Interview – Sonny and the Sunsets
– by Ria Nevada/illustration by Linny Malin
What began as a lucid, confusing string of short films has turned into Sonny and the Sunsets’ newest avant-pop record Talent Night at the Ashram.
I began to get a sense of the illuminating, and often bewildering road that frontman Sonny Smith takes when creating well, anything, during a phone interview in preparation for the seasoned troubadour’s Vancouver show Feb. 18 at the Fox Cabaret.
A few days before the start of the band’s Western U.S. and Canadian tour, Smith chuckled as he recalled how Talent Night evolved from the cutting room floor in his San Francisco home “The songs started as short films – scripts that I was writing,” said Smith, who has written and directed short films in the past, including 2000’s Kid Gus Man.
“I originally intended for the latest record to be a series of narratives. But I abandoned that when they sort of morphed into songs. The film part is dead, it got relegated to the junk heap. It got eclipsed by the songs.”
One man’s junk has been resurrected into a musical treasure. Talent Night at the Ashram is as familiar and comforting as 2012’s Longtime Companion. But the new record contains his most fearless compositions to date.
One of these is the trippy, humorous “Happy Carrot Health Food Store”. Explaining a chimerical break in the song that has the narrator talking to a dog, Smith explained, “What is the dog saying? I don’t know – it’s kind of a hallucination. There are layers in that conversation. First the subject is talking to a girl that he had a past relationship with about a film that he made about them. Somewhere in telling that story to that person, it gets a little… confused.”
Listen – Sonny and the Sunsets, “Happy Carrot Health Food Store”:
Despite the myriad and eclectic aural elements and shifting storylines, Smith manages to always keep his sound cohesive. The amalgamation of synthesizers, musique concrete and beach rock on the record was a result of Smith surrendering to the spirit of the music and relinquishing any preconceived notions about the outcome.
“I think I know what I’m doing and it’s going to be a song or something, and often it just isn’t meant to be that way,” he said. “If I’m going to have any kind of success it’s when I let go of my original intentions, and just let it be what it’s supposed to be.”
Besides movie- and music-making, Smith had designs on becoming a novelist. Asked if he could see Sonny and the Sunsets adapting a classic work, something like the once-proposed Beatles adaptation of Lord of the Rings, he replied, “It would be fun to adapt Hunger by Knut Hamsun or The Stranger by Camus.”
These two titles brought to mind another existential classic. “Sometimes being on tour feels like being in that book Woman in the Dunes,” he said, referencing a 1962 novel by Japanese writer Kobo Abe.
”It’s really about this guy who falls into a trap in the sand dunes and he can’t get out. That’s all I’m gonna say. But that’s how I feel on tour sometimes!” He laughed and added, “That doesn’t sound very romantic, does it?”
Romantic or not, Smith’s organic approach to his art has directed him to some fascinating ventures. In 2011, he launched the 100 Records Project, an exhibit of album art and a spattering of songs for fictional characters and bands that ended up developing into actual live acts. One, Earth Girl Helen Brown, even released a record.
Listen – Earth Girl Helen Brown, “I Walked All Night”:
Smith was excited when Earth Girl Helen Brown, aka Heidi Alexander of The Sandwitches, asked him to play a show with her in San Francisco recently.
“So I was asked to play in this band that was a character that I made up a few years back. It all came full circle. I wasn’t in control of it or anything, I was just playing guitar.”
But it wasn’t always sunny in the land of Sonny and the Sunsets. A near-drowning in 2010 has informed many of his lyrics, though not as much on the new album.
“I haven’t written too much about drowning for a while, so it must have been purged. It was a heavy thing when it happened and I wrote a lot about it. It ended up in a lot of different songs and was also kind of a theme that was going through the 100 records – a lot of characters drowned,” he laughed.
As for Sonny and the Sunsets’ next horizon? “I don’t know, stuff isn’t that heavy right now,” Smith said. “Yesterday I wrote a song about changing my car battery.” With inspiration coming from every angle, even his garage, we can expect more adventurous works from Smith in the near future.