Music Notes: rock of Asians

Asian Americans may not be known for their participation in rock culture, but local journalist Ben Kim and musicians Sooyoung Park and William Shin aim to change that perception with their new label Fortune 5 Records, which is releasing a CD compilation of 19 Asian American rock bands called Ear of the Dragon.

“There’s a cliche that the Asian American youth anthem is “Bizarre Love Triangle,”‘ says Kim, referring to the dance single by the British pop band New Order. “New Order is like the mean of what our peers are into. With a couple of exceptions this record came out pretty punk rock and aggressive. We’ve been wondering whether the typical Asian American college student is actually going to dig this music.”

Park, the leader of the critically acclaimed Chicago band Seam, says he wanted to put out the record “because when I was growing up I could never picture a legitimate Asian American songwriter. . . . There weren’t any.”

Park and Shin met last year in Seoul. Park was visiting relatives after breaking up with onetime Seam bassist Lexi Mitchell, and Shin was under parental pressure to get his shit together and benefit financially from the proliferation of multinational corporations in South Korea. Neither of them was happy in his ancestral homeland, but they alleviated the effects of sweltering heat and personal misery by jamming together. They returned to Chicago with Shin ensconced as Seam’s new bassist and the idea for starting a record label.

Initially the label planned to release singles by Seam, Toronto’s Venus Cures All, and San Diego’s aMiniature, all of whom have some Asian American members. At the time Park was also writing for the Asian American culture magazine Yolk, and an assignment on Asian American rock bands prompted him to compile a hefty list of groups that fit the bill. The label and list eventually came together for Ear of the Dragon.

Park says his previous band Bitch Magnet, a noisy combo formed during his Oberlin College days, encountered racism both in the U.S. and on a European tour. But Ear of the Dragon isn’t geared toward fighting discrimination. Its purpose is to smash the notion that Asian Americans can’t or, more irritatingly, don’t rock.

“Whenever I would see Asian Americans involved in the music industry or in bands I couldn’t take them seriously,” recalls Park. “Maybe part of it was self-hatred, but also the music was just pretty bad. When I was learning how to play guitar and write songs, everyone I would see on MTV or on a record cover didn’t look like me, so in a way I just never thought I could do it. It wasn’t until Seam that I started noticing more Asian American bands.”

Park, whose parents came to America in the early 60s, attributes the recent increase in Asian American bands to an “age gap.” At 27, he’s one of the oldest participants on the compilation. “Being a child of recent immigrants is different than being born into a family established in this country,” he says, “because then your parents have reached a certain degree of assimilation.”

Due to be released next month, Ear of the Dragon mixes various styles, from the ska of California’s Skankin’ Pickle to the manic indie-rock of Washington State’s Kicking Giant to the slick hard pop of Boston’s Dambuilders to the cute pop of Vancouver’s Cub. For the most part the effort betters the majority of theme-oriented compilations, which suffer musically in order to provide conceptual unity. A tour partially sponsored by the Asian American life-style magazine A is set for May with Venus Cures All, aMiniature, and Seam, whose third album is due out in June. The tour concludes in Chicago with a May 27 date at the Double Door.

A benefit to help defray advertising and organizational expenses–as well as to showcase Chicago participants Squash Blossom, Neil Rosario of Dolomite, Mint Aundry, Cartographers, and Squirm with Yanti Arifin–will take place this Saturday at 8 PM at Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western; admission is $6. Call 276-3600 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Nathan Mandell.