If you Google “all-Asian rock band”, the first name that comes up is The Slants, which is appropriate, because they are the “the first and only all-Asian American dance rock band in the world”. Their fast-tempo synth beats and melodic vocals have moved crowds in venues and cons through 22 tours and sevenalbums, EPs, and mix tapes. But there is another reason The Slants top the Google list: Lee vs. Tam, a case now before the US Supreme Court. The Slants have sued the US Trademark office for the right to name themselves The Slants. The case is now pending, which is why their new album isThe Band that Must Not Be Named. I had a chance to chat with The Slants’ founder Simon Tam.
Patrick. Well, I know everyone wants to hear about the lawsuit, and where it is, but let’s start with the band. After all you are a musician first and a litigant second. I understand that you spend two years assembling this band. What you were looking for?
Simon. Number 1, I wanted to find musicians who had the direct experience of being Asian-American in this country and understood that perspective. Number 2, I wanted people who had solid chops; they needed to be able to play the music and have experience on stage. I didn’t want to start from scratch and train them.
Patrick. Was it hard to find the right people?
Simon. Looking for Asian-American bandmates made it more challenging because I needed to find experienced musicians of Asian descent in Portland Oregon, often known as America’s Whitest City. It was a fascinating journey. Sometimes I would get calls or emails from people who said I was racist because I only wanted Asians and they couldn’t join the band. They didn’t get it; no one calls an all-female band sexist. But there were no examples out there of an All-Asian band, so some people didn’t get it...
Patrick. Reminds me of complaints about Scarlett Johansson staring in the manga-derived film in the shell” – goes both ways. The song on The Band that Must Not Be namedalbum, “Endlessly Falling” showcases the chops you were looking for. Is the Slants Sound mature – do you have what you want now?
Simon. I think we are getting there, but we are still finding it out because this is a fairly new lineup. We used to have much more punk swagger, but in this last year we decided for something more pop-centric but still have the same attitude and energy – driving, but catchy with great hooks and melodies and vocals that people can sing along to. It is evolving.
Patrick. Your fans actually call your music “Chinatown Dance Rock”. But your songs go beyond the beat to deliver messages. For instance, in the song “From the Heart” the lyrics proclaim“We are never going to settle”, and “Know this is a Rock and Roll Nation” and “No, we won’t remain silent”. Is that about the case, about bullying, the litigation or more general?
Simon. We actually wrote the song before we got involved in anti-bullying through #AcToCHANGE. In December of last year the White House emailed us and said that because we are champions of the Asian-American community, they wanted to use a few of our songs on a compilation album with President and Mrs. Obama, George Takei, and others. Of course we said yes!, but the song itself is kind of an open letter to the Trademark Office and to people who don’t like our name.
Patrick. In the song “From the Heart” you say this is a “Rock and Roll Nation”. What did you mean by that? What is the connection to your activism?
Simon. America is the birthplace of rock and roll, the unique American art form; we know that art and activism go hand in hand. So it is critical for us, a rock and roll band, to protect free speech –these are our values. This is a message to the Trademark Office and we are going to fight for it – that is what rock and roll is all about.
Patrick. Which brings us to the Supreme Court. What is the case and where is it now?
Simon. Lee v. Tam is our case against the Trademark Office. It is pending before the Supreme Court right now. It started 8 years ago when we applied to copyright our name, “The Slants”, and the Trademark Office rejected our application. They said “The Slants” it is a derogatory term and a racist slur, even though we are all Asians and used it in a self-empowering kind of way. There were never any complaints about the name and we had actually worked with government, playing for US troops and diplomats and others.So we challenged the Trademark Office in numerous courts and we won at the Circuit Court, the court right below the Supreme Court. A majority of the judges said the Trademark Office violated our free speech rights.
Patrick. What happened?
Simon. The Trademark Office defied the Court order for a few months, refusing to give us a copyright, then they appealed to the Supreme Court, which took the case. The government had no evidence of offense taken at our name and no precedents. I was at the Supreme Court and heard Justice Ginsberg ask the government counsel if he understood that we were reappropriating the name. His answer was that he saw articles on the internet.
Patrick. Sounds like you will win this one. Did you get to play your music for the Supreme Court?
Simon. No, they didn’t let us do that, but we did play on the steps of the Supreme Court during the week we were in DC.
Patrick. How did that work?
Simon. We did video blogs from our time in Washington. Most of the time I was there, I spent on the phone and email doing interviews – I had 21,000 calls in 8 days. It was such an incredible experience. We are going back to DC and maybe play for the Court after the decision or give them CD’s.
Patrick. In the meantime, what is on your agenda?
Simon. We are going to be on the road for the next 6 weeks – almost 60 performances coming up, starting tonight in Portland.
Patrick. That should keep you busy. Simon, thanks so much for your time.