NWMS interview with Rob Lind of The Sonics

When we talk about the rock royalty that laid the groundwork for the northwest being at or near the top of the music world for what has now been several decades, many names come to mind, including but not limited to The Ventures, The Wailers, The Sonics and Jimi Hendrix. While Jimi certainly influenced scores of guitar players worldwide, The Sonics had a huge impact as well, even if they didn’t fully realize it. To hear Rob Lind of the legendary Tacoma garage band tell the story, they were nearly oblivious to just how far reaching their band had been.

A few things that almost always come up though when talking to other music fans about The Sonics is that they were WAY ahead of their time, laying the foundation if you will, for what would later on become punk rock and of course early grunge bands like Green River borrowed heavily from punk rock and it’s not hard to find the influence of The Sonics on that band. It didn’t stop there either, several bands, northwest or not, have covered songs by the band, including Iggy and the Stooges, Bruce Springsteen, The Melvins and too many others to list here. The other thing that comes up a lot(especially among guitar players) is that Larry Parypa played his guitar in Drop D-tuning. While it’s pretty common these days for guitarists to do that, back in the early sixties, few players other than Parypa tinkered with that guitar arrangement.

We recently had a phone chat with Rob Lind, the last original member of the band that has influenced so many.  He talked about what it was like back then, what happened during their four decade-long hiatus and what it’s like for them now. The Sonics will be coming back to play The Vera Project presents Elysian Brewing’s Search Party at Seattle Center on July 1, along with red-hot Seattle rockers Thunderpussy, The Struts and Black Pistol Fire. Quick plug for a contest we have to win tickets. Click HERE to enter the contest and enjoy the interview below.

As we jump into the interview Rob and I are talking about his extremely talented grandson and dear friend of NWMS, Jason Kertson.

Rob Lind: “When The Sonics and I were around his age, we were sleeping in our cars, or going on tour for us was driving down to Salem, Oregon and getting a hotel room with five beds in it, we’re all sleeping in the same room, and some of the roadies would have to sleep out in the back of the van, and sleep on the amplifiers.”

Glen Casebeer: “Poor roadies.”

R: “We don’t do that anymore, but you gotta do that when you’re 17.”

G: “That probably made you guys feel like big rock stars, though, going out of town and staying in a motel, even if it was a crappy one.”

R: “Oh, it was like being in the Rolling Stones. We’re going on tour, we’re going to Spokane.”

G: “For me, The Sonics are kind of the band that started it all, really. I know the Wailers and Ventures were before you guys, but as far as this heavy, dark northwest sound that we’ve become somewhat famous for, The Sonics are the band, don’t you think?”

R: “It’s nice that you say that. We looked up to the Wailers because they were 10 years older, and they were an accomplished band. Gerry Roslie and I used to stand right in front of them right across the ballroom and watch everything they ever did. They were real, real smart. Their band was primarily rhythm and blues, they had all those singers, Gail Harris, their backup singers. They did the Ike and Tina Turner songbook, they did everything. They did a lot of blues, a lot of rhythm and blues, but when they would tear up the occasional rock song like “Lucille” or, of course, Kent wrote “Dirty Robber,” they’d rock your socks off, and that kind of thing turned Gerry and me on, and so we started out in Tacoma, and The Sonics, we finally all got together, all we wanted to do was play rock and roll, we didn’t wanna do rhythm and blues, we did some rhythm and blues, but it was kinda rock rhythm and blues, songs like “Think,” the James Brown song. We didn’t have the personnel or the ability to be doing Ike and Tina songs like the Wailers were doing, so when we started, our whole band was, “come out on stage and punch you in the mouth, come at us,” 145 rock and roll music, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and anyone else that happened to be rocking, we played their rock songs at all the dances we played.”

G: “When I saw Randy Bachman recently, he went through his whole career with The Guess Who and BTO and he would explain the inspiration for each song. He talked about how Buffalo Springfield was hitting it big, so he wanted a song that kind of sounded like one of theirs, and then once you listen to it that way, you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I can see that.’ Did The Sonics ever do stuff like that?”

R: “I talk a little bit every night. I try not to be a game show host, But I’ll talk about where a certain song came from, like there’s a song on our newest album that we got from the Hoodoo Gurus in Australia, called “Be a Woman,” and I’ll explain to the crowd where that came from, how we got to go down there, where the song came from, and then we’re liable to do two or three without saying anything, just do them, and then I’ll talk about our history with The Kinks and Ray Davies, and I’ll build up to doing that song “The Hard Way,” the song on that album that Ray wrote. So I do talk a little bit, and I’ll explain some of the music I guess, and I let the music speak for itself. You don’t need to do a big introduction for “Strychnine,” I’ll say something about “Psycho,” I’ll say this is the second song we did, we wrote this song when we were 17 years old, and then go right into it. It’s sort of a mix. “Have Love Will Travel,” that’s probably one of the most iconic songs we do, and I don’t say a word about it, we start it, you hear those first four notes, and the crowd goes crazy, because everyone knows that song.”

G: “When you look out into the crowd and see people that were maybe born when The Sonics were out, but a lot of people that weren’t. How does that make you feel when you look out there and you see the 20-30-year-olds that are rocking out to The Sonics?”

R: “It makes me feel fabulous, because to distill it down, they’re the reason we’re out playing rock and roll music. When we finally did those first two shows in 2007, we got asked to come to London and do two shows over there, and I had met Nik Almqvist from The Hives at that show in New York, and he kind of schooled me, he said, “One of the things you guys are gonna realize is that the kids have discovered you.” So we got to London and we played two sold-out shows, a Friday night and Saturday night, at a pretty big venue, big as the Paramount. You go on stage and you look out at the crowd, it’s like Roslie said one time in an interview, he said, “It’s like our crowds from the ‘60s, you look out at the crowds and it looks like the ‘60s.” That’s kind of a good way to put it, although there is a mix; there’s a few older people, people that will come up to me after shows all the time and say, “Oh, I remember when you guys were playing at the Lynnwood Rollaway skating rink, my girlfriend and I were there.” It’s always cool to hear that, and the crowds I’d say on a given night are probably 80% in the 18-to-35 age range.”

G: “That is incredible, that’s so awesome.”

R: “The promoter that brought us over to London, he said what Nik told me, he said, “The kids have discovered you guys, and now you can’t find a Sonics album in any record store in London, they’re gone, you guys are hot with the kids now. When you ask me what it’s like to come out on stage and see all those young guys waving their beer bottles and singing “Strychnine,” it’s just the coolest thing for me that it could possibly be.”

G: “If you had to attribute where the dark sound of Sonics had came from, I know you said that you guys just wanted to play, but where do you think the dark sound came from? Some of the stuff you guys played back then had to be controversial, don’t you think?”

R: “Well, in terms of dark sounds, I assume you’re referring to the lyrics that Jerry wrote, because they kind of were, because the music was kind of straight ahead. For instance, the way things were in the 60s, they were not “shows” like they are now. People didn’t come stand in front of the band. They were dances; people came to meet girls and meet guys, get hooked up and stuff. KJR was the big rock station, the disc jockeys would come down after a basketball game or something and spin records. During those years, we were playing along, and we knew that in order to ask a little bit more of a fee, it would be better if we had a record. Nobody thought “albums,” we just thought, “We need a record, we need a single.” We did “The Witch,” and some of the lesser radio stations were playing it a little bit, and so some of the kids at these high school dances were coming up to Dick Curtis and Lan Roberts and the DJs that were playing the records and saying, ‘Do you have “The Witch” by The Sonics?’ They would say, ‘No, we don’t have that, we haven’t heard of that.’ They went back to the station, and Pat O’Day was the program director, and he said, ‘Hey, have you heard “The Witch” by The Sonics? We’ve been getting a lot of asks about it.’ To make a long story short, they got the record, I think Buck Ormsby took it up to them, and they started playing it. Pat didn’t like it. He said, in his book, “To tell you the truth, I just didn’t see it.” That was the terminology he used. It sold 10,000 copies in the first week and a half, it exploded in the Pacific northwest. They played it, but they only played it after 3:00 in the afternoon because to use your term, they thought it was “dark,” they thought it was evil, black subject, and they didn’t want to insult or frighten the housewives playing that kind of music. Well, like just about everything Jerry wrote, “The Witch” was not about witches of evil, it was about a girl who was mean to her boyfriend, that was a recurring theme in Jerry’s writing, and if you listen to the lyrics, “She’ll shut you down,” “She’ll break your heart,” you know? So “The Witch” rose up to #2 on the KJR top 50 in the Pacific Northwest, and #1 was “Downtown” by Petula Clark. We thought British invasion was in, all that stuff, we thought, “Wow, she’s British, she hangs around with Mick and Keith and John and Paul, she knows all those people, so, you know, #2 is good enough.” Well, what we found out, 35 years later, when Pat wrote his book, he said, “Oh no, The Sonics’ “The Witch” was #1 by a long way, we just couldn’t put it at #1 because we thought it was evil and stuff.” So we got the ‘evil’ tag hung on us early on. Jerry, if you ask him, I’ve heard him and been in interviews with him before, when he said, “I just wanted to write different lyrics, I didn’t want ‘June, croon, spoon, I love you baby,’ all that kinda stuff.” He said, “I wanted to do more rippin’ stuff, with a little bit different subject matter.” You listen to “The Witch,” or “Psycho,” it’s about a woman.”

G: “Like blues lyrics but sort of set to early, early punk rock.”

R: “Exactly. “Shot Down,” that’s another one. “The Hustler,” I could go on and on, about a guy who hustles women, that was what was first and foremost on Jerry’s mind in those days. It’s a long and involved answer to your good question, but yeah, that “darkness” was probably more perceived than the reality because you hear those songs and think, ‘Oh, those are evil, bad vibes,’ we used to get that all the time, it sounded that way, but it really wasn’t.”

G: “You brought up the name Buck[Ormsby] and what an amazing guy he was. How important was Buck to the Sonics’ story?”

R: “Buck along with Kent Morrill from The Wailers had started a little local record label, Etiquette Records, and that’s what they recorded on, and they started recording some of the local groups. I told you we became convinced that in order to make a couple hundred more bucks a night, we need to have a record, so we invited Buck over to a rehearsal of ours at Bob Bennett’s mom and dad’s house out in Lakewood, with the idea in mind that this is what we do and we’d like to do a record. He agreed; Gerry wrote a song called “Do the Witch” as a dance number, and Buck said, “Nah, I’d like to talk you out of that; dance records don’t last, make it something else.” So Gerry, being the prolific writer that he was said “Oh, okay,” and so he wrote “The Witch.” That’s how it came about, and so he was instrumental in that his record company launched our first two records, “The Witch” and “Psycho,” and the first two albums, he was the force behind that. He used to say, “Getting The Sonics to go somewhere is like trying to push wet noodles up a hill, everybody is going in different directions.” He got us in the studio, and got us to focus, a bunch of 17-year-old boys. So he was instrumental, really, in us getting started. He didn’t tell us what kind of music to play, because you couldn’t do that. You couldn’t go tell the Ramones what kind of music to play, they were playing what they were, and it was the same thing with us, we were playing what we were.”

G: “So, you’ve had the chance to experience music in the 60s and now again, how different is what you’ve experienced from then to now?”

R: “Well, there’s a technological aspect that’s different.When we started playing again, when we played those 2007 shows – see, what happened to the Sonics was, we stopped playing in ’67, and as I’ve explained, we went off and did our different careers and things, and we got back into playing again in 2007. We had missed all that music that was in between. We hadn’t been doing disco, psychedelic music like The Daily Flash, light shows and all that, Bill Graham, we missed all that stuff. The heavy metal stuff, the guys with skin-tight pants and giant white tennis shoes and bare chests, we missed that. We weren’t at bars playing “Eye of the Tiger” and stuff like that; when we started in 2007, we picked up right where we left off in ’67, and started playing the same exact kind of music because that’s what we knew, that’s what we liked. What we discovered on getting back into it again to begin with was technological. Like, when we went to sound check for that first show in New York, we went up on the stage and we’re looking around, and there are these black boxes in the front of the stage, six or eight of them. We said, “What are these boxes?” And they looked at us like we had just been discovered in the jungle, you know? They said, “Those are monitors, you guys.” We were like, “Oh, what do monitors do?” “Well, that’s where you can hear yourself!” “Wow, you can hear yourself? We never had that before. You’d play sax and have no idea what’s coming out. That was part of it. When we got in the studio, back when we recorded those first albums, if you made a mistake, you had to go do the whole take all over again, and now everything’s digital. I can tell a producer, “Ah, in that sax solo, my reed squeaked, I need to do that solo again.” They’ll say, “Oh, no problem, we’ll just get that squeak out of there and we’ll replace it with a note from one of the previous takes you did, so anymore it’s not, “here we go again, take 32.” It’s gone, the recording process has gotten easier. In the ‘60s when we were playing, we didn’t have a tour manager, we didn’t have a sound man. I was the sound man; for the first song, I’d go stand against the far wall and listen to the guys play stuff and go up and say, “Oh, Gerry, I can’t hear your keyboards.” And then we’d play the rest of the night. Now we have a sound man that travels with us all over the world, and a tour manager that puts out flyers and handles everything. Things have changed quite a bit. Also, like I was kind of kidding around, for us on tour back in the 60s, going on tour was going to Spokane and then Moses Lake, we were on tour. Well, we’ve gone to Europe once every year, and sometimes twice, since 2007. We’re combat veterans at going on tour.”

G: “How important do you think the Internet was to the resurgence of the Sonics?”

R: “I think it’s important to everybody. The word would get out, and people could look it up, hear a sample of a song and decide whether or not they liked it. I think it was an important ingredient, because obviously in the 60s it was all word of mouth, just like I described the DJs spinning records at the Sock Hop after the basketball game. Technology, overall, I think has moved everything forward.”

G: “We recently lost Chris Cornell, who was a huge fan of the Sonics. I’ve read things like, when he was listening to music, if it was basically up at the Sonics level or not was his barometer of quality. I was wondering if you had any experience with Chris, or if you were a fan of his work.”

R: “I never met Chris, I did a short recording session in Seattle, the engineer had been their sound man for like 300 shows, and I think we’re gonna use him when we come up there in a month to play in Seattle. I think Soundgarden’s sound dude is gonna be with us at the Seattle Center. I was aware of the band – see, back in the 60s, there were a lot of bands including us and the Wailers, and nobody got out of the Pacific Northwest, nobody escaped, nobody “made it,” except for the Ventures, and they did, but really, no one else did. It was gratifying to me to see the boys in the ‘90s explode on the national music scene; those guys and Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains and Screaming Trees and right down the line, everybody you can think of. I was proud of those guys. We didn’t do it; for whatever reason, those guys all did it, they were all really good in their own way, and I kind of look upon Soundgarden and all those other bands as kind of relatives, they’re Pacific Northwest rock and roll bands.”

G: “I think we figured out what we can expect on July 1st in Seattle, it’s gonna be fun. It’s a great lineup; Thunderpussy, I dunno if you know much about that band but they are on fire.“

R: “Yeah, we met the girls in Iceland when we were doing the Iceland Airwaves festival last year.”

G: “They’re really blowing up in Seattle and they’re fantastic.”

R: “Yeah, we had a good time with them. We were both playing that same festival; we were staying in the same hotel, so we’d all wind up in the lobby together waiting for our rides to take us places.”

Don’t forget to enter the contest for a chance to win tickets to The Vera Project presents Elysian Brewing’s Search Party on July 1 at Seattle Center. Enter HERE.

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