Smile Politely

Picking up something new with Cody Sokolski

If I have learned one thing in life, [it] is that ‘never’ is a word fraught with danger and is often served with humble pie.

Wise words, Cody Sokolski. Very wise.

If my 20s have taught me anything, it’s that I don’t know anything. It’s as if I’m in some sort of post-adolescent paradox in which the more I experience the less knowledge I possess. It’s like the never-ending soup and salad lunch, except the bowl keeps getting bigger and the salad looks smaller and smaller as the meal goes on.

I don’t even know what I’m talking about. It gets worse all the time…

I do know one thing: the Champaign-Urbana music scene explodes in the summertime. You have to actively avoid live music to keep away from it. There is a show every single night of the week. When I hear people complain about this town, I want to slap them with the ukelele I stole at the Davina and the Vagabonds show.*

*Disclaimer: This is untrue — I didn’t steal anything. 

One of the cool things going on, this week alone, just at one venue, is a group called Cody & The Gateway Drugs. They’re playing at Mike ‘N Molly’s on Thursday. I talked to him about life and music, and I didn’t learn a thing. I don’t blame Cody.

Smile Politely: How’d you get started in music?

Cody Sokolski: Like most kids of my generation, it started with viewing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, and, a few years later, watching The Lovin’ Spoonful perform in Central Park (I’m from NYC) on a gorgeous New York City summer night. The magic was palpable. Jimi Hendrix performing on the same stage a year later pretty much sealed the deal for this young, impressionable youth. Then I heard the songs of Raymond Douglas Davies of The Kinks, who is, to this day, my absolute favorite writer. Factor in some work in my high school years … it became inevitable that my tastes were pointed in the non-mainstream direction.

SP: Who is the band? 

Sokolski: Cody Sokolski: vocals, acoustic guitars, slide guitar, and writer of words and melodies 

The fantabulous and exotic Katie Flynn: harmony vocals 

The incomparable rockabilly legend, Rowdy Norton: upright bass

Our newest member, Jeff “El Jefe” Carpenter: cajon/percussion

The band has been described as singer-songwriter level of tunesmith with a rockabilly kick. [We] want you to enjoy yourselves, but do like to point out that, at the same time, this is serious business. 

SP: How did you all meet and decide to collaborate?

Sokolski: I knew Rowdy from when he was a manager at local musical instrument retailer, C.V. Lloyde, and then, subsequent to that, he became my last band’s sound man. As I had decided to retire my electric guitars, so that the lyrics could be heard, I knew that an upright bass was in the cards. And when it came to playing acoustic with a bang and a slap, I knew that Rowdy had to be a part of this band. 

I had heard [Katie] singing outside on the patio of Jim Gould’s, where Big Grove Tavern currently is now. I thought that she sounded so natural, but it wasn’t until I found her 2–3 years later singing in Boltini Lounge that I had any idea how to find her. She’s amazing. 

And Jeff, while I had known him for many years through his work at Krannert Center, it wasn’t until we were playing a gig in May, and his lovely and talented bride, Jennifer, suggested that he’d be the cajon/percussionist we’ve been looking for, that we asked him down. It was pretty obvious within the first five minutes of playing together that “El Jefe” was our man. 

I am honored with the way the entire band takes ownership of my songs and infuses them with immediacy and spirit.

SP: Jenny and Jeff are certainly a talented couple, and they always find a way to incorporate music into their lives. How about you? I imagine music is a big part of your life.

Sokolski: Wow! Where to start…

Started my high school band that can claim that we played every single high school, church, synagogue, and what-have-you in NYC. At the same time, I was the second freelancer for Rolling Stone in NYC when it first started. Also, my name is in the credits for having helped contribute to the original rock tome, Lillian Roxon’s Rock’s Encyclopedia. Worked in guitar stores or record stores for day jobs. I’ve been on MTV, toured Europe, turned down (bad) label offers, played in African American gospel groups, played and lived with Peter Green, played with Mississippi Fred McDowell, turned down Jimmy Iovine (not one of my smarter moves), worked at Studio Instrument Rentals, and roadied for British bands. Joined one of the first punk bands in New York (The Dictators), was in bands with people from Hanoi Rocks and Joan Jett’s Blackhearts, and co-founded legendary lost New York Band Falcon Eddy. Toured as an opener for the Kinks, Rush …

However, I feel that I only became an artist in the last few years. That was partly why I had to retire my electric guitars. If I needed my songs to be heard, I would be best served if I went all acoustic. Even on the upcoming LP, Songs for the New Depression, I have forbidden any electric guitars. I really want the words and melodies to be heard. I believe that the kind of artist that I am … [have] to make every effort for the lyrics to be understood.

SP: Was that a difficult decision? It sounds pretty sensible to me, but it can be so hard to change methods (or tactics, venues, mediums, etc.) when expressing oneself through music or any other art form. How was the transition from electric to acoustic?

Sokolski: It was really not difficult at all. A lot of it was dictated by the songwriting. One of the cool discoveries I made was that, when you blend my acoustic guitar playing with my years of rock ‘n roll playing, and then blend those two elements with my outright adoration for Joni Mitchell, [it] made for something unique. 

The other fun discovery was that I unlocked the Zen of slide guitar. I used to think that, in order to prove my mettle as a slide player, I had to play a million different licks per song. Then the light shone down (along with Elmore James whispering in my good ear) and said, ‘Yo dude, find me one killer lick per song and then crush it.’ Plus, with the dynamics that come with acoustic instruments, I get to use all the parts of my voice instead of just my Little Richard scream

I have a gorgeous array of cool electrics that, sadly, have not been out of their cases since December 2012.

SP: Don’t you ever bust them out for fun?

Sokolski: Nope. I am completely consumed by acoustic guitar at this point. I feel little badly that my long-standing friends are being ignored, but that’s art for you.

SP: It may come back around someday, but your focus is on acoustic now. I respect that. 

Sokolski: If I have learned one thing in life, [it] is that ‘never’ is a word fraught with danger and is often served with humble pie. It really is not a matter of ‘not playing electric,’ but rather an artistic decision to use acoustic to help keep the focus on lyrics and melody. 

SP: What kinds of things inspire your songwriting?

Sokolski: I read a lot and I am very empathetic. I would say that my concern about the disparity in the distribution of wealth, and the continued erosion of opportunities to either enter or remain in the middle class, are definitely subjects that merit singing about. This constant assault on access to the American Dream is definitely troubling for me. In a more general sense, this desperate holding on to old ideas and false memories of the past make[s] it hard to be a young person in an old person’s world. 

Of course, after all is said and done, you must be able to dance to it!

SP: Are you lyric-based or do you focus more on melody?

Sokolski: I usually start with a jolt of inspiration that entails an idea attached to a melody and some guitar figure. Melody has never been a particularly huge challenge for me. Lyrics, on the other hand, is the area where I am really drilling down these days. 

I am constantly trying to have the words bring a moment to the subject, kind of like a painter. At the same time, remembering that this is only rock ‘n roll, it’s important that my words roll with the melody in a rhythmically seductive manner, and then, lastly, ring true to my artistic persona. I will constantly, to the consternation of at least one former band member, tweak, revise, change, and then change back again, the words. It is my belief that each word choice can have critical weight. Then again, as I said earlier, ‘Ya gotta be able to dance to it.’ And one of the many rewarding aspects of this lower volume acoustic approach is hearing the audience react to the lyrics, whether they be serious, sensitive, or just plain ol’ funny.

SP: I agree about words. One word choice can bring a group of people together or tear them apart. One word can make a bad joke a good one. It’s the difference between George Carlin and the guy at the end of the bar. 

Sokolski: Brilliantly put.

SP: Is it a challenge to perform live while changing the words? Do you ever “slip” and how do you cover that up? Or do you?

Sokolski: Well, I try desperately hard not to screw up the words, but, should I screw up, I either sing through it, or, especially when solo, I just kinda rewind and sing it [right]. However, one of the many advantages of obscurity [is that] not too many people have committed to their memory my canon of work. 

SP: What are you playing besides the Mike ‘N Molly’s show?

Sokolski: I’ve got three gigs this week, and we just added a show in late August at the Virginia Theatre opening for Robert Cray. That should be a fun one.

Cody & The Gateway Drugs are performing Thursday night at Mike ‘N Molly’s with Susie and the Shy Guys.
Photos by Jenny Carpenter.

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