Debates about “When did punk rock start and who started it?” will stumble along forever. But few are the bands who could claim to be a flashpoint in that debate and also the inquest into when did garage rock start, when did metal start, when did the “Seattle sound” start, and… well, you get the idea. The Sonics, no matter their continuing lack of the “household name” tag, are in fact one of the most important rock’n’roll bands of all time. Formed circa 1963, their jumper-cabled Little Richard swing, power chord chomping, snare drum smashing, and tough guy stance (when most garage bands were trying to ape the Beatles’ cheeriest moves) have influenced countless bands. If you haven’t heard their early killers like “The Witch,” “Psycho,” and “Shot Down,” any declarations that you like rock music are suspect. Singer/piano player Jerry Roslie’s scream still yanks the hairs on your neck, and the bone-basic trashy loud production of their early records still has most of my musician pals wondering, “How the hell did they get that sound?!”
There were a very few sporadic reunions and lineup reshufflings over the years. But after reuniting in 2007 for a Cavestomp fest in NYC, the band has been fairly active, culminating in a new album that’s almost done, and playing another boss garage rock fest in NYC, this time at Warsaw in Brooklyn on Friday, November 16, as part of the Norton Records two-day Hurricane Sandy First Anniversary Weekend Blast. The show also features a reunion of the ’70s power pop legends, the Flamin’ Groovies and local gutter-blues trio, Daddy Long Legs. We caught up with Jerry Roslie to catch up on the Sonics’ boom.
So, the basics. What year did the Sonics first form? Who all is playing in the Sonics today? How many original members are in the band now, and where is the band currently based?
The “real” Sonics, the ones that recorded all our stuff from the 60’s, started in the last few weeks of 1963. The band right now is Jerry Roslie, (me), Rob Lind, Larry Parypa, Dusty Watson and Freddie Dennis. Rob, Larry and I are the three original members in the band now. We’re going through some management changes, and I guess we are split between Seattle and New York City at the present time.
What year would you consider the “official” year the Sonics first broke up? And then when did the first official reunion happen?
I left first in 1967. We did a benefit concert with several local bands in 1972 at the Paramount in Seattle. We played just three songs: The Witch, Psycho and Lucille. Then we went our separate ways again.
How was the first reunion show?
The first actual reunion was in New York in 2007 at the Cavestomp Festival in Brooklyn. We were very nervous about not actually playing for 40 years! It went very well and it kicked off many concerts all over Europe, Japan and Australia. We are still playing concerts all over Europe, etc.
How did you first hear about Norton Records?
I don’t recall how we first heard about Norton, but knowing them has been a true pleasure. They are good people. They’ve helped a lot of bands get better known, and some getting reunited too.
Now without meaning to blow any smoke up your collective behinds, it’s pretty well established by now that the Sonics are one of the best and most influential r’n’r bands ever. But by the later 1980s, when Norton started tracking you down, did it feel weird to find out there was this deep international interest in the band after all those years?
It felt very weird and it still does. If this good fortune is just a dream, I don’t ever want to wake up. It’s like a 40-year time warp. Sort of like a Back To The Future deal or something.
Did you know in general about the underground following of obscure 60s garage rock bands, and the compilations like Back from the Grave, Nuggets, Pebbles, etc. that started coming around in the early ’80s?
I’d heard rumors about underground interest, but I didn’t think it was anything real for quite a while. I heard our ’60s allbums were selling at high prices amongst collectors. That shocked the shells out of me because the last I had heard about our records was from a friend who said, “Hey, I bought your 45 rpm record of The Witch yesterday for 6 cents at the Goodwill Store!”
Did you ever actually practice in a garage back then?
Yes! We played in several of the band members parents’ garages! The neighbors always made requests for us to turn down the music. Sometimes the police would come and we promised them we would quiet down, but we never did.
I’ve always heard that on those early recordings—The Witch, Strychnine, Shot Down, etc.—that you played live in one room with two room mics hanging over you. Is that true? Or basically, how did you get that sound?!
I remember one studio we took almost all the egg cartons off the walls and ceiling. Our guitarist poked holes in his speakers to get the most demented driving sound out of his guitar. Yes, we had very minimal mic coverage. It’s way different nowadays. I guess it didn’t hurt to overdrive the vocals and instruments and play everything as though we were demonically possessed in order to create an unearthly noise!
Did you have any idea of your influence on punk rock in the late ’70s?
We had heard rumors, but didn’t really think it was going to amount to anything. Just maybe a brief passing fad.
Have you been to Europe since reforming?
Yes, we’ve been all over Europe several times. Living in the ’60s, we thought we’d probably never get out of the Pacific Northwest.
You’re working on a new album, right? Where are you recording it, and with who?
Yes! We recorded at Soundhouse Studios in Seattle, produced by Jim Diamond from Detroit.
Now let’s jump back a bit again. Can you tell me the story of how the Sonics
first met and formed?
Me and Rob and Bob Bennett were in a band called the Searchers. Larry and his brother were in a band called the Sonics. We did a practice with the five of us and we all liked what we heard, so we started an altogether new band under the name the Sonics.
Who were the five favorite bands of the Sonics when the band formed?
Little Richard, the Beach Boys, the Wailers, Wilson Pickett, James Brown and many, many others.
Tell me a good “Battle Of The Bands” story from those days.
I was in a little local rock band once calling ourselves the Imperials, even though there was already the internationally famous group who was already going by that name. Anyway we only had a couple of practices and only knew seven songs. We were asked to play the intermission of the headlining band at a teenage dance hall. When we arrived at the dance hall, we asked if the headlining band was in the building. The manager of the hall said: “No, the headlining band won’t be playing here tonight, they can’t make it.” Being shocked by this startling news, we asked: “Well who’s going to take their place?” Point blank, he retorted: “The Imperials!” We must have played our seven songs about 10 times over and over that night!