From Skankin' Pickle and Dill Records in 1989 to Ska Against Racism, the Plea For Peace Foundation, and Asian Man Records (which helped launched the careers of mainstream artists like Alkaline Trio and Less than Jake), Mike Park has made a profound and lasting impact on the punk and ska landscape. Park’s latest release, K.A. Music is with his long-running band the The Chinkees, their first new material in 18 years. Punknews staff writer Tyler Barrett caught up with Park to discuss the new EP, race and racism in the 21st century, and to what extent Mailorder is Still Fun!!.
I appreciate you making the time for this interview on a Friday afternoon.
I’m going nowhere during quarantine so I’ve got all the time in the world.
How’s it going in regard to that, is California still under a shelter-in-place order?
Yeah we are. Things are opening up slowly with social distancing and outdoor dining. For the most part things are slowly opening, but for myself I’m still trying to be very careful because I work at my mom’s house and she’s 84 so I just wanna make sure I’m not bringing in any illness. I’m just trying to be careful and trying to be smart.
Yeah it’s been a weird time. Where I am, things had been quiet with not a lot going on, but with George Floyd’s murder--I’m in Minneapolis--things changed rather quickly with everybody instantly out on the streets. I’m a bit younger than you and I remember Rodney King and the response that followed but not well…were you in California when it happened?
I was on tour actually [with Park’s previous band Skankin’ Pickle]. We played Chicago the eve of and then woke up in Madison seeing the news.
What was that like for you being of an age where you understood probably better than I did what was going on? Do you see any similarities [between the nationwide responses to Rodney King’s verdict and George Floyd’s murder]?
Yeah, as a whole, as a group we were kind of uh…no. We didn’t know what to think. We couldn’t believe it. And it was a lot of head-shaking on our parts as just young adults at the time. And just disbelief that this did not turn a guilty verdict. And I think this was a breaking point for a lot of people. That’s why LA turned to a warzone. And it goes deeper, after the fact, like there was a lot of politics in terms of the targeting of K-Town [Koreatown, Los Angeles] and how K-Town had no backup from any law enforcement so they as a community were using pirate radio and they were enforcing their own protection. I’ve been watching documentaries for decades about the K-Town situation but I won’t get into that. In terms of Rodney King as a whole, we woke up to that city being on fire from our perspective of being in the middle of the U.S. All we saw was what was on the news and we were flabbergasted to say the least about what was happening. The similarities now, it’s the same breaking point. The George Floyd murder was the breaking point of 2020. Everything built to a head and finally it was like…the fact that the police officer, Chauvin, the fact that he wasn’t in custody, I think every second, every minute, every hour of every day just built up to an eruption where people were just like, “That’s it, we can’t take it.” So the similarities are so eerily similar it’s just the difference is the mobilization with social media, you can have within seconds you can dictate where you are, how you’re going to do this with an underground community. And that can be through so many mediums whether it’s WhatsApp or Twitter or Facebook or Instagram or Skype. You can be in this huge group going, “This is where we’re at, this is what’s happening” and that’s the difference is the advent of social media and communications.
Speaking of K-Town, did Ice Cube ever respond to your song “Ice Cube, Korea Wants a Word With You”? [The song, by Skankin’ Pickle, addresses Ice Cube’s anti-Korean rhetoric in his song “Black Korea”]
The closest thing I got was we played a club that he had played the day before. He had played the day before we played in Fort Collins, Colorado and the promoter had a chance to have quiet time with him and told him about the song. And then when we got there, he had given him a shirt to give to me [laughs]. An Ice Cube shirt. But that’s it. So I don’t know to what extent he really understood where I was coming from or if he even remembers but that’s the closest to me knowing that he had heard the song or knew about it.
Back in 1998, in Ames, Iowa, I was a 12-year-old, for some reason looking at a crossword puzzle in the Iowa State Daily. And there was a clue, “___ Against Racism”--three letters and I couldn’t figure out what it was. Run Against Racism, maybe? When I finally figured out it was “Ska Against Racism,” I had to go look it up in a dictionary, I had no idea what ska was.
Oh my goodness, I love that.
It was a beautiful thing to be introduced to a new form of music that changed my life and becoming suddenly aware that racism was not just a historical phenomena but something that needed to be addressed in the present. [Twenty years later] it’s obviously still relevant today. Would you ever consider bringing back Ska Against Racism or was that very much of its time?
I would not personally though I could see myself mentoring somebody to take over the reins if somebody was invested. It doesn’t need to be Ska Against Racism, it could be any genre but you need someone who already has a platform that’s big. The problem with doing any kind of benefit tour--and I found this out from years of trying to do the Plea For Peace tours--no matter if the heart is there, if the dollar signs aren’t there or if there’s not something that can help their careers, most artists are full of shit. I hate saying that but that’s just my vantage point of what I’ve seen from years of trying to do charity work through music is that it’s so hard. And it was just constantly asking friends, “Can you help?” “Can you do this?” And I was just tired of it. I was tired of having to rely on friends--bless their hearts, ‘cause they were the only ones who would participate. If we reached out to bigger artists, if they didn’t know me, it was really difficult to get them to go onboard unless we were able to offer them something, whether it be money or a chance for more press or visibility.
You’re a Bernie Sanders supporter, right?
What kind of interest, if any, did you have in the rather successful grassroots movement that Andrew Yang put together?
Mmhmm. I was, yeah, I was very interested [laughs] in Andrew Yang’s movement. But I was also a realist knowing there was no way a person of color--at least a person of Asian color--has a chance at this election. So I felt--and I still feel--Bernie would have the best chance to beat Trump. And I still think that today. I’m confused by the easy election win by Biden. I couldn’t believe it. I don’t know why Bernie had lost so much momentum since 2016. I don’t know, it’s so confusing to me. Very frustrating. He would have won in 2016, if Bernie had been the candidate he would have beat Trump easily. Hands down. I’m sorry, I’m starting to get heated up [laughs].
No, it’s okay. My armchair explanation is I think it might be people’s grandparents who were on the fence with Trump or Biden who are like, “Okay, Trump’s not really working.” That’s just from knowing some grandparents, that’s my perspective. I don’t know if that’s the whole picture but anyways, I share your frustration.
I just think, especially in 2016, an old white man would have won. Anyway, [laughs] let’s move on, I could talk forever about this.
Yeah, let’s talk about the new Chinkees release K.A. Music. I know it’s been out for a week now, what can you tell us about it?
Yeah, a week today. Really, it was nothing more than Steve Choi [of the Chinkees and Rx Bandits] contacting me and saying he had been working on some ska-punk music and if I would sing on it. And that was it. We had not even decided whether it was going to be a Chinkees release. We had entertained the idea of this as a new band and so after recording my vocals, I kind of forgot about it [laughs]. I was just waiting for him to finish the mix and do his thing and after he sent me some rough mixes, I’m like, “Man, it really just sounds like an extension of the Chinkees, I think.” I don’t wanna tour or play shows so why start a new band if we have no leverage behind it. I thought the best way to get the songs heard is just to use the Chinkees name. Steve agreed with that, and that’s why it became another release under the Chinkees name. It’s all Asian-Americans too that played on the release.
Is that a first for the Chinkees or has that kind of been the M.O.?
I believe on the Lawrence Arms split Present Day Memories I think it was all, I think it was Steve Choi playing drums on that [Ed., Discogs lists Richard Morin]. But definitely the touring lineup at the time was. I believe Rob Kellenberger did play drums on Peace Through Music, though Steve plays drums on some of the songs. As far as the entire release I think this one and the split with the Lawrence Arms.
Tell me about the meaning behind the track “Your Heart Will Break Forever” on the new EP. It’s got kind of a universal feel, but I’m wondering if there’s a story behind it.
I’m…gonna have to go look at the lyrics for that one and see what the heck I’m talking about. Sorry [laughs]. The problem with this song is it’s already so old and I’m so prolific with lyrics and writing lyrics, I’m just writing all the time so I have to kind of study my [lyrics]. Unless it’s cut-and-dry like uh, “This song is about eating breakfast” or something I try to write lyrics in kind of a vague [way], I would say, in terms of leaving it open to interpretation. And it’s funny because I used to have to write down--I think I did it with the Bruce Lee Band’s first record--I actually wrote in the liner notes what the songs meant because I had to do it just to remind myself what the songs mean. I feel like this one is just about like the--I think it’s really relevant to current times--it’s just saying how much chaos there is in the world. Everything around us just basically being on fire. And wanting to heal the heart. But it’s always gonna be breaking. And just like the anxiety, like “I couldn’t breathe for a minute” and that next verse is like “Here we go again.”
Yeah, that’s what I was gonna point out was that line about not being able to breathe is so relevant right now with “I can’t breathe” being the kind of rallying cry of George Floyd protests so the timing was impeccable [as this was recorded some time ago].
Yeah, it’s funny because the timing was weird, like…I don’t even really wanna promote anything at this time. But then I kinda looked at it like, what this band has been about. Why we were even created. And then looking at these songs. It’s like, this is very relevant. Hopefully we can bring some hope for some people which has always been my take on it. Music has always been such a healing ingredient.
Did I read correctly that [K.A. Music] is already sold out of its initial vinyl pressing?
Yeah, it sold out in the first day, first hours. Which was…I knew it would sell out but I was like, “Wow, this is selling really quick” because I could watch it in real time. Kind of like the Trading Places scene at the end with the stock market. I was like “Whoa!” I was texting with Steve, I was like, “Oh my gosh this is gonna sell out tonight.” It was cool.
How has running your label [Asian Man Records] changed since its inception?
We started in May 1996 so I guess the big difference is, I was 26 years old, I was still young and it was exciting. It’s still exciting but maybe not as exciting [laughs]. I’m very grateful to be doing what I’m doing but at the same time I’m thinking at this stage of my life do I still want to be doing mailorder everyday or is there more I should be doing with my time in terms of the bigger picture?
Are you saying you’re questioning if Mailorder Is Still Fun!!?
I am questioning it. I think it’s fun for some people. Today it was fun, it was good exercise to get in the garage and pack orders and find stuff [laughs]. I think anytime you do something for so long…I mean, beyond 1996 we were doing it as Skankin’ Pickle, we were doing our own label. So I feel like 31 years of doing mailorder, it’s tough. I mean, some days I come in rooting that when I turn on the computer and download the orders, I’m rooting for less orders, it’s crazy. I mean no one roots for less business but there are days I’m just like, “Please, please, please be small.” But at the same time it’s still a great thing and I know it’s a great thing. I just don’t know how long I can stay relevant with the youth. That’s the important thing. I don’t wanna be just a dinosaur label that puts out bands of yesteryear. I don’t wanna be just like the K-tel of punk or ska. I wanna work with bands from their inception who are young and excited who are doing things that are positive in their community. And I feel like we’ve got that. We’ve got a handful of young, up-and-coming teenagers and young adults who are really part of their DIY community and down to help other bands so that’s cool. I like that. I just don’t like the business aspect and don’t like the competition of music. Like, “Our label is more powerful than your label” or “Our band is better than your band, we can sell this much, we’ve got this many followers”…I don’t care. I mean I do care a little bit [laughs]. I try not to care.
I’m testing my memory here but I feel like about fifteen years ago I was looking at the FAQ on Fat Wreck Chords’ website and there was a question, “Where can I submit demos?” And it was like, Fat Mike pulling a fast one responding “You can send them to mike[at]asianmanrecords.com” or something. Were you aware of that?
Oh yeah. And that P.O. box doesn’t even exist anymore, they closed down that P.O. box but they--still on the Fat Wreck Chords website--it’s still that address so people are sending it there.
Have you gotten any good bands that way, has that accomplished anything?
No [sighs]. We probably got hundreds of demos but I’d just use them for packing. Like reusing their bubble-wrap, especially like a bubble mailer for CDs, those are great to reuse and recycle. There was some really bad stuff, like very commercially…anytime somebody would send a promo pack even before Fat Wreck Chords, anytime somebody would send a super elaborate-like promo it was like, “Nobody cares how fancy your promo is.” Just get the songs. Anyone who’s impressed by the album’s exterior is like…I can’t think of anyone who would go “Wow, this is great! Look how fancy this envelope is!” [laughs]
I like how you’ve extended the longevity of the Chinkees and the B. Lee Band. Is there any chance you’d ever do a Skankin’ Pickle reunion or further material?
I don’t [think so] just because [guitarist and vocalist] Lynette [Knackstedt] passed away and now it’s been so long. I just don’t think it makes sense since now I have these other outlets like Chinkees to play ska. I know we’ve been offered, some of the big festivals have offered us reunion stuff but I’ve just turned everything down.
You’re not gonna pull a Sublime and just be like, “Oh, we got a new singer.”
“Skankin’ Pickle with Mike”? Yeah, no. It’s not gonna happen.
What is in the future for Mike Park?
Just keep doin’ it. I wanna do more music. I wanna just keep writing. I’ve been writing for other bands for years, but I usually don’t say that I’ve written [for others]. [Laughs] So I wanna continue doing that and just have my music be out there. Just do all the different side projects and just have fun with it.
Any new projects in the works?
No new ones. Just between Ogikubo Station and Kitty Kat Fan Club, Bruce Lee Band, Chinkees, my own solo stuff, I think I’ve got a pretty heavy schedule of options.
How about shows? How are you approaching the possibility of shows given the coronavirus?
I have no interest in touring. The only thing I wanna do is, Kitty Kat Fan Club is the only band I enjoy playing with, like locally. So I’ll do that. That band was made just to do fun stuff locally and that’s what I wanna do. I’m sure I will do some stuff here and there but for the most part I really don’t wanna travel, don’t wanna tour unless like a really crazy opportunity comes up, I’ll just be creating from home.
Nice. We’ll stay tuned and look forward to hearing more.