Sonny Smith has been making music in some of the stranger pockets of San Francisco for close to two decades. After watching the Bay Area transform from a haven for the weird into something more sterile, expensive and exclusive, Smith decided to step up and create a platform that brings the city back to its fringe-loving roots. On April 1, he'll debut his new record label, Rocks in Your Head Records, with the release of his band Sonny & the Sunsets' seventh album, Hairdressers from Heaven.
"Ultimately my vision is larger than a label," says Smith. "It's more like Motown, for that matter. I want to have a building that handles the production of the actual music, and the production of the records, and the distribution, and the publicity, and a festival all coming out from one physical center."
Smith is a dreamer with lofty goals. He and his music seem to only half-occupy our world, with the other half floating around in some far-out fantasy. Much of his songwriting hinges on narrative, and tells the kind of stories you'd come up with as a stoned teenager, giggling with your friends on a Saturday afternoon, utterly unfazed by reality and its preposterous "rules."
Smith sings, sweet and anodyne, about planets ruled entirely by women, discovering mysterious tubes of "Death Cream" in his car and communing with the dead via seance. His sound samples elements of surf and garage rock, as well as the psychedelic folk revival of the late 1960s and early '70s. Hairdressers from Heaven, an album perfect for a laid-back drive down the coast, harks back to an earlier iteration of the Bay Area, when a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco didn't cost over $3,600 a month.
Since the mid-'90s, Smith has seen the local scene struggle to maintain its footing as the cost of living rises. "There was a pretty big punk scene when I got here, lots of socially conscious stuff too," he says. "It's like we were carrying the torch of the Dead Kennedys into the '90s."