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Secret Asian Man

[whitespace] Asian Man Records
Round and Round: The Asian Man Records logo attracts plenty of sideways glances.

Photo by Christopher Gardner

After splitting from Skankin' Pickle, Monte Sereno's Mike Park started Asian Man Records in his garage--nothing speaks louder than success

By Todd S. Inoue

THE GARAGE is a holy place in the world of start-ups. Under the glow of cheap flood lamps, hobbies that would otherwise clutter up living spaces have room to flourish. The existence of Silicon Valley is traced, in mythology at least, to the garages of entrepreneurs in need of conceptul elbow room.

The hottest garage in the valley's ska-punk scene is buried in the Monte Sereno hills, where Mike Park, former vocalist/saxophonist for the pioneering San Jose ska-punk band Skankin' Pickle, has turned his parents' garage into an office/warehouse for his upstart label, Asian Man Records. Only 17 months old, Asian Man Records already boasts 10 bands and 18 releases.

Asian Man's rapid growth has come largely from word-of-mouth, and on a rainy December night, Park is busy spreading the gospel. He spends two hours pitching ground-level advice to aspiring moguls at a music-business class at De Anza College in Cupertino.

Some of the students greet his lessons with sideways looks. Book a tour by yourself? Sell CDs for $8? Most of the students have been raised to believe that a record company should do those things for them. Skankin' Pickle, however, proved that a band didn't need a major label's backing to succeed.

"CDs can cost only a dollar to make," says Park.

"Why are they so expensive then?" asks a student.

Park shrugs his shoulders. "Good question. It's a scam."

The class passes around all sorts of Asian Man promotional items: T-shirts, posters, a skateboard deck. Park leaves behind a stack of promo CDs and posters.

Back at Asian Man headquarters, Park's dad, Shin, walks in looking peeved and sounding like a father whose son has broken curfew. "Where have you been?"

"Dad!" says Mike in an exasperated son-to-father tone. "I told you! I was giving a lecture at the college."

Shin wants to know because a Wisconsin ska-punk group, the Blue Meanies, has arrived. The band, on its way from L.A. to Oregon for a show, is crashing at the Parks' house overnight. The Meanies got lost, so Shin had to track them down at a pay phone and lead them through the mazelike roads back to the house.

Nine smelly guys pile out of the van. Park's mom, Sonia, runs around getting blankets and extra pillows. Shin--a retired laboratory supervisor at San Jose Hospital--rearranges furniture to accommodate the guests and cordially introduces himself to a dreadlocked guy named Hashbrown. Mike greets everyone and gleefully points out the refrigerator and guest bathroom.

To the Blue Meanies, the hospitality and clean digs are a gold mine. To the Park family, having nine musicians camped out in the living room is the most normal thing in the world. It's part of running a successful independent label. It's just good business.


The death of Link 80's Nick Traina handed Asian Man Records its first crisis.


Pabo Boy

MIKE PARK is a reluctant success story. From 1989 to 1996, he fronted Skankin' Pickle. The group sold 250,000 albums, toured 48 states and is credited, along with Operation Ivy, with jump-starting the ska-punk craze in America. Skankin' Pickle stuck to a strict ethical code: all-ages shows, $5 cover charges, CDs for $8 postpaid from their own label, Dill Records.

"It gave me a chance to view the music industry from the ground up," Park says of the band's do-it-yourself philosophy. "Being on a major label doesn't mean stardom, doesn't mean you're going to make money."

By 1996, Park was weary of touring and decided to quit the band and concentrate on his own label. The end came on a Long Beach stage opening for NOFX in front of 4,500 people. A mutated version of the band continued to tour despite the lack of Park, trombone player Gerry Lundquist and drummer Chuck Phelps.

As the Pickle withered, an attempt to liquidate the assets turned nasty. Trombonist Lars Nylander and guitarist Lynette Knackstedt are battling it out with Phelps and Lundquist over money earned from royalties, T-shirts, you name it. Embittered by the affair, Park refuses to be a part of the fiasco. He will only say nice things about Dill Records.

Instead, Park took back the four bands that he had brought to Dill (Chicago's legendary Slapstick, Midwestern maniacs MU330, Park's occasional project the B. Lee Band and Florida's Less Than Jake), came up with the name "Asian Man" from an old Skankin' Pickle song he wrote, staked out the garage and got to work.

One of the bands, Less Than Jake, proved to be a godsend. Park met the members of Less Than Jake five years ago in Gainesville, Fla. He used his own money to put out the band's first CD, Pezcore, on Dill and sold them for $1 at the shows.

Skankin' Pickle mentored Less Than Jake, according to LTJ drummer Vinnie Lee. "I remember Dill Records," starts Lee, "and this feeling of exhilaration that [Park] asked us to put out a record--that when he left a message on our answering machine he was playing our tape in the background."

Pezcore scored big. An A&R suit from Capitol Records bought the CD at a show and followed the band around the country. Less Than Jake eventually signed with Capitol, and the label offered Park $100,000 to buy Pezcore outright.

Park declined. He has since sold 60,000 copies of the album by himself. With a 50/50 split, Asian Man paid off the production costs and still earned more than $100,000. And the album is still selling.

"Pezcore allowed me to do all these other things," says Park. "It allowed us to be accepted by distributors. If I was new label with a bunch of unknown acts, they wouldn't take me as seriously. The Less Than Jake CD sold well, so it was easy to get paid: 'If you don't pay me, I won't send you more Less Than Jake.' It was a great tool."

Pezcore gave both the label and the band leverage. While Asian Man has a hot seller and capital to put out future releases, Less Than Jake keeps its underground credibility.

"Music--punk-rock music--is about communication, and nothing works without it," Lee says. "That's his key. Mike's an intriguing character, and it gives me inspiration for the future. He stays true to what he believes in."

Asian Man Records
Wall of CD Sound: The product is piled high in the crowded Monte Sereno garage of Mike (left) and Shin Park, the father-and-son team that keeps Asian Man Records humming.

Photo by Christopher Gardner

Pop Tops

PARK DOESN'T boast deep musical knowledge. He barely keeps up with popular music and is bewildered by electronica and hip-hop. He knows ska, and he knows what he likes in a band--information usually culled from his experience on the road, not from a promo package.

Jesse Obstbaum is a salesperson at Mordam, a sales team shared by 30 different independent labels. Some of Mordam's clients include Jade Tree, Lookout!, Kill Rock Stars and Estrus. Mordam is very picky about which labels it distributes. Not only did Asian Man pass its stringent requirements, but the label frequently outsells other indie companies with full staffs and publicists.

"Asian Man is an incredible label," Obstbaum says. "In the past, every Asian Man title has placed consistently in the Top-30 sellers every month. Mike is an incredible A&R person. He can find the bands who offer something different from the run-of-the-mill. He can find a pop-punk type of ska that's a cut above the rest, a Japanese ska group that's unique."

While Mordam takes care of servicing the record stores, mail orders keep the Asian Man crew--Mike, Shin and part-time workers Peter Cowan, Ross Peard and Tony Rogers--busy. The orders flood in from Chicago, Connecticut, Hawaii and even Sweden and China.

The inventory is piled high in the garage. Mounds of CDs rest on four-deck PVC racks held together by duct tape. Others are bound in plastic, like sausage meat in casings. There are also baskets of pins, stickers, badges, posters and T-shirts.

Asian Records' business is taking off so fast that Park is slowly sharpening his blissfully naive business skills. He just started drawing up contracts. All the bands are signed to one-record deals; they can leave whenever they want.

It's a business that involves the whole family. Dad handles the books and checks the invoices and purchase orders. Mom helps assemble CDs. Mike does everything. He writes a grammatically inept yet heartfelt newsletter. He answers the phone (singular). He listens to bands that want to be on the label and sends them a grade sheet.

Parents Understand

WHILE THEIR SON was rocking shows and sleeping on floors around the country, Shin and Sonia Park always wondered if he would ever go back to school (Mike made it as far as his junior year in college before devoting his life to music), do something productive--be a doctor, an engineer, anything but a barnstorming singer in a band named after a dancing gherkin.

"Every time we have a chance, I try to discourage him," Shin says. "I tell him, 'You have to get a education, a normal life.' Every time I say 'normal life,' he asks, 'What's normal?' "

Shin continues, "Having an Asian cultural background, most Korean parents put education first. It's very important, but I cannot make him [go to school]. It's his choice. He wants to spend his life in music. His life is his. I cannot force him to do anything."

Like most father-son teams, Mike and Shin differ in operation style. The elder Park wants to take Asian Man as far as he can. Mike wants to keep prices low and the business manageable. Shin recalls the time when Mike ordered stickers that read "Do not pay more than $10 for this CD."

"I asked him, 'Why are you spending money to make these labels?' " says Shin. "He says, 'If it's too much, the kids can't afford to buy.' I don't agree, but I can see his point of view. When I open up the envelopes, all these little kids put in wrinkled dollars. I know they have little spending money, and a lot of young kids like his music."

Mike says most arguments develop out of "not wanting my dad to nag me." But father does know best. One argument ended up saving Mike $10,000 dollars.

Mike also relates a story about the time his dad opened a new Asian Man account at Great Western Bank. Shin was wearing a Lagwagon T-shirt, which caught the eye of the youthful teller. Shin didn't really know who or what a Lagwagon was, only that his son had a record label. What kind of music? asked the teller.

"Ska-punk," Shin answered, with an air of authority.

Lo-Fi Resolution

WHEN A SKA VERSION of "Come on, Eileen" becomes popular, the promise of easy money is immediately suspect to Park. Asian Man has turned down lucrative licensing and distribution deals in Japan. Fox Sports wanted to use some music for a show, and he turned them down too.

Asian Man skips the big glossy mags and advertises in Punk Planet and Maximum Rock and Roll. Forget the WARPED tour; Park's helping coordinate a Ska Against Racism tour this spring with Less Than Jake, the Toasters, Five Iron Frenzy, Kemuri, MU330, Mustard Plug and the Blue Meanies. The tour currently has a hold on the Greek Theater in May.

However many rules Asian Man ignores, it's thriving. In 1998, Park has plans to release eight new albums, a sampler CD and video, and a score of 7-inch singles (including one from non-ska San Jose band Korea Girl). He recently inked Midwestern ska heroes Johnny Socko to a one-record deal. The biggest news is that popular rootsy ska band Let's Go Bowling will release its live album not on Moon Ska, but on Asian Man.

"We know that he's fair, he's got good distribution and a good reputation," says Paul Miskulin, Let's Go Bowling's vocalist and guitarist. "It's hard to find someone who has a good reputation and who treats you like a family member and does right by the musician. He's not a guy who's out to screw anybody. Everybody we've been talking to who's in the industry--whenever we say we're releasing it on Asian Man, they think, 'Wow! That's great!' "

Despite the growing success, Park is purposely lo-fi. He has no cell phone, no beeper--hell, he doesn't even have call-waiting. His life is packed into a day planner that is stuffed like a pastrami sandwich at the Carnegie deli.

The end, he feels, will come when Asian Man outgrows the garage. Don't expect it soon. Park likes his creature comforts: the entry-level Nintendo, the basketball hoop in the backyard, the smells of bulgogi and chap chae emanating from the kitchen.

"The bigger you get, the more headaches," Park says. "I gotta keep it in the garage. If I get out, I'll feel too much like a label. Here, I still feel like I'm home. I have no overhead. I have no rent. I get free food. I'm set."

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From the January 15-21, 1998 issue of Metro.

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