Steve Choi Interview
(Unlike the majority of interviews which were conducted via e-mail, this interview was conducted partially via phone call (questions #3-7), so below is a transcription of our more conversational approach to this interview). Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
1. What is your name and your profession(s)?
My name is Steve Choi (최제문) and I am a musician, composer and producer.
2. What is your ethnic background and what is your citizenship?
I am Korean and I am a US citizen making me a Korean-American.
3. Are either/both of your parents musicians or somehow involved in the music industry?
That's a big, fat nope; I wish I could say they were. They definitely appreciated music and they had their things, but definitely nothing out of the ordinary--they were into certain Beatles' songs, they liked Neil Diamond, and they liked a bunch of classical music... just like you would expect Korean, immigrant parents to [enjoy].
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.
Although it comes with many struggles, I realize I still had it pretty good, even with all the issues I faced--they were a better set of problems to have than being locked out of having access to certain things, like a lot of other minority groups in this country.
That said, I grew up in a relatively upper middle class, affluent, Northern California town, outside of San Francisco, and I was definitely one of only Asian kids around--I was one of four Asian kids, one of two Korean kids in my school experience, all the way up through high school. There were other Southeast Asian populations, but everybody stuck to their own crew, so naturally my interests aligned with what a lot of my Asian and other minority friends would call "white" things, like skateboarding, punk rock, indie rock--you know, these kind of subcultures. They really spoke to me and it was what I was exposed to.
I always kept this sort of dichotomy though; I spent a lot of time in Korean school learning the language--my parents were always very motivated to make sure that I was not too Americanized and lose my sense of self... so they always knew that even if I resented it as a child, it would benefit me later on. So, they made sure I was proficient in speaking and learned to read and write as well as spend time in Korea, that sort of thing. Even when I was getting into skateboarding and punk rock, and moving my musical interests outside of the typical Asian, classical, structured settings, even though I was getting shit from my Asian friends--who in their own way were doing very stereotypical things, but they weren't aligned with being a "sellout" to your culture, I guess... their things were riding in rice rockets and having shaved heads with long strands of bleached hair in front--I didn't understand how that was any "more Asian" or "less Asian" than what I was doing. I always felt like "I see what you're saying, I'm playing guitar and I'm playing in a band with a bunch of white dudes, but I always knew I still had my sense of being Korean, because growing up around them, even when I was respected for my musical abilities.... and EVERY Asian person in American knows this: your context never lets you forget the fact that you're Asian. For most of us, there's not really a time where we really [feel and think], "Oh yeah, we're fitting in completely". We always know; we always know we're Asian. Even if we're not reminded by these comments that people make innocently and passively and/or with more sinister intent, we're still always reminded of that. That's why, even when I was younger, and now, I see certain Asian people in white settings, whether they were adopted, or they just grew up in [a particular] state, and most of their friends are white, and I see their habits and their culture being aligned with that--I totally get integrating with your environment, but I see a lot of them with that cognitive dissonance, [thinking], "I'm down with everything. I do all the same things [as them]. We're tight, we're close, we're friends. They see me as one of them! I have to believe it" but they don't fully believe it, and there's that cognitive dissonance there. I definitely struggled with that during my teenage years when I really started to find the things that shaped the rest of my life which informed the path I would take as an adult.
I ended up basically meeting some nationally-touring, local musicians from the Bay Area because there was a venue in Petaluma, California--which is [close to] where I grew up--that I grew up going to and playing, called the Phoenix Theater. From there, I just started touring with different bands, and that was about the time I started being in Santa Rosa a lot less and traveling around the world a lot more.
5. How connected do you feel to your heritage/culture(s)?
I I feel more connected than ever. As I get older, I see myself becoming my parents in all the ways that we dread and never wanted to be, but then I also see where my personality traits end and my cultural programming kicks in. I see where "This is a Steve preference idiosyncratic personality thing", and I see now where "Oh, this is Korean...this is me being Korean". Likewise, I'm able to say, "This is me being like my dad", or, "This is me being like this because my mom was like this". Not only that by default, but consciously and proactively, I'm more proud of being Korean and Korean American than ever. Especially being Korean in the 80s and 90s, it was such a fringe and lesser-known Asian culture in America; if you had ever told me then that Korean culture would be the most popular in the world today--their music, their food, their media, their terribly shallow and superficial obsession with vanity... that all of those would become the largest world exports--I would have told you that you were crazy! I would have told you, "No, people are going to constantly think we're a 'weird military dictatorship', 'dog-eating', 'who-the-fuck-is-that-you're-either-Chinese-or-Japanese'".
The type of person I am, I'm very indignant in the face of oppression...or what I feel like is oppression... so, before then, I was overcompensating--I'd always show people close to me Korean food and things, and then if anyone would make jokes about people me being Asian, I would make jokes about them being white--it was my way of taking the power back. All that led me being more and more proud of my Korean culture.
I grew up as a particularly proud person. I was too fragile as a child to handle all of the passive racism that I did. As Asians, we experience a lot of passive racism, unlike other minorities who generally experience more active racism. There's a big difference and it's important to categorize the two... one is not necessarily worse than the other, but they're different. It helps us, as Asian Americans, to understand the difference. The bigoted, white consciousness of America use passive racism to Asians as a tool and a puppet as a performative sidepiece for the other cultures that they're actively racist against to make a case that they're not racist.
Some people would spin my musical abilities and [attribute them] to my [Asian-ness], saying I was such "a ninja" and I was musically "calculated" or that I had a "mathematical approach" to music in my head, instead of saying, "Oh, you feel music and you groove well".
Now that I'm able to fully realize myself as a person--which is not a finite process, I am working on introspection and self-reflection--I am even closer to my Korean heritage, as my Korean heritage informs how I explore myself and how I deal with my own issues of generational trauma, my own mental health issues with my panic disorder, my past and current addictive behaviors that I'm constantly battling, and how that all fits into a wellness routine and my mindfulness practice --all these things that I have to do now to keep my life in a place that I can be happy and not go off the rails... because all these things said, throughout my childhood, throughout my music career, I made so many mistakes and I have been in so many hurtful and damaging situations that I am carrying a lot of scars, traumas, and wounds, that I owe it to myself and my loved ones around me, so that I can be the best person I could be for myself and everyone around me.
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)?
I started playing the piano when I was 4 years old after seeing my older sister doing it... that was in a classical setting. At the age of 9, I started playing the cello; that was also in a classical setting--private lessons, junior symphony, all of that. At the age of 11 and 12 is when I started playing in jazz band at school; I started playing the upright bass--I was really stoked on it... so much so that I started playing bass guitar and I even played double bass in orchestra too. I started playing drums and guitar in jazz band also; I wanted to join jazz band because the year prior I had gotten into Nirvana and Soundgarden and it changed my life. After that, I got recruited into drum corps and played competitions and parades around here, and because of that I ended up playing percussion in honor orchestras around here--mallet percussion and timpani and all that stuff. It was at that time I fully started playing in bands and writing my own music and songs... even if they were shitty four-chord songs. I was doing lots of structured music--classical and jazz--while starting to write my own songs.
After graduating high school, I was playing with Mike Park and went on tour with him. Straight out of high school I was doing all this shit. I started touring from the guys from this pretty legendary English band called The Specials at that time too. In my down time, between tours, I took classes at Santa Rosa Junior College, because if nothing else happened, I was planning on going to Berklee College of Music in Boston... but, I ended up joining RX [Bandits] and we got a record deal, and that's when my [music career] trajectory changed... a bunch of stuff happened and that brought me to where I am today. I never did any higher education in music; I was intending on it, it was part of my plan, but my childhood dream kicked in and I went and chased it.
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 in my gut that there was not much else I could do pretty early on--maybe [when I was] 15 or 16. I had a hard time holding down high school jobs because my response to authority was really bad outside of my family, because I grew up in a such a strict Korean household with totalitarian power from my parents. Every other situation outside of that, I was defiant as hell. As a child, I believed I was being held to such a ridiculously high standard of achievement, it didn't matter to me if a manager at Whole Foods was bummed on me while I was bagging food--I did not give a fuck... they could've called me "a worthless piece of shit" and I would not care as long as my parents didn't think that of me. So, yeah, I knew early on, [music] was one of the only things I could do.
I got really lucky; I know I had opportunities that other minorities and poor family did not have access too. I wish I could tell you now that I went out and grinded, but as an 18 year old, I got lucky, man--I didn't do much to get myself out there. I did do that with RX afterwards, but not at that time. Mike Park knew who my high school band and I played drums in that band and we could draw a couple hundred people by ourselves. One time we played a show with his band and he saw me playing and started talking to me. He found out I could play different instruments and he wanted to recruit me for his new band. After that happened, everything just kept coming and things kept falling into my lap... I just wanted to show people my passion for music. If I deserve credit for anything, once I got lucky, I was definitely willing to bust my ass and work hard--play as much as I needed to play, be where I needed to be, go on tour as long as I needed to tour. In getting those opportunities, I was very fortunate, and I was blessed by chance and luck.
My mom was always way more understanding and accepting of who I was and that she couldn't shape me into something I [wasn't meant to be]; my dad had a very different life--he was the oldest of four children and had to take care of his family a lot of the time; he fought in Vietnam alongside the US forces as South Korean allied forces and was wounded in combat. Now being an adult, I have empathy and compassion how he never had the space in his life to be allowed to follow his passions; how would he know how to be open to letting his offspring do that, when he wasn't? We just regurgitate how we're parented, right?
His thing at first was like, "You wanna go fuck off and do bullshit for a few years, go for it. I don't like it"... and after a few years, he was like, "What are you doing? Are you seriously going to keep doing this? Everyone else has a job". My mom even though she wasn't approving, she wasn't vocal about disapproving. My parents separated when I was in high school, so they weren't together by the time I was doing this.
I had a lot of static with my dad at that time. We were pretty much estranged all throughout my 20s; I was difficult and he was difficult, and I spoke to him once a year during that time. I think slowly but surely, even though it probably came later than they would've wanted to see it, they started to see that we were really able to make something and make a living and we were taking it seriously as a business. He came to his first show of ours in 2008 or 2009, which would've been 9 years after the band and we started touring--that was the beginning of us building and restoring our relationship. He realized I was going to do what I wanted to with my life and he could be a part of it or not. Little did he know that all throughout my 20s that I was trying to deny not having a relationship with my father affected me, but it totally made me feel baseless and groundless. As Asian Americans, especially if we have immigrant parents, we already have a ceiling of how close we can get with them--there's a language barrier, there's an experience barrier, there's a priority barrier, there's an existential barrier between us, you know? Everyone has a different level of that... so, I can't blame my dad for only worrying about me getting a job to make enough money to live. In fact, it makes so much fucking sense now. I don't agree with it, but I don't need to agree with it to see the logic in it and have empathy as to why he would feel that way.
Me and my dad are cool now, he sees that it's serious shit. I think my dad told me he was proud of me for the first time in 2019 and we were at the dinner table around the holidays and something came up and he just turned to me and just said, "I am proud of you". I literally had to go to the other room and cry. I instantly broke down crying; he basically took a glass dagger and went straight into my heart with that... even after all my therapy and I'd recovered from addiction and was in such a solid place, but I got reduced to a crying three year old as soon as my dad looked at me and told me he was proud of me *laughs*.
[This is where we discussed how he needed to see Everything, Everywhere, All at Once].
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.
Shit, this one is very hard for Asians, but for a Korean, this is against my programming *laughs* ...Damn. *laughs* Honestly, I am most proud of the sort of brand and legacy that our crew has created. I know we're respected amongst our peers and I know that even if someone doesn't like our music, they can't say, "That band sucks", they can only say, "I don't like their music, it's not my cup of tea", or something like that. I'm really proud of the fact that we still have such a unique thing going on as a band that we can sell one to two thousand tickets, but we have fewer followers than a really good looking person in our hometown, you know? *laughs* So we really exist in an older life, but a realer life. Whenever we play shows, everyone--our fans and our peers--makes us feel like we're way bigger than we are; they make us feel like we're kings of the world. I'm proud of the legacy we've created amongst our peers and our fans and the music industry in general.
I try to keep my answers and focus away from the capitalist, material world; I could've said that I'm proud of our last song was on the biggest selling Guitar Hero of all time and that shit... but that just sounds lame, and honestly, I'm not that proud of it. I already knew that song was sick when we finished it. Am I happy that we got paid well for it? Yes. Am I happy that it exposed our band more? Yes, but that's not what puts a smile on my face at the end of the day.
Hmmm, I don't think so, all the companies that endorse us are already huge and don't need advertising. My little nobody ass shouting out isn't going to do shit anyways... *laughs*. Hey, I'm happy and grateful to get free shit though *laughs*
I think I just really wanted to be respected [for what I do], but I never wanted to be famous... so, there's nothing else I can think of, I'm sorry!
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 the marginalization that I encountered in life and in the music industry have been largely the same, which is to say that although there has certainly been obstacles I need to ask myself how much they really affected my life outside of my ego and ambitions. Does it suck that we get labeled and marginalized in a way that makes it harder for us to be taken seriously in many contexts? Sure. But for me, personally I realized that I'm grateful that these were the set of obstacles I was given. If these were my biggest problems that mostly applied to my ego and ambitions then I have been privileged in life to a great degree. I can't help but think of those who worry about shelter and food before they can even think about developing an artistic skill which they would take in to the material world to try and succeed within the capitalist reality we are all forced to share. I'm very grateful for the character it forced me to build knowing first hand what it's like to be emasculated and reduced to a white person's favorite racially charged asian character from that movie or tv show they grew up with. I'm forever grateful for the compassion, empathy and fire inside it has given me to fight for the underdog. In my case the help came from the obstacle.
9. 9a.) Who are some AAPI musicians/composers/producers who have previously inspired and currently inspire you (if any)? Why?
James Iha of Smashing Pumpkins was big for me as a kid just because he was so cool. I wasn't even a big Smashing Pumpkins fan, but he represented something so important which was the possibility of being cool which is important as a kid forming your identity and hopefully coming out of teenage years with your ego intact. When I learned about Mike Park and Skankin Pickle it was extra special though because he was Korean like me... and he was Korean as HELL. The huge Korean head and big high cheek bones. I saw his picture and thought "Wow, he's also the lead singer!!" It was really nice for me to see that. Trippy for me that, a couple years later, he recruited me and we ended up touring the world together when I was only 18. I was so lucky, it was a real special thing in my development and career.
9b.) What are your hopes for the AAPI music community and your hopes for AAPIs in general?
I have no hopes for the AAPI community other than to keep creating in spite of whatever forces might be felt to be against us. Our creative power and strength can only be galvanized through oppressive forces of marginalization. Our influence in the world of music and media in general is undeniable and is slowly dominating even American consciousness. Our current trajectory in terms of what we generally seek looks just fine to me.
10. Name one or two non-music-related things/subjects about which you are also passionate.
Sorry that was way more I couldn't stop
11. Any final thoughts? Alternatively, do you have any questions for me and/or the greater AAPI music community?
Thank you to all of you amazing and strong Asian and Asian-American artists. We are an important creative force in the world and I am happy and honored to be your peer. I love being Korean and I hope everyone is as proud of who they are regardless of how their current context makes them feel.
Support Steve online :)
Bandcamp: RX Bandits
Image courtesy of Steve Choi