We would all like for it to be a “Yes” all the time, but unfortunately, there’s always somebody telling you “No.” No spelled backward is On. That’s when you get turned On and you go just, “Fuck You: Yes!”
There’s a lesson in Bughouse Philosophy 101, taught by Fishbone singer Angelo Moore, taken from his spoken-word album The Yin Yang Thang, released in 2000 on Mike Park’s Asian Man Records. It might as well serve as Park’s credo. Operated out of his parents’ garage in Monte Sereno, Asian Man is a tribute to one suburban kid’s DIY tenacity, perhaps the most unique independent label to take root since Dischord in DC, and certainly the most informal.
All that unifies Asian Man releases — besides an unobtrusive logo incorporating the Korean flag — is a homespun, hype-free quality more typical of a folk imprint than a punk or indie-rock outlet. Saturday’s show at 924 Gilman promises a complex taste of this mix: Dan Potthast’s Elvis Costello-influenced sea shanties and love songs, the propulsive punk-ska of Short Round, Sebadoh-worshiping San Jose rockers Shinobu, and Park himself, now 35, playing the stormy acoustic songs he has settled on most recently, after leading the influential ’90s ska band Skankin’ Pickle.
Park’s explanation of his label’s name is simple: “To make sure people know that the label is run by an Asian American.” Representations of ethnicity in rock usually take the form of goofball humor or solemn militancy, and never the twain shall meet. By contrast, Park straddles the middle ground unself-consciously — he was whimsical on Skankin’ Pickle’s occasional Konglish (Korean-meets-English) party tunes, but is contemplative on the more politically overt songs off his new solo album, For the Love of Music, tackling racism and immigrant perspectives.
The solo album retains Park’s tunefulness, but its stark urban folk is a rain-slicked U-turn away from the goofily volatile ska of Skankin’ Pickle and Park’s nervier subsequent work with the Bruce Lee Band and the Chinkees. “That’s how it came out,” he says. “I do like a lot of Billy Bragg stuff — I’m a fan of his work and his politics — and I’ve actually been listening to a lot of Indigo Girls and Beatles. I just wanted it to be very simple.”
Bragg — the most convincing activist ever mass-marketed — seems a fitting role model for Park, who certainly isn’t driven by sales. “I’ve put out so many records that I’ve lost money on, I can name hundreds — should I go down the list?” he says. “I just wanted to do it. Otherwise they would never get released.”
Rarer still, Park releases records without band contracts — everything is done with a handshake, which seems to work just fine. Take his attitude toward one of Asian Man’s most distinctive acts, the jazz-influenced art-pop band Colossal: “They’re a fantastic band and they could do well,” he says. “They just need to go to a bigger label that could really push them. Other labels, they try to keep the band contract-obligated to their label — it’s kind of a pride thing, like Ohhh, we lost ’em. But for me, it’s Come on, leave! Get another label.”
But Park knows something about making major impacts without the backing of major labels. Skankin’ Pickle — whose own Dill imprint morphed into Asian Man in 1996 — sold hundreds of thousands of records and laid the foundation for ska’s invasion of MTV just after the band’s 1996 demise. Potthast, formerly of the St. Louis ska band MU330, also points out that Asian Man’s influence stretches far beyond Northern California. “Mike’s label has had a huge influence in the Midwest,” says Potthast, now based in Santa Cruz. “He’s put out tons of Midwest bands — MU330, Alkaline Trio, Lawrence Arms, the Broadways, Colossal, and tons of others. He has definitely filled a gap.” Park’s influence has even crossed the Pacific: In 2000, MU330 and Park joined forces as the Bruce Lee Band and played to an audience of 15,000 on the beach in Pusan, South Korea’s answer to Miami.
Despite these accomplishments, it took Park’s coverage in Korean-American publications like KoreAm Journal to finally obtain that least touted of punk credentials: parental approval. “That was kind of like the turning point, in terms of acceptance from my parents, when the Korean media picked up on the story,” he says. “It became easier for me to do this, whereas before they wanted me to go back to school and get a real job.”
Park’s most ambitious DIY project yet may be Plea for Peace, whose charter is “To promote the ideas of peace through the power of music.” Unlike Fat Mike’s well-publicized, anti-Bush Punkvoter machine, Plea for Peace has an evolving agenda. Park’s inspiration for the budding nonprofit was a textbook case of negative motivation: the rapes and hooliganism of Woodstock ’99. “I thought back to when I was growing up, and we had such a different outlook on music,” he says. “Politics was part of it, just having the Dead Kennedys in the Bay Area and the Rock Against Racism shows. So that’s when I thought, I want to do this Plea for Peace movement, just to get the music and politics back in place.”
PFP has resulted in three national tours between 2000 and May of last year, to raise funds for what Park envisions as the project’s first goal: a new youth center in the South Bay in 2006 to assist local teens to learn music and throw their own concerts. “The South Bay, which is one of the biggest cities in the United States, we have no legitimate all-ages venue,” he says. “It makes no sense. We have to address that, and no one is, so I’m gonna make it happen.”
Self-assured as he sounds, Park admits the Plea for Peace mania has taken its toll — “I feel exhausted from it all,” he says. But if his DIY track record means anything, we can soon look forward to a unique new South Bay venue, if not, you know, peace. A small victory, maybe, but it won’t be the first time Park has won the day with the old proverbial Fuck you: Yes!