Sleeper Agent’s Alex Kandel didn’t sit around in middle school math class making up names of bands in which she would sing, or dream up fantasies about The Killers jumping up onstage to join her for an encore at Bonnaroo.
In fact, Sleeper Agent was featured in Rolling Stone magazine not that long after Kandel had accepted the idea that she was a full-time rock ’n’ roll singer. And now that the band’s national debut, “Celebrasion,” was one of 2011’s best-reviewed albums, Kandel and Sleeper Agent are a hit away from being stars.
“This wasn’t really in my plans, because I was a little too practical,” said Kandel, 19. “I didn’t think that I was talented or good enough to consider it. I always thought it was a hobby and just fun, and then I sort of became a little addicted. I always wanted to do better and do more because it became such a fun challenge to do something that didn’t really come naturally to me.”
Sleeper Agent is from Bowling Green, and is part of the town’s resurgent music scene that includes Cage the Elephant and Morning Teleportation. But she recently took up part-time residence in Louisville with her mother, Amy, who moved here for a job.
Today, she’ll stroll from their downtown loft over to the Forecastle Festival, where Sleeper Agent is headlining the Port Stage with an 11 p.m. set. Playing shows is pretty much all Kandel and Sleeper Agent do these days, relentlessly touring as club headliners and opening for bands such as fun. They’ll take a break soon, but only to write and record a new album.
Kandel isn’t complaining, however, not by a long shot. In less than three years, Sleeper Agent has accomplished more than some bands do in a decade, getting recognized by mainstream print media (Spin also wrote about the band) and what seems like the entire blogosphere.
Sleeper Agent has scored high-profile gigs such as Coachella, HangOut and Summerfest, and performed “Get Burned” on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.” Their album was produced by rising star Jay Joyce, who has recorded all of Eric Church’s multi-platinum records.
“It has been going fast ... but it’s almost like when you’re in it and doing it, it doesn’t feel like it’s going fast,” Kandel said, “because with all the work you put into it, you’re like, ‘Oh, come on, why isn’t this clicking?’ We feel the sluggish pace of things until we step back and really see how much we’ve done.”
Sleeper Agent was started by guitarist Tony Smith and drummer Justin Wilson in 2008 as a two-man group, but they quickly decided to expand. They spread the word around the music scene, and although Kandel was still in high school, she had been booking shows and performing cover songs at a local coffeehouse, Cafe Vioni.
An indie-rock fan into The Vines and Strokes, Kandel had already seen Sleeper Agent and liked them. She began bugging Smith until he gave her a chance to play bass, which was a spectacular failure, but she was the perfect singer for his bright, hook-laden hard pop songs. Bassist Lee Williams, guitarist Josh Martin and keyboardist Scott Gardner then came on, forming a family band with the best little sister ever.
Ultimately, Smith’s songs are the stars of the show, but Sleeper Agent has become a tight, engaging band. The guys aren’t too far from their nascent air-guitar years and still play as if being in a band is the greatest thing on the planet, while Kandel’s utterly natural stage presence is charming. She may have started singing as a hobby, but it has clearly become her life.
“I really wanted it, but I didn’t know I wanted it until I started hanging out with them,” Kandel said. “It was the first time that I had found a group of people who thought like me and had the same sense of humor as me. I just felt at home.”
Reporter Jeffrey Lee Puckett can be reached at (502) 582-4160