The Slants Rock the OAB
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Portland rock group, the Slants, gave a Fresno City College audience what business instructor Nancy Holland describes as “a really unexpected treat” in the packed OAB auditorium on April 3.
The event was organized by FCC’s Speakers Forum and was followed by a speech by bassist Simon Tam about his experiences of being persecuted as an Asian-American.
The band’s recent legal battles preceded their performance. The group made news recently for winning their challenge of a lower court’s ruling on copyrighting their name in the Supreme Court. The group had been refused a copyright for their name by the Trademark office which considered the offensive towards Asians.
The Slants have been active since 2006 and is the first band to be comprised of only Asian-American members, including singer Ken Shima, bassist Simon Tam, guitarist Joe X. Jiang, and drummer Yuya Matsuda.
The band, whose style has been dubbed by fans as “Chinatown Dance Rock”, has headlined at music festivals such as SXSW, MusicfestNW, and according to the band’s website, have been featured on BBC, NPR, NBC, MTV, and more than 1,000 radio stations, TV shows and magazines.
John Cho, Asian-American studies instructor and Holland were contacted by Tam, who said the band would be in the area and that he could give a speech and have the Slants perform. Coincidentally, his visit fell during the Asian-American month at FCC.
“It is amazing to have them come and talk about their journey and have them play,” Holland said. “Simon Tam has been on all kinds of different networks and shows, spoken at law schools about his case, [and] he has been on TedTalks, so to have him come to FCC is really neat.”
After a meet and greet with students, the Rampage sat with the band for a question and answer session about music, race relations in the U.S., and political correctness.
Q: Why do you think there is an 80s revival going on in popular music?
Because it’s awesome (laughter). I think there is something universal about great keyboards that makes the sound bigger. It’s catchy, it’s got really good dance pop hooks. It’s been a big influence in our own music for those reasons.
A lot of music also has a familiar sound. So even if they didn’t grow up in the 80s, they hear traces of it and people who are influenced by it now, are influenced by sounds that have stood the test of time.
I think music is cyclical. Every genre has its time, but it always comes back around at some point. Nineties rock is starting to really make a swinging comeback too. I think that 80s New-Wave synthpop is really starting to comeback in a big way too.
Q: Do you actively try to evolve your sound, or do you just write songs and let it happen naturally?
I think it’s a little bit of both. With this new release in particular, we talked about what we wanted to do. There was a pretty big shift in line up, and so we said, “What’s the voice of the band now?”
We created a playlist and filled it with pop music that we were into and thought about production in terms of these 15 songs. I think that helped shape our song writing as well.
Shima: Isn’t there a saying that goes, “If you’re not evolving, then you’re devolving?” So you’d be just going around in circles, and we don’t want to do that.
Q: Are there any current acts that are influencing you as you write your music now?
I actually got Tidal recently, just to have it for touring, and I’ve been listening to so much hip-hop. Even before I got Tidal, I was listening to a lot of hip-hop, so on the next album there’s quite a few songs where I was thinking “hip-hop” when I was writing them. It doesn’t sound anything like hip-hop by the end, but I had the feeling, the vibe.
We always just start out with the groove first. We always have some sort of foundation with his [Jiang’s] melody, and some sort of groove to go around it, and then we start building on top of that.
Q: What is the reaction you get from students when you play at colleges?
I think for a lot of people, when they see themselves reflected on a stage in a way that they usually aren’t, it’s pretty powerful.
Q: How do you feel about portrayals of Asian people in the media?
Personally, I think it’s too small. There are hundreds and hundreds of shows out there, and you have two or three that actually depict Asian-American characters in any kind of major role.
Diversity isn’t just having people in place; it’s having them in place for a meaningful role and meaningful expression. Representation itself is a really powerful thing, and it’s not just something on-screen. We want to see more Asian-American directors, writers, and producers involved as well.
I think it lacks an education of cultures. If you look at media, it’s pretty whitewashed. Music, TV, radio, it’s all like that, and we [Asians] are trying to get out there, but it’s still too small. There [are] so many Asian-American [and] pacific islanders that are trying to act, that are trying to make music, and they just don’t get the chance.
You can get representation, but that representation has to have artistic validity.
Q: What does political correctness now mean in the age of Trump?
I think people attack the idea of political correctness as a way to justify their ignorance or the hurtful things that they have to say. You can say whatever you want to say. You can drop all the racial slurs you want, but if you do, you’ve got to pay the social price for it.
When marginalized communities reappropriate language and want to take on slurs, or things that are offensive, and turn it into forms of empowerment, we know there are consequences to that, but the consequences we are going for lead to social change, and productive discussion, it’s not just about tearing people apart.
Q: After all the trouble you’ve been through with trying to register your trademark and winning in the U.S. Supreme Court, are you glad you were first denied your trademark?
Glad wouldn’t be my word. We were put in this position and had an opportunity to help change this country and for that, I’m humbled and grateful.
I wouldn’t wish this upon anybody; it’s not been an easy journey. It’s expensive, it cost me a lot of my life, but I would say it was worth it because it’s leading to something better.
It’s much bigger than just the four of us. It’s all of our parents; that’s who we fight for. We had the chance to stand up, so we stepped up.
Q: So what is next for The Slants?
Tam: Editing on the road, recording an album, working on a film, working on a book and touring.
Q: How do you feel FCC reacted to today’s event?
I think the college’s reaction was really positive. People seemed into it. They seemed really receptive to both the message as well as the music. It was awesome hanging out with everybody and meeting everybody afterwards. It’s just been a blast.