It's 2018 and the Sonics are freakin' busy, more than 50 years after their first two albums paved the way for garage-rock and punk. Here Are the Sonics!!! and Boom slammed down a template for stripped-down attack that's proved to be vastly influential and enduring. The Sonics' originals and covers revved with a fiercely raunchy aggression; their primal garage-rock generated more power than most in the genre, thanks to Gerry Roslie's horripilating howls. People still care a lot about it more than five decades later.
After reforming in 2007 following a four-decade hiatus, the Sonics began playing shows and festivals, and then cut a better-than-expected comeback LP in 2015, the Jim Diamond-produced This Is the Sonics. This year they've toured Europe for five weeks and the reception was so positive they plan to return to that continent in October to play dates in Sweden, the Netherlands, and Germany, where they'll do a session for the renowned TV music program WDR Rockpalast. In September they're recording a new EP with Diamond and later this year the documentary Boom: A Film About the Sonics by Jordan Albertson is slated to hit the festival circuit in London, England on September 30.
The Sonic’s current lineup features original member Rob Lind (saxophone, harmonica, and vocals) and veteran Sonics drummer Dusty Watson; they're joined by two recent additions, guitarist Evan Foster (of Tacoma’s Boss Martians) and keyboardist Jake Cavaliere (of LA garage-psych band the Lords of Altamont), as well as bassist Don Wilhelm.
I caught up with Lind by phone to discuss the Sonics' revival, their new recordings, their storied past, that LCD Soundsystem song that name-checked them, and other topics in advance of the Sonics' Freakout Records-sponsored August 26 show at Tacoma's Alma Mater—the site of their weekly gigs at Carpenter's Hall in the '60s.
The Stranger: Talk about your new EP, if you could.
Rob Lind: Jim Diamond is producing—the producer we used on the last studio album, [This Is the Sonics]. We were so happy with what Jim did on that, we're bringing him back. It's a little tougher now because when we did that, Jim was living in Detroit, and he lives in France now. We look at each other and go, "How bad do we want him?" "Well, we want him real bad." "Well, I guess we better get him over here." So we're flying him to Seattle.
I liked what he did with the last record. It sounded really strong.
[Diamond] knew what he was talking about, and the first two albums, the people that know us, particularly in the Northwest, aren't familiar with. We didn't really have a producer. Kent Morrill and Buck Ormsby [of the Wailers] kind of ran things, but we really did what we wanted. Actually, what we did... You know, it sounds kind of funny when you think about how long Pearl Jam spends in the studio, and people like that.
[Lind recounts an anecdote about how in the mid '60s in the Seattle studio Commercial Recorders the Sonics mostly cut their songs in one take, including "Have Love, Will Travel," the track that's appeared in "the most movies and the most worldwide commercials and things."]
Yeah, so, on that last album, we did rehearse for a period of about a month, and then, we brought Jim over, and he came to our rehearsals with a legal pad and took notes. The last rehearsal, he said, "Okay, guys, here's the songs we're gonna do in the studio, and here's the songs we're not gonna do." We had never seen anybody with that kind of meticulousness.
We first went in the studio, put my sax together, like I was getting ready to play something. Oh, no, wrong! He started going through the studio, looking at microphones, and he didn't like any of them. So, he asked Jack Endino, whose studio it was up at Soundhouse, he said, "Jack, you got anymore mics?" And Jack said, "Well, yeah, I think I do, over at the house. Hold on, I'll be right back."
So, he runs across the alley to his house and comes back with a plastic milk carton, and it had all kinds of mics, and they're all covered with dust and cords... You can imagine how cords are hanging out over the side of the box. Jim goes, "Okay, cool." He picks up a mic and goes, "Nah, this ain't gonna work." Picks up another one, blows the dust off, "Oh, yeah, this'll be good! This one will work." We'd never seen anybody do that. So, it was a couple hours before we played the first note of music, the first day in the studio. So, yeah, [Diamond] knew his stuff.
What else did Jim Diamond bring to the recording sessions? Were there any like musical ideas, or was it just sort of a technical type of guidance?
Oh, no, no. Larry [Parypa] was getting a little bluesy on the guitar, and Jim was just driving him crazy. He'd keep saying, "Larry, be nasty. No, no, no, hold on!" And he'd go sit next to him in a folding chair and say, "Okay, what I wanna hear is nasty."
In my case, I think we were doing "Sugaree." We had the track down, and Freddie [Dennis] sang it. "Rob, go in there and play the sax part." So, I go in there and start playing the sax part, and he stopped me and said, "Hey, instead of doing what you're doing, try it doing it this other way. Accent this instead of what you're accenting." And I, being the team player that I am, I said, "Well, sure, Jim!" And I'm thinking to myself, "Bullshit, I'm the sax player! I know what I'm doing." But I did it his way. Then, I went into the control room, and I sat down and did playback, and shit, his way was better than mine. I told him, "God, Jim, you were right. I like that a lot better than what I was doing." He knows his stuff.
So much of the appeal of the Sonics' songs comes down to their ferocious, youthful energy and rage, however, does it ever get old or tedious playing these songs from the mid-60s while you yourself are in your 70s?
That's the death of a rock 'n’ roll musician, if you let yourself get into that. The way we played in the '60s is the way that we play now, and there are couple reasons for that.
There were a lot of bands, and we played with all of them: the Viceroys, the Dynamics, Springfield Rifle, and they were all really good musically. The sax players were all 10 times better than I was. Same with the guitar players. Larry Coryell was playing guitar in the Dynamics.
We kind of thought that swingy, shuffle-y stuff, that a lot of the Seattle bands were doing, we thought that was kind of lightweight. No slam on those guys, because those guys were all good friends of mine. Jim Valley was a real good friend of mine with the Viceroys. But we didn't like that stuff. We wanted to rock 'n' roll.
It's a question of the whole being better than the sum of the parts. When we would play together, something would happen. Larry was nasty and distorted on guitar, and I was trying to play sax the same way—dirty. Gerry [Roslie] was screaming his guts out and pounding on the keyboards, and Bob Bennett was, we used to call it "dropping sapes." We'd say, "Bobby Joe is sittin' back there droppin' sapes on the floor," 'cause that's what it felt like. He would just pound the crap out of it, and that's what we did. It wasn't as a result of any inner rage or teenage angst. We just wanted to play hard.
Then, what happened in '67, the Sonics broke up, and it wasn't one of those giving each other the middle finger, rock 'n' roll band breakups. The world kind of caught up with us.
I finished the University of Washington, I immediately got drafted, 'cause I was a private pilot, at the time. I was actually flying the Sonics around the Northwest, was easier than riding in somebody's car for 14 hours.
So, I went to the Navy, and I got picked up to be a Navy pilot. So, I left and went to Pensacola. Larry graduated. He was working for Safeco Insurance in their Fraud Claims Department at their headquarters. Bob moved to Hawaii. Jerry was doing a couple of little things. He played in a couple, little bar bands, but then he started a little asphalt paving business.
To make a long story short, we weren't playing through the '70s through the '90s. We didn't get polluted by any of that stuff, and I use the term laughingly. We were never out at the Holiday Inn, playing "Eye of the Tiger." We missed heavy metal and the giant white tennis shoes and spandex pants, and all that stuff. We're playing exactly the same way we did back in the '60s, 'cause we don't know anything better.
When those guys [in the Wailers] got older, like Rich Dangel, he got into Jazz, and they really got away from rock, and they really did damage to their sound. I've seen that happen before with other bands, and particularly other bands that come back after being off for 30 years. You get that thing in your head like, "Well, hell, man, I mean I'm way better than I used to be when I was 17. Screw that stuff. Let's play some blues." The next thing you know, nobody cares.
The Hives are real good friends of mine. Their first big monster hit was "Hate to Say I Told You So." They say, "I'm sick and tired of playing that every night, but the crowd expects it." So, while we recorded "The Witch," "Psycho," and "Strychnine" when we were 17, it was the same deal. We played that every night because people pay money to come hear it, and that's why we're there. So, we do that.
Do you feel like you've had to change how you play now due to the effects of aging, or do you still have the same lung power you did when you were much younger?
I feel a little bit of the effect of that sometimes. Particularly, my lung power is okay, but I kind of have to think ahead where I'm gonna take breaths in the middle of solos, and it works out fine. But I never had to do that when I was 17. I just blasted.
It's funny being in the Sonics. We'll play some great big, huge-ass show in Europe with thousands of people, and the next night, we'll be in some punk-rock club, and it gets to be about 120 degrees in there, and it's real hard to breathe. It's hard to breathe for everybody, particularly, for me, because I'm playing an instrument that takes lung power. There's little bit of a change that way. I compensate, like you compensate for everything as you get older, but it doesn't effect my sax-playing game.
Does it surprise you that the Sonics have had such durability?
Yes, it really does. We did those shows in New York, and then we went to London, and then we start playing all the way from the Arctic Circle, all the way down to Athens, Greece. I used to do interviews in 2008, 2009, 2010. People would say, "Hey, did you know that the Cramps did one of your songs?" I said, "No." Matter of fact, I didn't even know who the Cramps were. I didn't know who any of those people were!
I've always been a musician in my soul, and I listened to a lot of music when I was an airline pilot, but I wasn't playing anywhere. I had too many beers one time in the Philippines when I was over there with an aircraft carrier, in a bar with a bunch of my squatter mates. They all got drunk and went up to the band and said, "Hey, our buddy used to be in the Sonics. He plays sax. Can he play sax with you guys?" The young Filipino guys knew who the Sonics were! They said, "Oh, shit!”
Next thing I know, I've got a sax in my hands, and I'm standing on stage in this club. So, I played two or three songs with those guys, but that's the only playing that I did. So, when we got back together and started playing, I didn't know ... None of us did. We were naïve as hell. We didn't know who had been doing our songs. I had no idea. I had to admit that.
To what do you attribute fans' devotion to the band over the decades? Do you have any theories about that?
I'm not really sure that I can, although, the music that we played and that we play now is sort of elemental. It's just what I described to you when we didn't wanna be playing jazz back in the '60s. We just wanted to rock 'n' roll, and I think the honesty and the heart of what we were doing comes out of that. We didn't know how to fake it. We didn't know that you were supposed to rehearse, any of that stuff. So, it was just heartfelt and honest on our part, and I'm thinking maybe that translates to the music and the crowds. Because one of the things that's happened over the years is that our original fans all have gray hair or are bald and wearing Hawaiian shirts. We go play these shows, and it's all kids. It's all 20 year olds, college kids, and the love the music, which is gratifying, and really is why I still do it.
[Lind recounts here how at a festival in Finland, where few people speak English, the crowd sang along to the entirety of "Strychnine." The Hives' Nik Almqvist told Lind that Europeans know more about the Sonics than Americans do.]
It's like the audience is kind of like a big battery. They give us a lot of energy, and we, in turn, give it back, and it's kind of circular. So, I always have people telling me, "Gosh, it looks like you guys are having so much fun up on stage!" Well, it's not an act. We're not Paul Revere and The Raiders. If it looks like we're having a good time on stage, it's because we are. We enjoy it as much as the crowd does. As long as it's that way, I'll keep doing it until I have to go off stage with a walker, I guess.
Does it feel weird to be doing these songs without the guys with whom you were in the band while you were recording the first two albums? Are you the only member left from that lineup?
Yeah. I'm referred to as the OG Sonic by the guys. We did all that playing with Gerry and Larry, and Larry got to the point where he just didn't wanna leave Bellevue. He didn't wanna get on another airplane, didn't wanna see another hotel room, and that's what we do. We're a touring band, that's our life, and like I said, I'm getting ready to go back to Europe for another month.
Gerry was hanging in. He loved it. He loved performing, but he was aging, and he was getting really tired and not recovering well. We did a five-week tour of Europe, and it kicked my butt, and it really kicked Gerry's. When we got back, he called me up and said, "No, I can't do this anymore," and he said, "I'll work in the studio, and I'll write songs, but I can't go back on the tour bus. I just can't do it."
Have you heard the LCD Soundsystem song, "Losing My Edge"?
I have not, but I'm familiar with the band. I haven't heard that song.
Are you familiar with the lyrics, where he repeatedly shouts, "The Sonics?" You've not heard about that?
No, but on your say-so, I'll download it, and listen to it.
Yeah, check it out. "Losing My Edge" is a song about an aging hipster who talks about all his musical influences and formative experiences, and it's kind of like a laundry list of really crucial musicians. And at one point, he just shouts, "The Sonics" four times. You guys got like the biggest shout out in the whole song, so you should just consider it like free advertising. It was a cult hit in clubs, and so I'm sure there were people like, "Whoa, who are the Sonics? I guess we should check them out because LCD Soundsystem were hyping you." You should check it out.
I will. I appreciate you telling me that.
So, what are the new songs that you're gonna be recording? Are there any deviations from what people have heard by the Sonics, or is it gonna be just variations of what you've done so far?
We don't have the talent of Bruce Springsteen. I can't push the envelope and try something different. It'll be like that last album. We'll do mostly originals, with a couple of covers. Got a couple of originals. We're kind of negotiating with Eddie Vedder. He did a song with us live, and we may put that on the album. I've written a song. Evan has got one. I think they're both gonna work out. We've started redoing an original Sonics song that we haven't played for years. We never played it, and it's called, "I'm Going Home." "When I was a boy, I had a mind of my own," that song.
We played it live on our last European tour that ended last February, and the crowd loved it. Evan and I started trading licks on guitar and harp, and we had kind of a breakdown, and we built it up until it exploded. The crowd seemed to really like that song, so a couple of the guys are saying, "We should work on that in the studio. We should see how that comes across." We could try it. I don't know if the studio will make it less explosive than it is live.
Jake has written a song called, "Please Get Back in the Car." That's a real good Sonics song. The crowds like that. There's a part of the song where you have to shove your fist up in the air and yell, "hey," three times. I always tell people, "If you don't have a beer bottle, use your fist, but shove your beer bottle up in the air, and yell, hey!" The song is real popular, and it does good.
We always try to figure if we're gonna do a cover... We used to use the word "Sonicize." "Can we Sonicize that thing?" Like the last album, we did "Sugaree." We used to play that back in the '60s, and it had a riff. I thought that riff was dated, but I liked the song. So, we changed it and used chords instead of the riff, and that's the way it is on the album. We Sonicized it.
So, we're kind of looking at a couple of different, old songs. We started out looking at "Bye, Bye, Johnny," the Chuck Berry that the Stones did back in the '70s, but it doesn't really flow with what we do. So, I think we've kind of gotten off that. Another song that we're looking at is the old Ritchie Valens song, "Ooh! My Head," that Los Lobos did in La Bamba. We're looking at maybe doing that. That's in our wheelhouse.
The Sonics' US tour
Sun., Aug. 26 TACOMA, WA Alma Mater
Thur., Nov. 8 AUSTIN, TX The Parish
Fri., Nov. 9 FORT WORTH TX Ridglea Theater
Sat., Nov. 10 HOUSTON, TX White Oak Music Hall
Sat., Nov. 17 LOS ANGELES, CA The Echo (Power of the Riff Festival Opening Party)
Sun., Nov. 18 SAN FRANCISCO, CA The Independent