"I grew up on rice and chopsticks, in a 'no shoes indoors' kind of household"
When you think of funk and soul music, you may think of James Brown, Al Green, Jackie Wilson, Martha Reeves, Marvin Gaye and The Temptations to name a few. You may think groovy bass lines, cheeky syncopated guitar riffs, flurrying trumpets and catchy hook lines, which are all synonymous with the genre.
In terms of race and ethnicity, you probably can’t think of too many white funk and soul singers. Having said that, the likes of Tom Jones, Dusty Springfield, Joe Cocker, Amy Winehouse and Justin Timberlake have all dabbled in the genre (with varying degrees of success).In any case, you certainly won’t think of Asians.
However, Oakland based funk band Trace Repeat is on a mission to defy the assumption that Asians aren’t groovy. Founder, leader and manager of Trace Repeat, Wesley Woo, talked to Resonate about his band, representation and Trump.
CC: Tell us a bit about your ethnicity – where are you from? What do you identify as?
WW: I’m Taiwanese American, born and raised here in the Bay Area. I grew up on rice and chopsticks, in a “no shoes indoors” kind of household. But I don’t speak a word of Chinese, my knowledge of kung fu movies is subpar at best, and I’m pretty sure I’ve been using chopsticks wrong for over two decades.
CC: What was life like growing up in San Francisco?
WW: Growing up as a Chinese kid in the SF Bay Area was its own unique experience, I think. I was a child of Motown soul, Blues guitar, and the NBA. So by default, the icons that I grew up idolizing were all black icons, because there were no Asian American icons to look up to. So for me, the childhood heroes that went on to shape my experiences were guys like David Ruffin, Michael Jordan, B.B. King, Kobe, and Shaq.
WW: It wasn’t until much later that I went on to question these problems; why were there no Asian American icons shaping my childhood? Why was I teased for being the only Asian on the basketball team? And why does my lunch look so funny?
CC: What made you get into music? Who were your influences?
WW: I grew up in a family that had absolutely no fear of driving long distances, so it wasn’t unusual that we would drive an hour into the city just for dinner and a haircut. Like a lot of kids, my earliest (and most significant) musical influences were the ones that I never really had a choice about.
WW: I remember sitting in the back of the car on those long drives, and my dad would tune into 102.9 KBLX, where I’d get my fill on Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, Al Green, and Diana Ross and the Supremes. Or sometimes we’d flip to 98.1 KISS-FM, and my dad would rattle off an encyclopedic knowledge of every Prince, Rick James, and Morris Day and the Time tune that came up on the radio. Later on, I think it was these core experiences that went on to shape the sound of Trace Repeat today.
“The challenge that we face is also in breaking out of this kind of typecasting”
CC: How important is Asian representation in music to you? Why do you think there are so few Asians in the western music industry?
WW: I think it has a lot to do with perception. The American film and music industry has perpetuated a stereotype about Asian Americans for more than half a century (and made a lot of money doing it). We are the butt of every joke. Slapstick kung fu, the nerdy Asian student, the emasculated stereotype in every scenario (ad lib small penis joke here).
WW: Changing that perception is simply a matter of finding more iconic Asian Americans that break this stereotype, and elevating them as much as possible. Trace Repeat is one that we really believe has the capacity to do these things. It’s an unapologetic kind of funk and soul in an industry that expects us to be anything but that.
CC: Were your parents supportive of your career choice?
WW: Haha! Yeah, eventually. I think at some point they gave up trying to make sense of my crazy life choices, and just started hoping that I don’t end up broke and homeless. I’ve been a broke musician with no back up plan for about a year now though, and…well. It’s pretty G-D terrifying.
CC: Funk music isn’t usually what one would associate with Asians, how well does the Asian community receive your music? Or is your audience comprised more of other races?
WW: It’s been…an uphill battle. The other side of the Asian American stereotype that we face every day is about stepping outside of the paradigm that most Asians have come to understand as “Asian American Music.” You know the type: sensitive singer songwriter, love songs and sappy romance stories. And while my background as a singer songwriter has shaped Trace Repeat’s sound to this day, the challenge that we face is also in breaking out of this kind of typecasting, too.
WW: Two years ago Trace Repeat made it all the way to the final round of Kollaboration STAR 2016. It’s a huge opportunity for us, but more importantly it was also exciting to see the organization step out of it’s comfort zone, and expand its outreach beyond the standard Asian American paradigm. I would love to see this kind of change continue in our community as Asian Americans and as musicians.
CC: Where do you see yourself in five years? Are we expecting more albums?
WW: Who knows. I’ve given up trying to map out five year plans for this band. Three years ago when we started this band, I never would have imagined we would still exist in 2018. Ever since we launched our crowdfunding campaign back in 2017 though, it seems like the band’s momentum has taken on a life of its own. At this point, I’m just along for the ride.
CC: Who would you like to collaborate with?
WW: Anyone who asks me! What up Jay-Z! But really though. I’ve been really inspired by the new Janelle Monae stuff, some of the newer 1975 music, and a lot of the HAIM discography. We’ve been demoing new material for our (hypothetical) next record, so anyone that can help me get into that world of drum samples, synths, and stacked reverb, I’m looking for you.
CC: What’s your next big project?
WW: There’s too many things to pick just one! We just joined the management roster for Ivy Hill Entertainment and STLR. I think 2018 will involve A LOT more shows and tours than last year. We just got back from Austin for SxSW last month, and we’re working on a Pacific Northwest tour this Fall.
WW: We’ve also been writing new music like crazy, in the hopes of getting a follow up album out sometime in 2019. A lot of the music is in its earliest “still sounds kinda cheesy” stage, but I’m actually really excited for that, though.
CC: It’s been over a year since Trump took office – to what extent have things changed in your immediate surroundings?
WW: It’s been a crazy year as an American (has it really been a year already?!!). We actually recorded the first few notes of our record on inauguration day, and had to wade through the protests to get to the studio. The space is actually a few blocks from the ground zero meeting point for a lot of the Oakland protests too, so we have the news helicopters above us fairly frequently to remind us of what’s going on.
WW: My best and only response to all of the hate and anger that surrounds me every day is to just keep making beautiful music. I can only hope that if we fill the world with enough music, it will drown out all of the hatred.