Sleep Experiments in their practice space in Lawrenceville. (Photo / Kelly Thomas)

Music’s ability to create atmosphere and elicit emotion is well known, but local “loop-based ambient dream pop” band Sleep Experiments takes mood creation to a higher level.

With songs occasionally based on dreams but more often on “musical epiphanies,” the three-piece band weaves layers of acoustic guitar, distorted electric guitar, sparse vocals and a variety of other sounds to create meditative non-vocal arias

Electric guitarist and former Beleza Coffee partner Phil Johnson said, “There’s loops and it’s kind of like sleepy but there’s hooks to it sometimes.”

Mexican War Streets resident and acoustic guitarist Phil Jacoby said, “The lyrics are always kind of sparse and not very specific … It’s fiction based loosely on a story.”

But the lyrics aren’t there to tell a story, they’re there to create an image and accompanying mood.

The band’s practice space, tucked between busy Penn Avenue and Butler Street in Lawrenceville, certainly lends itself to an ambient, moody sound.

The exterior of the building has the look of a haunted storefront. Eerie music seeps out through the cracks in the door and windows.

Inside, curtains hang in the doorways. The tall, cobwebbed ceiling dwarfs the instruments and scattered chairs that have made the building their home. Walking through the curtain, with music swirling through the air, is like stepping into a dream world

“They’re really supposed to be just dreams,” vocalist and “auxiliary instrument” player Morgan Stewart said about the songs.

Some of those auxiliary instruments include a xylophone, a keyboard they use to loop sounds and a toy piano. The only instrument the bad won’t use is a drum kit.

“Most of our songs feel better and sound better without walls,” Stewart said, and the loud, sharp noises drums make often act as musical walls.

Jacoby said, “The acoustic guitar is more of a suggestive time keeper than a strict time keeper,” which works better for the band’s “loose and wandering sound.”

Sleep Experiments is not a “bar band,” Stewart said. “If people are loud and noisy, you loose the intimacy of what the music can be.”

The band finds coffee shops more conducive to their ambient style, and likes that coffee-shop shows are “more intentionally well-attended.” At a bar, people are more likely to be there for drinks, not the music.

While most bands dream of selling out the new Consol Energy Center, Sleep Experiments prefers a small crowd. They feel their music is best experienced in intimate spaces that allow the music to permeate every nook and cranny and lull the reader into the song’s mood

“We want to make something pretty,” Jacoby said, “even for ourselves. I want people to think [the music] was really pretty.”

Johnson hopes their music gives listeners the opportunity and space to “just be in an emotional place or mood,” and Stewart hopes listeners can take those moods and make them personal.

The band’s emotional, dreamy sound took awhile to develop. The band played its first gig in June 2008, but had a name even before it became a band. The name “Sleep Experiments” helped the three members figure out what kind of sound they wanted.

Jacoby had a friend who came up with the name Panda Sleep Experiments and never took it anywhere. So, Jacoby “borrowed” the latter half and tossed around the idea of forming a band called Sleep Experiments with Stewart for a few years before anything happened.

Now, their song-writing process usually starts with a few lyrics or a few chords. “A lot of the songs happen like, we don’t have an idea,” Jacoby said. The band sits down and plays around with a few words or chords until they reach a consensus.

Artists often have difficulty presenting an idea to a group for fear the group will twist or destroy it. “I feel safe presenting an idea,” he said. “As a group we take good care of them.”

Often, if one member struggles with how to finish or develop a song, the other two can look at it with fresh eyes and create a solution.

“There’s no method that we use every time, but generally the music comes first,” Stewart said.

But, she added, they rarely play one song the same way twice. That proved “interesting” when they sat down to record an album, Johnson said.

They had to decide on a specific way to play each song on “Flight Takes Thought,” which was recorded in February and is available, but has not officially been released. They hope to hold a release party sometime in June.

There isn’t one specific mood or type of song Sleep Experiments sticks to, either. All are ambient and soft, but some rely more on vocals to create the mood (“Firefly”), some rely more on the instruments (“Raven Conductor”), some are sad (“A Slow and Steady Goodbye”) and some are simply beautiful (“Dream Three”).

Jacoby and Stewart hail from Michigan and Johnson went to school there, but the trio likes Pittsburgh. They all agree that the local music scene is large enough to allow for networking and sharing, but not so huge as to be competitive and nasty.

So far, 2010 has been kind to Sleep Experiments. The band has played more shows this year and been invited to play with more bands than in the past.

Of course, playing with other bands can be a challenge or a blessing, depending on the band and how it fits with Sleep Experiments.

“One time we played right before a punk band, it was really weird,” Stewart said.

Regardless of where or with whom you see Sleep Experiments, the music is best listened to with eyes closed and heart open.

For more information on Sleep Experiments or to listen to their music, visit them online at www.myspace.com/sleepexperiments. The band is scheduled to play a show on June 26, location and time TBD.