Alternative Asian

guitarist-singer-songwriter, Sooyoung Park. "And the two can be anything, but the in-between space is neither." Park and fellow Seamster William Shin are navigating a cultural as well as an aural in-between space with their latest project, Ear of the Dragon, a compilation album featuring 19 Asian American indie rock songwriters.

Compiled by Park, Shin, and their Fortune5 label cohorts Ben Kim and Julie Liu, Ear of the Dragon encompasses a wide range of sounds, from Seam's subdued power pop to Cub's tambourine accompanied harmonies and the Dambuilders' frenetic punk musings. Unlike rap or soul, which are derived from and evocative of the African American experience, the Asian American factor is incidental to most of the music on Ear of the Dragon; listening to the CD provides little clue to the musicians' ethnic heritage. Instead, Park says, the focus is on the act of Asian Americans creating rock music.

"We already knew two-thirds of the bands on the compilation just from touring or buying their records and meeting them," says Park, speaking from a pay phone in New York City, where Seam and other bands from the CD are playing the fourth date on the nationwide Ear of the Dragon tour. "We were looking for bands that have Asian American members who make a significant contribution to their [band's] sound," Park says. "We did ask James Iha [of Smashing Pumpkins] if he was interested in submitting something, but we never heard back from him."

Critical mass

Park's extensive resume includes half a dozen albums, plus various EPs and 7-inches, with Seam and his previous band, indie darlings Bitch Magnet. And while the 27-year-old Korean American has been singing, strumming, and receiving rave reviews from Option and Spin as well as a myriad of 'zines, he's also witnessed the emergence of numerous Asian American rock bands. "Now is the first time there are enough bands who are good enough to put together something like this," he says.

Two years ago, in the Seam video, Park was the first Korean American to appear on MTV. Now, with the compilation, he and the others involved intend to update the general public's awareness of Asian Americans in rock music. "Up till now an Asian band meant Asian nationals like Shonen Knife, the Boredoms, or Pizzicato Five," Park says. "We're not trying to jump on the multicultural bandwagon. There's just a lot of really good Asian American bands out there. It's reached a kind of critical mass, and it's important that our creative voice get heard."

In an interview last month with the KoreAm Journal, a Korean American monthly, he commented on the inclination of Korean Americans to pursue "professional" careers: "This world would be such a miserable place if everyone was a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. I'm totally sympathetic to those who pursue careers they aren't interested in out of a sense of filial responsibility or just to move up in the world, but at a certain point you've got to ask yourself whether or not you'll be any good at it and whether you'll ever be happy with it." A graduate of Oberlin with a B.S. in math, Park says, "The only math I do now is adding up the band's mileage."

Self-promotion is not on Park's agenda. It's apparent from both the band's distinctly unglamorous image (today Park sports a look that wouldn't be out of place in a college math class) and its rejection of major-label interest that Seam isn't interested in rock stardom. Park is reluctant to reduce his band to an indie cliche, but feels they're best described as "just four regular guys playing music." While he says "there is a need for an Asian American pop star ... a musical equivalent of actors like Russell Wong or Tamlyn Tomita," Park emphatically states, "I don't want the job. The extra stuff that's expected of you along with the music just doesn't interest me at all."

Seam's upcoming album, Am I Driving You Crazy?, is slated for June release on Chicago's Touch and Go label. Like the band's earlier work, it was engineered by Brad Wood, who, while better known for his work with Liz Phair and Veruca Salt, has said that the band's last release, The Problem With Me, "is probably the best record I've ever worked on.... I wish more people could have heard it." Seam also contributed a song, "Something's Burning," to a new antigun compilation spearheaded by Mother Jones, called You Are What You Shoot.

Reaching out

Ear of the Dragon is the first release from Fortune5, and possibly the last, pending the outcome of a lawsuit instigated by another label of the same name. Jointly distributed by Fortune5 and A. magazine, a national publication that promises a view "inside Asian America," the album will be sold primarily via mail order but also in some stores and at the shows.

Four days into the tour, Park noticed that while overall turnout has been "very good so far, there haven't been as many Asian Americans attending the show as we expected." Considering the culturally broad fan base the participating bands have already established, that isn't too surprising. But as the project also hopes to broaden the collective artistic horizon of Asian American youth, the affiliation with A. magazine promises to be a propitious one. "We're a part of the indie scene and can get word out there," Park says, "but A. magazine is exposing the CD to a whole ethnic-press network that we're not tied into at all."

For the bulk of the current Ear of the Dragon tour, which is the first all-Asian American rock tour ever, Venus Cures All and Bay Area band aMiniature are opening for Seam, with the first slot varying from region to region. Another local outfit, pop-punk fave J-Church, is opening on the California leg. Lance Hahn, lead singer for J-Church, anticipates a sizable Asian American turnout, noting that "there aren't many Asian American punk bands around. When we play, I notice more Asian Americans in the audience than at other punk shows. I've also heard a lot of talk about this tour on the Internet.... People are into it."

J-Church is one of the bands on the CD that was unacquainted with Park at the project's inception, and Hahn says he was flattered to receive Park's letter soliciting a contribution. "Bitch Magnet has been a major influence, and Sooyoung has always been one of my heroes," he says. "I'd go to a Seam show and be too nervous to introduce myself. So I didn't know he'd even heard of us."

Ads in the music press for Ear of the Dragon portray a barechested, shaven-headed Asian youth extending a king-size rice cooker in a manner that immediately evokes that '70s icon of Asian American pop culture, the television show Kung Fu. Absurd as it may seem, what better embodies the collective Asian American experience? As Hahn says, "We'd heard of all these other bands, and they'd heard of us, but it took a CD with a bunch of rice cookers on the cover to bring us together."

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