SONS on still being starstruck, releasing their second album, and dreaming of America: Interview

SONS had released their debut album Family Dinner and popped by Hamburg for two shows at Molotow’s 29th birthday bash in November and we had a chat with a band that had huge plans for the future and their goal set for America. It was the end of 2019 and what happened just a few months later made a massive mark on the history of humanity and stopped SONS in their efforts to fulfill their dreams.

However, rather than being pulled down by the pandemic, SONS spent lots of time in their rehearsal space, and in April this year their efforts paid off when the band released their sophomore album Sweet Boy, a garage punk battered album creating mayhem wherever they perform.

When SONS returned to Hamburg to play at Reeperbahn Festival, Messed!Up met up with Arno, Robin, Thomas, and Jens in the back of their van, and found a band that have started to play big support slots and that continue to target the American scene.

Catching up with Jack White

It’s great to have you back in Hamburg again after everything that has happened over the last two years. I remember the last time we met, at Molotow three years ago, and we asked you what you would do in three years, and you had big plans. And then the pandemic arrived four months later. But you’ve fulfilled two of your goals; to have released a second album and supported a major artist. You supported Jack White this year.
(laugh) We had really big plans back then. Didn’t we also say we wanted to tour other countries as well?
We’re doing it right now! But we didn’t say anything about a bad touring diet and putting on some weight, right? That also happened (laugh).

It feels surreal to have supported Jack White. We did two shows with him, the first in Leipzig and the second in Berlin, but we didn’t meet him at the first gig because he was just in and out for the gig and we thought we were not getting a chance to talk to him. But in Berlin, he turned up backstage for a five-minute chat about tourist places in Berlin and how stupid it is that there’s a Mcdonald’s next to Checkpoint Charlie. That changed it all (laugh). Then it’s fun to look back to about three years ago at Rock Werchter when we were super starstruck just by seeing him backstage – and now we’re hanging out talking about tourist places in Berlin. That’s surreal (laugh).

At the same time, we have matured as a band and have a lot more experience after doing quite many support slots even if we had a pandemic that stopped us from performing for nearly two years. But we’re still starstruck, especially when people like Jack White turns up or this summer when we met Metallica backstage (laugh).

I [Arno] had a Robert Trujillo moment at Rock Werchter this year. We were standing on the side of the main stage when Turnstile played – amazing band by the way – and my friend nudged me and whispered “Hey, there’s James Hetfield and Robert Trujillo of Metallica, act cool!” (laugh). Everyone was acting cool and then Robert just walked over to us, handed over his phone, and asked me to shoot some photos when he ran on stage to the guitarist of Turnstile. I was just standing there with my mouth open and amazed about what was happening (laugh). But he was really fun and friendly. That photo was used as a magazine cover later.

Despite still being starstruck, we feel more experienced (laugh). Most things we do now aren’t new to us anymore. You have to remember that everything happened really fast for us at the beginning. We won this band contest, recorded our debut album, and played at Rock Werchter the same summer and didn’t have the slightest idea of what actually happened (laugh). Suddenly, we were backstage with Jack White. How the hell did that happen? (laugh). But you get used to it after a while – except when James Hetfield and Robert Trujillo turn up and talk to you (laugh). Then you learn to act cool.

What’s most impressive is to see how big productions these big artists have. We never thought about our own stage production at the beginning but we have started to work on it today. But when you see these massive productions like Jack White’s you understand, “We’re not there yet, we need to level up quite much before we’re even close” (laugh).

Last time we also talked about how difficult it is to come out and play abroad as a new band. I remember you saying that your big dream is to do a tour in America and of course, that’s a challenge. But is all that easier today when people and venues know who you are, especially in Germany?
It’s still easier to play at home in Belgium because people know us much better there, but it’s the same for all bands. You get to play bigger venues at home first, especially after you get airplay on the radio. The Netherlands is fairly easy for us as well because it’s our neighbor.

But it’s getting easier to get bookings in the rest of Europe as well, especially in Switzerland where we have a great network of people since 2019. The ball has started rolling in Germany and France as well and we have a foot in the door to America after our KEXP session in Iceland. Maybe not a foot, let’s say a toe (laugh). We got some airplay on KEXP in Seattle after the session in 2019 but then the pandemic came in the way and nothing happened. But we know Jack White now and Jack White knows SONS (laugh). Maybe we just call him.

Putting their live energy on record

SONS is about furious punk energy on stage and their gig at Reeperbahn Festival caused a minor riot at Indra Musikclub (our photographer almost got knocked out by a flying bass). Their second album Sweet Boy continues where they left off at Family Dinner, with solid garage punk songs firmly anchored in the American West Coast tradition and dusted with echoes of contemporary post-punk. And it contains what’s most important for the band: Music that feeds off their live energy.

For the second time SONS worked together with King Gizzard producer Michael Badger. However, the pandemic required an unusual co-working process as Badger was stuck in Melbourne, and at one point he even co-produced from his bathtub.

Speaking of the pandemic and getting time to do other things; you had time to record a second album. Was it a struggle to put it together, like the second album syndrome when you just feel pressured, or did you find it easy to write Sweet Boy?
It was a smooth process because we’re better songwriters today. First album we just wanted to get out, everyone wants to release their debut album, but this time we’ve reflected and talked a lot about the songs and the lyrics, and the pandemic bought us time to do it.

The first album was all about drinking beer and throwing a good party while the second album deals with life stories – real happenings – to some part. But you shouldn’t see Sweet Boy as us trying to do a concept album. Sure, there are some recurring themes in the lyrics, quite much revolving around having relationships and starting families because we get those questions from our families at the moment (laugh). But most of what we write about happens naturally, and it’s usually something we see on TV or read in the papers.

We also spend lots of time in our rehearsal space, a lot of time, and can stay for a full night if we feel for it, and when we do that new ideas will pop up easier.

But you continue writing furious garage punk songs. Music-wise it hasn’t slowed down on the second album.
No, because it’s that sort of music we listen to ourselves, what we get inspiration from, and music we love to write for our albums. Our goal is still to write music that brings out some high energy live shows, that’s still fun, and we have it in the back of our heads when we’re in the writing process. The energy we have on stage, like tonight [at Indra Musikclub in Hamburg], has to be on the records as well. In the studio it’s often like “Does this song add any energy live?” and we give it a thought and then “Let’s skip it and do another one”.

But we also think about if it could be played live, that’s what decides if we continue on a song or not. It can’t be too complicated, you know like doing an overdub and not having a third guitarist. Then we don’t do it.

On Sweet Boy, you also continue working with the King Gizzard producer Michael Badger. I remember you were quite happy about your collaboration on your debut album Family Dinner, but hasn’t it been hard to work together on Sweet Boy due to the pandemic?
Yeah, that was something different because he was stuck in Melbourne. We had him on several screens in the studio and in the control room and one time he was co-producing from his bathtub (laugh). We understood early on in the process that he couldn’t fly over from Australia but our studio engineers found a way to co-produce the album anyway by using software that allowed for sharing tracks in real time. With the help of the screens, he could see us and hear the audio in real-time in good quality and give us input.

But he had to do it during night shifts because of the time difference. We usually started at eight in the morning which was eight in the evening for him. It must have been tough for him because he couldn’t really feel the same energy as we did in the studio although he had decent audio quality where he was sitting in his studio in the middle of the night with headphones on. We really appreciate that he did it because he added such great input to our music.

We also worked with Damien Vanderhasselt, the former drummer of the Belgian band Millionaire, and he added some really great ideas on the percussion side of the production. And he gave Thomas [Pultyn, the drummer] a hard time who had to deal with a really good drummer looking over his shoulder all the time (laugh), but he did a great job and you can hear it on the album. And it’s good that Thomas has to work a bit, drummers are lazy (laugh).

But it’s not that the producers have changed the sound of the band, that wouldn’t have worked out for us. They have added tiny details that we wouldn’t have thought about ourselves and it makes the end result a lot better. We rather see them as shrinks, people that carefully listen to what we say and try to pull out the best of us. What they do is so important because they bring some magic into the production without us understanding it (laugh).

But now you’re about to go back home and write new music for the next tour. Do you aim for a set of singles or an EP?
Songs! We don’t know yet, but in time it will be a new album although we don’t have any plan to record and release an album next year. The summer is over after this festival and we just realized that we have a few weeks off and nothing happening, why not use the time to go back to the rehearsal space and write some new music?

But we’ll definitely have some new songs to play next year.

If we wrap it up with the same question as in 2019: where will you be in three years? The last plan didn’t really take into account that you had to deal with a pandemic.
A third album and touring America! Just like last time (laugh). We still aim for America.

But we’re building a network with American bands and playing support slots. Jack White was big for us but we also support other bands from over there for one or two shows. We’re playing a support slot to Bass Drum of Death in a few weeks and maybe we’ll bump into some bands at Trans Musicales Fest in Rennes [France] in December.

This year our focus has been on touring Sweet Boy at home in Belgium and next year we take it to the rest of Europe and play in different countries and try to get a foot into the local scenes. That’s the primary target for 2023, to play a lot more outside Belgium.

And when America knows about us, we’ll start our own TV show, like “Keeping up with SONS” (laugh).

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Photos by Julia Schwendner
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About J.N.

Music researcher with an unhealthy passion for music and music festivals. Former studio owner, semi-functional drummer and with a fairly good collection of old analogue synthesizers from the 70's. Indie rock, post rock, electronic/industrial and drum & bass (kind of a mix, yeah?) are usual stuff in my playlists but everything that sounds good will fit in.
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