Sonny Smith is, by his own admission, a late bloomer.
“It wasn’t until I was about 25 that I was like, ‘Oh, music is what I want to do,’ ” the frontman and driving force behind the indie pop outfit Sonny and the Sunsets says from his apartment in the Sunset District. “Compared to people I meet today, who make records while they’re still in high school, it took me a while to figure out what I was doing.”
Before he figured it all out, Smith worked various odd jobs, manning the door at Make-Out Room and the Roxie and trying his hand at carpentry and gutter construction. Though he’d been writing songs since he was about 18 — “Really goopy, emotional, badly written songs,” Smith says — it took a stint of world traveling in his mid-20s to motivate him commit to songwriting.
Fast forward two decades, and Smith, now in his 40s, has turned making music with Sonny and the Sunsets into a full-time endeavor that even pays the bills. The group’s latest album, Moods Baby Moods, released last May and produced by tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus, was recorded in a studio in Smith’s mother’s garage and in his apartment in the Sunset. Using eclectic and occasionally sugary sweet pop melodies, it tackles everything from antiheroes and social media-induced emotional whiplash to police brutality and climate change. The more socially conscious subject matter somehow manages to work atop Smith’s playful compositions, and is kept afloat by bouncing beats, frazzled guitars, and spaced-out sound effects. The track “White Cops on Trial” — which takes on the all-too-common exoneration of White police officers responsible for shooting people of color (and the voyeurism of a public enthralled by the court proceedings) — deals with heady subject matter, but is packaged within an upbeat, zippy melody, and a trebly synth interlude.
“It’s scrambled. It’s messed up in there. But hopefully in a good way,” Smith says of the split-personality album. “The last time I listened to it, I was like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe we made this!’”
Like the other entries in Sonny and the Sunsets’ discography, Moods Baby Moods was nothing short of a group effort. Since its inception, the band has taken an open-door approach to its lineup, pulling countless members from the Bay Area music community (like Kelley Stoltz and former Girls member Garett Goddard).
“I need fresh material all the time and sometimes the way I can get fresh material is by collaborating with different people,” Smith says. “I’m a musical slut, and I like to get around.”
Smith’s insistence on collaboration as an integral element of his creative process dates back to his days honing his songwriting chops while living in the Mission surrounded by people trying to do the exact same thing.
“I met a lot of people in the same boat as me, just figuring out how to use tape machines and make albums in their living rooms because they couldn’t afford studios,” he says. He’s hesitant to describe that moment in San Francisco music history as “DIY” or “grassroots,” though he’s quick to admit it’s largely over. As he sees it, many bands have ditched that innovative, lo-fi-friendly spirit and embraced studio-based recording. The city has followed suit, closing many of the hubs that fostered that type of innovation by providing a live stage for its creators.
Still, it would be inaccurate to envision Smith as some kind of San Francisco musical relic longing for bygone days from the city’s golden age. He’s well aware of the changes happening right now — especially those brought on by the tech-driven era we find ourselves entrenched in — and the very real consequences those changes foster. And he’s more interested in addressing them than getting nostalgic. When the Oakland Ghost Ship fire comes up in our conversation, it’s right on the heels of our discussion of how San Francisco has transformed from the city you move to make art in to the city you move to in order to make your app.
“Less artists are able to live here and they get pushed to the margins,” Smith says. “One could easily say that they get pushed to the margins into warehouses in Oakland that don’t have good fire codes. And then tragedies happen.”
Smith was at home when he learned about the Ghost Ship fire through a text from a friend. He had previously lived in Fruitvale, not too far from the Ghost Ship warehouse and the BART station where Oscar Grant was killed by BART police in 2009.
“Fruitvale has always been an interesting area for me,” he says. “It’s been connected to a lot of tragedy.”
In spite of everything (and we mean everything: the housing crisis, skyrocketing rents brought on by the tech boom, the Ghost Ship fire, the shrinking artist community across the region), Smith is looking forward to the future of the Bay Area.
“Cities go through phases. Sometimes it feels like the phase you’re in is just how it’s going to be forever,” he says. “But that’s never true.”
Here’s to hoping he’s right.
Sonny and the Sunsets play with Emotional at 9 p.m., Friday, Jan. 6, at Great American Music Hall. $16-$18; slimspresents.com