Hardcore Vets Tone It Down in Sonna
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For Sonna, the idea of a fun summer vacation seems to be spending five weeks cramped in a van with only two windows and no air conditioning. As the Baltimore-based band embarks on its most ambitious tour--the five-week, 25-date trek began June 1--the musicians are more excited about the opportunity to play shows across the country than they are worried about the rigors of such a trek.
The tour starts with a string of dates with labelmate Explosions in the Sky and closes with 10 days supporting fellow Baltimorean Will Oldham (aka Bonnie "Prince" Billy), including a homecoming show July 6 at the Creative Alliance.
Sonna is hitting the highway in support of its first full-length album, the placid but stirring We Sing Loud Sing Soft Tonight, released on Temporary Residence Limited, the sharp, graphics-obsessed label run by Sonna guitarist Jeremy deVine. The album is the best document yet of the 3-year-old, mostly instrumental group's evolution, in part thanks to a recording by famed indie-rock curmudgeon Steve Albini, who captured Sonna's sound better than the group's prior 7-inch singles and EPs did. "It was the greatest recording experience we ever had," deVine says. "Everything just worked."
On We Sing Loud Sing Soft Tonight, the drums sound clean and crisp, the guitar notes are defined and clear, and the keyboard and bass notes have room to either provide support or make forefront statements. But it's certainly not all the work of Albini. Sonna, unlike many bands of the same indie-rock chamber-pop ilk, is very deliberate in its songwriting. The band labors over songs, practicing and rewriting parts for months before performing or recording them. On standout tracks such as "Real Quiet" and "The Opener," it's obvious how deliberate Sonna is. Instead of playing with predictable quiet-loud-quiet volume dynamics or with loose song structures like so many indie instrumental bands do, Sonna leaves little to chance; almost every note and time change is scripted for maximum effect. "Even when we improv, it's pretty ordered," drummer Jim Redd says.
Sonna's nonrock sound is particularly odd because its members have roots in much more aggressive bands. Although it might be hard to imagine such while listening to Sonna, Redd, 23, was the original drummer for one of the Midwest's most abrasive hardcore bands, Coalesce, while bassist/Rhodes pianist Drew Nelson, 23, spent two years as a member of the Baltimore-based hardcore outfit Torn Apart. Guitarist Chris Mackie, 27, played in two bands with members of the emo group the Get Up Kids in his native state of Kansas in the mid-'90s.
"I totally loved that music," says deVine, 24, who once toured as the bass player for a hardcore band from his native town of Louisville, Ky. "But I couldn't play it to save my life. When I started playing guitar, I wanted to play in a band that was as quiet as humanly possible." DeVine formed the three-guitar Concord Anthology Process to pursue that end, but the band fizzled out. Next came the guitar/drums/cello trio By Water, which performed mostly improvised music. DeVine's melodic, picking style has found a good fit in Sonna, and it's a good thing for him. "I only know how to play guitar one way," he says, "and I guess I am stuck with that the rest of my life"
Even those members of Sonna blessed with the ability to rock out didn't want to do so forever. "It made more sense to try to get better at the guitar, instead of more crazy with the guitar," Mackie says. "I couldn't make myself play that type of music anymore. I wanted my output to sound more like my influences."
Sonna formed as a trio in 1997. Mackie and Redd had moved to Washington and Baltimore, respectively, from Kansas and began playing with Paul Petersan on bass. The band solidified and gained focus in early 1998 when deVine, a classmate of Redd's at the Maryland Institute, College of Art joined the band. After Sonna recorded a split 7-inch single with the Texas band Paul Newman and an EP, Windows Are Pistons, Petersan left to go to college in Texas. Nelson then joined, altering how the band writes its songs, switching the focus from the texture the instruments create to more prominent melodies.
"Playing with Drew makes us more of a pop band, where everything comes together, the melodies really solidify, and there's still the texture," Redd says.
Those familiar with Sonna might be caught off-guard by the band's inclusion of vocals on two We Sing Loud tracks. Mackie, who has dabbled with vocals on two other Sonna releases, lends his twittering pipes to "We Sing Loud" and "Sing Soft Tonight," the album's third and fourth cuts. "It's a nice little surprise," Nelson says. "Instead of using something to replace [where the vocal would be], we throw vocals on it."
As Sonna puts its hardcore roots in the past, the band is proud of its new CD's tranquility. Nelson says, "It's nice that my mom could listen to it."