Sonny Vincent interview
Originally published in Zombie Creeping Flesh fanzine.
Sonny Vincent has been a punk rocker since 1976. He spent his formative years fronting The Testors in New York City’s early CBGB milieu alongside bands like the Dead Boys and The Cramps. Projecting the image of an archetypical New York punk underdog with an attitude, he went on to sing and play guitar in The Model Prisoners, The Extremes, Shotgun Rationale and countless other groups. Extreme hard-headedness and a bad reputation have marked his path ever since, as well as a habit of turning up his guitar amp too loud. Go and see him live whenever he’s playing on your turf to hear what I mean.
Rarely one to record more than a 7” single with any particular outfit, Sonny managed to release four full-length albums with Shotgun Rationale between 1989 and 1994. For the remainder of the 90s, Sonny Vincent mostly collaborated with merited punk rock veterans such as Cheetah Chrome of the Dead Boys, Captain Sensible of The Damned and Scott Asheton of The Stooges for a succession of album and single releases, while at the same time touring particularly the European continent with fervour. Due to his fierce live shows, he soon became one of the underground’s best-loved contemporary exponents of Stooges-derived destructo-rock’n'roll.
Sonny Vincent’s 2003 show at a Camden Town bar in London was the last I heard of him. The gig was part of his European tour, and once again Sonny wheeled in an impressive line-up, sharing guitar duties with Ivan Julian courtesy of Richard Hell’s Voidoids, while an achingly skinny-legged Bobby Steele (of the early Misfits) tormented his bass strings with a merciless series of downstrokes. It was a classic Sonny Vincent show: raw, gutsy and from the heart – and as usual, the sheer volume was something to remember him by.
In conversation, Sonny makes a friendly and sweet impression: a fun guy to hang out with, and one who has a lot of entertaining stories to tell. At the same time, there is little doubt that this man has an overbearing confidence, and quite possibly a huge ego, which may well be a reason why he went through so many different bands in his life.
Things have been rather quiet on the Sonny Vincent front since, so if anybody knows more about his current whereabouts, leave a comment.
ZZ: Sonny, why do you always have so many punk rock celebrities playing on your records? From a purely musical point of view, does it really make such a massive difference whether it’s Captain Sensible playing the bass or some other, maybe lesser known musician?
SV: Oh, that’s a big difference. When I choose musicians, it’s like an artist choosing his palette of colours. I don’t get them just because they’re famous, I really think about their style and how it would suit my music. I’m very lucky because most musicians in the world will play with me, so I have the freedom to choose them how I like. As for Captain Sensible: in addition to being a really sweet and great man, he’s a fantastic bass player.
ZZ: To what extent is the music completely under your control, and to what extent do you permit your backing musicians to influence it?
SV: It’s very egotistical on my part: I control it from the beginning until the end. If someone has an idea that sounds really cool, I’ll have a listen. But mostly, it’s my own vision. If you have too many people cooking one dish, it becomes crazy. It’s no good, at least from my experience.
ZZ: Even though you were been predominately living and playing in Europe in the 90s, you once went to the US just to audition 300 musicians for a tour. Why do that rather than audition European musicians?
SV: I prefer American musicians because in Europe they don’t have the same environments in their neighbourhoods. We’re lucky, we grow up around a lot of black people. We grow up with motown and soul, and that’s what creates a certain vibe all over the neighbourhood. My music is called New York Punk Rock. If you listen to the New York bands, there’s a certain amount of swing in the music. Whereas if you listen to the English bands, it’s very tight, very rigid: (imitates a fast, insistent 1-2-1-2 rhythm) duh-duh-duh-duh-duh, I want anarchyyyy!, dud-duh-duh-duh…
It’s very stiff and very white. The New York bands swing, like Johnny Thunders and so on. I can’t find that swing in Europe. I’m sure it exists, but I haven’t found it yet. It’s more of a mixed culture in the US. If you grow up in a place where you hear Spanish music from one house, and motown from another, and maybe Wagner playing in a third… that’s a lot of different cultures influencing you. But if you only hear AC/DC and Led Zeppelin growing up, that’s a more limited culture. I don’t want to make anybody pissed off, but it’s just my opinion.
ZZ: Your first band were the Testors, which you formed in 1976. Can you tell me something about those early years, and what was it that made you want to play music?
SV: I just knew I wanted to do music. When I was in kindergarten and they were teaching us how to read, they showed us those pictures that showed the mother, the father, the policeman, the bus driver, and so on…you know, those picture from books to teach children how to read? You would always see the father cutting the grass and the mother washing the dishes. And I thought: I’m not gonna be cutting the grass! That’s when I knew I would do something out the ordinary.
The Testors were one of my first bands. At first we very really experimental. My songs in the very early Testors, none of which were ever recorded, all consisted of only one part. Normal rock’n'roll songs have three or four parts, whether the really early Testors only had one.
ZZ: Something along the lines of early Lydia Lunch‘s Teenage Jesus?
SV: Exactly. Later we had two parts, and then three, and then four… (laughs).
ZZ: Tell me about the first Testors show ever.
SV: We played our first show at CBGB’s. The other two guys had never been on stage before. I had been on stage three times before, so I thought I was the big expert of the whole world, talking down to the other guys: “Guys, in the music business it’s like this and that…”
I told them: if you play a wrong note, don’t look embarrassed, just pretend you’ve just played the best thing ever. We had thirty-two songs on our set list, and we practiced them in the same order every day. I told them “no matter what happens, keep playing and finish the song.”
When we showed up, the CBGB’s was filled with people. I said to the drummer “listen, we can’t play our first song, this crowd is gonna hate it. We’ll start with the second one.” The drummer got so excited he almost fainted because we had always been rehearsing the set in the same order! Then I went over to the guitar player: “look dude, I can see the first three songs aren’t gonna work with these people. Start with number four.” He looked at the set list confused and began to sweat.
When the drummer counted us in, I started playing the 8th song. Obviously, all you could hear then was just one big noise. My band looked at each other, and then at me helplessly: “Where do I go now, what’s happening? Sonny said never stop until the song’s finished…”
So I was doing a kind of performance art on the audience and my own group. Finally, when the noise went down after about three minutes, I there was a few seconds of silence and then loud applause and cheering from the crowd.
That’s when I knew: I can do anything. And that’s when I really went crazy, when I knew I could do anything.
ZZ: The Testors also played shows with the Dead Boys at the CBGB. Were the Dead Boys really as wild and self-destructive as their reputation goes?
SV: Oh no, not at all. Stiv Bators was a very sweet and very friendly guy. Backstage, Stiv was the mother hen of the band. He was putting hairspray in all the other guys’ hair, getting everything ready, asking them whether they were okay or nervous… and then when he got on stage, he suddenly turned into this animal, shouting and knocking everything over. He was really nice, I liked Stiv a lot. They weren’t very self-destructive. When they did their first album, they were only drinking beer. Then later other stuff, but that was much later.
ZZ: Did you expect commercial success when you first started?
SV: Our dream was: here we are, and then the world will come around to where we are. And then you’ll have commercial success. But we never dreamed of making music to match the world.
ZZ: How do you survive then, you don’t seem to be selling enough records to support yourself?
SV: I always seem to make it until the next tour. I’ve got a couple of friends with these nice credit cards, and after the tour they come back to remind me how much I owe them. They’re kind of supporting the arts.
ZZ: It must be nice to have sponsors.
SV: Well, they’re not really sponsors, because a sponsor would just give you the money. They just lend me money when I’m really broke, but I always pay them back after the tour.
ZZ: On your website you’re complaining about major labels not being supportive of ‘the scene’. What scene are you referring to? You don’t seem much of a ‘scenester’ to me, you seem more of an outsider type.
SV: (laughs) There is no scene, that’s why!
Seriously: everybody knows that nowadays big labels don’t do the right thing. In the 1960s, if you had a couple a groups make it, then thirty or forty more would come along with them. First you had the Beatles, then the Stones, the Kinks, the Who, and so on. But nowadays they only take a couple of bands and they pump tons of money into them. When you listen to the radio, they just play their two or three big sellers over and over again.
In the early 90s, for example, it was Nirvana and Whitney Houston. It wasn’t Nirvana, Mudhoney, Lemonheads, and so on, do you see what I mean? It was Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Nirvana – those strange corporate blocks. That’s what I was writing about: they’re not supporting any scenes or musical movements, they just pick a couple of money-makers. Sometimes they try, but even then they get it all wrong. When Nirvana made it, they went to Seattle and signed up Pearl Jam, thinking “they’re from Seattle too, they’re the same”. It didn’t sound the same to me, though.
ZZ: I don’t like either band that much, so I shouldn’t talk.
SV: Well, I’m not gonna say much either. Except there was one band that I liked, and one band that was not my cup of tea. And the one that was not my cup of tea started with a P (laughs).
ZZ: Are there any up-and-coming bands that you yourself support?
SV: What do mean, send them food in the mail and stuff?
ZZ: Hahaha. No, do you help any bands to get signed, or do you take any with you on tour to open up for you?
SV: Yeah sure, of course. I saw a band in Milwaukee once that was really good: Wanda Chrome and the Leather Pharaohs. Because I tour a lot, I meet the promoters personally. So I booked a tour for them.
ZZ: I once saw them play live in Paris, I thought they were great.
SV: Yeah, I booked their first tour for them.
ZZ: So when you see a new band, do you find it important that they can play really well, or do you believe in that 1977 punk ethos “anybody can do it?”
SV: It depends on who it is. You mentioned Lydia Lunch before: none of the musicians back in those days had a lot of experience, but they had lots of talent in their own way. If you go into a music store, you’ll probably find a guy with a guitar who knows every note that was ever done, and he just sits there shredding away trying to impress everybody. To me that guy is like a secretary who can type really fast.
ZZ: They never play in good bands, they just spend their lives shredding away in those stores, don’t they?
SV: Yeah. If you’re a writer and want to write a book, it doesn’t matter how fast you do the typewriter. Some famous writers type really slowly, letter for letter. But six months later they have a masterpiece. Whereas the secretary might type at lightning speed, but she doesn’t write masterpieces, she writes business letters. Some of those guitar guys are more like the secretary: they might have the technique, but they haven’t got the soul.
If it’s coming from the heart, it doesn’t matter whether it’s fast or slow, whether it’s primitive or sophisticated. What Nick Cave does is very sophisticated, and he only uses very good musicians. But his music is really soulful and deep. Then you might get another group that has more or less the same sound and can play as well, but what they’re doing is phoney and fake.
ZZ: Do you believe in the rock’n'roll way of life: sex and drugs and rock and roll? Or are you one of those who find that dumb and want to be different to that?
SV: Do I believe in it? I don’t think nowadays it applies anymore. Where I grew up, I knew that if you walked through town with a guitar, the girls would like it: “Who’s that, is he famous?”. I don’t know if it works today or not… (pauses) But I got into music for the music.
ZZ: A lot of your songs have a somewhat melancholic feel to them. The word ‘lonely’ makes a frequent appearance. Did you have a lot of bad luck in your life?
SV: Oh yeah, I had some hard times. I was in jail a bunch of times. My life has been very much an up and down.
ZZ: There’s a great song you did with Shotgun Rationale called Black Book. It sounds like it was written in difficult times, but at the same time it’s very powerful and full of hope.
SV: Well, there was one time in my life where I felt that if I don’t reach the audience that I would like with my music, if it’s documented, then maybe at least some day later people will enjoy it. And then I was reading Jean-Paul Sartre, the philosopher, who said that this is a stupid idea, because if you aren’t there to see what’s going on, it’s usually all fucked up… anyway, you shouldn’t read too much, it gets you down. Read comic books (laughs).
Black Book is a defiant song. It goes: Too much pain / but it made me strong / too much rain / now my sun screams on / got me a little black book I keep in my brain / all the people and institutions, I’ll never be the same. The black book is like a little address book in the back of your head, things you will never forget. There’s a lot of anger in that song.
ZZ: Did you mean by that that at some point you’ll go through the black book and get back at all the people and institutions who were against you?
SV: Yeah, but I don’t really do that. In fact, when I have troubles, I seem to forget it. I was just trying to put it in a poetic way.
ZZ: You use a lot of poetic expressions in your lyrics anyway, which is not that common in punk rock. Do you have any idols in poetry, anybody who influenced you a lot?
SV: I don’t really have any idols in poetry, more in literature. As far as poetry goes, I like Jim Morrison a lot, he’s very ‘out there’. And also all the usual people like Rimbaud, but no one I really want to talk about, because everybody’s already mentioned them so much.
ZZ: You played a lot with Mo Tucker of The Velvet Underground, who is from an entirely different generation of musicians. How did she initially cope with your rather hard and fast music? Was it difficult for her to adapt to that style?
SV: (laughs) Mo is really cool. We once went on tour with Half Japanese: me and Mo and Half Japanese constituted one band. We would do half Mo Tucker songs and half Jad Fair songs for the shows. But then Jad had to go home because he got sick, so we ended up doing half Mo Tucker songs and the other half my Shotgun Rationale songs. It was really cool, because it was very loud and very fast, and Mo was just killer, it was great!
Mo has a very specific taste, her biggest idol is Bo Diddley. But she doesn’t mind if it’s fast and loud, she just doesn’t like heavy metal. She does like the raw rock’n'roll stuff, though, even if it’s fast and loud. Same as me.
ZZ: What is in your opinion the special something about punk rock which sets it apart from all other forms of rock?
SV: That the people who are making it realise that if they want to go directly to where the money is, maybe they’re not choosing the right way. And that means that they have a little bit more dedication. When people are doing it from their feelings and because they have something to say, it just seems more culturally important than whatever they play on the radio.
ZZ: What is it that you have to say?
SV: I’ve got a lot to say. But today I want to say something about voting. Do you go voting in elections? The next time you’re about to go and you look at the newspaper or television, a man comes on with a really nice face; he has a couple of nice children and a dog, and they will show his backyard with all the flowers. He’s a family man that is trying to speak honest to the people, and he will say: “I want what’s best for the community.”
Don’t vote for this asshole ’cause he’s a lying, fucking actor. What I suggest, when you vote, pick the ugliest and stupidest man. Because the ugliest, stupidest one is probably only half of an asshole – he can only lie so much. If you’re lucky, you might get some truth out of the ugly, stupid guy. But the pretty, lying one – don’t vote for him.
(c) Zuri Zone
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Tags: dead boys, garage punk, garage rock, mc5, Music, new york punk, Punk, punk rock, rock and roll, sonny vincent, stooges