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Sonny Smith is playing the ultimate game of "You Know What Would Be a Cool Band Name?" Not only did he come up with 100 imaginary acts, he wrote and recorded their songs and commissioned cover art. Then he built a jukebox to house it all.
"For two months, I was just hacking away at doing vocals and seeing what would work," the thirtysomething multitasker explains from his San Francisco home. "To show how naïve I was, at first I was going to make 200 songs, for an A-side and a B-side. When I pulled back, I was actually relieved, like, 'Ah, 100, I can do that.' "
The undertaking has led to "100 Records," the show opening at Williamsburg's Cinders Gallery this week. For the opening party, Smith will perform music he wrote for, say, Zig Speck and the Specktones, or Connie's Suprette Crew, or the Fuckaroos. "There are some bombs in there," he cautions. "But the beauty of the project is they're fictional bands. You can't listen and say, 'The Transients don't sound like that.' Well, that's how they were—they partied too much."
The convergence of fiction and songwriting isn't such a stretch for Smith, a playwright and novelist in addition to his musical endeavors. (The first record by his actual band, Sonny and the Sunsets, is set for re-release on Fat Possum this month; he has played the Pitchfork Music Festival and toured with Neko Case.) The "100 Records" project actually began as a way to visualize the work of his characters. "I started writing a novel which had some of these characters that were kind of based on real musicians," he explains. "But they're all gradations of me, to some extent, too. There are a few instances where I tried to make a reggae tune or something—I don't think it was that successful. But there's also a small handful of them I'm actually trying to make full-length records of."
Initially, he drew the album covers himself, imagining them as book illustrations. But before long, he reached out to artist friends, and "when the covers came back, they were so good, I felt like I had to bump up the songs I was going to make a little," he says. "Then it kind of snowballed, and I was like, 'This would be a great art show, but it would be pretty lame if it was just five or six.' I wanted it to be like a record store, where there's just shit all over the walls, because that's my favorite thing."
The result gives Smith the opportunity to write from multiple pop perspectives—Earth Girl Helen Brown is one such creation taking on a life of her own. Born in Vancouver but raised in a religious cult in Athens, she's blind in one eye and cites as an influence a Cherokee shaman who turned out to be an impostor. To compliment current single "Hit After Hit," a folksy meditation on the downfalls of fame, Smith is writing a full set of songs for her, as channeled by another vocalist, backed by himself and some of the Sunsets. Likewise, the Specktones' "One Time Doomsday Trip to Nowhere" is set to be included on a Japanese compilation—Smith hasn't told the label that the band doesn't technically exist. The Loud Fast Fools, meanwhile, actually kind of do: They've been gigging around the Bay Area with Smith at the helm.
The first "100 Records" event took place at San Francisco's Gallery 16 and featured the project's crowning touch: Smith bought an old jukebox off Craigslist before discovering that pressing individual 45s was too cost-prohibitive, opting instead to hire a carpenter and an electrician to help him modify the unit to store the songs digitally. He did the painting and designed the song-selection cards himself, ending up with another unique piece of art, but also a piece of heavy machinery requiring transportation. To bring the project to Brooklyn, Smith started a campaign on the fundraising website Kickstarter, meeting his modest $1,000 goal in just four days and exceeding it by a few hundred more, which went to the carpenter and the electrician, along with other incidental costs. "I'd never heard of it—I just plugged in the info and went for it," he says of the site. "I want to do it again. I want to try it for car repairs, although I guess people don't want to pay for your water pump."
Sonny Smith's '100 Records' opens August 12 at the Cinders Gallery and runs through September 5. He will perform live on opening night.