Janet Weiss (Quasi, Sleater-Kinney, Wild Flag) Talks Sonny and the Sunsets’ Antenna to the Afterworld

For the past 20 years, throughout my continuing course as a rock & roll drummer, my paramount aspiration has been to get through to someone — to...

For the past 20 years, throughout my continuing course as a rock & roll drummer, my paramount aspiration has been to get through to someone — to create music, songs, records meant to communicate in fundamental and primal ways.  Strangely, reaching out to others involves a candid, frank and healthy dose of introspection.  For me, music at its most vital and real is emotionally charged and extremely personal. I spend inexhaustible hours investigating the bands I love — inspecting lyrics, liner notes, and photos for meaning.  But mostly, I listen — I  drop the needle on the record and let it wash over me.  Good music, music I like, makes me feel an alluring combination of emotions.  The experience is mysterious!  To what am I responding? Is it the melodies, the lyrics, the chords, the sound of the bass?  And what of the story of the musician… does it matter?  After all of my searching, reading, probing into context and setting, does a greater understanding of why an artist makes something enhance my capacity to enjoy it?

Little did I know that the new Sonny and the Sunsets album Antenna to the Afterworld would provide an excellent test case for this question. One thing is certain, I should have paid more attention to the album title.

I liked Antenna to the Afterworld straight out of the gate.  It’s a rough-and-tumble summer record, a BBQ scorcher that brims with a familiar charm.  The main voice, imperfect and sweet, is instantly welcoming. I listen to the unpolished (that is a compliment) record many times, not just because I am going to write about it, but because, even without knowing much about it, or Sonny Smith, I am compelled to.  Antenna to the Afterworld makes me feel good, sort of happy, and excited to walk my dogs with it in my headphones. Most of the songs remind me of other songs: “Dark Corners” could be a sibling to the War on Drugs song “Brother”; “Path of Orbit” is an obvious nod to the Stones classic, “Time Is on My Side”; “Natural Acts” mines Wilco’s “Handshake Drugs.”  But I love all of those tunes, so I’m not too bothered.  “Mutilator” is pure sunshine, with its beautifully melodic and bouncy bass, a story about a girl, reverb-drenched ooh’s, and a foot-tapping, singable chorus — “Mutilator, you send shivers down my spine.”  I am once again reminded of my favorite Wilco songs. I’m not exactly sure who the Mutilator is, but what a great word, and what a cool song.

The gratification I am feeling has not so much to do with what the song is really about, but the whimsy I feel as I listen to it.  “Palmreader,” with its jangly, clean strumming, and simple, forward-moving rhythm, harkens back to the sound of New Zealand’s Flying Nun label, calling to mind songs like “Anything Could Happen” by the Clean.  (Another song and band I adore.) Sonny and his Sunsets are loose and unpretentious on the effortless “Girl on the Street.”  And, as if it’s 1985 San Francisco (check out Donner Party’s “Surfing to the Moon”), they bust out a surf-tinged instrumental number, “Death Scene.”  “Void” is low-fi confection, crossing into Guided by Voices territory with its catchy simplicity.  And there’s “Earth Girl,” a page directly torn out of Camper Van Beethoven’s quirky playbook.  The playful, offbeat album closer, “Green Blood,” kicks off with a childlike conversation between Sonny and a deadpan girl (who sounds like an innocent Kim Gordon) about an ill-fated love with what turns out to be a married alien.  As the record ends, the culmination of these upbeat, breezy songs leaves me feeling carefree and pleased.

I decide it’s time to research more about the band and Sonny.  Turns out they’re from San Francisco, he is a Renaissance man who writes plays and poetry as well as a prolific output of imaginative albums.  I am not surprised there are connections to one of my favorite San Francisco non-corporate rockers, Thee Oh Sees’ John Dwyer.  I read bits about the record, the official one-sheet, a few reviews.

And then comes the shocker: it turns out that Antenna to the Afterworld is a concept album — inspired by the death of a close friend of Sonny Smith.

What?  Now I’m confused.  I heard Antenna to the Afterworld  as a cheerful, buoyant summer record, full of playful pop gems — like the Shins’ Oh Inverted World or Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain — a top-down, wind-in-your-hair affair.  I completely missed the boat on the notion that it is a concept album written in response to a tragic life event.  And this really makes me wonder, do I need to know why a song was created for it to be meaningful?  Must knowing the artist’s reasoning inform the actual act of listening?

I think back on records that have stories behind them. Certainly I am interested in knowing the tales.  I have eagerly watched many an episode of Behind the Music or Classic Albums.  However, does knowingExile on Main Street was, in every way, a difficult album to make alter the fact that when I listen, it sounds uninhibited, fluid, easy and perfect? I don’t think so.  The sincere, unpolluted act of creating my own custom-designed, complex web of understanding is what truly fuses me with the music I love. And makes me less alone.

Sonny and the Sunsets

daniel just emailed me the login info to respond to this. i thought i might add, that i think 2112 is a concept record but i don’t think this is. i think there’s just enough tunes on here exploring sci fi stuff or death or afterworld stuff to make a few people say it’s a concept but i don’t think it is. not in the sense of 2112 or something. and yeah, the original impulse to write about the afterworld came from not only the death of a friend, but the visit of a different dead person at a session with a psychic/medium. so death was around a little. but in the press sheet that all gets kinda narrowed down, simplified, and then the media looking for a story to bite into, well, it’s melodrama, thats why you were suprised to find out this ‘dark’ story behind a fun record. i tried to fix the press sheet blurb a bit, it was even heavier handed on the whole death of a friend thing before i got to it, it was a bit of struggle with the label. not only as you mention “must knowing the artist’s reasoning inform the actual act of listening?” you have to add to that, what do we really know even after we have read about this stuff.

Janet Weiss lives in Portland, Oregon, where she plays drums in Quasi and Sleater-Kinney. She loves dogs and horses, and enjoys producing good records. You can follow her on Twitter here.