SONNY KAY: FAST TIMES AT GSL HIGH
Sonny Kay started Gold Standard Laboratories (named after the Guaranteed Stafford Loan that funded it) in Colorado in 1993 and grew through a line of daring releases to a partnership with the Mars Volta’s Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and (after post-office boxes in San Diego and San Francisco) an apparently permanent home here in L.A., as well as a position as one of the west coast’s strongest independent labels. He speaks after returning from a European tour with his band Year Future.
Has GSL settled in L.A. for good?
Yeah, I think—if it’s gonna exist in the states, it’s gonna be L.A.
Next stop Paris?
I don’t know about that. As far as California goes, it feels like it just makes more sense to be in L.A. than anywhere else. All the manufacturing stuff is here and in a bigger sense, it’s more connected to the whole world. It wasn’t quite as alien for me moving here—I grew up in the valley. I definitely spent my formative years here.
Fast Times at GSL High?
Exactly. So coming back didn’t feel that crazy.
What does a GSL-eye view of Los Angeles look like?
I guess we actively try not to contribute to the sort of competitiveness of the whole thing there. It kind of goes without saying that everyone tries to ‘make it’ here or get their thing noticed, we and exist in spite of all that stuff—invisible in comparison to the mainstream. We’re not trying to steer the ship—to promote any kind of thing in particular. And it seems like a lot of other things are.
How do you think GSL connects to the history of independent music in L.A.?
There’s certainly bands I admire and records I still listen to and feel like—I don’t know if it’s kinship because I don’t know these people because they were a generation or two before us, and it’s weird to put words in their mouth by saying we’re connected, but… when I think about these records, I’m thinking about here, and in that respect it, it does connect us to it. For example: the first Wall of Voodoo EP in particular—a great overlooked new wave classic from L.A. Obviously the SST stuff to some degree. For me personally—as a kid I was really into groups like the Three O’ Clock, the weird Rodney on the ROQ psychedelic bands. I don’t think any of that is close to what GSL does these days, but that stuff definitely helped broaden my horizons when it came to pop and rock music.
Did Rodney ever play GSL releases?
I used to watch those Flipside playlists and I never saw anything on there—I don’t know. I imagine he must have played the Mars Volta at some point. It seems like we’re not really on his radar.
Are there any sort of historic L.A. musicians you’d like to put back into the studio?
The first response would be Jeffrey Lee Pierce, but that’s not gonna happen. I tried to hook up with Scientist—he’s here in L.A. He’s around and kind of down for stuff, but he has sort of go-between people who relay stuff to him. I wanted to get him involved with Mars Volta. I’d love to have him do stuff. I have so much respect for that whole world—most of what I listen to is dub and reggae.
What do you think is the future of independent labels? 1993 already seems really remote.
It’s getting to the point where it’s viable for people to sidestep labels and release whatever straight on the Internet and market themselves directly—
Like get a PR agent and not even bother with a label?
Exactly, and I think labels adapting to that kind of makes sense in a way—whether we adapt that way over time remains to be seen. I was born too late to experience the sort of golden era of doing this stuff—I don’t mean that in terms of underground or independent music because I think that shit’s been an uphill battle since day one. There’s glory in the accomplishments but no glory in the fight. If I could exist and be part of any era—for me, the sort of fun part is designing covers and that stuff—I’d probably make myself an executive for some megacompany in 1974 or 1975.
Put out the fourth Stooges record?
The Doobie Brothers—I love big-budget ‘70s record art. The real pre-computer, sort of surrealist collage and montage stuff. Most of it is really poignant or communicates something kind of larger than ‘this is a record, this is ten songs.’
What record do you have framed and hanging over your bed?
The only record I have framed in the house right now is something I just like because of the cool design: this group Blackalicious, a twelve-inch from three or four years ago. A collage of African bushmen with headphones on and Walkmen out in the desert. As far as ‘70s stuff goes, right now, I have this image stuck in my head of this Doobie Brothers record: the Transamerica building emerging from the water, like fallen into the ocean. Just to have the money and wherewithal to commission something like that would be pretty cool. Even the average Pink Floyd cover is pretty mind-blowing.
What do you think you personally have in common with the people who buy GSL records?
Without sounding too self-important, I would like to think we kind of have more discriminating taste than obviously what MTV and radio have to offer. I’m reluctant to sound like a grumpy old man, but I feel like so much of DIY is just sub-par—just going through the motions because anybody can. And I think independent music in general doesn’t police itself enough.
I would love to join the independent music police.
Believe me, I wish there was one. Or a band tax. But if anything, we all are looking for something with more substance. That’s definitely subjective. We put out quote/unquote art-punk records, and the beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder. But I feel like there’s a common thread in all the groups that appeals to me—I don’t know what it is, but whatever it is, it’s sincere and genuine, and anything that’s coming from somewhere genuine can resonate with someone somewhere. Hopefully multiple someones.
So do the Mars Volta guys really live in an abandoned warehouse filled floor to ceiling with broken ‘70s TV sets?
Not anymore, though that’s not that far from the truth. The truly crazy part of that story is that Omar will not part with any of those TVs, and he paid a lot of money to ship all that stuff back to his mom’s house in El Paso. He also collects old typewriters and stuff, and he’s incensed when you even suggest abandoning any of them, even just for common-sense-type reasons. They’re like his children.
YEAR FUTURE PLAYS THE FIRST NIGHT OF GSL’S FIRST ANNUAL FLOOD AND MUDSLIDE SEASON WARM-UP PARTY ON THURSDAY, JANUARY 5, WITH VERONICA LIPGLOSS AND THE EVIL EYES, DMONSTRATIONS AND SEXY TIME EXPLOSION AT THE ECHO, 1822 SUNSET BLVD., ECHO PARK. 7 PM / $10-$18 / ALL AGES. WWW.ATTHEECHO.COM. 400 BLOWS, FREE MORAL AGENTS, LABWASTE, COAXIAL AND GABRIEL HART AND HIS UPSET BLACK GUITAR PLAY THE SECOND NIGHT ON FRIDAY, JANUARY 6.