The Sonics: We were average guys trying to do an above-average job
Every once in a while in the rock 'n' roll timeline, a band comes along and blows the lid off the conventional definitions of "loud" and "fast." Most folks remember names like the Ramones, the MC5, and the Stooges but the legendary Tacoma, Washington, garage band the Sonics predated all of them. In the early '60s the Sonics were college-aged guys playing a mix of '50s rock 'n' roll standards, but their hardscrabble background gave them a distinct edge. Here, the bones of punk rock are beginning emerge in the slashing guitar of Larry Parypa and the wild-armed drumming of powerhouse Bob Bennett. The soulful screams of frontman Gerry Roslie and Rob Lind's saxophone kept things thoroughly anchored in the blues tradition.
Since 2007, the Sonics have played occasional festival dates and European tours, but now they're back on the attack with a wide ranging world tour to whet appetites for their forthcoming LP. Gimme Noise reached saxophonist Rob Lind before Saturday's show at First Avenue to talk about that new material, as well the band's enduring legacy.
Gimme Noise: One of the things that seems to be forgotten when people talk about bands like yours is that many of you started out by playing a lot of R&B material. How important was R&B and early soul on the Sonics' formation?
Rob Lind: Oh, very important, and we did a lot of it. In those days, we were playing three and sometimes four sets, and we were rocker boys, we wanted to rock we did... I think everything that Little Richard ever thought of. But by the same token, we were still doing Little Willie John, we were doing James Brown, and we were doing all kinds of stuff like that. It was about two-thirds rock to one-third rhythm and blues stuff.
Did performers that you famously covered, like Little Richard, Huey Smith, Rufus Thomas, etc tour up to Seattle and make a big impression when you went to see them, or did you gain that from records?
I never did, but the black groups used to play at a place on the outskirts of town at a place called the Evergreen Ballroom. You could go down there and it'd be all black people and then 15 white rock musicians right in front of the stage. I saw the Bobby Bland Revue two or three times, I saw Ike and Tina Turner twice. I stood three feet away from Tina Turner when she was singing, so we definitely got a chance to see some of that stuff. Not a lot, James Brown came through and played one of the big venues in town, in the Armory there and we went to see him.
What about your own personal sax playing? Who were some of your biggest influences? King Curtis comes to mind.
Well, I love King Curtis. There was a band called Johnny & the Hurricanes, they were a national band, had two or three national records, and their sax player was outta sight! He played dirty, and that's the way I wanted to play.
In the Pacific Northwest there was two main centers of music, back then. Seattle was very urbane, our contemporaries that were up there playing were all very good, sax players were wonderful and still are, really wonderful jazz players. We were down in Tacoma, so we used to say, "If Seattle is like London, than Tacoma is like Liverpool." It's a blue collar harbor town, our dads were all blue-collar guys and we just wanted to rock. We weren't trying to be jazz musicians. So our guitar player Larry [Parypa], he played as dirty as he knew how, and I was trying to do the same on the sax. Gerry [Roslie]'s pounding on the piano and screaming, our drummer at the time, Bob Bennett was just pounding on them. So that was the difference, we didn't swing, we were more four-four, straight ahead and right in your face.
Did you have any idea at the time that your group was more hard-edged than some of your garage contemporaries?
Yeah, we did, one of the terms that I use today to describe the Sonics is that we were average guys trying to do an above-average job. We were average musicians, each in our own right, nobody was a jazz guy, but when you put the five of us together, something happens and all of a sudden it's an earthquake. It's always been that way, and it's that way right now. We work every night to do the best job we can, and it always comes out pretty well, but it's like the whole is better than the sum of the parts.
Your band's covers and interpretations are well-loved, but my personal favorite Sonics songs were the originals you recorded. How did you go about writing songs like "Strychinine," "The Witch" and "Psycho?"
Well, I can tell you a story about "The Witch." Gerry Roslie wrote it and sings it, and he wrote it as a dance, "Do the Witch." The record company, Buck Ormsby from The Wailers, they had a label called Etiquette records and they asked us to record. Buck listened to it and told us, "Dances don't work, they're short lived. Get rid of that and write something else." So Gerry's fertile mind, his evil mind, he goes "Okay!" and goes home and comes back and now he's got it "The Witch," about a woman, there's a girl who's new in town. We had worked it out to be a power song, a riff song.
What I mean by that, this was the first record we ever did, and originally it was going to be ponderous and heavy. Well we went to the big city, and we took the elevator up to the 15th floor and went to the recording studio, and we were all scared to death. So we rushed it! Bob our drummer, he's a fine drummer but he was just as nervous as the rest of us so he pushed it. So we did it, and then we all had to take the ferry all the way over to where Larry lived, and we took a studio master home with us. We laid on their living room floor and played it over and over and we were distraught. We said "Oh god, we've wasted our money, we've made ourselves look like fools, this this horrible, it's way too fast!" Then about three weeks later it sold 20,000 copies! [laughs]
I gotta give Gerry a tip of the hat, he wrote that, he wrote "Strychnine," he wrote all of those early songs. "Shot Down" and "Psycho," which became a really big hit and so the record company was told us "You've got to do something else, quick." So we finished playing in this club at around one in the morning, and once we had stacked all the chairs on the tables and everybody had left, we figured out a background with some drum breaks in it. They said "Well, you guys gotta be in the studio tomorrow. Do you have a song?" Well, no, but we told them we'd get one. After we got through playing, we worked out the music to "Psycho," and Gerry said "Okay, I'll see you guys at the studio in the morning and I'll have some words." He did! We finished in two or three takes and it blew up, just like "The Witch" did. That established us, then we were doing albums.
After being active for most of the '60s, the Sonics parted ways and you got out of music for a while. What did you do in the meantime? I've heard that you served as a pilot during Vietnam.
I was a Navy carrier pilot. I got drafted my last semester of school, and Navy saved me, and said "Well, we want you get your degree." So I went back to school, finished my semester and went to officer candidate school. Gerry played with some little group that he had put together for a very short period of time, but he developed an asphalt paving company, they did driveways and things like that. We didn't really break up, we just kinda went our own ways. Life made it's impact on us, you know, there was a war goin' and that kind of stuff. It wasn't an "I hate your guts" type of deal, we just all were graduating school, those of us that were in school, Larry and Andy [Parypa] and me. Andy became a schoolteacher, and Larry got into the corporate insurance business, which he does now, so we all just kind of went off into different directions.
While you were taking time off, were you able to trace the influence on other bands?
Definitely, we were all musicans and we all loved music. Even when I was living on an aircraft carrier for a year I had a little tape deck in my squalid little room, so I was listening. When we were still playing, we did a tour of a few East coast locations, and we did a TV show called Upbeat, I think it was on WABC in either Cleveland or Cincinnati, I can't remember which. But there was this other rock 'n' roll band in there and we got to hang out all day long and we'd never heard of 'em. So we played our stuff and the lead singer said, "God, you should come back and play in our part of the country, in the Midwest, they really love you back there." So we watched them play and thought "God, we really like these guys! These guys are cool! What's the name of the band?"
Well, the lead singer was some dude name Bob Seger! So we got sit around all day on a rolled-up carpet in a TV studio, talking to Bob. Then, when I was overseas, he had all of these great songs like "Fire Down Below," so I was listening to Bob, and around the time that I came back the Eagles started firing up, and I love Linda Ronstadt too. So there was quite a lot to listen to.
A lot of folks credit the Sonics with inspiring that Detroit rock sound like you mentioned, and really being the genesis of what would become American punk rock. Did you guys view yourselves as connected to that family tree at all?
The whole deal about the Sonics and our sound, we just wanted to be attack dogs. We wanted to play hard. We play one set now, just like we have for the last seven years, just like everybody else does, but in those days we'd play three or four sets sometimes if we really needed the money. A lot of time when we were playing in the summer, we'd play out at these lake pavilions and things, and when you'd start your first set at 7 or 8 at night, it would still be broad daylight and there would be ten people standing in this big place with their arms folded staring at ya. We hated that! A lot of bands would waste that first hour, they'd jam and we never did. We wanted to come right out of the blocks blasting.
Particularly Gerry hated people standing there staring at us, he said "God, I feel like we're a jukebox." So we wanted to come at it with energy. So we'd come right out rockin', seven-o'clock, broad daylight, we'd come out and go for it. That's all we did, and our sound, and the way that it came across was a direct reflection of that. We just wanted to rock 'n' roll. We wanted to be hard rock guys. A lot of bands drummer was a guy back there keeping time, well, we wanted Bobby to blow the place up, and that's what he did.
The garage rock sound you pioneered has been immensely influential on a number of regional garage/punk scenes in the US, places like Memphis and Nashville, and even here in the Twin Cities with groups like Suicide Commandos and the Hypstrz. Did those bands or communities ever reach out to you, have you connected with them?
No, not really. We're familiar with a lot of the groups that have record our stuff, and we're pleased when people do that, and we like to listen to different people's interpretation of the songs that we have, and how they think it should go. There's a band called the Fuzztones, they're an American band that moved to Germany, and they were there when we did our opening show, which is a story in itself.
In 2007, we'd been asked for about three years to do this big festival in NYC called Cavestomp and we said "No, we don't play anymore." So we turned them down a couple of times but they kept pressing us, so we thought "Maybe we can." But we made a deal, Gerry, Larry and myself that the Sonics had a good reputation and a good legacy. Let's not blow it, let's not go up there and be pathetic, have people saying that the feel sorry for us, that we used to be good. So we rehearsed for almost two years, just the three of us. Gerry hitting the singing, Larry getting his guitar playing down, I was flying up to Seattle to be with those guys.
So eventually we got to a point where we thought we were ready, so we got two other guys, because our drummer Bobby lives in Honolulu, and he just couldn't keep flying across, and the original bass player Andy just didn't want to tour anymore, so we brought two other guys in. We went to Cavestomp and played the show, and all of a sudden the Fuzztones showed up in front of our autograph table. I'd never heard of them, but they were there with stacks of albums, so we were autographing our albums and they brought an album of their own called The Fuzztones Boom, which was all Sonics covers, the whole album! So we thought that was pretty hilarious, and we got to know those guys, so when we went to Germany, they opened for us in Berlin.
It's little things like that. The Swedish band, the Hives, they came to see us and over the years we've become real good friends with them. Actually, it was at that Cavestomp show, they were on the west coast and they flew to New York to see us, because we were their idols when they were young guys. Well, I had never heard of them before, which shows you how much I know about contemporary music because they're huge. So when we signing autographs, a journalist told me that there was a Swedish rock band that wanted to know if they could get pictures taken with us. So they lined up behind us and took a bunch of pictures, and I got to talking with the guitar player Nick Arson. He and I hit it off and exchanged email addresses and then started keeping in touch, and I started listening to their music and realized they were Killers!
We've been friends ever since, we played Stockholm and those guys are like the Beatles in Liverpool over there, so they showed up in our dressing room and we were all hanging out drinking beer. I guess I'd had a couple of beers, so I said "Hey boys, you wanna do something fun? Why don't you come and do our encore with us?" So we went out and did our show, and when we did our encore we said "Hey, we've got some friends from here that are going to come out and help us..." So four of The Hives walked out on the stage and the crowd just went ballistic!
You've toured Europe extensively since then, where your music is arguably even more popular than in the US. What's the reception been like for you over there?
It's been amazing, just amazing. Sold out crowds everywhere, even in countries where they don't speak much English like Finland, we played a festival show a couple of summers ago, and here's the crowd right in front of the stage and they're all singing "Strychnine" word for word. It's really great, I had it explained to me recently by the promoter who brought us to London. He said that the difference is the European kids are actually better rock fans than the American kids are, because they buy records and they know bands. He said "What's happened to you guys in Europe is that the kids discovered you. Your audience is now 18 to 22."
We sold out the first show in a matter hours, we had to add a second show and we sold that one out too. We didn't know that! We've played from Athens all the way up to the Arctic Circle in Norway, the crowds are all sell-outs and they love that kind of music. We were gonna play in Spain, and I had a dialogue with my friend Nick from the Hives, he said "Rob, when you guys play, they'll be crying." We had guys, in our dressing room, crying! It's amazing, Europe has been real good to us.
So let's talk about that new album for a second, can you tell us any more about it right now, or is it too early?
Well, what's going on right now is negotiations with record companies. Fortunately, I don't have to get involved with that but Bryan Swirsky, our business manager does. He's had a couple of meetings with record companies, two have made us an offer right off the bat. We're in Chicago now, and he had a meeting with a Chicago record company that knew we were coming to town and wanted to talk about the record with him, so we put all that in the hands of our entertainment attorney out in Los Angeles, and he's going to do all the negotiating on it.
The guy who produced it did a great job. If you listen to those teasers [posted on The Sonic's Facebook Page] you'll hear early Sonics. He said "I want to take you guys back to the energy and excitement of your first two albums." That's what this album is going to sound like, it's a hard-rocker. Our manager said it would almost be good if there was one off-tempo song in there to break it up, because this thing is like a chainsaw, it just keeps coming at you. He's based out of Detroit with a company called Ghetto Recorders, and he had a vision for this album and he really fulfilled it.
The Sonics. With the Suicide Commandos, Charlie Pickett, and Curtiss A's Jerks of Fate. $25-$50, 7 p.m., Saturday, March 1 at First Avenue. Tickets and Info.
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