Sonny And The Sunsets have just finished the UK leg of their extensive tour of Europe. The band are promoting their new album, Hit After Hit, which showcases Sonny’s subtle brand of American pop at it’s best. With hints at R&B, garage and folk, Hit After Hit is a thoroughly American record that will make you want to get on the next plane westward. Sonny’s literary approach to songwriting makes for a collection of strikingly textured songs, simultaneously weird and relatable, sincere and flippant. Last year, Sonny Smith showcased 100 Records, a project that involved Sonny writing 100 songs for 100 different records for a multitude of imagined acts. He’s an agile guy…
We sat down with him on a curb outside The Lexington, here’s what we discussed:
There have been a lot of comparisons between your sound and that of The Velvet Underground. Is this something you’d agree with?
Sure, yeah, that’s there. I haven’t aspired to do that. I would say Jonathan Richman was more accurate in terms of someone I was a bigger fan of, but he was obsessed with the Velvet Underground so…
What are the other influences that fed into the new album?
Well, there’s just so many. I kind of listen to music all the time, I kind of swim through it. Some of it sticks, some of them don’t.
How many of the songs on Hit After Hit started out as part of the 100 Recrods project?
Well, almost all of them really, but its not like I just took it from 100 records. Those things were just happening all at once and some things I set out to make a Sunsets song ended up being for the 100 Records, some things for the 100 Records ended up being Sunsets.
And you’ve had a few side projects that have spawned from 100 Records.
Well, Earth Girl Helen Brown has become real and she plays gigs and The Fuckaroos have become real. Hank Champion is maybe getting a publishing deal. Some of the guys, like this spoken word guy, might have a book deal or something.
Do you feel like Sonny And The Sunsets is your main artistic outlet?
I don’t know about that. It just seems to be the one that’s been most embraced, so sometimes naturally you put in more energy, like I’m here touring for a year but I didn’t set out to be like that or anything.
With 100 records, I got the impression that you were creating characters and affecting personalities. Is Sonny And The Sunsets more you or is it another character?
Yeah, the answer’s kind of yes and no. There’s definitely some other characters within the 100 Records. With the 60 or 70 bands that were made, there were certainly some that I don’t have much connection to, like there was some guy that was sort of like a reggae guy. I don’t have that naturally coming out of me. Or there was this blind blues guy, right, or something like that. But then a lot of them were just very subtle gradations of me anyway, so those ones seem as real to me as Sonny And The Sunsets and sometimes Sonny And The Sunsets doesn’t always seem that real either, I don’t know why.
There are a lot of stories circulating about Sonny And The Sunsets. For instance, the hurricane that tore apart your studio and the band meeting in a psychiatric ward. How much of this is true and to what extent have the press perpetuated tall stories?
It’s a little bit of both. I didn’t meet everybody at Canyon Manor Rehabilitation Centre. But it’s true, yeah, the media completely takes everything out of context. So here and there I’ve just thrown things in that’s almost like feeding meat to the lions or something like that, just to see what happens. They get everything wrong anyway, I don’t know if you will be included in that. I’ve had some lately where I would be emailed questions, then I would read it and they would have turned it into a conversation. They would have put in things like “”I don’t know”, Smith said hesitantly and then looked off into the distance” you know? Like that was just completely made up.
What about the hurricane?
Right, we did a bunch of stuff on tape, but I wouldn’t really call it a hurricane, so that’s hyperbole, but there was leakage from a storm so we just kind of turned the corner or moved on. I don’t know if those songs will be like jams that will be lost forever, but it might not be as much as a tragedy as…
But were those the tracks for Hit After Hit?
Yeah, because when we first did it, I thought we would make a much longer record, go for the big thing, but that was just a phase. Almost every record I’ve made, they’ve just been ten songs. People get bored after 7 or 8 anyway.
You’re songs are quite short anyway.
Not all my stuff, I’ve made some long ones.
OK, but they are on Hit After Hit. Is that an attention span thing as well?
I think it’s me trying to cut off all the fat of songs. I’m not one for guitar solos too much. I like to play a riff like everybody else, but i don’t like extended shit you know. You hear some songs and the intro takes forever you know, it’s like get to the point.
What do you think the point is? Is it the lyrics, the melody…
Oh, I don’t know if I mean the point is the lyrics or the melody, just the heart of the song. Just get into it without a long intro or long outro or five minute fade outs.
You express yourself in a lot of different ways, like through plays, short stories, novels. Do you think music is the way that you express yourself the best?
Well, it seems to be. But I should say, I tried to write a novel but I failed at it so I can’t be called a novelist. But I’ve written some short stories and plays and stuff. I actually kind of romanticise being a writer first so I try to be a writer and write things, but at some point, more often than not, it defaults into songs. Maybe because that’s what I’m best at, so I write songs the most but when I usually start out, I’m trying to write something else because I kind of fantasise about being a novelist, but I haven’t landed it yet.
You’ve written a lot of songs though, the 100 Records project…
That started as a novel! Trying to write a novel about friends of mine that I made into fictional characters. Eventually, I abandoned the writing and ended up writing songs about them. It started out writing, trying to be more literary, but it ended up more musical.
What would you say your ambition is for your life. Would you want to be remembered as a writer, playwright, musician…
I don’t know. I like writing the most, whether it’s writing songs or stories or comic books or whatever, even though I like playing live and touring, all these things are fun, but I think I’m happiest when I get to wake up in the morning and sit at my desk. I usually just sit at a desk and try to write stuff.
So it’s a mutual process. It could start out on paper and end up as a song?
I kind of sit with my guitar and my desk, you know, trying to think about it, write. Sometimes, I’ll be writing more and the guitar will sit there and sometimes I’ll be playing the guitar more. It’s give and take I guess.
I heard you started out as a blues pianist. Is that true?
That is embarrassingly true, yes. When I started playing music, I was 19 and the way that I taught myself was like everybody else, just learning blues on the piano. I ended up getting a gig at a bar, this strange awkward bar scene in the mountains in America and I would be hired, fifty bucks a week, to play Thursday night and Friday night. The first gig, I’d been billed as Sonnyland Smith because they wanted to have me sound like some old blues man or something like that, but that wasn’t my name, my name was Delaney Smith. They just put that out in the paper without even asking me, which I was fine with. I thought that was clever, I’ll give it a shot, I wasn’t asking for much. I was happy to show up somewhere and be paid to play music. I was sort of dropping out of college at the same time. Then people just started calling me Sonny and I met more people at gigs than through my regular life, so I guess that’s important. It’s how I got named, so that’s my name. I don’t go by Sonnyland Smith though, thats a little much.
Delaney Smith is a good literary name though.
Yeah, maybe I’ll come up with some short stories with that as my pseudonym. Everything gets flipped around. Delaney Smith will become my pseudonym.
Does being from San Francisco affect the music you write?
I’m sure it has, but I get that question a lot and I don’t really know how to answer it. I’ve always lived there, except for some travels, that’s where I grew up. I never heard about the West Coast sound until a couple of years ago. The press sort of launched it and said there was a West Coast sound or there was something coming out of San Francisco and they sort of organised it, but I think it was more of a media thing. I can’t speak for the other people in San Francisco, but none of my friends know what the hell the San Francisco sound is and it’s kind of limiting anyway because whatever they decide this San Francisco sound is, only the people that sound like it get to represent San Francisco. It’s kind of an unfair moniker in a way, I never think about it.
It’s hard to analyse yourself in that way and determine what influenced you the most.
Yeah. Well, I hear people from other places that sound more like us than bands from San Francisco and they don’t get called west coast bands.
Hit After Hit is available through Fat Possum. If you buy one record this year, make it this one.