GSL, Burgeoning Vanguard
With both coasts and a slew of bands and nascent labels fetishizing the return of postpunk and the eighties dancefloor, Sonny Kay’s Gold Standard Laboratories has traversed the eclectic punk underground for nearly a decade. Originally the vocalist for seminal bands Angel Hair and the VSS, Kay forged the GSL imprint in 1993, abandoning his own musical endeavors for a role as label-head that could best be defined as auteur, addressing a total musical aesthetic in roles as diverse as producer, graphic designer, and interim bus-driver. GSL has brandished a consistent philanthropic zeal that hearkens back to the independent roots of eighties’ hardcore, and Kay’s evidently personal investment in the music itself is integral to the project’s success. Meanwhile, the label’s broadly conceptual agenda continues to challenge antiquated ideals of genre and context, razing the parameters of context with conjoined elements of hardcore, punk, dub, and electro. Releases from Le Shok, !!! and GoGoGo Airheart have proved among the more essential and far-reaching records of the alleged neo-punk renaissance, and Gold Standard will be dropping new material from I Am Spoonbender and Kill Me Tomorrow on October 21.
Tom Roberts: Angel Hair and GSL both came together in Boulder when you were at school at the University of Colorado. What was the atmosphere like out there in the early nineties?
Sonny Kay: For the most part, it was kind of what the cliche is - a lot of tie-dyes and bikes and dogs. Musically speaking there was very little happening outside of the college-dictated tastes of the local bar scene. What few punk bands there were generally sucked and were only copying other bands from more happening places.
TR: The different bands on Gold Standard seem to have a pretty broad palette of reference that mirrors their diverse styles and sounds. What kind of material informed your own tastes growing up in punk and hardcore?
SK: Well I got into punk music kind of later than the average kid. I had my heavy metal phase early on, when I was around 9 or 10. This was about 1982, so Ozzy and AC/DC and stuff were very new and pretty much everywhere. I was friendly with older kids so I got into what they did - which was metal. A couple of years later I got sucked into music videos and the first wave of groups who really used that medium - like Duran Duran, Culture Club and Thompson Twins (who were, incidentally, the first band I ever saw!). Then I started getting into stuff that really stuck with me for years - Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen, the Cure and Bauhaus. Those are bands I still listen to. Punk and hardcore kicked in kind of simultaneously when I moved to Colorado at 15. I was immediately drawn to Dischord because there was a unique aesthetic to the label, and a definite sense of progressive ideals musically. It was unpredictable but almost everything was good or worth checking out, at least. My favorite bands were always the "off" ones like Embrace, Three, and Circus Lupus. I was into political stuff like MDC, Conflict, and others, but really didn't relate to it like I did the "DC" bands and what was, even back then (around ‘91) being called "emo."
TR: Are you still playing/recording music of your own?
SK: Yes and no. I still entertain the idea of starting a band and from time to time I do get together with friends to play for fun. Nothing has really come of any of that, whether or not it will is hard to say.
TR: The VSS recordings were important in defining the course of the San Diego punk scene. What led to the decision to shift your focus from musician to label head, putting the same energy into the production, distribution, touring, etc. for other bands?
SK: I never really identified myself as a musician; I couldn't play anything. My contributions to the bands I was in were always on kind of an artistic level, at least in my mind. I studied art at school and came to view the things I was doing in kind of a bigger, sort of conceptual way. This is not meant to sound ridiculous. It was not even really a conscious thought or anything. The VSS was, in many ways, always an uphill battle. We were making no money and, in fact, it was costing me money to be on tour every time - something that seriously jeopardized both GSL and, at that time, Bottlenekk. Couple that with the typical sort of ego and personal issues every band deals with, and the outlook starts getting kind of bleak. I honestly believed in the idea of the label and its success, whereas the band was a lot less stable from my vantage point. I have realized after a few years of only doing the label that the things I enjoyed about being in a band I can enjoy with any band - I don't necessarily need the burden of still being a member once a record or a tour is completed. Of course, it's a totally different sense of fulfillment for me, and a very different experience to living the life of a band, but that's cool. It's interesting to see it from both sides, and also it really has helped me refine my ideas as to what is even worthy of doing in the context of a band.
TR: You’re still working in visual art, aren’t you? I know you design many of the GSL album covers, and I’ve seen you racing around at some shows with a video camera. Have you done any work in film/video?
SK: Yes, I do a lot of the design stuff myself and have just started getting into video. It took me forever to get a camera so I never had much experience until now. I have a lot of ideas for video projects but am still just figuring out how to use the software, so it'll be a while before much happens.
TR: What was Bottlenekk all about?
SK: Just wanting to see the records in stores, basically. Our distribution was pretty weak at that time, and I didn't want to have to trade with other labels in order to distribute them forever. I stopped doing it because it wasn't fun anymore, at all. And it had really outlasted its purpose in many respects. It was essentially just a means of getting GSL stuff into shops, and it grew into a dismal situation and my life had boiled down to nothing but work. How I actually stopped doing it is a long story. Basically, I just stopped. There was no plan other than to get out. In hindsight I suppose I could have sold it or something but I can't do anything about that now. It was a cool little thing while it lasted.
TR: The first Locust 7” broke new ground for GSL; how’d you meet up with Justin Pearson and those guys?
SK: I met Justin when he was in Swing Kids and came through Colorado. But I think we had a lot of mutual friends in San Diego as well.
TR: I understand the Locust has signed to Anti/Epitaph, which seems like a good fit for them, inasmuch as any major could be. Do you plan to continue working with [Pearson’s] Three One G? What exactly is the relationship, literally and aesthetically, between the two labels?
SK: The relationship between the two labels is informal and based on all of us being friends. They are two separate companies. In the past we have operated in "tandem" to save costs and make things easier for all of us, and they did my mailorder for a while when we switched distribution to Mordam. Other than that, they do their thing and we do ours.
TR: Rather different from the Locust, but you’ve mentioned that GoGoGo Airheart has always been particularly close to your heart. Would you say they’re emblematic of a particular sound GSL is working toward, or a part of the larger whole of the label’s rubric?
SK: I'd say that GGGAH are probably closest to the overall style(s) of music that I grew up listening to and continue having a strong interest in - postpunk in general. Now that it's kind of fashionable to play that stuff, I think it's more important than ever that people doing it contribute to its development and challenge people’s concepts of its boundaries. Band X aping Gang of Four and Joy Division is more meaningless than ever. I honestly think GoGoGo Airheart possess the very rare ability to digest musical influences from all over the board and regurgitate something that acknowledges all of them without imitating any. There are subtleties in their music that reference all sorts of styles and genres, not immediately recognizable in some cases, and I for one find listening to their records to be a very stimulating experience because of it. As a band they have a massive and thorough knowledge of rock music and I think that shows. What sets them apart is that they have been developing this sound of theirs for almost seven years and have not only refined it, but in many ways they have set a standard for it that other bands regard quite seriously. I could go on about them for hours.
TR: How did you hook up with Omar Rodriguez?
SK: He and I met years ago in Boulder. We have always had mutual friends and always kind of knew where each other were and what we were doing. When I approached him about doing a De Facto record a couple years back we just decided to take things one step further.
TR: You recently reported the untimely demise of Neon King Kong. Is Hot Rod Todd at work on any new projects yet?
SK: Not that I know of. He has a lot of personal stuff going on that has disrupted things and set him back, but I know he has every intention of getting something going.
TR: Where do the anticipated albums from Chromatics and Soiled Doves stand?
SK: The Soiled Doves album is finished and now on the shelf until we decide a time to release it. Chromatics are still mixing their album, but we are hoping to have it out by February or March.
TR: What else do you have in the works these days?
SK: A full-length release from The Starvations, a band from L.A. fronted by a guy named Gabriel [Hart]. They have been around for years as well, existing pretty much invisibly, releasing their own records. I admire bands that are willing to put their own money where their proverbial mouths are. And The Starvations' commitment to what they are doing is also a pretty rare thing nowadays. There will also be full-lengths from The Vanishing, JR Ewing, and Vaz, to name a few.
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By Tom Roberts