To the outside observer, touring as a professional musician is all sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. But in reality, it’s full of long drives, meals at Waffle House, and the inevitable in-fighting that comes when several humans are trapped in a tight space together for long periods of time.
That weird, unpredictable, and less glamorous side of life on the road is what Sonny Smith — bandleader of San Francisco garage-pop mainstay Sonny & the Sunsets — explores in his solo exhibition, Tour, an installation-heavy, mixed-media art show at San Francisco’s Gallery 16 that translates the highs and lows of tour life into an interactive experience that feels like walking through Smith’s diary.
“People don’t wanna hear that rock ‘n’ roll could suck, but the truth is that it’s bizarre out there sometimes, and it’s creepy, and it’s kind of going upstream, because the world doesn’t always want you to pull into Columbus, Ohio and play at a club,” says Smith. “There can be a lot of forces against that.”
True to Sonny & the Sunsets’ lo-fi musical aesthetic, Smith’s painting style is unvarnished, rife with stream-of-consciousness abstraction and cartoony silhouettes that evoke Mission School artists like Margaret Kilgallen and Chris Johanson. As viewers move through the gallery space, which includes two funhouse-like installations, they embark on a hero’s journey that begins with creepy motels and shady nightclub crowds and ends in a cyclone of sensory overload, existential dread, and cynical humor.
Smith’s peppy soundtrack — which plays from a custom-painted jukebox — and goofy painting style keep the exhibit from feeling dour. Instead, it offers a realistic perspective on an experience which movies and pop culture often glamorize and mythologize.
Smith says that creating the work in the show was a way for him to process the burnout he began to feel after a decade of regularly going on the road; eventually, he says, he felt like he was losing his purpose.
“It wasn’t that touring was easier back then and got harder,” he says as he switches on the jukebox. “But if you didn’t have that kind of heartfelt power behind it and reason for doing it, then it does get harder. I think other people see it as a job and go out there, but for me, I needed to have some sort of deeper value towards what I was doing.”
What might seem fun to an emerging musician eventually becomes commonplace for an indie-rock vet, and with the show, Smith transforms the temptations of tour life into something darker and more twisted. One mural-scale painting depicts a row of strangers at a bar with their heads turned away from the viewer. Each one has an offering in their hand — one of the phases of a classic hero’s journey, when the protagonist meets potential allies and enemies, Smith explains. Some offer love and commitment; others offer drugs; some offer shelter.
There’s a lot of sexuality in Tour, but with his characters’ noodley bodies and leering glances, Smith presents it as surreal and offputting more than erotic. “Especially the realm of sex and drugs, all that stuff is fun at first but then it gets gnarly and real dark,” he says.
Tour is a bit raunchy, a bit pessimistic, but mostly whimsical and fun. And despite his somewhat jaded outlook on touring, Smith isn’t giving up anytime soon: On Mar. 2, halfway into the show’s run, he’s releasing his next album, Rod for Your Love, produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. Then he’s hitting the road this spring. He’s also considering putting out the Tour soundtrack, which is full of springy, surfy guitar jams, as its own release down the line.
In a lot of ways, the exhibition is like Smith’s music, which envelops complicated life experiences in humor, jovial major chords, and nostalgia. “I’ve always liked talking about minor-key themes with major-key music,” he says. “I don’t like to make sad music. I like to make life-affirming music.”