There is a bar just off Kamuning Road in Quezon City called Catch272. It has no signboard: just an outdoor table, a door and three narrow window panes, the two-foot crack in the middle pane patched over with red electrical tape. Visually unremarkable, Catch272 is a relatively elusive spot. But it is far from exclusive: the nondescript bar is a safe zone for all manner of misfits, eccentrics, rebels, and, of course, the musicians among them.
It makes perfect sense that the band Sleep Kitchen were born in Catch272. The four-piece’s folky, soulful alternative rock bears a captivating intensity but still manages to feel laid-back – not unlike the vibe at the unassuming venue where it was forged, a venue that’s hosted its fair share of raucous gigs but on most nights was characterised by an agreeable calm, the kind that encouraged anyone to pick up a guitar and start jamming without apprehension.
Last month, Sleep Kitchen dropped their self-titled debut album. Despite the simple digital release, it’s gained modest traction on Spotify (nearly 11,000 streams) and other platforms: the record even landed at number 37 on the Philippines iTunes R&B charts. The songwriting on the album is uncommonly mature for a debut – which is less surprising once you learn the band formed in 2016. Charismatic lead singer Tao Aves, who prefers to go only by her first name, was the assistant manager and multi-tasking bartender at Catch272. While she was serving some customers, Gino Villamor – who would become Sleep Kitchen’s lead guitarist, called her over.
“He said, ‘Let’s make a band’, and that was it,” Tao tells NME. “We weren’t Sleep Kitchen yet. We fooled around by calling ourselves ‘A Band Has No Name’.”
For a whole year, Tao, Villamor, bassist Miguel Dayanghirang and drummer Zerro de Leon rehearsed and performed covers of Alice Smith, Tori Amos, Fleetwood Mac, Lianne La Havas and Jeff Buckley, to the delight of the bar’s regulars.
It was early 2017 that they decided to become a real band, and settled on their current moniker. “I always wanted the word ‘kitchen’. The sleep bit – well, it was just a sleepy time for all of us,” Tao says, referring to the late hours they practised at, when most of Catch’s customers were already satisfied and didn’t need catering to.
Before Sleep Kitchen began, Tao – a singer for most of her life, who’d been in a few bands – already had a bunch of songs under her belt: ones she’d written around 10 or 15 years ago and occasionally performed in the bar or at certain events, with no intention to seriously release them. De Leon suggested they unearth her existing tunes and flesh them out as a band. “It was a slow process,” he remembers. “One song for just one night. There were so many versions of each song, a lot of debates, a lot of changes, until we arrived at the final product.”
Tao admits feeling a bit uneasy about using her pre-existing songs, 10 of which would make the tracklist for the debut album. “For a long time, I resisted going back to them for a full band arrangement,” she recalls. “But then one year’s worth of jamming with these boys, I felt comfortable with it again. These songs are my babies and I had put them in a time capsule up until then.”
The age on some of the tracks shows in some of the lyrics, most notably ‘Mukha Mo (Your Face)’: a playful, stripped-down, stream-of-consciousness account of Tao the college student seeking some kind of cathartic relief.
At the beginning, Tao says, “it was emotional for me to hear [the songs] come out again, in a way that I was really surprised with. But after getting reacquainted with the sound in a way, I quickly let go of any sentiment. The songs became a little bit new again for me. I became more objective about it, not carrying so much the baggage of what I was writing about all those years ago.”
Elsewhere on the album, Tao chronicles her turbulent relationship with her father – her voice woeful and haunting on ‘Raven’ – and delivers a pledge to loved ones on the climactic ‘Milenya’ (‘Millenium’). A powerhouse of a song with the instrumentation’s intensity noticeably dialled up, the track is Tao’s “prayer”, she says. “It’s sort of like a protection spell. It’s the song I’m most proud of, so I wanted it to be the finisher.”
‘Sleep Kitchen’ tiptoes through Tao’s personal journeys, from tumultuous relationships to personal confusion and existential anxiety. The songs may have been written over a decade ago, but their themes resonate amid the profound internal disquiet many have confronted during this period of quarantines and lockdowns. At the same time, lingering guitar licks, well-placed kick drums and snares, and memorable bass lines ease the listener through the album’s 40-minute run.
Sleep Kitchen discovered their sound almost entirely at Catch272, whether in live rehearsals or performances (for the band, both are almost indistinguishable, anyway). “Basically 90 per cent of [the band’s activity] happened at Catch,” de Leon says. “There’s no pressure to ‘make it’, join any outside gigs here or there. We just wanna jam there and make music.”
“If we were the Pork Adobo, Calix was the added chicken” – Zerro de Leon
Indeed, it was on one random night at the bar in 2017 that hip-hop artist and producer Calix – real name Jayme Ancla – was first enthralled by Sleep Kitchen’s music. Over drinks, Tao mentioned that most of their songs had already been recorded. “I listened to their raw recordings for three weeks straight,” Calix recalls. “The sound was pretty much complete. It was just a matter of how to make the sound fuller while capturing what I consider to be the breath-taking experience of chancing on them at some night in Catch272.”
And so Calix embellished the tracks with ambient horns, keyboards and strings to inject some drama (the discordant melodies of ‘Coffee Tea’ and the horns on ‘Raven’ are of particular note). The mixing process needed just “one cook in the Sleep Kitchen”, quips Tao.
It took Calix almost a year to complete the project, lamenting that pandemic-induced stress took up a lot of his mental space. Humbly, he says, “I was just the garnish, the dish was already complete.”
De Leon interjects, expanding on the metaphor as if they were ordering food from the bar: “Not just the garnish! It was part of the meat. If we were the Pork Adobo, Calix was the added chicken!”
“Maybe Calix is the laurel leaf,” concludes Tao, referencing the small, but equally vital last ingredient to any appetising Filipino Adobo.
Unfortunately, the album is the last dish Sleep Kitchen will serve up for a while. At the end of November 2020, the band decided to call it quits. Unable to make music together in person, with no end to the pandemic in sight, Sleep Kitchen felt it was not possible to carry on.
“It’s the pandemic, so for everybody, the first priority had to be about survival. There was very little time to spend on anything else,” Tao explains. “Being in a band is not an economical endeavour. Yes, there are online gigs, but it can be a logistical nightmare and reliable internet isn’t easy to come by.” De Leon adds grimly, “A lot of bands are already broken up, they just don’t know it. But we know it.”
“It’s the pandemic, so for everybody, the first priority had to be about survival… Being in a band is not an economical endeavour” – Tao
Sleep Kitchen’s regrettable disbandment was perhaps foreshadowed over six months ago, when a sudden fire burned through Catch272 and its sister space, the artist-run Green Papaya. Though no one was hurt, both places were badly damaged – a loss that took its own toll on Sleep Kitchen, who’d considered Catch integral to their sound and mission (which was basically hanging out with friends to make music).
Several donation drives have been held for Catch and Green Papaya, but it’s hard to say when operations will resume. Management has made no announcements thus far, and Tao mournfully reminds NME that gigs are last on the list of allowable public activities.
Meanwhile, each member of Sleep Kitchen is forging ahead on their other existing musical projects, trying to see if and how they can work through the pandemic: Dayanghirang plays for Jr Oca Experience, de Leon remains the drummer for his band Holmes and Villamor with Reklamo. Tao is working on a solo project with Calix, which at the moment remains a “vague web of semi-formed ideas”, she says. “But I want for it to be a salute to different archetypes of women I’ve come across in my life.”
And as for Sleep Kitchen? The band may still reunite yet, de Leon says hopefully, in a few years’ time. But for now, we have their first and only album – a sonic imprint of what it was like to see the band at their best, on a sombre yet relaxed night at Catch272.
‘Sleep Kitchen’ is out now.