Sleep Study debuts with bold pop-rock

Ryan Paul Plewacki is the one holding the exceedingly cute dog
Ryan Paul Plewacki is the one holding the exceedingly cute dog
Elli Rader

Despite two well-received solo releases of low-key folk-rock on the local scene under the moniker Ryan Paul & the Ardent, by early 2011 Ryan Paul Plewacki was feeling the need to reboot his music career. He was looking to do more than mark time in "just another local bar band" with a rotating cast of players whose schedules often had a hard time aligning, and excited by the different sounds he was making in the basement of newfound collaborator/keyboardist Cory Eischen. It didn't take long for Plewacki to walk away from the Ardent and start anew with Sleep Study, a band favoring bigger hooks and a bolder sonic palette.

"It wasn't a difficult decision," reflects Plewacki, 31, on his musical reinvention. "There's a certain stigma that goes with the singer/songwriter tag, and for me it never really fit. I was always looking for something more collaborative and wishing for more creative input from other people in the band. Everything since Cory came on board has been super collaborative, and I couldn't be happier. I don't have the final say in anything anymore, and that's the way I like it."

While Eischen ultimately ended up being Plewacki's long-sought collaborative muse, it wasn't love at first sight for both parties. "When I first heard Ryan's music on those solo records my thought was, 'This is not me at all!' But listening to it multiple times I realized how beautiful his chord structures were and how open the space was. He was leaving a lot of room for cool parts. Fairly quickly I had a lot of ideas of what I could add to the mix."

With Eischen and new bandmates Justin Hartke on bass and Alexander Young playing drums, Plewacki's once subtly catchy tunes have grown both more instantly accessible and richly layered. Plewacki still possesses a reedy-but-right tenor evocative of Tom Petty, and Sleep Study's debut album, Nothing Can Destroy, dresses up its sturdy mid-tempo tunes with slick production flourishes and exotic keyboard overdubs aplenty. Honeyed piano ballad "Wonderful Way" takes a vintage Beatles-esque melody and filters it through a modern, Summerteeth-colored lens, resulting in a song nearly on a par with its epic influences. Plewacki makes no attempts to hide his immense love for the Fab Four — his two pugs are named Ringo and Starkey — and he's quick to cite the group's highly symbiotic songwriting as an inspiration for Sleep Study.

"Every year I do a 90-day Beatles diet where that's all I listen to," says Plewacki. "I don't necessarily have a favorite Beatle. I think individually their solo careers weren't that great. But then you put the four of them together and they changed the world in 10 years. That's obviously hugely inspirational. I'm well aware of my own limitations as a musician, so a lot of what Sleep Study has been for me is finding three other people that can make up for my weaknesses and take the music to a new place."

It's a far better place than where Plewacki found himself in his early 20s, when substance abuse problems had halted his music-making before he had truly even gotten started. Now a happily married homeowner five years sober, with a rich musical life that includes live guitar duties for heavyweights like the Honeydogs and Kid Dakota, Plewacki makes music that still mines his turbulent past for inspiration despite his sunny present. Dark-toned vignettes like the fuzzed-out power-pop strutter "Here She Comes" and loping alt-country shuffle "I Wouldn't" boast central characters unraveling at the seams and pondering suicide, albeit hidden deftly behind bright musical melodies. Their eye for poignant details comes from intimate knowledge of life on the margins.

"A lot of the pain that you have to face when dealing with addiction and recovery doesn't ever really go away," admits Plewacki in the rare moment during our joint telephone interview with Eischen when his voice hasn't been bursting with excitement. "It always works its way into anything that I write. 'Here She Comes' is about a person I know who is just really mentally ill and not going to do a thing about it."

He says the songwriting from the Ryan Paul and the Ardent era was still directly processing the grief of his own recovery: "I've done most of that now, so I'm not really looking back anymore. I'm more looking forward with a new set of eyes that have been through some difficult times. I'm satisfied with my life now, but I still know that a lot of things in the world around me aren't right and never will be."

Elli Rader

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