Back in the ’60s The Sonics could legitimately boast that they were one of the biggest bands in the Tacoma, Wash., rock scene, but that was about the extent of their success. They finally called it quits in 1969, but in the years that followed, their first two albums, Here are The Sonics and Boom, were discovered by new generations of rock fans and, even more crucially, rock musicians. The unhinged ramshackle energy of tracks like “Strychnine” and “The Witch”–not to mention frontman Jerry Roslie’s banshee howl–became a touchstone for punks, the nascent garage rock revival, and the grunge scene that sprouted up in the band’s native Pacific Northwest.
After belatedly picking up on their legendary status, the group reformed in 2007 as a live act, but producer Jim Diamond, who’s made records with dozens of bands influenced by The Sonics, got the band back in the studio to record This Is the Sonics, their first new album of original music in nearly 50 years, which has to be some kind of record. Even more surprising than the album’s existence is the fact that it’s just as raw and vital as their work from half a century ago.
Founding member Larry Parypa recently got on the phone with EW to discuss how the album came around, and the secret to maintaining their pristinely unrefined sound.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What made you guys make this record after such a long break?
LARRY PARYPA: (Laughs) I don’t know, that’s our history. We never do anything when we’re supposed to. I think for the last 8 years we’ve been saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah I think we’re gonna come up with the album.”
You guys have been playing shows pretty regularly for the past eight years, right?
Yeah, since 2007. We got together for the first time in 47 years in New York City. It seemed to go over well enough, so we’ve probably toured Europe, jeez, I don’t know, 15 or 16 times? Australia, New Zealand, Japan–didn’t expect that.
So there wasn’t any one moment when you guys decided to go back into the studio after however many decades?
Well, we were just getting pressured by everybody. Back in the old days, in the ‘60s, we did the same thing. We knew that we were supposed to record something and we went into the studio without a clue what we’re gonna do. It was the same way this time, everybody says, “Hey, you guys gotta put something out.” So we did take two weekends, went to the studio and did fourteen songs, so there wasn’t a whole lot of time put into it. Some of them are original that we put together there, some are covers that somebody would say, “Well why don’t we try this?” and by then we just did it our way and it resulted in this album. Which I haven’t heard the end results of it yet.
Is that pretty much how guys worked back in the day as well?
Yeah, you know, we put a song out called “The Witch” and naturally we had to follow that up and we knew we were scheduled for a recording session on a Sunday– the Saturday night before that Sunday we played at a club called The Red Carpet and we had nothing prepared for the next day so we asked if we could stay after the show was over and do some stuff. So we took about an hour and put together “Psycho” and then the next day went in and recorded it..
Do you consider yourselves more of a live band, then?
By far, we’re much better live. It’s always been that way, we’re always better live than on records. Because none of us are musical technicians. We just hammer at our instruments, you know? We did a lot of rhythm and blues, actually, when we played live in the ‘60s. We would get a sense of the song, just the general layout of the song that we were never able to reproduce it the way the original was because we didn’t have the musical expertise to do so.
Is there a secret to still sounding so raw and electric on your latest record after all of these years?
No, I think in a way we were fortunate that for over 40 years none of us really played music. I don’t think Jerry or Rob played with anybody ever again after the Sonics. I just did some local stuff a few times. So we never got good. Everything seemed natural to play the way we used to. We didn’t have to worry about being good and overplayed and all that stuff.
How much different was the studio experience this time around?
Well I mean, the biggest difference was the number of tracks available. If I’m not mistaken, when we did “The Witch,” we actually did it in a radio station’s studio where they make commercials and it might have been just the single track–mono–or at the most it was two-track, so you didn’t really have as much flexibility to go in and lay things down later, all that stuff–so what you got is what you got. Jim, he wanted to capture the tones and the style. For example, on me, he wanted me to pretend I’m 16 years old and play that way. It’s hard to do that– it’s hard to go back and pretend you’re 16!
What was it like seeing subsequent bands pick up on the recordings you guys made and seeing yourself become such an influence?
We didn’t realize that. We were so far out of music–we all went into the typical “buy a house, get married, have kids” kind of thing. I personally, very seldom, listen to music. I wasn’t involved in it. My daughter, who I raised as a single parent, she had very little idea that we were a band at one time when we were younger. I didn’t really hear much about it until sometime in the early 80s I think it was, Buck Ormsby from Etiquette Records was calling us and saying, “You know, there’s a lot of interest in these guys and you guys could go to Europe” and all that stuff–we just kind of blew it off.
But then it kept going because the garage band revival of the ‘80s and ‘90s seemed to be based really heavily on your music, and I’m sure the offers didn’t stop there.
Apparently! When we actually did do it in 2007, a promoter from New York City for several years kept pitching us to come back there and even put on a big show and all that stuff. In the first one or two years when he would do that, we just said no, we don’t play anymore. At one point we did get together to see, “can we even do anything?” And the results were that no, it sounded like garbage. Then he called in earlier 2007 and asked again if we would come on back and do a show, and we finally said, “Tell you what–we’ll get together again.” And we were petrified on stage. We’d never heard monitors before. We never had lighting, we didn’t have off-stage mixing, so it was really kind of scary for us.
It must have been 40 years since your last show at that point?
Yeah, I think it was 66, I believe which was our last as the Sonics. So it was 41, 42 years.
Kurt Cobain mentioned you a couple of times in an interview. Did that inspire you to check out their music, at all?
I don’t think I personally was aware of any statements by Kurt Cobain until later on when Etiquette Records brought it to our attention but that wasn’t until about the time that we reunited in 2007. We just thought that music was out there and it was dead. We didn’t know it would be any kind of influence. Looking backwards, however, I do remember back in the ’60s when we were playing, most of the bands were playing R&B and they had horn sections and things like that and the players were good. We would play… instead of a 1-4-5 progression like Chuck Berry or something, we would make a 1-3-4 progression out of it so it was a minor sound, and there was nobody screaming, like Jerry. There wasn’t that overdriven guitar sound. Back then if you wanted loud drums, you had to hit them loud because they weren’t mic’d. I just don’t think there was anybody around that had that kind of feel and somehow that ended up being the influence on these different styles of music where it’s really aggressive.
How much do you think that being in the Pacific Northwest had an influence on the way you guys played – was it at all?
I think in the sense that we were isolated more. We weren’t as influenced by local bands as maybe somebody from New York City where there were thousands of bands.
What was it like to hear Jerry screaming again after all this time?
I think the biggest question was, “Can he do it?” I think he’s 71 or something–can you really get that same feeling as you did when you were basically a teenager? He had, he did a lot better than I thought he would. He’s so into it, he gets so excited. At first, when we would go out on tour, we were afraid he was going to blow his throat out because he had get really into it and then start again, more affecting his vocals. It was real surprising.
Do you feel gratified that the music that you made has had such a long afterlife?
Yeah. Sometimes it’s still hard to believe that just a bunch of guys pounding their instruments back in the ‘60s would influence so much and that we would be back 50 years later doing it again.