Listening to Antenna to the Afterworld, the latest from Sonny & the Sunsets, you'd be hard pressed to guess that a psychic and Blade Runner played integral roles in its creation. Like previous efforts, Antenna marries the band's not-of-this-century aesthetic with songwriter Sonny Smith's intriguing narratives.
Jessica, the psychic in question, is actually a friend of Smith's, part of a community of friends in his adopted home of San Francisco. His band mates — guitarist Tahlia Harbour, bass player Ryan Browne and drummer Kelley Stoltz — gave Smith a session with her as a gift. "She said there was a person there that wanted to visit with me," he says, describing how his friend became a medium for the deceased. "Her eyes didn't roll back like in the movies, but she was embodied. It was a trip."
The experience, coupled with a pair of deaths close to Smith, put mortality and the after-life on the artist's mind. "All the questions of the unknown became connected to aliens, all the stuff we don't know." The songs started pouring out of him.
Smith's prolificacy as a songwriter is no secret; he's released four albums with the Sunsets in the last five years and dropped three instalments of his 100 Records project in between. Because of the steady output, many believe Smith's albums are calculated exercises in genre and style, which couldn't be further from the truth. Even with 100 Records, where Smith wrote, recorded and packaged music for a series of fictional artists he'd created, genre wasn't as important as finding the right artistic voice for each character.
"People are always kind of assuming or thinking that you got it all figured out before you do it and then you just implement it," he says. Even his music career evolved out of a desire to write movies; characters and plots he hatched for a series of screenplays became central to the narrative of his earliest songwriting ventures. Smith says most of the artists he knows create without a clear end goal. "They're just scratching in the dark."
Case in point, Antenna features a healthy dose of synths, adding a new dimension to a sound that was, heretofore, firmly rooted in '60s rock and R&B traditions. After Smith's interest in aliens was piqued, he rifled through stacks of sci-fi books and films. Their influence can be heard in many of the album's lyrics, but while rewatching Blade Runner, his focus was drawn to the soundtrack composed by legendary electronic pioneer Vangelis. "I've always loved the score." After discovering that the Greek musician used a Roland Juno on the film, he bought a cheap one off of Craigslist. Its tasteful use throughout the album gives Antenna a wholly unique sound in the Sunsets discography, helping to make it the band's best effort yet.
"I just used it," says Smith nonchalantly, once again emphasizing the importance of following one's artistic muse. "Those kinds of things aren't conscious, shrewd decisions where artists make a round table decision like a business. Maybe some creepy bands do that shit. Buy you got to not think about that stuff. Whatever turns your crank at that time."