In the current political climate of maelstroms of bigotry fueled insults, torrents of misogynistic nicknames, and floods of racial slurs it takes inspiring courage not to break and spew it all back. When is it okay to call a female this or that? Why is it an accepted norm for a black person to use a word but another person it is not? It's about bullying and taking back the power a word or phrase has to inflict harm.
So Simon Tam, once just an average American guy with parents wanting him to be a professional of some sort, just wanting to be a rockstar, decided to take back the power and pain a racial slur had. He named his band The Slants.
For over a decade, Simon and his bandmates found themselves in a tempest that took them all the way to the Supreme Court in the quest to claim the name as their own. The very right to fight back against the bullies of the world. Eventfully Simon and The Slants won their fight. If you google The Slants or Simon Tam you'll find dozens of articles about their struggles. You’ll find the titles of the three books Simon has written about holding his ground and all that which he has gleaned from the battles.
The Slants showed up on my radar because I've got a quirk about original band names and how little effort it takes to come up with one, yet so many don't seem to make the effort. So I've known about The Slants court battle for quite some time. I screamed like a schoolgirl when I found they were booked to play the 2019 Bowling Green International Festival on September 28.
Then I realized I knew next to nothing about their music. I wasn't familiar with their work at all. So I spent weeks and weeks watching videos and listening to the tracks I had access to. My assumption was that I'd hear way more ‘Asian influence’. I didn't think I had, so I spent more time reading up on different Asian musical styles and structure. Totally guilty of missing the obvious. They are an American band.
Wikipedia reads, “They’re considered one of the first Asian American bands in the world.” Mind blowing isn't it?
So what does an American band made up of Asain Americans have to offer to the world music scene? First thing to know is that they aren't anywhere near K-Pop in the genre placement map. What were their influences? When asked Simon responded with:
“Most of our musical influences are British and American. I grew up with bands like New Order, Depeche Mode, The Cure, and Duran Duran along with punk rock groups like The Ramones. While my bandmates have different music tastes, most of them enjoy different kinds of American music because that's what we grew up with, know, and love. The lyrical content reflects some of our personal experiences, and we occasionally might feature a traditional Asian instrument, but by all standards, we're an American band.”
When listening you can hear all of that for sure. In truth if you're raised around or with a specific ethnic group there's no getting away from the influence. The subtleties are there.
Visually….video wise that is….now that's totally different.
If you go reading about The Slants one of the things that continually gets brought to the surface is the impact that the Kill Bill movies had on Simon Tam’s perception of what being cool was: his ethnic heritage was cool. Several of The Slants videos have katana play in them. When I asked Simon about the Kill Bill influence in the videos he said he didn't really think it was screamingly obvious which is how I had described it. He said,
“The idea for the band was sparked from a particular scene in Kill Bill because it was the first time I ever saw Asians/Asian Americans depicted as cool, confident, and sexy on an American-produced film. We didn't really incorporate anything from Kill Bill in our music videos though - at least not consciously, since they were directed by other people. While I often share the story about the moment I got the idea for having an Asian American band.”
I had asked about other visual influences, but wasn't satisfied with the answers so I rehashed my questions. The response I got back helps to illustrate part of what moves Simon Tam.
“I didn't gather that from your questions earlier since you mentioned appropriation before asking about Bruce Lee, etc. Of course I loved Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan as a kid. Nearly every Asian American kid growing up in the same era as I did, felt the same because they were some of the only accessible figures to us in film. When I first moved to Portland, I was extremely lonely. I missed hearing my first languages, eating the foods I grew up with, and seeing anyone who looked like me (Portland is called "America's Whitest Major City" for a reason). So to deal with that loneliness, I imported VHS tapes of movies from Hong Kong. It was precisely because of this habit that a friend asked if I ever watched Kill Bill, thinking I'd also enjoy it since it seemed like many of the other movies I collected.”
Art in all its forms is subjective and personal. Even with that said we all want to know what's behind a song. We want to know if what has spoken to us in a lyric was the intended message. When you talk about someone's work, be it a painting or poetry, context becomes relative. The life of the artist becomes relative.
I gave all manner of examples of lyrics that speak to context of artist’s lives. Simon never really gave up the Easter eggs but he did say,
“I don't write most of the lyrics. For many of our albums, I wrote most of the music but our previous lead singer would write the words. In our recent EPs, my guitarist (Joe X. Jiang) each tackled music and lyrics but there weren't any obscure or cryptic stories behind the words that we've never discussed. For example, "Sutures" was a song I wrote to my late best friend as a final letter after she passed and "Pharaoh's Horses" was a tribute to my fiance (I later used some of the words in our custom-written wedding vows).”
Joe X. Jiang is one to keep your eye on by the way. Of everything I watched the video for ‘Level Up’ is by far my favorite. It's got a great dance grove vibe to which Jiang produced a story driven visual good time. Totally love the camera choreography as well as the dance choreography. The two stars of video, Simeon Jacob and Natalia Killoran, are quite worthy of a google search.
The Slants recently announced this would be their last tour. I think the band has made its mark. For sure there's all sorts of young people out there inspired by The Slants’ courage to break through barriers. Simon Tam keeps tacking, seeking the weather gauge. He and his bride recently pulled up stakes and chose Nashville as the place for a new adventure. A man who has travelled around the world and is about to have his life brought to the Broadway stage, has decided to seek adventure in the Athens of the South.They’ve chosen our region, our community to join.
I'm looking forward to what comes next from the heart of such a force of nature.