The procrastinators: Seminal act The Sonics return with new album after 50 years away
The band often credited for creating garage rock, influencing punk and inducing grunge has spent the better part of the last five decades as an insurance adjuster, a schoolteacher, a paver, an airline pilot and a car salesman/bartender.
In the early ‘60s, Tacoma, Wash., quintet The Sonics briefly rose to prominence with two albums – now critically acclaimed, but back then, largely ignored outside of the Pacific Northwest – that introduced America to the thundering drums of Bob Bennett; distorted, screeching guitar of Larry Parypa and the raging bass lines of his brother, Andy; rock sax of Rob Lind; and vocals screamed so heartily by singer Gerry Roslie that they could have come from a murder scene. The Sonics sang songs about Satan and drinking poison for fun – not the standard radio fare of the day.
Then, just as quickly as they’d arrived, they were gone. A different incarnation of the band, with new members, made a brief return in the ‘80s, but otherwise, nearly five decades passed for the band to release a third album. Life got in the way.
“We used to do that back in the ‘60s too, unfortunately,” said Larry Parypa, prior to the band’s first headlining tour in decades, which includes a stop at The Fillmore this Friday. “It was probably a lack of due diligence. We would know that we had a recording session scheduled. And we would wait until the very last day to come up with something to record. And so it’s the same way here. We really should do it, but we didn’t.”
This Is the Sonics was released in March, and those in the know took notice. The reunion had roots in a 2007 performance, with three of the five original members, at a New York festival.
“(Since then) people were always asking whether or not we were going to be putting out some new songs or a new album. We always said ‘yeah.’ But we never did.”
Rewind to the ‘60s, when the Parypas started an instrumental band. Several lineup changes brought in Bennett, Lind and Roslie. Their first success came in 1964, when the Wailers’ bassist Buck Ormsby signed them to the Wailers’ label, Etiquette Records. Their simple, powerful chord progressions made their first single, “The Witch,” a local hit. A debut album, Here Come The Sonics, followed in 1965, and a sophomore effort, Boom, in 1966. They recorded both with the same intensity with which they played, a snarling and primal efficiency.
Also in 1966, the band began to fall apart, with the members leaving to go to school, join other bands, and in the case of Lind, to become a fighter pilot in Vietnam. A third album, ‘67’s Introducing The Sonics, failed to impress. But interest in The Sonics intensified in the late ‘70s with the entrance of punk, and again in the ‘90s, with grunge.
“We agreed to play in 2007 after really not even speaking to each other for 40 years and not playing live music anymore,” Parypa said. “We were just surprised that anyone even cared. We had no idea there were people out there who knew about us.”
Afterward, the plan was to go back to their regular lives, raise children and pay mortgages. But the offers kept on coming. After a handful more shows, they agreed to record new music. Andy Parypa and Bennett were unable to take part, paving the way for bassist Freddie Dennis and drummer Dusty Watson, who have played with the Kingsmen, Dick Dale, the Surfaris and Lita Ford.
The band selected Jim Diamond, who has worked the White Stripes (Jack White has cited The Sonics as a major influence) to produce. He came highly recommended, and his strategy allowed the band to be nothing it was not. Parypa used the same Epiphone Riviera guitar and amplifier he used to record with in the ‘60s.
Diamond asked the band to play like they were 16 again; to not attempt to mimic the newer bands that had copied their syle.
“I resisted at first,” Parypa said. “I don’t play exactly like I did when I was 16. Plus, the technology is different. They didn’t have stomp boxes back then. They didn’t have amplifiers with master volume where you could get some distortion. I had to play loud back then in order to get the power and fully distort.”
Diamond also suggested the album be recorded in mono because that’s how they operated “in the old days.”
This is The Sonics clocks in at 33 minutes, with 12 breakneck songs like “Bad Betty,” which quickly evokes their classic material like “The Witch” and “Strychnine.”
Three of the tunes are covers; snarling takes on Ray Charles’ “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” Rusty York’s “Sugaree,” and Eddie Holland’s “Leaving Here” complete with a harmonica solo.
The Sonics aren’t attempting to capture young fans, Parypa said, nor, for that matter, old fans. They just want to make the music that they love: the music often defined as the first garage rock.
When, later, people started using the term, the band didn’t know what it meant. Sometimes they still don’t.
“We weren’t talented musicians in terms of being really good technically, where you can play jazz and all that stuff,” Parypa said. “But when I … remember the songs that were being played on the radio back in the early ‘60s, we were definitely different than that. There was nobody screaming, there was nobody pounding the drums like Bob did, or singing about ingesting strychnine, or doing 1-3-4 minor chord progressions instead of the typical 1-4-5 progression.”
The Sonics influenced the likes of the Cramps, the Dead Kennedys, Mudhoney and Nirvana. They became musicians’ musicians, known more by those they influenced than the general music-consuming public.
“Back then … we thought we were sort of illegitimate, because we weren’t great technicians,” Parypa said. “When we got together again, we just took off from where we left off. We’re still not great musicians. … But we play with a lot of energy, still, even though we’re about 70 years old.”
Roman Gokhman has been covering the music scene in the Bay Area since 2006; first with the Oakland Tribune, Contra Costa Times and the San Jose Mercury News, and since 2011, as a staff feature writer with The Bay Bridged. Follow him at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter and RomiTheWriter.Tumblr.com, where he posts Q&A outtakes from most of his artist interviews.