Jeff Kim Schroeder Interview
(Unlike the majority of interviews which were conducted via e-mail, this interview was conducted in person, so below is a transcription of our more conversational approach to this interview).
1. What is your name and your profession(s)?
My name is Jeff Schroeder. Often, professionally, I go by Jeff Kim Schroeder because I feel it is a way to honor my mom and that part of my heritage after she passed. I'm primarily a guitar player in The Smashing Pumpkins, but I also do a lot of production work for other bands and I do songwriting work as well.
2. What is your ethnic background and what is your citizenship?
My mother was Korean and my father is American of German heritage. I am a US citizen. My grandparents' parents were immigrants from Europe around the late 18th century. My grandfather was born in 1908 in St. Louis.
3. Are either/both of your parents musicians or somehow involved in the music industry?
No, neither; in fact, no one in my family are musicians. They were very encouraging though. We came from a lower middle class background and I'm so thankful my father took on extra work on the weekends so that there would be a little extra money to pay for my music lessons and guitars and all of that. [I then mentioned how I, too, am grateful that my parents also sacrificed for me financially, so that I could have music lessons growing up.]
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 1974, so by the time I started going to school and being around other kids a lot in the '70s and '80s, there was maybe one other Asian person at my school--so there was not much of that culture around. My mom was very much a part of a diasporic, Korean-American community, so I was still around Korean people a lot, but those were two different worlds for me--the world at home and the world at school and in public.
At the time I was living in North Orange County which was basically a white world. When you're a young child, you don't know how to interpret that fact, you just want to be like everybody else. You think you're like everybody else until something happens when you're called a racial epitaph and you realize you're different, but you don't have the language or the terminology to properly interpret those things, so they're just feelings. Those experiences and feelings are things I carried with me for a long time and I didn't really have a framework or language to interpret it, as people didn't talk about those things much at that time, especially in working class families--there was no discussion about what it meant. You just kind of had to figure it out on your own.
When I first went to college, I wanted to study music, but then, through a long series of events, I ended up getting pushed towards studying literature. When I started studying literature and finding out there were African American writers, Latinx writers, and Asian American writers, that I realized there was a whole body of discussion where people talk about such things as identity and identity as it intersects with race and class and gender--it really transformed my world. I got really into studying that where I majored in Literature as an undergrad at CSU Long Beach and then got my PhD at UCLA in Comparative Literature where I was going to become a specialist in Asian American fiction, so these things meant a lot to me and they really changed me. My views about those kind of things now are much different now than when I was a young kid. If you're interested in identity, it's probably a thing you're always going to be thinking about throughout your life.
5. How connected do you feel to your heritage/culture(s)?
It's interesting because I think this is related to the last question as well. We're at a restaurant in Koreantown; I do feel very connected to it and it is very meaningful for me to live in this part of the city--I feel connected to the energy and the spirit and the people here. Koreatown in LA is very multi-ethnic, there are many different cultures that coalesce here. It's a special, gritty place; it might not always be the easiest place to live, but I love the energy here and the people are always trying to work things out.
When I was young, I didn't know anything; my experience of Korean identity was something forced upon me through racialization in a very negative sense. Then, I learned about it in an academic sense. Now, I'm just living as an artist in the world, and I don't have to think about identity in a rigid, scholarly sense either, and I have kind of figured out my own way of interpreting all of it.
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)?
My father was a big music fan and so was my brother. I was gaining consciousness as a kid in the early '80s and, thanks to them, hearing music all around the house, I then fell in love with music and guitar. I'd see bands on MTV and thought, 'I wanna play guitar' -- it was so exciting! So, I kept asking my parents to get me a guitar.
When I was 12 or 13, I took my first guitar lesson. I had this really great alternative guitar teacher with purple hair as my teacher--you did not see people that looked like that that often back then. He was a great guitar player; he would play all the 80s heavy metal stuff, but was also into 60s psychedelic bands. He was a really great mentor and he influenced my playing a lot. I'm so thankful he guided me in the right way and helped me traverse through these two different genre worlds. That was really the foundation of my musical training.
By the time I went to college, I thought I wanted to do music. I could already play pretty well, so then I went into Music Theory 101 and they're just explaining the staff and I found it so boring--I just wanted to rock! (laughs) So, I lost interest and didn't go to class and flunked out of school because I was playing already. By the time I graduated high school, I immediately started playing Hollywood--The Roxy, The Whisky, etc. So, when I decided to go back to college a few years later and take it very seriously, I didn't go for music, I went for literature. I did my undergrad at Cal State Long Beach and then I did my graduate work--my PhD-- at UCLA (also in literature).
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?
The first real band I was in, which was around '92, we almost got signed immediately. Alternative music had exploded and major labels were signing labels left and right... and we were pretty good! It felt quick, but I guess it was over a six month period where we started playing to when we got offered a record deal. A prominent label president even flew out from New York and said he wanted to sign us; we had a friend as a manager at the time--not a real manager--and whatever that manager said pissed off the label so much that a week later they told us they were no longer interested. I guess that was me saying I was interested in pursuing music full time.
So, I stayed in the band for a while, but we never ended up getting the same momentum up again. I joined another band after that and I burned out when I was 25 or 26 and decided I needed to figure out something more stable in my life. I then decided to go back to school and got really, really into that. When I was an undergrad, I still played in bands, but by the time I went to UCLA in 2001, I put the guitar in the closet. It was a lot of work to get a doctorate, so I really had to dedicate a lot of time to school. At some point during grad school, I did start playing again and playing shows.
About five years into graduate school, a friend of mine texted me one day saying, 'Hey, The Smashing Pumpkins are getting back together'. At the time James wasn't coming back, so [he said], 'They need a guitar player and I really think you should audition for them'. I didn't audition for other bands; I always had my own bands.
So, I figured, 'Alright, why not?', and I put together my own bio for it. (laughs) I was a big fan of the band and knew the influences they had, so I knew I had to write a bio that they would read and think, 'We have to talk to this guy'. I got a call the next day and went to have lunch with those guys--with Billy and Jimmy. It was an audition process that took months--it was like 'Hey, come let's play a little bit; let's get to know you' and try some people. They were in LA finishing in a record, so they took their time, as they didn't have to decide right away. They were really cool; they would even invite me to go hang out at the studio... so that's basically how I got the gig and how I got back into music--I basically had no plan to get back into music [until that happened].
I think they liked the fact that I wasn't a gigging musician [like most of the other people auditioning] and I just had my own bands and my own life that I was already living, so I certainly didn't need to join the band for a paycheck... and now, I've been in the band for 17 years!
My parents were very, very supportive of me and my music career always. When they were younger, they would come out to shows as much as they could--they were always super proud and supportive. My parents, for better or for worse, let me do what I wanted. I was a good kid always, so they trusted me and supported me in my career; I was fortunate that my group of musical friends were all pretty good people.
7. What are a few of your (music) projects of which you are the proudest? What were your roles on those projects? Beyond those projects, please feel free to name some of your other credits as well as any brands/companies you officially endorse.
Anything that I've done with Smashing Pumpkins has been such an honor and so great. I've been able to play on records with them since the Oceania album--I think it came out in 2012--and a couple singles before that; playing on those albums has been incredible.
A few years ago, 2018, we did an extended 8-song EP with Rick Rubin...being able to work with someone as legendary as Rick Rubin was really cool. Sitting there at the studio and looking around, thinking, 'Wow, there's Billy and Jimmy and James and Rick Rubin... How am I here?! This is so crazy'. I'm glad that at least I was smart enough to take it in and remember it well because this is not something that happens every day--that was cool, that was really cool.
A couple years ago, I released my own single for the first time, as a solo artist--that felt very powerful to do. I did a cover of an early '70s, Korean, psych pop--the song is called "Haenim"... and to do a song in Korean with a friend--the vocalist, reimagined, in this very noisy, shoe gaze vibe was very cool. The original is an acoustic, folk song.
Lastly, I just finished producing a record for a band in LA called Livingmore. Producing can be a challenging thing--it's one thing to do one song, but we did a whole record together and that is a lot of responsibility. I'm really proud of the way the record came out and those guys were really so great to work with.
To be able to take on that type of work too, and realize, 'Wow, I have really gained a lot of experience in the studio'--that was very gratifying.
For the last ten years, I've endorsed Yamaha Guitars; they've been such a dream to work with. They've supported me to no end and built me maybe seven or eight completely custom guitars... even their production guitars are great and they're always willing to modify them for me and entertain my ideas in terms of colors and aesthetics. Yamaha also owns Line 6 and I've been using the Helix forever. I've been working with Line 6 before they were purchased by Yamaha.
The amps I use are by Revv, a Canadian company--they make really incredible sounding amps that are really state of the art technology for tube amps; they are also super supportive of me.
I've also been working with Earthquaker pedals--they're wonderful people and obviously their pedals are super unique... no one else makes stuff like them.
Those companies have all been so great!
8. 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 or in general?
I think in the music industry, especially in rock, I still think there's not a lot of representation--there's not a lot of Asian Americans in bands. Still, in the larger scheme of things, not very many... almost zero on the management and label executives side of things. Even if people don't have bad intentions, I think sometimes they don't know how to deal with people of different cultures and ethnicities.
If I really am honest about the music industry in general, it's sadly an industry that's completely unregulated. On the artistic side of things, you have people in bands that are creating everything for the most part--they sit in their place and write songs, but artists often don't have money, so they need to find someone who can support them financially. In doing that, you give up rights, power, etc. On the artistic side of things, you get almost nothing. If you become super successful, you're rich, you can afford health insurance, and you have money for your family to live off of when you die, but for the 95%+ of people on the music side, it's day to day, gig to gig, month to month; there's no 401k plan, no health care or mental health care. On the business side of things--management, booking agencies, those people all have everything--they have an HR staff etc.
When we're on tour and someone treats us poorly or when a manager tries to intimidate someone unfairly for wages, we don't really have HR department to go to--in the business world this would be completely unacceptable [I interjected here and mentioned how this is all incredibly relevant to me and my recent experiences--"This is very 'current events' for me" (laughs)]. It's a completely, often exploitive work environment and then you'll have a very well-to-do, successful manager tell you that you're lucky to even be given that opportunity. In terms of that, I think the music industry has a very, very, very long way to go. Then you add differences in race, gender, class, etc. on top of it and it's a very problematic dynamic. There are definitely ways they can restructure things so that for for-hire musicians who support these big pop artists have at least something that they're paying into... so that if they're not on the road, if they have an injury, they have some type of basic health insurance. The day you stop working for an artist, they could care less how you're going to survive, you know? I think that's pretty disappointing of the music industry. It's only beneficial for the people at the very, very top.
The business side of things tends to often work in collaboration with bad behavior from certain artists--they enable negative situations to continue because they're dependent on that artist to make money, so it's a vicious cycle. These are systemic problems unfortunately.
I think symbolically being AAPI may have helped me; I don't think i've ever gotten any specific benefit from being Asian American. I've looked to other AAPI artists--whether it's musical artists or visual artists, filmmakers, writers...we're all doing a similar type of thing--as inspiration as ways to continue and channel their energy through music and be a part of a legacy.
9. 9a.) Who are some AAPI musicians/composers/producers who have previously inspired and currently inspire you (if any)? Why?
There are SO many. I'll start with the most important early rock guitarist from Korea, Shin Joong-Hyun--he wrote the song "Haenim" that I covered. I'm really thankful for my bandmate James Iha; he was one of the very first people in alternative rock to have prominence... seeing an Asian American on Rolling Stone and on MTV it was very powerful.
A multi-disciplinary artist Theresa Cha from the Bay Area also is someone who inspires me; she did early video art, installation art, performance art, and she also wrote a dictee--that was hugely influential to me.
9b.) What are your hopes for the AAPI music community and your hopes for AAPIs in general?
I am encouraged that there's so much music by [AAPIs] coming out now in all genres and forms. There are many AAPI artists that are now front people instead of only sidemen--across all genres--and that's very encouraging and hopefully will inspire future generations.
It takes a lot of courage to be a professional musician as an AAPI--in our community it's still not usually encouraged as a profession--I think you need to realize how powerful your experience is to be a role model for someone else.
10. Name one or two non-music-related things/subjects about which you are also passionate.
I don't have any hobbies, so anything I get into, I get into obsessively... but I do love eating! I love going to new restaurants all around town--all different types of foods, I'm very adventurous. I'm also a big coffee person and am ten layers deep into coffee culture--I'm always buying really nice beans and grinding them at home and doing pour-overs. As I approach my middle age, I'm turning my focus more back to writing ...writing about music and meditation and spirituality more. I'm a big reader and have been trying to dedicate a portion of my morning to reading, too.
11. Any final thoughts? Alternatively, do you have any questions for me and/or the greater AAPI music community?
You know what? I just want to thank you for doing this project; it takes a lot of work and dedication and persistence. The fact that you've done over 70 [interviews] now is incredible. You've created an archive that people will be able to look into for a long time--how long the internet will last, we don't know... maybe it will blow up one day. (laughs) I just want to thank you for doing that, that is an incredible task. It's inspiring to me--it says that if you see a lack of something, you have to do it yourself. Sometimes I read books and think, 'There needs to be a book on music regarding this' and realize, 'Don't complain, just do it'.
Thank you, Jeff! This has to be one of my favorite interviews I've ever done. My husband and I both really enjoyed getting to interview you in person and picking your brain. Looking forward to following any of your music and written releases!
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Images courtesy of Jeff Kim Schroeder. Photo credits: Travis Shinn & Vice Cooler.