BY MAX ABRAMS The Slants claim to be the first all-Asian-American rock band in the secret history of Asian-American rock bands, and they wear that title like a badge of honor, even when it might work against them. Based out of Portland, Oregon, The Slants have been blasting out high-energy synth-pop-punk since their inception 11 years ago. With a long track record of working hand-in-glove with Asian-American advocacy groups and repping Asian-American identity politics in their music, The Slants were shocked and righteously annoyed to learn that the federal government refused their application to trademark their band name, claiming that it was “disparaging” and “hurtful” to the very people they were working to represent. This resulted in a protracted eight-year legal battle that climbed its way to the Supreme Court, and is still going on today, and necessitated bands members holding down two or three jobs each just keep up with their mounting legal bills. They are currently on a tour in support of their new EP, the aptly-titled The Band Who Must Not Be Named, which brings them to Kung Fu Necktie on Tuesday April 18th. Recently, we got Slants frontman/founder Simon Tam on the horn to discuss their long legal odyssey, the new EP, and the state of racism and identity politics in America in the awful Age of Trump.
PHAWKER: Alright, so before we get started I just wanted to make sure if I have this down right. You guys decided to call yourselves The Slants, at least in part, to reclaim a dehumanizing slur, right? Or, you know, a stereotype against Asian-Americans.
SIMON TAM: Yeah, that’s true. I mean, I picked it because of a couple different reasons but that was definitely one of them.
PHAWKER: Right, but was that the forefront reason, or was it kind of a side thing? Did it even occur to you guys, I mean, your band has been around for awhile now, when you guys first started was that a thing you were aware of?
SIMON TAM: We never considered it to be a racial slur. Most of the time people don’t view “slant” as a slur, they say the whole phrase like “slant eyes”. I came up with the name when I was asking people, “hey, what’s something you think all Asians have in common?” because I wanted to just bring up issues of representation and Asian-American identity, and a lot of my non-Asian friends would be like, “Asians all have slanted eyes”, and I’d be like, “Actually, we don’t.” Asians aren’t the only people who have any sort of slant to the eye, and not all Asians have slanted eyes. So I thought, this is real interesting because it could be brought up as perspective, like a slant on life, or what it’s like to be people of color. And at the same time, I could pay homage to Asian-American activists who have been re-appropriating the term for decades.
PHAWKER: Right, so you guys were concerned with representation with your name.
SIMON TAM: Not so much the name, just representation in the entertainment industry as a whole for Asian-Americans.
PHAWKER: Ok. And then, you guys go to trademark this name, and you get refused multiple times under the Lanham Act.
SIMON TAM: Yep, section 2A of the Lanham Act.
PHAWKER: So you guys go on this 7 year legal battle that makes its way to the Supreme Court right? And they were claiming the name was hurtful or disparaging right?
SIMON TAM: Yeah, they were claiming the name was disparaging towards people of Asian descent. Not only that, but that a substantial composite of Asians would be offended by our name. The problem is that they never actually spoke to any Asians the entire time. They didn’t do any research on it, besides a quick Google search, and they used Urban Dictionary as their main source. So wiki-jokes like.
PHAWKER: Which is absolutely ridiculous.
SIMON TAM: Yeah.
PHAWKER: And I just watched one of your Ted talks and you were saying the same thing. They were saying that they had Asian-Americans working somewhere in D.C. and because of that they felt like they represented the whole community well or something like that?
SIMON TAM: Yeah, we had the working commissioner of the Asian-American and Pacific Islanders, which is a board appointed by the Oregon state Governor, they wrote a letter in asking, how did you make this decision? because they were like, as far as we can tell, the Asian-American community overwhelmingly supports The Slants. And that’s when they responded and said, ‘Hey, we haven’t really talked to anybody, but we have a lot of Asian people who work in the government.’ And of course none of them actually worked on the case or were talked to about the case, so that became a part of the problem.
PHAWKER: Right, and is the case resolved now? I was reading that you won, but-
SIMON TAM: We won at the federal circuit, which was about a year-and-a-half ago, but then when it got repealed and accepted at the Supreme Court that took it to another level. So right now we are waiting on the decision that will be issued from the Supreme Court, which will be about June or so.
PHAWKER: That’s coming up pretty soon.
SIMON TAM: Yeah, in the meantime we are just hitting the road.
PHAWKER: Right, to promote your new EP, The Band Who Must Not Be Named, which I think is an aptly named EP. But I was also curious about the perception of this whole thing in the Asian community, in terms of support. I was wondering if there was a generational break, maybe older people being opposed to the name and younger people supporting it? Or is it, like you said, overwhelming support?
SIMON TAM: Yeah, it’s overwhelming support across all generations. So when independent national surveys are done, they actually say that people under thirty support our name at the same rate as people over the age of 65. So we’ve actually had numerous incarceration camp survivors write letters of support on our behalf who claim that we’re kind of standing up for our community and actually that our work is admirable and should be protected.
SIMON TAM: It’s definitely incredible, I mean those are people who have faced unbelievable hardships and racism, and you know violence by the state. So, the fact that they felt that we were going through something similar, they could see themselves in the situation. It’s the government not allowing our community to have agency.
PHAWKER: Exactly, and not even consulting with the people from your community to come to these conclusions.
SIMON TAM: Correct.
PHAWKER: So when you first applied for the trademark and got denied, how did that make you guys feel? Did you question yourselves? Were you just mostly appalled? Did you believe that maybe what you are doing wasn’t as representative as you were believing it to be? What was it like?
SIMON TAM: By the time we had applied to register for the trademark, I had worked with over a hundred different Asian American organizations that they suggested for us. So it wasn’t like I had no idea or pulse of what the community felt. I thought it was a practical joke, because the government was just using some stupid, Urban Dictionary definition. I mean , come on you used the printed version of Urban Dictionary doesn’t have “slant” as a racial slur. So there’s just no credibility to their claim.
PHAWKER: Yeah it was indignant you guys were feeling right? Like how could this be serious?
SIMON TAM: Yeah, it’s incredibly condescending and insulting to have somebody in the government who has no connection to our community making decisions that affect us.
PHAWKER: Yeah, absolutely. I agree. You guys fought it for, how long has this case been going on for now? I think 7 years, am I correct in saying that?
SIMON TAM: Almost 8 years if you include the time period when we first started prepping for the first application. That was in 2007.
PHAWKER: That’s an incredibly long time. I’m not that familiar with law or the courts, and I know that these things can be drawn out for years, but 8 years seems extreme.
PHAWKER: Exactly, all you guys want is the right to a name that you’re using anyways, and everyone seems to support it. Was there ever a point where you guys were ready to walk away from the court case? Maybe to say enough already and change your name? Or was it always the principle first.
SIMON TAM: It’s hard when you look at bills that are 5-6-10,000 dollars, of course you’re having second thoughts like “Is it worth it?”. I’ve questioned it all throughout the years, but in the end we thought we’re going to have to change the law and create a path to have to work for other people who are unjustly charged or treated by the law.
PHAWKER: Right, so you maintained a resolve by thinking that you are kind of the vanguard for other people to follow suit. Right? Like if you win, maybe other people will have better rights too?
SIMON TAM: Yeah, it’s just thinking about the bigger picture. It’s a lot more than a band trying to get a registered trademark. It’s about issues of representation and expanding free speech. Which I think is critical for changing society.
PHAWKER: Yeah, absolutely. Has this whole experience changed the way you guys think about free speech? Identity politics? Especially the power of language within that, like political correctness especially being such a huge thing today.
SIMON TAM: For me, it showed me how important the value of free speech actually is. Like I think people take it for granted and don’t realize-like it’s easy to think things like “well someone’s racist, someone’s sexist, or someone is whatever, and we need to shut them down.” But the reality is that, you have to protect the speech of people you disagree with as well, as uncomfortable as it may be, so that the most vulnerable and marginalized of groups actually can be empowered to have their voices protected.
PHAWKER: Yeah, it works both ways it seems like you are saying. Everyone should have the right to say what they want. Not whatever they want, but however they feel, right?
SIMON TAM: Well, I think that people should be able to say whatever they want. I strongly believe that. There is this false notion out there that there is this like mythical PC police out there, but the reality is no one is actually getting in trouble for being offensive.
PHAWKER: Yeah, it’s just a societal thing now the way, like the attitude most people have taken toward it.
SIMON TAM: And to me, that’s fine too. It’s because language changes over time, culture changes, and we have to leave room for change to happen so that people can actually grow and get better. In other words, like you know the cure for bad speech isn’t censorship, it’s better speech. It’s more speech so that we can have a lot of different ideas, diversity of experience and perspectives and use that to move people forward.
PHAWKER: Exactly, and if people are always afraid to say you know, what they are thinking, then they are just going to internalize that and they’re not going to change. They have to get more outspoken and have their thoughts bounce off of other people.
SIMON TAM: Yeah, I think people need to have some more uncomfortable conversations about identity and race. Because we need to like be okay with the idea that we don’t always know the path forward, but by having meaningful exchanges with other people who have had experiences, we can actually move forward as a society.
PHAWKER: You were also, not to bring up again, but in your Ted Talk you were talking about that too where we live in a society that largely believes it’s past racism and any talk about racism in a conversation is largely looked down on. But it says the title is “Give Racism a Chance”, like you should hear these people out, talk to them and ask questions, right?
SIMON TAM: Yeah, because it still exists. People like to pretend it doesn’t.
PHAWKER: People are more comfortable I think to pretend it doesn’t. Moving on, you were saying these bills cost like five thousand, ten thousand dollars. Did you guys have any financial assistance to see this case?
SIMON TAM: Not until the last two years. Up until then I was taking on second and third jobs to help finance the, all the legal bills along the way.
PHAWKER: So you personally, and possibly the people in your band, you guys were picking up other jobs to support it?
SIMON TAM: Yeah, I know. I paid that all out of pocket. It wasn’t until two years ago when we were going federal circuit and the bills were piling up, I had a small crowdfunding campaign that just said, you know, if you want to support us and kick in a couple of bills and help out. We did the same as we were going to the supreme court we had like an indiegogo campaign so we could help support the travel cost for our band to be able to go to the supreme court in person.
PHAWKER: Oh yeah, because you guys are from Portland. Dude that’s a long trek. How did it go?
SIMON TAM: We flew there. It went well, we raised a couple thousand dollars, enough to cover the flight and some of the hotels.
PHAWKER: Yeah, awesome. What are your thoughts personally on Donald Trump? Do you think this election has emboldened this kind of opposing racism and prejudice, like have you had any direct experience with this, besides the trial?
SIMON TAM: A couple of them, I think it’s a tough time right now because you have a whole population of people who felt like they’ve been unheard. People who feel like they’re losing their own sense of power. So seeing Trump and seeing him get away with overtly racist and misogynistic things and anti-immigrant sentiments, people felt like it was okay to throw others under the bus like that. I was in Texas a year ago, speaking at a school, and as I was walking to a restaurant for dinner, there was a small family out front. And this little girl maybe wasn’t even seven years old, says “Daddy who’s that?” looking at me and points at me. We made eye contact briefly, because I was kind of curious. He said “that’s what will get sent back to China if Trump wins”, “we need Americans here, not people like that”.
PHAWKER: And that man said that right next to you?
SIMON TAM: Yeah, right in front of my face! Stared at me and said that.
PHAWKER: Well what was your reaction? That is horrifying, what was your response? Did you just walk away?
SIMON TAM: I was like “hey man, I was born in San Diego. I’m an American” and I just kept walking. I didn’t want to confront him in front of his daughter or anything like that. But it was just like, God that’s terrible. Why are we doing that to another human being?
PHAWKER: Yeah, that’s so concerning. Yeah, because he is using Donald Trump’s name to reinforce these thoughts, especially because now he’s won. It’s like an affirmation of these points of views in their minds.
SIMON TAM: In this specific incident I’ll say yeah. Even before Trump was around I experienced vast amounts of racism. Growing up I was bullied, I’ve had people tell me to go back to my country. Even undermining my identity, asking where I was from and where, how I learned to speak english so good. I mean, kind of just really, you know they might not even be intentional. Its kind of like demeaning. Because they are just assuming I don’t belong here.
PHAWKER: Exactly, and it might be even worse when it is unintentional. Because that means that like, not conscious, they’re not even aware of the racism and how wrong it is.
SIMON TAM: Yeah, it’s just pure ignorance.
PHAWKER: Pure ignorance that’s right. And that’s why I think a band like The Slants is so important because you know just being that kid and having to deal with that bullying, you can always turn to people who represent you and people who take pride in it.
SIMON TAM: Yeah, that’s why we do what we do. Help trying to stand up for our community, show kids that it’s possible to have Asian-American musicians.
PHAWKER: Yeah, that’s awesome. Right now you guys are currently touring, correct? For your EP of The Band That Must Not Be Named.
SIMON TAM: Yep, that’s our newest release.
PHAWKER: And the song “From The Heart”, I personally love the song alot.
SIMON TAM: Oh thank you so much.
PHAWKER: It deals with the song, I mean, it deals with this case directly. It seems like a letter to the supreme court, like a fake apology.
SIMON TAM: Yeah, it’s very much like an open letter to the trademark office. And so that’s kind of how we see it. We really want to be known for our music, we want to be known for the band that puts out music, not necessarily the band that went to court.
PHAWKER: The band that is being sued or suing.
SIMON TAM: Yeah so, that song is kind of our final say on it. After this case is done, we are just going to move on and make our music, we don’t really need to kind of do anything else. Kind of like, we did what we had to do, and said what we had to say, now it’s time to move on. You know, we’re in it now and it will be over soon.
PHAWKER: Right you know all the other songs in the EP aren’t necessarily about the court case, like Sutures. I love that song too, the acoustics are great.
SIMON TAM: Thank you, yeah Sutures is a song I wrote, specifically for my best friend who died a couple of years ago. Actually, while I was on tour just a few hours away from her. We were both actually in different states, away from our homes. We happened to be in the same state at the same time, so it was really devastating at the time. But like our singer lost his mom when he was a teenager. So, it’s like we all had to deal with some pretty heavy things and I just wanted to find a way to kind of address it. So, I wrote the lyrics for it and I had an idea for the music but it was just like so close, I couldn’t actually physically write the music if that makes sense. It was just too hard, so I sent the song to my guitar player and then he wrote the melody and the music for it and it just became this really perfect embodiment of what I was trying to do.
PHAWKER: Yeah that’s really touching. I’m sorry for your loss that’s horrible. And your band mate’s loss.
SIMON TAM: I mean, for us like we also want to celebrate as well the fact that we have such incredible people in our life. It is something to be grateful for, like a way to honestly honor those people.
PHAWKER: Right, well yeah I totally agree. You know, now that you are touring, and with the court case in mind, do you think it changed the actual act of touring? Like your fan base, do people come and always want to talk to you? How has it changed?
SIMON TAM: I would say at every show in the tour so far, people have come up and asked about the court case.
PHAWKER: In support, right, mostly?
SIMON TAM: Yeah, the people have been overwhelmingly supporting even more, so that’s really cool. We have been going to law schools and law conventions, and that’s different. Like that’s not a traditional band thing. But I think it’s great.
PHAWKER: Do you guys play at these conventions?
SIMON TAM: I often speak for like a little while or sit on a panel. But often times they’ll have us do a couple of songs, sometimes just acoustics. But, a few of them are asking us to do full blown concerts at their schools. Which is really awesome, but it’s just kind of fun to see how things can take shape. And we were just like, “let’s just go with it, and whoever wants to hear what we have to say and see our music, let’s do it.”
PHAWKER: Yeah, right. Well even then, do you guys feel the need- you said you want to move on from this, but you don’t feel the need when people are looking at you in this kind of way to be not only music, but a kind of conscious band now?
SIMON TAM: Well, we’ve always integrated our connectivism to our music, so it’s alright. Like I just want to, like I’d love to sort of highlight our other work around like anti-racism. But for me it’s like, you know we have this moment, let’s go ahead and use it to try and address some serious stuff that our country needs to deal with. Once this case is resolved, no matter what we are going to continue doing that. And that’s why we actually wrote a song like calling for accountability from law enforcement because they’ve been killing unarmed people of color, and that’s not cool. We are trying to use our platform to kind of combine pop music to kind of show the huge variety of experiences we have in life. Both positive and tragic.
PHAWKER: Good luck with that. I’m out of questions, is there anything else you want to talk about, you want to bring up? You guys are coming to Philly soon, I’m looking forward to the show.
SIMON TAM: Yeah, we are coming to Kung-Fu Necktie. Nothing comes to mind but if you think of anything else or want to get into contact please feel free.