Sonny and the Sunsets Take New York (State) with Performances in Brooklyn and Buffalo
Sonny and the Sunsets is helmed by frontman Sonny Smith along with a rotating cast of Sunsets that provide instrumentation, background and supporting vocals, and the quippy dialogue that has been standard for the group since its inception. Their latest album, Talent Night at the Ashram (2015, Polyvinyl), is an exercise in discovering the innately human through humor and shared experiences. Song subjects range from filling out applications (“to be a human being…Please don’t write in red ink on my application baby”) to encounters with alien cyborg women and everything in between. They bring their infectious music and performance style to Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right on July 22nd and to Buffalo, NY’s, Mohawk Place on July 24th.
The music the band makes is the best combination of catchy, complex instrumentation, wry, insightful lyrics, and a pace that’s all its own. Sonny’s California roots flavor every song with a sense of ease — a feeling that no matter how many alien women kidnap you, you should probably still go with the flow. That isn’t to say that the music is at all like that of a jam band; rather, it’s tightly composed, unified, and expressive without ever being over the top. The style hearkens back to the best beach bonfires you imagined attending in the 1960’s, infused with an electric element of pure, groovy rock. It all comes together with Sonny’s often hilarious songwriting, which is effortlessly humorous and filled with compassion simultaneously (“Happy Carrot Health Food Store” includes an interlude of heartfelt dialogue between Sonny and a dog). Never afraid to poke fun at himself (or his characters), Sonny’s lyrics manage to bridge the gap between audience and performer through the hilarity and the vulnerability of humanness itself.
If you haven’t seen Sonny and the Sunsets perform — or even if you have — you’re in for an incredible evening. The treat is even sweeter when you realize that they don’t get to the East Coast nearly often enough. Grab the opportunity to see them in action — it’s guaranteed to be one of the best shows you’ll go to this year.
To give you a sense of what you’re in for, I spoke with Sonny about his songwriting process, his influences, and his favorite nightmares.
Ali: One reason I love your music is that there’s so much humor in it. Has writing humorous songs (or stories, etc) always been your thing? What are some of the challenges you’ve faced with this, or has the expression and delivery of humor always just come naturally?
Sonny: I don’t know exactly the answer. I think Raymond Carver stories are funny, personally. But I don’t think of him as a humorist or trying to be funny. Harry Crews is funny to me. But it’s a different kind of funny then say Kurt Vonnegut who always strove to be funny. It’s more about taking absurdity a little bit more seriously, and I would say I strive for that.
Ali: You also seem to pull so much inspiration from your own experiences. Can your share one experience (particularly special or strange) that you used for the newest album?
Sonny: The whole conversation with the miniature ex-girlfriend in the beer glass who speaks through the mouth of a dog is a true story and it wrote itself.
Ali: What’s the significance of the album title?
Sonny: I bend towards titles like that, Tomorrow is Alright, Antenna to the Afterworld, Talent Night at the Ashram. I just like those kinda titles. A friend of mine was telling me about the talent nights at her ashram when she was younger and lived at an ashram in India. The phrase came out of her mouth, I just made it a title.
Ali: The stories you tell in your songs are often filtered through several layers of beautiful wackiness. How do you decide what lens or genre you share through (or does the lens come first in the process)? For example, several of your songs have a very strong SF flavor.
Sonny: Nothing is decided like that before hand , there’s no conversation about lenses or filters or genres or anything like that. I think there may be artists like that, and they are probably terrible.
You just make stuff, and after a while it comes into focus a bit and you run with it.
Ali: What or who are some of your biggest influences? Music, but also art, literature, film, etc?
Sonny: Gus van Zandt, Spike Lee, the earliest movies of these two have always inspired…There has always been post-punk stuff, like the Minutemen , Hüsker Dü, they have been longtime inspirations. The list never really ends but those are some consistent ones.
Ali: What mood or vibe do you try to create in your performances?
Sonny: I don’t know, just try to be me. Try to keep the energy up, make us all feel like we’re doing something together.
Ali: You’re clearly at the center of Sonny and the Sunsets, but so many of the songs have dialogue between you and the Sunsets. What does dialogue bring to your songs? How does it come into the writing process?
Sonny: I write a lot of dialogue apart from songwriting, so it’s just sitting around in notebooks, maybe it’s in comic book form or in script form, just little snippets. Then sometimes a song comes along and it’s just very open to that, I can practically just paste it in.
Ali: How would you describe the music you make?
Sonny: Well , I wouldn’t want to try really…
Ali: What’s next for you? More touring, recording, etc? Anything particularly exciting on the horizon?
Sonny: Making the next record , it’s almost done , it’s a lot different then anything we’ve done , so it’s been exciting and occupying my thoughts.
Ali: What was the last really juicy dream (or nightmare) you had?
Sonny: Last night it was myself and three other men, all unfamiliar to me. We were soldiers, I would say we were in World War 2 , judging by the uniforms. We were sleeping in some kind of abandoned cafe, with cots in it. In the middle of the night four women — four vampire women ghost types — descended on us and began giving each solider a blowjob. it was quite scary, not exactly sexy. I was trying to sit up, trying to see the other guys, who were all trapped as well by these vampire sirens.
When I was able to get free , I went over to a jukebox in the corner. Instead of playing a song, I opened it, and inside it was some kind of confidential military paperwork. I felt there was no doubt this paperwork contained the reason we had been stationed at this mysterious abandoned cafe for the night.
The Brooklyn show, happening this Wednesday, July 22, at Baby’s All Right, starts at 8 pm with Sarah Bethe Nelson opening. Tickets are $13 in advance, $15 at the door. Sonny and the Sunsets and Sarah Bethe Nelson are in Buffalo at Mohawk Place on Friday, July 24, at 9 pm. This show is a steal at $10. Get you some Sonny and the Sunsets. You won’t regret it.