Tuesday, May 18, 2010


Photo by Behn Fanning

From 1993 until 2007, Sonny Kay owned and operated Gold Standard Laboratories home to such acts as The Mars Volta, the Locust, Kill Me Tomorrow and too many other great bands to name. Since closing up shop there, Sonny has been creative director at Rodriguez Lopez Productions and Sargent House.

This interview is real long and in depth, so I will let it speak for itself.


Email 1

First off thanks. GSL was a huge influence on my label Kitty Play, we have worked with some of the same artists Kill Me Tomorrow, An Albatross, etc. I can't help but realize the impact GSL has had on the development of my musical tastes over the years.

That said I was sad to see the label go, and not to dwell on the past too much in my first email but, in the labels eulogy you make reference to Factory Records. In 2002, a film about Factory was produced, 24 Hour Party People, starring Steve Coogan. If their was ever a biographical GSL movie, and you never know these days, who would play you and your rogues gallery? And what are some of things you would hope the story of that part of your life in the music industry would convey?

Hey Mark

Thanks for the kind words regarding GSL, I appreciate it. Forgive me if I get long-winded (I can't avoid it). Edit at will!

Hmm, tough question! The Englishman in me would be endlessly amused to see Ricky Gervais play my part, with maybe an element of Judd Nelson (circa The Breakfast Club) tossed in. It's funny, early on in my partnership with Omar, we actually did envision trying to put together a film of some kind to sort of create our own myth - although I imagined more of a documentary than anything dramatic. My own concept of it kind of revolved around my car and the constant traveling, juggling, string-pulling, coordinating... At the time, I was living in San Diego but constantly back and forth between Oakland, L.A. and S.D. for one thing or another. My car was essentially my office, I could virtually drive I-5 with my eyes closed. All GSL business - and life in general - was conducted in a blue cloud of weed smoke, which in hindsight renders the demise of the label something of a no-brainer. There was never a plan - even from the earliest days when I was doing things solo. I always embraced the idea of the label being an organic entity - my extended "art project" - where one release would lead to the next, one band would lead to another; where touring Europe with The Locust would unearth a bunch of bands in Norway who'd be the next ones we released. And that did work, for a while - largely on the strength of a handful of releases that accidentally did take off. But every great work of art requires a plan, and we came to that realization the hard way. I embraced the idea of doing the exact opposite of what other labels did, of what the standardized model of the music industry dictated you do - so we put out too many records, didn't hold bands as accountable in some cases as they should have been, and in general just kind of made it up as we went along. In my naivety, I actually thought we'd succeed on our own terms - that the presence of The Mars Volta would be the magic wand that would just make everything work. It was a lot of fun, and a fantastic way of seeing parts of the world I may never have otherwise. But it wasn't a business, and we weren't reinventing the wheel. We were reinforcing a loose community of bands and artists around the world who we felt were cooler, more substantial, less desperate and pandering to flavors-of-the-moment than what everyone else seemed to be doing. Any accurate portrayal of the label would focus on the fact that there was never a destination in mind, that the journey itself was always the point.

xx S

Email 2

Now you are working at Sargent House and their contacts has you listed as "creative director", how does your role their differ from your time running GSL? Is the blue cloud gone and are you working with more of a strategic plan?

Things are much different now. My focus is entirely on the aesthetic elements, so I have much less responsibility than with GSL. The "creative director" title is pretty liberal - I definitely fulfill that role with RLP, but with Sargent House, I'd say my role is more that of flight-checker, which I know sounds fairly cryptic. Most of the SH artwork is provided by the respective bands, and I just facilitate everything fitting where it should, turning out the right color, etc. I might design the odd poster or piece of merchandise but as far as the strategy of the label is concerned, that's entirely Cathy Pellow's realm. I'll chime in if I feel strongly about something. With regards to artwork, SH is very similar to GSL in that the bands are encouraged to provide their own art or at the very least it's a collaborative process. The cloud has definitely taken a backseat. It has its time and place, both of which are fewer and further between nowadays.

Email 3

How has the transition been from you owning and operating GSL essentially out of car, to GSL at its height to now being at Sargent House and not being in complete control?

Well, letting GSL go was a difficult decision, but on the other hand, there weren't any other options. It took some getting used to, more than anything. It'd been a huge part of not only my day to day life, but my whole identity, for about 10 years. Accepting that the time had come to switch gears was awkward, but the results were a huge relief. By the end, so much of the process of running the label had become so tedious. Everything started feeling like a chore - which could have been countered by some level of success, but the truth is, the more records we released, the worse they did. It was heartbreaking to put out what we knew were strong, inspired albums that were then met with total indifference by kids and press alike. And the responsibility for almost everything was riding on my shoulders. So, in contrast, things now are far more manageable and a lot more enjoyable. I get up every morning looking forward to doing work I love doing, and I'm aware how lucky that makes me. I don't want any of the other burdens. I wasn't cut out for business or entrepreneurship, and I don't miss it.

Email 4

I'm sure after running a label for that long, even now there are still bands who you want to call attention to and help out. Is Sargent House a place you can bring talent on board?

Are who are some of the young bands now you think are not getting enough attention?

First off, yes - if I was blown away by something, I could certainly bring it to Cathy's attention and I think she would value my opinion. That said, it really doesn't happen that much. I don't feel all that qualified in my knowledge of new or unknown bands cause I don't really get out to shows that much anymore, I'm just not that interested. I could more easily tell you who I think is getting too much attention rather than not enough. The last band that really excited me was HEALTH and obviously the word got out on them, and in my opinion, they deserve all the praise they get. I don't want to name names, because I do believe anyone doing anything creative is a good thing, but most of the LA bands who have blown-up over the past few years are all completely over my head, I just don't understand the appeal or find anything that interesting or novel about what they're doing. No one takes any risks, and very few of them seem to be saying anything. Either I'm old or my tastes haven't kept pace - probably both. I genuinely enjoy and pay attention to the whole Low End Theory clan - Gaslamp Killer, Nobody, Flying Lotus, etc. - and those guys all seem to be doing just fine. I find "bass music" much closer to my heart now than anything else. Maybe I see too much of the young me in the other kinds of stuff, I don't know. But really, my opinion is just premised on living in LA, and it's easy to get spoilt here. I have no doubt that there are truly underground scenes happening right now around the world that would blow my mind and feel really inspiring - there always is, that's just a fact. True disadvantage is unequaled in terms of laying a foundation for artistic expression. That's why so many incredible bands were coming out of England in the mid-late 70's. I'm sure there's bands in Nairobi and Manila who deserve as much if not more attention than whatever happens to be filling The Smell this week.

Sonny also sent this 2nd response

Damn, I hope I don't come across like a miserable old bastard!...

Email 5

Hahaha, I don't think you are coming off as being miserable at all. I've been asking a lot about a part of your life which has already been written. It is more reflective and honestly I think highly interesting.

You have been focusing a lot of attention on graphic design, often for Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, where do you draw the inspiration from for your art? Solely from the album a piece is created for? Or whats happening in your/Omar's life? A combination of the two?

Also its Cinco De Mayo!! Saw Mars Volta at Roseland here in NYC a few years back, how will you be spending it this year?

Inspiration can come from anywhere. Omar might give me some vague theme to work with, he might toss me a book of Hindi film posters, or he might just scroll through some rough ideas I've thrown together and decide one of them is already on the right track, so I'll get back into it. I spend a lot of time looking at other artists' work, particularly the classic album cover stuff from the 70's - the Roger Dean and Hipgnosis stuff in particular. I look at ffffound.com when I'm really feeling uninspired and just need to be awed by something. With regards to collage, more often than not I just sort of free-associate images that seem like they might click, or have some inherent meaning when placed side by side - hitting on something that way can really get things moving. Omar really embraces the haphazard and absurd, and I think he would agree with me that in terms of his own aesthetics, the less thought involved, the better. I'm more conservative in that regard. I strive for significance, or a meaning - because a meaning generally implies a roadmap. I enjoy the idea of communicating visually with as many people as possible, whereas he's more concerned with something that fits his personal vision, plain and simple. I have a great deal of freedom when it comes to the work I do for him, and so yes, what's going on in my life certainly informs the direction the imagery goes more than his. I like the idea of life's random events influencing the content of my work; that something I create, say, in Mexico might attempt to capture a certain essence of the experience of being there. Quite frankly, actually getting to hear the album in question while designing for it is something that happens only about 50% of the time, as far as Omar's stuff is concerned at least. I don't really know how things might differ if I got to hear the music more often than that... Interesting to think about.

I'm about to get out of the office and go enjoy what's left of Cinco de Mayo. Coincidentally, a friend from Mexicali, Mexico just came to town for the night, so I'm going to go hang out with him and do whatever it is Mexicans do on 5/5. Have a good evening and talk to you again soon.


Email 6

When did you realize you had such a great working relationship with Omar? I always read that he can be a bit of a dictator in the studio is there truth to that?

Sorry for the delay on this one.

The first things we ever worked on together were the De Facto albums and that was a lot of fun for both of us - actually all four of us, since Cedric and Jeremy were part of that process as well. I think at that point we recognized a chemistry and it's just sort of evolved from there. When I began devoting more time to creating my own art, the work I was doing seemed to strike a chord with him. I suppose we've been on a parallel course ever since. As for being a dictator, well... I'd say Omar generally has a good idea of exactly what he wants. He's got an energy and magnetic sort of enthusiasm that seems like it infects everyone he works with, he's just one of those people that can bring out the best in others. But if someone like that's having a bad day, then so is everyone else, you know what I mean? I just watched this documentary about Kubrick making Eyes Wide Shut (I think it's called The Last Film, or something like that) and as they described his method of work and collaboration, it was amazing to me because it was as if they were describing Omar. It was a revelation, to say the least - and strange, too, because Kubrick is easily my favorite filmmaker. In fact, I'll quit while I'm ahead and say that if you want a good idea of what Omar's work ethic and "people skills" are like, see that film.

Email 7

So you've run your own label, you have a comfortable job at Sargent House, whats next?

I mean any big dreams, goals, gonna sell the GSL back catalog to Universal Music? Leak it all on internet peer to peer sites?

Good question. I'm not really sure what's next. I'd love to experience living in different parts of the world - Japan especially (as far as places I've already been). I'm fascinated by Africa, Central America, India, Iceland... I'd gladly take at least 6 months or a year in any of them. I definitely intend to keep pushing myself artistically, that's probably my single most defined goal as far as work goes. Developing and broadening my skills outside of digital stuff is especially appealing - getting back to the basics with the advantage of a few years under my belt. I'd like to arrive at a point of genuine satisfaction with my work - that's something that's eluded me so far, and maybe always will, I don't know. Beyond that... Opportunities have a way of presenting themselves if you make yourself available to them. Most of my life's developed that way and I expect that it'll continue to, so I try to keep myself as open to the options as possible. I enjoy the adventure of not knowing what might come next. And eventually, I'd like to have a family.

As far as Universal Music and the GSL back catalog, well... I'm all ears any time they feel like knocking! I can't imagine that happening. I won't be uploading any of it myself but it'd be hypocritical of me to have an issue with anyone doing that.

Email 8

That said, what is your take on the sticky subject of peer to peer music sharing?.

This may well be a "can of worms"... but I'll try and keep things concise.

As a label owner, I resented it - simply because I witnessed our sales disappear virtually overnight. It wasn't so much peer to peer itself as it was the arrival of the ipod. It decimated our physical sales by at least fifty percent within the space of 4 or 5 months.

Having said that, I no longer have any issue with it - and that's not solely because I got myself an ipod and started downloading tons of stuff I'd never, ever actually spend money on physically. My thinking with regards to business, property, implied value, etc. has come what I feel is a long way in a fairly short amount of time. We need to change our priorities. We need to get beyond money. Capitalism is a rope around humanity's neck and anything that chips away at its foundation is fine by me. And believe me, I understand the contradiction in having an opinion like that while living in and contributing to the society I do - but you have to start somewhere. Even if your ideals are "unrealistic", it doesn't make them any less valid. I don't believe that "stealing" music will hasten the end of capitalism, and I also don't think that so-called communism (or any of the other pre-ordained "isms") is a worthy alternative. I don't believe the value of music is diminished by the inability to turn a profit from it. I think the time has come for us to evolve - psychically and emotionally, the kind of evolution we have some control over. I think creativity should be valued much differently than it is now. But by that I don't mean that we should police downloading so each and every last artist receive their .0005 cents - I mean we need to fundamentally change the whole equation in order to take the emphasis of profit entirely. The world I want to live in doesn't revolve around profit, or exploitation, or gaining anything at the expense of anything or anyone else. Maybe I'm naive - plenty of people I know have told me precisely that - but I don't think it's inconceivable. And I know there are thousands of others, if not more, who feel the same way. All this noise about filesharing and the death of the music industry and the collapse of the economy, these are all symptomatic of far larger and more profound changes taking place. The course those changes take can be guided to the benefit of the planet and everything inhabiting it. Or, they can continue benefitting corporate/government police states motivated entirely by the greed of a relatively tiny amount of people. To my way of thinking, filesharing is the environment is globalization is imperialism - another frontline for the systematic war on the human psyche and the potential of the human soul. The kind of war waged by its victims upon themselves because they're too brainwashed to see existence for what it really is and thereby allow governments and McDonalds and 500 TV channels to do their thinking and living for them. So yes, download away in my opinion. Make all art free - then maybe the only people doing it will be the ones with the inherent need to create it. Let's change the paradigm for everything. There's no reason why we can't, only about a billion reasons why we won't.

Email 9

I think someone needs to make shirts that say "The Revolution will be Hypocritical". Maybe I need to get H&M on the phone with that one, make a killing.

The more I talk to people about the whole peer to peer thing, the more I get responses similar to what you have to say.

I listen to the radio a lot because I always wanna know whats going on in pop culture, just like I'm always talking to some crusty metal kids to find out whats going on in the dirty thrash scene, but I seem to get flack from both ends about my interest in the other.

I think my whole take is people need to do what works for them, buy music when you can, explore where you can, and live life the best you can.
Keep an open mind.

But seriously man, when are you going to get in the studio and kick out some crazy Year Future jams? Or become a member of the Mars Volta and perform some of that live projected sand art?

I bet you could retire on the proceeds from a slogan like that! Seriously.

As for music, I don't know... There's not much I really feel compelled to do. I don't consider myself a musician, not even by a long shot. I don't have the need to do it the way friends of mine do, my instincts and impulses are for other things. I accomplished way more than I ever set out to with music, which was to release a 7" and go on tour once or twice. I managed to get that done by 1992, so everything since then has kinda been icing on the cake. Year Future was a great experience, but I feel now like I said everything I needed to with it. I'm content to leave it to the professionals and the kids with burning ambitions at this point. There's way too much clutter anyway.

Email 10

Damn, well this is email 10. The end is here. I really want to thank you for taking the time and answering all of my questions and going so in depth with your answers.
Sessions like this is why I started this project.

If you can toss me a photo or image to run with the interview when I post it that would be fantastic.

Hope our paths cross again

Can I shoot you a photo on Monday? I don't have anything recent on hand but am gonna do some over the weekend - there's a wedding tomorrow so I'll be all cleaned-up :)

Thanks for allowing me a platform/soapbox to blather from, and for your interest in the first place.

Have a great weekend.


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