Sonny and the Sunsets
Purist for the Modern Age
by Stephen Slaybaugh

The past couple years, Sonny Smith has been a busy man. After releasing his debut album, Tomorrow Is Alright with backing band the Sunsets in 2009 on the Soft Abuse label (the record was reissued last year by Fat Possum), Smith went on a creative streak. The San Francisco–based artist formulated 100 singles, making up nearly as many fictional acts and backstories, for his 100 Records project. He then commissioned visual artists to design the sleeves while he recorded the 100 singles (and in many cases their B-sides) assisted by West Coast peers like Ty Segall and the Fresh & Onlys. Ranging from lonesome country to girl-group pop to the rambunctious rock & roll Smith favors, many of the songs have been compiled on two CD volumes, while others have been released as actual singles and EPs. Meanwhile, Smith found the time to record another Sunsets album, Hit After Hit, out this week on Fat Possum. Like its predecessor, the record is informed equally by Bo Diddley and Jonathan Richman, full of golden hooks and palpable electricity.

I caught up with Smith, who was just as profusive as he is prolific, on the phone to chat about his CV and his projects.

How did you first start playing music?

Sonny Smith: I was around it when I was a kid. My dad was a banjo player. He played string-band music with his friends, what was called mountain music, old time music. My mom had a piano and played classical music. So it started pretty early.

I got my first electrical guitar in sixth grade and put electrical tape on it like Eddie Van Halen. I took piano lessons and learned the theme to Cheers and shit like that. You take lessons when you’re a kid, but you’re not really playing music. Somewhere around 19, I dropped out of college and started playing blues piano, learning old Memphis Slim songs. I started getting a couple gigs being this kind of real cliche blues piano guy at piano bar–type places and clubs in ski mountain towns in Colorado, which is where I had ended up bizarrely. They were real bottom-of-the-barrel gigs, although I was excited to play and feel like I was a musician. I had some exciting times and was kind of young to have a professional gig, so it felt good, but I was playing at ski lodges or bars connected to ski resorts, so there’d be people clunking around in their ski boots drunk who would ask me to play Eagles covers or some shit. It was great and horrible at the same time, but that was the beginning for me playing music on my own.

I was also tinkering on my own, trying to write songs, and I ended up living next to a guy who was a little bit of an avant garde artist/eccentric who had been ignored by the world. He lived with his cat in a little apartment. He was the first guy who told me to listen to Leonard Cohen and Jimi Hendrix and not to bother listening to all this other bullshit. He kind of served as a brief mentor. I just feel he imparted a sense of being extremely conceited about the standard of music you’re going to listen to.

Was this still in Colorado?

SS: Yeah, it was in Denver. I had moved there by this point. It was 1995 or 1996, and I was 20. Nirvana and Pearl Jam and shit like that was everywhere. Liz Phair and that world of music was big amongst 19 and 20 year-olds. He was hearing that and was like, “Please, give me a break!” So he got me going on good rock & roll. I already had good taste in music, because I was really into blues and jazz, but I hadn’t discovered rock & roll yet. I was kind of a late bloomer, and he introduced me to the Velvet Underground, Leonard Cohen and things of that ilk and made me stay away from all things lesser.

So is that when you made the shift from the piano stuff?

SS: Yeah, I ended up going to Central America from there, and there weren’t pianos around. But there were guitars. I got better on the guitar and making up songs. I was also writing screenplays too, and the screenplays morphed into songs. I ended up having these original songs that were really longwinded, almost like rap. Not like me trying to rap, but in the vein of having long verses and short little choruses and a lot of characters and dialog because they were hacked up screenplays. Looking back, those were the years that I learned how to write songs and understand what form was. The songs were all narratives because they started out as screenplays and that’s stayed with me. Most of the songs that I write seem to be little linear stories.

I haven’t heard the records you released under just your own name. How would you characterize those solo records and how would you say they’re different from what you’re doing with the Sunsets?

SS: The stuff I’ve done solo is even more character-driven. There’s a couple songs on the first Sunsets record—like “Planet of Women” or “Strange Love,” which has characters, or “Death Cream,” where it’s like I’m a guy meeting characters—but it’s even more heightened in my solo stuff, with more dialog and more characters and more stuff like that. So in a weird way, the Sunsets are pulling back from that. I’d say that’s a difference, then sonically, there’s been a steady evolution going toward that first Sunsets record of me letting go and letting things be a little looser and a little scruffier. Before the Sunsets, I made one of those records that I guess everybody has to make once in their lifetime. I was obsessing over every little nuance of the music. There were instruments coming in just on the bridge and then another instrument coming in at the tail end of the song. I was doing a lot of overdubs, then taking the overdubs off, and then putting other overdubs on and really just getting kind of trapped in one tiny body of work. The Sunsets were almost a reaction to that. After I got done, I was like, “I don’t want to make music like this anymore! I just want to play and not look back!” That’s kind of an extreme statement, because it’s not like I didn’t look back or make mixing decisions, but the Sunsets were a reaction to getting so detail-oriented. If you hear an instrument at the beginning, you probably hear it at the end. It isn’t going to be a lot of “What was that one little sound I heard on the second bridge?” I had to go through that other record to make records like this, and the second Sunsets records kind of more of the same, keeping it fast and loose to see what happens and not let it get too wrapped up in my head.

Some of the songs on the new record you did for the 100 Records project, is that right?

SS: Yeah, they were all being made at the same time so things morphed in and out. I made songs for the 100 Records where I was like, “Well, this is a great Sunsets song,” and I had songs I was working on for the Sunsets and I was like, “This works perfectly for this fictional character.” So it all swirls in and out, and there’s no way to dissect which belongs to which project.

Had you had sleeves done for any of the songs that ended up on Hit After Hit?

SS: Yeah, definitely. There's quite a few. Somebody did one for “I Wanna Do It,” but that ended up being an Earth Girl Helen Brown song that has been covered and released in a separate way. But “She Plays Yo Yo with My Mind,” somebody made a really cool cover for that, and somebody made a really cool cover for “Teen Age Thugs,” a really great one. I think I made one for “Girls Beware.” So maybe there’s fictional bands that play some Sunsets songs, maybe the Sunsets are covering songs made by fictional bands sometimes. There were also Sonny and the Sunbeams in that 100 Records project, who played a couple songs that Sonny and the Sunsets have now covered. It’s enough to make you start to lose track of who you are.

Yeah, did doing all those different styles affirm what it is that you do with the Sunsets or did it broaden what you can do with the Sunsets?

SS: I think the former. For whatever reasons, it really made the Sunsets have a concrete sound for me. I’ll hear a new song and it’ll be like “No, no, that’s not the Sunsets. That’s the Fuckaroos.” That being said, I wouldn’t mind blurring the lines more, but you can’t force it and in my mind Sonny and the Sunsets sound a certain way. It’s kind of why the 100 Records project needed to happen or why, in some weird cosmic way, I made it. Because you do get locked up in your ego or sense of identity, like “Oh, I couldn’t play a country song because that’s not what I do.” All of a sudden when alter-egos were created, it was so freeing. Suddenly there was a release for this thing that was in there obviously, but the ego was standing in the way of letting it be made. Maybe I’ll be able to do it without alter-egos someday, but for now I need them to get the other stuff out.

Was there something specific that initially sparked the idea to do the project?

SS: I started out trying to write a novel, actually. I was just going to give it a shot—and I did. I got through a first draft. It was based on musicians I knew. I was using them as the main characters. At some point, I thought it would be really cool to have some drawings of what these fictional musicians’ record covers might look like and maybe even try to write some lyrics. I got a little residency to pursue those drawings, and once I got there, I decided to farm out a couple of the drawings. When they came back, they were real works of art, real album covers but handmade. So my initial response was the song that I was writing needed to be bumped up a level to be as good a quality as this record cover. Once there were four or five, it was obvious that I was on to a new project. The short of it is that the novel got shelved and this project became huge.

And have you recorded songs for all of them now?

SS: Yeah, there’s a jukebox that plays 100 songs and each one has a corresponding cover.

And some of them are being released formally now. Do you have plans to get them all out in one way or another?

SS: No, I don’t want to. There’s some songs in there that don’t need to be released. There not all pop gems. Some of them are just ideas and some just are little loops of experimental mess-arounds. The ones that need to come out are all coming out in different forms. If somebody had approached me and said they wanted to put out the 100 Records CD with as many songs as they could, I’d have thought about it. In the end, it’s kind of better this way. Some are actually coming out as the fictional characters, like Earth Girl Helen Brown has a record out now. I’m going into the studio this week for the Fuckaroos. We’re going to redo some of those songs a little better. I’m also hoping to put out a Volume 3 that will have some of the eerie, folky acts on it and less of the garage stuff. There’s another character, Danny Dusk and the Twilights, and I’m trying to put together a little five-song EP. If I end up in the next four years having just a bunch of fictional records out there, I’ll be much happier than if I had put them all in one big volume.

Being so prolific, are you constantly working on music?

SS: Yeah, I have been. I’d actually like to take a little break because I have some more creative stuff to do. We’ve been doing more touring this year since we got more successful, and I need to find a way to balance it out. I think I’d prefer staying home and writing more than anything else. That’s why I need to come up with another project because there was something about that project that gave me a way to be that prolific. The levee broke and anything was game. That’s great if you can find a way to allow yourself to have that then probably anybody will be prolific because you’re giving yourself a green light to do anything with no pre-editing. And that’s mostly what people in art are doing most of the time, like “Nah, that’s not a good idea. No, nah, no.” If it gets flipped, where you can’t do anything wrong, you’re going to get somewhere.

Not to pigeonhole your music, but it seems like much of it has more in common with music from the ’50s and ’60s than “modern” rock & roll, for lack of a better term. Is that the period you draw inspiration from?

SS: Not really. I certainly am a fan of rock & roll from 1958 to ’66. I love that era and I listen to it more than ’66 to ’76, to be perfectly detailed about it. But I really think I pull from pure rock & roll played basically as it’s been since it was born. I definitely like punk rock a lot, and I feel like that was another little window where they were pulling from the original rock & roll as well—the Ramones and Modern Lovers and stuff like that. All the labels screw everything up. I don’t know why garage rock really needs to be called “garage rock.” It’s really just rock & roll. If you get some guy playing drums and he’s just playing some basic beat, and the guitar player is playing some riff through an amp and the singer is singing his ass off, how does that get to be called garage rock these days? As far as I can tell that’s rock & roll as it was always meant to be. I guess I don’t a have one-liner answer, but I feel like I’m drawn to rock & roll of any time as long it’s basic and not got too many layers and coverings over it muddying the waters. As long as it’s pure. Maybe if they need to call me something, they can call me a purist.