In 2006, Simon Tam started a band.
Growing up in Southern California, he was a fan of the 1980s genre-defining indie punk-rock band The Ramones. Tam cut his musical teeth in the early 2000s playing with The Stivs and other acts. When he moved on, he set out to form a band that worked within punk traditions, following in the footsteps of The Misfits and other bands in that genre. Later he became the founder and bassist of the first all Asian-American dance-rock-band in the world: The Slants.
Since then, Tam and his Portland-based band have established themselves not only musically, but also as a group that explores issues of cultural representation in relation to Asian-American culture and the broader landscape of racial bias in music and society. The band often plays concerts at conventions, organizations and universities with programs associated with social justice. In addition to the work that the band does together, Tam himself maintains a fairly busy lecture schedule, most recently speaking at Stanford Law School.
Just last year, in an ironic twist, Tam and the group moved forward in a landmark trademark case involving the very name of their band. In an attempt to trademark the moniker “The Slants,” the United States Patent and Trademark Office denied them the trademark on the grounds that “The Slants” was considered by some to be a racial slur.
“That case is still going on; we’re still in the middle of that,” Tam reported.
On Saturday, Tam joins State of Wonder host April Baer as this month’s guest curator. The two will discuss, among other things, Tam’s upcoming book, Music Industry Hacks, which shares non-conventional ideas for marketing your band. I caught up with Tam to get the inside scoop.
Q&A with Simon Tam:
Ifanyi Bell: So last time we talked, you were in the middle of a trademark case. What have you been up to since then?
Simon Tam: Well, we’ve been working in the case, basically working on the brief that will go to the federal district court of appeals. That’s involved a lot of legal research work and we filed [that] brief; now it’s going to be sitting in the court for a while. Aside from that, I finished grad school. I was actually in grad school full time at [the time of the court case] so I finished with an MBA, finished writing a new book and started a new job!
IB: This new gig is director of marketing for the Oregon Environmental Council, which is located in Chinatown. Was that on purpose?
IB & ST: [LAUGHTER]
ST: No, no — that was just an interesting coincidence. Knowing that the office where I work was in Chinatown was an interesting bonus.
IB: Do your coworkers know that you’re also a rock star?
ST: Yes! It’s funny, whenever I’ve applied for jobs I always tell them about the band and every time people respond positively.
IB: Who are some of your favorite musicians, people that have influenced you?
ST: My favorite band of all time has got to be the Ramones. I really like the Ramones and a lot of Ramones-inspired artists. Growing up, I really liked Guns N’ Roses, probably because I really liked Duff McKagan’s bass-playing style and in many ways tried to emulate that over the years. And over the years, I’ve been really digging a lot of the stuff that Elvis Costello does. I think he’s probably my favorite songwriter because he does such complex, elaborate work that’s still approachable. There’s just a lot of great nuances to the stuff he does.
IB: You’re about to publish your second book, Music Business Hacks, which provides a non-linear, cookbook-style presentation of out-of-the-box ideas to successfully develop bands and musical acts. What is an example of the kinds of ideas that you present?
ST: Well, for example, one idea was to print up coasters with your band logo on it and give them to local bars. Then I thought, ‘Well, why don’t you do more?’ Develop a relationship with your local bar and get a drink named after you, design a recipe, and it could be a win-win. You could put on all your business cards and fliers that you can get this signature drink. The bar gets customers, but at the same time, the bar promotes your music. To me that sounds a million times more effective than doing the standard band poster.
IB: Do you think that in the music industry today, these types of tactics are a necessity?
ST: I think it’s a great way to stand out, especially for an artist who wants to be independent. Or even if they want to get signed to a major label, they have to find a way to get attention and stand out from the crowd. It’s rewarding and it’s fun to do; it’s fun to think outside of the box and do something that other people aren’t doing right now. And it’s a great thing to do to generate press, because people love those kinds of stories. Maybe that’s why I called this book Music Business Hacks, because it’s full of stuff that says, you know, you don’t have to be like everybody else or sometimes there’s an easier way to go about things. The most important thing, of course, is just to be proactive, to take initiative.
IB: What is the most memorable performance of your music career?
ST: One that really stands out, and I think this would be something I will never forget, was playing the Oregon State Penitentiary. You hear about Johnny Cash playing Folsom Prison and that sort of thing, but prison is a very distant place that people don’t really think about. We don’t think about prisoners — we call them prisoners, we don’t even think of them as fellow citizens of the country. Everything we seem to know about prison seems to be from this very outside view. It’s either through movies or books or TV shows and you develop these stereotypes of what you think it’s going to be like in there.
One of the [inmates] who helped out with the show, he got drunk on his 21st birthday, his friends got him drunk, and he drove and he killed somebody and so he’s stuck in prison for almost his entire life. From being 21 on, that’s all he knew was prison. And he saw our band, and we use a laptop when we play, and he was like, ‘What is that? I’ve never seen that before.’ And we explained that it was a computer and that we used it to play some of our music. He had never seen a laptop or physically touched one. And we were letting him play around with it and we were just blown away. I just thought, wow, it’s a totally different experience.
IB: What are you excited to talk about on State of Wonder this weekend?
ST: I was just really excited to even be asked to participate. And then to find out that, hey, you get to kinda talk about whatever you’re interested in, that was really neat. There’s somebody who thinks something that I have to say is interesting. So that’s pretty cool. I’m really excited to talk about a lot of the themes of what we’ve talked about because it all relates back to my work and the things that I’m passionate about.
IB: What are some of those themes?
ST: Creativity, identity, racial justice work. It’s really cool to think that these seemingly disparate parts of my career can all be tied together in a single radio program. From the books I write, and the music blogs and that sort of thing, that usually doesn’t tie into my band’s work. Every once in awhile I’ll throw in examples from my personal experience, but that’s a very different life than me going around and doing speaking engagements. But to have it all together tied into one place, it’s kind of a neat thing. And the common thread with all of them is, these are the different paths a musician can take.