Visual artist, founder of the Gold Standard Laboratories record label, frontman for punk rock outfits Angel Hair and The VSS and now, executive director of Hot Springs’ Low Key Arts, Sonny Kay’s DIY approach to new projects is a part of upbringing: He credits an unconventional childhood, moving around the world with a father pursuing a career as a film director and a mother who knew how to adapt quickly in new surroundings. After many years in Las Vegas (and before that, Los Angeles), working on graphic design and visual art projects, a job popped up “out of left field” at a small arts organization called Low Key Arts in Hot Springs National Park in the middle of Arkansas. And Kay leapt.

Here’s an excerpt from a conversation I had with Kay earlier this year:


What drew you into taking the Low Key Arts executive director position?

I spent 14 years running a record label, which was definitely an exercise in orchestrating lots of people and lots of things, having a whole bunch of stuff going on at once all the time, and just being in a hive of activity. Then I spent the next 10 years freelancing — basically, being at home doing art by myself. There was definitely an element of group-project-aspect of something like Low Key Arts that was missing.


I definitely felt a little isolated. I’d managed to publish a book of my art. It wasn’t that it wasn’t fulfilling or rewarding in its own way, but I missed being at the center of a lot of energy and excitement. Sometimes the best you can do is listen to yourself, and this is a good example. I was definitely at a crossroads for a period of years, and wasn’t sure which way to go.

This came up, and it was like, “Oh, yeah, that could be really incredible,” and so I set caution aside and just did it.


Throughout your life, you’ve been at the center of making things happen. What draws you in?

I think a big part of it is having parents that were similar, especially my mom. My mom is a very practical and pragmatic person, and was always an excellent example throughout my life growing up. We moved around a lot when I was young, and were never all that financially secure, so experiencing her reaction to that and her willingness to adapt to these different situations and her motivation and her willingness to keep expanding her definition of herself was amazing. I didn’t realize it at the time, but as an adult I’m very proud of her and I feel like more than any single person in my life she’s been a huge influence for me and a role model.

I find taking the initiative and just being willing to redefine yourself really compelling. There’s some aspect of me that is also a bit of a control freak that likes being at the helm and feeling like I’m a motivator for other people. I’m a naturally creative person and I feel like sometimes that’s best suited to a singular endeavor — like making art — and sometimes it’s more useful in the world to collaborate with other people. I feel as though I’m at my best when I’m firing on all cylinders and at the center of something that’s creating a positive change around me.

Describe what your childhood was like a little more. Was there a seed that really sparked your DIY ethos?


My parents were an unusual couple in the sense that my dad was twice as old as my mom. He was American and my mom was English. Basically, a month after they were married, they were pursuing his career as it took these strange turns around the globe. My dad was a film director and the constant moving was a result of that. His career, at that point, had apexed and things were declining for him.

My mom was young and slightly naive and a little bit swept off her feet, thrilled about traveling to all these exotic places. There were a couple of situations where we’d land in these places and everything fell apart, to where we had to struggle to figure out what to do next. So that was the reality I was born into. The improvised energy that came with that I think at this point is in my DNA.

When I was about 15 or 16 and living in Colorado, my grandfather came over from England to visit us at Christmas. I asked him to bring me a bunch of records from England that were difficult to find at the time — this would have been around 1987. He showed up with this fistful of Joy Division and Cure records I’d asked for.

One day I was poring over these records, rambling on about these groups and he stopped me and asked “Why don’t you start your own group?” Honestly, the idea had never occured to me. He said something like, “Why be content to be a follower?” At the time, I thought I knew everything — and, you know, when you’re a teenager you rebel against everything, even your wise old grandfather speaking the truth of the universe to you.

At the time, I disregarded what he was saying, but there’s something about that that planted a kernel of something in my mind. It really took him saying that to me for me to start to embrace the idea of DIY and involving myself in what — up to that point — I’d only been a fan or bystander of. Even though there were a thousand examples of teenagers starting bands and putting out records, it took a man in his 70s to say that to me for the penny to drop.

You’ll take on music programming for the Valley of the Vapors Independent Music Festival. What are you excited about?

I’m still absorbing all this information and mapping it out in my mind. I’m fascinated to see it go from point A to point B to point C. I feel a little bit like an anthropologist in this situation where I’m a newcomer experiencing something that’s a cultural staple in that area. And I’ve been tasked with not necessarily improving it, but growing it and diversifying it, developing it, so I want to see where it’s at before I can take any practical measures to do any of those things.