Kevin K’s passion for his rare instrument is clear – and rather contagious.
Thursday, March 5, 2009
evin Kooyumjian beams like he has just won the lottery. Only the musician who goes by the stage name of Kevin K isn’t psyched because a scratcher just won him millions, but because he is doing what he loves: Playing the keytar.
In a corner of Carmel’s Forge in the Forest Restaurant, with the lightweight guitar-shaped instrument slung around his body like a bass, he leans back dramatically as his hands scurry over the keys like spiders.
At the same time, K closes his eyes and mouths the sounds coming out of it. His face is a fireworks display of both pure joy and severe concentration. Soon he’s strutting through the room playing his keytar, which has a wireless pickup, with fast flurries of action reminiscent of Eddie Van Halen.
Something else abnormal is taking place: the music created by K’s manic performance is oddly incongruous with his stage presence. Rather than eardrum ringing, fist-pumping hard rock guitar solos, the patrons of Forge in the Forest are being treated to punched-up smooth jazz.
For his next number, K programs his keytar to sound like a flamenco guitar. A woman in an orange jacket walking past him looks over his shoulder, apparently wondering what alien device he is playing.
Oblivious, K spreads his legs wide and rips into another solo – then lets the keytar hang off his hip like a giant holster as he jumps behind a keyboard on a stand that emits flute toots and brittle percussion. The charisma of his performance and his talent as a musician have me reconsidering the skill and artistry behind what most people think of as innocuous background music.
K says he started developing his chops on the piano at the tender age of two while growing up in Fresno. His father was a French horn player who had a stint in Frank Sinatra’s group, while his mother was a piano teacher with a master’s degree in music. She pushed the young musician to practice two to three hours a day, seven days a week. “She wanted me to be a classical pianist,” K says.
K’s music is a bastard child of this early classical music upbringing and his time in Fresno rock outfits, where he cribbed his rock star style. One group he joined, named No Quarter, played Zeppelin, Van Halen and “anything from the hard rock scene,” according to K.
In 2004, K moved to Monterey with his two sons after being approved by the Cannery Row Company to be a street musician in Steinbeck Plaza. Initially, K and his sons, who called themselves Sonset Jazz, would play the bustling plaza every Sunday. But, eventually, his sons moved on to other things and K kept performing as a one-man band.
In those early days, K was just playing from behind a keyboard, and though he was engaging many passersby with his music, there was one audience type that he was failing to fully connect with. “There was one demographic I seemed to be missing: the younger people,” he says.
Everything changed when K decided to start playing the keytar in the plaza in January of 2007. He owned a keytar from long ago when he played the instrument in a reggae and ska band. “It was an instant hit, so I went full force with it,” K says.
With the keytar, he says, he felt an “instant connection with the young people.” K attributes some of the interest from the youth with the popularity of video games like Guitar Hero.
Meanwhile, K had been separated from his audiences because his keyboard had kept him tethered behind his instrument. All that changed with the keytar. He was able to rush through the crowds like an unleashed animal.
“I finally got to go up to people and send my creative energy towards them,” he says.
Besides his rock n’ roll antics, what’s also impressive about K’s performances is the fact that a majority of the music he plays are his own compositions.
“I have about 80 original songs,” he says. “I have six albums.”
One act K does frequently cover live is Latin rock guitarist Santana. He does everything from the ’70s instrumental “Europa” to “Smooth,” the huge ’90s pop rock hit featuring Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty. “Santana is just insanely popular with any demographic,” he says.
Currently, K says he keeps extremely busy with a full plate of private parties, and the keytar player still travels to a variety of street performing venues all over the state (including San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf).
“I’ve got more work than there are days in the year,” he says.
K is quick to note that a lot of his success is due to serious discipline. “I juice every day,” he says. “I eat well. I take a regime of GNC vitamins.”