Talent Night at the Ashram, the latest offering from San Francisco's Sonny and the Sunsets, continues the band's unpredictable musical journey. It features pumping new-wave dance rock, '60s girl group R&B, and intimate, cinematic ballads, the latter befitting an album that started out as the soundtrack for a feature-length movie.
“I wrote a bunch of scripts that I wanted to make into films,” says Sonny Smith, the band's singer, songwriter, and namesake. “The idea was to tie them together like [Robert Altman's] Short Cuts, with a few shared characters and a loose story line. It was an ambitious idea. I rented equipment and shot a few segments. I'd met a few Hollywood actors that have a bit of a name and I was dipping my toes in the Hollywood scene to see how you get backing when you have names tied to your project.
“At the same time, I was writing songs with lyrics that would go with each scene and songs to roll during the closing credits, or maybe play in the background, to act as narration underneath certain scenes. I wasn't following any rules. As has happened before, I took more interest in the songwriting and began to let the film slide away. When I realized I didn't have to finish the movie, it became a record. I've been doing this a lot over the years: starting something with the intention of it becoming one thing and watching as it becomes something else.”
Like most of the albums Smith has been involved with, Talent Night at the Ashram, out Feb. 17 on Polyvinyl, didn't follow a linear process. “When I write a song I'm excited about, I call a couple of musician friends, usually starting with a drummer and a bass player, and tell them I want to record. Then we find a place to do it, mostly at my home on a tape machine. As we play the song, we tinker around. There's often a moment in the darkness when we don't know what to do, or how to figure out where it's going. Then someone plays something that sounds right and we chase that piece of fire until we catch it. That take gets dumped onto a computer and then I obsess over it, adding vocals and overdubs. At the end of an afternoon, we usually have something that works.”
Smith says his songs are seldom tied to a concept. When he's written enough good ones to make a record, he puts them together on an album. “I usually do one or two songs at a time, so there's a two year phase from writing the lyrics, and the music coming into focus, to recording the songs. Maybe a little longer this time, because I was thinking about it as a film at first. It's musically diverse, but there's a unifying style in the lyrics. They read like short stories, not the usual pop song format of 'she hurt me and this is how I'm feeling now.'
“There's also a mix of things done in different places, so it feels homemade, as opposed to doing it in a short period of time in a recording studio to get a slick, hi-fi piece of art. That may be appropriate for certain kinds of music, like Fleetwood Mac, but the music I like to make has fingerprints all over it. I like the same in paintings and films. Moments where you can see that a human being sat down and made it. Someday, I may make a hi-fi record like that, but I haven't wanted to yet.”
Like his past records, Talent Night was self-produced. “I don't know if a classic producer would fit into my style or work with me for two years,” Smith says. “I just produced a record for someone else where we were in the studio for a week and did 90 percent of the recording. When you work for 10 or 12 hours a day for a week, it's good to have someone behind you to push things along. When you only do one or two in a week, you don't need an outside producer.”
The sparkling ditties on Talent Night at the Ashram show off Smith's eclectic taste and audacious sonic palette. “Alice Leaves for the Mountains” is a dreamy folk/rock tune that sounds like Crosby, Stills and Nash, backed by Pearls Before Swine. The dark, mysterious tone of “Secret Plot” is lightened by accents suggesting flamenco guitars and classical pianists unwinding on a late-night binge. Smith sings the verses of “Happy Carrot Health Food Store” against a bare bones Latin rhythm created by the tapping of claves. The band comes in playing a simple '50s rock progression, augmented by a twang-heavy electric sitar, before moving into a smooth, wistful groove that supports a fragmented spoken word narrative delivered by a character longing for a relationship that fell apart.
“The dialogue is taken from one of the film scripts I wrote for the project,” Smith says. “It's a dream-like segment where he realizes that going into the health food store is like taking mushrooms. There may only be a select few people out there that know what I mean by that, so hopefully the song will find them.”
When Sonny and the Sunsets play The Chapel on Saturday, Feb. 21, they won't be doing the songs on Ashram the way they were recorded. With Shayde Sartin on bass, drummer Ian McBrayer, fiddler/guitarist Dylan Edrich and Sonny singing and playing guitar, they'll be taking new approaches to Sonny's impressive catalog of tunes. “There are no rules or regulations when I'm writing or performing,” Smith says. “The fun part of touring is changing old songs around and getting the new songs to sound different.”