Interview

The Sonics

The Sonics

By Brannavan Gnanalingam

Friday, 30th March 2012 10:42AM

Well before Nirvana et al created this idea of Seattle being this raw and unhinged place for alternative music, a whole bunch of great bands from the ‘60s Northwest were setting up the template. Bands like the Kingsmen, The Wailers, and Paul Revere and the Raiders created raw, DIY, garage-based music. Arguably the greatest of all was the Sonics, one of the great bands from the ’60s. Punk before punk existed, with cracking singles such as ‘The Witch’, ‘Crazy’, and ‘Strychnine’. About to tour New Zealand for a show in Auckland on 18 April, I have a chat to vocalist Gerry Roslie.

Why music? What got you into music in the first place?

My parents made me take accordion lessons, and at first I thought it was a good idea. After about three years, I had a real rough instructor so I quit that. I got interested in music when rock n roll came out, and in the school I went to, they had pianos in a couple of rooms so during lunch, me and a couple of other guys would go in there and play, and try and play on the piano. We thought ‘we should start a band’, and we did.

Did you imagine you’d still be doing music now?

Not really, no. No I thought I would never play in the Sonics. I thought I might play when I was real old at someone’s wedding. But, no, this is a surprise.

How did you end up being in the Sonics?

Let’s see, somebody told me that they were looking for a singer. They had one, but I guess he didn’t show up enough. So I thought ‘ok’. I called them and said, ‘I heard you’re looking for a singer’. ‘Yeah?’ So I went and auditioned and they liked it. And then they said, ‘do you know anyone who plays the saxophone? We were thinking about getting another player.’ ‘Yeah I do, a friend of mine. Which turned out to be Rob [Lind] in the Sonics.’ And then they said, ‘well do you know a drummer?’ And I said, ‘yeah another friend of mine’, so I got Bob Bennett in the band.

Did you feel like you were being revolutionary at the time, or were you just making music and that was what came out?

It’s kinda what came out. I know, myself, I liked more aggressive music than more bands were playing. I didn’t know what to play like, I was just ‘give it all you’ve got, tear it up and do something like Elvis Presley.’ He was just into it, 100%, giving it all – Jerry Lee Lewis, those kind of people, I really liked. They didn’t hold anything back, and let you have it.

It sounded like you guys were heavily influenced by soul and early R&B – was it something about the rawness of that music that you carried into yours?

Yeah I liked it. I really liked it. I liked the fact most soul groups were really pushing it, giving it they all, chomping on it. It feels good, it was feel-good music rather than just fancy music all over the place.

I always loved what the Sonics did with the saxophone, it sounds so raw and so menacing an instrument, and had it as a starring role – was that a plan, or did it just happen?

We wanted that. We wanted the variety of guitar and sax and keyboard. The three lead instruments.

Did you have any expectations with ‘The Witch’ being the first single?

We didn’t know what would happen What happened wasn’t due to us so much. One of the main disc jockeys in Seattle at one of the big stations, went down to a high school in Tacoma, Washington and played records for the kids. He started playing records, and kids would keep on coming up to him with this record and saying, ‘would you play this? Would you play this? It’s ‘The Witch’ by the Sonics’. And he was, ‘yeah sure, ok’. He played it, and he said they kept asking for it the whole evening. He went back and told the radio station and he called us up and said, ‘you guys want to do some concerts for me’. And we said, ‘you sure betcha’. So we did. We got up there, and he was a big promoter, and we were on shows through him with the Beach Boys, and the Righteous Brothers, and a whole bunch of good people.

Did you end up blowing those guys off the stage when you played with them?

Well, they really liked it. We could tell that. And somebody said, oh heck, I don’t know if it’s true, but someone said the next group after us said, ‘the kids kept yelling, we want the Sonics back, bring back the Sonics’. I never heard that, of course, I was in the dressing room by then.

For your first album, Here Are the Sonics (1965), albums were conceived of differently to the way they were after the Beatles/Beach Boys etc. and the way they are now. Did you plan much with the album, or in the way that we might conceive of an album now?

It just seemed like the thing to do, we just did it and see what happened. ‘The Witch’ was the first song I ever wrote, and the first song that I recorded. It was a whole new experience.

The recording still sounds great, did you expect it still to sound so raw and live?

We knew we were not going to hold back nothing. We just thought, ‘well, we should just put it all on the line.’ People might say ‘well, they’re crazy’. Some radio stations couldn’t play that kind of music, because it wasn’t encouraged. They were playing stuff from the Roaring ‘20s, polka or whatever.

How shocking were songs like ‘Psycho’ or ‘Strychnine’ back in 1965?

Shocking? Yeah. It was. [laughs] In fact, we were asked to do this TV programme with bands coming out and doing one song, and we were doing a show in the Cleveland, Pittsburgh area. On the show was Jackie Wilson and Bob Seger and people like that. They wanted to see how we sounded [before]. We played ‘The Witch’. The director looked at me and said, ‘do you have to be so barbaric?’ ‘I don’t know, I’m just doing what I do’. I’ll never forget that.

You guys were also called the first punk band – is that a label you’re comfortable with?

Yeah, there’s a lot of different terms now, but back then, it was just ‘rock n roll’. We didn’t have all of the metal stuff, speed metal etc.; we didn’t have those terms. It was just rock.

How gratifying has it been knowing that stuff you did back in the ‘60s has had this huge influence on bands from the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, even today?

Yeah, it’s really gratifying. I feel really good that at least I’ve done something that somebody else likes that long ago. It’s almost unbelievable.

There are so many covers of your music – do you have any favourites?

Have you heard of this group Heart? Two girls and their band. They put ‘The Witch’ on one of their live albums, and I thought that was pretty cool. They are good. That was real good. At the top of my head, I can’t think of any covers that come right to mind that were really good.

Why did you guys make the decision to come back together in 2007? You obviously reunited in 1972?

Just for 3 songs. Just a little bit, we weren’t really together and we got on stage for 3 songs.

What was it like to play together again?

It was scary. A guy kept asking us to play, ‘will you play at Cavestomp [Garage Rock Festival] in New York.’ Finally we said, ‘well, we can’t tell you we’ll play. We will practise some and see if we can do that. A month before the gig, we said, ‘yeah ok, after months of practice we think we can do it’. When we went to New York, we looked at our audience and thought, ‘that’s the same age group we played for 50 years ago’. I’m not kidding. They were teenagers, mostly young people and we thought ‘holy cow’. They started right away singing with us, they knew the words and everything. They were jumping off the stage and doing the mosh pit, we thought, ‘holy crap’.

What’s the plan for you guys now?

We want to make another album, that’s got more songs and more originals. That’s the medium term. We’re going to Japan. We get on an airplane, and we just keep on keep on going. Just ride the wave.

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The Sonics play Auckland on April 18th - click here to secure your tickets!

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