25 Years Of Vagrant Records: The label that accidentally took emo to the mainstream
From a family-funded Get Up Kids album to becoming a lynchpin of 2000s emo, we look back on Vagrant Records’ reluctant rise…
On August 22, 1995, Less Than Jake released their debut album, Pezcore, on a label called Dill Records. Run by Mike Park, Dill had mainly been a vehicle for him to release music by his own band, Skankin’ Pickle, for a few years, but Pezcore would be the last album Dill released.
Soon after that, in 1996, he launched Asian Man Records, which -- over two decades later -- he still runs out of his parents’ garage. The label’s first release was a reissue of Pezcore, but along the way they’ve helped launch the careers of bands like Alkaline Trio and The Lawrence Arms, and put out albums by AJJ, Screeching Weasel, The Queers, Smoking Popes and Lemuria. Like most DIY labels, Asian Man has also put out some seriously awesome compilations, whether that’s samplers such as the label’s iconic Mailorder Is Fun series or comps designed to inspire and encourage activism, such as Anti-Racist Action: Stop Racism and the Plea For Peace series, which was also a tour and a short-lived community center near San Jose.
Not only has Asian Man Records been one of the most important and influential labels in the world of DIY punk (and ska-punk), but Mike, as you can probably tell from the interview below, the nicest man in alternative music (sorry, Dave Grohl). Here, he speaks about running one of punk's most influential underground labels -- and how he's kept it alive all these years.
Can you explain a bit of the history of Asian Man, Dill and how you started it all?
Mike Park: Well, with Skankin’ Pickle, we just used a fictitious name when we made our first demo tape, and we used Dill Records because we thought it was funny. So I guess we technically started in 1990, when we made that first demo. It was just like every local band did -- you put out a demo tape and you’d make up some kind of label name and that’s all we were thinking.
I really started getting into the philosophy of punk -- more so than the sound or fashion -- with Ian MacKaye and Dischord Records. I was like, ‘He’s doing it himself!’ And Brett Gurewitz had started Epitaph, and even Greg Ginn with SST, and it just seemed like all these punk labels that were being run by band members were able to do it. So I was like ‘Why not share in that great idea of DIY punk?’ And as I got more engaged in it in my late teens and early 20s, I just became obsessed with Dischord and its all-age policy and cheap ticket prices, and I was like ‘This is what I want to do! But as a ska band!’ That was the only difference.
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So the ethics and ethos of punk were a secondary concern at first?
Yeah. At the beginning, that definitely wasn’t on our mind. We were just young teens in the ’80s listening to alternative music. I really wasn’t aware of DIY philosophy when I was a young teenager. It was only later that I started engaging myself by reading in Maximum Rocknroll interviews with Ian MacKaye.
There obviously aren’t many Asian Americans in the punk scene. Do you feel like you were at a disadvantage because of that?
I grew up in a very culturally and racially diverse area of the United States, being from a suburb of the San Jose/San Francisco area, so it never really hit me as a teen. It was only when I started touring and going outside of the West Coast that I would realize I wouldn’t see anyone that looked like me anywhere -- especially not at the shows. That’s really when it hit me, in the early ’90s, that, ‘Okay, I’m different. I’m *really* different.' This is before Asian Man was born, but it turned into a song I wrote called Asian Man, and then when I started Asian Man, I wanted people to overtly know that this was run by a person of color.
You didn’t hold back in terms of band names, either. After Skankin’ Pickle broke up, you formed The Chinkees. At what point did your heritage become activism?
I would say when I was 19 and started going to Fishbone shows. I would see people onstage who weren’t white playing this alternative music -- which was rare, because it was predominantly all white people -- and they just had this simple stance of ‘Fuck Racism’. That’s the only shirt they had -- the Fishbone logo on the back and it said ‘Fuck Racism’. And I’m like ‘Wow, this is cool.’ So that’s when it started to hit me that it was a great thing they were using music to empower ideas, and then I really started paying attention to the music I was listening to.
I’d already been listening to 7Seconds’ The Crew, but then I’d listen back and hear the lyrics to a song like Colorblind and just think it was amazing. So I thought I’d like to do that with my own music and that, in 1989, was when I started writing songs with the goal of having some kind of message behind the songs. Not every song, of course, but I definitely wrote songs themed about racial prejudice and my experiences with it.
And did you find some kind of solace in that punk community, or did you feel like an outsider?
No, I definitely felt community. I feel like it was very strong in the late ’80s/early ’90s -- there was Anti-Racist Action, which was very much alive back then with marches being organized pre-internet, just through zines and word of mouth, and that was all part of the punk community. You’d go to [non-profit venue 924] Gilman Street in Berkeley and they would have monthly meetings with very outspoken characters talking about how this band or that band should be banned because of these lyrics, and who were really on the lookout for the Nazi skinheads. That was a big problem in the ’80s and early ’90s.
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Going off-topic slightly, do you feel, in 2019, when Trump’s in the White House, that any progress has been made? Or are we taking steps back now?
One hundred per cent. One step forward, two steps back. That’s exactly what’s happened. I feel like the bigots have a bravery these days, more so than they did 10, 20 years ago, to be outspoken. White nationalists have no fear in displaying their true colors, so it’s a scary time. But it has also brought people and ideas together, to remind people that this stuff does exist. I think you can become complacent in life, where everything is rose-colored and you just move along with life, and I think one thing Trump has done is caused mobilization amongst underground movements towards progressive and anti-racist activism and ideas.
With that in mind, you started Asian Man just before punk became really commodified with the success of Green Day and The Offspring, which diluted the political edge of punk music, to some degree. Does the punk community now need to organize and mobilize, and not just rely on the music?
I would hope so. And not just punk musicians, but musicians across the board, whether it be country, hip-hop, R&B, soul, funk. It shouldn’t just be the punk community -- the human race as a community should be mobilizing towards positive change. But in terms of punk, if this was 20 years ago, I’d have said that most definitely every band should be voicing their opinion. But I’ve changed that, in the sense that not every band is political, and that’s not their forte. That doesn’t mean they’re bad people.
Let’s take a band like The Aquabats, for example, who I love, and love as people, but I don’t want them to be spouting politics at their shows. That’s an escape band. And I see a need for bands as entertainment, so I don’t feel like every band needs to [be political]. But I do feel like bands need to be aware of it. There are other ways of supporting causes than just raising your fist and making a lot of noise online, whether it’s monetary or signing petitions or involving activist groups at your concerts. Especially bands that draw younger audiences that are at the voting age or going to be at the voting age for the next election -- those are the bands I wish and hope would be more involved than a band like Bad Religion, who has an older audience who has set ways. I think it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, so I really feel like it’s the younger bands that need to mobilize.
You’re still signing bands to Asian Man. What are you looking for?
What I really look for right now is bands who are active in their DIY community. So I want to work with young band who are helping, who are looking at the music spectrum not as competition but as community. I want to work with community-based bands who are all about helping other bands -- bands who put on shows in their hometown for touring bands and give them all the money to help them. That kind of mentality is what I’m looking for.
Obviously I’m looking for a sound that’s pleasant to my ears, but if you’re a great band and I love the music, but then there’s character flaws, I’m not going to do it. And that’s happened quite often. But with Asian Man, there’s never a contract signed. It’s supposed to be about community and friendships and trying to urge the bands to move on to greener pastures. There’s only so much I can do out of mom’s garage! We don’t have the space, and that’s how I like it. It’s very different from other indie labels, even. We’re so small but we put out so much stuff I think people have this vision of this massive indie label, but it’s just me.
So you haven’t been kicked out of your mom’s garage, then?
Yeah. Mom, I think, likes it. She’s 82 now, and she just likes the company!
You’ve always seemed happy with the label operating at the same level. Did you never want to grow and expand it?
No, that was never the intention. The only time I ever think about growing is when I feel guilty that the bands that we have aren’t getting the attention they deserve. But I always tell the bands my limitations when it starts, and they know exactly what they’re getting into, so there’s never been a situation where a band has gotten angry because their peers are blowing up on all the hot websites. It’s just we do this, we support each other, if they’re able to get success on another label, we’re all for that. So the thought has never crossed my mind, except the times when I felt guilty that we haven’t been able to do more!
You were meant to be touring with your new band, Ogikubo Station, but you pulled out because of concern for your hearing.
Yes. I am way better -- I’ve done a bunch of alternative medicine with acupuncture and Chinese herbs, and also I’ve kind of become used to the ringing in my ears. My main concern is just not losing it. I had some slight hearing loss and that was the concern. So I’m just very careful, and if I do see music I wear those giant ear protection contraptions you see on people working outside at airports! I don’t want to mess around or take any chances. I feel like I could do shows again -- and I am -- but I just need to be careful. I’m really happy about that because I was stressing out! So please wear earplugs if you’re in a band or go to shows. You think you’re invincible. I’d always wear earplugs at shows when I performed, but when I was going to see shows I’d never wear earplugs because I wanted to hear everything. Now I’m like, ‘Screw that – I don’t mind if it’s muffled!’ I’d rather save my hearing.
You also opened the Plea For Peace Center, which ran for about six years.
Yeah. That’s a sore subject, but I’ll give you the rundown. I live in San Jose, California, which is the ninth largest city in the United States. We don’t have one legitimate all-ages venue. So a mid-level band like, say, The Bouncing Souls, would never play San Jose at an all-ages place, because they don’t exist. So we’re relegated to traveling an hour-plus to go to San Francisco or Oakland to see a show. The Plea For Peace Foundation was started to work, hopefully, with the city’s involvement, where we could have a youth center that was music-based.
But trying to get funding from the city was impossible. They just didn’t understand the punk ethos or the value of it, so it was unexplainable to them. So I did some fundraisers -- I rode my bike down the West Coast from Washington to San Diego, California, which was about 2,000 miles. I raised like $80,000, which seems like a big figure, but once we tried to open up a space in San Jose, the price of real estate was so expensive we thought we could last for maybe four months. So we decided to go to a suburb called Stockton, which was way cheaper. We had a 5,000 square foot warehouse, and I thought, ‘Well, this will become our model. We’ll be successful and we’ll get grants and funding and can open these all over the United States.’ But it was much harder to do than I expected and we just ran out of money. We lasted about five years and then everything was gone. It was heartbreaking, and that burned me out, and I lost all my will to try to something again. It’s just been stagnant for the last five or six years, ever since we closed.
Do you think you’ll ever get that impetus back?
I’d like to. It’s always been goal of mine to help the youth in my community, so it’s something I’d like to do. I’m still very involved in the DIY community here, which just exists by people putting on gigs in cafes and art galleries. Wherever they can do something. We even put on Modern Baseball, when they came through on their first tour, in the back of a porn shop! But I’d like to do it. The clock just ticks so fast and the years go by, and I’m like ‘Oh gosh! What’s happening?!’
The sense of personal connection that has always driven Asian Man -- how has that changed over the years, with the advent of the internet? Do you still have a personal relationship with people who buy Asian Man releases?
I try to. It’s just a different way of connecting, and that’s through social media. So I try to comment back on as many people as I can because I think it makes them feel good if they write something and you acknowledge them. I know it makes me feel good if someone I look up to acknowledges my comments. And I’m still very open to talking to people. I give my phone number out openly to the public, especially if people are having mental health issues, as I feel that’s a big problem. Whenever a celebrity passes, I think people are more vulnerable, so I like to give my number out and say, ‘Hey -- call me.’ And people take me up on it. I’ve talked to dozens of people on the phone and hundreds over text and I just try to help wherever I can.
That’s incredible. But it also must take a lot of your time.
Yeah, but I feel like it’s worth it. If I can save someone’s life, that means a lot more to me than selling music or making profit. It’s something I believe in, so I continue to try to do the little things and see if I can help and just better the world through example. And that’s what I’m trying to teach the bands and my kids, so that they continue these ideas when I’m long gone so they can keep pushing them forward. That’s really the only thing to push towards. Otherwise, there’s just an empty reason to live.
For more information on Asian Man Records can be found at their website.
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