The story of Tacoma, Washington, band The Sonics is one that needs a little untangling, but is ultimately worth the effort because of the fact that, in a very short space of time, the garage rock band managed to have a massive influence on rock ’n’ roll.
The Sonics formed in 1960 when they were teenagers, and put out two much-loved albums: 1965’s Here Are the Sonics and 1966’s Boom. From the point of that sophomore album’s release, The Sonics was already starting to tread water, with members falling out. The poorly received Introducing the Sonics came out in 1967, part-compilation, part-new album, but by 1968, it was all over. Lead vocalist and organist Gerry Roslie confused fans but putting out Sinderella in 1980 with a whole other set of musicians, which was bad but not as rotten as the fact that a version of the Sonics featuring zero original members had been playing the circuit in the ’70s, and the return of Roslie put an end to that. Thankfully, the Sonics name was put to rest after Sinderella, until the mid 2000’s.
“We were offered two shows in November of 2007 in New York City, and we had to see if we would be capable of doing those because we hadn’t played in so long,” says saxophonist Rob Lind. “Fast-forward, we did the shows and went home on a Sunday. On Wednesday we got a call from London saying, please come over — we’ve got two sold-out shows for you. We were up and running at that point.”
But there’s a massive life-gap that needs filling. Lind had joined the Navy as a pilot in the ’60s, just in time for Vietnam and, when the war ended, he became an airline pilot. He had a full 25-year career away from music, and he was as surprised as anyone when the Sonics was waiting for him at the other end.
“I’m an airline pilot, and a very naive one,” Lind says. “None of us knew anything. We didn’t know who’d been playing our stuff. We didn’t even know who the people were who’d been playing our stuff. People would mention the MC5, and I didn’t know who it was. Iggy & the Stooges — I didn’t know who that was.”
Similarly, guitarist Larry Parypa went away and had a career in insurance for a few decades. But while the guys were living a normal life, the music of the Sonics was continuing to have a big impact. Nirvana, The White Stripes, The Cramps, The Fall, The Flaming Lips, The Hives — all either covered a Sonics song or publicly cited them as an influence. Grunge, and the 1990’s garage rock scene, all were tipping their hat to this ‘60s band, but the members had no idea. Eventually, following that 2007 reunion, they caught on and, when the time came to record a new album, 2015’s This is the Sonics, the obvious choice for producer was Detroit garage Godfather Jim Diamond, who has worked with The White Stripes, The Dirtbombs, The Go, The Electric Six, and many more.
“He had the focus,” says Lind. “Anytime you get five musicians in a room, it’s like trying to herd cats. He kept the reigns on everybody, and kept us pointed in the right direction. So I’m really happy with the outcome of the album. I Googled Jim and looked up his history a little bit. But getting a comment from somebody else and then reading dry words on Google are far different than walking into a room and meeting the guy. When I walked into the room, I liked him immediately and so did the rest of the guys. I’m in the planning stages for another album and I’ve already put Jim on alert. Based on working with him, and what I saw on that last album, I wouldn’t think of working with anybody else.”
That new record took the world by surprise a little bit, because it really is a triumph. These guys were flying planes and selling insurance for years, and then they fell back into raw and uncompromising rock ’n’ roll like they’d never been out of it. That’s flabbergasting — how does someone fall in and out of the mainstream like that? After all, Lind had spent the intervening years listening to The Eagles, the Doobie Brothers, and Bob Seger.
“One of the first things Jim Diamond said was, ‘I want to capture the fire and energy of those first two albums without copying them too blatantly’,” Lind says. “I think that he achieved that. You listen to those first two albums, and for the time they’re pretty good and they’ve been good to us over the years, in terms of reviews. This album is the same type of material. None of us are jazz musicians. We’re Sonics rock ’n’ roll musicians — that’s what we do. But I think we improved musically a little bit over the years.”
One thing that seems certain is that there won’t be 40 years between (genuine) Sonics albums this time. Lind and the band are already working on new material and, while Roslie and Parypa have had to ease up on the touring (with Jake Cavaliere of the Lords of Altamont and Evan Foster of the Boss Martians helping out), they are still working on the records. The lyrical subject matter hasn’t changed much over the years, though Lind admits that, deep into his 60’s and happily married, he feels a bit weird singing about cars and girls. The guys have to balance aging gracefully with retaining the wildfire, and they’ve managed to do exactly that so far. The new album will likely be more of the same.
“I need a gap of a couple of months to do some fine tune rehearsing, get Jim over from France, and do the same thing we did before — get into the studio and knock it out,” Lind says. “We’ve got a song called ‘Leaving Here’ that Eddie Vedder sang. We’ve been contemplating including that. We’ve been talking to Pelle Almqvist, who sings for The Hives, to see if he’d like to guest on the album. So there are a lot of balls in the air right now. The Sonics do a mix of originals and covers, so I’m always looking for obscure songs from years that we can go bend to our music, what we call ‘Sonicize’ the song.”
So that’s The Sonics 2017. The guys are a little older, and some of them can’t hit the road as hard as they used to, so the band adapts and brings in help. They can’t sit in a van for a month without sleep, so they use a tour bus. These are normal things that humans have to deal with. But still, when the Sonics get up on stage, all of the guys, Lind included, are kids again.
“Like any good rock ’n’ roll band that cares, we don’t vary our performance,” Lind says. “We’ve played for 25,000 people and we’ve played for 200 people. We’d do the same thing if there were three people out there. We’re gonna go out there balls-to-the-wall and tear it up. What is different is the lead-up to playing the show. With the tour bus, we can catch up on sleep during the day.”
The Sonics play as hard as they ever did but, perhaps as a consequence or perhaps as a blessing, they don’t have any energy left for shenanigans after the gig. They’re leaving everything they have on stage.
“Younger people think we go out and party with women all night,” Lind says. “We’re all married, we love our wives and we don’t cheat on them. We get to the hotel as fast as we can after the shows, and walk through the shower before bed.”
The Sonics play with the Avengers on Sunday, May 28 at the Observatory; 3503 S. Harbor Blvd.