If ever a band lived up their name, it was The Sonics. Formed in 1960 in Tacoma Washington their brand of high-intensity Rock and Roll took the dance-crazed audiences of the Pacific Northwest by storm. Featuring the other-worldly screams and howls of Gerry Roslie, crunchy guitar work, hard-driving sax and keys and machine gun drums, their early singles have been cited by journalists and music fans alike as cornerstones of punk and garage rock. They would release three albums: Here Are The Sonics in 1965, Boom in 1966, and Introducing the Sonics in 1967 before calling it quits shortly thereafter. A generation of music fans would go on to rediscover their music, either through compilations such as “Rockabilly Psychosis and The Garage Disease” (1980) or covers by other artists (notably The Cramps who recorded their version of “Strychnine” that same year.) Meanwhile, the members of The Sonics were busy living their lives unaware of the influence they had left in their wake. Occasional requests to reform were ignored, but under mounting pressure they agreed to play 2007’s Cavestomp Fest in Brooklyn, NY. The floodgates having opened, the band has been steadily touring the world ever since. 2015 saw the release of their newest album, the Jim Diamond (White Stripes, Dirtbombs, Ghetto Recordings) produced “This Is The Sonics”. This new record stands easily next to the first two; no mean feat considering that nearly a half a century has transpired. We caught up with saxophonist Rob Lind from his home in Charlotte, NC, to hear his thoughts on past, present and future in anticipation of their May 18th Masquerade show.
Atlanta Music Guide: You guys formed in 1960, pre-British invasion, and a time when the music on the charts was mostly songs by Neil Sedaka, Johnny Mathis, Frankie Avalon and all this very tame, easy-listening sort of stuff. Listening to any of that compared to your song “Psycho”; this crazy outta control, wild high-intensity song. It’s hard to reconcile.
Rob Lind: (Laughs)…it was horrible, but we were rock and roll boys from the Pacific Northwest from the beginning. There’s an interesting story about how “Psycho” came to be, We had done “The Witch” and it had exploded regionally selling 24000 copies in 10 days and so the record company called us and said: “We’ve gotta get you guys in a studio right now to do a follow-up!”. We were playing in a local club that same night, so we said to them: “Great, when do you want it?” and they said: “Tomorrow!”. So we did our typical three sets that night, and afterwards we stuck around coming up with the basic guitar riff and then asked our drummer to put some snare drum breaks in it and he said: “You mean like this: padda-da-pat, padda-da-pat? And we were like, yeah, that’s great.” And Gerry said: “OK I’ll see you guys in the morning in the studio.”. We go in the next day and lay down the band track and then Gerry comes it with a piece of paper, puts a headset on and starts singing and screaming. We didn’t know what the name of the song was, the words, the title, anything! He just knocked it out. The producer says: “That’s great, that’s your next record!” Any we played it every night thereafter.
AMG: So that’s how your sound evolved?
RL: In the 60’s it wasn’t shows like today, it was dances. People went to those shows to dance and meet guys and girls. We realized early on that by playing straight-up, intense rock and roll people would dance to it. The more we played, the more we could read the audience and that’s how we morphed into the intense rock and roll we became known for. Everything we do starts with a riff, we’re a riff-based rock and roll band. “Psycho” is a riff, “The Witch” is a riff, “Strychnine” is a riff and so on. Bands like us and The Hives, even The Clash, it’s all riffs. We didn’t start out to be a riff-based band, we just knew what the crowds we were playing for seemed to like and respond to and that’s what we gave them. And now today when I write songs, I start looking at riffs. You look at the song “Bad Betty” from our last record; that was a riff.
AMG: Well if the formula worked in 1965, there’s no reason why it can’t work today. It’s a pretty timeless approach. But your sound is pretty unique for the time, even the covers you do are distinctly yours.
RL: Yeah, we’ve always played a mix of originals and covers; but you have to find the right cover. I wouldn’t just cover any song, like “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”or something like that. You need something that hasn’t been overdone or isn’t so well known and can translate to our brand of music. On the last record, we cover “I Don’t Need No Doctor” which is an old Ray Charles tune we’ve been playing since the 1960’s. Other cover songs from the new record like “Sugaree” and “Look at Little Sister”, we just arranged those songs to be more Sonic-like. The originals were a little tame and didn’t really have any power. We have a word we use as a band and its “Sonic-ize”. We like to Sonic-ize the songs we cover. We’re looking at some potential songs for the record we plan on recording soon. One from back in the good old days I like is called “Justine”. It’s got good breaks, and I like breaks in songs. Another song we’re looking at is called “Issabella” and that’s just a flat out rocker, but if we Sonic-ize, we think we can make it rock better.
AMG: How are the audiences responding to you guys now?
RL: It’s just great. We just came back from a month in Europe. We try to give the crowd what we know the crowd wants. We play all of our best known songs from the 60’s and about half the songs from the last album and then we might stick in some of the newer songs were working on and read the crowd response. But you have to be really careful when you are band from the 60’s that’s playing now. When we started on the journey to tour again and to make the album “This Is The Sonics”, we were warned repeatedly by our attorney and others in the music industry to be really careful when you come back to make a record or play live, to not blow it. It’s easy to do by trying to be different or do something other than what made you famous. Read off a list of notable bands that have ruined their careers by releasing something other than what people would expect. That’s a consideration. Megastars like Bruce Springsteen, who I admire a great deal, are allowed to do that. People at our level have to be more careful.
AMG: The new record seems to have avoided all those pitfalls; it doesn’t sound like an “oldies” record. It pretty much stands shoulder to shoulder with your earlier albums. It could have come out in 1968.
RL: I have to defer all compliments to Jim Diamond who produced it. We had him with us for a week to rehearse and he was taking notes on a legal pad as we played. What he said to us before we began is that he wanted to capture all the fire and energy of the first albums without copying, and I think he achieved that.
AMG: The approach to recording now versus when you guys first started has probably changed a lot.
RL: Oh, yeah. Those first Sonic’s albums were self-produced. We didn’t rehearse; we were playing songs we played a couple of times a night, so yeah. Our most prolific song “Have Love Will Travel”; that was done in one take because we played it every night. The record company, who we laughingly referred to as “Cheap Screw Records”, they would ask us: “What do you want to do? Have Love? OK, Have Love, take one. OK Rob, put a sax solo in there. OK. Great.” Someone might say: “I wasn’t really happy with that take, can I do that again?” and the record company guy would say: “No, no, that’s fine, we gotta move on.” One take, that’s how it was made then. But for “This Is The Sonics”, we were mature and we were adults and we rehearsed and worked it out and brought in Jim, who was a lucky pick on our part. Jim is a Sonics producer; he understands our sound and really guided us. When you’re not playing night after night, you need that. He’d give us cues: “Play that like you are 17 again…play it nastier.” In my case I was doing the sax bit for “Bad Betty” and Jim interrupted me and suggesting: “Rob, play it like this”, and kind of sang it to me from the control room. And I said: “Sure Jim” but thinking: “This is ridiculous, I know how to play sax, but I’ll humor him.” But when he played it back to me later, I realized he was right.
AMG: Jim Diamond was a solid pick; given his career and his work with other bands he’s been involved with.
RL: Yeah, a quick anecdote; we go in with him to the studio; you know we recorded it at Soundhouse Recording in Seattle with Jack Endino (Nirvana, Mudhoney). We go in and set up and Jim is running around the studio going thru mics and he asks Jack if he has any more. Jack goes out and comes back with two big milk cartons filled with old mics covered in dust, cords dangling everywhere and Jim spends the next two hours going through the boxes selecting microphones: “Nope, nope, OK that’ll work.” He’s serious. He was definitely the right guy.
AMG: OK, so you guys went thru your early career and enjoyed some success in those years, but then life moved on and people got involved with family and careers. You became a Navy pilot and then a commercial pilot and everyone did their thing. Meanwhile we start moving into the 80’s and 90’s and there are just a bunch of bands covering your stuff, and a host of garage bands worldwide emerging who are obviously influenced by you. How aware were you guys that this was happening?
RL: We had no awareness at all that that was happening. None. We eventually found out of course. We had this promoter who had been bugging us for years to get involved with his festival “Cavestomp” and we kept telling him “Oh no, we don’t do that anymore, we’re not a band anymore I was woefully naive. I mean, I love music because it’s in my blood and I listen to it on the radio but I wasn’t playing it. Eventually we did Cavestomp in 2007 and then we started doing shows and going to Europe and even though we were starting to get out there, we didn’t know who anybody was. People would ask us: “Do you know The Cramps who played “Strychnine”? I didn’t know who they were. I didn’t know who the MC5 was and other bands. We really didn’t know; no idea or awareness. In New York back in 2007, we were approached by a guy from this magazine from Sweden and he told us: “Hey, there’s this rock and roll band from Sweden who are here and they were wondering if they could get their pictures taken with you. And we said: “Of course”. I get to chatting with one of the guys in the band and I’m figuring they must be some Swedish bar band so I ask him: “What’s the name of your little band” and he says “The Hives” very matter-of-factly. We chat some more and they were really nice guys very polite and humble. And I suggest that they keep in touch with us and we exchange emails. When I got home I was curious so I look on the internet to see if I could find out anything about them and I was completely embarrassed. I mean here they are opening up for The Rolling Stones and playing all these huge shows like Hyde Park in London. I really felt bad. Since that time we have become great friends with them. We get up and play with them or they’ll play with us. They’re a lot like us, a very powerful band, kindred spirits if you will. But it just shows you how out of touch we were.
AMG: What are the shows like today?
RL: Not much different from the old days. When you play with The Sonics, you can literally feel the stage moving. We’re a powerhouse band, and that’s what you’re gonna get when you come to a Sonics show. We’re a pretty active band onstage, definitely not wooden indians. We like to get out there and move around a lot and have fun. We’re not stupid, we’re not going to be hanging off of the rafters or anything, but there’s a lot of motion going on onstage and the crowd seems to respond to that. We still have 22 year olds singing along to “Psycho”.
AMG: What’s on the horizon for you guys?
RL: Well we have a bunch of shows coming up. We’re playing in my hometown, Charlotte, and then we’re off to Nashville for a big festival. Later in the summer, we’re doing a big boat thing with us, The Fleshtones and The Flat Duo Jets who we’re playing with this week. Their singer, Dex Romweber is a talented and noteworthy musician with a big following. We’re really looking forward to that. We’re also going to start working on a new album, again with Jim Diamond, we hope. And eventually we’ll tour to support that.
AMG: You guys seem to have come up with a rather unique retirement plan.
RL: (Laughs), we love what we’re doing; we have a lot of fun. We’re not faking it or mailing it in. What you see onstage is real. Someone asked me recently “Why are you playing rock and roll at your age and I told him “Because it’s the most fun I can have without getting in trouble with the cops”. We love doing it. When it quits being fun, we’ll quit doing it and that’s the truth. When that happens, The Sonics will ride off into the sunset; but I don’t see that happening anytime soon.
AMG: Any advice to the people of Atlanta who haven’t seen you before?
RL: I’ll say the same thing I said to a Chilean radio interviewer that asked us that question: Grab ahold of something solid, there’s gonna be an earthquake!
The Sonics will be performing at the Masquerade this Thursday, May 18th along with the Flat Duo Jets. For more details and ticket information visit – www.masqueradeatlanta.com.