ourselves, in the bitter northern winter, clambering through hollowed-out lorries. Broken beer bottles, empty baggies and spent condoms pockmark the ground in a stark reminder that we’re not in a swanky, overpriced Soho studio, but the vehicular graveyard behind of a Sheffield industrial estate. This is the oil-stained reality of a DIY metal band, and that’s just how Sleeps like it.

Before the perpetual drizzle eventually descends into a full-blown downpour, and once every nook and cranny of the rusting machinery and overgrown greenery has been examined, we head back to the band’s base of operations for a coffee and a toastie. Tucked away in a cluster of independent business units housing everything from accounting firms to bougie brunch spots, we find Sleeps HQ, the band’s home away from home for the past 10 years.

A Bad Religion flag hangs from the rafters, a stuffed fox from the Silence Speaks video is perched on the upper level watching over proceedings, and there’s a thick smell of spraypaint hanging in the air. A very affectionate dog called Nova greets everyone walking through the door.

In one corner sits the office, where the band spend the majority of their time, making key business decisions, editing music videos and carefully curating their creative direction. Directly opposite is the recording studio – known as Sleeps Audio – where we find ourselves now, joined on a leather sofa by frontman Loz Taylor and guitarist Mat Welsh.

“This is the epicentre, everything starts and ends here,” says Mat of their headquarters. “It’s revolutionised how we work because we have a dedicated place for it. There’s something different about travelling to your workspace [instead of] going to your spare bedroom or whatever, and we all feel that it’s important to come somewhere properly with the same focus every day.”

This determined, regimented work ethic is deeply ingrained in all members of While She Sleeps (completed by guitarist Sean Long, bassist Aaran McKenzie and drummer Adam Savage). Growing up in the areas surrounding the Steel City they now call home, there’s a decidedly working class attitude and morality stitched into their DNA.

“We are working class people, we all come from those backgrounds and that history,” says Loz, proudly. “I feel that just rubs off on people. Even in the very early days of Sleeps, my grandparents had a really run-down barn, and that was where we did everything from. And it carries on – we like working that way. And I think that’s how we’ve come full-circle in wanting to operate.”

“We were all brought up with, ‘If you want something done right, do it yourself,’” adds Mat. “The cellar of my house was just full of my grandad’s tools. I think that’s probably the reason why I’m hands-on. It was a place to go and play when I was a kid – I’d go down and just fuck with the tools and make whatever. It put something in me like, ‘If you want that thing, the first option isn’t buying it, the first option is trying to make it.’ I still think that with the band now, like, if we want something, can we make it?”

It hasn’t always been this way. Throughout Sleeps’ 18-year lifespan, they’ve been put through the industry wringer in various label and management setups, and had to surrender certain creative and decision-making responsibilities. Now, however, from within their custom-designed HQ, Mat manages the band, videos are directed Aaran and their future is in their own hands.

“Yesterday we were sat in the office, looking at a list of venues to do on our tour that are all 10,000-capacity – basically an arena tour – and we’re the most DIY we’ve ever been, which is crazy,” smiles Mat. "‘Built not bought’ – I love that expression.”

“We’re the most DIY we’ve ever been, which is crazy”

Mat Welsh

On top of the bricks and mortar that separate WSS from the way the majority of bands conduct business, key to their success is the Sleeps Society – the Patreon subscription service that gives fans exclusive content, glimpses behind the curtain, and ultimately brings everyone closer. It also gives Sleeps the financial freedom to just focus on the music and what actually matters; they’re no longer beholden to contracts or suits, they only have to answer to the fans.

“I’ll never say anything we did was a bad decision, but we definitely let go of the reins,” says Mat, not naming any names, when considering the biggest lesson learned pre-Sleeps Society. “People care about ‘the business’ differently when it’s not theirs. You’re a bit happier to crash a rent-a-car than your pride and joy. We’ve been in really tough spots, and we’ve always dug ourselves out of that hole because it’s not a rental, it’s our thing. You don’t want to lose something you’ve dedicated that much of your life to.”

Not only has the Sleeps Society flipped the game on its head, allowing them to essentially work a 9-5 job creating art they believe in, all five members get a real kick out of doing things the non-conventional way. Take, for instance, their guerrilla marketing tactics for last year’s sold-out Alexandra Palace show, stealthily announced in the toilets and at the bar of Parkway Drive’s headline gig in the same venue, before Sleeps unveiled a homemade banner declaring their intention after their support slot.

“We got in so much shit for doing it,” laughs Mat. “We then hung it on a massive block of flats in Sheffield. All that stuff reminds us why we started this. We all flyered for our gigs when we started, we all put posters up everywhere. And as the band gets bigger I think we’ve realised that they’re all the bits we love. When you get to do them on a big level, it’s so much more fun.

“It’s so easy to be like, ‘Oh, we’re sponsoring it on Facebook,’ but how much more fun is it when you see something physical or get given an invite on the way to a show? You’ve got to remember to have fun with it and there is a model that you can follow, but it doesn’t mean you can’t step out of it. On [2019 album] So What?, we did a billboard that just said how many streams it would take to pay for the billboard (laughs). At the bottom in small print it said it was an advert for the album.

“It’s more fun, isn’t it? Let’s just do something that makes you have a conversation.”

In some respects, it’s surprising While She Sleeps are releasing an album at all. No longer slaves to the machine, they’re free to drop music as and when they see fit, like many artists who pepper singles throughout the year to feed the insatiable streaming service algorithm.

But even with a penchant for waving middle fingers in the face of convention, they’re old-school about some things. Growing up in the early 2000s, actual albums – specifically the one CD you could afford to buy with your pocket money that week – were like lifelines. Mat fondly remembers the hour-long bus rides home from Sheffield, putting his new purchase in his Discman and reading the lyrics along to the music for the entire journey.

“That’s ingrained in me as part of my musical connection,” he explains. “I love doing things exactly how I want, but there are some traditions that are good for a reason.”

The new album, then, is SELF HELL. A title that Loz came up with, it instantly clicked with the band, not just for the fact “it sounds like a metal record” according to Mat, or the fact he loved the aesthetics of four letters stacked on four, but for the unique, personal meaning that each and every listener can ascribe to it.

“For anyone in a bad situation, for you to realise that you need to focus on yourself and fix whatever’s going on, you have to be at the worst of it to realise that you need to change. It’s self-hell before self-help,” explains Mat.

“If you think of a pendulum, it doesn’t change direction until it’s at the furthest fucking point possible before it returns to centre – if the centre is where you are in a happy place, you have to be fucking up here to know how to get back. That’s self-hell, that moment.

“Everyone’s been like, ‘I’ve got to sort something out because I’m going down a bad path or in a bad place or I need more help’. I like that it’s open enough for you to associate with your version of it, I also like that it’s a great blanket name for us to talk about loads of shit.”

For many people, before they reach out to a friend or a professional for help, the first place they turn is the music they love for reassurance, guidance and a cathartic release. For Mat growing up, that record was Rancid’s seminal punk rock masterpiece ...And Out Come The Wolves, but in SELF HELL, with its wide-reaching purview, they might have written a self-help record for a new generation of heavy music fans.

“Knowing that it’s getting used is mad,” gushes Mat. “We’re making it because we need to make. We don’t start the project making music for anyone else but ourselves, but we hand over this thing and find out that someone needed it in a dark time. That’s one of the craziest things when someone far away is like, ‘Dude, this song and these lyrics…’ I wrote them for me, but you’ve used it now, and that’s so cool.

“No matter how bad our situation’s been, we’ve always spun it into a positive,” Mat continues. “It’s the same with the songs, they can be negative as fuck but it’s always about making the best of something. Maybe the message instilled in those songs comes through to people. That’s literally the lyric in one of the new songs, ‘Let’s make the best of a bad situation…’”

So what bad situations have happened in your own lives to that you can attribute to self-hell?

“I think over the years – in our band life as well as our personal lives – we’ve gone through a lot of rollercoasters,” says Loz. “There’s been a lot of compromise, a lot of internal things going on. During the last record, I think someone had a break-up, someone went into hospital… all these different things. And on this record it’s a culmination of what we’ve been through that still carries through the music now.”

“You’ve had three throat surgeries, that’s been a huge part of your life,” offers Mat.

“I think I hold the record!” Loz laughs in response.

“That’s been a battle over the past 10 years for sure,” Mat continues. “We’ve all dabbled with addiction because you can’t be in this industry and not fuck with it. If you can, good on ya, but we grew up just getting on a bottle of cider – that was literally our culture as kids. We’ve all spent about 20 years trying to wean that out of us.

“For me, all my battles are having something you care about so much also be a total burden because you don’t ever stop working – it takes over my life, I’m a total control freak. I’m doing exactly what I wanted to do, but it’s the most stressful thing in the world. Little Simz says it on her record [Heart On Fire], ‘My life is a blessing but it comes with the stresses,’ and fucking word. It comes with so much because it’s so good.”

“This record is a culmination of what we’ve been through”

Loz Taylor

Mental health also forms a strong throughline for the record. From Leave Me Alone that examines how you put on a brave face and lie about how you’re feeling to fit in with the line, ‘we fake when we can’t confide’, to the importance of cutting out toxic people from your life on Down, to living with nothing but memories of pain and loss on Flowers.

But one particular battle that both Loz and Mat struggle with is encapsulated in the title-track: ‘I have imposter syndrome and I'm sensory deprived.’ You might think that a band now on their sixth album, an Alexandra Palace headline show under their belts, and countless tours and festival appearances to their name, Sleeps are confident in their own abilities as artists. But, like with so many things in this life, what you see on the surface isn’t always as it seems.

“That was my lyric,” begins Loz. “I didn’t realise until I stopped boozing, but to a degree I was masking a certain feeling. One day I feel like I deserve to be where I’m at, I’ve worked very hard for it and I’ve been through a lot to get there, and then another time I think it’s very easy to look at your peers and feel like you’re not as good as them or you’re not where you want to be.”

“It’s such a real thing,” Mat adds. “It doesn’t matter where you are on the bill, but rocking up to a festival and to the back of the stage to put your stuff on, I still feel like it’s the first day of school – even if we’re headlining the fucking stage.”

“In the same sense as that, it also keeps you hungry,” Loz bats back. “If your band just blows up and in the first couple of years you’re on the top of your game, where do you go from there? We spoke about this DIY, punk ethic that runs through the band, and I think taking our time to grow steadily is something we always wanted. We didn’t want to be a flash in the pan that becomes irrelevant, we always wanted this incline of growing our fanbase, making it into a career for ourselves. It keeps you hungry to keep pursuing the end goal.”

SELF HELL, more than any other Sleeps record, strives to be something different. Since 2010’s The North Stands For Nothing EP, there has been a recognisable While She Sleeps sound, one that blends the scuzziness of the British punk scene, their love of mid-2000s American metalcore like Killswitch and Darkest Hour, and a healthy dose of arena-shattering choruses. Yet, following the tentative steps into electronics heard on 2021’s Sleeps Society, the band’s latest offering leans even further into waveforms and wobs.

Taking cues from the likes of The Prodigy, Aphex Twin, Gorillaz, Daft Punk and even ’90s Ibiza bangers, WSS weave their EDM adoration into everything from the pulsating Rainbows to the layered, atmospheric interludes of No Feeling Is Final and Out Of The Blue. On a less Creamfields-shaped tip, Loz also cites Radiohead and Placebo as inspirations, not so much musically, but for their attitude and vibe, all of which feeds into a new sound the singer delightedly dubs Britmosh.

But whatever you want to call it, Sleeps are freeing themselves of the metalcore pack, and leaving behind a scene that has – to be fair – stagnated in recent years.

“I love metalcore, but I think we all feel like it’s overly saturated now,” nods Loz. “Tons of bands feel like they push their music through the metalcore machine and they have the right packages on their laptop, and that is the side that I fell out of love with. Not another metalcore band sounding great.”

“You can make a record that sounds as good as a world-class band at home because of all these plug-ins, but at that time, the character of records just disappeared,” agrees Mat. “I want to hear a studio again, I want to hear a room. Character is so important. All our favourite bands have character, it’s about all the members and everyone brings something different to the table and everyone’s allowed to express themselves.”

And in 2024, it does feel like the shackles are off once again for metal artists. Boundaries aren’t being pushed, they’re being bent and broken by the phenomenon that is Sleep Token, the staggering success story of Bad Omens, and a new breed of countless exhilarating acts like Lorna Shore, Spiritbox, Poppy, Ice Nine Kills and I Prevail.

Having been a part of the scene for most of his life, and in Sleeps for the best part of two decades, Mat describes seeing and feeling how alive our world feels right now as like watching his favourite TV show.

“I love when a band comes out of nowhere and breaks, I love when bands go from hammering it forever and eventually get somewhere they deserve. When a band’s doing really well, I don’t get jealous about it, I think it’s cool for the scene. When it’s in a bit of a lull I think, ‘What does it need? What kind of band should turn up?’ I love it when it’s booming and it’s like this. I enjoy watching every episode of the series because I’m invested in it.”

“We’re stoked on our trajectory, we’re the biggest we’ve ever been,” asserts Loz. “And it didn’t happen quickly for us. When we got to Alexandra Palace and sold it out, all of our peers and people around us were saying more than anything that it’s well-deserved. That is just nice to get back. We’ve put the time in, we’ve been grinding for a long time, and we’re in a really good place.”

“If the scene is doing what it is at the moment and people are going to these shows, and bands are getting bigger, I like that we’re a household name in that group,” smiles Mat.

For all of this modesty, camaraderie and northern charm, however, Loz can’t help himself signing off in typical rock’n’roll fashion.

“All these bands can come along whenever they want… but our live energy ain’t nothing to fuck with.”

And for a band with more stamps on their gig passport than most, it’s hard to argue. Years of tireless touring have led Sleeps to this point and they’re still levelling-up to bigger, better things, now backed by one of the most forward-thinking British metal records of the year. And as a summer of festivals and an impending arena tour awaits, they stand as proof that hard work pays off and that nothing will stop them from achieving their dreams. On their own terms.

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