A new documentary on legendary band The Sonics by Jordan Albertsen opens a window on the rich and influential legacy of garage rock in the Pacific Northwest, and the role of visionary label owner and manager Buck Ormsby in shaping that sound. A sound which had such an influence on local musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Nancy Wilson, Mark Arm, and many others. Amanda Sheppard talked to Albertsen about the ten-year process of making his film.
In 1963, before The Stooges and even the MC5, five teenage proto-punks from Tacoma, Washington (Gerry Roselie, Andy Parypa, Larry Parypa, Rob Lind, Bob Bennett) who called themselves The Sonics scored a #2 hit on the Seattle music chart with their hard-driving debut single, “The Witch”. With its menacing keyboard line and tongue-in-cheek lyrics about a heartbreaker with “long black hair and a big black car,” “The Witch” was too hot to handle for Seattle area radio stations who would only play the single after 3 PM so as not to upset the housewives with what they initially perceived as “devil music”.
Seattle area teens caught on immediately, however, and the single sold 10,000 copies in its first two weeks debuting at #24.
By the time they released their debut LP Here Are The Sonics, the band became local legends, opening for The Beach Boys, the Mamas & The Papas, Jay & the Americans and The Shangri-Las. It would take forty years, however, for The Sonics to achieve nationwide fame in the U.S.
So, what exactly happened in those intervening years between The Sonics’ split in 1968 and their cover of Richard Berry’s “Have Love, Will Travel” becoming a ubiquitous hit featured in BMW ads and such feature films as RocknRolla and John Wick? Who are these guys who had such an impact on bands like Mudhoney, The Cramps, and even The Fall? Wait, when did their music make it over to the UK?
For the answers to these questions and many more, filmmaker Jordan Albertsen takes us on “a ten-year journey of discovery” from “south of Seattle, in the city of Tacoma, Washington” to London in his documentary feature, Boom: A Film About The Sonics.
In Boom, we hear the story of The Sonics’ brief but groundbreaking history and unlikely reunion from all five original members and from the late Buck Ormsby, a Pacific Northwest rock ’n’ roll legend in his own right who signed the band to his label, Etiquette Records in 1963 and also managed them. Boom also boasts a galaxy of rock ’n’ roll stars, including Nancy Wilson, Mark Arm and Mike McCready who all share a passion for The Sonics, and even the Sex Pistols’ Glen Matlock weighs in. What really drives this film, however, are the personal stories of The Sonics and their triumphant return and that of Buck Ormsby’s profound belief in the band’s music as well as that of filmmaker Jordan Albertsen, whose own passion for The Sonics has helped him to better connect with his dad. In fact, it’s almost hard to imagine Boom having the same impact on audiences as the bigger, more cinematic affair that Jordan had initially set out to make.
Since making its world premiere at London’s Raindance Film Festival, Boom has won awards for Best Documentary Feature this past year at the Lone Star Film Festivaland at the Silk Road Film Festival in Dublin, Ireland, earlier this year, as well as the Audience Award at both the Tacoma and Olympia film festivals. Boom has also just been announced as an Official Selection at this year’s Newport Beach Film Fest and at the Buenos Aires International Independent Film Festival (BAFICI) as well as the upcoming Phoenix Film Festival on April 5th and also this past March at the Manchester Film Festival.
PKM: So, can you tell me a little about the festival screenings? How is the festival circuit treating you with Boom?
Jordan Albertsen: Honestly, it’s just been totally overwhelming. You know, I have very few expectations, it’s such a small movie. My hope was to, at the very most, get into two or three festivals, and it’s gotten into ten at this point and it’s won some awards. So, this has been way beyond anything I could’ve expected.
PKM: Yeah, you guys have been cleaning up. I’m sure it had to be a trip since you had to re-conceive it from your initial vision, especially getting all these awards.
Jordan Albertsen: Totally, yeah, I mean normally, little rock documentaries don’t usually win awards like that, so it’s totally shocking. It’s been pretty humbling and cool.
PKM: That’s awesome! So, how was it in London? I know you did Raindance.
Jordan Albertsen: Yeah, we had the world premiere at Raindanceand London was great. Both screenings sold out really quick and The Sonics fans came out from all over Europe. There were people from Denmark and Sweden and Germany just to be there for the world premiere. It was really cool.
The Sonics playing live in 2008, in Øyafestivalen, Oslo, Norway, 2008. “Louie, Louie” and “The Witch”:
PKM: So, you actually went on tour with The Sonics, right, when you were filming?
Jordan Albertsen: Yeah, I went, it was kind of crazy how the whole thing came together because I knew I was going to need footage of the band in there in their reunion glory and I wanted to make sure I had that footage for the film. And that was one of the first things we filmed. Like I was sort of talked the band into letting me come out. At the time, they were pretty suspicious and I don’t think were totally aware of really what I was trying to do, like “What is this kid doing? He wants to come to Europe?” So, I basically scraped together financing from family and friends to finance this trip to Europe so I could go and follow the band around. I think I went to four or five of their shows. Started in Belgium, went to Cologne, Germany, went to Brighton, and then the last show I filmed with those guys was in London. And that was the first time I’d really even met them.
For six years leading up to it, I’d only been talking to Buck [Ormsby] and you know, the idea was to get a huge chunk of financing, 500 grand or something, so we could make this really big movie and Buck didn’t want to say anything to the band until we pulled that together. It just didn’t happen. Financing just didn’t come through and my plan was that if I could scrape enough money together to go to Europe, get that footage, and the next step was to be like to do this Indiegogo campaign. And that was the last-ditch effort, like, “Okay, we’ll do this campaign” and I was hoping to get two or three hundred thousand dollars out of that campaign and when it bombed, at that point, the film was just basically dead.
So, I was sitting on this footage I shot in Europe and I really didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t have any idea of how that would be incorporated into whatever the movie would end up being. And then I managed to get, over the years, an interview with Buck because he…I could just tell that his health was deteriorating and that he wasn’t being very forthcoming with me about it because we were on the phone all the time. Buck and me were just trying to figure out how the hell to get financing for this movie and I could just tell in his voice that there was something going on. I could just tell that he wasn’t in good health. So, I think it was around five years ago, it was actually before going to Europe, that I flew to Seattle with my cinematographer and got that interview with Buck in the can. And before the interview, I didn’t even know, really, what all that Buck had done and after that interview, I was like, “Holy shit! There’s this whole other side of the story of Buck, and what he did throughout the years to kinda keep that fire burning.” And all of a sudden, I was sitting on this really incredible story, that was a total curveball.
PKM: Wow, that’s really powerful! So, you just learned everything about him right then and there?
Jordan Albertsen: Yeah, the way I got involved with this movie, my dad and I went and saw The Sonics when they performed at the Paramount Theater in 2008 on Halloween night and I was just so floored by the show. It was so fucking crazy to be seeing The Sonics, for years, they were like this mystery and this thing that me and my dad would just talk about. I didn’t even really know that they had the following that they had because most of the friends that I had growing up, I mean, I didn’t have a lot of music friends. It was kind of my own thing, in a lot of ways.
You know, when that show happened, it was this sold out show with a bunch of punk rockers at the Paramount Theater in Seattle and here were these guys up there just rockin’ the fuck out of that place! So, it was just so inspiring to me, you know, and that band just meant so much to me personally, that it was just that night when I decided, I’m going to make the movie about The Sonics. I think it was actually that night, I stayed up all night and wrote this insanely long email. I basically found an email address on the band’s website that was like [email protected] or something like that and wrote this impassioned, crazy email to whoever that person was that I was the guy that needed to make this movie and I told him all this shit how the film I was gonna make was gonna be this giant cinematic fucking retelling of the band (laughs).
The Sonics live at the Paramount Theater in Seattle in 2008:
Jordan Albertsen: And the person who wrote me back was Buck and I instantly recognized his name because I was familiar with The Wailers, obviously, and I knew that Buck had been the producer of the original classic two Sonics albums.
In the late 1950s, Tacoma legends The Fabulous Wailers were wildly popular in the Northwest and widely regarded as enormously influential. Among The Wailers’ earliest fans was a young Jimi Hendrix who used to come from Seattle to attend Wailers shows with his amp as a loaner in case the band blew one of theirs in exchange for letting him perform a song with the band onstage (Concertlivewire). The Wailers scored a Billboard Hot 100 hit in 1959 with their single “Tall Cool One” and even appeared on American Bandstand.
Buck Ormsby, the bassist and co-founder of one of the earliest Northwest garage rock bands, Little Bill and The Bluenotes, joined The Wailers in the early 1960s along with former Bluenotes singer “Rockin’ Robin” Roberts. Buck formed Etiquette Records with fellow Wailer Kent Morrill and recorded the band’s 1961 cover of Richard Berry’s “Louie, Louie” which became the garage rock blueprint for subsequent covers, most notably, that of The Kingsmen who took it to #2 on the Billboard chart.
Jordan Albertsen: So, I had seen his name on the back and I was like, “Buck fucking Ormsby is writing me back?” Like it was so strange and I expected some young hot manager to be dealing with these guys, but it was Buck and he wrote me back and said, “Do you want to come to Tacoma and grab coffee?” “Fuck yeah!” and I think within a few days, I ended up going down to Tacoma and had coffee with Buck and just told him what I wanted to do and told him why I was the guy to do it and, you know, and we shook hands and he said, “Let’s fuckin’ do it! You’re the guy!” And that was kind of the beginning. And that was about ten years ago that that meeting happened and that was kind of how it all started.
PKM: That’s wild! Buck sounds like he was a visionary, too and just a helluva guy!
Jordan Albertsen: Well, Buck, there was almost like a … he was just like the Energizer Bunny. He wasn’t always easy to deal with. Me and Buck had our moments. But I just fuckin’ loved the guy! He lived and breathed rock ’n’ roll. He was just like the embodiment of a true pioneer.
I did two days of interviews with Buck and the first day, we didn’t even mention The Sonics, four hours of interview was Buck basically telling his story which was just totally fascinating. He was a 13-14-year old boy and he would go into these 21-and-over kind of segregated African American rock shows. He would sneak in at this young age, he got to see Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and he would literally be in the front leaning on the railing like the only white person in there, (laughs) the only minor in there, this little boy and that was kind of how he got that bite, that bug. He just lived and breathed rock ’n’ roll and he just fuckin’ believed in it more than anybody and when it came to him and The Sonics, that band, it was like he was so protective of that band and believed in them forever. Even more so than his own bands.
He was in The Wailers, they’re a legendary group, The Wailers are very influential and in a lot of ways, more influential than The Sonics, depending on who you talk to, but Buck didn’t give a shit, he just wanted to talk about The Sonics. To him, that was like the lightning in a bottle, where he, at the time, tried so hard to make those guys pop that it just didn’t happen, that even after the band broke up, he just devoted his life to prove to the world that they were that great until it finally happened. It’s really just incredible!
PKM: Yeah, I’ll say, he was really the heart and soul.
Jordan Albertsen: Yeah, I mean, look, when that Indiegogo thing happened and it just bombed, I was just depressed and broke and didn’t have any other work, and to me, the film was dead. There just was no way to make the movie that I had been carrying around in my mind for all those years. Every once in a while, Buck and I would talk on the phone and it was just, “Yeah, we’re gonna do it, we’re gonna do it!” It was just like sad, like both of us knew that there just wasn’t a movie anymore, there was no way to do it and it was just this fucking dead thing that I had spent so much time and effort to kind of figure out how to do and it just wasn’t gonna happen and when Buck died, that was really when I kinda sat back and said, “You know, well, I can’t make the movie that I want to make, but what movie can I make?”
Like what is in there? It was like, it made my chest tight. Like, it was like, heartburn, it was constantly bothering me. I knew I had to figure out how to tell this story some way. And when he passed away, I went back through all the old hard drives, went and re-watched his interview and that was when I decided, I can tell this story. I’ll be the narrator because I never wanted to be the narrator, I always hoped to get fuckin’ Dave Grohl or somebody (laughs) to come and do the big rock doc thing, but it was really that moment when I stepped outside of the vision that I had and it was almost like, at that point, I gotta make this movie for Buck. That was when I decided to weave in my own story of the band and why I loved the band and my connection with my father.
I set up this kind of little recording studio in the basement of my house and I would go down there and have a couple beers and just speak into the microphone and kind of create narration. I started playing with that and that’s when the film came together. That was when I realized that I could tell this story, I could make this movie, it was just gonna be small and personal and that was eventually how it came together.
PKM: That’s so cool!
Jordan Albertsen: Yeah, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done! Anyone who knows me will tell you I don’t like standing up in front of audiences, I hate pictures of myself, the last thing I would ever do is put myself in a fucking movie, but it was really the only option I had.
Once I had just made that choice and started doing it, that’s when all these other doors kind of started opening up. The other thing was that Buck was my connection to rock stars and he was the guy who was supposed to get me a lot of these big interviews, so when he passed away, all of a sudden, it was like, “How am I supposed to get in touch with all of these people?” Like, I can’t just write the guys in Pearl Jam an email! I ended up bumping into Mike McCready at a sushi restaurant in Montana. Basically, when I gave up on the movie and I just got depressed. My now-wife and I moved from L.A. to Montana. We moved to Bozeman and I started working at the sushi restaurant called Dave’s Sushi and it was really the lowest point in my life. I had kind of given up on not just Boom, but really gave up on everything. It was like, “I’m going to give up on this dream and movies and I’m just going to move up to Montana and this is my life now.”
One of the nights I was working, Mike McCready came in with his family and being a kid who grew up in the Northwest, I had Pearl Jam posters on my wall! I recognized him from behind. I turned around and I was like, “Mike fuckin’ McCready!” I couldn’t keep my shit together I was so starstruck! And he was with his wife and his two kids and I just blabbered.
I said, “I’m making a movie about The Sonics! I’ve been trying to get in touch with you!” (laughs) I just kind of like assaulted him with this pitch and he just kind of sat down with me and he was so fucking cool and gave me his cell phone number and he was like, “Let’s do it, man!” And then he sat there and while I’m sitting at this restaurant that I was supposed to be working at. Everyone in there was like, “What the fuck is going on? Jordan’s sitting down talking to this man!” And it was like this really busy restaurant and he pulled out his phone and he texted Nancy Wilson right there and had it not been for Mike McCready, this movie just wouldn’t have been finished. It couldn’t have. Him just putting his involvement in it not just legitimized the movie to other people, but also to me, personally, because it was becoming such a weight that I was lugging around. Once he got involved, it just changed everything. And I’m forever in debt to that guy.
PKM: He sounds like a really cool guy.
Jordan Albertsen: He’s like the coolest motherfucker on the planet! Most rock stars if they were to bump into some random dude at a restaurant in Montana who tried to pitch a movie to them would’ve told him to fuck off. There was absolutely no reason for him to think that, you know, some dude working in a restaurant in Montana is actually making a real movie. He just, I dunno, believed in me and he fucking did the interview and connected me with basically everyone else who was in the film. Even his involvement all of a sudden, because I hadn’t even filmed the interviews with the band members yet. It just all of a sudden had this electricity attached to it where it became like a real movie and that was really it.
PKM: So, getting back to The Sonics, when you went with them to Europe, did you get to observe them a whole lot, like interact with them? I’m just curious, because they seem a little guarded. Like what were your observations of them?
Jordan Albertsen: They were guarded and I think they were just sort of unsure of me because for them, you’ve gotta realize, they weren’t like big rock ’n’ roll stars. They were in this little band when they were basically teenagers and it lasted for a few years and then that was it. So, for them to have this sort of second coming, it was very strange, I think, to them. To have some guy there that was just so passionate about making a movie about them, I think they were just sort of wondering what they fuck was wrong with me? (laughs)
PKM: Like bewildered!
Jordan Albertsen: Yeah like, “Why are you doing this? Go follow the Rolling Stones around, no one cares about us!” I think they just thought it was bizarre that anyone cared and I think they were that way until they saw the film because even when we shot the interviews they were kind of guarded and I don’t wanna make them sound…they’re all awesome guys, I fuckin’ love those guys! They’re just normal dudes, so to be treated like rock stars was such a bizarre thing, you know, for them. It was like abstract, and when they finally saw the film, because they all went to the U.S. premiere at the Tacoma Film Festival, that was when they finally got it.
The story with my father, I think, really touched a chord and the film is such a love song to those guys like any negativity or any kind of shit-talking, I cut anything remotely out that I thought was kind of negative because I just wasn’t interested in that. So, I think they’re pretty stoked now, but it took ten years. (laughs)
PKM: They really needed to see it for themselves!
Jordan Albertsen: Yeah, I think sitting down and watching that movie and hearing the guitarist from Pearl Jam talk about them. I think for them they finally got to sit there and kinda go, “Jesus Christ! I guess what we did was kind of important!” I think seeing it all in the context of the film, at least I hope, really brought it all home for them because they really are, at least in my eyes, one of the most important bands in rock history.
PKM: Oh, absolutely! It’s funny because I got into them in probably 2010. I had heard them on Pandora radio…everyone I knew was listening to Pandora radio, at the time. They came on one of my Pandora stations and I was like, “Whoa, who are these guys? These guys are rad!” And then I looked into them and I didn’t have any clue about them, like I can see where they had a lot of impact on everybody else and then I’d ask people, “Have you ever heard of this band?” “No, I’ve never heard of this band.” “How have I never heard of these guys, they’re so good!”
It should be noted that I’m not a native Pacific Northwesterner.
Jordan Albertsen: When I got into the band, I was pretty young and I’ve always been obsessed with the history of punk rock. I mean, my favorite book is Please Kill Me. I’ve probably bought twenty copies of it. Like I’ve just been obsessed with the history of punk rock, you know what I mean? Just kind of finding where it all began and it’s just so fun to collect those records and source that shit out, you know? And I think that book was really the final word on that.
When I heard The Sonics, the first song I had heard was “Cinderella” off of Boom, I was like, “What the fuck is this?” And I looked at the back of the record and when it was released and it’s like, “This was before The Stooges, this was before fuckin’ all of that shit!” And it just blew my mind and for my dad to tell me that like, “Oh yeah, this was a band that I used to go see when I was in college. They would play the school dances.” I was sitting there saying, ”You saw these fucking guys play at school dances? Are you fucking kidding me?” I just couldn’t believe it, they were just so special to me. So, growing up, they were kind of my secret band. I have always loved The Sonics, you know, and being somebody obsessed with punk rock music, I’m 36 years old and I’m still fucking going to see punk shows. I’ve never grown out of it and I don’t think I ever will. I’ll be a grandfather rockin’ the Misfits. That’s just the music that’s always touched me and always will. And that band, for me, is kind of at the center of it all.
So, for me to be able to tell that story…there was so much responsibility that I had and I knew that I had to make the movie and I knew that it had to be good and I knew that it had to be shot well. I refused to shoot the film on DSLR or fuckin’ cell phone footage. It had to be photographed well. I didn’t want to make a film that would fade with time. I wanted to really create something that people can watch for years to come and have it not feel like this dated thing.
PKM: Especially for them, because they’re timeless!
Jordan Albertsen: I feel like we’re still not there. They’re so ahead of their time and it’s just so interesting when you talk to those guys, they seem guarded and all that stuff, but it was just so not a part of the plan. It’s not like they wanted to be the most badass band ever or whatever. It wasn’t by design, they just fucking went out there and did it! And they were just trying to meet girls and party and have fun and there was just this magic that happened when those five guys got together.
As soon as Bob Bennett started beating the shit out of those drums harder than anybody else and the rest of the guys in the band had to turn all their instruments up just so they could be heard over those drums, that was just where that magic started. Buck allowing them to be who they were in the studio and not toning it down and just letting them fuckin’ blow out all those speakers (laughs) when they were recording the songs, because most producers would’ve had them tone everything down so it sounded like stuff that was on the radio, back then and it’s just so magical that all of those things sort of happened. We’ve got those records to listen to today and they still sound relevant and fresh.