Tag Archives: jewish

Info nom nom nom? Write a song instead?

How do you balance the need or desire to learn with the need or desire to create?

I’ve been long interested in learning about the machinations of the American music industry, but being in Tokyo, getting my hands on trade publications like Billboard is a bit tricky – and a bit expensive.

So it was with great joy that I belatedly discovered Google Reader. Yes, my 67-year-old mother who vividly remembers WWII has a Kindle and a SmartPhone and I didn’t even know about Google Reader? Shut it.

Unfortunately when I discover something new I’m like a kid on a sugar high and I ended up adding something like 40 music industry blogs to my Reader. Meaning 130+ posts to read a DAY. FML. Fortunately my undergrad literary theory days taught me how to skim, but trying so hard to keep on top of new industry developments makes me wonder if I should just shut the door on the noise (or rather close my browser), unsubscribe, shut off my computer and get back to songwriting.

For those of you creative types who are also info junkies, if you work too much on your craft do you worry you’re missing the passing technology ship? And if you’re too addicted to reading about industry developments, do you feel like you’re not creating enough?

How do you balance the need or desire to learn with the need or desire to create?

Leave a comment

Posted by on December 11, 2010 in Music Business, Songwriting


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Making Music in Judeo G(Asian-)America

Wow.  What a remarkably pretentious (and incomprehensible) blog entry title, hahah…  Last night my buddy PL and I caught Hank Kim perform at Parkside Lounge off of Houston (yes, it’s pronounced How-sten, not Huoo-sten – lived in and around New York City my whole life – still no idea why).  I’ve been a big fan of Hank’s work ever since hearing his version of “Candy Bar Killer” from his “Blue Alibi” album on Luna Lounge’s internet radio station.  He has a singing style that reminds me of They Might Be Giants mixed with the arrangement styles of The Postal Service.  And he weaves some great noir.  His live performance is a bit more rough around the edges, but that plus his self-depricating humor make for a great performance. 

As he launched into his song “Saratoga,” PL leaned over and jokingly said “Well, he’s definitely no Kevin So.  You don’t get whiter than Saratoga!  What a sell out, haha!”  PL’s comment reminded me of the challenges of being an Asian-American performer in the white-dominated singer-songwriter market.  Beyond the regular “getting your music out there,” you’re often going to be perceived by someone as either “too white” or “too Asian.”

For years, I’ve peripherally struggled with retaining cultural authenticity in my songwriting, though I suppose that being a Japanese/Jewish gay guy, that comes with the territory (ha!)  Fortunately, I think, my songwriting has gone beyond the overtly identity-politics crap of my college years, e.g. “Look at my half-almond eyes/Look at my smooth semi-Asian thighs/When u see me out and proud/with my boyfriend in the crowd…” 

Yeah.  That bad.  Or worse, if you can imagine.  With lyrics like that I ran the risk of niche-marketing myself to death!  And while I still see the value in personal-is-political songwriting, I gravitate towards songs that bring people into a shared experience.   I mean, don’t get me wrong – I’m sure there’s a Japanese/Jewish gay community just waiting to make me their poster boy. 😉 

Perhaps I’ve sold out.  Or at least am trying to, haha, since no one’s offered me a good price for my soul.  C’mon – it’s a nice one, covered in fabulous sequins.  Right.  See?  Erasure IS a big influence on me.

I’ve found I’m most comfortable in the pop song medium, and introducing Japanese instrumentation through my use of the shamisen is a way to pay homage to my cultural upbringing without letting it suffocate me or alienate audiences and fans.  But the whole issue of authenticity and the risks of “playing to your own insular crowd” come to mind whenever I attend and/or perform at Asian-American music events.  While most are chill and inclusive, I wonder if shows that use Asian-American-ness (the definition of which can be remarkably subjective) as the organizing theme run the risk of keeping their performers in a cultural ghetto, albeit one with many rich stories to tell, but an insular one nonetheless. 

Last year, I performed at Ramapo College’s Asian Expo event (a night of Asian-American song, dance and poetry).  The audience was almost exclusively Asian/Asian-American.  That was… until the last act took the stage.  Fronted by Jack Hsu, who plays Er-Hu, Hsu-Nami does this awesome fusion of (at the risk of sounding like a ridonkulously cheesy suburban buffet) East meets West.  But it works well because the musicians have the chops to back up the concept. 

I believe Jack is the only non-white guy in the band (though I could be wrong).  I mention this because when Hsu-Nami started playing, suddenly all these white kids showed up, dancing along and cheering loudly.  It was straight out of a Staind or Dave Mathews live concert shoot.  And all I could think coming out of that event is that if you’re an Asian-American fronted band, you better have some white band mates or else you’ll never make it mainstream, and you’ll be stuck with a limited audience of Asian-Americans.  Which is not to say the Asian-American fans won’t benefit from seeing you do your thing but still… perhaps I’m totally wrong but it’s hard to shake that impression.

And the thing that gets to me is that the dearth of Asian-American pop stars is definitely not from lack of talent, as my experiences at Sulu, TeaBag/Five Points and watching vids on YouTube have shown me.  But unless American demographics shift I can’t imagine any Asian-American, beyond the token 1-2, “making it mainstream.”

Perhaps I’m a touch pessimistic about it.  And no doubt some of my perception on this stems from my own multicultural upbringing, and being part of several communities’ shared expriences. And while it’s possible that some might say things like “Danny Katz’ songs aren’t gay/Jewish/Japanese enough” I’d like to think that the quality of my songwriting is not limited to the gays, the Jews, the Japanese and all those that fall in between.  Good grief, I should start my own club!  Membership… 1?

This is an ongoing theme thought that I’ll no doubt refer to in future blogs.  But I did forward an article in
ImagiNation (a newsletter about Asian-American music and arts) about Hank Kim to PL, saying something along the lines of “Little did we know.  Apparently Saratoga is an Asian-American hotspot 😛  Or something.”

1 Comment

Posted by on January 18, 2008 in Multicultural Music, Music


Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

More Than Meets Your Monitor!

I’m happy to write that production on “More Than Meets the Ear: (Selections from) Transformers The Musical” is close to complete.  Just two more sessions and the tracks get sent off to be mastered (adding final “umph” to the mix).  Once that’s done, they’ll be ready for your listening pleasure.

I’m still on the fence about whether to release this album only as digital downloads or whether it’s still worth the substantial expense of making CDs (with digital downloads through iTunes following within 6 months).  Any thoughts on this?  How many of you still buy physical CDs?

In any event, here’s all we accomplished at last Saturday’s session:

1. We mixed “Optimus Prime” – a song which originally was a simple ballad mourning Optimus’ passing in the ’86 Transformers movie.  But with lyrics like “Optimus Prime/I think about you all of the time/Rememering our conversations on Cybertron/And Optimus Prime/I think about you all of the time/And I know that your legacy will live on” we agreed that it deserved a transformation (yuckyuckyuck) into an epic David Bowie meets Queen song.  It’s now totally over-the-top and I love it.  I’m sure you will too 😉

2. We mixed “Sam Witwicky” (the song about The character of the same name in the ’07 movie: “Just because I ride a girl’s pink bicycle/Doesn’t mean I can’t hold the weight of the world in my hands/It doesn’t take the Allspark/Or the Autobot matrix of leadership/To make a man/All it takes is your great-great grandfather’s glasses/And an eBay account”) to give it that Beatles/old time radio feel by panning vocals and guitar hard left and hard right and compessing the s*it out of the vocals.

3. For “Allspark,” (a song written from the point of view of the vending machine that gets brought to life for 5 seconds during the final fight seen in The ’07 Transformers movie – “Allspark-I am nothing without you/Allspark-you make me feel brand new/Before you came into my life, before I had you by my side/I was just a lonely vending
machine/Down and out in Mission City”) we broke out the old organ and ginormous Leslie (?) amp.  The kind where the wawa sound of the organ comes from this fan type thing twirling like a carousel on crack.  Aaron had to get me to focus since I kept staring in wonder at the amp.  Ooh.  Antique music gear (drooling).  Must. Touch.

4. We had fun distorting the living s*it out the vocals in “Arcee,” my Greenday-esque tribute to the most memorable female Transformer from the ’86 movie (if only because she’s the only female Transformer that was seen for more than five seconds.)  With lyrics like “Autobots and humans should keep things professional/interspecies dating is way too extraterrestrial/And I know I can offer you a different kind of love you’ll see/even though at my tallest point/I barely reach your knee (will I see you at BotCon?)” you know this track’s gotta be… Special.  Besides… Ain’t she a beaut?  And never in my life would I have imagined that a little folk singer like me would be able to pull off punk-pop!

5. Rachel Beninati, who is the darling lead vocalist of my “Eternally Bueller” 80s covers band, came in to do some Amy Winehouse (minus the beehive/cocaine stash) style lead vocals and harmonies for the track “Bumblebee,” written from the point of view of an unnamed female Junkion (a line of Transformers introduced in the ’86 movie who live on the planet… Junkion.  I know, cleverrr) who suspects Bumblebee is cheating on her with one of the other *gasp* male Transformers.  Seriously though, it’s an awesome experience writing a song for someone else to sing.  It’s something I definitely want to do more of.

6. For “The Acousticons,” the track about a fictional line of Transformers that pride themselves on Transforming into non-mechanical things (“We are the Acousticons/Get that microphone away from me/When you are an Acousticon/You transform accoustically/We are the Acousticons/No need for machinery/When you are an Acousticon/Ya transform naturally”) we recorded “bar sounds” by smacking beer mugs around and knocking over stools.  Kinda like kindergarten.  Yippee!  And once these low-fi sound effects are mixed in with the fake bar banter we recorded a few months back (with the help of Mel Aroco, John Violago, Mike Violago and their mom), the track should have the feel of a lively Irish pub.  Albeit one filled with drunken Transformers.  “Bartender!  I’d like an Energon martini.”  Yeah, something like that.

7. For my personal favorite, “Ironhide,” we added a slide guitar lead to give the track an alt-country feel.  It’s a nice flourish to a song about love and loss with lyrics like “But for all of my/All of my bravado/Chromia I miss you so/And I’m still aching for your touch/But I’ll be coming home/I’ll be coming home soon/And we will dance by the light of Cybertronian moons” Some Transformers trivia for you (so you can sound extra knowledgeable at your next dinner party – or Comicon):  Chromia is another female Transformer who I believe is featured for all of 1 minute in the episode “The Search for Alpha Trion.”  From what I recall of that episode, she was kinda gruff and a tough fighter.  Reminds me of my boss.  Awesome.  And what was with the dearth of female characters anyways?  I’d accuse the show of being, oh iunno, phallocentric but it’s not as if they… Ok, lemme stop.

Since this album started out as a one song joke consisting of two lines repeated in my head ad nauseum (“Optimus Prime – I think about you all of the time”), I’m amazed at how it’s grown into a full-on concept album.  Even when I was teaching the songs to John Violago and Matt Pana (who play bass/vocals and drums on it, respectively), I only had a partial idea how the songs would grow in the recording studio.  Their blooming (can Transformers songs bloom?) is owed in no small part to Aaron Nevezie’s genius behind the board at The Bunker Studios.  (Not that I wasn’t aware of his skills when recording Strangely Beautiful, but much of that album was me recording tracks in my noisy Manhattan Apartment, then transferring the tracks to CD-Rom, uploading them at The Bunker and telling Aaron and John Davis, “Yeah- so these songs are kinda done.  But can you, ya know… Fix ’em?”  This time we recorded everything in the studio.)

I’ve recorded studio albums since high school, but I’m still amazed how songs evolve in the studio environment.  There’s something incredible that comes out of collaborating with musicians who get what you’re looking for in your songs, even if you don’t have words to convey the ideas to them.  And there’s really no greater pleasure for me than to hear all these ideas fleshed out and brought to life in a collaborative and improvisational environment. 

It was even more gratifying than I would have expected because writing comedic songs about something that was such a large part of my childhood gave me an artistic and “grown up” way to become a kid again. 

Not that childhood was all picturesque suburban pastures – elementary school was particularly challenging (once a geek, always a geek!) and  Transformers was therefore an imaginative escape for me.  Even though I realized other kids had them too, it felt like a very private world of role play, battles, and some awful super 8 stop-motion videos of Kup jerkily transforming/falling on his face/tripping on legos/etc.

As an aside, I think I got quite a few in my Transformers collection as bribes from my mom to continue attending Saturday Japanese school, the most memorable one being Soundwave.  What?  With Hebrew School on Wednesdays and Sundays and Japanese School on Saturdays, I was a bit overwhelmed.  And Friday night’s shabbat usually consisted of me and my a.d.d. self trying to devise ways to avoid sitting with my mom at the kotatsu doing kanji homework.  All of my Transformers are now being displayed, museum style, by my friend Ms. Hawley (since I don’t have room in my apartment for them).  And somewhere, deep in the trenches of my childhood suburban home, I think I have all the episodes reocrded (complete with commercials) on BETAMAX!

For what it’s worth, I think Optimus Prime was my first crush.  Ok, I know. Who the fuck has a crush on a truck?!  Is there even a psychiatric term for that?  Dirty.  You’re all dirty.  It was an innocent kid crush.  Nothing sexual.  Something about his virtue, voice and oh yeah, his chest.  Woof.  Oh maybe I’m mixing him up with He-Man.  After all, He-Man did have that white guy trying to work the Asian bowl hair-cut thing going on.

In any event, experiencing the ’07 movie in a packed movie theater was therefore an emotional experience I cannot put into words.  Here was something I had very privately grown up with that a packed movie theater related to with as much enthusiasm as I did.  There are no words to describe how geekily exciting it was when the entire audience bursted into applause the first time Optimus Prime transformed.  I think I shed a tear.  Yeah, tre butch, I know. 

So I’m hoping the album conveys some of that youthful glee.  Because recording this album allowed me to tap into that exhuberent childhood connection with The Transformers cartoon and use it to create something totally new and fabulously cracked-out. 🙂 

I go back next Thursday for more mixing.  Wish me luck!


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,