That was the day that the idea for The Slants was born. I know it because that was the day that Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill was released on DVD. I can still remember the bright yellow disc with black stripes on it sitting in the tray, sliding back into the player as I started the film. That same imagery would later inspire some of the artwork for our fourth release, The Yellow Album.
There’s an iconic scene in Kill Bill that is famous because it introduced the world to the Crazy 88’s, as well as Tomoyasu Hotei’s kickass song, “Battle Without Honor or Humanity” (we later remixed this song to use as an intro at shows). Oren Ishii, played by Lucy Liu, walks into The House of Blue Leaves sushi restaurant, accompanied by her yakuza gang behind her. For most people, it was just another cool walking scene, reminiscent of Tarantino’s style. But for me, it was different: it was the first time that I had ever seen Asians depicted together as cool, confident, and sexy in a major American produced film. And it was in that moment that I realized that despite having over 17 million Asian Americans in the U.S, our communities had almost no representation in the Billboard charts, major music magazines, or rock clubs.
Sure, sometimes a magazine would cover a hip underground Japanese band like Shonen Knife or The Polysix, but no one was paying any attention to U.S. born Asians – who were every bit as American as the non-Asians plastered across every conceivable album on display. So I wanted to shake things up. I had the idea but I lacked two very important things: a name and a band of Asian American musicians.
I started telling friends about the idea and how I wanted to turn some of the preconceptions about Asians upside-down (especially growing up with a life of being bullied). I asked, “What is something that you think all Asians have in common?” Immediately, they said “slanted eyes.” Interesting, I thought…especially since that stereotype is false. But the term stuck with me and suddenly, the name of the band was there: The Slants.
As The Slants, we could share our perspective, or slant, on life as Asian Pacific Islanders (APIs). We could also expose the misconception – and, for those of us who experienced shame as a result for having the physical trait, we could turn it into a point of pride instead.
Getting the lineup wasn’t easy. I spent almost two years recruiting using flyers, Myspace, Craigslist, and the classifieds of every paper in the area. I started visiting anime conventions in hopes of meeting API musicians (this was before I learned how few Asians actually attended them). But eventually, I had enough of a lineup for songwriting and have our first photo shoot. We didn’t even have a drummer yet – but in the photos, you can see the strong influence from Asian mafia movies existing in all of our imagery, swords and guns and all.
The first lineup wasn’t all Asian. Micheal Pacheco (who adopted the moniker “Gaijin”) and Pete Compton (who appeared briefly in the band as “Gwei Lo”) joined, Jen Cho, Aron Moxley, and me. During the first few months, we had multiple lineup changes, including two drummers, a backup vocalist, and a guitarist. But after our first show, we released our debut album, Slanted Eyes, Slanted Hearts and had the first consistent lineup as a six piece: Aron, Micheal, Jen, AC, Jonathan, and me, Simon.
We started touring, performing at rock venues, festivals, and house parties…pretty much any place that wanted our bombastic 80’s dance rock band. We were even one of the first bands in the country to play inside the halls of a county library, at least according to a newsletter published by U.S the Library of Congress. But what really shook things up was when we started playing at anime conventions.
Back then, only a few conventions had concerts at all – and when they did, it usually consisted of anime cover bands. We changed that by actively touring conventions and playing originals. By the end of our second year as a band, we performed at over two dozen of them and the world took notice. NPR’s All Things Considered ran a story about how we were taking on Asian stereotypes while a fan base of geeks-dubbed The Slants Army– started to build around us. When we weren’t playing anime conventions, I was speaking at them and holding down a booth in the artist’s section. We even released a remix album geared specifically for that audience, calling it Slants! Slants! Revolution. Soon after, other bands started playing cons too but we’ve continued to tour across the fandom community. I’ve been to over 200 conventions since our band started.
As the momentum was growing, we made the decision in 2009 to leave our jobs and tour full-time. But it was too much for some members and we had some more lineup changes. That’s when I started talking to Tyler Chen again – he originally auditioned for the band when it was just an idea but decided it wasn’t the right fit for him. As he watched the band take off, he decided to give it another chance. He’s been with the band ever since as our drummer.
Soon, the six of us became four and we toured as a bare-bones, all-Asian American rock n’ roll machine with a greater focus on our guitars. We released Pageantry, an album that paid homage to our stories on the road and reflected the harder-hitting lineup. For the first time, we even released songs that didn’t have keyboards, including Who Shot the Radio?, Astoria, and Every Chance I Get.
Around this time, our attorney recommended that we file a registration for our band’s trademark. “It’s simple,” he said. “Many bands do this, it’s pretty inexpensive and only takes a few months to get.” Later, those words would haunt me. But I didn’t know it at the time- we were too busy touring, playing at anime conventions, holding anti-racism workshops, and making music to worry about how this simple decision would affect our band.
Of course, most people now know us as the band fighting a court case against the Trademark Office, and not necessarily the band fighting against stereotypes. Armed with UrbanDictionary.com and a photograph of Miley Cyrus pulling her eyes back in a slant-eye gesture, the Trademark Office accused our band name of being disparaging, or racist, towards Asians. We fought against this, hard. We sent thousands of pages of evidence, including independent surveys, linguistics experts, letters from API leaders, and other examples of Asian Americans using “slant” in a positive, self-referential way. Along the way, we finally convinced our friend, Thai Dao, to join the band and he was soon involved in a battle that he didn’t quite sign up for. His first show with us was the day after The Oregonian featured a story about our trademark troubles on the front page.
My time started getting divided between writing and performing music, going back to a day job, doing legal research, and traveling as a speaker to rally support for our case. Then, our attorney asked a simple question of the Trademark Office: “Why was The Slants considered disparaging while hundreds of other applications for ‘slant’ were approved without the same accusation?” The government’s response was troubling. We were “too Asian.”
They wrote, “Applicant is a founding member of a band (The Slants) that is self described as being composed of members of Asian descent.” It followed, therefore, that “the association of the term SLANTS with those of Asian descent is evidenced by how Applicant uses the mark – as the name of an all Asian-American band” of which he, an Asian, is a member.“
To them, combining an all-Asian band with the word “slant” would make people automatically associate us with the outdated, obscure racial slur and not any other possible definition. In other words, anyone could trademark “slant,” as long as they weren’t Asian.
Meanwhile, other parts of the government thought our work in promoting Asian American culture was exceptionally important and we were asked to perform for the Department of Defense, federal prisons, and for international diplomats from Asia. We often got invited by the White House to help President Obama on an anti-bullying campaign years later. The infuriating battle, as well as deep irony in the government’s position, provided angst for several new songs that laid the groundwork for The Yellow Album. But the twists and turns of our legal battle, combined with an aggressive touring schedule, led to multiple turnovers in the two years that followed the release of the album.
Jonathan Fontanilla, my close friend and primary co-writer of most of our music, wanted to focus on a new relationship. Aron Moxley, our lead singer, started a new job that prevented him from touring or playing weekend shows with us. Thai Dao, received a promotion at work and would no longer be able to travel. And Will Moore, a temporary replacement for Jonathan, wanted to focus on his own band, whose schedule conflicted with ours far too often. Tyler and I stuck through every bit of it.
Of course, turnover is a part of being in a band. In 2014, we picked up Ken Shima as our lead singer and Joe X. Jiang as our guitarist shortly after. And while we are eager to write new music to see how our sound (affectionately called “Chinatown Dance Rock”) will evolve, we wanted to release a body of work as an homage to a decade of touring, writing, performing, and fighting. That “best of” album was our release, Something Slanted This Way Comes.
Around this time, things really picked up. We finally had some positive momentum in our legal battles when a federal court handed us a major victory: they declared the law being used against us as unconstitutional. However, the Trademark Office filed suit and dragged us to the United States Supreme Court. The extra time on the road was too much for Tyler, who had moved out of state and was tired of the commuting. So after eight years, our brother behind the drums took his leave and Yuya Matsuda briefly took his place.
On Martin Luther King Jr. day 2017, less than a week before we’d appear at the highest court in the country, we released an E.P called The Band Who Must Not Be Named and dedicated it to the government. Six months later, our rights were vindicated when the Supreme Court ruled, unanimously, that The Slants should be a registered trademark. By then, our band was back down to three: Ken, Joe, and me.
In mid-2018, we started a 501(c)3 organization, The Slants Foundation, so we could provide scholarships and mentorship to aspiring artists and activists of color. To reflect this, our band has been working on collaborations with other Asian American artists so our new music and performances reflect an ever-rotating cast of musicians that highlight our diverse experiences. In fact, our band members will jump on stage with us from time to time. It became what I originally sought after: identity and community.
That history – all of it – has really been ingrained into our work. We’ve merged arts and activism, rock n’ roll and geeky anime culture, and touring as a band as well touring as speakers, into the very fabric of this band.
There’s no way that I could have predicted all of this to happen as I was watching Kill Bill on that fateful night many years ago. I just wanted to start a band to provide some representation for Asian Americans and to share our culture, not fight a legal case that would find its way to the Supreme Court. But honestly, I wouldn’t take any of it back. It’s been an incredible journey and there have been so many amazing people that we’ve met along the way. It’s been said that we are defined by what we care about. As we share our music with you that was carried us through the past decade, I hope you’ll hear how it is ingrained with the passion, spirit, and struggles of this band over the years. More than any 80’s music or film with yakuza, our band has been defined by the community that we serve: The Slants Army. And whether you’re just joining or you’ve been in our ranks for years, we salute you.