Sonny Smith's Rocks in Your Head Records, a platform for left-field and experimental rock from San Francisco, releases its first album on April 1.  Nastia Voynovskaya
Sonny Smith's Rocks in Your Head Records, a platform for left-field and experimental rock from San Francisco, releases its first album on April 1.  (Nastia Voynovskaya)

Sonny Smith’s New Indie Label Spotlights ‘Weird Stuff’ of San Francisco

Sonny Smith’s New Indie Label Spotlights ‘Weird Stuff’ of San Francisco

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."

Sonny Smith has big plans for Rocks in Your Head Records, including, a studio and music festival.
Sonny Smith has big plans for Rocks in Your Head Records, including, a studio and music festival. (Sarah Moore)

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."

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"Then, when the first dot-com era happened around 2000, it busted up the music scene pretty bad," he continues. "There was an exodus to Portland. Then things settled. … There was a healthy wave of creativity, but fast forward to, like, '12 or '13 when the next big tech thing comes, and San Francisco took another hit."

While it's easy for an independent artist to become cynical in this climate, Smith remains inspired. The idea for Rocks in Your Head came after Smith started noticing an increase in new bands forming in San Francisco. "A lot of people were pushed out of the Mission because it got so expensive, but I'm finding a lot of great musicians out in the Sunset and the Richmond right now," he says. "From my vantage point, there is this little underground scene growing out there."

The goal of Rocks in your head is to showcase and support what San Francisco's underground has to offer, and to hopefully fortify it against whatever new changes are coming down the line. This region-specific focus will be on full display in the label's second release, a compilation titled Hot Sick Vile and Fun. Working with a roster of local bands, Smith recorded and produced each song in his home studio over a period of just a few months.

The album has 16 tracks and is comprised of, in Smith's words, "all the weird stuff I could find." There's bands featured like the Gonks, who have a psychedelic, art-rock sound; Toyota, a zany post-punk outfit that Smith describes as a bit "Zappa-ish"; and Galore, who play music fit for what one could describe as a haunted beach party. The project is due out in late July.

Smith isn't alone in his hope for a revitalized music ecosystem in the Bay Area. Earlier this year, he launched an IndieGoGo campaign to raise $15,000 to fund his label's first year, and came up with nearly $20,000. The campaign's success is indicative of a hole left in San Francisco in the wake of an exodus of priced-out creatives. Those of us who remain are hungry to build, to hear something new.

"I certainly hope I'm not the only one who wants to hear what my home has to offer," says Smith.

Looking even further down the road, Smith has high hopes for Rocks In Your Head. The label's music festival is slated for July and will showcase the artists on the compilation. Creating a new platform for independent and experimental music is a risky proposition in this economy, but Smith speaks of dreams as large as the ones in his songs.

He's secured his distribution through the company Revolver, built out his studio and is using his reputation as a local indie rock mainstay to build out a stable of impressive up-and-comers. Bay Area artists have taken their fair share of hits over the past 20-odd years, and something organic like Rocks in your Head, funded in part by its local community, promises more security moving forward.

Audibly excited, Smith says, "It's almost bigger than I can comprehend at the moment."

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