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Korea Girl, Seam, Chicago and San Francisco

[weiv] If you don’t mind, we’d like each of you to tell us your ethnic backgrounds.
Sooyoung Park Korean American.
Peter Van Nguyen AZN for life. A little Vietnamese. A little giraffe. A little dwarf under my corporate cube.
Che Chou I’m a Taiwanese Chinese American. Born in Taiwan, moved to the bay area when I was 8 and have been pining for the homeland ever since.

[weiv] Now, about your previous band experiences. First question is for Tobin. Why did Korea Girl break up? I heard it had happened during the recording session of the Korea Girl LP. Tell us the story if it’s not too painful for you to recall.
Tobin Mori It’s a very painful story, but I will tell it anyway. Basically, there were disagreements about songwriting progress. I wanted to write songs, be creative, my songwriting bandmate wasn’t much motivated or interested — so I split and went my own way.

[weiv]This question is for Sooyoung. Departing for New York, Jim O’Rourke had some bad things to say about the Chicago indie rock scene. How about you? I think many Seam fans are still wondering why you left Chicago for the west coast.
Sooyoung To me, the Chicago music scene is really too large to make any generalizations about. There are several nice, inexpensive recording studios, a handful of good venues, and lots of bands. Those factors combined make life a little easier for musicians.
About two years ago I decided to move to San Francisco because I’d been in Chicago for eight years and was ready for a change. There are some nice things about living in the Bay Area, but trying to make a living as a full-time musician here is really tough.

[weiv] And how are your former bandmates (William, John and Chris) doing these days?
Sooyoung John Lee is working as an art director at an advertising agency and just got a Rottweiler. Chris Manfrin is an accountant and is playing drums in Archer Prewitt’s band. William “Billy” Shin has to battle his son for time on the family computer. See what happens when you have a kid?

[weiv] Peter, tell us a little bit about your other project, Total Shutdown.
Peter Total Shittown, Total Letdown, Togo Party, Tizotal Shizzydizown. It’s like this: KAKAKA.

Computer, Tour and Soundtrack

[weiv] Do you really do kickboxing, as Tobin described in another interview?
Peter I used to pretend to kickbox. Now I pretend to be interested in poetry and long walks along the beaches of the Sunset. I’m not a violent individual so I try not to punch people in the neck. I rather have poetry battles.

[weiv] To Che – your previous career doesn’t seem to be well known to us yet. Would you introduce it to us?
Che I think I might be the only one in the band who hasn’t done a stint of time in some other more well-known outfit. When I was just learning to play guitar back in the early 90’s, my friend Joel Dinolt and I formed a band called The Blue Eskimos in San Jose. We played psychedelic surf instrumentals and reverb/feedback drenched soundtrack music. After the Eskimos called it quits, I drifted from band to band, playing with random bay area folks. Then Tobin asked me to sit in on bass for Korea Girl for a couple of shows opening for Seam in LA, where I met Sooyoung. After talking with Sooyoung in LA, I decided I wanted a change of scenery, so I packed up and moved to Chicago for an editor’s position in the video games industry.

[weiv] What were you doing in Chicago before heading back to San Francisco to join eE?
Che What was I doing in Chicago? Well, when I wasn’t out in the ‘burbs working on a video game magazine, I lived in the ghettos of Chi-town, drank lots of soju, froze my ass off, played music with Matt Murdock (of Jupiter Sun) and John Lee (of aMiniature), and generally had a great time. I miss it there.

[weiv] I gathered Tobin and Sooyoung’s day job is computer programming. How many cans of Mountain Dew do you drink a day? OK, seriously, do you have any plan to incorporate computer technology into your music, a la Bob Mould?
Sooyoung On the last tour I drank two 20 oz. bottles of Mountain Dew Code Red. I’m not sure how that will affect our music. I may start singing like Jo Sung-mo.
Che I’m no code monkey, but I would love to incorporate technology into our music. But we’re a fairly new band who’re still trying to find our own sound and we’ve got enough options to narrow down as it is just with traditional rock instruments. Both Sooyoung and I tinker with electronic music in the bedroom. We just don’t tinker together.
Tobin I’m actually pretty sick of ‘digital’ music at this point, but I think computers make good drummers. They’re consistent and have good time. so maybe I’ll let a computer make a cameo.

[weiv] How did your first national tour go? On the eE web site I read some interesting episodes during the tour, including Sooyoung’s mom cooking “dope food.” Any other things to share?
Peter Sooyoung made me drink transmission fluid in Texas. I found out after the tour that it was actually green tea. Good times, good times…..
Che The only racist incident we encountered on tour was somewhere just outside of LA. In New Orleans, I bonded with the hippies. In Houston, we met the devil and she drove everyone insane. In El Paso, we stayed with a Mexican American named Sergio Wong. Nebraska is the loneliest place in America. The east coast rocks.
Sooyoung The tour was fun for the most part. We played some pretty small shows, sometimes in front of 4-5 people. It’s hard when people don’t know who you are, but hopefully that will change when the new album comes out on Asian Man.

[weiv] Not only playing at Asian American film festivals in San Francisco and Chicago, you scored a short film Subrosa, directed by the female Korean-Canadian filmmaker Helen Lee. Tell us how you got involved in that project.
Sooyoung Che, Tobin and I worked on that project in late 2000. Helen and I had been in touch for almost six years and kept planning on doing something together but this was the first time it actually worked out. Scoring films is quite different from writing songs for an album, and the first couple of times I tried my hand at it, the results were pretty awkward. Che and Tobin were great to work with. They’re patient and didn’t seem to mind rewinding the videotape hundreds of times.

[weiv] Also tell us about the movie and music for those who didn’t have a chance to watch it.
Sooyoung I’m not the best person to describe the film but on the surface it’s the story of a young female adoptee who goes back to Korea in search of her birth mother. She doesn’t find her mother, but instead lives out this parallel life in search of something else.

Model minority, Ethnic/racial identity, and music

[weiv] I suppose you are quite familiar with the term ‘model minority,’ referring to Asian Americans like yourselves. Some Asian Americans vehemently denounce the term because they think it conceals a subtle form of racial discrimination and stereotype. (No offence, but you guys seem to be a perfect match for the infamous ‘Asian geek’ stereotype.) Any thoughts or personal experiences on this issue?
Sooyoung To me it’s not subtle at all. It’s racist simple and plain. Damn, you think we look like geeks?
Tobin I don’t mind the term, however inaccurate and deceptive. Whatever myths help us along…I say.
Peter Since I’m Vietnamese, some people think I’m a genius. They’re probably right.
Che Stereotypes are evil, but the model minority variety is the lesser of the evils. Being a model minority is kind of like having a mullet. You can be business in the front, but party in the back. It’s kind of subversive. You don’t look like a typical rock band, but then it’s to your advantage because when you actually rock, people are shocked in a pleasant way. I’m not sure what most folks think when they see an all Asian band. Do they really expect us to bust out gongs and shit?

[weiv] Besides participating in Asian American cultural events, do you feel the need to address the ethnic identity of Asian Americans through your music?
Peter Definitely. That’s why I light incense during our shows and play my drums with custom made chopsticks. It’s the ultimate tribute to my people.
Sooyoung I normally don’t think about other people at all when making music, so I guess my answer would be no.
Che One thing the tour has taught me is that, like it or not, we “are” an Asian American band. Even if our lyrics or aesthetics have nothing explicitly Asian American, there’s no way for us to get away from who we are, what we talk about with each other, what we joke about, etc. Realizing this sort of put me at peace with eE and with our music.
Tobin No. Art is not confined to, or obligated to politics in my point of view; therefore, I feel no special compulsion to comment on my view of racial politics. If it happens to present itself in a song, that’s fine, though.

[weiv] It seems to me that rock music has not been a particularly advantageous medium for ethnic minorities, compared to rap/hiphop or spoken word, not to mention visual media like feature films or documentaries. Do you think there is a way to express a distinct ethnic identity musically, without relying too much on lyrical messages or referring to traditional ethnic music?
Sooyoung It all depends on social context. In China and Latin America, rock music is an appropriate vehicle for instigating change, inciting riots, etc. But here in the U.S., it’s a musical form that was co-opted by white people, so it’s hardly revolutionary.
And no, we won’t be messing with pansori or banging on taiko drums.
Tobin Hmmm… I have to question the term ‘distinct ethnic identity’ — is there such a thing? I’m not sure there is. ‘Ethnic identity’ seems hardly distinct anymore as cultures blend due to the constant export and import of television programs, movies, music, internet… not to mention, people!
Che Like I said, I’m not sure eE sounds particularly Asian American, musically… hell, I don’t even know if there is an Asian American sound. If white kids in middle American downloads a bunch of our MP3s with no album sleeve or song titles, they’d probably never guess we were Asian American.
That said, I think that if you pay enough attention to details, it’s easy to pick up on our ethnicity. So the answer to your question is, yes and no.

[weiv] Speaking of lyrics, is there any real story behind ‘Asian Gangsta Kid’ in Ramadan?
Tobin Not really, it’s basically a stream of consciousness rambling about life in the Sunset Neighborhood in SF, and an ex-girlfriend.

The new musical direction – “For 100 We Try Harder”

[weiv] Let’s talk about future plans. I heard you’re currently working on the next LP scheduled later this fall. People around me think that Ramadan was pretty much in the same direction as Korea Girl’s music. Will there be any significant changes?
Tobin Things will veer from Korea Girl greatly with our next LP. The entire lineup is different than the premiere eE record, and I’m not doing all the songwriting anymore. So things will be less folky, more instrumental, more rock. This is more of a collaborative effort, so things will sound a lot different.
Che For 100 We Try Harder is a definite departure from the stuff Tobin and company were doing on the Ramadan LP. First of all, nearly half the songs are instrumentals. The album is also quite raw and live sounding. One thing we’ve discovered since Pete and I joined eE is that we get off on listening to each other during jams and having that live interplay. When we recorded a bunch of demos at Tobin’s mom’s art studio, we tried to get methodical about it and all the songs ended up sounding rather clinical and lackluster. This time around, we’ve ditched the metronome on a lot of songs and just went for a feel thing.
I guess it’s only natural to sound like a totally different band when you replace all the members. Still, the Korea Girl roots remain I guess. It’s just been supplemented with all our other influences
Peter Yes. For our next album I’m looking into using “weird” instruments like the babakakakaka from my home country. It’s a dangerous equipment to master.

[weiv] Any plan for collaboration with other Asian American musicians/filmmakers/artists? I heard there’s a plenty of them in the Bay Area.
Peter Yes. I’m collaborating with the Chinese Presbyterians Church Choir for my solo project.

Sooyoung Well we have enough trouble making it to practice once a week, so I doubt we’ll be collaborating with anyone else in the near future.

[weiv] Any plan for an international, especially Asian tour?
Che Yes actually, we’re trying to get an Asian tour together. So if you know of any good contacts, please let us know.

Sooyoung We’re trying to book a tour in Asia (HK, Taipei, Seoul) for this fall, sometime after the album comes out. Peter can’t wait to go clubbing in Seoul…
Peter I would love to tour Africa.

[weiv] OK, this is the end of interview. Thank you very much for your time.
Peter Thanks. Peace to the world. 20020522 | 김필호 [email protected]