Sun Rising is an Australian tribute to the classic sounds of Sun Records, the iconic label that helped shepherd and ultimately define rock n’ roll and the genres that followed it. Formed by David Cosma and Damon Smith, the band has quickly found itself at home in front of several distinct audiences: the rock n’ roll revivalist and rockabilly crowd, the general arts crowd (they’re about to play the Adelaide Fringe Festival) and, well, anyone who appreciates where our music came from. Ahead of the band’s appearance at the Ballarat Beat Rockabilly Festival (February 15-17), I Heart Guitar spoke with Cosma about the magic of Sun Records and the music it gave us.
What drew you to Sun Records?
Well, I’m a massive Beatles fan, but equally as much an Elvis fan. Growing up, my childhood was Elvis – his singing, his voice and all the rest of it. That really developed through the years into becoming a big fan of that whole era of music. As I grew older and began to understand music more, I found myself more drawn to very early Elvis. I could hear that that was his best work. So eventually you end up there, looking at his debut stuff. So that’s what drew my attention to Sun Records. Then you learn very quickly the other names that come out of that one studio in Memphis. We’re talking artists that debuted through that label. They weren’t established artists passing through Memphis and recording there: they started their career there. You’ve got Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, BB King, Howlin’ Wolf and all these amazing names that pretty much started their recording careers through Sam Phillips.
I started working five or six years ago with Damon Smith, another independent musician, and we discovered very quickly a similar love for that era of music. And he happened to be a fanatic of Jerry Lee Lewis, so we toyed with the idea for a while of doing something that involves both those artists. Obviously with Elvis tribute shows and impersonators that was being done to death. I mean, that was never on the cards anyway but we still had to be careful with what we thought of doing. And then we looked at the blanket of Sun Records, which brings those two guys together, as well as other amazing artists, and we realised a lot of people might not know the fact that these guys came out of that one studio, so we developed the idea from there.
And the music of that era still feels pretty relevant today. It has some things in common with the blues that are still used as the basis of many bands’ styles now.
Absolutely. And I think that’s a really good point. It’s probably taken us by surprise, because I’m so close to Elvis’s music that you sort of lose perspective of it over the years. And we all love that feeling of first discovering music and how it impacts you, so bringing this show to the younger generation, it’s amazing the response that it’s had, and the response that it gets from general music listeners, in addition to the music that’s out there today. It still has such a relevant impact. It’s amazing.
I guess that attitude of youthful rebellion and youth culture was really effectively summed up in the 50s.
Absolutely. You’re talking post-war, and a lot of it was timing, there’s no doubt. In many interviews through the years you’d hear Elvis say that he was lucky that he came along at the right time – that whole post-war thing where things were just starting to break loose a little bit. And thankfully a lot of it had to do with cool-sounding guitars and drums, and these sounds that were being born and heard for the first time.
Without giving too much away, how do you structure your shows?
“Sun ran for many years with hundreds of artists that went through there. We focus primarily from day dot – he opened the doors in 1949 but the actual Sun Records label didn’t come into effect until 52, so we run it from the early 50s until about 57. In that time so many artists came through there. We run it chronologically, so your early songs like Ike Turner and the Rhythm Kings, Howlin’ Wolf, then it kicks in with Elvis and Johnny Cash and we finish things off with Jerry Lee Lewis… and it works really well chronologically. It flows really well. There’s a lot of dialog and explanation throughout the show too: who this artist was, what things moulded what he did. And there are some amazing anecdotes and stories that go along with the show. It makes for a bit of a different show. It’s not just their music, it’s also a bit of a rock n’ roll lesson.
What are you using guitar-wise?
Well I’m the main rhythm guitarist in the show, and it’s acoustic-driven. I play a Maton 808 and a Martin 15-S. They’re my two, and obviously the Maton doesn’t scream authenticity as far as that sound and that era, but they come across really good on stage, and when you’re DI-ing an acoustic guitar you’re fairly limited in getting a good acoustic sound anyway. They work really well as rhythm guitars. And our electric guitarist, who has just joined the band, plays a Gibson ES-175 and he’s also got a Chet Atkins sort of Gretsch guitar. He’s really tried to nail that sound. Looking through the early electric guitars that were used at Sun, many of them were Gibsons, so it works really well with what we’re doing. There’s a real authenticity there. And we aim to get that whole echo sound, particularly with Elvis’s songs. Sun was famous for that slapback echo. And he runs into a Traynor valve amp. So again, I’m pretty used to what sound we’re looking for and we’re pretty confident in the sound as a fair rendition of what came out of Sun.