Photo: Brian Pritchard

Looking for an Outlet: An Interview with Sonny Smith

Sonny Smith -- the bandleader and chief songwriter of the genre-morphing Sonny & The Sunsets -- sees modern existence as a swirl of ephemeral stimuli and microscopic mood swings.
Sonny & The Sunsets
Moods Baby Moods

“Are you / Too old to turn? / Are you / Too young to burn?”, Sonny Smith asks on Tomorrow is Alright, his debut LP alongside the shapeshifting Bay Area collective known as The Sunsets. Pulled from the campfire-folk jaunt “Too Young To Burn”, these are questions that tunnel into a very specific feeling, one that arrives at a very specific age and causes a very specific kind of existential crisis. They evoke, in just a few syllables strung out over a rolling tidewater of sun-kissed chords, that particular 20-something anxiety over whether one’s passions are essentially hyperbolic, residual psychosexual fire-impulses left over from adolescence, or perfectly natural desires and drives that should be enjoyed until they burn out and fade away. It’s a feeling of crippling dissonance that is best captured, as Smith’s lyric proves, in questions that collide into one another and stir up a delirium of ambiguity: am I too old to throw fuel onto this passion and let it consume me — or am I still too young to know what damage that will do?

The track itself also tunnels into this feeling. It’s direct, sparsely adorned, almost rudimentary, built upon a simple interchange between melody, exuberant handclaps, and shaking-off-the-dust strumming that seems to capture both the flames of reckless romanticism and the winds of age that eventually take their life. After three minutes, it’s over, but you’re left with a sharp impression of an addled mind. Smith doesn’t answer any of the questions he poses, but that’s precisely the song’s appeal. It’s open ended: a conversation with no conclusion and no hope of being concluded, a door that won’t close, a panegyric for passing youth that’s constantly becoming an elegy for this youth’s passing.

Yet on the new Sonny & The Sunsets record, Moods Baby Moods, Smith isn’t as interested in scrutinizing specific moods like this. Rather, he’s interested in examining moods as such: psychic substances that, in an era flooded by social media stimuli and barraged by viral fads, inane news content, and audiovisual art-products, never seem to sit still for very long. “I was at the time observing mood swings. Mood swings in myself, other people’s moods. Good moods. Bad moods. Calm moods. Angsty moods. Anxious moods,” Smith told PopMatters, his words brushed with a slight restlessness, as if his synapses fire faster than his lips can move. “I was trying to find a fun way to embrace the chaos.”

In “Moods”, a post-disco funk conundrum forged from Nile Rodgers guitar licks and an off-kilter, Tom Tom Club groove, you can almost hear this embrace in real-time. “Dear online advice guru / Why does my brain do the things that it do?”, Smith sings, the guitar behind him fidgeting just to keep its balance, and as he glides through the verse, it becomes clear that this guitar is enunciating — chop after chop after chop — the erratic bursts of dopamine and epinephrine and serotonin filling his head as he tries to make sense of the parade of stimuli surrounding him. Then the chorus booms: “Moods, baby, moods / Moods, baby, moods”, a female voice repeats into his ear — and he seems to accept that this tangle of crossing neurotransmitters is a fact of modern life that he’s not going to escape.

By Smith’s calculation, the internet is largely responsible for this maelstrom of neurological activity. “Moods are going up and down every day by virtue of seeing a picture of war, and then a picture of a kitten, and then a sentimental picture of Muhammad Ali, and then a picture of some swimmer rapist,” he said. But “Moods” isn’t about succumbing to this bubbling farrago of signifiers; according to Smith, it’s about “trying to process the information that we’re getting everyday and remain not insane.”

This is a quintessential formulation from Smith: “not insane.” Spontaneous, wryly funny, grammatically questionable but in a stylized, almost brilliant way, it’s a phrase that also perfectly encapsulates the temperament of “Moods”. The song doesn’t abide by rational pop conventions, but, sonically speaking, it’s not completely out of its mind either; it’s somewhere in-between: not insane, but definitely nowhere close to sanity.

The theme behind “Moods” also seeped into the songwriting process that Smith and his bandmates adopted for the LP. As various media objects circulated amongst them — records, comic books, films, illustrations — Smith would seize onto the transitory emotions that they inspired in him and incorporate them into whatever song was in production at the moment. “A lot of music gets talked about and, when [the band] starts talking about music, sometimes I don’t know what they’re talking about. Their record collections go so deep. But I’ll be influenced by it,” he said. “I’ll be scrambling to catch up: ‘What are you guys talking about? What’s that band?’ Then, I’ll listen to it. Because it’s being bandied about in the day that I’m working on a song, I’ll definitely get inspired.”

While some of these influences are visible on the music’s surface (Tom Tom Club, Chic, The Gap Band, Young Marble Giants, and The 49 Americans), others are less discernible, existing as bits of molecular substance deep within the album’s biology. According to Smith, enshrined hip-hop bricoleurs like J. Dilla also informed the record’s evolution. “We don’t make [that] kind of collage, sampler-driven hip-hop, but listening to all of the ninety degree turns in this stuff, we’d ask: ‘What if we do it in our own way?’ Those kinds of conversations would happen,” he said. “If J. Dilla can do some weird-ass shit, why don’t we take this [song] and break down into a string passage and end up in some weird, dubby kind of land. Who cares?”

But Smith’s compositions do not always begin as accretions of influence and freeform sonic experimentation. Sometimes, they begin on the page — not as lyrics, but as comic book sketches, half-finished panels littered with blotches of ink and word bubbles waiting to be filled. “‘Well But Strangely Hung Man’ began as pictures where I was like: ‘What if there was this character that had this really crazy, fucked-up dick?’ He’s kind of like Edward Scissorhands but, instead of scissor hands, he has a big, huge, crazy penis.”

“Nightmares”, another album highpoint, was also forged from the wreckage of a shelved comic book plot. Smith utters the lyric like he’s summarizing the narrative for you, pitching you on it: “A man whose head is a plug / Looking for an outlet / When his head is plugged in / You can turn him on”, he sings, something close to apathy shading his words, and the Joy Division-meets-Chic bass gyration behind him — a momentum-figure that, just like the vocal, seems to be fighting off an emotional disconnect — flows forward like it’s being carried by the same onrush of electricity that this plug-headed man seeks. “That actually came from a comic book character that I had made up and had been drawing long before the record,” Smith explained. “The comic book was about this guy looking around for a girlfriend or a friend. He just wants to connect with somebody. He fucks up a lot. He often sticks his head in the wrong outlet. He’s searching for the right outlet for him. That felt kind of modern too.”

Bu while Moods Baby Moods is suffused with outlandish characters and surreal, borderline-unintelligible story lines, it isn’t devoid of personal reflection. “The Hospital Grounds at Night”, the LP’s denouement, turns the spotlight on Smith, and the result is a song of considerable intensity and lyrical invention. “It was the last song we did, and I finally got the lyrics right the day before we sent it off to get mastered. So it was also like a closer for the whole project for me,” Smith concluded. “It ends with this guy trying to figure out who he is, what love is, what’s real, and I was like: ‘Wow, this is a perfect ending to a novel or something.’ After having gone through all these discussions about the modern age, it came down to a trip through one person’s life. The ending felt very sentimental.”

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