Interview: Pil Ho Kim (plateaux)
* Originally published at [weiv] (weiv.co.kr), vol.6/no.8 (April 2004).
Mike Part at “Ska Against Racism.”
Memories of Korea
[weiv]: Let’s start with personal information. Were you born here in the U.S.?
Mike Park: I was born in Seoul, moved here four months after birth. I was very young, so I don’t have any memory of Korea at all.
[weiv]: And you went back to Korea only after you grew up, then?
MP: I went there one summer. I think I was 6, just for vacation with my family. Then I didn’t go back for many years until I was adult. And I went back a couple of times in 2001.
[weiv]: That was part of the tour, right? You went to Japan in 2001 and…
MP: I went to Japan many times, like 7 times. But Korea was separate. The tours were separate. I flew from the States, went straight to Korea
[weiv]: Did you have some shows in Korea? At some festivals?
MP: Just one in Pusan, two in Seoul. Two separate times. One I just did Pusan, then came home. And one time I just did Seoul. Pusan was the Pusan International Rock Festival. And Seoul was just a concert. I forgot the club name. I released a record at a Korean label. It didn’t do so good.
[weiv]: Well, maybe you should have contacted some media people?
MP: Oh, I did a tone of interviews. I did radio, newspapers, and a lot of magazines. I did about 20 different interviews when I was there. just very difficult because I don’t speak Korean. I felt bad about that. (laughs)
[weiv]: Did they expect you to speak some Korean?
MP: No, I just felt embarrassed since I’m Korean. I thought I should have learned the language.
[weiv]: Sooyoung (Park of the Seam) doesnt speak Korean either.
MP: Yeah, but he speaks better than I do (laughs). That’s something I still need to try to learn.
[weiv]: So you said you went to Japan 7 times and enjoyed playing there. Was ska that popular in Japan?
MP: It’s still popular. It’s so different, the music scene in Japan is so different than in Korea. That’s why I feel so disappointed. I feel like Korea as my country, and why is the music scene so much bigger in Japan than Korea? And I feel like it’s because of the military (service). Anytime you start a band, you can’t continue because you have to serve the military.
Growing up falling for ska: the Two-tone Movement and Fishbone
[weiv]: So was it only your parents, or other family members immigrated as well?
MP: My mother and father, some aunts and uncles moved to the states, too. A lot of them started their own business, difficult jobs. They came to San Francisco first, then eventually to this area, South Bay.
[weiv]: And you said you still live in your parents house here, which is usually considered a shameful thing as an adult in the U.S…
MP: Actually, I just moved out (laughs). To an apartment in downtown San Jose. It’s about 15 miles away from here. But I’m still here everyday. So it still feels like I’m living at home.
[weiv]: I know you play guitar and saxophone. Do you also play piano?
MP: Very little piano, just the basic piano that was taught in music school. So you have to play. I was a music major in college, required to learn basic keyboards, so that’s what I did.
[weiv]: When did you get into ska and Jamaican music?
MP: Probably early to mid 80s. In high school, I started listening to bands like Madness, the Specials, the Two-tone bands. And at the time, there was — still is — a band called Fishbone that played ska. They were just different, they were in LA, and just amazing.
[weiv]: I thought Fishbone was mostly playing funk and rock fusion?
MP: They did play funk. They played metal, they played everything. At that time they played a lot of ska, too. And anybody who played any kind of ska, because nobody played this, people would go. People who like ska would go to see Fishbone, because it’s the closest thing theyre gonna get to ska shows.
[weiv]: What about Bad Brains?
MP: Bad Brains is a good band, too. No ska, but reggae. Fishbone was the band whose music I definitely wanted to play, because of their intense live shows. That was the main, main (emphasizing) influence for me to get into and start playing music.
[weiv]: So in terms of musical influences, definitely ska, reggae, punk, and some metal too?
MP: Not really metal. Mostly ska, punk, and a lot of singer-songwriter stuff. Mellow stuff like Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Elliott Smith, mostly melodic things.
[weiv]: But you rarely play acoustic, folk-style music, aren’t you?
MP: Actually, I just finished a record coming out in November (of 2003). It’s all acoustic.
Skankin Pickle and Margaret Cho
[weiv]: Let’s talk a little bit about your former band, Skankin Pickle. It was formed in 1989 when you were in college, but with your high school friends. Is that right?
MP: Yeah, the official first show was April 28 (of 1989). But we started practicing by 1988, a long time ago. Three of us went to high school together, and three other members were the people I met in college.
[weiv]: How big was Skankin Pickle at the time in terms of the fan following and record sales?
MP: I feel like we did a fairly good job promoting ourselves as an underground band. We did our own record company. We were never on TV, never on radio, just word of mouth. And we sold nearly 80,000 to 100,000 records. So it’s quite a bit for doing it ourselves. Music business has been changed quite a bit, and now it’s very hard for a band to do the DIY style of business. Everything is so different. But at that time, it seemed that underground music was much more supported. I felt like we did a good job.
[weiv]: So, is it fair to say that you guys were one of the pioneers of the (Third Wave) Ska Revival in the west coast?
MP: I think so. Not just west coast, but globally, like Europe and Japan, everywhere.
[weiv]: When I first listened to the Skankin Pickle records, only recently, they sounded a little bit similar to the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, who came out almost the same time, actually little bit earlier than you guys. Any connections or influences between you and them?
MP: We have played together, probably like 5 times. But there’s definitely no influence by their sound. When we(Skankin Pickle) started playing, we didn’t know who they were.
[weiv]: So that’s a pure coincidence, I suppose. Let me just jump ahead of time here. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones got big in 1997 with their hit album ([Lets Face It]). Did you think, at the time, that you guys sort of missed the boat, the ska bandwagon?
MP: No, I’m glad that we got out of it, for it all turned to this ‘mainstream popularity.’ I’m sure we could have made more money, but it wasn’t fun anymore. Thats the main thing cause we were able to get out of it before we really hated each other too much. There’s no regrets.
[weiv]: Why did the relationship among the band members turn sour?
MP: It happens a lot in any relationships: seven years, with the same people, all the time. We just grew apart. That’s why a lot of bands break up. That’s why we broke up.
[weiv]: OK, on a lighter note, you’ve obviously known (the Korean-American comedienne) Margaret Cho in person. I heard she also grew up in the Bay Area.
MP: Yeah, but I didn’t know her when she was in high school or anything. I met her after she was starting to do comedy and do really well. in 1992 or 1993?
[weiv]: Isn’t it about the time when she started her TV sitcom (All American Girl)?
MP: I met her before that, but it was in the works. She already started discussing it, and talks already had started about it. I met her at ACLU(American Civil Liberties Union) benefits. She was on the panel as a speaker, and we were the band that played. That’s when I first talked to her and we became friends. But she’s so busy now and I rarely see her.
[weiv]: The song in the first Skankin Pickle album, “It’s Margaret Cho” was supposed to be the theme music for the TV show, right? Was it ever used in the show?
MP: No. But she used it on her album, a comedy album she released ([Drunk With Power] in 1996).
[weiv]: You wrote a few songs in some kind of pseudo-Korean gibberish. That somehow reminds me of Margaret’s performances where she is constantly mocking her mothers speech, showing an ambivalent attitude towards the culture of her parents generation. Is it the same reason for you to write that kind of lyrics?
MP: Actually, I think the reason I did it was because I started listening to Japanese punk, and I loved the accent. So I thought, why don’t I try to sing some Japanese punk and ska. And then I thought, Let me try singing some stuff in Korean. They, the American audience, wouldn’t know cause they don’t speak Korean anyway. I thought it sounded cool, so I kept it that way.
Bruce Lee and his Chinkees: Solo projects
[weiv]: Let’s move on to the Bruce Lee Band. It was when you were still in Skankin Pickle. So was it a side project?
MP: Yeah, I had a bunch of extra songs I’d written. I didn’t know what to expect. I just started recording songs and it came very easy. At the time I was happy with the music, so I just released it, never toured, never did follow up records, that was it. Just one record.
[weiv]: Those guys you played with on that record have all last name Lee, is that real?
MP: We did that just like the Ramones do it. Everyone has the same Ramone last name. We tried to be funny.
[weiv]: Anyway, from that point on you started all-Asian bands like the Chinkees. Was there any particular reason for making all-Asian bands?
MP: There’s a lot of different reasons, but mostly I wanted to start a band to share some ideas or stories of growing up as Asian minorities in the U.S. I think it is important to share it with other Asian musicians, and let the public know that there are Asian Americans that are involved in this kind of music. Kind of similar to black groups, like N.W.A.(Niggaz With Attitude). You’re doing nothing more than being proud of being Asian American, and trying to get your voice heard. I think it’s important. especially with this kind of music, ska, punk.
[weiv]: So I am wondering about the audience, since I don’t see many Asian people enjoying ska or any Jamaican music…
MP: Yeah, they like hiphop, dance. it doesn’t really matter. I mean, we’re not here for capitalist gain. There are some, and I want to just let them know that they’re not alone. I’m trying to make some awareness. yeah most Korean people (in the US) dont listen to ska or punk music. It’s white music.
[weiv]: After Skankin Pickle, you stopped playing saxophone and the role of brass section was diminishing. In fact, your most recent album with the Chinkees doesn’t have any horn sound at all. Why did you stop using horns?
MP: I just lost interest in playing. The Chinkees sound is not based on horn-driven sound. I kind of grew out of it at this time, but I’m sure Ill play it again.
[weiv]: You participated in the compilation album, [Ear Of The Dragon] in 1995. How did you get involved in that project? Did you know Sooyoung beforehand?
MP: Sooyoung and another guy, I forgot, asked us, and that was about it. There was a writer from the Bay Area named Tod Inoue, and he told Sooyoung about me. Thats how I got introduced to him and his project.
[weiv]: You once said you’d toured really heavily with Skankin Pickle from 1989 to 1996. How many shows did you do a year on average? How tough was it?
MP: 150 Shows a year. Almost half a year. At first it was better, because I was younger and it was new experience. The older I got, the more difficult it became to be excited to play in the same cities over and over again.
[weiv]: The Chinkees’ first album came out in 1998. And it seems to me the style of music has been changed slightly from your previous efforts: some reggae tunes rather than plain ska, many short, hardcore punk numbers and so on. Was the change in musical direction part of the reason for leaving the old band and starting the Chinkees?
MP: Not at all. The Chinkees has kind of happened, too. I wasn’t trying to start a band. We don’t even play, we never play. It’s just a recording project. We haven’t even practiced for a year.
[weiv]: So its basically your solo project, and you don’t consider it a stable band?
MP: Pretty much. Maybe next year well go to UK for a couple of weeks. It’s really for… having chance to travel, a travel opportunity (laughs).
[weiv]: Are you going to keep playing and making records under the Chinkees name, or any other plans?
MP: I’ll do that, and under my own name. And we’ll see, maybe to start a new band? I don’t know.
[weiv]: And you’re going to keep playing ska punk?
MP: With the Chinkees, yeah sure. That’s one of the main reasons to keep the Chinkees going.
Independent Spirit of 99.9%
[weiv]: Now let’s talk about your recording business. The first one was Dill Records, where Skankin Pickle belonged. Could you tell us how it all began?
MP: It was a cooperative, amongst the members of Skankin Pickle. When the cooperative broke up, I wanted to start my own company, whereas Dill Records kept going. Eventually it went out of business.
[weiv]: I remember you once said that you hated to deal with lawyers and managers while doing the business. Was there any occasion that you were involved in legal conflicts or problems?
MP: Yeah, actually I had a problem recently with some printer I used to use. It was about 1997 but I resolved it this year. I had to pay like $3,000. They said I owed them that amount of money, but I don’t remember because it was such a long time ago. so I just paid it. That was the only time I had to hire a lawyer. Cause they sent legal documents and all.
[weiv]: In a previous interview, you touched upon the distribution problem that most indie labels were facing. And you said almost all of them have to deal with distributors who have relationship or ties with major labels. What about your own Asian Man Records in that respect?
MP: It’s very small, you know. I’m sure somebody who distributes our records has some stock in the major corporation. There’s really no way around it. It depends on how much you engulf yourself in that type of business. I still consider myself extremely independent, more so than 99.9% of the companies in existence. But I can’t say that I’m completely free of any kind of corporation. But I try not to be. I’m sure my album is available at Best Buy or some big corporate chains.
[weiv]: The Alkaline Trio made the biggest hit with Asian Man Records so far, right? How many copies of their biggest hit album were sold?
MP: We’ve sold about 75,000 copies of their second effort, [Maybe Ill Catch Fire]. And it’s still selling very well. So my prediction is that it will sell for the next couple of years, and we could definitely sell over 100,000. For an independent company, thats good, really good.
[weiv]: Now that the U.S. economy is sluggish overall, and with the digital technology of mp3 and music downloading keeping the CD sales down, I guess it definitely affects your business as well. Is Asian Man strong enough financially to keep it going through all the hardship?
MP: Yeah, but if we took a hit, we would easily go out of business, too. We’ve been lucky. We’ll see how it goes (laughs). We’re gonna go on eighth year. The sales are definitely down, no doubt about it. I think I’m doing about 20% of what I was doing in 1998.
[weiv]: 20% of what you were doing? Does it mean 80% drop in 5 years?
MP: We were doing extremely well then. I’d say 25%. So 75% drop-off.
[weiv]: When you were doing fine years ago, did you hire more people and expand your business, or stay at the same level as you are now?
MP: I just took the money (laughs).
[weiv]: So you were a very successful businessman at the time. Did you buy something good with the money?
MP: Yes, yes. And I bought a house (laughs).
[weiv]: Then I guess it’s a pretty hard time for you right now. OK, nowadays more and more lesser-known indie bands are selling their records at the shows. How does that figure in the record sales of the company? Could you break down the record sales of Asian Man, say, how much comes from record stores, how much from mail order, etc.?
MP: It’s a huge way for bands to sell their records. But we (as a record company) don’t deal with that. (As for store sales/mailorder) It’s almost even now, remarkably. Well, probably about 65% through record stores and 35% through mail order, or maybe 60-40. It depends on the month. Mail order was for so long time doing so well. Now its dropped off. Its one of my main issues right now. Im trying to get our mail order back to the level it was.
[weiv]: Mail order is not only for records but also other merchandise as well, right?
MP: Yeah, T-shirts, stickers, badges. anything, anything we can get to sell.
[weiv]: I don’t know how you recruit the bands. Do you offer some money in advance?
MP: Sometimes. It depends. If we feel like the band has a great potential and they need money, then well offer them money in advance to try to get them to record with us. But mostly, no (laughs).
Plea for Peace
[weiv]: OK, finally, let’s talk about racial issues and social awareness in your music and related activities. First up, the old Skankin Pickle song, “Ice Cube, Korea Wants A Word With You.” That was a response to Ice Cube’s infamous song, “Black Korea,” which revealed acute conflicts between black and Korean communities. But unfortunately, I couldn’t quite catch the lyrics of your song in its live version. And the song sounds very playful and doesn’t come to me as a serious response to the issue at stake.
MP: It was hard for a band like Skankin Pickle. You try to be serious, but with the name like Skankin Pickle. theres only so much you can do, lyrically (laughs).
[weiv]: ‘Ska Against Racism’ tour started in 1998, featuring Less Than Jake, yourself, and were there any other bands from Asian Man?
MP: MU330, the Toasters, Five Iron Frenzy, Blue Meanies, and Mustard Plug.
[weiv]: And later on it transformed into ‘Plea For Peace/Take Action’ tour?
MP: Yeah. I did ‘Plea For Peace’ in 2000. And I did ‘Plea For Peace/Take Action’ in 2001-2. This year I’m not doing it, and ‘Take Action’ is now a separate tour. And next year (2004) Ill be at ‘Plea For Peace.’
[weiv]: Youve been mostly focusing on racial issues in those tours. But even though the ‘Plea For Peace’ tour was born even before 9/11, it certainly seems now after 9/11 and invasion of Iraq the title has an even more significance added to it. So if you do it again in 2004, will it carry an anti-war message?
MP: Ah, it depends on what the state of the nation is at the time, but we already decided to concentrate on voter registration. It will be trying to encourage youths, the 18-24 year range age group to register for vote. Thats the lowest participating age group. It’s bipartisan agenda. We don’t want to force our views on them. We just try to get them involved, get them to make their own decisions.