"I used to ditch school and go hang out at his house," says Sonic Thrills front man Jim Monarch, pointing to his bandmate and guitarist Michael "Johnny" Walker. Sitting on the front porch of his Tempe home, Monarch is recalling, amid the noise of passing jets, how the two Mesa natives came to form the bond that would serve as the genesis for their new group.
"He'd teach me guitar chords and we'd play records and stuff. We kind of grew up together so we've always been into the same things. The Cramps, the Gun Club, X, Stooges, New York Dolls, all that stuff."
The laundry list of bands is insightful, if somewhat redundant, as the Sonic Thrills are the kind of band whose members wear their influences very much on their sleeves. The group instinctively fuses the best elements of Stooges-style guitar spuzz with the energetic fervor of Brit-punk bands like the Damned. With Monarch's natural stage presence, Walker's guitar heroics and the propulsive rhythms of bassist Mickey Ferrell and drummer Andy Madison, the group is already one of the brighter hopes for a Valley music scene currently suffering from a dearth of melodic punk bands.
Ironically, the group came about at a point when Monarch (a five-year veteran of local rock group The Voice) and Walker had both soured on the prospect of playing in a band again. "We got together one night at Nita's [Hideaway] and almost out of boredom we decided we'd give it a shot. I figured we'd at least try and write some songs and see what happened," says Walker. "But I still had to call him the next day and coax him into it a little more because he had pretty much given up on playing."
With a handful of originals and a selection of choice covers, the group made its debut this past February with a Valentine's Day performance at Hollywood Alley. The early going was somewhat unstable as the band went through a number of rhythm players before Madison--who had been trying to steal Monarch away as a vocalist for his own group--decided to join.
Getting Ferrell to sign on proved to be a bit more difficult. "We had some shows booked, so I asked Mick to fill in. I kept asking him to play more shows, and he seemed to be enjoying it. Even though I kept asking him to join the band, he would never commit--until Jim's bachelor party," says Walker as the band collapses into laughter. "We had him nice and drunk then," adds Monarch.
Although free from his obligation to the Grievous Angels (the group is on an indefinite hiatus), Ferrell was still somewhat hesitant to jump back into the grind of the local music scene. Although he's been performing the Angels' brand of alternative-country for the past five years, Ferrell's own background and tastes are similar to the rest of the band, having played in a number of hard-core and punk bands in California before arriving in the Valley.
Walker's resume includes a pair of stints with the Orphans, a group he played with both before and after joining up with Tempe's Piersons. Although he doesn't regret the time he spent in either group, Walker's experiences made him sensitive to the fact that this time he needed to surround himself with more like-minded musical comrades.
"The Piersons was fun while it lasted. All the bands I've ever been in here in town were bands that I had an idea of where I wanted it to go. I would find guys who kind of had what I was looking for, and then try and steer them my way. But I've realized that it's impossible to make three other guys that already have an idea of what they want to do go in another person's direction."
Musical simpatico isn't something that Walker needs to be concerned about with his Sonic Thrills bandmates. "Groups I've been in, it's always like, 'I want to be more bluesy,' and stuff like that," says Madison. "When I got together with Jim and Mike and listened to the things they were talking about--the Dolls, the Dead Boys--it was like, 'These guys sound exactly like what I want.' So I think we all got lucky in that way," says Madison.
Good fortune was also on the band's side during the recording of their debut. In the best tradition of rock 'n' roll accidents, the "session" that produced the band's forthcoming Beautiful Noise EP happened quite haphazardly.
"The whole thing was kind of a fluke really. I called up Chris [Widmer, Mayberry studio engineer] and said, 'Hey, if you have some time available, can we come in and you just throw up a mike and record our rehearsal?' It was really just to hear what the band sounded like," says Walker. "So we went in and recorded the four songs and listened back to them, and it was good enough that we started going, 'We can release this.'
"It wasn't until we actually started tearing it down and started really listening that we found a problem with Beautiful Noise. I think we just got a little excited at first," says Walker. "The tracks are good, but that's obviously not the way we plan on doing it when we actually make a full-length record."
The group intends to make the album (which includes the four original songs recorded during the Mayberry session as well as a remixed version of the title track) available as a seven-inch vinyl release within the next few months. "I'm a big fan of the seven-inch medium. I think it's really kind of the coolest way to put something out," says Monarch. "Plus, if you don't know who a band is, it's not a big deal to drop four bucks for a little piece of vinyl and check it out," says Monarch.
As for the future, the band is proceeding at a deliberate pace, trying to write more original material and cultivate enough of a following that they'll be able to headline shows in the near future.
The group's well-informed garage style is already winning them converts outside Arizona. "We played out in L.A. about two months ago. [Punk veteran and local resident] Jeff Dahl hooked us up with that. He's an old friend," says Monarch. "We're going back out with him in August, and we're supposed to play the Troubadour."
Would a successful appearance at the high-profile L.A. nightclub help turn the Sonic Thrills into a full-time proposition for the somewhat cautious group members?
"I've already made it a full-time thing. I spend every free moment working on this stuff," says Monarch. "So, yeah, I'm very much into it. We all are."
The Sonic Thrills are scheduled to perform on Sunday, July 11, at the Green Room in Tempe with Gwen Mars. The group will also perform on Friday, July 16, at Balboa Cafe in Tempe with the Peeps, and the Piersons.
Macha Do: Although they hail from the same rich Southern musical environment that produced this year's critical darlings Olivia Tremor Control, the eclectic rock outfit known as Macha specializes in a different breed of experimentalism than the Beatle-esque psych-pop of their Athens, Georgia, neighbors.
While it may be a bit of a stretch to say--as the band's press release does--that Macha have "no viable contemporary parallel"--their mix of authentic Indonesian, Asian and Eastern European sounds with modern indie rock (mostly in the vein of My Bloody Valentine and Girls Against Boys) is an especially unique and potent hybrid.
Macha's self-titled release from JetSet Records features some exotic (and curiously named) instrumentation ranging from hammered dulcimer and Javanese zither to something listed in the album's credits as "talem pong nipple gongs." For those curious to find out exactly how that particular instrument is miked, the group will be offering up their evocative sonic stew, along with the ambient-pop of Austin's American Analog Set, at downtown's Modified on Tuesday, July 13.
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