Pitchfork profile: Sonny Smith

Sonny Smith of Sonny and the Sunsets talks about books, Central America and Jonathan Richman.

by Raghav Mehta

ItâÄôd be unfair to simply label Sonny Smith as a musician. HeâÄôs a tireless jack-of-all-trades kind of artist that explores everything from film or art to trying to write the next great American novel. But these days Sonny dedicates most of his time to music playing with his band the Sunsets. Their album âÄúTomorrow is AlrightâÄù is a straight no-frills surf pop record that sounds like what would happen if Elvis Costello and Jonathan Richman were stranded on a beach, emptied a bottle of rum, shared some spliffs and split a record. A&E sat down with the visibly tired bookworm to talk about his Hundred records project, his favorite authors and Central America. YouâÄôre involved in a lot of projects that include everything from art to music, do you ever get overwhelmed by it? I did this last year with this projectâÄì the Hundred Records project. I got a little in over my head and I had a couple of moments where I was like âÄòwhat am I doing, this is crazy?âÄô but, for the most part, I havenâÄôt, no. I have a meandering mind so I do lots of little things along the way. WhereâÄôd the idea for the Hundred Records project come from? I was trying to write a novel and I was actually going to quit music and write the great American novel and was kind of romanticizing a little bit. I started writing it, got through the first draft and a lot of the characters that were in it were musicians and singers and people based on people I know and I thought it would be cool to have a few pictures here and there about what their album covers might look like or even write a song here or there for some of the fictional characters. I got a little residency to try drawing some of the covers and while I was at the residency I farmed out a couple of the album covers to some artistsâÄô friends and what they did was so amazing it raised the bar on the whole thing that I was like âÄòwell IâÄôm going write really good songs for these album covers these people have made for these fictional bandsâÄô and then it just snowballed from thereâĦ all of a sudden I had twenty or thirty artists making record coversâĦ it just kind of grew. I bit off a little more off than I can chew. Are you glad you tried it? I tried it and itâÄôs been a success so IâÄôm really happy I didnâÄôt give up. IâÄôm traveling to New York right now for the art show. The art show is going to be in this gallery in Brooklyn and IâÄôm going to go and install it and be there for the opening. Have you ever written a book? That was my first attempt. IâÄôve written short stories and had some stories here and there published in literary magazines but I never tried and write a novel. I have it too I just need to get back to it. Who are some of your literary influences and does that ever transfer into your music? I hope it does because I have more literary influences more than music influences. Not that I donâÄôt have plenty of music influences but I romanticize writers much more than I do singers. What writers? I go through phases. When I was younger I was huge into Steinbeck and Kerouac for a while. Last year I devoured all of Henry Miller and got really into Céline. I get into these obsessive phases and read everything the writer has. I donâÄôt have anyone currently where IâÄôm wanting to read everything theyâÄôve written. Maybe you can tip me off to somebody? Have you read any Tom Robbins? I never really got into Tom Robbins, I should give him a shot. I never went there. HeâÄôs surreal and IâÄôve never really gotten into surrealism too much. I suppose William Burroughs has some surrealistic stuff but I didnâÄôt really like that. I like his earlier stuff where itâÄôs really like linear and old-fashioned story telling. Then he got into his avant-garde writing thatâÄôs all tripped out, psychedelic and I usually lose interest in those ones. I know you spent a lot of time in Central America early in your career, howâÄôd that shape your songwriting? Well I would say the most important thing that happened in Central America was that I really hadnâÄôt started writing songs too much yet. I was actually writing screenplays. I just wanted to make movies when I was in my early 20âÄôs and I had three or four screenplays just going at the time. I was hacking away at them at this little commune in the jungle I was living at. But I had a guitar and I was strumming along working on them and I couldnâÄôt seal the deal on the screenplays so they kind of morphed into songs. So all my first attempts at original songs were very long winded, storytelling songs with dialogue and characters. I didnâÄôt know how to write choruses or bridges or anything like that. They were usually a few chords and long like fifteen minutes of storytelling. So that might have set me up in a way to be drawn towards stories and linear narratives and characters, which is what most of my songwriting has in it. ItâÄôs a vey short narrative and its usually very literal and usually a character or two. Your music reminds me of Jonathan Richman, are you into that? Oh yeah, I love, love Jonathan Richman, I love âÄòem. So IâÄôm happy to hear that. I mean IâÄôm into the same things that he was into. IâÄôm into doo-wop, IâÄôm into R&B, IâÄôm into punk rock. So if it all gets mixed in together its kind of my favorite music and heâÄôs definitely one of my heroes. So if you hear a little bit of him in there, IâÄôm happy.