Ben McLain is in a van in Kentucky, and he’s in a wonderful mood. His genre-bending a cappella group Sonos is on tour in support of their brilliant debut Verve release, SonoSings, featuring all-vocal versions not of musical theater or jazz standards, but of modern, indie rock songs by Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, Bjork and The Bird and the Bee. Anyone tired of the cast from the television series Glee and their cover of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” will find welcome fresh air with Sonos, although the two share a love of spontaneity. “We’re singing all the time, in bathrooms, everywhere,” McLain says. “That’s one of the joys of being on the road.”
The group’s concept of taking the oldest tool of music-making—the human voice—and applying it to new, hipster-radar bands has brought them wide acclaim. Justin Vernon of Bon Iver said he was “honored” by the Sonos version of “Re: Stacks.” Sara Bareilles joined the group in the studio for their version of “Gravity.” And in perhaps the group’s strangest and proudest moment, they even once sang their lush, multilayered version of the Fleet Foxes’ “White Winter Hymnal” with Dennis Haskins, the actor who played Mr. Beldings on Saved by the Bell.
Sonos began as a postcollegiate group. While performing an Imogen Heap song on the taste-making Los Angeles radio station KCRW, they immediately lit up the phone lines. “And then our manager heard it,” McLain says, “and said, ‘Wait! Do a whole album of songs like this! Cutting-edge, kind of cool! It’s such a different sound than what a cappella usually portrays!'” The result is an album—released on CD and indie-friendly vinyl—with innovative arrangements and subtle sensuality. Using sparse effects pedals, the group’s version of Radiohead’s “Everything in its Right Place” makes a natural fit, and a drastic reworking of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” showcases the group’s arranging prowess.
McLain, along with band mates Jessica Freedman and Paul Peglar, grew up in Sonoma County, attending Maria Carrillo High School and studying with choir teacher Gail Bowers. Bowers was a huge inspiration: “We got to do progressive stuff,” McLain says, “and she gave us a head start on everything.” With a groundbreaking new album and reams of positive reviews, Sonos return for a hometown concert with the Maria Carrillo jazz choir opening on Sunday, Nov. 8, at the Spreckels Performing Arts Center. 5409 Snyder Lane, Rohnert Park. 4pm. $12&–$20. 707.588.3434.