By VALERIE MOORHEAD
Blast San Francisco Bureau
Asian girls and boys with guitars. Nothing new. Not another ingenious marketing device. Yes, really. Forget those racial stereotypes that Asian Americans are attracted exclusively to the world of Euro-electronica (New Order, Monaco, Erasure). They can rock out just as well as the next, er, non-Asian guy. I'm not talking about bands with the token Asian guy on bass or keyboards, but rather Asian American-led bands -- one hand on the guitar, the other on the mike. Kind of an interesting visual, since such images aren't usually viewed in the large, mainstream scope of America.
Due to their lack of presence in mainstream American rock, Asian American-led bands may automatically be viewed as a kind of marketing gimmick, which coincides with the recent influx of Asians in the media the last several years. However, Asian Americans have had long-standing, solid ties to the independent and underground community. Artists such as Versus, Seam and aMiniature have been rocking our world for quite awhile. Long before I discovered anything outside of the Cure and Depeche Mode, there were underground bands such as Bitch Magnet cementing the way toward songwriter-guitarist-vocalist Soo-Young Park's future progeny, Seam, a band that has been known to sell out the Metro, one of the bigger and more desired venues in Chicago.
One night last spring I found myself 20 feet away from the Great American Music Hall's stage in San Francisco, watching a sold out Seam performance (one of two sold-out shows back to back), and realizing that despite the large number of loyal Asian fans in the crowd, this was no gimmick. It was not an overstatement of super-hyped underground indie rock, breaking racial barriers and giving hip Asian indie kids some kind of outlet. It was not a social issue being addressed through a medium that would attract teenagers. It was simply good, creative rock appealing to a diverse audience, without any "Oriental"-gimmick to remind me I was watching just another Korean "computer-geek" holding that Fender Telecaster on his shoulder.
A recent Versus show in San Jose went much the same way, with the crowd made up of mostly non-Asian fans ready to hear organically, and in the open, the pop-driven tracks off the band's new release. Not too long ago, a friend and I gazed with satisfaction at the promo shot for Harvey Danger. We didn't even notice the other members in the band. All we saw was the Asian male sticking out beautifully in the photo. It represented the emergence of, well, ourselves.
Yet the image of Asian rockers remains a fresh one. In fact, I created Enda, a four-piece alternative rock band, a few years ago out of a need to fill the personal void that was existing in mainstream rock. I recall, on more than one occasion, being asked by captivated young men if my band was anything like Shonen Knife, who seem to be the unique reference point for those most normally exposed to the average American rock band.
As Asian American culture 'zine Giant Robot wrote of my own band not too long ago: "Fronted by two Asian women, this band already has a gimmick. But they are more about that. They also mix in hard rock riffs and have good songwriting ability."
And so thinks Warner Bros. who has been noted as posting an advertisement in a guitar magazine in Arizona recently, on the look-out for all-Asian American bands. Perhaps it detects a band wagon of sorts, and is hoping to jump on it before it swiftly rides past. Kuh-ching, kuh-ching. If label executives are onto this "phenomenon," then I smell a trend in the distance. Perhaps the outbreak that labels foresee will only serve to encourage more Asian Americans to pick up an electric guitar or a pair of drumsticks. And, hey, I'm all for that.
It's also no coincidence that such an ad should come at a time when the influx of Japanese bands touring the States is coming more and more heavily. They're capturing the attention of not only college radio, but critics and American musicians always seeking the new and different. This wave of artists includes Cornelius; Buffalo Daughter, who caught the eye of Luscious Jackson, followed by a contract with Beastie Boys' label Grand Royal; and Kahimi Karie. Despite Asian artists being viewed as something new and unusual, Pizzicato Five -- currently being represented by Matador Records -- and Shonen Knife -- who has worked with L.A. veterans Jeff and Steve McDonald of Redd Kross -- are not new to the American music scene and have been around since the '80s.
Actually, despite the fact that I am partly Asian and in a band with other Asians, I tend to be pretty skeptical of Asian American bands. And I have to admit that such doubts derive from this notion that it is indeed atypical seeing Asians with guitars rockin' out. All my life I've been surrounded with the image that Asians are traditional, studious, work-driven, and ambitious in areas of math and science. I went to high school with a large percentage of these "types." Several of these "types" are my friends. And I wondered: How could rock ever be associated with such a vision, or even welcomed into such a seemingly opposite world?
In the beginning, I was afraid of being labeled as playing in "that Asian band." There was some momentary hesitation before ultimately deciding to perform at an Asian American women's "ReOrienting" festival in Berkeley last spring. But in the end, the idea of exposing ourselves and performing in front of other Asian college students became far more important and exciting than worrying about whether or not we'd be seen as a "novelty" rather than simply being a rock band.
Enda on stage and in concert.
For those of you who have immersed yourselves in the underground and indie markets already, this is no news to you. But don't scoff now, because a new wave may indeed be coming. And if the major record labels catch on, as one already has, we may be seeing some fresh new faces out there. Only, these faces may have been around for years and are now only starting to get noticed.
Valerie Moorhead is a member of Enda, which has been described as creating "dark, brooding [noise] guitar pop." They are fairly new to the San Francisco scene; and you can catch them at any of the major nightclubs at least once every month. They've also toured throughout California, and are currently finishing up recording some new songs.
Valerie created the band with fellow songwriter Jennifer Yee a few years
ago out of a need to fill the personal void that was existing in
mainstream American rock, and the even deeper truth is that both wanted
to just rock out like their idols. Since then, the band has become an
integral part of their lives as well as the lives of their other band
members, Dan Aquino (drums) and Joey Clark (bass). You can learn more
about the band here: http://www.enda.org