Mike Sniper is ready to dispense with his reputation as a dark, enigmatic figure. Up to this point, his persona — complete with his face shrouded deep within a hoodie like a Sith Lord during performances — has been as muddled as his lyrics buried unintelligibly into five years' worth of Blank Dogs' danceable, lo-fi pop songs.
"I'm trying to be more gregarious," says the trio's 33-year-old frontman and owner of Brooklyn-based record label Captured Tracks. Blank Dogs will tour Florida for the first time in mid-April, headlining Radio-Active Records' Record Store Day festivities in Fort Lauderdale and playing Palm Beach and Orlando gigs with his label's recently acquired South Florida band, the Jameses.
Sniper initially kept a low profile with Blank Dogs before adding Pam Garavano-Coolbaugh and Craig Mileski. "When I first started the project, I refused to do any interviews and didn't play live for the first year, maybe more," he says. "I was recording everything by myself. To some degree, there was mystery to it, but I wasn't going out of my way to be mysterious. I just wasn't talking about it. We had a little success, and there'd be all of this press saying, 'Oh this mysterious band doesn't have any photos.' One person writes something and then other people write about it and it becomes fact."
The impetus to play Florida began with Radio-Active Records' inviting the band to headline its fourth Record Store Day, a national event that has grown to highlight more than 700 indie shops around the country since 2007. Four months of planning went into this year's event, and a team of volunteers is ready to handle the influx of locals seeking RSD-exclusive releases, gift bags, concert-ticket giveaways, and discounted merchandise when the store opens at 9 a.m.
"Last year, we had a really successful day, and we wanted to up the game," says Radio-Active's Mike Ramirez. "We looked at touring bands, but we wanted to go with a band that we liked and that sells well. We do well not only with his band but with the other bands on his label."
The Blank Dogs' trip quickly evolved beyond the two-date gig Radio-Active proposed. "They were offering us a fly out and to play a show there and a show in Miami," Sniper says. "We were kind of like, 'Well, we don't get to play Florida that often,' so I asked my booking agent to expand it at least in South Florida so that we could do a short tour." Come mid-April, Sniper and Garavano-Coolbaugh will pack their synthesizer, drum machine, and guitar into a station wagon and embark on what the frontman anticipates will be a delightful journey. "I told the guy from Radio-Active, 'Don't worry about the flights.' I'm going to take this as an excuse to go on a little vacation. We've become a dark yuppie band. Pam and I are probably going to be eating at yuppie lunch spots, getting cocktails, and listening to NPR on the way down."
The notably prolific Sniper certainly deserves a vacation. Blank Dogs released full-length album Land and Fixed last October and has already wrapped up and mastered Collected by Itself: 2006 - 2009, a collection of 27 songs that didn't make it onto the band's full-length releases from those years. On March 29, Sniper's label, Captured Tracks, which he started in 2008, released its 100th album.
"I'm pretty excited about it, actually," he says. "As a band, I haven't been down [to Florida]. A lot of bands want to go down there. The problem with it is that it's not a route that makes sense. If your show is in Atlanta and you have a show in New Orleans, it's insane to go all the way down the peninsula."
According to Sniper, word about the Florida indie scene and standout bands has spread and sparked touring bands' interest in playing here, despite the difficulty of reaching area stages. "What's going on now is that there seems to be a really great scene of young bands starting that are getting national attention. Up here in New York, they're aware of the Florida scene. If there's a scene that seems able to generate that kind of music, then it must be worth playing."
The South Florida band that particularly caught Sniper's attention was lo-fi pop trio the Jameses. "I'll definitely be excited to be in the room," he says about his upcoming gigs with the band at Orange Door in Lake Park on Friday and at Will's Pub in Orlando on April 18. Though he's never before met singer/keyboardist Dan McHugh or drummer Danny Hitchcock, he knows bassist Jesse Bryan, who divides his time between Brooklyn and Lake Worth, and is familiar with the band's live performance style. "I've watched every bit of live footage I can," Sniper says.
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Eager as he is to see the Jameses perform, he patiently waits for the band to record its first LP for Captured Tracks. "We're putting out a full record, at least one, maybe more. I don't know how far into it they are. They told me that they tend to take their time recording. They can take all of the time in the world as long as it's a good record. It's got to be ten to 12 songs." As with the Jameses' first two singles, "The Haunted Rider" and "Caribou," the full-length record will be released on vinyl.
Shortly after its Florida dates, Blank Dogs will depart for a European tour and Sniper will turn to penning his next album, which, he says, will be informed by his rarities collection, Collected by Itself: 2006 - 2009, which exclusively features songs from the era when the band's muddied sound quality befitted its mysterious reputation.
"I'm promoting this collection a lot," he says. "A lot of the music that's on it has been out for some time but not collected in this way. It's near and dear to my heart. I think for the last two albums [Phrases and Land and Fixed], I've kind of veered off. Listening to the old stuff, I think that I have certain strengths that I wasn't exploiting on the last album. The original ideas that I had were pretty good. If I can somehow merge them with my new abilities to record, that's kind of what I want it to sound like."
Will this newfound recording acumen produce more intelligible vocal performances, and if we could discern the words, would we discover, at bottom, something profound? Sniper says, "If someone's looking for that, they should listen to Leonard Cohen... People don't apply the same kind of judgment to fruit and say, 'I want this tomato to taste like a lemon.' There are records for that. It's not what I'm doing."