"It was exciting, inspiring, frustrating, and intimidating all at the same time"
American rock n rollers The Slants are perhaps the world’s most famous all-Asian rock band. Granted, there aren’t many Asian rockstars in the western music scene in the first place, but their popularity isn’t solely down to their ethnicity. The Slants unique blend of 80’s synth, pop rock and punk separate them from your usual American rockers. Echoing the likes Blink-182 whilst seeping in influences from Depeche Mode, The Slants could fill the void between where Joy Division ended and New Order began.
Earlier this year, The Slants dominated headlines for heading to the US Supreme Court to retain their band’s name. The band was refused a trademark registration on the grounds that the name was “too offensive”. Ironically, the rockers chose the name to re-appropriate the anti-Asian slur.
Drawing inspiration from their SCOTUS experience, the band released an EP titled The Boy Who Must Not Be Named. “This collection of songs is a special EP that commemorates the band’s defining moment: appearing at the Supreme Court of the United States,” reads the description of the EP on The Slants website. “It features all-new songs with a pop-twist.”
Speaking to Resonate, the band consisting of Simon Young, Ken Shima, Joe X. Jiang and Yuya Matsuda shared their experiences dealing with discrimination, their ethnicity and the Supreme Court case.
SY: Simon Young
KS: Kem Shima
JJ: Joe X Jiang
YM: Yuya Matsuda
CC: What would you say your ethnicity is?
SY: Chinese/Taiwanese. My father is from the Canton area of China, my mother is from Taiwan.
JJ: My ethnicity is Chinese. My parents were born in China.
YM: I am Japanese and both of my parents are from Japan
KS: Japanese. Mom was from Okinawa, Dad was born in Sapporo
CC: Tell us a bit about your background?
SY: I was born and raised in San Diego, CA. I’m 36 now.
JJ: I was born in China and lived there until I was nine. After immigrating to the US, I lived for extensive periods of time in Georgia, Arizona, North Carolina, Connecticut, Oregon and New York
YM: I grew up in Torrance, CA till the age of 21. I moved to Oregon soon after I turned 21, and I am 33 now.
KS: Portland, OR. 28 years old.
CC: Growing up, how aware of your ethnicity were you? Did you experience any racial discrimination?
SY: I became hyperaware from an early age, mostly because other students made a deal of it: I faced bullying, prejudice, and was put into ESL classes even though I tested at levels far more advanced than my peers. It put me on the defensive and had me wishing that I could just be treated like the other students in my school.
JJ: The culture shock of moving away from my home country to a place as diverse as the United States made me very aware of my ethnicity. I’ve experience minor aggression that used my race as a target, but nothing I couldn’t laugh or joke about after.
YM: Growing up I was very aware of my ethnicity, and yes I have had my fair share of racial discrimination experiences, as I’m sure many Asian Americans have had growing up.
KS: Very aware, grew up speaking Japanese and watched Japanese tv shows and went to Japanese church. I was called Jap in 7th grade by a kid and I cried and he was sent to the principal’s office. Other than that, people would comment on my food and how different it was, but I was just happy to be eating it!
CC: Who were your idols when you were growing up (music or otherwise)? Were any of them Asian?
SY: I was a huge fan of Duff McKagan (Guns n’ Roses), who was my initial inspiration to pick up the bass guitar to begin with. When I started taking lessons, my teacher was into jazz and blues, so I began listening to more players from there. I didn’t have any musical idols who were Asian – however, I was a huge fan of both Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.
JJ: I was a movie nut as a kid so I was into actors and filmmakers more than musicians. My favorite actors as a kid were Jackie Chan and Stephen Chow. Growing up in China, I didn’t have any issues finding Asian idols.
YM: I had a few drummer idols growing up (Buddy Rich from the big band era, Chad Sexton from the band 311, Dave Grohl back when he was in Nirvana, among some others….however no Asians, only because I either didn’t know about them or they were just not well represented in mainstream pop culture at the time.
KS: I have always had a fascination with Bruce Lee, he was so cool and dominant. Musically, I grew up playing classical piano so I studied a lot of Mozart!
CC: Why do you think there are so few Asian American rock bands or Asian rock bands in the west?
SY: I think there are several major barriers for Asian American bands. First, the music industry in general doesn’t believe that Asian artists are marketable beyond being cornered into a niche. But because Asian Americans don’t see themselves being represented, there are no influencers that reflect our community. Second, many Asian Americans are first and second generation immigrants who don’t always have the support to focus on creative endeavours.
JJ: I believe Asian Americans are held to a certain standard by their parents, and often are influenced, if not pressured into professions that are more money and success driven. If music was involved, it tended to be more classically based and mostly for extracurricular activities.
YM: This is a point of contention that I have with mainstream media. There are many Asian musicians out there, however due to how we’ve been depicted and caricaturized in western main stream media, no one really takes us seriously as artists. That is starting to change as inclusion is starting to make headway in our country, but its still very slow going. Unfortunately in mainstream music pop culture we are always told “Asian doesn’t sell”. There are a FEW Asian American actors that have made it big, but nowhere near enough given the talent out there in our communities.
KS: There are so many factors I could name… Some people might think arts aren’t practical, some don’t get enough opportunities and fall by the way side, and some feel as if they sadly aren’t good enough.
CC: At what age did you start the band?
SY: I started The Slants when I was 23, while watching the film “Kill Bill” by Quentin Tarantino. It was the first time that I had ever seen an American produced film that depicted Asians as cool, confident, and sexy. When I started reflecting about my own art, I felt that there was a distinct lack of representation of Asian Americans in the rock music industry. It was at that moment that I decided something needed change.
CC: Why did you decide on the name ‘The Slants’?
SY: I started asking friends what they thought all Asians had in common. They’d always respond with “slanted eyes,” which I thought was interesting since it isn’t true (not all Asian have a slant to their eyes nor are Asians the only people who do have that quality). Then, I thought we could speak our own “slant” or perspective on life in America while paying homage to Asian American activists who had been using the term in a self-empowering manner for about 30 years already.
CC: How was the name perceived when you first started out compared to now?
SY: We didn’t any issues with the name at all – we toured throughout North America for years, working with social justice organizations, Asian American festivals, incarceration camp survivors, etc. In the early days, all of the press about us from NPR, Asian American newspapers and bloggers, and radio all focused on our music and the fact that we were taking on stereotypes about Asian Americans. Now, you we can’t get an album review or interview with our band without our Supreme Court case being mentioned. That’s been the focus, whether or not we want it to be. But in either case, people generally understand that our work is meant to be empowering.
CC: How supportive were your parents of your rock n roll career?
SY: Initially, not at all. They were worried about my economic safety. Since they both worked really hard to provide for our family, they wanted to make sure that I didn’t have to struggle as much. However, when they saw how we were representing the needs of our community, they became immensely proud (especially when our band made headlines in the Chinese daily newspaper).
JJ: My mom is very supportive of me but will never stop being concerned about my financial well-being. That’s to be expected and I appreciate that. When the band did a crowd-funding campaign to go to DC, she was one biggest donors and that says everything.
YM: My parents, being traditional Asian parents, did not approve of me wanting to make it in music. Unfortunately they don’t see the opportunities that I see in the music industry.
KS: They were the most supportive. I think they were happy with music because I applied myself to it, and have always wanted to do something with music and singing.
CC: How did you feel when upon discovering that your band’s name could not be trademarked?
SY: I was a shocked. The Trademark Office made no effort to reach out to Asian Americans at all – they conducted simple internet searches and used wiki-sources like UrbanDictionary.com to support their false accusations that our community overwhelmingly opposed our name. Of course, that wasn’t the case then, just as it isn’t the case now. Despite us providing independent national surveys, legal declarations and testimonials from many respected Asian American leaders, dictionary and cultural experts, and more, the Trademark Office ignored that evidence, then blatantly lied about events. For example, they claimed that one of our concerts at the Asian American Youth Leadership Conference (AAYLC) was cancelled due to controversy over our name. However, that wasn’t true- in fact, the AAYLC’s steering committee wrote a legal declaration proving otherwise, yet the Trademark Office continued to use the false information, even at the Supreme Court. They simply dismissed our community’s voice.
CC: How do you think the SCOTUS case went? What was that experience like?
SY: Decisions are really dependent on oral arguments – in fact, most of the time, the justices walk in already knowing their decision, based on the legal briefs. Because we’ve had broad bi-partisan support from a wide variety of constituents, I think our argument was very strong. Being in the court felt unreal – the 55 minutes of argument felt very detached, even though they were using my name over and over again. It was exciting, inspiring, frustrating, and intimidating all at the same time.
JJ: The supreme court was an absolute trip in all sense of the word. It felt so surreal to be a part of what seemed like a religious ceremony. These were the most powerful judges in the country examining our band’s case and playing mind games with the lawyers. Seeing and hearing Ruth Bader Ginsburg in person felt like a checked off bucket list item that I didn’t even know was on my bucket list.
YM: It was intense and nerve wracking. It was interesting though to hear the PTO’s arguments, or to me lack thereof.
KS: It was such a unique life experience for sure. Getting to be in front of the justices was very humbling and intimidating. Hearing each justice ask questions besides Justice Thomas was really cool to listen to.
CC: What do you think the future of the band’s name is looking like?
SY: There are no plans to change the name. Our name always has, and always will, represent the battle for self-empowerment of marginalized communities.
CC: How is your tour going? Any plans for when you return home?
SY: This tour has been unlike any other. We’re playing law schools, rock clubs, and anime conventions. Throughout the trip, we’ve been able to share our story and our art across the country, and that’s always an incredible experience. As soon as we get home, we’ll be wrapping up another album while doing a few conventions over the summer. Then, it’s back on the road again.
JJ: The tour is going very well despite some mechanical issues with our bus. Our morale is high and we are having a lot of fun. I’ve been actively song writing on our long bus rides and prepping for our return to the studio directly after the tour.
YM: Tour is going well, besides a few bus issues; we’re all having a great time sharing our art and our story. I am a family man and a father of 6. I’m looking forward to being with my family again, I miss them a lot while I’m out on the road. My wife Emily is super supportive and I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing with the Slants without her full support and taking care of the home front while I’m away.
KS: Our tour is a lot of fun. I am living a dream traveling and singing for different people and venues. It is fulfilling for my soul. When we return home, I want to search for a new tour bus!
What would your advice be to aspiring Asian rock n rollers?
SY: Never give up.
JJ: To all the Asian American musicians and artists, please be creatively responsible. At this point, we need to be about more than just representation. We have to create artistically viable products that push things forward.
YM: Keep on going in the face of adversity. No matter what anyone says! Stay strong and rock on!
KS: Keep practicing, have fun and don’t ever ever ever give up!