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Asian Man Records founder Mike Park releases new solo album.
Mike Park is no stranger to politics, racial issues, or activism. So it comes as no surprise that his latest album, North Hangook Falling is laden with his own slant on current issues which include, of course, racism, Asian American stereotypes, and, as the title track of the CD suggests, intra/inter-Korean relations.
Since releasing North Hangook Falling in late August 2005, Park has spent the entire past month touring the American West Coast promoting it, along with his non-profit organization, the Plea for Peace Foundation, traveling via bicycle from the Pacific Northwest to San Diego, playing shows along the way. Based out of Monte Sereno, California -- a suburb of Silicon Valley center San Jose -- Mike Park began his musical career in 1985, influenced by punk-rock bands such as Black Flag and Minor Threat. He was a member of the now-defunct San Francisco bay area ska-punk band Skankin' Pickle. In 1996, Park started his independent label Asian Man Records out of his parents’ garage with three employees, one phone, one fax line, and two computers. The label has since become a staple in the indie-rock and punk-rock scene, selling over a million albums with a catalogue of over 100 releases by prominent indie bands such as the Alkaline Trio and the Lawrence Arms, among others.
Despite this success and financial offers, Park still runs the label independently of major label backing, staying true to his punk-rock roots and a desire to sustain a smaller operation. Park is also a strong proponent of community activism and racial harmony. His Korean-American background has given him different insights into greater social and political issues as well as Asian-American community issues. Through the lyrical content of his songs he weighs in on these issues with the purpose of raising greater awareness. His social and political statements are not solely limited to his music either. His all-Asian-American band, the controversially named Chinkees, is meant as a term of empowerment rather than a racial slur.
In 1999, Park founded the Plea for Peace Foundation, a 501c non-profit that works to promote ideas of peace through music. The foundation has the backing of many in the music community including bands, labels, and fans, and works to produce benefit CDs, publications, and organizes an annual concert tour. Given this background of activism, Park’s latest solo effort remains consistent with his past. The songs cover a plethora of issues and even the cover art provokes the senses. The cover features a photo of regimented lines of adolescent girls in uniform that could either be a school or training camp (or both?), with the most prominent face expressing a sense of anger, sadness, and weariness all combined in one. The inside of the liner has more images of men in communist uniforms gathered; presumably -- given the communist clothing, the regimentation and pained emotions, and title of the CD -- it's a not-so-flattering image of North Korea.
The lyrics of North Hangook Falling further weigh in on a number of different issues. On the opening track, Park describes the individual experience in the context of the conflict between North and South Korea, hiding in a basement listening to warning sirens, “waiting for the silence to decide is it safe for [him] to go outside.” On "Asian Prodigy," Park challenges Asian-American stereotypes concerning academic prowess, proclaiming “there are things I need to share,” despite not wanting to be a doctor or lawyer; the lyrics give importance to those that don’t fit those stereotypes. On the title track, Park describes the North as desolate and plagued by death and famine. The liner notes for the lyrics further expand Park’s motivations, stemming from his curiosity to further explore the north-south conflict, hoping for a unified Korean peninsula and an end to the killing and famines of the north. The album closes on a positive note with "Blue Marble," which hopes for greater unity and harmony across cultural, religious, and geo-political lines.
Musically, North Hangook Falling is pretty straightforward indie-pop. It is not anything revolutionary, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. Some tracks are more acoustic-minded with only acoustic guitars and a cello, without drums to back Park’s vocals and harmonies. Others feature a full backing band and complementary guitar leads that work to enhance the melodies in the song. While Park is technically a solo artist on this release, he recorded with the Chicago-based band Colossal, with further help from Korean-American indie-pop darling Jenny Choi on cello and keyboards.
The music and change of tempo in the songs helps to evoke different feelings. The first track, "Is it Safe to go Outside?" is one song where the music enhances the emotive feel; the more upbeat tempo and vocal melodies prevent the song from falling into depression, but the cello accompaniment adds a sadder tone combined with the lyrical content. The result is a bittersweet song, with both lyrics and music reinforcing each other. Similarly, the cello backing for "Asian Prodigy" provides a sense of longing and adds to Park’s lyrics of seeking love and acceptance. Conversely, on "Korea is so Far Away," the mid-tempo pace, combined with the guitar melodies and major harmonies, help add happiness to Park’s interracial, cross-cultural romantic relationship while breaking free from tradition.
With the release of the CD, Park has more tours planned for promotion. A one-off date is planned for Los Angeles on October 20 at the Knitting Factory in Hollywood. In early November, Park will tour Britain and select cities in Europe with the Alkaline Trio. Always busy, he will also continue to promote the activities of his Plea for Peace Foundation. Park has recently announced that he plans to use his foundation to open a youth center in the South Bay area for kids whose interests lie outside of sports or more “normal” activities promoted by schools, and will provide youths with a venue to meet others with similar interests in art, music, and dance.
Given Park’s current commitments to his other music projects, the efforts of his foundation, the day-to-day operations of his record label and touring, it seems unlikely that he would have the time to craft an album. But craft he did, and the result is 12 songs that are musically as rich as any major independent release. Coupled with the lyrical emotional intensity, cultural and political awareness and layer upon layer of self reflection, North Hangook Falling is truly deeper than most of today’s popular music -- indie-rock bands included. But what else should one expect from someone like Mike Park?
Date Posted: 10/6/2005