The Sonics

Never meet your idols. Something that’s been said by me (or to me) so many times in my urban second life that it’s beginning to sound like a bile-producing cliché. I’ve listened to local, professional defencemen crassly put down the quality of women in my city, I’ve nearly got in a fist fight with a certain action star’s famous “Entourage” and I’ve seen a “black eyed” rap (or “rap”) star pass out in his own throw up. In hindsight, none of these people were MY idols, they were yours, or at least they were the idols of the people whose bubbles I was respectively trying to burst. I don’t know why I wanted to squash your hero worship, maybe I should work for TMZ, or maybe I should just be less of a dick and stop trying to blatantly make the world’s opinion follow mine. As far as MY idols go, they’ve all pretty much been cordial, cool and competent, and the reunited Sonics will probably end up being ranked number one in all three categories.

Interviewing an older artist has its overwhelming benefits. The artist rarely puts on a façade of too-cool-for-Christmas, and has no problem outing the hijinx of artists of the same era. Interviewing five of them at the same time is five times more candid. “Well we could’ve done it like Pat Boone or something…” quips frontman Gerry Roslie when I ask him about his dark-themed lyrics a few hours before their show at Toronto’s North By Northeast festival.

 

The band functions like a group of friends from a golden era Hollywood flick. Gerry Roslie is the quiet lyrical genius of the band, Rob Lind towers over the rest in size and in words, guitarist Larry Parypa has an understated bravado but shreds so hard that his counterparts obviously worship him, bassist Don Wilhelm admirably only talks when he has something to say and drummer Ricky Lynn Johnson can’t help but be the group’s silly prankster, constantly giggling like he should be flanking Biff Tannen and wearing 3D glasses. Together, it’s more charming than Cary Grant in Arsenic and Old Lace.

Gerry may be the band’s frontman (and organ wizard), but he is hardly the voice of the band in an interview. That title belongs very clearly to their saxophone maniac, Rob Lind. A man who talks like (and slightly resembles) James Garner, an association I probably make due to him leaving the band in the late Sixties to become a fighter pilot in the Vietnam War. “Three of us had to be convinced that it was going to be good, because we had a good reputation and a good legacy, and we didn’t wanna blow that. We didn’t wanna go up and be bad and destroy what we had done when we were younger,” shrugs Rob when I ask him the obvious first question of “why?”

 

Later, I ask Rob about how Jack White’s praise helped them gain contemporary fans. “Jack White’s been real nice to us. We appreciate Jack, he’s said some nice things about us.”

 

Ricky: “I thought that was Jack Webb?”
Gerry: “Go wait in the truck.”
Rob: “Lock yourself in the bathroom too.”

 

The Sonics tease each other like brothers, and if that simile is accurate then Gerry is the eldest brother, a man who has consistently captained the band by singing about themes that at the time were considered taboo and morose. Asking them about having the balls to hit the airwaves with songs about strychnine and witches, Rob defers to Gerry, “That which you’re discussing comes from this guy,” to which Gerry silently makes devil horn motions at me. “It’s a little bit twisted and it’s a little bit out of focus,” says Rob. Larry Parypa explains, “It was just different than what the other groups were doing. That and a combination of doing a 1-3-4 minor progression instead of major. It made a different sound. The very first song, ‘The Witch,’ couldn’t get airplay until there were a lot of call-ins from people. The guy who actually first started playing was playing for the housewives in the morning hours and it just wasn’t an appropriate song.” Rob continues Larry’s thought, “‘The Witch’ at its best in the Seattle market got to number two, right behind Petula Clark’s song ‘Downtown.’ That’s as high as we got. Years later in the Seattle realm of things we started finding out… and then the radio station confessed that ‘The Witch’ was actually number one, and number one by a big margin, but they couldn’t put it up there because they didn’t wanna scare the housewives and they thought it was a little bit… not nasty, but they thought it was about devils, so they only played it for the high school kids at about 3:30 in the afternoon. We found out 25 or 30 years later that it actually was number one.”

Formed in the early Sixties, The Sonics played harder and louder than anyone before them. There are stories about them pulling the soundproofing off the walls in their studio sessions and turning up amps and levels louder than was considered appropriate. Like most turning moments in history, this wasn’t a plan, it was a gut feeling. “There wasn’t a lot of studio magic in those days,” Rob Lind admits. “Our whole thing, OUR WHOLE THING, was to play hard. We’ve been asked questions in interviews before like, ‘How did you guys decide to become the godfathers of garage?’ Well, we never did. All we wanted to do was play hard. We played three set shows and we didn’t like people just standing around watching us at the beginning. We never even sat around and said ‘Hey we gotta play hard’ that’s just what we DID. You hear Gerry’s voice on those records and he sang as hard as he could, you hear Larry’s guitar and he played as hard as he could. We just tried to do that, we just wanted to rock.”

 

Piping up for the first time, Don Wilhelm slowly agrees with Rob while the rest sitting at the table listening closely, “I was a fan at the time, I wasn’t an original member of The Sonics. The one difference between The Sonics and a lot of other bands is that it wasn’t like an intent to be evil, or anything like that at all, it was that they just sounded tough. Even in the Northwest it was something that a FEW bands had, but not too many.”

The Sonics aren’t about to start playing casinos for sit-down clap-alongs. They aren’t back together to re-stake their claim to the garage crown. The reunion isn’t about merchandising, licensing, or their personal boredom. They just missed hanging out and playing hard, both of which usually get old about one year into a band’s life. Forty-five years later, they’ve still got their priorities straight, and are even making a new record. When I ask Rob about it he lights up, “Good question, yeah we are. We’re actually in the process of it right now in Seattle. We’ve got one song that’s pretty much done and we’re gonna work on some more songs this month. The one song we have now is an original. It’s not a supernatural song, but it’s a song called ‘Bad Attitude’ which pretty much sums it up.”

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