Sleepy fest 2022 ft. Blue Cactus, Chessa Rich, Joseph Decosimo, Libby Rodenbough, Lou Hazel, Magic Al, Nightblooms, Owen FitzGerald, Sunsp.t, T. Gold, and Tripper & Askers

Down Yonder Farm, Hillsborough | Saturday, October 22, 12 – 11 PM | Tickets start at $35

Great record labels are typically built around a central organizing principle. For some labels, that’s genre; for others, it’s geographic location. For Carrboro’s small but mighty Sleepy Cat Records, it’s a vibe: laid-back, familial, and creatively resourceful.

Founded in 2019 by longtime friends and musical partners Saman Khoujinian and Gabe Anderson, Sleepy Cat Records elevates that ethos onto its biggest stage yet this Saturday, October 22, with Sleepy Fest 2022. Eleven musical acts—ranging from folk and old-time to indie rock and electro-pop—join 13 artists and makers and six food and beverage vendors for 10 hours of blissed-out joy at Down Yonder Farm in Hillsborough.

“Saman and I have always enjoyed organizing events and experiences in fun, refreshing ways,” Anderson tells INDY Week on a brisk Wednesday morning at Weaver Street Market in Carrboro. “With 11 unique artists that have put stuff out with Sleepy Cat, it just made sense. It’s a critical amount to put on a party.”

Low-key celebration and easygoing camaraderie also permeate the Sleepy Cat aura. The pandemic was hard on everyone in the label’s orbit, most of whom operate in a decidedly DIY lane and thrive on collaboration. That puts them in line with other Triangle labels like Merge Records and Potluck Foundation, which might function at different scales but share a tight-knit sense of connection.

“Sleepy Cat’s general mindset is community-oriented,” Khoujinian says. “We’re all pretty chill musicians—folks who make music simply because they enjoy making music.”

One Sleepy Cat artist, Steph Stewart, has become such an integral part of that community she now finds herself easing into a bigger role with the label. She suggested Down Yonder Farm as a prime spot for the festival, brought on the 22 local sponsors, and recruited Raleigh jill-of-all-trades Cameron Laws, program director at Artsplosure, as an operational partner. Stewart will also headline Sleepy Fest with her band, Blue Cactus.

“It’s really exciting to have Steph come on,” Anderson says. “We have so much trust in her understanding of the Sleepy Cat brand and vision—she can make the calls and run with it.” Khoujinian goes further: “Steph kind of taught Gabe and I how to run the label. When Blue Cactus came along, we realized, ‘Oh, we have to run a business! Let’s make this legit if we’re going to actually provide value to our friends.’”

Stewart deflects such praise, reminding them of Sleepy Fest’s early roots in Dr. Poplar’s Back and Forth, a DIY two-stage shindig that bounced back and forth between Anderson and Khoujinian’s house on West Poplar Street, where their band T. Gold was based, and the house behind it, where folk quartet Mipso lived. As we talk, all three smile and finish each other’s sentences as they reminisce about those early days rooted in ingenuity and awe.

Khoujinian and Anderson first cultivated that vibe as teenagers playing punk rock and studying Afro-Cuban jazz in Miami. They moved to North Carolina in 2009 and 2011, respectively, falling in immediately with the Triangle’s thriving folk, Americana, and indie rock scene.

Along the way, they quietly accumulated more knowledge: Khoujinian taught himself audio engineering, producing, mixing, and mastering, while Anderson extended years of experience working for his family’s Pilates business into “vision blasting” down every possible music industry avenue: project management, graphic design, website development, sync licensing, vinyl production, digital marketing, art direction, and more.

“As we built a visual universe for our own art, the label became an extension of that thread,” Anderson says. “We created a place for our music and then found that all our friends wanted to put music out, too. We haven’t done a ton of seeking; there’s just such a demand of good artists here. Luckily, we happen to like all their music—and like them as people.”

Khoujinian describes Sleepy Cat as a home base for some of those people and a stepping stone for others. Yes, the label is a functioning business, with revenue and expenses—Anderson’s meticulous spreadsheets prove it. But they’re in it for enjoyment, engagement, and empowerment more than anything; as the Sleepy Cat website says, “We are a small business run by 2 sweeties … friends making art.”

The Triangle music scene’s growth has been marked by this kind of self-sustenance, with access to more local studios, producers, and labels, as with Sylvan Esso’s trifecta—Betty’s, Nick Sanborn and Amelia Heath behind the dial, and their Psychic Hotline label.

“I don’t think we have the bandwidth to work with someone who’s deeply career-oriented or wants to be the dominant pop star of all time,” Khoujinian says. “It’s more ‘Here’s the scale at which we can operate. If we can make a little money making the music we love, that’s great.’ Our friends understand that. And if they don’t, they can leave. [Laughs] In fact, we encourage them to! We’ll be here if they strike out, which we hope they don’t.”

Currently, finished albums by Sleepy Cat alumni (and Sleepy Fest performers) Libby Rodenbough and Chessa Rich are being shopped to bigger outlets. Lou Hazel—the musical pseudonym for Chris Frisina, who serves as Sleepy Cat’s unofficial photographer and graphic designer—has another record nearly finished, too.

“Yes, we’d love to put it out,” Anderson says. “It really represents our vibe. But I’m polyamorous, so getting a taste of other labels very much resonates with me: ‘Please, date somebody else for a little bit!’ It’s an honest, healthy exchange we have with our friends.”

As individuals, Khoujinian and Anderson are open to those kinds of educational exchanges: they’ve learned how to make, record, and produce music—and then market and license it. They’ve learned how to build back-end support systems for contemplative artists like Jay Hammond of Trippers & Askers—and facilitate the bold creative ideas of big thinkers like Owen FitzGerald. They’ve learned when to go along for the ride with established musicians like Rodenbough and Blue Cactus, who are responsible for Sleepy Cat’s two best-selling releases—2020’s Spectacle of Love and 2021’s Stranger Again, respectively. And they’ve learned how to strike out into new territory, as with Joseph Decosimo’s forthcoming album While You Were Slumbering, which broadens the Sleepy Cat universe into old-time and bluegrass.

“It’s been fun to see what our value is to each artist individually,” Anderson says. “Some, like Owen, have clarity and intention about every detail and image. Some, like Joseph, are teaching us.”

Khoujinian mentions combing public domain databases for songs Decosimo learned from elderly Cumberland Plateau pickers—many of which only exist within the families that have passed them down for generations. Anderson raves about Decosimo’s meticulous liner notes and his insistence on using Bandcamp as a promotional platform, something Sleepy Cat had never done before.

It’s hard to resist the duo’s excitement about what they’ve achieved and what lies ahead once they pull off Sleepy Fest 2022. They’re passionate about giving artists a fair financial and contractual shake while expanding the Sleepy Cat universe outward to include more diverse artists (“non–white dudes,” Anderson emphasizes).

They rave about the potential of the compilation model, best exemplified in Sleepy Cat’s summer 2022 release Cruisin’! Full of B-sides, covers, home recordings, and one-off collabs between artists, the nine-song sampler is stylistically divergent and straight-up joyous.

“That’s the main ethos behind the label—being a platform for generating new music,” Khoujinian says. “If we do those compilations consistently enough, 10 or 20 years down the road, we’ll have a massive archive of music.”

Other ideas they toss around include more music videos, more studio time at go-to spots like Big Fish Small Pond Music and Bedtown Studios, more opportunities for artists to produce their own music—and, as revenue increases, more chances to be financial benefactors for promising young artists.

“One day, we’d love to basically fund the records that we want to see in the world,” Khoujinian says. “To some extent, that is an old-school label model—‘We’ve got the money, you’re just the talent!’”

Laughing, Anderson interjects, “The big question is, how do we get that money in a sustainable, nonexploitative way?”

Khoujinian grins and finishes: “It’s more about loving and trusting somebody’s creative vision enough to help them from the ground up. If we can be the vehicle for music that would otherwise not have come into existence, I’m satisfied.”

Support independent local journalismJoin the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle. 

Comment on this story at