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In this exclusive APA interview, Johnny Hi-Fi talks about his passion for music, how he handles managing the band, and that Tony Bennett and David Bowie can be used within the same sentence without breaking too many laws of the written word.
With the moody, sulky exterior that Johnny Hi-Fi exudes, he could easily be Morrisseyís predecessor as the Pope of Mope. In press photographs, his hands are shoved deep in jean pockets. He glares broodingly at the ground, rarely looking at the camera. His singing voice is like a temperamental teenager, shifting drastically from angsty to elated in matters of seconds.
However, the parallels between himself and the front man of The Smiths digress sharply when it comes to matters of business. Unlike Morrissey, who in the late '90s attempted unsuccessfully at self-managing, Johnny Hi-Fi has been able to manage his solo career, be the bandís publicist, write, record, perform and hold a day job like an adroit juggler. When conversing with Johnny, one would expect a withdrawn, introverted person behind those dark-rimmed glasses, but Johnny reveals a facet of being an optimistic and hopeless-dreamer-sort.
Johnny Hi-Fi is also no self-absorbed musician. His ambitions exceed far beyond himself and his own career. During spring of this year, he managed to put together an Asian Rock Fest, bringing together a slew of Asian American talent to a crowded club in New York City.
Johnny Hi-Fi and his family, which includes Asian pop star Kevin Hsu, came from Taiwan to Houston, Texas in his early teens. Having fallen deeply into love with music and songwriting ever since he was a youth, he looked up to music royalty of all families and generations, from Sinatra and Billie Holiday to The Smiths and Bowie. He later moved to Austin and pursued his passion of making music. He began to perform in the early '90s with numerous bands while developing his own style as a songwriter and a performer.
Johnny Hi-Fi relocated to New York City in the late nineties and his solo career has begun to take shape ever since. Finding his current bandmates--through a Craigslist posting no less--Johnny and his bandmates have graced over several hundred live audiences with their pop-rock sound. He sings about matters of the heart, ranging from unforgettable girls to relationships gone sour, with all of his creative energies invested, sparing nothing.
With the recent release of 30--his first solo release that is a culmination of hand-picked songs heís written in the past five years--and a new music video of his single ďLove Song on the Radio,?Johnny Hi-Fiís solo career is in full swing. Who knows what will come from him next.
APA: Hi Johnny.
Johnny Hi-Fi: Hello.
APA: How did the name Johnny Hi-Fi emerge?
Johnny Hi-Fi: When I think of the name Johnny I donít necessarily associate it with any one particular person. I always thought it was a sort of attitude, because all the Johnnies that I know have very cool personalities. I can almost imagine somebody from the '60s in some blue jeans and a white t-shirt with a pack of cigarettes in rolled up sleeves with their hair combed back. And of course you have Johnny Cash, Johnny Greenwood, and a good friend of mine in Austin named Johnny, and heís also a singer for one of my all-time favorite bands, so I just thought of it as more of an attitude rather than just a name. So of course, with Hi-Fi, meaning Hi-Fidelity, itís just the best you can achieve in audio. So the name Johnny Hi-Fi is combining a really cool attitude with, you know, something that sounds great.
APA: You mentioned elsewhere that your musical idols range from Bennett to Radiohead. Do you find a common thread between them all? Why are they your idols?
Johnny Hi-Fi: Well I always loved music that was more sincere and at the same time was a little bit more complicated than your usual pop-rock kind of tune. So when you talk about Tony Bennett or Frank Sinatra or Billie Holiday, all the old time favorites, they sing their songs and they really meant it. And theyíre trying to convey a message thatís sometimes bigger than life. And I take it as advice from an old friend who's lived through it all. As for the music today, I tend to go for music that has a little bit more material, that has a little bit more substance in it. Because a lot thatís on the radio now is anything from hate to bling-bling, and it really doesnít mean much anymore. When you throw this repetitious beat or this repetitious chord progression behind it, you pretty much end up with the lowest common denominator. So I tend to go after bands that are like Coldplay, that are like Radiohead, like David Bowie who are always pushing the envelope and experimenting with new things. And at the same time I like the really old stuff.
APA: Oh cool. So whatís currently in your CD player?
Johnny Hi-Fi: Right now I am listening to a British band called Keane. I guess theyíve been playing for a long time but they just got this single out. Iím also listening to Morrisseyís new CD, which he came out with a couple months ago. And itís a great album, too. At the same time, Iím listening to Mandarin pop too. I have Jay Chouís newest CD here. But Iím also listening to Faye Wong a lot.
APA: On 30, what did you want to accomplish musically?
Johnny Hi-Fi: I think the album 30 is more about closure. 30 is the first full album release that I have had for my solo career. I have been with other bands before releasing albums. But this is my first full-length album. I have released 2 demos before releasing 30 and I have released an EP after the release of 30. But 30 is the first full-length album. So what I meant by closure is that all of the songs that have been written in the last five years, you know the best of the songs that Iíve written in the past five years, I just wanted to get it down on the full-length album and you know, sort of close the door on those songs and move on to writing new songs.
APA: What does 30 refer to?
Johnny Hi-Fi: Itís supposed to be a secret, but you know, Iím not really ashamed of it. 30 really is my age right now. Thatís the reason why itís called 30.
APA: Whatís your favorite track?
Johnny Hi-Fi: My favorite track is called ďLove Song on the Radio,Ēand thatís also the single that weíre trying to push. We just released the music video for ďLove Song on the Radio?last week.
APA: Howís that going?
Johnny Hi-Fi: Itís going pretty well. We just finished editing it and we showed it to a room of about 80-plus people in a video release party and everybody loved it. It went really well. So whatís going to happen next is get this video out to as many TV stations as possible and enter it into as many music video contests as possible, and weíll see what happens. And of course it will be a nice addition to our already very comprehensive press kit.
APA: Why did you decide to choose some of the songs you sung in Chinese on 30?
Johnny Hi-Fi: I think one thing that is great about pursuing a music career in the U.S. is that you know lots of people are immigrants from other countries, and a lot of people here are bilingual or multi-lingual. You have the entire Latin wave which swept the industry a few years ago, and I am bilingual; I speak both Mandarin and English. I wanted to embrace that sort of quality rather than shove it to the side. I just want people to know that itís something that I embrace. I embrace my culture; I embrace my roots.
APA: How do you handle the different aspects in running a band?
Johnny Hi-Fi: 90% dictatorship and 10% democracy. I remember Adam Duritz of Counting Crows once said, "If you have democracy in a band, then what you'll end up with is the lowest common denominator.?I cannot agree with him more. On top of that, I think I inherited the trait from my father, who always thinks if you want something done right, do it yourself. It's not an easy thing to do especially when there are only 24 hours in a day, from writing a song to critiquing our rehearsals, from calling booking agents all day to driving all the equipment back and forth, from working my other jobs making money to booking recording studios and spending all the money I just made. But so far we're moving in the right direction and on the right track, so I am not about to change my methods or my philosophy.
APA: As we all know, the music industry can be brutal. Do you feel that being Asian American has made things harder?
Johnny Hi-Fi: At the moment, itís still very difficult. Just from personal experiences, booking shows at these bigger venues or entering competitions, I think the stereotype is that Asian musicians are still very good at what theyíve always done, which is classical music. But at the same time, there are really a lot of Asian rock musicians that are proving to the American public that Asians are good at rock as well. Actually, I just put together the first annual rock fest here in New York City in May 2004. And we brought together eight great Asian rock bands. And the response was phenomenal. We had press for over 30 publications and we packed the club for 6 hours straight. And I believe that Asian musicians will get more and more of their time in the industry but right now weíre kind of in a transitional phase that people are just beginning to notice us.
APA: Youíve performed so many shows. Whatís your favorite memory during a live performance?
Johnny Hi-Fi: I guess my favorite memory of a live performance wasnít in a band situation. I was just over in Las Vegas for a friend of mineís wedding and they just happened to hold it in Frank Sinatraís old suite at the Riviera. Halfway through the reception I decided to get up and I told the band to back me up and we performed ďIíve got you Under My Skin?by Frank Sinatra and I think that was my favorite memory. Being in Frank Sinatraís old suite in Las Vegas.
APA: A couple of years ago, you had your song ďPassive Killer?played in your home country, Taiwan. What was that like and how was the response?
Johnny Hi-Fi: At the time, which was about five years ago, the Asian music industry was still not Alternative Rock orientated. 90-95% of your songs were just your normal J-Pop and Korean pop and your Mandarin Pop. So at the time it was almost just a small experiment to see how rock music was going to play out in the market. Of course, I donít know how it turned out but I do know that there are more bands and rock music being played in Asia, especially in China.
APA: Why did you decide to pursue music?
Johnny Hi-Fi: I think it was just a calling. Some people have always grown up wanting to be a painter. Some people have always grown up wanting to be firefighters. Iíve always been drawn to music ever since I was little. And so here I am, pursuing one of my deepest passions.
APA: Whatís your personal songwriting process?
Johnny Hi-Fi: Nowadays, a melody will come into my head whether Iím walking down the street or sitting on the sofa. A melody will come in and I will try to think about all the issues that are surrounding my life whether itís personal or political. Anything that comes into my mind. Then Iíll start writing the lyrics around that melody. And when a big chunk of that is written, then I will think about the different chord progressions and chord changes that I want to throw in to back up the main melody. Because I think that in order for a song to really be effective, the melody and the lyrics are still the main focus in a song. And so thatís how I would like to work. It's to work on the most important piece in the song composition and then start to build foundations underneath it. Or to put it another way, the melody and the lyrics are the foundation. And then everything else, you just start to back it up.
APA: The best part of making music?
Johnny Hi-Fi: It is an outlet of all the frustrations and all the harshness thatís there in your day-to-day life. Normally at the end of the day, weíll go into the rehearsal studio and rehearse for two to three hours. Usually itís the best part of the day. Because you go through your entire day listening to your clients, but at the end of the day, youíre making music, and itís an outlet. Itís sort of a salvation at the end of the day.
APA: I noticed a lot of your songs on 30 are about love, relationships, and letdown. Any particular reason why?
Johnny Hi-Fi: I think that if youíre just listening to just music, probably 99% of the music thatís out there is about some form of relationships, love, hate. You know itís very seldom a song thatís worldly comes along. I just think that, along with everyone else, something that affects people the most and the most directly are past relationships and love gone bad. I think it will impact you a lot. I guess thatís why theyíre mostly about love or about unrequited love. There are some songs that are not about relationships or love, but since the lyrics are so vague, most people think the song is about love. Itís really about food poisoning. And I wonít tell you which song it is [laughs]
APA: Where are you headed next musically?
Johnny Hi-Fi: Right now we are just going to do what weíve always loved to do, which is to perform live shows. Weíre going to do it about once a month here in New York City, and at the same time weíre branching out to cities like Boston, Cambridge, D.C and Philadelphia. Since all of my bandmates have day jobs, when we turn in our two-week vacation, weíll start thinking about doing the West Coast and in my hometown of Austin, Texas--to play a few shows there.
APA: What do you guys love so much about performing live?
Johnny Hi-Fi: Itís almost like a painter or an artist having their artwork exhibited. Building a car all day, and finally at the end of the day, the car starts. So you know, performing a live show is almost...in a way, itís like a progress report. So weíll know exactly where we are and how well we play onstage, and at the same, itís like a payoff.
APA: If you could convey one single message to the world right now, what would it be?
Johnny Hi-Fi: Donít give up on your dreams.
Date Posted: 10/1/2004