The Sonics: In-Your-Face, then and now
by Nikko Van Wyck
photo by Bobbi Barbarich
There are so many bands from the 1960’s that have influenced major artists throughout the last 40 years, and none of them have been possibly more underappreciated as much as Tacoma’s own group, The Sonics. While performers such as The Beatles, The Who and Jimi Hendrix were at the forefront of rock and pop music, The Sonics cultivated a massive, loyal following for their “in your face, hi gain” version of garage rock ‘n’ roll.
“At the time, there were a lot of rock ‘n’ roll bands in the Seattle and Tacoma area, Portland too. It was a real hot bed, everyone wanted to be in a band, and we were no different,” recalled Rob Lind, who held down the screaming sax for the group. “We were 16 when we started getting together, and our first show, if you could call it that, was in this basement of an Episcopal church. We only knew five songs, so we kept playing them over and over.”
This rings familiar for Bellingham, where there’s no shortage of shows being hosted in basements.
“Jerry and I were in a group called The Imperials, and there was this other band in the neighborhood called The Sonics. So Jerry and I got to talking and he said ‘If you and Bobby and I could get together with those two brothers [The Sonics] and make some music, we could have a pretty serious band.’”
What followed was a quick come up of jarring and brash, and quite literal, garage rock. “Touring for us back then was just hitting Oregon, you know, Eugene, Salem, Portland, Seattle, that was tour…” Rob explained. It didn’t take long for the group’s unique take on the quickly saturating genre to find fans across the country, even if they didn’t start by touring excessively.
“Back then we thought we thought were making the big bucks.” He chuckles at this. “We were doing three hour sets, with a couple breaks, and splitting $400 a night between five guys. We played 50 or 60 songs…” he added. “That’s when we decided we needed to make a record, back then, that’s all you needed. It was about that same time we ran into Buck Ormsby and Kent Morrill from the Wailers and they had a little recording company pressing records, which led to us putting out The Witch.”
As far as legendary bands go, most groups tour for decades, building their following through relentlessly performing and releasing new material. The Sonics however, had a brief, short reign at the helm of the burgeoning hard rock ship. Bursting onto the scene in the mid 60s, by 1968, the initial run of the Sonics fizzled out. Members went to fight in Vietnam, attend college and start separate, non-musical careers.
From the 1970s until the mid-2000s, the original lineup of The Sonics didn’t perform. Over 40 years passed before they would take the stage again, and in that time, their music was covered by a multitude of musicians crossing several genres. Iggy Pop and Kurt Cobain cited them as a huge influence, even covering songs by them; they were even considered one of the major influences of the Seattle music explosion during the late 80s and early 90s. All the while the original lineup was mostly oblivious to their impact on shaping rock culture. Rob admitted there was some naivety about coming back.
“It was about 2007, and we were getting ready to do the Cavestomp Festival, and you know we hadn’t played in years, I hadn’t touched my sax in years. We kept the promoter in the wind for about a month, because we didn’t want to play it if we didn’t sound good. So we got there, and we did a soundcheck, and I’d never done a soundcheck. Back then, you just loaded in your stuff and started playing. So we did our soundcheck…and that was…interesting. And as we’re walking on stage there’s these six big black boxes. We asked ‘What are these boxes?’ and promptly got told about monitors. We’re like ‘Cool! What are monitors!?’ We had never used them before.”
Rob explained that technology had changed so much that they were at a learning curve jumping back into it after 40 years. What strikes me about this is the contrast between how as the art and industry has changed, there are certain groups and songs that remain timeless, and The Sonics have captured that. Rob went on to add that this wasn’t the only time as old “clear eyed” adults that they had a humbling experience.
“We did those two shows in New York in 2007, and I was doing a press interview for this rock magazine in Sweden. And they asked that we sign autographs after we play. So as we’re doing this the journalist asks ‘Hey, there’s this rock and roll band from Sweden here and they want to get a picture with you.’ So I say fine, and these nice young guys show up and there all wearing the same clothes and we shake hands and take the photo. We get to talking about Sweden, because I’m half Swedish, and here I am thinking they are this little bar band that tours here and there and I honest to god ask them ‘What’s the name of your little band?’ and they say ‘The Hives’ and all I said back was ‘Well that’s a cool interesting name.’ Ten years ago and I still can’t believe I said that. Afterwards, I found out they had toured excessively and had opened for The Rolling Stones in stadiums. I just had no idea.”
While The Sonics were some of the first to stir up an uncanny brand of in your face rock ‘n’ roll, it took them decades to come full circle, and they have seemed to embrace it full on after living entire lives out of the music world.
“We still play the same way we played in the 60’s, we haven’t changed the way we play and we don’t plan on it. We do this because mostly, it’s just fun,” Rob explained. Asides from their groundbreaking talent, they also have a humbleness that seems rare among performers today. Just like the candidness of the music, they too are honest, and have embraced what they were back then and who they are today.
Catch The Sonics at the Wild Buffalo on June 30. Check out their Facebook page for updates, or see their website at http://thesonicsboom.com.
Published in the June 2017 issue of What’s Up! Magazine