Shooting the breeze with Sonny Smith

August 19, 2010

I have to admit I was unaware of Sonny Smith’s music until he slipped a CD of his album, Tomorrow Is Alright, into my mailbox last year. It ended up being the perfect remedy for those gray NY winter days, adding a bit of humor and surfy sunshine pep to my step. It didn’t really leave my cd player for a couple months and by then we had agreed to do an exhibition of his 100 Records project. I was stoked about the artists he chose and the fact that the music was so good kinda pushed the whole idea into next level territory. We had a lot of fun getting the show together and though we were really just getting to know each other, it all felt really comfortable and just right. Here’s a little conversation we had about the show, growing up, skating, breakdancing, bands, – ya know, the good stuff.
— Sto

“The characters in Sonny’s songs are so real, don’t be surprised if they crawl out of your speakers and bum your last smoke off you. I wouldn’t wish running a label on my worst enemy. Sonny is so good I had no choice.” (Chuck Prophet)

Ok, so you are from San Francisco originally?
Yes, born here and also raised in Fairfax mostly, north of here

You were telling me that you were a total Cali surfer-skate rat, right?
Yes me and my friends were skate rats in the 80’s. We used to go see street competitions mostly. We idolized Tommy Guerrero and now that I’m an adult I find out he’s like two years older than me and we’ve played some gigs together. I had a magazine I made when I was a kid called “Rip-It Mag” and I took photos of all the neighborhood skaters and had little how-to sections and info on local places to skate. We also made skimboards out of plywood and resin and used to boogie board a lot. Surfing was a little too much work for us as kids. Also, about 1985 I got into snowboarding and there was one little run in the whole world, at Soda Springs resort, where it was allowed to snowboard. I bought a Burton Performer with low back bindings. Terry Kidwell was around and he was the most famous of them all for his huge jumps. Then about two years later it exploded and you could snowboard just about anywhere. We used to follow Shaun Palmer and Damien Sanders around on the slopes trying to keep up but they were too good. Me and my friends were kinda the bad news bears of all these sports, skating, snowboarding, surfing.

Did you go to punk shows as a kid? What was your first show?
I was into new wave so we went to Thompson Twins, Cure, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Tears For Fears, I also saw Depeche Mode, General Public, and Howard Jones. I think U2 was my first show. I smoked beeties with my friend Dewey. Appreciation of punk rock came much later for me, but in junior high in some weird Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde way I also was into metal briefly, so there were local bands like Victims Family and T.S.O.L. and D.R.I. and Death Angel. Death Angel had a record called ‘Bonded By Blood’ and I drew their whole record cover (two angels with there skin bloodily grafted to each other) on my jeans-jacket and ripped off the sleeves! On top of all that shit I got into break dancing and we had a breakdance crew called the “Fax City Breakers” and got sponsored by a local hair salon run by this awesome woman who was into Bowie. “Let’s Dance” was always on whenever you walked in. My break-name was ‘Swift’! Her and her boyfriend taught us moves and choreographed these performances and then took us to competitions in Oakland. But we always lost cause we were white suburban kids. Like I said, we were kinda the Bad News Bears of all that stuff.

What was your first band?
It was at some afterschool band program, I got placed with three girls. We each got to pick a song. So they picked A-HA’s ‘Take on Me’ and Boy George’s ‘Chameleon’. Which, even though I was into new wave I wasn’t into that. I picked AC-DC’s “Back in Black”. The girls played their song great but played my song like shit… What a lame experience.

What are some other bands you’ve been in?
Not too many real life bands. Just lotsa fictional bands.

How long has the Sunsets been together?
Maybe two years altogether.

How did the idea for 100 Records come about? It was a book idea first right?
I was writing a novel yes, and I wanted to include some pictures of album covers of the characters I was writing about. But once I started in making the album covers, with other artists contributing, the novel got shelved and the making of album covers and the songs became it’s own project.

Yea I really love the back stories behind the bands. So many people think they are real. And some have become “real” since this project began, right? Can you tell us about some of the characters? And how it feels for them to come to life.
Well, it feels great. I wish they were all real. A lot of them are becoming like friends of mine in my mind. And now when I write a song sometimes I think, ‘oh this is totally a little Antoine and the sparrows song’… And sometimes I think about playing a Wayward Youth song and I think, shit I can’t have the Sunsets play this song, this is a Wayward Youth song, I have to ask their permission.

How did you pick 100 artists? It seemed very natural that we knew alot of the artists in the show too, like it was this extended family…
Well it didn’t come out to be completely 100 artists. It’s probably 88. Cause some did two. And I did four or so. I just asked people, almost everybody just did it without too many questions. All year I would come home and there’d be a little package under my gate. Another piece of art. It got where I was getting some from people I hadn’t asked. People were hearing about the project and sending me stuff.

Who is Mingering Mike?
Very good question!

The jukebox is a great way to tie it all together, how did you go about building it?
Originally I wanted a real jukebox and I was trying to figure out how to make 100 acetates. But that was too impractical. Then I bought a jukebox thinking I could rig it up to a cd player but that didn’t work either. So I just started building my own. I got my friend Chris Leone who is a master carpenter to help me. once we looked at some old German jukebox’s on line, we came up with a style we referenced. Once Chris started in, he really bumped it up a level with his carpenter expertise. It began to look amazing!

What’s a typical day in SF like?
Well, I just got back from traffic duty at my kids school. Yesterday I took a client, an older gentlemen, a Vietnam vet out and about to a bookstore and a Starbucks to get out of his care facility. I work for a social worker and I get little jobs like that.

What bands are you into right now in your neck of the woods?
I saw this guy Jeff Manson play he was good. And Donovan Quinn has a new record out I like. And the Mantles, the Sandwitches, Art Museums, Jacuzzi Boys, I’ve seen all them recently, they were all good.

Do you have a favorite burrito spot?
No, cause I live in the sunset now, they don’t have burritos out here, they have dim sum.

I’ve been hanging out in the show alot and it really makes me feel like I’m in a sweet record store listening to the jukebox. I spent alot of adolescence hanging at record shops or trying to find infamous ones on road trips. Is that something you thought about at all?
Yes all through highschool I had an after-school job at a record store. It was a great job. It was the best. Most of my record collection is from that time. I haven’t bought much since.

What’s that song “Death Cream” about anyways?
It’s just a little zombie story. Like an old fashioned noir flick, a secret thing that’s killing everybody. What is it? It’s death cream!

Sonny and the Sunsets will be touring this Fall and their sweet record, Tomorrow is Alright, will be officially coming out on Fat Possum on August 31st. And 100 Records will be up until September 5th at Cinders. Highly recommended dudes.