The Sonics: When old is new again
The Sonics, a group who brought “intentional rawness, danger, irreverence, screaming and a preference for live over studio-sculpted sound to mid-60s rock and roll,” as it’s put in a press release, had a huge influence on popular music and played a proto version of what would come to be known as garage rock. The group reunited in 2007 to play the Cavestomp! festival and has been busy ever since. This year, some 50 years since the release of their debut, they issued This Is the Sonics, their first proper studio album in decades. Recorded in mono by Jim Diamond (White Stripes), the album still retains that raw power for which the band is known. Founding guitarist Larry Parypa spoke to us via phone from his Bellevue.
Do you think of yourselves as the first punk and/or garage band?
I don’t know. When we first got together, we just played to our capacity, which wasn’t all that great in terms of our musicianship. We all wanted to be aggressive. Later on, people put a term on it.
Did you have a sense that you were doing something different?
Yeah, but it was almost the opposite of what you think. Gerry [Roslie] and I always felt like we weren’t legitimate because we couldn’t play the tricky things that other people could play. We couldn’t play the rhythm and blues the way it should feel. We were doing things that nobody was doing back then. We had really loud drums. Back then, you didn’t have microphones in front of your drums. If you wanted to be loud, you had to hit them loud. I don’t remember anyone screaming like Gerry. We would do a minor chord progression whereas most people were doing major chord progressions. We were doing 1, 3,4 instead of 1,4,5 on most songs. It was different. When we played with the local bands who had top notch musicians with horns and everything else, we felt we couldn’t compete.
Did you have musical influences pushing you in this direction?
No. Freddie King had an album out that was popular in the Northwest. We used to play his instrumental songs but it didn’t sound like what we were doing. We played some instrumentals by the Wailers but they didn’t sound like we did either. Little Richard and people like that had an influence but we didn’t do it the way they did it either.
What was going on in Tacoma when the band formed there?
It was different from Seattle. It’s like comparing Liverpool with London. It was more blue collar and in your face down there. In Seattle, there were bands with horns and great guitar players. We approached it differently. Even the Ventures, though they weren’t the same style as us, they were from Tacoma too. They did most of their performances in Japan. I heard they sold 90 million albums in Japan over a period of about 40 years.
Were you unhappy with 1967’s Introducing the Sonics and did that album cause the band to split up?
It’s a piece of garbage but that didn’t make the band break up. It was just a symptom. We weren’t into it anymore. You can tell by that album. We changed labels and knew we had to go to Los Angeles to do an album. We didn’t exercise due diligence. We didn’t learn any songs until we got there and then we did a half-baked job at it. Larry Levine, the producer, didn’t know anything about how to create distortion, which is what we were searching for. The album is still out there but we wish it wasn’t.
Talk about the decision to come out of retirement and play Cavestomp! in 2007.
The promoter Jon Weiss used to call me and ask if we would consider reforming again and playing a show or two. We would always say no because that was another part of our lives and we didn’t want to do that anymore. He called in 2007 and, for whatever reason, I decided to talk to the other guys. Gerry and Rod came up to my house. We had to relearn everything. We told Jon we’d do some rehearsing together and would let him know by September if we could do it. It was a close call. When that time came, we told him we’d do it. It stemmed from that.
How’d you end up befriending the guys in the Hives?
They were doing a tour and were going to play Los Angeles the night or so after Cavestomp! and they hopped on a plane and flew to New York just to see us.
Did it surprise you to learn how popular the band was in the UK?
The whole thing was surprising. We had no idea that anyone gave a damn about this old band called the Sonics. We heard that bands were influenced by it and they incorporated our style into theirs. We started seeing magazine articles. We had no clue that had taken place during the 30 years.
What were you doing?
We all had corporate-type jobs.
Talk about the new album and what it was like working with Jim Diamond.
He seemed to have a good idea of what he wanted. Everyone has their own opinion. There are things I would have done differently and maybe they would have been a failure, I don’t know. But in terms of mixing. He was good at capturing the raw sound. We didn’t go in fully rehearsed. We didn’t know what songs we were going to record. Some we decided to do right there and did our version of a cover song. A couple of others we wrote. It was a process. It was real basic and real unprocessed.
His studio is in Detroit?
Yeah, but he came out to Seattle to do the engineering and took the tapes back to Detroit for the final mix and all that stuff.
What made you want to record in mono?
That’s how we recorded back in the old days. Our first record was only a single track which we cut at a recording studio at the radio station. That’s what we did at first and then we then went to two tracks. He went with that. It’s a real rough cut.
Is “Bad Betty” inspired by someone in particular?
Not much of a story. Someone brought it into the house here as a song we should finish up writing and then record. That’s what we did. We did 14 songs in just two weekends. There wasn’t much time to do a whole lot.
How does the current live show compare with the live show from the ‘60s?
Technology has changed so much. Back then, we would get on stage and you didn’t have offstage mixing. You mixed your own songs yourself. We had a four-channel PA amplifier. It had four microphone inputs. It was a master tone control. They didn’t have distortion units and things like that. If I wanted distortion, I had to turn everything to ten. That also puts limits on what you can do. The technology changed everything. It felt like old home week getting back on stage again.
It sounds like the band is in a good place.
We’re playing far more than we did back then. We were a Northwest band playing dance halls. They could hold 800 people, all paying a dollar apiece to get in. There must be more people who are aware of the Sonics. There is a radio station KEXP and they had to move studios and so a local record company Easy Street Records and Eddie Vedder approach us about doing a performance. We had a week to prepare the whole thing. It wasn’t advertised. We had guys from Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Screaming Trees and Presidents of the USA playing with us. It was a neat thing. That helps make sure the name is broadcast more than it ever was.
How much longer do you see yourselves doing this?
That’s always the question. Some of the guys are 71 years old or almost 72. It’s almost laughable. A bunch of old codgers up there trying to play rock ‘n’ roll. Who knows? I ask myself if I could do it at 80. That would be really funny. If I saw that ad that there was a group playing in town [with members in their] 80s, would I go? Maybe I would want to see if they could even do it. That would be fun to watch.
Upcoming 2015 Shows
Cleveland, OH at the Beachland Ballroom
Dallas, TX at the Texas Theater
Austin, TX at Red 7 (Outside)
Denver, CO at the Summit Music Hall
Atlanta, GA at Earl
Kansas City, MO at Knuckleheads Saloon
Portland, OR at The Star Theater
Vancouver, BC at Venue
Wakefield, UK at Unity Works
Manchester, UK at HMV-Ritz
Dumfries & Galloway, UK at the Wickerman Festival
Norwich, UK at The Waterfront
Birmingham, UK at HMV-Institute
Bristol, UK at the O2 Academy
London, UK at the HMV-Forum
Mundaka, ES at the Mundaka Music & Food Festival
Binic, FR at the Binic Folks Blues Festival
Zurich, CH at Rote Fabrik Ziegel oh Lac
Castelbuono, IT at the Ypsigrock Festival