If you’ve seen them, you know Chicago pop-punks Sleep On It are always ready with a laugh and a good time. But on the journey to making their second album, it looked like the wheels were going to fall off far too early. 

Faced with many personal travails, from the dismissal of bassist/founding member AJ Khah to the interpersonal relationships between the members and their private headspaces, Sleep On It—frontman Zech Pluister, guitarists TJ Horansky and Jake Marquis and drummer Luka Fischman—powered through to create their new album, Pride & Disaster. 

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Naturally, the record is laced with the unmistakable themes of trials, tribulations and the teamwork to work through them. But like one of those self-healing polymer desktops that retain their surfaces, Sleep On It knew what they had to do and bounced back. And our playlists are going to be so much better because of it.

Tell me how you formed Sleep On It and the camaraderie in the beginning. 

TJ HORANSKY: We didn’t have any big expectations. We just wanted to hang and jam. I knew AJ from school, so it was just the five of us, and we all just bonded over similar bands we loved and the desire to tour and record. We had that lineup for a little while, and a couple of years later, we split ways with John [Cass], our original vocalist. Around the same time, while we were in Chicago, Zech was singing for a local band called Bonfires. Once I heard that Zech was leaving his band, I just had one of those gut feelings.

Everyone who listens to Sleep On It loves that mid-2000s pop-punk sound. If you had to identify with several bands, who would they be? Whose sound and vibe inspired you? 

HORANSKY: I would say Jonas Brothers, Smash Mouth and One Direction. I’m just kidding.

ZECH PLUISTER: Fall Out Boy, Yellowcard and Jimmy Eat World. Those were the three bands for us that every one of us thought, “This is it.” The honorable mentions are Mayday Parade, Taking Back Sunday and Acceptance. You know, those emotional bridge bands.

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Since 2012, Sleep On It’s trajectory looked pretty sweet. You switched singers, released your first EP, did some touring with bands such as Cute Is What We Aim For, Set Your Goals and State Champs before making your first full-length, Overexposed. From the outside, it seemed like everything was great. But that’s not the reality. What happened after the release of the album?

PLUISTER: We were all in such different places. Overexposed came out on Nov. 3, 2017. We were about to leave to tour the following week or so. I remember not knowing how to feel. Like, when the record came out, because it was our first full-length record. I just remember thinking, “This is a big deal. We actually did this. We signed a contract. People are going to hear it. It’s not just a dream anymore.” We put it out, and I just remember that whole week my phone blowing up and feeling so proud of everything we had done. I had put so much of myself into that record. I was on top of the world. 

When you explain those feelings from that album release, how were relations between band members?

HORANSKY: I have a hard time slowing down and appreciating accomplishments. It was like, “We put this record out. Now what?” I was anxious to start touring. 

As far as the band and interpersonal relationships, I think for the most part we were OK, but there was always a tension that loomed with our original bass player, AJ. There were a lot of times where we didn’t get along. Also, not communicating on all fronts. When you are on tour and you are around people all the time, I see the band more than I see my family. You have to learn to respect and trust each other. A lot of that is communication. If something bothers you or is upsetting, it has to be communicated.

PLUISTER: I started realizing [there was a problem] around Warped Tour. We had all grown a little distant, and the daily routine had really taken its toll on us. I just completely internalized for the most part. I didn’t really see any of the other guys unless it was warming up before the show or onstage. That just carried into the fall on the With Confidence tour: We weren’t talking as much, and we just minded all of our own business. It was hard. It was scary.

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What happened with AJ Khah? When exactly did the problems start that eventually lead to his exit?

HORANSKY: We had just felt our friendship growing more and more distant over the last year. Starting with [Warped], then moving into our fall tour. Among all the pressures of the studio, the anxiety and the stress, we just realized that it was the best decision for us to part ways. We wish him all the best moving forward. We just chose to go our own way.

Zech, you said the tension and anxiety was so high, you thought about leaving the band altogether. Where did the neurosis come from? How did you cope with your depression and anxiety?

PLUISTER: It really all comes from a place of just never thinking I’m good enough and being told the same. I didn’t really have a great support system around me as far as music growing up. My family didn’t really understand why I was pouring so much money, time and effort into it, so I always worked that much harder and put that much more pressure on myself trying to show them that it was worth what I was putting into it. It made me insanely critical of everything I did musically. 

As far as my depression and anxiety leading up to almost quitting, that last year was really tough, and I had really been struggling with my depression. So by the end of 2018, we had been gone for two months by the time we drove out to L.A. to do the record. I was going through a lot of personal issues back home with my girlfriend, so there was stress there. I felt super-distant from the guys just because all of us were so burned out, and the record wasn’t really written yet. There was just stress coming at me from every angle. So, I just shut down. We would eat dinner together, and I would go to bed. 

I had writer’s block at the start and couldn’t get anything out either, so it was all just building up inside me. The longer it went, the more my anxiety built until I finally just exploded. There was a day about two weeks in where we were working on a song that ended up not making the record. I had an idea for a chorus, and nobody else was really vibing with it, and I just flew off the handle. 

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But just as you thought you were about to walk out for good earlier this year, you were convinced otherwise after a heart to heart with the band. 

PLUISTER: I remember going into that meeting thinking, “We are not going to go anywhere, because this is the day that I am going to quit.” It was a big thing. We got this big, long speech about how we have the potential, and it really inspired everything I was feeling when I first joined. We all just aired our grievances, because I think [our producer] knew the tensions were just so high. During that conversation, I found out that I was not the only one feeling that way. I wasn’t the only one that felt burned out and left behind.

That meeting sounds like it was really powerful and truly the band’s saving grace. 

HORANSKY: That meeting was a really big turning point for us. As this band progresses and grows, we have just learned to be better at communicating. It is absolutely vital to our continuation of the band. After that, we did a tour with This Wild Life. That tour was really rejuvenating and fun to be together as a band. After all of the turbulence, that spring tour really lifted our spirits. 

Then we did a co-headlining summer tour with Like Pacific, and that was really daunting, because it was our first headlining experience. I was pretty nervous about that, but half of the tours sold out. We had just put out our first single “Under The Moment,” and from the first show, the whole crowd was singing the words.

PLUISTER: I remember how I was feeling, and I was already checked out. I was already in the mindset of finding something else to do other than being in a band, which I’d been doing since I was 12. I remember, from day one, it was like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. From the first note of the first song, everybody was singing along. It was affirmation that all of the effort and pain that we had gone through was finally paying off.

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Pride & Disaster was written during a lot of turbulence. How does it showcase what you all have overcome together?

HORANSKY: There are two songs that come to mind to explain where we were at the time. “Under The Moment” is the first one, and the second one that comes to mind is the last song on the album, “Lost & Found.” It’s about dealing with the realities of being in a band, the difficult ones and the positive ones. It is almost, in a sense, a thank you to the band. It really was the fans and the people showing up these last couple of tours that pulled us through. We really were crawling our way out of a dark spot to [the light]. 

PLUISTER: I think as a band, we are stronger than we’ve ever been.

Sleep On It aren’t really hardened veterans, but you’re not exactly naive, either. What lessons do you have for other up-and-coming bands who might be struggling for whatever reason? 
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HORANSKY: Who you surround yourself with is absolutely crucial to the health and success of the well-being of the band. You all have to be on the same page and have a positive energy for what you are doing. Because negative energy will kill a band.

PLUISTER: One of the biggest things that kept tripping all of us up was not talking to anybody about how I was feeling. If we would’ve never talked about it, I probably would’ve kept feeling the way that I did. I learned to trust in the people around me. Those people are your family. You see those people more often than you see anyone else in your life, and you need to be able to trust that those people have the best intentions in mind. That was something I really learned going through this record.

This feature originally appeared in AP #374 with cover stars Sleeping With Sirens. The issue is available now here or below. Pride & Disaster is available now via Equal Vision