1. What is your name and your profession(s)? Brendan Liu. Trumpet, composer, producer, arranger, DJ.
2. What is your ethnic background and what is your citizenship (US native or naturalized etc.)? I am Chinese-American, technically Chinese-Taiwanese American and a US native.
3. Are either/both of your parents musicians or somehow involved in the music industry? Neither of my parents is a musician. My mom learned piano as a kid but only had a few years training and has since stopped playing.
4. Please tell us a little bit about your experience, either growing up as an AAPI in America, or as a person of Asian descent who immigrated to America, whichever applies. I was born in Austin, TX at a time when there weren't a ton of Asians (at least compared to now), but I grew up between Austin (born, 7-13), Los Angeles (age 1-5), and the Bay Area (6-7, 13-now).
When I lived in the bay from the ages of 6-7, I can remember my mom packing me these bento style lunches and me being embarrassed to bring it to school and eat with chopsticks and all that. Even in the Bay, where there's a lot of Asians, I'd get teased for it. I think at that time there was an emphasis to be "American" and anything that was the "other" was ostracized and ridiculed. It's not like now where it's cool to be openly proud of where ethnic ancestry and culture.
In Texas, I can remember the things you expect as far as being teased or attacked for my ethnicity. Like when you get in an argument as a kid (or even as an adult), the other person goes after the thing that's different about you. I got called a chink and a gook, had people do the slanty-eye thing , got asked if I "speak China", say ching-chong to me (still happens from adults as an adult, especially on tour!). When I finally moved to the Bay, I remember being shocked at the amount of Asians that were in my classes. If you called me a chink, it wouldn't just be me you were attacking anymore. In fact, I don't know if I heard that said at all from classmates. I did get teased for being from Texas; kids assumed I was from a farm and would literally ask why I didn't wear hats and boots, or have an accent. But honestly, it was better than the stuff I was getting punked for in Texas.
5. How connected do you feel to your heritage/culture(s)? This one is tough. I feel ashamed to be a super ABC (American-born Chinese, the term implies that you don't speak any Chinese). I don't speak any of my "home" languages (Mandarin/Taiwanese), but I do feel connected to my culture. I was largely raised by my grandma, grew up eating her cooking, grew up celebrating Chinese festivities. It's also a little more confusing because while both my parents were born in Taiwan, my dad says he is Chinese. Additionally, he came to the States when he was pretty young and is both very Chinese and very American. My mom spent most of her early life in Bangkok, Thailand and so while she associates strongly with Chinese culture, she also associates with Thai culture.
As I've gotten older, I've wanted to connect more with my heritage and understand the why behind things. As a kid it was just like okay we celebrate this and that non-American holiday but now it's more like what's the history behind these things. Why do we eat this or that thing, what's the significance? I've noticed when I'm on tour, I'll start to crave Asian foods. I always seem to end up at the boba joint in whatever city I'm in and start to feel weird if I haven't had rice in a few days. When I'm on the road, there's a comfort in finding Asian food, even if it's not that of my own culture/heritage.
I also feel very proud when I see accomplishments by Asians in general. In this country, we get grouped into one category. It doesn't matter if you're Korean, Japanese, Filipino, Thai, Chinese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Polynesian etc. here you're Asian/Pacific Islander. In a way, it's a weird and sinister form of forced cultural assimilation, but it also creates kinship amongst us. When I see another Asian on tour (we're very rarely NOT the minority wherever I go, Japan excluded), it's like "Oh wsup! I probably already fuck with you and kinda understand where you might be coming from"!
6. 6a.) How did you get into music? Did you major in music in college? Where did you attend college/university (and grad school(s), if applicable) and in what subjects did you get your degree(s)? As it pertains to trumpet, an aunt on my mother's side is a huge jazz enthusiast. It's because of her that I learned who Louis Armstrong was and it's because of him that I fell in love with and wanted to play trumpet. I have an older cousin who is more like my brother and was my hero as a kid. I wanted to be like him and do everything he did. He's why I love basketball and hip-hop. He's also probably why I started trumpet. He played in school band for one year but quit after one year. When it was my turn to join school band, I think both because of him and because of my affinity for the instrument/Louis Armstrong, I knew I was going to play trumpet. I also inherited all his hand-me-downs and his old trumpet was one of those things. I went to UC Berkeley and got a BA in Music.
6b.) When and how did you decide you were going to pursue music professionally? What were your parents’ reactions to you deciding to pursue music? Do they support your music career now? I knew I wanted to study music in college when I was a junior in high school. I took private lessons with a really great instructor, and it was my time with him and his encouragement that made me believe I had what it took. He put me on my first gigs while I was still in high school, helped me get my first pro-level instrument, helped me prep for auditions and competitions, and in general gave great life advice and fostered my love for this music. My senior year band director also gave me a lot of encouragement. He took our jazz band to shows at Yoshi's and at one of those shows told me I'd be playing on that stage one day (he was right). He took me to my first pro jam session. And when it was time to decide where to go to college, I had received a few music scholarships from various colleges but had also gotten into UC Berkeley (without any scholarship) and was feeling pressure to go to Berkeley to please my family even though I knew I wanted to pursue music more than anything else. He told me, no matter where I go I'd be able to make music and play, that there are good players everywhere, and that I should go to the best option available. Basically he was saying if I went to Cal, I'd still be able to do what I wanted and that it was a very good school. It was one of the best decisions I've ever made, and while those schools I turned down had more traditional, conservatory environments, the less traditional route was huge in shaping how I think about and hear and experience music to this day. Myra Melford is the truth! My parents didn't support it, still don't to an extent. They don't necessarily support my career but they support me if that makes sense. And it's understandable, it's not the most stable job by any means. But when my mom comes to a gig, by the time I'm able to get to her and say hi, everyone in the audience around her knows who I am and will tell me, "hey I met your mom, she really loves you" or something like that. But they know I love it. And at the end of the day they want me to be happy.
7. What are a few of your (music) projects of which you are the proudest? What were your roles on those projects? Working on several iterations of "After the War Blues" with Philip Kan Gotanda, one of the preeminent and most critically-acclaimed AAPI playwrights and filmmakers in the US. His work has furthered the recognition and understanding of the Asian-American experience on a national and international level.
My bands Con Brio and Mad Noise. While I often work as a sideman/hired gun, these two groups have been my longest standing musical relationships. With both I've been able to travel the world while performing almost exclusively original music.
Golden Bell Music, a DJ/instrumentalist collective geared towards playing private events. They've done amazing work to emphasize paying fair-compensation for their employees. As primarily a gig worker, the lack of change to the industry standard wage per gig hasn't changed in decades, so I'm proud to be a part of this group that insists that the pay justifies the amount of prep and work being done.
RADIX Troupe, a collective of Bay Area theater and film making creatives whose emphasis focuses on experimental projects. Some of the most creative people I know and have had the pleasure of working with.
Beyond those projects, please feel free to name some of your other credits as well as any brands/companies you officially endorse.
Recording credits: Con Brio (trumpet/songwriting), Mad Noise (trumpet/songwriting), Mykal Rose (Black Uhuru), Anthony Green (Saosin, Circa Survive).
Live: Jack Johnson, the Revivalists, No Vacation, Galactic, Blues Traveler, Groundation, Lyrics Born, New Breed Brass Band, with members of Fela's Afrika 70/80.
8. Describe to me your dream project. I think a benefit of being a horn player is that you have to be able to fit into the cracks to get gigs. What I mean by that is you have to be able to know and play a lot of styles. In having to do just that I've been able to learn and play with a lot of bands/musicians whose styles differ drastically from one another. I feel like I've gotten little taste of everything. As a kid in band, I always wanted to be a sideman for some big name traveling the world and playing music. As a college student, I thought I'd spend the rest of my career playing free jazz and experimental music shows. I would say right now I am involved in my dream projects. In my touring band I get to see the world, make music with some of my best friends, and my role is that of equal partner rather than just a sideman. It allows me for time to work on my own projects and with other bands/musicians when I'm not touring. I feel like I'm being constant stimulated and challenged creatively and most days it honestly doesn't feel like 'work'.
9. What are some obstacles you have encountered (if any) being an AAPI in the music world? What are some obstacles you have encountered (if any) as an AAPI in general (non-music)? Conversely, has being an AAPI ever helped you in the music industry? In the music world, I haven't faced that many obstacles on account of my ethnicity. In this very male-dominated field, the biggest obstacles come on basis of your ability and work ethic. In the music world (as a man) if you can play, if you have the chops, you get the calls. If you can show up on time, you get the gig. If you're not an asshole to be around, you keep the gig. It's pretty straightforward. I don't think I've ever lost a gig or opportunity because I'm Chinese.
Obstacles I've faced in the music world are pretty similar to those I've encountered outside of work. It's having someone at a festival or on the street say something racist and ignorant to me without any provocation, or pull the corners of their eyes when they look at me, or try to tell me that Taiwan is not different from China. It's having someone walk up to me and start a conversation with "konichiwa" or "ni-hao" or "Let me guess..." and then proceeding to list whatever Asian ethnicity they think I am (it's never correct, even if it is wtf). It's being the only non-white person on an international flight and upon entering the airport baggage claim being the only person approached by military personnel and being asked to show my documents. It's hearing "you're good" or "you dance well for an Asian" or something along those lines. It's being called "exotic" by a fan or being fetishized in some way. It's funny that I feel like I've heard it all, all the ignorant stuff, but I'm still somewhat surprised every time it happens.
10. 10a.) Who are some AAPI musicians/composers/producers who have previously inspired and currently inspire you (if any)? Why? Toro y Moi, Mr. Carmack, Mndsgn, Takuya Kuroda, Qrion, Hiromi, TOKiMONSTA, Anderson .Paak, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Yoko Kanno, Yuna, Terumasa Hino, Danny Brown, Shintaro Sakamoto, Peter Cat Recording Co., Nitin Sawhney, Jay Som, Japanese Breakfast, KNOWER, Little Dragon, Jen Shyu, Eric Lau, H.E.R., KOHH, Palmy, Mitski, Linda Oh, Phum Viphurit, HYUKOH, Sunset Rollercoaster, Hoody, Nick Nery, Nikobeats, crwn, B.P. Valenzuela, Thythy, NIve, Steve Lacy, Monsune, Nujabes, MICHELLE, Khushi...I probably listed too many. I definitely left out a lot. As for the why, pick a name, play an album.
10b.) What are your hopes for the AAPI music community and your hopes for AAPIs in general? I want us to be better about celebrating and supporting each other. I want to see things like a music festival specifically made by and for AAPI artists. I want to see another one that features only AAPI women. I went them to be built and curated by AAPI people. With AAPI vendors. Things like that. Hitting up clubs to have nights that feature us, even if the bills feature totally different bands/genres. It's great to be seeing more AAPI people in mainstream media, I hope that it'll get to a point where it doesn't have to be on the Disney/Netflix level to make a big impact. I also want us to be more inclusive and empathetic of other BIPOC communities.
11. If you could give advice now to your younger teenage self, what would you tell her/him/they? Use your time better. I had so much free time as a kid that I spent doing kid shit. I wish I had spent more of that time practicing, I wish I'd fallen in love with practicing sooner. And learn piano. And don't get braces.
12. Do you have any upcoming projects for which you are excited and about which you are allowed to share? Is there anything non-music-related on the horizon about which you would like to share? Two of my main projects, Con Brio and Mad Noise, are both working on new albums that hopefully will be out before year's end.
13. Name one or two non-music-related things/subjects about which you are also passionate. Food and travel and connecting with people! Touring has afforded me an abundance of all three.
YouTube: Con Brio
Jammcard: Brendan Liu
Spotify: Con Brio
Photos provided by Brendan Liu