Sonny Vincent’s Got a New Attitude:
(…But Some Punk Anthologies Still Need Revising)
When I talked to Sonny Vincent around this time last year, he seemed to have a pretty hefty chip on his shoulder. The ringleader of the often overlooked ’77 New York City punk band Testors has always been outspokenly against catering to commercialism. He nearly equated New Wave with compromise in the name of financial gain.
“We didn’t kiss ass to no record companies,” he told me tersely.
Now, after two Testors reunion shows last year, it’s more than just diehard punk musicians and fans who know who Sonny is. Followers of labels like In the Red, Burger Records, Trouble in Mind and Atlanta’s own Douchemaster Records – basically the genre’s entire new school – are doing backflips over Sonny’s entire catalog. And he’s still not groveling.
His repertoire amounts to more than 40 releases under various designations. To name a few, in no particular order: Shotgun Rationale, Sonny Vincent and His Rat Race Choir, Model Prisoners, Sonny Vincent and the Safety Pins, a slew of recordings with Moe Tucker at the forefront, Sonny Vincent and the Extreme, releases as just Sonny Vincent and, of course, Testors. (And also: Testors featuring Sonny Vincent.) He’s worked with Cheetah Chrome (Dead Boys), Captain Sensible (The Damned), Bob Stinson (Replacements), Richard Hell, Scott Asheton (Stooges) and Chris Romanelli (Plasmatics), among other notable members or former players for well-revered punk bands. If anyone’s got a right to be ticked off that he was somewhat lost in the shuffle, it’s Sonny Vincent.
These days, however, he sounds more peaceful. I couldn’t have imagined the Sonny I spoke to last year calmly ordering a tall iced coffee with two shots of espresso. But he did – and then apologized for the few seconds I waited.
That’s not to say Sonny was a jerk. By no means was he rude to me. He wasn’t brazenly negative, either. He was weeks away from playing a Testors reunion show in New York with the original lineup intact. He seemed quite thrilled about it. But when I brought up new punk bands, he joked, “I think they should just give me some royalties, direct, person to person.” And I’d already read a disappointingly similar quote someplace else.
The talk this time around, though, was more positive – and original, too. It was the afternoon of the kickoff to a nearly month-long tour as Sonny Vincent and the Bad Reactions, a newly formed lineup. Who’s playing with him? Oh, just some new-school punks: onetime Beat Beat Beat members Josh Martin (now in Ex-Humans) and Punk Rock John. Luis Herrera from Sorrows is in there too. Despite recently recording an as-yet-untitled LP with Rat Scabies of the Damned, Glen Matlock of the Sex Pistols and Steve Mackay of the Stooges, Sonny says they’ll play mostly Testors material.
“[It’s] because the guys are crazy about Testors,” he explains. “I haven’t played a lot of Testors songs since Testors. I do have a few Testors songs that are in the rotation in my set list when I’m playing live, but usually I’m not satisfied with the way people play them. And there’s a lot of the Testors songs that I never even attempted with certain musicians. It turns out that Josh and Jon and Luis can. All I can say is they can do the Testors stuff justice and we’re going to be slamming out a lot of the Testors songs on this tour.”
Is it because Sonny’s finally getting his due that his aggression has taken a back seat? It’s got to feel good to know you’re finally respected on a broader scale. He’s never really paused his music-making, but a telltale sign of interest these days is the amount of information available online, whether it be interviews or fan pages or YouTube videos. Compared to last year, the electronic database of Sonny Vincent has drastically improved.
“That is somewhat satisfying, yeah,” he admits. “But…it takes a long time for things to manifest. My intentions were to, like you know, I said it a billion times, not to sell out and to keep some integrity that’s based on the heart of the matter.”
Sonny’s always understood that his resistance to bend with the beat of the mainstream was “commercial suicide.” He never cared about that. But shouldn’t he have been better credited as being an integral part of that crucial late-’70s scene?
“It was quite depressing to be in London or Paris or New York and pick up a book that says, the absolute history of punk rock, un-fucking-known bands and everything else included! And I’d go directly to the Ts and it’d be like Television Personalities, Television, T.S.O.L., T, T, T and up your fucking ass, but no fucking Testors,” he says. “So that was disappointing, but it’s no wonder because we didn’t schmooze around in the music business. It’s not like I think it’s so cooool or something to have this sense of integrity, it’s just that the way it was. Now the Internet has spread the word around and a lot of the young people relate to the Testors vibe. It’s actually what I intended.”
What’s different this year than, say, 10 years ago, is that there’s an obvious resurgence in good punk. Bands like the Hives and the Vines and the rest of the squeaky-clean stuff is all but gone from MTV. Better bands are actually starting to register on the network – check out the MTV Iggy blog for proof. That could mean the bigwigs are plotting a takeover. It wouldn’t be as easy as it was when the Strokes suited up, I think. Anyway, there’s a ton of great independent labels pushing incredible punk and garage bands led by players who still punch clocks, most of them uninterested in mainstream, much less make appearances alongside Diddy at Fashion Week. (I’m talking to you, dudes from the Strokes.)
In the midst of such fluff, it’s impressive that Sonny never quit. He’s had side-gigs, like film and other multimedia art. (See “Mannequin World” for starters.) The “immediacy” of rock ‘n’ roll is irreplaceable for him, and that’s probably part of why he’s stuck around.
Last year, Sonny released Bizarro Hymns, an LP recorded at Primitive Sounds in Belgium. It’s an entirely solo work that’s likely his least antagonistic. It’s a bit more polished than his trademark sound, though it was recorded solely on analog equipment. The new, soon-to-be-mixed album, is also credited to Primitive Sounds.
“It’s just some crazy, nutty guys who run around Europe searching through basements and attics and cobwebs and getting hold of really old equipment from the ‘60s and the early ‘70s, like box amps and a very cool board,” he says. “When they called me I thought they had more experience than they do as far as running a studio. Basically, I had to stay there for three months to get the album recorded because we had to do a lot of touch and go experimentation with the equipment and I wound up having to do a lot of it myself.”
At his age (around 60, guys), that kind of tolerance is commendable. Telling the studio to screw off when he realized how much work he’d personally have to do wouldn’t have been totally uncalled for. Sonny still has that D.I.Y. spirit in him though – and plenty of energy too, it seems.
“I look better than when you saw me before,” he laughs after I mention how well kept he looked last year. “I like to get fucked up and you know, like, do stuff, but I don’t do stuff like every day like a lifestyle for many, many years. We all know people like that who might have looked just sparkly and fresh and then suddenly they’re getting fucked up every day of their life for the next 15 years and they look like horrible. I’m kind of intermittently having fun but also I go through long periods of doing film, doing my work, doing different art projects. You can’t do that totally messed up all the time. I don’t have a lifestyle of getting fucked up, so maybe that helps me.”
In the faraway past, Sonny spent time in prison, was turned away from the Canadian border, took the insanity route when arrested (and was committed) and was banned from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (for whistling). Those types of troubles petered out in the late ’80s, and none were directly drug-induced.
What’s also altogether vanished is his distaste for new punk. He made a point of expressing how great the new lineup was, how impressed he was by their dedication and how much “fun” he expects the tour will be. It’s a relieving attitude from someone who has criticized, for whatever reason, the punk scene that’s currently embracing him more than the one in ’77 ever did.
“For me it’s like I don’t separate bands from the old times or the new times. I separate them into the feeling of being desperate,” he says. “I don’t like slick, fucking well-produced, confident musicians. I like desperate fucking musicians that feel like when they’re playing it’s going to be the last show that’s ever gonna happen. A lot of the bands like the bands Josh [Martin] has been in, I like ‘em. I don’t relegate punk rock from back in the old days. I think that probably, considering the times, the best is yet to come.”
Photo by Joshua Levine.