In the very first episode of HBO's erotically campy True Blood, telepathic ingenue Sookie initially encounters rogue vampire Bill when he enters the rural Southern diner where she works. As the undead chemistry is alchemized, "The Dreaming Dead," a slow-burning ballad by Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter, plays in the background.
The track is barely audible, and the scene is over in less than a minute, but the resulting payday helped cover Sykes' living expenses for the better part of the next two years as she and guitarist Phil Wandscher recorded Marble Son, their ambitious fourth full-length (and sixth release) together since forming in Seattle nearly a decade ago.
When Sykes met Wandscher in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood institution Hattie's Hat in 2002, they quickly became both romantic and creative partners, weaving together her somber alto and his tightly coiled, reverb-thick guitar lines with their shared love of dark subject matter and heavy, atmospheric arrangements. Their debut, Reckless Burning, had a bewitching charm and focus on broken spirits, lost souls, and a sweet undercurrent of the fresh infatuation that was its impetus.
Sykes, a former art-school student and lifelong classic-rock fan, had recently become fascinated with Seattle's burgeoning Americana scene, and it was reflected in those early works. "The whole alt-country thing was pretty huge, and the epicenter was here in Seattle," explains Sykes over cocktails at Hazlewood, a bar just up the street from Hattie's. "It's not that I was trying to jump on any bandwagon. I was coming out of my 20s where I was sort of in a refrain from heavier music and got into singer-songwriters. And that was kind of liberating. I was obsessed with Townes Van Zandt."
Wandscher's distinct twang and preceding history as a founding member of Whiskeytown marked him and Sykes with the country-noir tag for the first several years of their careers, but over the course of the next two albums, they tread more deeply into artful, psych-rock territory inspired in part by the couple's fateful collaboration with doom-rock acts SunnO))) and Boris on 2006's Altar.
"Our bassist, Bill [Herzog], was friends with [Southern Lord label owner and SunnO))) member] Greg Anderson," explains Sykes, and Anderson eventually asked Sykes and Wandscher to collaborate. "I would have thought they would have wanted something with a voice modulator or something silly, but they really did just want me. They told me to treat it like one of my songs."
Drawing inspiration from author Joan Didion's heartbreaking widow's memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, and her own brewing discord with Wandscher, Sykes wrote the lyrics and melody for "The Sinking Belle," the eight-minute dirge that would become Altar's centerpiece. She went on to perform the piece with Wandscher and Anderson at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival and a handful of East Coast dates.
When her and Wandscher's romantic union ended in 2009, Sykes was unsure of whether they could continue with the Sweet Hereafter.
"Part of me really thought it was going to all fall to shit," she says. "I figured there'd be no way he'd tolerate me [dating other people], and there's no way the band's going to stay committed to something that feels this wishy-washy. Initially, it was like pulling teeth. He was in a very dark spot."
They prevailed, however, and ended up in a spot that was unexpectedly fruitful. "Long story short," she adds, "I think feeling like I was about to lose everything I'd worked so hard for—on some bizarre level—freed me up. I didn't second-guess shit. We just went for it."
Marble Son is the band's strongest record to date, and one that will no doubt permanently remove the alt-country label, thanks to Wandscher's sprawling, majestic leads and Sykes' fearless, larger-than-life vocal presence. "I wanted this record to reflect that direness and the magnitude of what was happening in our lives" she says. "It felt epic and it felt like a serious transformation, emotionally, so the music just had to mirror that. It couldn't just be us in our comfort zone any longer. It had to have fury.â
SEE IT: Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter play the Pickathon festival at 4:15 pm Saturday and 6 pm Sunday, Aug. 6-7. See pickathon.com for more information. All ages.