Catching up with Sonny Smith
I sat down with Sonny Smith from Sonny and the Sunsets ahead of their performance at Harvest Records Transfigurations II Festival. When I asked Sonny to do a station liner for WKNC, he said, “Hey this is Sonny Smith from Sonny and the Sunsets, and I don’t know what I’m doing, but I know what you’re doing. You’re listening to 88.1 WKNC in Raleigh.” After recording it, he said, “I think that about sums up the interview.”
Sonny Smith is nothing short of a creative genius. Throughout the interview, we talked about his many different outlets: music, plays, films, comic books, short stories and more. He claims to have no idea what he is doing. He says he just tries to get the ideas out in whatever format they lend themselves too. A lot of times, an idea that starts out as one form of art morphs into something completely different. For example, their newest record (due out sometime early next year) started as a series of short films. Check out the full interview below to get a glimpse into the very creative mind and the many different projects of Sonny Smith.
Michael (WKNC): How are you doing? I know it’s the 3rd night of your little east coast jaunt, how’s it been going so far?
Sonny Smith (Sonny and the Sunsets): Ah, great, easy, smooth. Just some long drives with not much to do so far, just look at the landscape.
M: Awesome. So are you guys planning on trying out some new material on this tour? I know your last album, Antenna to the Afterworld, came out last year.
S: Yeah we have a bunch of new songs. We finished our next record which doesn’t come out until February. But we wanted to just freshen up, so half the set is all new songs that haven’t been heard yet.
M: Definitely looking forward to hearing the new songs. So do you have any places on the tour that you are really excited about?
S: All of the south is pretty exciting for us because I haven’t been to the south. So I’ve been trying to get every morsel that I can while I’m here. Then besides that, New York is always kind of a blast for me. It’s always exciting, you know?
M: Yeah, yeah. So you guys just had a new album come out this past summer as I mentioned earlier, and it is an incredible album that we spin all the time here at the radio station. So the album is mostly from your point of view, you take on this persona of a space being visiting earth, which kind of lends itself to some humorous insights. So what was the inspiration behind this album and this narrative point of view?
S: Well I wouldn’t say that all of them are from that point of view, but yeah, I gotcha, some of them are. I don’t know a bunch of things just happened at the same time. I was kind of having a little sci-fi phase which was nice. My mom was really into sci-fi when I was a kid, so I was kind of having this great renaissance of sci-fi movies and sci-fi ideas and comic books and stuff like that. And I was coincidentally, not really consciously, listening to some of those soundtracks like “Angelus” and synthesizer kind of stuff and post-punk beats. Which for me, somehow in my brain, I connected to that sort of synthetic world.
And then at the same time, a friend of mine died, which led to a lot of thoughts about death and life after death. In my brain, I just kind of put it all together: the afterworld, aliens, extrasensory phenomenon. All that sort of stuff we don’t know about. And anything from sort of down to earth philosophical ideas about it to pop culture pulp sci-fi, were all kind of open territory. And the songs just kind of all came out of that. And then after a while, it just started to have some cohesion. At some point, I was like this record has a very real sense of concept.
M: Yeah, yeah. And like you said, there were a lot of different inspirations and ideas behind it. But I think it ended up being a very cohesive record that delved into a lot of unknown territories.
S: Yeah, yeah, it just wasn’t consciously figured out. I didn’t say, “I want to make a sci-fi record about the afterlife.” It was just a lot of different things happening at the same time and it just turned out to be what I was paying attention to.
M: Alright. So most of your work, you’ve adopted a very narrative voice of storytelling in your songs. So what do you think drove you to this style and what were some of your biggest influences.
S: Well, the narrative part has been there since I first started writing songs. Before I started writing songs, I was trying to write screenplays and stuff. I was really into that and I was trying to write stories and stuff. So I had those initial ones that morphed into songs. So even from the get-go, my songs were very linear and story-driven with characters. And it’s just been the way it has been since. Certainly there’s been lots of different perceptions, but you can’t just approach it from a storyteller place. I wanted to tell a story that has kind of a beginning and an end.
And then, I kind of write stories in more than a few different mediums. It could be theater or short films or comic books. So it’s almost like I have this idea for a story, like a vision of a story, and then it’s kind of like finding out how it should be told. Sometimes it’s a song, sometimes it’s a short story, or sometimes it’s a comic book. That seems to be how that works.
M: Yeah, because you seem to have a lot of different creative outlets. So the ideas just come to you and you figure out how you’re going to get them out later.
S: Yeah and a lot of times, you’re just downright wrong. You think it’s supposed to be a short film and it’s just not working. Then you have some instrumental track and you realize that the idea that you had for a short film really just perfectly fits the song. And you realize that the destiny of this piece was kind of not up to you to some extent. You are supposed to sort of be dictated by it rather than you consciously trying to stick this square peg in a round hole and be like “No it’s a song.” You know it’s like, “It ain’t a song, it’s a poem. Let it be a poem.”
M: Yeah. So a lot of these ideas that end up being songs, do you get the story of the song first then create the music? Or how does it come about?
S: Yeah, I think the stories come first, however they come. Sometimes it can be just like you come up with a title and it sounds like a story. And it starts you down a road of thinking about stories and characters. Then music is kind of being created simultaneously by fiddling around on the guitar and then it’s a little bit of a puzzle trying to figure out, ok this musical piece kind of fits with these things I’ve written. You know? Trial and error like that.
I am definitely of the camp that the lyrics should dictate the music not the other way around. When I hear music where I can tell that they created the music first and just slapped some words on there, that music is usually not as intriguing to me.
M: Yeah and I think that you can definitely tell when you listen to a Sonny and the Sunsets’ record. The lyrics really stand out to you even on the first time listening. Some other albums, you can listen to them dozens of times and still not have any idea what they said or what they were trying to say.
S: Yeah and I guess that’s just a songwriter’s kind of thing.
M: Yeah, so you’ve been writing songs for quite a while now. How has your writing process changed over the years and how has that changed since you’ve added the sunsets? Are they a part of that writing process at all?
S: Well they rarely are, if never, part of the lyrics, but they certainly are a part of the music. Once I have a song, sometimes I don’t want to even have the song very figured out before I bring it to the musicians. I want the musicians to just make it come alive. So I very much depend on them to be creative in that way. So they definitely are helping create the song and the music.
And usually it helps sometimes if I don’t have everything figured out yet so that there is some exploration and they are having to think about it, try some things, hit some dead-ends, take some left turns. It’s kind of like you are scratching in the dirt and you are uncovering something. That’s a process that I like and if I had everything figured out like some people where it almost doesn’t matter who the drummer is because they know exactly what beat they want and where they want the fill and stuff. I don’t have that quality.
M: Yeah, it’s definitely good to have those external influences that can bring questions to the table about the music. So what is the recording process like for these songs? How do you guys go about tackling an album?
S: Very cheaply (laughs). Just home jobs usually, or at a rehearsal place or a friend’s place. Just usually cheap mics into a fairly cheap tape machine. I like it to be scrappy and not too hi-fi. I like that kind of art where you can kind of see the finger prints and you know that it was made by humans. So you have to strike the right balance. But like for me to find that stuff, the conditions have to be a little bit amateur or scrappy, you know? I don’t want to get too pro. I don’t want everything to sound crystalline and for it to be played by incredible technicians; I want it to be like the Bad News Bears that make it to the World Series rather than the Yankees that make it to the World Series. You know what I mean?
A car pulls up and we have to move locations.
S: How about these cinder blocks?
M: Works for me.
S: This works perfect. This is the equivalent of a recording session for me (laughs).
M: (laughs) So what is it that made you kind of come about to that type of recording philosophy?
S: I don’t know. Well first, I’ve never had the money to go into a studio and make a hi-fi record like Fleetwood mac. You know? Who knows what I would do if I had a $100,000 to do that kind of shit. So to some extent, it comes from circumstance of not having had any real money. But beyond that, I think it just gives me more room to have trial and error and explore and enjoy the process of it. You know? Where as to go into a studio and try to have everything be incredibly immaculate sounds type-a, it just sounds anal to me. It doesn’t sound fun. So I guess it’s a little bit of both, money and just trying to be a little bit more down to earth or something.
M: Yeah, yeah and I definitely agree with what you said earlier about when you hear the music and it sounds like it was done by a human. A recording process like that definitely has a very human quality about it that shines through on the record and I think makes it more accessible.
S: Yeah, I also really like to watch a lot of movies of like the first movies of film directors that I like. You know like Spike Lee’s first movie or Gus Van Sant’s first movie. They’re incredible to me; the stories are so strong. The way that they are made is so strong and there’s so much passion and sort of realness to them. And they did all that stuff with 16mm cameras and no budget and stuff because they had to. And there’s some sort of spirit in that and sometimes it just seems like when things get to pro, it loses some magic. And I don’t know how exactly to articulate it, but we all have seen 10 million examples of it. So as long as I keep things from becoming too sterile, it’s probably a big trap for most artists.
M: Yeah that’s definitely true. I think any one of us could list off a million examples of artists who have lost that magic. But as we mentioned earlier, you have all sorts of different outlets such as plays, comic books, and so many other things. How does one person have enough creativity to bubble into all of these different outlets?
S: Well to some extent, I think it’s because I have outlets. I’m not afraid of being an amateur to some extent. Like I write comic books, but you know, compared to Daniel Clowes or Robert Cronin, they’re just doodles. But I don’t care, it works for me. Or I make plays, but they play in very small theaters for a few weeks. It’s nothing like Sam Shepard or something or like Neil LaBute or whoever is a famous playwright now.
So it’s just like, I don’t care if I’m technically an amateur because as long as the story is told well, then that’s all I need. For me, I’m okay with being like a beginner. You know? I don’t mind. And a lot of people are not, you know? A lot of people are like, “I’m not going to fucking do a play, what do I know about plays? I’m a singer.” You know? So if they have some song that’s not working correctly as a song. They don’t have that option. It just lies dead in the water, you know what I mean? It’s like, well that didn’t work. And for me I’m like, “It came out over there, so let it be that.” So maybe it’s just I’m not afraid of looking like an idiot (laughs).
M: (laughs) Yeah and I think that kind of ties back to what we were talking about earlier. Like with a lot of people’s earlier work and not having access to these things. They were just starting out they maybe didn’t have this fear of failure because they were starting at the bottom.
S: Yeah, I guess I don’t mind. I mean sometimes I mind when I’m broke and I’m like why am I working on a play, shouldn’t I be making car payments? I mean that kind of shit hurts sometimes you know? But in the larger scheme of things, I like being new at shit. I think there’s a lot of magic there that is pretty exciting.
M: Yeah definitely. So I know this is a project going back 4 or 5 years now, but I thought it was really amazing so I wanted to talk to you a bit about this. Do you want to explain the 100 records project and the idea behind to people who don’t know about it?
S: Well that’s another example of like something that started out as a novel. Like I was trying to write a book just because I was like, “Fuck it, I’ll write this book. I have this story.” And it wasn’t working. It just wasn’t that great. And as I was worked on it, it just naturally morphed into this art project where I was making the fake record covers of the characters in the book. You know? And I just followed the energy of where it was going and just sort of embraced that it was becoming a project about drawing the fake record covers of the characters in the book that eclipsed the book you know? It became what it really should have been the whole time.
And then it led to another facet of all this: making songs for fake bands. It was incredibly easy because the stakes were totally low. You know? None of these bands have label contracts, none of these fake bands had gigs, none of these fake bands had records that they had to give a shit if their fans or girlfriends or people they cared about would listen to. The stakes were totally low, so I was free to make whatever. So if it was a piece of shit, the song I made for the fake band, that was fine too because that just means that the fake band was not very good. It was okay; it was just one of the characters in this project. And if a made a good song then that’s good too. If I made a high quality song with good mics, then that’s what that band was. And if I made it lo-fi, then that’s what that band was. And if I just made a 30 second instrumental and I didn’t have any lyrics to it, then I just gave it to the band that did instrumentals. That was their fake history.
So it was a genius project in that way. Not that I didn’t start out thinking that, but you could do no wrong.
M: Yeah because these were your ideas in your head.
S: Yeah and you can’t sit there and be like, “No that band didn’t sound like that,” because they are made up (laughs). Whereas, once you have an identity and you make some songs and some records, it’s very hard to break out of the boxes that we create for ourselves. Sonny and the Sunsets has a box. I try to break out of it, which is why our sound changes so much, but still you can get boxed in unintentionally. Just by virtue of making stuff.
M: Mmhmm. So what were a couple of your favorite fake bands looking back on the project?
S: Little Antoine and the Sparrows was like a mute soul singer, so it was like an instrumental soul band with a lead singer that didn’t sing that just stood up there and pantomimed. So it was brilliant. And it was because I couldn’t land the vocals on this one song so I was like, “Fuck it, the lead singer is a mute.” (laughs) So it made perfect sense.
And Earth Girl Helen Brown was one of my favorite ones because she was kind of like this girl constantly searching for love, but like the female equivalent of Buck Rodgers just cruising through the universe looking for weird alien dudes and having strange romantic encounters and never finding the right guy or cyborg or alien guy.
The Fuckaroos was a cool band. There was quite a number of bands that I wrote more songs for than others because they were just fun to write for.
M: Yeah it sounds like a super fun project. And earlier today I was at Harvest Records, and I came across another one of your projects that I didn’t really know much about. It was a copy of your One Act Plays.
S: Yeah, see that’s another example of plays I wrote just to be plays. But they weren’t meant to be plays, they were meant to be songs. So they were songs with the dialogue as if it were a play. It was like reading a play; it had stage directions, lighting instructions, sometimes dialogue that was setting the scene, dialogue between characters. But everything was sung or in the form of a song. That was another perfect example. Like everything I try starts out wrong and turns into something else. I totally don’t know what I’m doing (laughs).
M: (laughs) Well I totally love whatever you doing because it comes out sounding great. Just keep doing whatever you’re doing.
S: I just have to keep not knowing what the hell I’m doing.
M: (laughs) Once you figure it out we’ll have problems.
S: (laughs) Yeah.
M: So with that being said, what are some future projects and plans you have coming down the pipeline.
S: Well the latest record again was a series of short films. I wanted to write short films. I had titles and ideas and I couldn’t put them together, so they became songs. Then I was thinking I would try to make short films again. It’s something I wanted to do, but it keeps eluding me. You know? I’ll keep trying and maybe it will end up being films and maybe it will end up being, I don’t know, a dinner party. (laughs) Yeah so I don’t really have anything concrete right now.
M: Well we definitely look forward to whatever comes next.
S: (laughs) Yeah, who knows?
M: Well thank you so much for taking the time to do this.
S: Yeah my pleasure. Thank you.