On a crisp, December weeknight in Sleepy Kitty’s cozy practice space on Jefferson Ave., guitarist-vocalist Page Brubeck and drummer-vocalist Evan Sult begin to rehearse for an upcoming set at the Ready Room.
An opening slot on a weeknight, the gig seems pretty low-profile. But it’ll be their first in over a year. Brubeck was sidelined by throat surgery in January, and it’s been a slow, difficult path back to the stage.
Brubeck and Sult view the set as a re-affirmation of the band’s very existence. And they’re not sure how it’ll go.
Two weeks before the Dec. 13 show, Brubeck’s still-healing throat can muster 45 minutes before she calls for a break.
A few days later, she admits she pushed herself too hard at rehearsal.
“I know there’s a way into these songs, and I have just had a really hard time fitting myself back into them,” she says. “It’s just a very strange feeling to feel a distance from my own songs.”
The couple met while Brubeck was a student at School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Sult had already earned a gold record with Harvey Danger, an alt-rock band that came out of the Seattle scene of the 1990s. They formed Sleepy Kitty in 2008 and relocated to St. Louis, near Brubeck's hometown of Millstadt, Illinois. They’re signed to locally based Euclid Records, a well-regarded indie label, and tour around the country.
The two have kept a prominent profile on the local arts scene for about 10 years, as in-demand collaborators across assorted disciplines.
In their screen-printing studio, they design and print posters for many occasions, often including their own shows. They composed music for an adaptation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” for Upstream Theater, where Brubeck is a newly added board member. They co-directed the trailer for last year’s St. Louis International Film Festival. They also tend to be the best dressed people in the room, redefining thrift-shop chic into something like a fine art.
Touring had been an annual part of the duo’s schedule. For nine years, it was a key source of income. Then, last year, Brubeck started having trouble with her voice. The group cancelled a May tour, and she tried to power through some assorted gigs with the help of steroid injections.
But those treatments weren’t enough. Doctors found a polyp on her vocal cords that prevented them from closing properly. Brubeck was fighting to create sound.
“I was running out of air. My range was shrinking and my stamina was shrinking. I could do fewer and fewer songs so it was like, well, if I wanna keep singing, I need to have this surgery,” Brubeck, 33, said.
After the January 2018 surgery, she was on strict orders to remain silent for a week, and not to sing for a month. She worked with a speech pathologist and a vocal coach, and learned new warm-up practices as she tried to develop new techniques and re-learn how to sing.
With the band out of commission, and Brubeck unable to pursue her usual sideline of commercial voice work, Sult picked up a day job in line with his design skills, as art director at the Riverfront Times. The two also hunted down more screen-printing jobs, including a major piece for a New York City luxury condo building.
Beyond the lost income, the lack of music led to some serious ruminations about the state of Sleepy Kitty. After all, the defining element of a band is that it plays music.
“There’s no replacement for it,” Sult, 45, said of rehearsing and gigging. ““We haven’t been on tour, which is a very strange state for us. That’s made it a challenging year because we feel like you’re only making music if you’re making music — and we are withholding ourselves from making music.”
The two agreed on a goal to work toward: one Sleepy Kitty show before the end of the year. They booked that relatively low-key return, opening for Oklahoma-based band Broncho on a Thursday night at the Ready Room.
The band is social-media savvy and typically keeps in close touch with its fans. Sleepy Kitty tweeted and posted about this show on Facebook once, in November. Brubeck and Sult didn’t want to hype it to their fans as their big comeback. But they considered it enormously important.
“This means that we’re still a band and we’re still playing shows,” Brubeck said, after the two had started to rehearse again. “That sounds so simple but it’s so significant to us.”
It’s a rainy Thursday night when they drive their van to the Ready Room and unpack their gear. In the venue’s cramped band room, Brubeck performs a series of newly learned voice warm-ups, including singing scales while blowing air into a bottle of water through a straw.
“I’m anxious, if you didn’t notice,” she says, smiling through her discomfort.
There’s a time crunch at the venue and Sleepy Kitty isn’t able to have a full soundcheck. This makes for less-than-ideal conditions.
But the duo takes the stage and opens with a rarity from its catalog, then an artful deconstruction of The Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There.”
The arrangement features a long interlude featuring Brubeck’s emphatic vocals, and one can sense her digging in and testing her boundaries. The audience roars.
Both she and Sult sound comfortable again onstage, bantering and acknowledging a fan’s song request.
After the set, Brubeck and Sult recover in the tiny band room, enormously relieved.
“Well, that was crucial!” Sult exclaims. “I felt so supported tonight,” he adds, praising the crowd’s energy.
“It went well. It happened,” Brubeck says, neatly summing up the milestone. “Now it’s behind us. Now we’re out again.”
Follow Jeremy on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.
Correction: Euclid Records has its headquarters in St. Louis. A previous version of this story misstated its location.