Sonny Kay is without a doubt one of my favourite visual artists. Words will not do when it comes to his work; it needs to be experienced for oneself. Every time I look at one of his works my understanding of it evolves a little bit more, I find myself coming back to the images time and time again as inspiration for my mind and food for my soul—they remind me of the pure potentiality of life. Sonny is the art director for Rodriguez Lopez Productions and has created tee designs and album covers that complement the musical dialogue of artists such as long-time friend Omar Rodriguez Lopez, one of my favourite bands Le Butcherettes, the kick ass Zechs Marquise and more.
Art-wise, what are you currently working on? And so far, how do you feel about it?
SONNY KAY: Right now I’m finishing laying-out new albums for Good Old War and The Mars Volta. The GOW project is more a matter of assembling parts that the band provided, whereas the Volta thing consists of original art I created for it, and now I’m in the process of adding lyrics, etc. So basically two different approaches. They’re both a good challenge, but of course the ones that utilize my own art feel more personal.
Previously, when asked about your artwork and the evolution of your album cover designs for Omar [Rodriguez Lopez] you have said, “I find my thoughts dwelling more and more on concepts of multi-dimensionality and what might be called the fabric of reality.” I wanted to ask you, what was your first introduction to these concepts? What first sparked your interest in these ideas? Have you ever personally experienced something that you perceived to be this?
SK: I suppose my earliest introduction to this kind of thing would be via people like George Harrison and Timothy Leary, all the sort of figureheads of 1960’s psychedelic awareness. I always had a kind of passing interest in psychedelic poster art, and that kind of thing, but more from an aesthetic point of view. I managed to completely avoid hallucinogens until well into my 20’s. Then about ten or eleven years ago I had my first bona fide “psychedelic” experience after taking a double dose of psilocybin mushrooms in Japan. I came away from that with the explicit understanding that there are dimensions of consciousness I could never have begun to imagine. And so from that point on I began reading everything I could get my hands on about hallucinogens, and more specifically, entheogens such as DMT. When I finally had the opportunity to try it myself, I was prepared for it in a way that I felt put me at an advantage over someone just happening upon it at a party or something. I felt like I’d primed myself intellectually. But nothing could have prepared me for the total sensory overload of it, nor the depths of astonishment possible that you just can’t imagine.
SK: Well the point I was trying to make there was that I feel like the whole paradigm of consumption and profit needs upending. If it was impossible for anyone to turn a profit from creativity, I think we’d see a change in the kind of self-expression taking place. For one thing, I believe there’d be much less of it. And what there would be might be motivated by different ideals, more pure and more relevant to the essence of the human experience. Less about product and repetition and more about a connection to the truths at the core of our being. Removed from the context of capitalism, I think creativity could revert to the realm of “folk art”, or more appropriately, tribal art. It could serve a different set of functions entirely, which are arguably far more noble than plain old exploitation.
What does art mean to you and as an artist what matters most to you?
SK: It’s a way for me to express things I feel and believe more creatively and poignantly than trying to verbalize them ever could. It’s a way for me to love myself and embrace the lifetime I’ve been given. I’m not sure what matters the most. I suppose contributing to the ongoing dialogue that forms the fabric of culture, in general. Giving voice to ideas that go against the grain of the moronic monoculture represented by our governments and the corporations who own them.
SK: That’s so hard to say. Usually my favorite piece is either the most recent finished one or whatever I happen to be working on at the moment. At gunpoint I’d probably say the one entitled Adrift, Or Barking Up the Rung Tree (pictured above). More than any other, it seemed in some way “destined” to exist, and that I was simply enabling that inevitability. Walking into a gallery and seeing a huge print of that one framed on the wall is an incredibly satisfying and humbling experience. When I built it, each element felt like a precise fit. The chimp’s eyes, too, are just so piercing and expressive, I feel like they look right into your soul. To me, they feel so utterly heartbreaking, and at the same time they possess this dignity. I really enjoy the dichotomy between the desperation in his eyes and the playful insincerity of what the baby gorillas are doing.
What type of art and artists interest you at the moment?
SK: That’s so hard to narrow down. I can be pretty schizo when it comes to art, and I tend to go through phases of paying attention and then just shutting myself off completely. Right now I’m reading The Graphic Language of Neville Brody, who designed all the Cabaret Voltaire covers back 80s, I guess that’s more design than art but they get muddled up for me. Record art and packaging design never cease to interest and inspire me. On the other hand, pretty much anything featured in Juxtapoz is awe-inspiring and compels me to do better.
What is one of your all-time favourite album covers and what does it mean to you? What do you find compelling about it?
SK: I usually say the first Budgie album, or Unknown Pleasures, but today I feel like talking about the third Bauhaus album, The Sky’s Gone Out. I imagine a lot of people might find it boring, but I think it’s one of the most evocative and creepy things I’ve ever seen. The genius of it is in its simplicity. I love the geometric aspect to it, that it’s essentially just a painting of a circle. Always been a sucker for circles… The stark, high contrast design acts like a trap for the eye. The way the circle bleeds toward the outside edges is just so… I don’t know, just weird. It was a revelation seeing this when I was 13 or 14. I loved the way it at once had nothing and yet everything to do with the title. Nearly all the imagery associated with this band is crucial to me, but this album cover is just monolithic.
SK: I found an incredible hardcover photo book entitled Africa’s Powerhouse about the energy industry in South Africa in the early 1970’s. It’s full of incredible, beautiful photos which I’ve definitely poached from time to time. But I treasure it because as a baby I lived in Johannesburg for about a year, and obviously don’t remember anything about it. That book has served as a kind of time capsule for me, a snapshot of a time and place in my life I could never really envision otherwise. A lot of thrift shop books you find time and time again, but I’ve only ever found it once. Also, I lost it for about a dozen years – left it with a friend who was scanning it for me before I had my own gear, and then lost touch with him. I met his wife at a show in Denver a couple of years ago and out of the blue she asked me if I still needed it, and I just about fell over. So it made its way back to me. I will never let it out of my possession again.
You also love to travel and have a fondness for Japan; in all your travels what place has had a really lasting impact on you?
SK: Japan, without a doubt, just in terms of the aesthetic and the quality of life (and the food, and the people, and the music, etc…). But plenty of other places have had a lasting impact. I would happily go and live in Mexico for a while, the further south the better. I really feel alive when I’m down there.
SK: The diversity and infinite variability of the plant and animal kingdoms is something I’ve never lost my fascination for.
Now as an adult, what are the things that you find fascinating about the world?
SK: The variety of culture and human experience. At the same time, I find it utterly perplexing that so many people accept reality at face value.
Have you ever had a life changing moment?
SK: Probably quite a few of them, yes. As corny as it sounds, seeing the band Heroin play in San Diego in March ’92 definitely qualifies. So does being kicked out of/causing the demise of The VSS in ’97. My first DMT trip tops the list though, without a doubt.
I believe that there are opportunities all around us every day to learn from. What’s something that you learnt today?
SK: There’s no such thing as a sure thing. Not that that’s really news, but I’m reminded of it on an almost daily basis.
What is your greatest vision for you art?
SK: That it connects with people and undermines the immediacy and “disposability” of the source materials and methods used to create it.
*Photo credit: Sonny Kay by Cameron Puleo and Sound Colour Vibration