By Noma Faingold
Don’t try to pigeonhole Sonny Smith. He is a musician, songwriter, producer, entrepreneur, illustrator, playwright and fiction writer. Now, since he started his own record label, Rocks in Your Head last fall, he can add discoverer of talent and promoter to the list his skills.
The 46-year-old San Francisco native and current Sunset District resident has raised more than $20,000 through crowd funding and released two albums this year. One is called, “Hairdressers from Heaven,” by his established band, Sonny and the Sunsets. The second album is a compilation of San Francisco acts, “Hot Sick Vile & Fun,” featuring such relatively unknown bands as Galore, The Gonks and April Magazine.
He is producing the first album of The Gonks, a four-woman band, which he describes as similar to the simple, yet moody sound of 1980s London-based Tronics and early Velvet Underground. It’s scheduled to be released in October.
“I was thinking about artists to put out. Artists I know and artists I like from faraway places,” Smith said. “I thought, ‘That’s dumb. Why don’t I just look in my backyard.’ Once I decided it would be more San Francisco-oriented, I went on an odyssey of my own to see what the heck was happening here. I hadn’t particularly been paying attention. I play some gigs, but not that much. I started to look around and discovered a lot of bands I didn’t know.”
Smith produced the compilation record, which was released in July.
“I invited the bands into the studio and helped them record their songs. The record has a cohesive sound by virtue of the fact that I had a hand in it, yet they are disparate bands within it. There’s a lot going on in that record.”
The compilation consists of 15 acts and 17 tracks, including the piano-accompanied spoken word, “I Waited,” by Grace Cashmere (also known as Grace Sings Sludge) and “Always,” a melodic, mid-tempo rock song by April Magazine.
Smith is a guitar player who has been making a living as a musician for the past 10 years, grew up in Fairfax in Marin County and traveled for several years after graduating high school before returning to San Francisco.
“I came back to start a life,” he says. “It was the ‘90s and the Mission was where it was at for a musician.”
Currently, Smith lives with his girlfriend of four years, Sarah Moore. Plus, he co-parents his 15-year-old son, Oliver, with Oliver’s mother, who also lives in the Sunset.
Smith is primarily known as a songwriter, “But I don’t like the tag,” he says. He is often put in the garage rock or psych rock genres, which he doesn’t agree with.
“I have jumped around a lot of different categories,” he says. “I have some records that are quite stripped back in the garage rock mold. But my identity online is quite chaotic.”
Perhaps the most eclectic, ambitious project he orchestrated was “100 Records,” which started out as a lark in 2010. He was working on a novel about the music scene he was part of so he made up fictitious names of artists and bands.
“Creating characters was like writing songs,” he says. “At some point, it just morphed into a music project. It was all my invention.”
He shelved the novel and commissioned dozens of visual artists to create 45 r.p.m. cover art for the fake bands. He worked with numerous musicians to record a song for each act. A carpenter friend constructed a jukebox and the multi-media installation was exhibited at a gallery in San Francisco.
“Some of the bands became real out of that project,” Smith says. “Actual albums were made and went out into the world. Earth Girl Helen Brown is still around. The Fuckaroos is another one, a country band who toured and made some recordings. Danny Dusk and the Twilights also made records.”
It makes sense that Smith, who admits to needing multiple outlets for his creativity, would want to operate his own label.
“But, I didn’t want to just put out my own records,” he said. “That would be boring.”
Smith thought he knew a good amount about the record industry before he founded Rocks in Your Head. However, he became an expert in six months and is aware how difficult it is to make a profit.
“There are a lot of people operating independently and that’s inspiring,” he says. “People are trying to break the rules and succeeding. That’s exciting. I’m trying to break the rules. But I don’t have any delusions of grandeur.”
Sonny and the Sunsets, which has existed since 2010, is fluid in its lineup. Usually four members will perform together, but Smith describes the band as more of “an art collective.”
“People coming and going as their life phase allows. The sound changes. That is very important to me. I don’t think I would like it as much if everything was the same. I would freak out. Things get stale really easily for me,” he says. “I am happy to have the same couch for 20 years, but I don’t need to play the same song the same way twice.”