More than ‘Spiteful’: In-depth with Sonny Vincent Pt. 1

Sonny Vincent with Gene Sinigalliano performing at CBGB as Testors
Sonny Vincent with Gene Sinigalliano performing at CBGB as Testors

Testors’ Sonny Vincent and Gene Sinigalliano performing at CBGB in the 1970’s

Punk, as a term, helped define a movement in music that was very out of place in it’s beginnings. As time has passed, the label has kept defining and narrowing the range of what’s considered punk. It’s also served to help commodify a diverse, creative renaissance in youth rock culture. At its core, punk was an authentic, raw and experimental creative energy awakening to a world that had put itself to sleep. Soon it was a marketing gimmick in the arsenal of the commercial rock machine.

The spirit of punk first emerged with rock culture in the 50’s and remained alive in a vibrant underground scene throughout the 1960’s. Proto-punk acts like MC5, Iggy and the Stooges and the Dictators inspired the bands kept this rebellious spirit alive including the more raucous bands which began to appear worldwide in 1975. Given the paradox of a cheery-faced corporate culture, totally suppressing knowledge of its dark heart, punk was an inevitable dark reflection.

This was truly a renaissance period, and like the Renaissance, there are many artists who somehow have escaped recognition for their significant contributions. Enter Sonny Vincent, one of the unsung heroes from the original, uncompromising wave of punk.

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Sonny is a man of integrity and perseverance. He’s been playing music most of his life. He’s got 26 full length LP’s under his belt.  He’s played with some of the most recognized names in rocknroll…and most of the world has never heard of him. His relative obscurity can be traced directly to the musical output of his most well-known band, Testors, who were playing what later came to be known as hardcore punk in 1975.

Not all of their material fit that category, but they were rough enough to repel even the most open-minded of labels. Primitive definitely contains the germinated seed of hardcore, as do others in their catalog. Other songs, like Together and Time Is Mine, carry in them a disheartened hope and anguish I heard in most of my favorite mid-to-late-70’s punk. There is an underlying beauty in each that is both traditional and experimental.

It’s somehow pleasing, in an age plagued by startlingly similar ills to those of the 1970’s, that Sonny arrive on the scene again with an alternative to what’s found on corporate radio and tv.  His latest album, ‘Spiteful’, is now officially available through Get Hip. I’m going to shoot you a link to it, then drop the first part of our recent conversation, which was set up by my editors here at 50thirdand3rd. OK, so go here and buy the LP on limited edition blue vinyl and here on orange vinyl!

The new supergroup LP artwork

The new supergroup LP artwork. Album features Sonny Vincent of Testors on vocals and guitar, Rat Scabies of The Damned on drums, Glen Matlock of Sex Pistols on bass and Steve Mackay of Stooges on sax.

I got a chance to talk with Sonny on the phone for the first part of our interview, which gave me insights into his demeanor. He’s quick with a joke, but ready to dive into the depths of his story. His commitment to the music is very real, as is his respect for the musicians he plays with around the world. I guess that’s enough intro…here’s the phone portion of the interview from October 25, 2014:

ElDorkoPunkRetro: Who am I speaking with?

SV: Sonny Vincent

EDPR: Where are you now?

SV: I’m in France

EDPR: Are you touring with Spite?

SV: Actually, I’m in the studio. I’m doing some recording with some dudes from over here.

EDPR: Awesome…so, where did you grow up? What did your family do?

SV: I’m from New York, New York City, the Bronx and my family were really nothing so remarkable in terms of being able to say, “Yeah, my dad was a heroic explorer and my mom was on the front lines of the women’s lib movement in the 60s.” In fact, concerning a definition of the adults in my immediate family, I could maybe best describe them as utter bores and assholes. I left home when I was twelve and then again at thirteen years old. At twelve, I ran away from the abusive environment and the authorities caught me. They determined I was a P.I.N.S case (Person In Need Of Supervision) and locked me up in a reform school. So basically I was imprisoned for escaping a bad situation, that’s the way it goes sometimes.

When I got out of that I hit the road and never turned back. I was 13, quit school, and just hitchhiked around America. That was more or less around the hippie times. I was lying about my age, saying I was older. I was very lucky, because even though I was thirteen, most of the people I met and interacted with at that time were very cool. In fact, I was blessed and most of the people were remarkable. I didn’t have any bad experiences that are often associated with a run away minor. The fact that I was feeling good and surrounded by extraordinary people made it even more clear that I had made a good decision to hit the road. I traveled around, crisscrossed the country, went to the Virgin Islands on a flight from JFK to St Thomas for 70 dollars (youth discount, they called it then) and I had a forged note in my hand, couldn’t get away with that these days I suppose. I did have some interaction with the law… down in Florida, I got busted, lied about my age and name to the pigs, so they threw me in the slammer till they found out I was only 13. But then, amazingly, they simply released me with no adult in the process!! It’s a long story, man!

EDPR: Do you have a day job or are you a full time musician now?

SV: I’m playing music full-time. Although in my life I’ve had a lot of day jobs. All kinds of strange jobs, a huge variety. You know, being that I did leave school so early, I’m basically uneducated, so I took what I could get without a diploma of any kind. Well, I did get quite an education in prison. When I was in a band with Maureen Tucker and Sterling Morrison, Sterling was a Ph.D, and we talked a lot and shared a room for a number of years together on the road. We liked talking about books. I told him the titles I had read in jail. And Sterl said that was all basic university level stuff, so, you know, I got an education in a different way. Also, like I said, the people I connected to on the road were very enlightened and often artists. At thirteen I was reading Alan Ginsberg’s “Howl” so that was a start-off point and I guess the rest you can just fill it in, you know?

EDPR: Right, the first realization of your love of music and when did you get your first guitar?

SV: My first cognition of getting the “fever” was hearing all the 50’s wild stuff on the radio. Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, all that made me insane! I blame them.

I got my first guitar when I was a kid, around 11 years old. It was a gift from an uncle. So cool because usually there were no presents. I picked it up and wrote a song on it right away. It’s funny because as I developed on the guitar, the kids in my neighborhood also got guitars, but the only song they knew was the one song I wrote and showed to them. I bet they could pick up a guitar now and play that one song, still! I just started creating right away.

EDPR: What was the name of that song?

SV: “There Is No Time”, or something like that. I wasn’t really so serious about it at first. I had a passion for it, but no aspirations. By the time I was 12, I was more or less, you know, like when a group of kids go to a park and one dude’s playing a guitar that was me.

It wasn’t until later, after I got out of the military, that I started getting serious about playing. I’d lock myself in a room and just practice for eight hours with a tape recorder and just play and play and play. It was my own decision, not like telling someone, “Practice that piano.” I wanted to do it, it’s probably one of the few things in this world that I wanted to do. You know how it goes, people don’t want to go to their job every morning, when they don’t feel like it. People don’t want to go to school, people don’t want to obey traffic rules all the time, but the one thing I did want to do was play guitar!

EDPR: Was Fury your first band?

SV: No, my first band was a band called Distance. I was looking through a bunch of tapes today. I have these big trunks of tapes I’ve carted around my whole life. Unfortunately, the Distance tapes are fairly damaged by now, sort of fading in and out; they’re not too discernible. There are a couple of songs that might be salvageable, but yeah, Distance was my first group. All original material. Some of it is pretty good, too bad the tape is semi destroyed! The thematic element of Distance was similar to some of the later Testors songs, but Distance was more hopeful. A little bit of a hippie mentality. A kind of we-can–save-the-world impression. But there was already some of the dissatisfaction in there. Themes like war, a song called “The Mirror” dealing with fakeness. The music was also stark and paired down but songs were a bit longer. In terms of Fury, there were some interim changes between Fury and Testors. Fury was very rudimental and somehow derivative, a real “Rock” group. But a more creative group I had in that interim was called Liquid Diamonds.

Liquid Diamonds is a good example of the progression that led to Testors. In Fury I was still in the “apprentice” stage, I think. So although the music was intense, I don’t think it was very original. Later, as I got deeper into my self- expression in my songwriting, the music became more developed in terms of getting more “real” in a certain way. I wrote all the Testors songs way before I ever heard the Ramones, Television, Dead Boys, or any of the other CBGB/Max’s bands. When I did hear those bands I had an epiphany. A very strong kinship feeling. Anyway, I said many, many times, in Testors I was committed to not selling out– EVER. There was a very dedicated commitment to making the songs in a way that defined our real time impressions and experience. I was super dissatisfied with many ways of the world and I knew it wasn’t “commercial” to say it, but I didn’t care if we “made it” in music or not. What I honestly cared about was making something as real as I could. It’s what I needed to do. The integrity was paramount. Actually we did sometimes have some fun in Testors, but generally we were very serious, focused, and dead sick of all the fake crap around us.

EDPR: I noticed Hozac has recently released some of your old stuff, Fury and Liquid Diamonds. How many LPs have you released over your career?

SV: Well, the Liquid Diamond and Fury stuff was never put out in the day, you know, when that was made, it never came out. That’s what’s cool about Hozac; they’re putting out archival stuff. In terms of how many albums I’ve put out since I’ve started, I’d say 26 albums, unique albums, that’s not including compilations, 26 albums with all unique songs on them.

EDPR: Wow! So, your song writing process…I consider punk rock–and you were around doing punk rock before it was called punk rock–I consider it the greatest art form of humanity and I consider you a master. I put you up there with Dee Dee. What is your songwriting process like and how has it changed over the years?

SV: It changed a lot. At first, you know, back in the days of Distance and Fury and all that, I would put myself in a room and I would just start writing stuff and I had this entitled holiness about it all. If I was in “my room” writing a song and I heard some clanging around in the rest of the house, I’d come out and get all pissed off and say, “Listen, I’m in my room writing music here. Stop banging shit around, it’s distracting.” like a mad professor in his lab coming out with his hair all sticking out in all directions and being all pissed off. But, you know, that was a cool way to write, in sequestered isolation, but the bad part of that kind of isolation is you’re kind of in your own little world. You might do some clever stuff in your songwriting or some clever musical turn around, you might get too into it. Like, for example, these guys in Queen must also have been sitting alone in this masturbatory room writing all these cool parts with different levels, the song goes through here and then it goes to opera, you know what I mean?

So I didn’t get that carried away. Ugnnhh! Sometimes they can get too clever. I did manage to avoid it but there was always this danger that comes inherent when you are alone with your ego. I tried to stay away from orchestrated parts and clever stuff. Years later, I was recording with Scott Ashton from the Stooges, and there was this one little, clever jazz turnaround I had written in the middle of a kind of hardcore song, something I had in this song that skipped the “1” in a 4/4 timing, and we worked on this forever in the studio. It simply wasn’t Scott’s way of thinking, this one particular turnaround. We spent so much time on it and then we just decided to ditch the song. Later I thought we could have done the song and simply not done this clever musical turn around…it’s still the same song without this little bit. So I learned from that.

My songwriting process was always changing. For example, I was recording in Germany with some dudes that I know, some friends. They had set up an entire pro recording session. I got to the studio and everything was prepared. The mics were set, the lights on the amps were on standby, and everything was completely ready. The only thing that wasn’t ready was me! I didn’t even have one song prepared. It was really irresponsible, but I thought to myself, “Well, I can write songs when I’m alone in my room.” So, here’s these dudes with anticipation on their face, like, “show me the song,” so I figured, why don’t I just pretend. So basically I just looked at them and said, “OK, here’s the first song, it goes like this.” and I just started doing it and they started following and we hashed it out. Some of the best albums I’ve ever made were made in the studio on the spot like that. It was cool because I had to keep it simple. I had those guys standing directly in front of me and I had to impress them. That’s different from impressing yourself in your “room!!” So it worked out pretty cool that way. I like the process. Sometimes I still go into isolation and sometimes I just go for it. Depends.

EDPR: What have been the long-term physical effects of a life in punk rock? Do you have tinnitus, carpal tunnel, addictions…any kind of that stuff?

SV: Uhh, yeah, I take a lot of heroin, and then I set my hair on fire and run down the street naked. I mean, I’m trying to get rid of that. That’s one of the accurate myths of punk rock…no, actually, I’m pretty, um, I don’t know how to explain it. I know what you’re getting at, a lot of my friends, especially from back in the day, were taking lots of drugs and drinking, like a real lifestyle. Like every day, that’s what they did and I’m pretty lucky in that I don’t have a particularly addictive personality. I’m not against drugs. I like drugs. I’m not the kind of person who encourages young people not to do drugs or to do them. I just don’t talk to them about it. I will do drugs myself, but occasionally. Last year I did some excellent cocaine at a party in the hills of Los Angeles, but then after that nothing till now, clean as a judge.

I’ve been through periods of time where, like there was a two-year period, five years ago, where I smoked a ton of hash. I felt Bob Marley had his hand on my shoulder going, “Hey, mon, you are doing it good, mon.” But then after the two years, I realized that everything got disorganized, phone numbers on little bits of paper all over the place, I didn’t know what they were connected to. The phone would ring and I’d go, “Hello, hello?” It felt like the CIA was calling or something. I was having fun, you know, the supermarket was fun when you’re completely jacked on hash, but I just realized I wasn’t doing what I wanted, organization just stopped. So after a nice jag into the mellow world of somnambulance with Bob Marley’s loving support, I just stopped.

When people meet me when I’m in a dry period, I get the impression I’m judged as a prude. But when I’m into a jag and they see me taking something, I get looks like as if I was a total junkie! I live my life the way I want to and they can all bite it! Often people are so tedious and judgmental!!

But, of course, back in the day I was sometimes jagged on heavier drugs. It does go in and out of my life. If I was at a party and somebody offered me something tomorrow I might say no or I might say yes. I’m pretty relaxed about it.

But nothing comes before the music and I don’t do any of that stuff as a habit. I can go for months without even having a beer, then suddenly I’m hanging around with people and I drink a lot of it. So, that’s kind of what I’m like in that respect.

EDPR: Speaking of organization, your DIY label and the DIY promotional campaign are really impressive! I’m seeing stuff about the new record everywhere. Are you going to be doing a tour with Spite?

SV: Maybe, maybe…it depends. I’m not really sure. I’ve got to check with those guys and see… maybe we could do a tour. It’s really tough on the road with me because I play every show like as if it was the last show ever at the end of the world. Perhaps I’ve played a few crap shows but it wasn’t from lack of trying!!! I’m going to do a tour in Europe in April or May with some killer dudes, but as far as the guys on the ‘Spite’ album…I’d like to tour with them, but sometimes I think not. I need to see what develops!

EDPR: Can we expect to see you in California?

SV: I love California. I’ll be out there sometime playing, no doubt.

*** End of phone conversation part of the interview***

***Click here for Part 2***

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I'm the leader of the punx over at that other crappy blog, Punk Retrospective and punk promoter in Northern California at Seismomatic . I sing, write and play guitar in the frightening and enlightening 3-piece punk outfit, Pug Skullz. Once in a while I drop a video on Blip or an mp3 on my Punk Retro Facebook page. If you want a lot more info go read my Manifesto. Doug Skullz Instagram Don't be scared...

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