Sonny Smith is a renaissance man.
Though his band Sonny and the Sunsets has gained recent popularity with last
year’s release of Tomorrow is Alright, their debut full-length for Soft Abuse,
he’s been on the scene (and various other scenes) forever.
He’s a filmmaker,
playwright and artist. He’s been making music solo, and taking it around the
world, since he was 18. He’s got big ideas; a recent project, titled 100
Records, commissioned 100 artists to design 7” covers for 100 fictional bands
he made up and wrote 100 songs for. He acts, sings beautifully, and has
collaborated with the likes of Wilco’s Leroy Bach, Miranda July, Neko Case and
John Dwyer. With Sonny and the Sunsets, Sonny created the natural result of years
of touring and songwriting: a beautiful, complete album. His band includes
members of Citay, The Dry Spells and The Fresh and Onlys. Together, they make
All this work and travel makes for a
wise, interesting guy. Sonny’s easy to talk to, funny to boot, and recalled
some great stories below. I got the chance to catch him at Pitchfork Music
Festival, where he wowed an impressively-sized crowd that were just as into the
performance as he was. Here’s why his music works so well: his tunes are tinged
with the wisdom of age and his voice rings through with all the youth of a
dreamer, making for a powerful juxtaposition – and really powerful music.
So how’s it going, how was your set today?
It was really good, felt really good. Proud of ourselves…
we didn’t mess up too bad.
How does this show compare to your more recent summer
We played a few days ago at this little club in San
Francisco, we have a home club called Amnesia we love to play at. It’s like our
own little home place, it’s our favorite little club we play when we’re there.
What’s the biggest show you’ve ever played?
This might be it. I remember opening for Neko Case once
at the Vancouver Jazz Festival or something like that, and it was a pretty
In general, do you prefer smaller venues as opposed to
huge shows or festivals?
maybe I haven’t felt the full ego-surge of thousands of people knowing your
music, or something… maybe that might sway somebody to want to play stadiums,
but it just seems like the little clubs are the most fun.
Do you guys play a lot of house shows?
I haven’t in the last year or so, but I always have.
Besides the Sunsets I really like to do solo stuff, folk songs and stuff.
Sometimes the house shows at buddies’ houses and stuff like that are the best,
the absolute best for that. As a band, I would say no, but me, I would say yes,
I do that a lot.
Got any good stories from house shows?
There seem to be a lot. In recent memory… last year I was
in Alaska and I was playing in this little town, Hanes, Alaska. It was just
this little bar in a very small town, and people were just going crazy for
music, and I was just solo and I got this drummer from another band and this
bass player, and we just kind of played. They didn’t know any of my songs so we
just played in E, kind of rockabilly jams, and people danced for 2 hours. Then
it was 1(a.m.) when we were done, and we were having beers, and I noticed that nobody
was leaving the bar, and I was like oh, this is weird, then it was like 2(a.m.), I
was like, what time does this bar close? And they said six… Nobody was leaving
‘cause it was still daylight, so we played another set from 3-4, and then we
played another set from 5-6, so it’s just like… this is the best gig I’ve ever
played. I didn’t play any of my songs, we just played in E for 3 two hour sets.
That’s pretty sick.
It is, that was the best.
Especially because, well, I don’t know what the music
scene’s like in Alaska, is Hanes just a small town, or is it a suburb of a
It was a small town, Hanes, it’s a beautiful town… but it
was an interesting town because they had told the tourist boats to shove it,
they said don’t come here. Their economy was depressed. So they didn’t have much
infrastructure. It was a very quiet town. But maybe the same personality that
told the tourist boats to take a hike was out that night. It was a cool town.
Where do you guys tour most, are there any spots you hit
We just go up and down the west coast mostly, every year,
sometimes twice a year. You go into Portland a lot, Seattle, Los Angeles, Big
Sur… just a coast kind of thing. If we were a bigger band maybe we’d be doing
nationwide tours all the time. It’s what I’ve known. I don’t really have too much to compare it to.
I’ve done other tours, but those have proved to be the most fun. Visit friends,
you know people, you got to the beach along the way, you
go swimming… it’s a good way to live.
Did you grow up in California?
I did, San Francisco.
Do you think if you’d lived in Idaho, would that have
your music much different? Would you be making music?
Probably… I went to Colorado when I was 17, that’s really
where I started playing music anyway, so that’s really a not-so-obvious place
to be a musician and play music. It’s more typical to go from Colorado to New
York or San Francisco or something if you’re trying to be in bands, so I can’t
say it wouldn’t have happened if I’d been somewhere more typical. I’m sure the
West Coast has shaped something for us.
Colorado itself seems like such a cool state, I’ve never
I was in Gunnison first, then Denver… I really liked
Denver, actually, I had sort of a romantic affinity with it. I kind of thought
of it as a beatnik, beat kind of town, I was young and into that sort of thing.
I liked its sort of downtroddenness, and its, you know- you go to LA and New
York and it’s all obvious, you’re also paying for some Vice Magazine shit or
something, I dunno. You go to some real city that isn’t hip, like Denver,
Baltimore, it’s a little more interesting and fun. Denver’s an interesting
town. I lived in the beat up part of the downtown area, I dunno if it’s even
still there. It was the last of a skid-row dive bars kind of feeling.
Any stories from Denver?
I used to pay at this bar, I think it’s since been closed
down, but it was called Muddy Waters. It was a coffee shop after hours type of
place, stayed open ‘till four in the morning, and I would play the piano at it – I
would play these sets, really late night sets, and I remember showing up once
and there was like 15 cop cars there, and I was like, what’s going on? And the
doorman had beat the shit out of somebody with a baseball bat. A week later it
was sold and it had been turned into a Denny’s, and it was gone. It was like,
wow, that’s the fastest gig I’ve ever lost in my life. I showed up a week
later, it’s like, it wasn’t there.
It’s a Denny’s.
Right. It was like, wow.
I wonder what somebody did to piss him off enough to get
him to beat them up with a baseball bat.
I never knew. I dunno what the story was, but it was kind
of- it kind of sums up Denver for me, tough and mysterious and weird.
Like David Lynch stuff.
Kind of, yeah.
Are you guys staying for tomorrow?
No, I’m flying out tonight for Alaska, going back to
Are there any acts you’re gonna see tonight?
Well, I dunno, I think I’m going to see Cap’n Jazz
tonight, but they’re not at the festival. They’re some after party.
That’s like a reunion tour, that’s huge.
It’s huge, yeah, that’s what I’m lined up to do.
Are you familiar with Panda Bear, LCD Soundsystem, the
I’ve heard LCD Soundsystem ‘cause they’re everywhere now,
they fucking blew up huge in the last 3 months or something.
They’re managed by William Morris Entertainment. It’s
like, they also probably manage Lady Gaga or whatever. He’s great, but yeah,
Ahh, makes sense. I dunno. I’m not too- you know what,
dirty secret, I don’t really keep up on current music.
Sometimes I feel like with artists I interview, when
they say “I don’t listen to recent music, I listen to the stuff I fell in love
with and grew up with,” that’s real to me. I’m gonna be listening to the shit I
was listening to when I was 13 for the rest of my life. Not that I won’t fall
in love with new bands.
Sometimes it’s easier to go back to your old staples,
maybe, your old… you know what you like.
What are your old staples?
Oh, I just go through my little phases, I was just
listening to the Clash again, like I haven’t given a good listen to the Clash
for the last 5 years and then I was like, “oh my god, the best band ever!” So I
just had a little two month love affair with the Clash, I’ll be like, “we’re just
gonna cover the Clash from now on, no more of our own songs, we’re just gonna
spiral out and be done this year, but it’s gonna be great ‘cause we’re just
gonna play Police and Thieves for 20 minutes… and then that’ll pass and
somebody’ll be telling me about William Harrison or whatever, I’ll be like, “oh
yeah!” and I’ll listen to William Harrison for a month and be like, “this is the
greatest guy ever! We’re just gonna play all William Harrison songs and it’s
gonna be great!” Then that’ll pass then I’ll hear the Kinks in some movie
soundtrack and be like, “what the… I forgot all about the Kinks!” you know, and
I never get around to being like “Panda Bear? I better check these guys out.”
The Kinks, I just bought State of Confusion on vinyl.
It’s hard to really argue with that music even though
it’s coming up on 50 years old.
It’s kind of crazy to think that it’s even-
Half a century old?
Do you know The Raspberries?
Yeah, I have some of their stuff on my iTunes, I’ve never
been a crazy Raspberries fan though. I think the Zombies are something, you
know, you know they’re there, you know they’re great, but for some reason you
haven’t had the Zombies box set or whatever. I had a Violent Femmes resurgence,
I found a Violent Femmes mixtape or something, it was like what the hell! Why
doesn’t everyone sound like this?! Ridiculous!
I think the best way for a band to spiral out would be
if you decided to only cover the Clash or William Harrison, every single show.
People would be like, “cool, they just played the Clash,
that was great,” then the second time, the third time, then like the eighth
time, you’d be like, they’re done!
Your publicist’s on the phone, like, “what the hell are
Anything you wanna say about Pitchfork?
Thanks for bringing me here, people.
Coming back next year?
Yeah, I’m headlining. Little deal I worked
out with Pitchfork, the William Morris agency, and… me. We met at the bar last