Don't Call It Nothing gets personal as I talk about my maternal grandparents, Okinawa, plantations, and the Korean concept of han. I also discuss John Lee, aMiniature, the Casbah, and healthy competition in the mid-'90s San Diego scene.Support the show
aMiniature – "He, The Bad Feeler"
Welcome to Don't Call It Nothing, the podcast dedicated to the lost history of '90s roots, rap, and rock 'n' roll, and now officially based on the book of the same name. This is Lance, I apologize for getting the pod out late. I had to tend to some other gardens, plus today’s subject is very personal to me and I wanted to get it right. It’s more biographical than autobiographical, but part of today’s podcast is about my maternal grandparents. Heiko (HIGH-ko) Uehara (oo-ay-HAR-A) — which you WILL hear me say you-ay-HAR-a because I’m hapa and was raised to have a stupid white mouth [laughs] — was my grandfather and I knew him as Jiji. Good old dude, classic grandpa. Kameyo was his wife, my grandmother. I knew her as Baba. Best laugh ever, awesome lady.
However, the other part of today’s pod concerns the band you just heard. aMiniature, small a, capital M, iniature, a San Diego force of nature in the mid-‘90s. If you’re a fan of the Pixies, Superchunk, Drive Like Jehu, Hot Snakes, Archers Of Loaf, Spoon, Echo And The Bunnymen, or … And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, you’re probably gonna wanna stick around. That track was “He, The Bad Feeler” from their third and final album, 1995’s Murk Time Cruiser. aMiniature was a post-punk band who took the punk part very seriously. These dudes rocked, but their song structures featured odd angles, slashing rhythms, big riffs, little dollops of melody, effective use of space, and sing/scream vocals that a few years later would get dumbed down into emo. What differentiated aMiniature from so many bands in the ‘90s rock ‘n’ roll underground — and not just in their native San Diego — was the fact that the band’s leader, John Lee, was Asian-American. Korean-American, specifically.
In his book, Sells Like Teen Spirit: Music, Youth Culture, and Social Crisis, Ryan Moore has a passage where Lee crystallizes the racial dynamic in San Diego, but he could’ve been talking about anywhere in America.
[QUOTE FROM BOOK]
When John says, “I really wanted THAT when I was a kid,” he’s not saying he wanted to be white. He’s saying that he wanted that sense of belonging that came naturally to white kids living in a white world. He wanted the luxury and privilege of not having to think about his identity because having it constantly questioned is fucking exhausting. Of course, when you’re a kid, you don’t understand that your outsiderness can be weaponized and turned into an advantage. For example, Lee brought a swagger and violence to his playing that was, clearly to my mind, a deliberate effort to beat the white boys at their own game. Bands either couldn’t follow aMiniature OR — best case scenario — stepped up to the challenge, giving the audience two exceptional sets. For me, a fellow Asian face in a white space, John Lee and aMiniature were liberating. It was triumphant to see a surly, funny, unapologetic Asian dude refusing to play the model minority game. I’m forever indebted.
aMiniature - "Featurist"
There are two kinds of people in the world: conquerors and those who survived the conquerors. It should be noted that all conquerors began life as survivors. At some point, though, they chose conqueror culture because, let’s face it, it’s easier. You get to make the decisions. You get to point and tell other people to do stuff. I’m from survival stock, ONE generation removed from martial law, barbed wire, and restrictive covenants, TWO generations removed from an Okinawa-to-Hawaii diaspora driven by Imperial Japanese fuckery. As someone who knows that native American tribes were assimilated in the 19th and 20th century with an eye towards ethnic erasure, Japan’s policies toward Okinawa are predictably familiar. The Japanese wanted obedient subjects, so assimilation wasn’t suggested or optional. It was strictly enforced, which meant gaslighting, shame, and violence. You were not Okinawan, you were Japanese.
So, my grandparents dipped out to Hawaii, separately, but for the same fundamental reason. That’s where the jobs were and not jobs in tourism or industry. Jiji worked on pineapple and sugar cane plantations, which gave him hands like fucking catcher’s mitts. And plantation isn’t a euphemism. “Agricultural work” is the euphemism. Plantation means plantation.
[QUOTE FROM BOOK]
Let’s focus on a few words and phrases.
“Worked like machines.” “No time to rest.” “Field boss on a horse.” “Rope.” “Whipping.” “Striking.” “Harshness.” “Brutal supervision.” “Watched constantly.” “Overseer.” “Overseer.”
I think KRS-One had a little something to say about this.
Excerpt from KRS-One, "Sound Of Da Police"
Long before Japanese colonization, Okinawans tangled with the Chinese, defeating Kublai Khan and the Mongols in 1276. This independence couldn’t last, of course, because China is China and Okinawa is a small series of islands between the East China Sea and the Philippine Sea. Of course, because of that location the islands were a linchpin in the maritime trade networks of medieval East Asia and Southeast Asia, which is why the Ryukyuan Kingdom — so named because of the Ryukyuan Islands, of which the Okinawan Islands are ground zero — survived in the shadow of much stronger geopolitical operatives for nearly half a millennium: 1429-1879.
Okinawa was a collision culture when Columbus was still getting wedgies in Christian death cult summer camp. Look at any map and you’ll see the islands smack dab between Japan and Korea to the north, China to the west, the Philippines to the south, Taiwan slightly southwest, and Vietnam and the rest of southeast Asia a bit further southwest. We interacted with all of them, stole ideas, adapted, and became the sum of several different parts because survival required it.
This is most obvious in Okinawa’s cuisine, which took pork and tofu from China, dashi fish stock from Japan, tropical fruits like the goya or bitter melon from southeast Asia, and even Spam from America. All of these ingredients are part of — and I’m gonna say this like I have a clumsy, white American mouth [laughs] — goya champuru. Champ like champeen, U-R-U. I’ve also seen it spelled chanpuru, with an N instead of an M. It’s Okinawa’s signature stir-fry dish and sometimes you’ll see the word “champuru” used synonymously with the term “stir-fry.” “Champuru” actually means “mixed” and comes from the Indonesian word, “campur,” which also means “mixed.” In other words, champuru is a multiracial, multiethnic, mixed race victory lap. It’s a reminder that Okinawans, this mixed-up collision of Asian cultures, has survived a million typhoons, numerous Chinese dynasties, the mass psychosis of the Imperial Japanese, rapey American soldiers, and even modern Japan, who sees the islands as little more than a geostrategic Indian reservation.
There’s a popular theory that karate emerged from Okinawa as a result of Japanese weapons bans in the 16th and 17th centuries. You can see the appeal of the story. The crafty underdog invents a fighting system where the human body itself is the weapon and therefore unbannable. This theory is almost certainly untrue. But, Okinawans did in fact invent karate and it wasn’t just about open hand punches and kicks. That’s how you turn into the Dane Cook of martial arts: karate. Historically, karate incorporated grappling, throws, joint locks, restraints, choking, and vital point strikes called kyusho. The emphasis on grappling came from tegumi (TAY-goo-me), Okinawa’s OG bloodsport where the winner was decided by submission through joint locks, strangles, or pinning. It’s funny, because if I asked a modern American fight fan what he’d call a popular combat sport where the object is striking, grappling, throws, joint locks, restraints, choking, and vital point strikes to win by submission, he’d say, “MMA.” And then I’d say, “I get that the second M and the A stand for Martial Arts. What does the first M stand for, because it’s doing the heavy lifting for the sport’s popularity?”And he’d say …
aMiniature - "Showdowned"
That’s aMiniature with “Showdowned” from their second album, 1994’s depthfiveratesix. Everything aMiniature starts with John Lee, the band’s singer, songwriter, and rhythm/lead guitarist. The songs are written around doubled guitar parts with Lee set off in one channel and a second guitarist — Kevin Wells on depthfive, Mark Monteith on Murk Time — set off in the other. Guitars are often used like horns, mirroring each other, but not exactly. If Lee plays a clipped riff, Wells or Monteith will play a slightly different riff. If Lee stretches out for a solo, the Wells or Monteith solo will have a similar feel. Same parts, but not the same notes, and because they’re set in opposite channels, it presents a curious asymmetry. And then for all the guitar fire, without Colin Watson on bass and badasses like Christian Hoffman and Mark Trombino on drums, aMiniature just isn’t the same band. If you want Television-style guitar runoff, then tight, nimble chemistry in the rhythm section is essential.
I said earlier that outsiderness can be weaponized and turned into an advantage. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, a lot of boys and girls who felt like outsiders started bands. And bands tend to attract other bands and if you’re lucky, a cohort of like-minded musicians can coalesce into a scene. Back in 2019, John Lee and Mitch Wilson of No Knife were interviewed for the ‘90s rock podcast, Dig Me Out, and they had this exchange.
17:30 - Mitch Wilson: “The Casbah really kicked things off. What was the capacity, like 80?”
17:42 - John Lee: “Very, very small. That first version of the Casbah really drew all kinds of different bands. Punk rock bands, pop, whatever. And it really kinda formed the San Diego scene.”
18:00 - Wilson: “I was too young, so I'd sit on this little green electrical box with all the other kids drinking beers and you'd see all these bands walk by — Jesus Lizard, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Urge Overkill — and then local bands started playing there all the time, too, and it just created this scene.”
18:24 - Lee: “You know what I think is important about the Casbah? Any scene can exist for eternity without getting any better, unless there's a real sense of competition and oneupsmanship. When you see national bands playing a 70-person club and a local band opening, I think it really makes everybody try harder. I think it made my band better.”
—Dig Me Out, San Diego In The 90s, December 3, 2019
Damn right it did. Iron sharpens iron. At Alabama, Nick Saban practices first team offense against first team defense knowing that both sides of the ball are probably the best team each will face all season. You think you’re good, well, a first round draft choice is lining up against you. And if you fail, a first round draft choice is behind you on the depth chart. That competitive temperament doesn’t mean Bama can’t get got, but always against teams who have their own future NFL players. Music scenes at their best are no different. aMiniature was aMiniature because they knew they had to keep up with Uncle Joe’s Big Ol’ Driver and Rocket From The Crypt. I have no doubt that worked in the other direction. And because of that internal competition between the bands in San Diego, every once in awhile, if a headliner wasn’t dialed in, one of these San Diego bands would take down Bama.
Which brings me to the other major tentpole in mid-’90s San Diego: Cargo Records. In the summer of ‘93, Cargo recorded a bunch of different bands at the Casbah for a compilation called Musica Del Diablo: Live From The Casbah. Like most comps, I love some performances, like others, and am indifferent to the rest. But, as a snapshot of the the city’s rock ‘n’ roll underground — at what might’ve been its peak — it’s a solid document. It would’ve been nice to have Rocket or Jehu, maybe the Rugburns, but you get Drip Tank, Inch, Contra Guerra, Lucy's Fur Coat, Trumans Water, Deadbolt, so many San Diego staples. My favorite tracks are Fluf (“Little Baby”), Heavy Vegetable (“Dutch”), John Doe and Smokey Hormel (the hidden track “Liar’s Market”), and a pair of epic, dual guitar jams: Uncle Joe’s Big Ol’ Driver (Dave Jass’ “Superman”) right into aMiniature’s “Physical Climber.”
aMiniature - “Physical Climber"
Koreans have an exquisite concept called han. It’s described as a combination of deep sorrow, resentment, grief, regret, and anger felt by all Koreans. I like the definition proposed by Hawaii-born, Korean-American artist, Lauren Hana Chai. She says, “Han is this great sense of unresolved injustice, conflict, and oppression” and that it emerged “because of Korea’s history of constantly being taken over and colonized by invading foreign countries.“ Han sounds like PTSD and it’s perfectly understandable given that the country is divided into northern and southern halves, not because of some long-simmering cultural division, but because the 38th Parallel was convenient for the Soviet Union and US. And all of that Cold War meddling followed Imperial Japan’s annexation of Korea, which began with forced assimilation — just like Okinawa — but then graduated into forced labor, comfort girls, rape, human experimentation, starvation, torture, and murder. And prior to that was centuries of being leaned on by China. But, that stretch from the mid-’30s through the mid-’50s saw the country both literally and metaphorically destroyed. All of that historical trauma is buried inside Koreans waiting to be dealt with.
[QUOTE FROM BOOK]
My theory is that something akin to han is shared by all Asians. The 20th century was so genocidal for so many Asians, how could there not be psychic scars? Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Tarawa, Okinawa, Iwo Jima, Saipan, Buna–Gona, Nanking, Hiroshima, Nagasaki. These places saw humanity at its most depraved and despicable, the question isn’t IF you have PTSD. The question is how are you dealing with it? Recovering economically from rubble is impressive. Japan and South Korea are to be credited. But, it’s not nearly as difficult as recovering psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually from trauma on that scale. If you’re Japanese, how do deal with the fact that your ancestors underwent mass psychosis, which curiously, makes you and them victims as well? And God bless the Chinese, who didn’t need to worry about foreign invaders because their enemy was their own government. Tens of millions dead from starvation, 45 million between 1958-62 alone. That’s 7 1/2 holocausts in half the time.
The 20th century was a killing field for Asians and all of this death, discrimination, and hardship has to be reckoned with. It is, to slightly paraphrase the ponytailed Mr. Kim, “embedded in our DNA.” This pan-Asian han should be seen, not just as grief or suffering, though it is that, but as a responsibility to our ancestors, most of whom had no political voice, and many of whom were treated like cattle — and slaughtered as such — by psychotic men in power. We don’t need to become financially successful. We don’t need to acquire stuff. We need to deal with “this great sense of unresolved injustice, conflict, and oppression.” We need to process the pain, not ignore it or act like it’s not there.
The great aMiniature with their epic, “Hiker Atlas,” the final track on depthfiveratesix, which is NOT on Spotify. Neither is their follow-up album, Murk Time Cruiser. There’s some stuff on YouTube and to that end I created an aMiniature YouTube playlist named after the band. I’ll link to it in the transcription, but it should be easy to find. Thanks again to family members for being patient with my tardiness and allowing me a space where I can talk about my family history and dark moments in Asian history. Some of this stuff is new to me, too, so we’re learning together.
Just a reminder, if you’d like my book about ‘90s roots, rap, and rock ‘n’ roll, please go to dontcallitnothing.squarespace.com/book and a PDF download will be available there for free!!! There’s also a Book button in the nav bar. If you wanna send me $10, $20, or $100 in a tip jar kinda way, hit me up at PayPal and Venmo at email@example.com. Thank you in advance. You can also sign up for the podcast at the $5 and $20/month levels. You get bonus episodes and at the $20/month level there’s a bit of collaboration, you can make a request, etc, etc. Love you guys. See ya later.
aMiniature – "Peddler’s Talk"