Few people have made as big an impact on the DIY music community as Mike Park. Playing in bands like Skankin’ Pickle and The Chinkees, his music has been both widely enjoyed and hugely influential for ska from the ’90s to today. But in addition to his own music, Park has also had a big influence on the scene by helping other bands get their start. He founded Dill Records and eventually Asian Man Records in the ’90s. Over the past 24 years, Asian Man has been a home and sometimes a launching pad for many seminal punk and ska bands, from The Alkaline Trio, to Less Than Jake, to Bomb! the Music Industry, to AJJ and countless others. In 2011, he even founded an offshoot of the label called Fun Fun Records to release children’s music, like the Minnesota dance-pop duo Koo Koo Kangaroo. Through the community he established at Asian Man, Park continues to touch the lives of adults and children around the world. Even after decades of involvement in the DIY scene, he hasn’t lost that love and care for the community.
Can you tell me about how you first got into music, and more specifically, how you fell in love with ska?
Music in general, just from whatever my parents had played. When I was a little kid I remember having the Simon and Garfunkel Bridge Over Troubled Water LP. I used to listen to that a lot. That sense of harmony between the two singers was just so pleasing to the ear. But in terms of underground music, I think in the early ’80s, I had a friend whose father was really into alternative music. He took him to the Us festival in ’82, I believe, and then he brought back this brochure with all the bands that played. I remember he had like, The English Beat, Wall of Voodoo, Oingo Boingo. So I got introduced to those bands and that set me on the path of alternative music.
Once I got into high school, I started getting into punk. Like early Black Flag, early D.R.I., 7 Seconds was a big one. And then ska, I didn’t really know what it was, I knew the bands like Madness, The English Beat, The Specials, because they had hits on the radio or on MTV. But I thought it was just new wave alternative music from the U.K. Then I saw a movie called Dance Craze at the local art house theater in San Jose, and it was the first time I ever saw people dance in a movie, a lot of rude boy, skinheads, mods. The next day I went to the record store, to this place called Streetlight Records, and I bought – one of the bands in the movie was Bad Manners – I found a cassette tape, the album was called Klass. And that kind of started it. I remember listening to that tape nonstop. But at the time a lot of that two tone [stuff], the bands were at the end of their first initial run as bands. It was kind of dying out. But we were lucky we had a couple bands from Southern California, which were Fishbone and the Untouchables, and they were new and starting out and touring a lot, so I got to go to the shows. And Fishbone was a really exciting band. I was all in at that point, in the ’80s.
Why do you think people make fun of ska so much?
A lot of people who think that way, they don’t know anything about ska. Their thought of ska is this third wave boom of Reel Big Fish, The Aquabats, and I love those bands, but they’re kind of equated as this goofy carnival music. If you tell them that Bob Marley started as a ska artist, Toots and the Maytals, Desmond Dekker, Jackie Mittoo, Clancy Eccles, they wouldn’t know any of these people! If you played them these early rock steady songs from Jamaica, they wouldn’t know that [stuff]. They would just think its reggae. It’s just a limited IQ in terms of music knowledge. That’s how I view it.
Ska was started as a counterculture, and was/is often sociopolitical in lyrical content. What role do you think ska plays in sociopolitical movements? Is that something you think about as you interact with the genre? Both in terms of writing and creating music and in terms of signing ska bands for your label.
Well, in terms of signing ska bands, we haven’t really signed many in the last 15 years. But for Asian Man, the criteria for signing bands is just, A). I have to like the music, B). nice people, C). active — the band is active in some capacity in their DIY community. So it’s not just a band that’s like, ‘hey we wanna get signed!’ They’re actually doing cool stuff in whatever city they’re from.
For me, growing up, when you had The Specials, which I view as the perfect ska band—The Specials had it all, they had the music, the fashion, and they had the political slant to their tunes. So did English Beat, they had political anthems too. For two tone, just as a movement, the whole idea of the name ’two tone’ is about black and white coexisting. So it is very political. And if you go back to the roots of Jamaican ska, it’s all—I mean it’s not all political—but it’s all working class music from the Jamaican skinheads. When I saw Fishbone when I was in high school in the ’80s, it was just interesting to see a band of people of color. I’m trying to equate my generation of a young teenager’s mind, every band from that generation that played alternative music, it was just white people. So for me, as an Asian American, I never saw any Asian Americans in any kind of successful alternative music, it was just, like, classical music. Even though Fishbone were African American, it was still something that resonated with me just ’cause it wasn’t whitewashed music. And then that simple phrase on their t-shirts of ‘Fuck Racism,’ and the Fishbone logo. Doesn’t even say Fishbone, just the logo and ‘Fuck Racism.’ That was a heavy thing for me.
That really instilled a lot of ideas for impressionable young kids to listen to these lyrics, more than just a pop song where you just kinda sing a long and it’s a happy, happy song. So I kind of analyzed those lyrics, and that goes along with the Dead Kennedys, with “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.” Listening to these lyrics, and going ‘oh this is cool.’ 7 Seconds, same thing with “Color Blind.” It was like, ‘whoa, a lot of anti-racist things going on in this music.’ So for me, when I started writing, even though Skankin’ Pickle had a lot of silly songs because we were a democratic band with a lot of songwriters, a lot of my songs were very political. Going back to our first album with Racist World, David Duke was running for president. And then I parlayed that into The Chinkees which was an overtly political ska band, made up of Asian Americans, where we can kind of talk about our struggles growing up in the United States. And so that was my first foray into being overtly political.
Why did you decide you wanted to get involved in music from the label side of things as opposed to just being in a band?
I’m trying to think back to when Skankin’ Pickle first started. We were teenagers, so, I was no different, we were just kind of like, ‘oh, we’re in a band, it would be cool to be famous.’ I didn’t really know about that DIY philosophy. As I got more into the politics of punk as a sub-genre, not just as a fashion or a sound, I started looking at other labels, in particular Dischord, and I would notice the owner of Dischord is Ian McKaye who plays in Minor Threat, plays in Fugazi, he’s do it himself. And then with SST, with Greg Ginn in Black Flag, he’s in the band, he didn’t let anyone else dictate his future. He’s putting out his own music. And then with Brett [Gurewitz] in Epitaph, he’s putting out his own music. Slim Moon with Kill Rockstars, then even Fat Mike later, with Fat Wreck. It was just a continuing theme I saw of, why let someone else dictate the future, just do it. We actually started a label called Dill Records first, which was a collective amongst the members of Skankin’ Pickle, but then I started Asian Man after that.
Do you get more personal fulfillment from helping other bands succeed, or from writing your own music?
It is apples and oranges. I especially like working with new bands from the very start. A lot of labels can just…let’s say I put out a band and they start doing well and then label A, B, or C, picks up the band when I’ve already laid the groundwork, it’s an easier job. But when you have that band from the very beginning and you’re able to watch them, it’s pretty cool. Watching Alkaline Trio from the very beginning grow and grow, it was cool. I still get that enjoyment with all the new bands I put out. Not all of them do well [laughs], but I still like doing it.
When you look back on the Asian Man Records history, what are you most proud of?
I think the thing I’m most proud of is that, right now we’re on year 24, so next month we’re on year 25, and it still feels really fresh to me! It still doesn’t feel like a job, per se, it’s just kind of like, I get to do this fun hobby that lots of kids love to do. A lot of kids have their own labels and they just do it for fun as a passion. And in most cases they lose money. But they still do it ’cause it’s fun. And I still feel that. It’s exciting, and I think that’s what I’m most proud of. It’s never become a labor intensive job, it’s been a labor of love rather than something that’s become a disgust in my life or having to do this because it pays the bills or whatever.
What is the role of small DIY record labels nowadays, when bands are able to self-release albums?
It’s hard to say, because Asian Man is so ghetto, we don’t really do anything. I’m really straight up with the bands, it’s just me and one other guy, and right now the other guy can’t even work ’cause he’s dealing with some health issues. I just tell the bands, listen, we don’t have publicists, we don’t have radio, we don’t have retail, it’s just me posting stuff on social media and hoping that the people who follow Asian Man continue to buy the new stuff I put out. More than anything, they become part of a community, so they can reach out to other bands on Asian Man and hope that they’ll help them when they go on tour to their city, and then they’ll pay that back when that band goes on tour. So it’s kind of an opportunity for bands to need each other, even though they don’t need each other, but they have that common thread of working with me. But really, I do nothing [laughs]. I do feel bad about it, but I know my limitations and what I want to do. The music industry is such a cutthroat business and I just never wanted to play that game, so I felt like this is the most honest way I can put out records and continue to work with bands.
So it feels more like a community than a business?
It does. And that’s really important to me, that it is community, and that we are friends. I never want it to be business. I hope that a band that sells one copy versus a band that sells a million copies, I would treat them the same. Probably not [laughs]. But at least in my mind that’s my hope, that everyone gets equal treatment.
Why did you decide to start an offshoot of your label to produce children’s music, and what role do you see music playing in the lives of children?
Music in the lives of children is incredibly important. It’s scientifically proven how music can develop a person’s brain activity as a toddler or even in the womb. The reason Fun Fun [Records] came upon the world is because I had kids, and I found myself singing, making up, improvising songs to them when they were just babies. And I would notice, some melodies would make them laugh, or smile. I was like, ‘oh, interesting.’ I found myself saying ‘okay, let’s go with this melody and see if I can write some tunes.’ So I put out a children’s music album, and that was just on Asian Man, but I thought, I should start a kids label! But then as my kids got older I lost interest [laughs]. But I thought it was such a genius idea at the time. I was like, no one is doing this! Everybody who’s in the punk scene—you get older, you have kids. And so why not do this! I thought it was such a good idea but man, after my kids grew older I just kind of lost interest. There’s nobody I can test this music on anymore! [laughs].
Why did you decide to get the Chinkees back together for the first time in over a decade?
Steve Choi, who’s the keyboardist, he’s also in a band called RX Bandits, he just reached out and said ‘hey I’ve been writing some ska punk stuff. We should collaborate.’ And we weren’t even sure it was gonna be the Chinkees, we were like ‘let’s just see what happens.’ So we recorded and then, we’re kinda thinking, ‘should this be a new band?’ and I said ‘well I don’t really wanna tour’ [laughs]. I think with a new band it’s a lot harder. And it sounds like the Chinkees, it has a very distinct sound. Let’s just put it under the Chinkees name. At least that way we can get it heard. I think more than anything, we just want the songs to be heard. It’s not like we’re going to retire off this monetarily, it’s small potatoes in the big scheme of things. But it’s just what we do, we like making music and we’d like as many people to hear it as humanly possible.
What can people expect from the new EP?
Unapologetic ska punk that’s poppy, aggressive, has some chill vibes here and there too. It’s only four songs, but I think it’s a cool little sample of what the Chinkees sound had developed years ago and hopefully something we can keep coming back to and putting out new songs here and there throughout the future.
Three ska bands from the present—and one from the past—that Mike is excited about right now:
Catbite (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), The Abrupters (Buffalo, New York), Skatune Network (Gainesville, Florida), MU330 (St. Louis, Missouri)