Garage-band legends the Sonics roar back to life
One guy worked for decades as a commercial pilot. Another was in the insurance business. A third ran his own paving company. They’re all retired now.
And they’re coming to blow your doors off.
More than 50 years since they formed, and nearly as many since they released their last proper album, garage-band archetypes the Sonics are touring behind a new record that packs nearly as much raw power as the band members exuded when they were teenagers. Often credited as the first true garage rockers — and, by extension, fathers of punk rock — this reunited band of graying degenerates plays at Brighton Music Hall on Friday.
Much like the early albums they cut in their native Tacoma, Wash., “This Is the Sonics” features a handful of original ravers and twice as many supercharged covers of rock and R&B tunes, from Motown, Guitar Shorty, the Kinks, and more. That’s a process they like to call “Sonic-izing” the song, says sax player Rob Lind.
“It’s a stupid phrase,” he says with a laugh, on the phone from Las Vegas, where the band helped launch the new album at a rockabilly festival. It means to reduce the song to a rough-and-ready guitar riff, Lind explains — to “put some [expletive] on it.”
Adding an extra layer of B-movie menace to Larry Parypa’s raunchy guitar chords, Lind developed a habit of honking low, “dirty” notes on the sax that double the riff throughout the song. Alongside Jerry Roslie’s hair-raising yowl and drummer Bob Bennett’s maniacal pounding, the combination gave the band a sound all its own.
Like a lot of moderately successful bands at the time, the Sonics became regional stars but never quite found fame on the national charts. A 1966 trip to Los Angeles to record their third album proved to be a bust, and they soon drifted apart.
Lind got his first glimpse of the legacy he and his bandmates didn’t know they’d left behind when he served in Vietnam as a Navy fighter pilot. On leave in Manila, he and his buddies hit the bars one night. One nightclub had a Filipino house band that featured a saxophonist.
“The guys in the squadron had probably had a few too many, and they said, ‘Hey, our buddy can play sax. He was in some band called the Sonics.’” The Filipino musicians knew all about the Sonics, and Lind soon found himself joining them onstage.
By the time the Sonics reunited in 2007, they were well aware of what they’d created. Over the years, Bruce Springsteen and dozens of others have covered their songs. Kurt Cobain once spoke of his reverence for the band.
Parypa and Roslie had spent years drifting in and out of music independently, leading quiet, responsible lives. Lind, who had a career as a pilot for US Airways, was based for a time out of Logan Airport. He was a regular at the Black Rose, he says, listening to the Irish musicians.
The reunion took place without Bennett or Parypa’s brother Andy, who played bass during the first go-round. The lineup now features drummer Dusty Watson (Dick Dale, the Surfaris) and bassist Freddie Dennis, another veteran of the fertile, multi-generational Pacific Northwest scene.
Since getting back together, the band has steadily increased its workload, rousing old fans and winning new ones at festivals such as Cavestomp and London’s Meltdown, where they were invited to headline by 2011 curator Ray Davies of the Kinks. When they decided it was time to make a new album, Lind says that producer Jim Diamond made sure the Sonics stuck to the sound they created a half-century ago.
“He said, ‘I don’t want to copy the early stuff, but I want to get that energy, the fire of the first two albums,’” Lind said. Those records featured such rambunctious, cheap-thrills signature songs as “Strychnine,” “Psycho,” and “The Witch,” as well as a cover of Richard Berry’s “Have Love Will Travel” that should be familiar to anyone who’s watched a commercial television network in the past decade.
In the studio, the band used “no tricky overdubs,” says Lind. “We didn’t layer in five guitar tracks. And we could have, with the modern recording.” Diamond, a former member of Detroit’s Dirtbombs who produced the young White Stripes, “kept it simple, with a lot of drive” — going so far as to record the new album in mono.
Lind chuckles as he recalls his band’s first day at Seattle’s Soundhouse Recording, where they waited a few hours for engineer Jack Endino to set up. Diamond expressed his skepticism about the array of new microphones, so Endino came back with “a milk crate full of old mikes covered with dust,” Lind says. He blew the dust off them one at a time before choosing several suitably outdated models.
The urge to play aggressive, filter-free rock ’n’ roll has been a common aim of the band from the beginning, says Lind. He met Roslie one day after school in the music room at their high school, where the singer was pounding out tunes on a weathered upright piano. When Lind, a clarinetist at the time, grabbed a saxophone and started playing along, the band director shot out of his office “like a bird out of a cuckoo clock,” he recalls, “yelling, ‘Get the hell out!’ ”
As teenagers, they were often in the crowd when another vintage Northwest garage band, the Wailers, played around Tacoma. The Wailers’ R&B covers were OK, Lind says, but the band’s occasional takes on outrageous songs like Little Richard’s “Lucille” really got their attention.
“We wanted to be a wall of sound, to borrow a phrase,” says Lind. “Right in your face.”
He’d grab a spot at the feet of Wailers sax player Mike Marush and watch him all night. Marush didn’t just take a few solos: He played all over his band’s songs, just as Lind would soon do with the Sonics.
“As a 16-, 17-year-old, I was vastly impressed,” he says.
More than half-century later, his band is still leaving a whole lot of their own juniors impressed.