Sunshine Jones on Music, Love and the Answer to Alienation

Sunshine Jones plays live for a crowd of dancers.
Sunshine Jones
Sunshine Jones plays live for a crowd of dancers.
The last time that house-music legend Sunshine Jones was in Denver, it was as part of a grand tour of the country that culminated in the documentary/music video Home, an exploration of what it means to feel alienated from your hometown and how to find connection again through local dance floors. The communal nature of live performance was at the heart of that film.

With COVID restrictions lifting, many musicians are eager to dip back into the well of unity that's only possible with an entranced live audience. On Saturday, July 24, Sunshine Jones will return to Denver for his first post-pandemic appearance, with Kai Alce, Jasun Lovejoy and other friends at Ubuntu Live.

We caught up with Jones to ask about his experience during the pandemic and how he feels about returning to Denver for Ubuntu.

Westword: One of the themes I loved in Home was of human connection and the vision of reality/oneness that’s achieved when live music brings people together on the dance floor. Can you talk about what isolation was like for you?

Sunshine Jones: The last year and a half has been really interesting. Like everyone, we entered it with one mind and weren’t quite ready for what was really going on. I think that I was emotionally still back at November 6 and disappointed that Bernie didn’t win the Democratic nomination.

I had been touring nonstop and railing against the establishment, the leadership of San Francisco and California, and whooping the warehouse and basements into a frenzy asking us to go further and to do better. Asking questions about gender identity, personal truths and hypocrisies. The theme was, of course, "Fall in love, not in line," and rather than blaming others, the challenge is, was, and always will be for us to look at ourselves.

I mean “they” don’t really exist, right? There’s no “them,” there is only us. We spend our money on oil and junk and so we get oil and junk. If we spend our money on love and local, then we get love and local. It’s completely and totally in our hands. The victim story is attractive and addictive, but it’s not true.

There are machines in place, systems which need to be examined, dismantled and abandoned, for sure. But until we abandon them, they’re going to keep running. Look at the news: The propaganda machines are pumping day and night. They’re doing that because they’re making money doing that, because we are watching. All ya gotta do is turn it off, and their money dries right up.

So there I was, still, and suddenly it became very clear that things were going south. In a single day, a painstakingly planned European 100-percent-live tour was canceled, months of U.S. and Canada bookings were canceled, my son’s graduation and start of college were canceled, my entire budget for the year was cut, and while I was counting my lucky stars coming into 2020 with some savings for the first time in a decade, I could count on my fingers how long that was gonna last.

Personally, I was more worried about how I might emotionally cope without performing than the money. Money doesn’t matter, love matters, and live performance is a huge way for me of keeping my channel clear and my instrument open.

How did you cope with a lack of that experience during the pandemic/isolation? What sustained you during that time?

All around me, people started to freak out. Those first months of quarantine — which were quite stringent in SF — were really something. I found myself chasing yuppie shoplifters out of the local grocery store I love; the grandmas who run it can’t catch them....

I think the isolation itself was just too much for people. We lacked leadership, clarity, and trust for institutions and government. That’s another conversation, but I think that people didn’t want to get sick, or die, or they were pissed and didn’t believe it at all. I can understand both responses, but I just decided to show up and be of service to my community. So I paid attention and leaned in. ...

And by the end of summer, it felt like we’d finally found some sort of a rhythm. Numbers were going down at last, and people were still shaming us for wearing masks, but our efforts were working and the infections were dropping, and fewer and fewer people were to be found yelling in the street or wanting to have a fistfight with a security guard at the corner store. I helped during the protests and demonstrations by handing out masks, hand sanitizer and water, and made a lot of signs for people. I also got involved in a few fundraisers, streaming in order to raise money for club staff who were out of work and in trouble. Things seemed to be reaching a place where it felt okay.

And then my friends started to die.

In the last year and a half, I have lost 49 friends. Ten to suicide, because they couldn’t take this; 39 to COVID. A few of them have been elderly, unable to fight the virus, but honestly, most of them have been people who refused to wear masks and insisted that this wasn’t real, and felt like their rights were being infringed upon by being asked to wear masks. It is haunting, then, when someone I’ve stopped following on Facebook because of their endless ranting about COVID calls you up to tell the story of how their daughter snuck out to go to a rave and didn’t tell anyone. Now my friend’s daughter is on a ventilator, and he’s getting really sick, too. Then I get a call from the ex-wife saying they’ve died. So many of these stories.

Now I am confused, angry, hurt, vexed, frustrated and very sad. I just don’t even know where to begin talking about this. Especially since we are living in a time when people cut you off before listening, to yell at us about what THEY think. ... It’s left me wondering what’s in the water, what’s in the legal meds everyone’s taking? People don’t seem to be loving, or feeling; rather, they're making every possible effort to avoid their feelings entirely.

I’ve been through some of that in my life, I’ve had some really, really tough times, and I know personally that avoidance is a time bomb. It’s not a successful strategy. Neither is blame or shame. But it makes sense. It would be great to get a break from all this. It would be great to be right, or to have how angry I am solve even one of my problems. I don’t blame people for being scared, but I wonder if they know that’s what they’re feeling?

What's your response to that fear?

I’ve taken to curating; I just block the hecklers and people who are regurgitating propaganda. I don’t engage. I think that I've been hassled by everyone, and I don’t believe for a moment that anyone heckling is really reading or thinking about the things I'm attempting to express. I'm talking about love and self-care, truth and vulnerability. Difficult things.

But…Black lives matter. They just do. Police don’t need to be an army. That’s absurd. Police need to be servants of our community, an actual part of our community, and use their words and skills just like the rest of us do. Patrol cars and racist guns don’t work, aren’t going to work, and need to be re-evaluated and talked about openly. We can’t fight what’s right. Thinking things through, caring more deeply and being honest with each other is right. That’s what’s going to happen. Sooner or later. And I want it to happen sooner, and without a fight.

I’ve been heckled for being positive, for helping, for wearing a mask, for taking the science of virus and vaccination seriously, for not playing shows, for being willing to discuss playing shows, for fundraising for club staff, for not streaming on the inter-web — and honestly, it feels like it hasn’t been possible to do anything right. I have not been productive musically in the last year. It’s ironic, because all I’ve really wanted for a few years now is some serious downtime at home to develop a few ideas that are really important to me. The last year and a half is in no way what I was hoping for.

It's going to take a long time to recover from all this, and it’s not over.

You mentioned in the film a feeling of disconnection from San Francisco and, really, America in general, and it seemed like the tour helped you resolve some of those feelings. How are you feeling right now about your relationship with your city and your country? How do you think your appearance in Denver might influence or affect that?

It’s a very interesting thing, seeing the world through the skew of propaganda. If we watch the news and read the internet, one imagines things we’re being shown and accepts them in a way as truth. If we don’t completely buy what’s being pushed on us, we're still affected by it. One begins to see the world through a skew of negativity, polarity, and a bias we haven’t even had a chance to think through. It becomes hyperbole, and emotional, and not based in facts or experiences.

Driving from one end of I-80 to the other and back — making every effort to stop in every little town and discover how many Main Streets there are in every state, and finding little places to eat or hang out — changes the world completely. Meeting people, getting a chance to connect with people who have a completely different experience than I’ve had, feel differently about things than I do, and still laugh and understand one another.

My impression of the world throughout that previous administration at the outset was that we’d lost our minds, our hearts, our ability to think critically and relate to each other. It really felt, through the lens of propaganda, that it was all going up in flames. But from the road, this is a beautiful country, filled with amazingly creative, caring and wonderful people from all walks of life.

I sat beside an Air Force officer on a flight, and she was positive that she understood my politics (from my Birkenstocks), and so I asked her what she imagined my politics were, and we had a six-hour conversation about the world, family, feminism, the military, service, courage and love. It was amazing. She kept patting my arm and saying “you people” about me and people who feel the way that I do about things, and I would lean in and ask what she meant by that, and she would explain some hilarious cliché, and I would lean in and ask why she believed that was how I felt, and by the end of the conversation, our entire row and the row behind us and in front of us had joined the conversation, and we were all laughing. And when we parted she said, “I hope I haven’t offended you,” and I smiled, and she added, “I can see that I have a lot to learn.”

I never said a word about my politics or personal beliefs. I felt like an ambassador for the free-thinking world for a person who hadn’t ever left the confines of their own strictures.

It’s much too easy to be closed and say no. It’s way too easy to criticize, and heckle. The hard work is done in our hearts and minds. Loving isn’t a feeling at all, is it? It’s a verb. It’s what we do.

My connection with Denver is deep. I began coming to Denver in the early ’90s and playing for Merrick and the Tribe Posse. We had amazing times, and I made some very dear friends whom I continue to hold very close to me.

Denver has changed a lot, but so has San Francisco. I’m really looking forward to connecting with everyone and getting together. I think it’s gonna be beautiful.

Catch Sunshine Jones with Kai Alce, Jasun Lovejoy and other friends at Ubuntu Live on Saturday, July 24, location TBA; get tickets, $40, here.