All Left Turns: An Interview with Sonny and the Sunsets
Sonny Smith might be the West Coast's best, least predictable songwriter, but don't try to pin him down. He followed up his 100 Records performance art project with first a country album and now a synthy, whimsical, sci-fi exploration of the afterlife. "I didn't have it all mapped out," he says. "I thought it would be fun to take a left turn ... and then another one."
"People are always asking, 'When did you decide to write a country record?' Or 'When did you decide to write a new wave record?'" says Sonny Smith, the San Francisco-based songwriter, monologue-ist, and father of 100 imaginary bands. "That sounds really bland, you know? Like you're just picking a genre on a map, or like you're pinning the tail on the donkey.
"There's always a misconception that we think of this stuff way beforehand, like a director who decides to make a Western," he says. "I think you don't know what you're doing for a while, maybe until it's about halfway made and then you see it. It reveals itself for what it is."
Sonny Smith is part of a fertile Bay Area garage pop scene that includes Kelley Stoltz (who plays drums for him), Ty Segall (who sings on the 100 Records project), Heidi Alexander of the Sandwitches (who doubles as "Earth Girl Helen Brown" on 100 Records), Tim Cohen of the Fresh & Onlys and John Dwyer of the Ohsees. He's been playing the guitar since his teenage years. In fact, until two years ago, the only guitar he owned was a gift from his father and uncle -- that he'd received at the age of 18. "I don't know. It just worked," he said of his lone instrument, purchased at the Amazing Grace Music Shop in San Anselmo, CA where he spent much of his youth. "It just did the job for me."
Smith traveled widely as a young man with that guitar in tow. However, he really got his artistic start as a writer. An early recording, One Act Plays set a series of theatrical works to music, and in 2005, Smith wrote an original musical called The Dangerous Stranger; Jolie Holland and Miranda July both performed in it.
Let 100 Bands Bloom
In 2010, Smith managed to combine his music, his theatrical flair, a talent for visual art and a certain reluctance to be pigeonholed into a single endeavor into the crazily creative 100 Records project. For it, Smith created back-stories, aesthetics, album art, and songs for 100 different bands. Smith got his musician friends to help him perform and record the songs, his artist friends to contribute art for the singles. He exhibited the project, which included a jukebox that held all 200 songs (A-sides and B-sides), at galleries and released two discs worth of songs, Volume One on Gallery 16 Records (that was the gallery that showed the project first) and Volume Two on Turn It Up Records.
"The project had to do with identity," Smith explains. "I realized that if you can figure out a way to not be limited by your identity, you can be way prolific and make all kinds of crap that you never thought you could. You've just got to get your mind out of the way."
"In a way, you're more in touch with yourself by being less locked into who you think you are," he adds. "People make a record and they have a certain sound because that's what comes out of them. But at some point, you might be making a song and you think, 'This is not my sound.' And so it gets rejected.
"The 100 Records project was a way of not getting into that trap. Anything that came out had its place. So if it was just a messed-up, out-of-tune, not-in-rhythm folk song about a shoelace, then that had its place, and it fit one of the fictional musicians. Just having its place, maybe sometimes, would let that stupid out-of-tune song about a shoelace evolve."
Synths and Psychics
At early sessions, Brian Brown began running his bass lines through a vintage Moog Taurus, giving even the first run-throughs an ominous sci fi sound. Then one night, Smith found himself watching Blade Runner and became fascinated with Vangelis' use of Roland Juno synth. "I looked for a cheap one on Craigslist and bought it the next day," says Smith. "It's a sort of a tool that served its purpose. I don't even look at it now." Stoltz matched the bass lines with drumming that also had an early 1980s, new wave feel.
The music also has a sci-fi slant with songs about orbits and human/alien dalliances and the permeable boundary between science and mysticism. Smith first picked up a taste for sci-fi from his mother, who was a fan of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. The mysticism came from recent events. He was still dealing emotionally with the death of a friend when he wrote these songs.
Smith even visited a psychic, who gave him a message from another friend, also deceased. "She described this woman that I did know, not incredibly well, but I knew her, and she did have this message for me," Smith remembers. (The song "Palmreader" is, apparently, about this experience.) "I didn't roll my eyes and leave the building. I was there and enjoyed it. But if some science person wanted to come in and debunk mediums, they might be able to convince me. I'm not living by it.
"I can believe it or not, depending on how I feel that day," he says. "I tend to believe in aliens and other universes and other dimensions and all this shit that we have no proof of, I believe in it. But I haven't got any proof. I wouldn't want to try and convince others. I think it's fun to believe in it all. It hasn't been proven that that stuff doesn't exist. So, all of that was leading me to think about death and the afterworld and the supernatural," says Smith. "And unintendedly, but in harmony with all that, I was kind of reading some sci-fi books and exploring all the stuff that we don't know, but exists. Androids and aliens and other dimensions and afterlife and the supernatural versus the natural, it all coalesced on this record."
"It was just kind of a series of things that made the record what it is," says Smith. "While I was making the music, I was also writing the lyrics and the music fit the sci fi material. But it wasn't very conscious."
From Country-Hop to New Wave Sci-Fi
Smith followed up the 100 Records project with Longtime Companion in 2012, a break-up album couched in mostly acoustic country style. Said Eric Harvey at The A.V. Club, "The first time his singing voice appears on Longtime Companion, a second or two into opening track 'I Was Born', it's striking how different it is from his earlier work. It's twangy and crystal-clear, the perfect aural realization of the album cover's hapless sincerity, but also the sort of affect and presentation that might scan as Hee-Haw in the wrong hands. Fortunately for Smith, it fits him like a snug Stetson, and only becomes more endearing the longer it plays on."
The country persona persisted at live shows that summer. On tour with Tim Cohen's Magic, Smith cajoled the audience into sly, off-kilter hoedowns, no excuses, non-dancers get the hell out. Yet by the time, Smith began to jot down material for this year's Antennas to the Afterlife, he was pretty much done with Americana.
Staring Down the Void ... Twice
Antennas to the Afterworld is a very different record from Longtime Companion, but they do share one song. That's "I See the Void," a song that Smith wrote right at the end of his Longtime Companion sessions and revisited on the new disc.
Smith says he originally envisioned "The Void" more or less as it is on Antennas: as a punchy, drifty, psychedelic rock song. "But, you know, at the time, I was making a country record, so I decided to give it a whirl. It wasn't born as a country-ish tune and then I reinterpreted it. It was the other way around, really."
I liked the song a lot in its first incarnation, observing for Dusted that it was "the best song on the disc [...] where Smith turns the sun-kissed, upsweeping ramble of country-psych guitars towards an existential hole. It's lovely, loosely strung, reassuring kind of song, the kind that ought to be about lazy Saturdays, first love, driving, and yet, stubbornly, weirdly, it is about Sartrean nausea ('and, you know, it's a funny kind of sad joy/I see the void')." It's very possible that I like it even more now on Antennas to the Underworld.
But why? What makes this song, or any song, work so well. That's the question, and Smith is, as usual, unwilling to pin things down. "Every songwriter probably has a song that they've worked on for four years, beating it to death, they don't know what the hell is wrong with it, why it won't live," he says. "It just doesn't have the magic in it. And they make another song in the studio one day on the fly that's got all the magic in it."
"Who knows why? If you knew why, maybe that would be a bad thing," he adds. "Maybe you'd try to bottle it and sell it, and it would be a big bummer. You've got to let yourself be at the mercy of the mystery of all this, I guess."