Kii Arens: The So What! Interview
Kii Arens and Steffan Chirazi sat down to chat for So What! about both his work as an artist and his poster for the 2020 Helping Hands Concert & Auction. What actually followed was an illustration of a life not to be contained by expectations.
Colorful, zany, irrepressible, charismatic, engaging, and ever-so-delightfully plain bonkers, the Minneapolis-born, Los Angeles based artist Kii Arens dissolves the Zoom video conference barrier and hurtles you into his conversational orbit as if you’re hanging in his studio like a pair of old pals shooting the shit. Over the course of 70 minutes, I learn that Arens is a multi-talented, hydra-headed, creative beast, one I doubt has much time for things such as sleep given his prodigious work rate across several mediums. When he is not creating pieces for bands, shows, or other clients via his pop-art sensibilities or spin-art style (Arens built his own 36” speed-adjustable spin art device), he is busy making music. Having been on a major label in the ’90s, Hollywood Records, with his then-band Flipp, Arens these days is in an ’80s electro-pop duo called Jynx (he recently made a video for their single “Don’t Push That Button”). When he isn’t doing Jynx work, he’s making his whacky, bright, colorful, almost Pee-Wee Herman-esque YouTube channel TV variety show, Life of Kii, and working at his gallery on Santa Monica Boulevard, La-La Land. I haven’t even mentioned his other multiple musical projects, all of which you can find about either on his aforementioned show or his website.
Arens, you learn pretty damn quickly, is not a man to be lmited by pathetic trivialities such as “genres,” which is why among the approximately 580 posters he has created, the names range from Dolly Parton and Lana Del Frey to Van Halen, Queens of The Stone Age, and… Metallica. And whether doing the Creature from the Black Lagoon wearing a Darth Vader helmet for Twenty One Pilots, or a quadruple KISS platform boot poster, Kii Arens doesn’t arrive with anything less than an assault on your senses. The piece he has created for the All Within My Hands Helping Hands Concert & Auction on November 14, 2020 is another roaring example. With all this in mind, you probably won’t find it surprising to learn that having a perfunctory one through ten Q&A conversation with Arens is a total non-starter. Instead, you strap in and enjoy the ride, because it is a ride, a two-way adventure where he draws you out to play in the chat garden too. The result, as I said earlier, is that it feels like hanging out with a super fun, cool dude as opposed to interviewing a prominent modern artist. With that said, here are some Kii-only highlights from our ramble through the Chinwag Hills!
The Freedom of Creativity
“In the early ’70s we were lucky to have Sid and Marty Krofft [TV show creators and puppeteers]. We were lucky to have Willy Wonka, movies and pieces of content that really didn’t have any overseers judging what was appropriate. And some of it wasn’t, like life, appropriate; they were the dreams of a guy like Sid Krofft who cut his teeth on the Barnum & Bailey Circus and tripped the world fantastic on his own just by following his gut instinct. There was Gene Wilder and the art direction of that amazing movie that was filmed in Germany. And then we had Alice Cooper and Queen. I, thankfully, have some older brothers with what I consider to be fantastic taste in music, and the first album I put headphones on to was Queen II. Hearing ‘Ogre Battle’ and that reverse audio, wondering how the hell they did that, looking at these four heads and going, ‘How did this group of people get together and do this?’ And then you open up Billion Dollar Babies and you’re afraid for that child, but you’re listening to this fucking soundtrack where [producer] Bob Ezrin just made you go into another place, and the mystery was all there. You didn’t know anything about it other than the music and the visuals that presented it.”
“The first record that I remember waking up in the middle of the night when I was three or four and learning how to use the record player and playing over and over and over and fucking over was Last Train to Clarksville and The Monkees. That Monkees album was an absolute dream to me. Just looking at that red and white logo to this day puts a warm feeling in my heart, right? So a lot of times I’ll design things with that color in mind. And my dad was huge on Johnny Cash, he saw Johnny Cash in 1955 and took our whole family to see him in ’81, which was cool as hell. Then my mother was full on Judy Garland. So that’s kinda what was playing around the house. And then I had a foster sister that came in and brought in the Three Dog Night, which hit me like ‘Eli’s Coming,’ like I was immediately all over that and to this day Chuck Negron cannot be beat.”
Reflecting on Early Successes and the End of One Chapter
“My older brother Brynn and I were in a group called Flipp, we were signed to Hollywood Records in ’96, and we played with like the Ramones and Oasis and Cheap Trick. He was the guy who introduced me to Queen, to Alice Cooper. He was the guy back in seventh grade booking a show at his own elementary school where they were lighting cymbals on fire with dry ice and doing the Alice Cooper pillow routine with feathers everywhere. Flipp had a pretty decent run there for a second until the label went *EEERRR BOOM* shortly after we released our debut record.
My brother [Brynn] is a hell of a fucking front man, and for some reason, he really knows what to do with 12,000 people, you know? We had tasted the success and then just never took off. You know as a rock journalist, it takes a lot of planets to come and align for success to go down. But you might also say success is opening up for the Ramones, to get on the Cheap Trick tour, and just all those festival dates that we got to play. That was probably more than what one percent of rock bands get an opportunity to do.”
“You design for Metallica, and you’re going black and red because you’re thinking, Kill ‘Em All. I don’t think Ride the Lightning. I don’t think blues and grays and silvers when I think Metallica. I think of that fucking Kill ‘Em All cover. And side note, when I was going into a record store to buy the brand new record by Hanoi Rocks, Two Steps From the Move [back in 1984], when I walked in the door there were two tables set up. And I said to Marty, the guy who owned the store in Minnesota, I said who’s coming in today? ‘Oh, dude, Metallica’s coming in today. They have this album called Ride the Lightning.’ And I said, ‘Oh, I think I’m just gonna stick around for a while.’ So I fucking thumbed through the records. In came the band. Cliff Burton, everybody, and it was like, ‘Holy fuck.’ And then when I listened to that record, I literally felt like I witnessed the changing of the guard. I still don’t know how they did it, I’m still mystified by that ‘rrrh.’ You know, that thing that they came up with that was so fucking biting where you just kinda went, ‘Uh, okay, putting away my Judas Priest records for a second or two and I’m gonna check this shit out.’”
Interpreting the Event
“When I was making the poster, the words ‘Metallica’ and ‘acoustic’ started to separate from each other to me. So, regardless that it was acoustic, I wanted to lay pretty light on that concept, because if that poster’s on your wall I just want it to say ‘METALLICA,’ not ‘acoustic version.’ The first version of the poster was spin art. Lars I think mentioned that they were gonna be doing all these screens. They emailed me a picture of their idea, so what I did was I brought to a horizontal orientation – so it’s 24” x 18” – and then I dropped [in] a Cheap Trick kinda checkerboard of the actual screens themselves with the colors in between, and went whoa! We’re gonna be printing it on holographic fucking foil material, that is stunning!”
Eclectic Influences Breed Eclectic Creations
“I’ve had many people that have come across my path in the art world that claim that I do too much. ADHD, whatever that is, attention deficit disorder? Yeah. It’s so funny that behavior has now gotten all these tags [for the record, Arens does not have ADHD – ED]. It stifles the creativity of some, I believe. It’s also something we can point our finger at and blame outside of what our own actions have caused in the midst of it. ‘We didn’t parent that kid and so now he’s got attention deficit!’ My parents were very cool… I mean,
A New Kind of Creation
“I’m really excited to see what’s coming next… I’m obsessed with TikTok and all of the different moves these kids are coming up with with their phones at home. They realize that the only thing that they can do is impress you by what they’re showing you. And not only does it promote visual creativity, there’s physicality involved with it. It’s not just fucking gaming, you know. I’ve never played fucking video games since goddam PAC-MAN… so whatever that, you know, I’m not trying to diss that whole world, but that’s a very sedentary world; with TikTok you’re dancing and moving!”
Restoring the Mystery
“I have a script written for a rock opera that this generation desperately, desperately needs and I’ve got some fantastic people involved already. People you’re well aware of, and a concept that is really gonna be the restart. The theme of it is how technology has gotten away with the actual content. Damien Hirst [artist] is so cool, but now you can see him every five seconds on Instagram talking about it, and the mystery is gone. I don’t want to know that these things go down. All I want to know is where this music and that image sits in my brain. It’s my own Disneyland, not behind the scenes of it. And that’s what this movie that I’m creating is really gonna help to illustrate.”
We’re only scratching the surface of a man whose inexhaustible ideas are continually being transformed into reality. And if you did not at first believe me when I introduced Kii Arens as a fast-lane, hyper-speed man of many colors, I think you might be a little clearer on the matter now.