If you put on music by The Sonics, chances are you almost immediately wonder if your speakers are going to blow out. The famed northwest band, credited by many for starting – or at least dramatically popularizing – the garage rock sound in the 60s, rose to prominence after their hit song, “The Witch,” and hit record, Here Are The Sonics, hit stands in 1964. With it came the booming instrumentation and distorted vocals of soon-to-be icons. An influence for countless groups, including Nirvana, The Sonics have remained an important touchstone when considering the Seattle-area music scene ever since. And now, nearly 55 years since the album dropped, we thought we should catch up with one of the band’s original main members, bassist Andy Parypa, brother of guitarist Larry, who founded the group in the early 60s, to talk with him about those early years creating the music, who the band’s contemporaries were and what bonded the group as they cut their first single.
KEXP: How did The Sonics set up a room to record?
Andy Parypa: Well, it all depends on which studio you’re referring to. There was one in downtown Tacoma, Wiley/Griffith studio, and we had to tear all the insulation off the wall. They had egg cartons to dampen the sound and we took them all down. And there was another studio we played in on 6th Avenue in Tacoma - we redlined all of his meters when we were there. He was worried the tubes were going to pop.
What about when you set up to rehearse?
Oh, we’d set up wherever. In somebody’s living room, either my mom and dad’s or somebody in the band’s. We’d just make a lot of racket.
It seems like you were trying to rip through your speakers with sound. Was that the strategy?
That’s just the way we played. That’s just what came out. Bob Bennett was a powerful drummer and we played to him. I used to refer to it as sounding like a train wreck.
What was the collective impulse, do you think, that pushed you all to play so loud and powerful?
It was just the way my brother Larry played, he was the instigator of that. He and Bob Bennett both. And we all took to it. We just liked playing like that. We just got up there and sizzled a little bit. I think about that band, The Wailers, around at that time, too. They were loud and very forceful and to us that was the way rock ‘n’ roll was supposed to sound.
Did you focus much on creating your bass sound?
It was kind of a process of finding the right combination of bass and amp. I eventually stumbled onto a Fender electric bass and I bought a Fender bass amp. I’d gone through a series of amps, various different ones like Dual Showmans, Sunn 200S, Ampegs, that kind of stuff. Guitar players are always trying to work on their sound but bass players, I guess, are no different. I wanted to get a good bass sound but it wasn’t hard to do with a Fender bass and tube amplifiers, as opposed to transistor amps these days that take a lot of fun out of the playing.
What do you remember about the day the band recorded “The Witch”?
We recorded it in July 1964. It didn’t take all day, probably only about several hours. I’m sure we took several takes, though I don’t know how many. It took a little time to get set up. The recording engineer, I can’t remember the guy’s name, he was worried about his equipment, the meters and distortion levels. They wanted to keep things under a certain mark so there wouldn’t be distortion. But we didn’t care if it distorted or not – matter of fact, we wanted it to. So, we pretty much went along as best we could, this compromise between us and the engineer.
What was the energy in the room like then?
It was just like everything else we did for the most part. We played with a lot of energy. It was just a natural evolvement. When Bob Bennett came into the group, it kind of sealed the deal. My brother, Larry, he liked to get it on a little and make his guitar have a certain sound – it wasn’t something we sat down and contemplated and mapped out. It was the natural feel of things.
Can you talk about the significance of the Tacoma club scene for you at the time?
Well, there weren’t that many things going on. There was the Crescent Ballroom, that was the big place to play in Tacoma then. And we played in this place called the Gaslight Club on 1st Avenue down in Old Tacoma. We played at a place in South Tacoma called The Red Carpet – both Gaslight and The Red Carpet were teen night clubs. The Crescent was a dance joint. People used to dance in those days and so it had a big dance floor. It would accommodate 1,000 or more people. Those were the three major places. Down south [in Olympia], we’d play the Evergreen Ballroom, which was an interesting place to play. They painted a stripe down the dance floor indicating which side was for adults who could drink and which side was for kids who couldn’t drink, at least legally.
And then we played the Lake City Teen Club. The Sonics, we didn’t play so-called venues that people play in today. They were teen dance joints. High school dances for this, that and for whatever occasion. Not formal dances – but I remember our own high school had a Homecoming and we played for that. We had a big fight with the audience that night – but that’s a whole ‘nother story. The Wailers, they played the Crescent Ballroom, too. The Wailers were my favorite band at the time in Tacoma – I didn’t know too many outside that.
Did those mid-60s years feel particularly special to you then?
For a while, yeah. During the first album especially. There weren’t that many bands out there recording stuff in those days, not locally at least. Yeah, it was special. When “The Witch” first came out, KJR had this Top-50 list and we debuted at number-26 after a month of airplay. That was really exciting, to have a record that took off like that. Then the first album, some things about that were pretty good. A good part of that album was stuff that we did at gigs and performances, which were predominately written by other people. I think we did like four-five originals on that album. By the time the second album came out, things got a little more routine and mundane. We kind of lost that edge that we first had when it was all new to us and exciting.
Who did you feel were the band’s musical peers during that time?
I can’t remember exactly. But the Wailers, they had a hit record nationally so they were well known in the northwest. They were Tacoma’s pop band. There was also a group called Little Bill and the Blue Notes. Little Bill still performs from time to time today. So, those were the two bands that were well established when we were starting. But it took us a while to get to the point where we were on the same level and playing the same venues and gigs as those two groups. Some of our other contemporaries, I can’t remember. The Imperials were one, but there were others - some would stop, fold and then those members would start a new band.
How educated do you think your fans were about The Sonics’ musical influences?
At the time, it never occurred to me. We were playing a lot of stuff that everybody else was playing. We played a lot of the Top-40, Top-50 radio that suited us. We liked a lot of the R&B stuff, James Brown and people like that. Wilson Pickett. So, we did a lot of that too. Our stuff was pretty incongruent sounding. It didn’t quite fit the rest of what we did, the stuff that we were recording. As a matter of fact, about the only songs of ours we played live on a continual basis was “The Witch” and “Psycho.” Those did really well here. “The Witch,” of course. It also did well down in the Bay Area and other sections of the U.S. That was our biggest one, I guess.
What impact did you parents have on the band?
Oh, they were just nothing but encouraging. They thought it was great that Larry and I were playing music and doing well at it. Having fun with it. They encouraged us all the way from the very beginning. I remember my mother actually bought a little piano for me. I fiddled around with it but gave it up after realizing it had too many keys on it. I bagged it for electric bass – four strings is a lot easier to play without a whole lot of training.
Do you remember what the band did the night you released Here Are The Sonics?
We were playing regularly at that time, playing a lot of dances hosted by Pat O’Day. He ran dances in Lake Hills and all over the Seattle-Tacoma area. He was the head disc jockey at KJR. So we were probably playing one of his dances somewhere.
Looking back, what do you think bonded the band together to create all that signature music?
Well, I knew Jerry Rosalie through one of our former lead singers. I knew what he was capable of doing on keyboard, at least. We were an all-instrumental band for the most part back then and it wasn’t until later that instrumental combos thought they better keep up with the times and the songs other people were writing that included vocals. Instrumental combos were a big deal at the time and we just happened to break out. “The Witch” was so different than anything anybody else was making. It was bound to do something.
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