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Rocks in Your Head

Speaking with Sonny Smith of S.F.’s Newest Indie Label
By Amy Marie Slocum|
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Photographed by Yasamine June


San Francisco’s Sunset district is an odd, liminal place between the high-rise tech offices and impeccably preserved Victorians that the city is known for, and the fog-filled semi-industrial tract housing that characterize the lower peninsula. When I moved there in 2005 for college I landed in the Outer Sunset—the blocks that sit between HWY 101 and the Pacific—a neighborhood that was, to my surprise, predominantly composed of Asian families (and great, inexpensive food to boot). 

But for Sonny Smith, the Sunset is the place where he sees the most hope for San Francisco. “It seems like the Sunset has a lot more artists these days,” he tells me over the phone from the office of his new record label, Rocks in Your Head, which he shares with Empty Cellar Records. “A lot of people have migrated out here, a lot of artists who got driven out of the Mission.” A San Francisco native, Smith started Rocks in Your Head via a viral Indiegogo campaign this spring that raised almost 150% of his projected costs for the label’s first year. 

A veteran of the Bay Area’s indie rock scene, Smith’s résumé includes playing the Pitchfork Music Festival, touring with Neko Case, and creating the “100 Records” art project, for which he commissioned original album art for one hundred fictional bands and composed, performed, and recorded what he thought their music might sound like. The results were housed in a custom-made jukebox, which was shown in San Francisco’s Gallery 16 and Cinders Gallery in Brooklyn.

We talked to Smith about his plans for Rocks in Your Head, what he thinks of the city’s current reputation as a tech dystopia, and putting out ’zines with every record. 

In your Indiegogo video, you said that it’s a great time for bands to be in San Francisco right now. Why do you think that is?

Probably because they’ve been forgotten about a little bit right now. San Francisco’s taken so many hits, and the attention has gone away from music and arts and stuff to tech and money, so the people who are making music are making it a little bit more underground, and I think that that’s when more interesting and weirder things get made. So I don’t know if it’s good financially, you know, that’s not what I meant, but it’s good in the way that there’s a lot of interesting art being made right now. 

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So you started this Indiegogo campaign, and it was a huge success. What do you think the people who supported it were responding to?

Well, I do think a lot of the people who supported us are residents of San Francisco, and as you know it’s been in the papers every day for the tech and the money and sometimes that just has to do with what the media pays attention to and then that’s what the city becomes known for. I’m not a historian, but cities have always had much larger financial communities than art communities—that’s kind of the nature of capitalism. We’ve always had a downtown with huge skyscrapers—those aren’t art buildings. But in the past there has been more attention to arts and music and in the last five or six years there’s been a lot of shutting down of clubs and subsequently that becomes the headline: that this place is all about money, and tech. It gets boring; it’s a fucking boring story. We all know the story about rich people getting richer and poor people getting poorer. It needs to be reported on but it’s not the only story that’s happening. So, I think anytime anybody stands up and says, You know, there’s actually other things going on here that are important, people take a look. A lot of people are interested in the arts. There’ve been a lot of people that have volunteered to help with the label, to the point where I don’t necessarily have the skills to delegate responsibilities to that many different volunteers. 

You’re a native San Franciscan. What’s your opinion on how the city’s changed over the last decade?

I will say that I’ve never bought into the story that it used to be some kind of Shangri-La for artists and everything was just amazing, and then all of a sudden it completely changed. Like I was saying before, this is a city in a capitalistic civilization, it’s always been about money, and it’s always been hard to afford living here as an artist, because it’s highly competitive and expensive and the rents are high. 

But in the last five to seven years the increase has been so exponentially high. The political center of the city sold the city out; it was a corporate coup to Twitter and Uber and Airbnb. It gutted the town and gave it to corporate elites more than most places, although, obviously, other cities have had similar experiences. So San Francisco is kind of a front row seat to what happens when a city does this and it’s having a terrible homeless problem right now and a terrible street crime problem and part of that is because of the incredible divide between the haves and the have nots. So yeah, it’s an interesting city and it probably won’t be like this forever, but this is a brutal era, for sure. To me, it makes people who even try to be artists full time almost rebels. 

You named this record label after a record store in New York that you really like. What did you like about it? What do you think you responded to so strongly about that record store?

I think when I was just when I was playing around with names, I was imagining what it would be like—ten years down the line, after a lot of releases—to be in a record store and see all these records from this label. And I think I just had some sentimental memories of going in that record store and discovering a few gems. I’m not a huge audiophile or a giant record collector, but when you do discover a really coveted record at a record store, you tend to remember the record store. So I just have a few fond memories of discovering things in that particular store.

You’re also putting out ’zines with every record. What are those going to be like?

Well, the first one already came out there. I was a big fan of SST Label, which was what Minutemen and Flashback 5 were on back in the day, and a lot of them had ‘zines; I think maybe all of them were made by Raymond Pettibon. I always thought that that was a cool thing for any record label to do, and it hasn’t been embraced that much, crazily enough. I don’t know too many record labels that, you know, also always have a ’zine in the record, so it’s just right there in view, fifteen or sixteen pages slipped into the back of the record, and. The first one is my drawings and stuff, but as I go forward I want to have guest artists.

What have you got coming up?

Well July 19th, is the release date of the of the compilation record that I produced that has a bunch of bands that are fairly unknown beyond the neighborhood here, so that’s kind of exciting. 

And then we’re going to have our first Music Festival on July 27th—Rocks in Your Head Fest. So, the record will come out and then the festival will happen. And that’s going to be hosted by Cal Shakes Theatre in Berkeley. The California Shakespeare Company has its own park and amphitheater in the Berkeley Hills, and they have gotten on the bus to host this first festival. So, we’re working day and night. 

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