It's that quiet moment after a rehearsal when players smoke their smokes and drink their drinks out on a front porch. Everyone has said his piece musically, and whatever small talk ensues now lets you know which night owls slept in and missed the big news stories of the day. Michael Red, trombonist and tallest Sunorus member, picked a good day to be up on current events.
"So the cop comes and tells him to get off the dude, and the guy turns, growls at the cop, and goes back to eating his face. And the guy whose face is getting eaten is still alive. Seriously . . ."
It's not every day the conversation flows from cannibalism to bath salts to zombie infestation in such short order — but these are the times in which we live. Bassist Tato Caraveo steps off the porch while Red and drummer Eric Dahl are explaining that the bath salts in question have more in common with crystal methamphetamine than they do with Jean Naté, and that it seems to give its users superhuman strength. Caraveo, unable to wrap his head around this admittedly incredible story, turns around and walks back toward the stoop.
New Times music feature
Sonorus is scheduled to perform Friday, June 15, at the Lost Leaf.
"Wait, you mean to tell me that both guys were naked?"
"Uh-huh," Red nods. "All you can see on the video are their legs under the roadway."
If a zombie takeover is as imminent as half of Sunorus now believes it is, it's heartening to know that this is the band capable of supplying the soundtrack to the mayhem, with paranoia inducing instrumentals like "Cartoon" or "Zombie Maker," an old Hypno-Twists song Caraveo revived from the dead and put into the active repertoire on Sunorus' self-titled new album.
And if we need an old-fashioned drink-'til-we-drop anthem to lighten the mood before the apocalypse, like "When I Get Low I Get High," or some after-hours pass-out music, like "Whiskey," or even some show tunes, like "Whatever Lola Wants," this new album has got 'em, too.
In fact, Sunorus the album manages to catch Sunorus the band sounding more like its live-show self than any take-home souvenir it's offered before. Unlike the previous all-instrumental Green House, Sunorus has stepped up the number of Hillary Tash vocals on this album, boosting her into full-time membership. You have quiet sambas ("Gadjo"), mariachi music ("Dios"), a knee-slapping country song that sounds like it was hijacked off a Les Paul and Mary Ford album ("You Make Me Happy"), and the quiet side of blaxploitation, the kind you'd find on whichever side of the Shaft soundtrack doesn't contain "Shaft" ("No Shoes Blues").
No surprise that the band's sixth album sounds like its live show — they recorded it mostly live, direct to digital at the group's Green House Studios, with minimal overdubs added later. The record also features a frequent live guest, Andrew Jemsek (The Feisty Felines, Drunk N Horny), adding keyboards and accordion.
The occasional addition of Jemsek's frantic Farfisa and screaming vocals, à la The Sonics, goes a long way to recalling Caraveo's previous band, The Hypno-Twists, which used to rule Wednesday nights at the Emerald Lounge until 2003, around the same time Caraveo and Dahl started playing the Emerald every Sunday night and then every Tuesday night, with keyboard/vocalist Matt Yazzie, in an improvisational combo soon to become Sonorous.
"We were trying to do something different, more jazz-oriented," Caraveo says.
"For the first two years of this band, there was no practice," adds Dahl. "The practice was the Sunday show at the Emerald, where we would all show up, improv general ideas that people had. The songwriting has always come from that."
The band steadily acquired new talent, adding Red in 2004, saxophonist Mark Stinson in 2006, and guitarist Chris Doyle in 2007, the year the band released The Lost Leaf Sessions. But change was afoot: Vocalist and founding member Yazzie departed, citing conflicts with members of the group, and the group released it was necessary to jettison two O's from its name in order to stomp a potential problem before it became a pain in the neck.
"We decided to change our name from Sonorous because there's a DJ in Europe who spells it the same way," says Red. "He was using it first and has a bigger reputation than we do. But it was all for the best. Sunorus is a more unique name — sun-or-us."
Losing Yazzie's raspy barker-through-a tinhorn vocals and up-front piano left the band with a temporary identity crisis. They filled the void by sharing the stage with a succession of guests, including lounge pianist and singer Monty Banks, singer-songwriter Lonna Kelley, and Tash, who had played with the Sunorus guys at her annual Funky Formal events.
"I started singing with these guys for a vaudeville-style variety show. They were the backing band. It was a lot of different variety acts, dancing girls, burlesque, and belly dancing. And it was a gypsy show, somewhere different every year," says Tash. "I started to do a couple of songs with them and it went on from there."
At this same time, in 2007, when Dahl became owner of the Lost Leaf and Caraveo became its manager and talent booker, the group kept to an unspoken rule not to play at its own club, even after recording an album there during off-hours.
"We didn't play there more than once a year for the first couple of years. We played at the Rhythm Room and other places. Now we only play the Lost Leaf every couple of months," says Dahl. "It's hard to get booked."
"The booking agent never answers his phone," Red laughs.
Says Dahl, "I thought we were too loud, but we dialed it back a little and the room's gotten better sound and other bands have gotten louder, so, hell, now you can see Scorpion vs. Tarantula down there." And loud groups in turn have tapped members of Sunorus to play on their own recordings. Stinson and Red play horns on the upcoming Scorpion vs. Tarantula album and Tash sang backup vocals on Greenhaven's next CD. (Disclosure: Scorpion vs. Tarantula includes New Times employees.)
Even with some decidedly odd side projects ranging from SupaJoint to Mother of Sorrows to keep members busy, Sunorus has become their main outlet for original material.
"We try not to overplay for our own sake," says Caraveo. "We used to play once a week, sometimes twice a week for years."
"Tato and I, it's our 25th year of playing in bands," says Dahl. "It's catching up to us."
A vigilant attention to time-saving measures has pervaded the group. The new songs are a lot more structured now; long improvised jams are less seldom explored.
"We try to bring in a new song every show," says Stinson. "Lately, it's been Tato or Chris comes in with a riff. We'll work on a song once or twice and then play it live — sometimes a little haphazardly — and then by the fourth or fifth, we get a structure. Then it's set in stone."
"We have already have six new songs since the last recording," chimes Doyle, the one Sonorus member with the most flexibility to go off on a tangent and play a solo differently every time, changing from a mellow Wes Montgomery setting to a fiery Angus Young blast. This explains why a cluster of musos line up in front of him at every show for closer finger studies.
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The group now has the luxury of gigging, recording, and releasing material with a minimum of fuss, whenever it feels like it. The new CD is available digitally on CD Baby and iTunes, can be streamed on Spotify and can be purchased, if you insist, on a silver disc housed in a plastic sleeve.
"Buying 1,000 copies of a CD and sitting on them for years and years is no fun, so we do 200 at a time, personal pressings that are hand-numbered," says Red. "And we also have a company that does one-offs in case somebody in Philadelphia wants to buy one. No need to make 1,000 CDs anymore."
But there is one CD this fan would like Sunorus to make, and that's a live CD that's actually recorded live in front of a live audience. Remember how Johnny Rivers made all those Whiskey A Go-Go albums in the '60s that were actually studio recordings with glass clinking and crowd sounds overdubbed later? It's very possible a live Sunorus album with actual crowd participation could provide the final missing piece all the group's recorded work has heretofore lacked. They could churn them out: Meanwhile Back at the Lost Leaf, The Lost Leaf A Go-Go, At the Lost Leaf Again, Rockin' the Folk at the Lost Leaf, Sunorus Comes Alive at the Lost Leaf. Why stop at one?
Surprisingly, it's an idea they've already considered doing." We were going to record the Lost Leaf fifth anniversary show, but it was too crazy," Caraveo says, laughing. "But you're right: There's nothing cooler than hearing a band blasting away on stage and then in the background hearing a crush of empty bottles hitting a garbage can."