Mike Park Picks His Ten Favorite Asian Man Records Releases
Over more than two decades, Park's California-based ska-punk label has been responsible for over 300 releases. He narrowed it down to his favorite ten.
In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Mike Park has been running record labels out of his mom’s garage in Monte Sereno, California, for almost 30 years. In 1989, after forming his ska-punk band Skankin’ Pickle, he started Dill Records as a means to release the band’s music and, within a few years, he’d do the same for like-minded acts such as Less Than Jake and Slapstick. But in 1996, Park would begin the transition away from Dill and put his focus on a new label, one he’d dub Asian Man Records.
In the 22 years Park has run Asian Man (in addition to officiating punk rock weddings and fronting The Chinkees), his core values have remained the same, putting his friendships with his bands ahead of things like sales and publicity. “It’s going on 23 years and I feel like a kid still,” he says, and it’s not just because he’s still shipping records out of his mom’s house. Even as ska became a massive commercial force in the 90s, Park didn’t staff up, keeping his label a lean operation and ensuring that, unlike many others, he’d never have to downsize. Even now, Park employs only one other person and relies on the help of volunteers to keep Asian Man running.
But it’s also his love of new music that keeps him moving forward. “So many people my age are stuck in that ‘Back in my day it was so much better’ bullshit,” he says. “Back in the day was not so much better, it’s just all you can think of. You need to progress and accept that things change.” That idea is what has made Asian Man such an institution, as he’s had a knack for finding young bands from all eras of punk, be it Alkaline Trio and The Lawrence Arms or Bomb The Music Industry! and Lemuria, and giving them a homebase when they need it.
So when we asked Park to pick his ten favorites out of Asian Man's releases, it took some time for him to figure out his list. “I was literally flipping a coin to pick some of these records,” he says. It’s easy to see why, with over 300 releases all handpicked by him, he’s got a sentimental attachment to all of them. And even then, he makes it a point to say that a lot of these records could be flipped around in any order given how he’s feeling on a particular day. Well, except for one of them. “Number one on this list,” he says, “That is number one.”
Noisey: How did this one edge out the rest of the Asian Man catalog?
Mike Park: First of all, picking ten records is super hard. [Laughs] But with The Broadways, there’s just so much history with this band. After Slapstick broke up, The Broadways came and were so different from Slapstick. It was so interesting to hear this band from Chicago be so influenced by a band from where I am, which is Fifteen. If Fifteen continued to be good, this is what it would sound like.
This is an incredibly political record, and I think something that gets lost when people talk about Asian Man is how active you’ve been throughout the label’s history, with the Plea For Peace tour and various benefit compilations. Is it important for that side of you to come through in the records you release?
I’m never seeking out political bands. And the political bands I’m working with, I’m not telling them to write political songs. That was never a factor with any of the bands I’ve worked with. More than anything, I just wanted to make sure they were good people. Usually, if they are good people, that translates well in how their music is displayed. We’ve got such a deep catalog, nothing’s perfect. There’s some stuff that I second-guess my decision to release, but, for the most part, I wanted bands to do what they want.
Once Slapstick had split up, were you adamant that you wanted to keep working with whatever new bands formed?
In that case, it wasn’t me telling them, it was them telling me. [Laughs] They were like, “Hey, we’ve got this new band. We want you to put it out.” There were two bands that started immediately after Slapstick, which were The Broadways and Tuesday. They asked if I’d do it and, without even hearing it, I said yes. Obviously, the popularity of it wasn’t going to be close to Slapstick. Ska-punk was massive at the time, and that gives me more reason to love the fact that they gave up their meal ticket, and a sound that would have garnered them lots of money, and went with a sound that they just wanted to play.
And The Broadways' songs still hold up. I think that’s the main ingredient. I can listen to it and I still get the same feeling as when I first heard it. Especially the song “15 Minutes.” Lyrically, it’s so charged, and it’s cool to see young people writing lyrics as impressive as that.
I first met Jeff [Rosenstock] when he was on tour with ASOB [Arrogant Sons of Bitches]. In the early days of Asian Man, we used to do more stuff in the community, like barbecues and dodgeball games, and we used to go to Oakland A’s games and we’d just tailgate, and we’d sometimes bring a generator and do shows. So they were on tour, and they just showed up to our barbecue. Then I just kind of saw from afar what Bomb was doing, taking that Fugazi mentality of not selling merch and telling kids to bring shirts so they could spraypaint them. I can’t even remember how we came to an agreement that we would start working together, but I was a fan of what Jeff was doing—and what he’s still doing. Our politics, we have the same thoughts about so many things. It was just as an easy marriage. And I didn’t go after them, they approached me, which made it way cooler.
What made you pick Get Warmer instead of Scrambles?
This was my first record with them, and I remember listening to it when they finished the final master and hearing different styles. A lot of ska deals in fractions, with these little off-beats here and there, but it was so much more than that. There was this Motown feel, and even new wave with all these synths. Early on, Jeff was touring by himself with an iPod and sometimes guests, and I just fell in love with that idea of him being able to do it fully himself.
Was there any trepidation about working with a band that wanted to give everything away for free and had no history of selling anything?
Yes. 100 percent. When he said, “The only stipulation is this music needs to be available free through us,” I just agreed. But it was something so new at the time, it just didn’t make sense from a business standpoint. If it was any other label, especially at that time, who would have said yes? They’d be like, “You’re going to give it away for free and make it extremely hard for me to sell any of your music?” I definitely remember thinking, and I never told him, but in the back of mind I was like, “Well, this might suck for me.”
This had a similar path as Bomb, as it was available for free first. How did you find it, and what made you want to put it out?
I met her when she was touring with Bomb, then I came to find out she had her own music. A Record was out for a good year for free through Quote Unquote, and I just really liked the songs. I can’t remember if I approached her or if she approached me, but we decided to put out the record physically.
Laura is one of my favorite artists in the world. Out of all the releases that I’ve ever done, out of all the bands I’ve ever worked with, whenever they said they were moving on to another label, I was always happy. I’ve even tried to help bands get on other labels. With Laura, when she said she was going to put out her next record on another label, that was the only time I was bummed in the history of Asian Man. I loved her music so much, I would have worked so hard on her next record. That was the only time in the history of Asian Man I was ever saddened that someone said they were going to put out a record with someone else. A Record was already out for a full year, so I didn’t have the chance to work a new record. So that’s the big story about that record: I just love Laura.
What struck you about A Record when you first heard it?
It’s hauntingly beautiful. It’s lo-fi with great personal lyrics. She left her heart out there for everyone to hear with these songs. It’s so pure and so raw. I think all the music today, everything’s so overproduced, and I guarantee on that record, there’s no studio tricks. These were just basic recordings of her songs and her voice. Again, it’s just hauntingly beautiful when you have that kind of sadness attached to those hooks.
This one is kind of a sleeper pick. At that time, Asian Man was kind of redefining its sound, so what made you want to put this out?
It just goes back to the Slapstick tree, as it had Rob Kellenberger from Slapstick on drums. When Rob brought it to me, to be honest, I didn’t love it. I was like, “Huh. Okay.” Pat Ford’s voice didn’t settle with me at first. To be honest, it took years for me to appreciate this record. This is something that I kind of introduced into my life in the last three years. This is a sleeper record for myself. [Laughs] I love all the people in the band, and the musicianship is just insane, but I didn’t love this record at first, and I didn’t love it for many years. I started listening to it again, and I loved Pat’s voice, and the stuff he’s playing while he’s singing, it’s insane. I guess they get categorized with this emo scene, but none of those bands are doing what he’s doing.
This record would have probably done better in 2014 than in 2004.
Oh, 100 percent. Three years ago, when I started falling in love with this little sleeper, surprise of a record, I was like, “We should re-release this on vinyl.” It’s taken three years because they’re so slow at doing things that the wheels are in motion and it’s getting pressed now. But you’ve got to remember, it’s still very small. Most people don’t know who Colossal is, but I think anytime you have pockets of fans all over the world, it’s an accomplishment. Success is all subjective, but it’s just a good band, and I felt like this needed to be back in print.
This was a pretty big sonic change for MU330. Were you aware of that were you when you agreed to do this record?
I had no idea what it was going to sound like. I heard no demos, they just went into the studio to record. The sound is extremely different from their previous albums, and that has to do with downsizing the band. On their previous albums, they were a six-piece with three horns, and for this album they went down to a five-piece with a two-trombone horn section. So you have a completely different-sounding horn section compared to the previous albums, no saxophone or trumpet. It didn’t sound as much like a horn section as it did a single instrument that was playing along with them. But obviously, the main ingredient was the songwriting. There was a very Weezer-ish vibe on this. It’s still very much a ska record, but the chord structures were not your typical happy ska songs. It was like, if Weezer played ska, this is what it would sound like.
Asian Man was known as a ska label for a long time, but how important was it to give your artists the freedom to do what they wanted even if it was outside your wheelhouse?
It was very important. I gave artists free rein, and I definitely received albums from bands that were doing their follow-ups that I didn’t like, but I just sucked it up and said, “If this is what you like, let’s do it.” The philosophy was always to let them do what they want.
What were some records that you weren’t super into but rolled with anyway?
It’s not even a follow-up, but I think the first Lawrence Arms record, A Guided Tour of Chicago, they were a band for like a month and were like, “We finished a record.” I remember listening to it and I felt like it just wasn’t developed yet. I’ve come to appreciate the record a lot more now, but at the time it was just like, “Well alright, let’s do it.”
This was a big one for me. Operation Ivy changed my life. You have this mythical figure in Jesse Michaels, and he was just missing for a good decade. He had Big Rig, which maybe played three shows, then he did Common Rider, and I didn’t like Common Rider at all. I remember listening to it and I might have thrown it out my car window. [Laughs] The aggression just wasn’t there. Bless Mass Giorgini, because he tried really hard to play reggae, but they’re punk rockers, and they can’t play reggae. Their feel is just off, and if you can’t play it, you can’t play it. I hope Mass doesn’t read this and get angry, but it just felt wrong.
So with Classics Of Love, I saw Jesse was playing a solo show, so I went, and it was just awkward. I was like, “He needs a band behind him.” So I put him together with Hard Girls and the chemistry was just there. We put out that EP, Walking With Shadows, and listening back to it, it doesn’t really hold up. But at the time, I saw the old Jesse that I wanted to hear and I saw the potential. And with this one, I went to the studio a number of times to hear how things were going, and some of the songs were just blistering hardcore with him screaming, and I got goosebumps. I felt the hair rising on my arm.
Why do you think this record doesn’t get as much attention as some of the others on this list?
It’s hard, because Jesse was in his 40s, and it’s just hard to be in a new band and tour. He did his best, and they did some regional touring and fly-in dates, but that was it. You can’t make that little money and sleep on people’s floors as a 43-year-old man. Even though they never announced a break-up, it’s been a long time since they’ve done anything, but I still hope they do something else. That record, from top to bottom, is awesome. There’s not a dud on that record.
But it’s hard when you’re Jesse Michaels, the singer of Operation Ivy, and that’s all that people know about you. It’s hard to live up to that standard. No matter what he does for the rest of his life, he’ll be compared to that. He could put out the greatest folk album, or the greatest techno album, and it doesn’t matter, it’s always going to be compared to Operation Ivy. And, for some people, it will never be good enough. He put out one of the most influential punk records ever, and he’ll just always be compared to that.
This was another band that existed in a different world from what the label was known for. How did you find out about them?
As I was getting older, going into my 30s, I just kept releasing bands that were friends, and they were getting older too. I didn’t realize it at the time, but you gotta put out bands that are young and active. I made a conscious effort to start going to DIY shows again, which is uncomfortable going to house shows in your 40s. I didn’t want to be that creeper old man. But I just did it, and one of the guys working here, he took me to see AJJ, and there were all these people crammed into this room singing along. There were 200 people crammed in this room, and I’d never heard of this band but obviously all these people had, and every single one of them was singing along. I was sitting cross-legged in the corner just observing it and absorbing it. The power of them as a two-piece playing a stand-up bass and acoustic guitar, I wasn’t familiar with any folk-punk scene, it was just seeing that and realizing I’d never seen anything like it.
What was your first impression when they turned this record in?
Again, it was just awesome and showed the power of purely acoustic music. It was an acoustic record, but it was like I was listening to Black Flag or 7 Seconds. The tour they did for the anniversary of this album last year, it was insane. People were going crazy. I got to see some of those shows, and it was just amazing. I have a very close relationship with Sean [Bonnette] and Ben [Gallaty], and that was a perfect example of a band I tried to get signed to another label. They were too big for Asian Man. They were selling out mid-level clubs, they were selling tons of records, and no one was interested. It just blew my mind.
I fell in love with Lemuria immediately. I liked bands that were doing stuff on a DIY level, not going out and playing and trying to get signed, and Lemuria was just doing it themselves. Alex [Kerns] had his own label, and they weren’t relying on anybody else to dictate what they were going to do, and I just respected that right away. I remember talking to Alex on the phone for like an hour, and I let him know what we do, how Asian Man is run, that we’re a very small label with one employee and that we don’t really do much, and he was like, “Yeah, that’s fine.” I was just laying it all out there so there weren’t any unrealistic expectations. And after that, everything worked out great. I put out the record and it did super well. And more than anything, I think the record is stellar. Twenty years from now I think it’s one people are still going to be listening to. It’s a classic record of mid-tempo, indie-punk.
It’s interesting, because they left the label after this record, but for their most recent full-length, they co-released it with you. How does it feel to have bands that want to come back and work with you after all that time?
It’s a flattering thing. I remember Matt Skiba saying, and he would say it all the time, “I want to get so big that it doesn’t matter what label we’re on, we’re going to come back.” Obviously, that’s never happened. [Laughs] I remember getting the email from Alex and he was saying they were going to put it out themselves and they wanted to co-release it and I said, “Yeah, of course.” They went to a different label, but we stayed very close. Alex would ask me for advice all the time, and they realized that it’s not just a business, it’s about friendship. That’s the one part where the music business works.
This one was released on Dill, then re-released on Asian Man. How did you first meet Slapstick and start working with them?
It starts when we, Skankin’ Pickle, were on tour in 1994 or 1995 and we were playing the Metro in Chicago. The openers were, what was Matt Skiba’s band? Not The Traitors. I think it was Jerkwater, they opened, then it was Slapstick, then us. I talked to Matt Stamps from Slapstick before, so when we walked in I just saw this young band and I was like, “Is anybody here Matt?” And Matt Skiba was like, “Oh yeah, I’m Matt.” I was putting together this Misfits of Ska compilation and thanked him for being part of the compilation and I just remember this puzzled look in Skiba’s eyes. After a while, I realized he wasn’t Matt Stamps. [Laughs]
Then I got to see Slapstick live for the first time, in their hometown, and I was just wowed. That’s how it’s supposed to work: When you tour, you should be able to see organically grown local bands. They had just played local shows and got bigger and bigger, and that’s what I saw. I was talking to them about what they were going to do for a record, and I think it was a small label called Dyslexic Records that was going to do that, and I asked them if they’d be interested in doing it on Dill. I hate to think that I stole a band from another label, but I did it.
There were so many ska-punk bands at that time so what made Slapstick stand out?
The fact that they were teenagers from the suburbs of Chicago and every member had a Fifteen tattoo. It was so strange, they weren’t versed on The Specials or The Selecter or Madness, they only knew Operation Ivy, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and that was really it. They didn’t know what ska was, really. They were just doing their take on it as punk kids. Slapstick shows during that timeframe, there were no mods or rude boys or skinheads, it just looked like going to a J Church show or a Jawbreaker show.
God, there are just so many stories to tell. As they got popular, they never signed to a bigger label. They were on tour with MU330 and we’d driven down to southern California to this place in Corona called the Showcase Theater. And Mr. Brett [Gurewitz] from Epitaph came to see them. There was this room and they were all talking, and I was like, “I’m gonna go up there and see if I can eavesdrop.” Right when I walked in, Brett said, “How is it going with your label right now?” And they all just pointed at me and said, “Ask him. He’s right there.” Brett just jumped up and was like, “Dude, I’m not trying to steal your band.” I said, “That’s fine, it’s all good.” I just remember that look of fear on his face.
They could have signed to any label, but if they had released that self-titled collection record that we put out on Epitaph, it would have been massive. The songs they were writing were so good, but they realized they just didn’t like the music. They weren’t into that sound anymore. Instead of going for dollars or profit, they made the decision that they’d rather be happy with the music they were playing and they broke up.
Well, this is the big one. I know the story has been told a million times, but what made you want to work with Alkaline Trio?
God, I was so busy at the time. I was telling myself that even if it was the next Operation Ivy, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t even breathe; I was so busy and I just had to take a break. They ended up sending me a new recording of four songs that ended up being For Your Lungs Only. I kept listening to it more and was like, “I can’t pass this up.” Eventually, I did put it out. I remember I made my own decisions about the artwork and they were pretty bummed. I just hand-drew the labels and wrote “Alkaline Trio” and drew a little stick figure, because I just didn’t have time. That’s something I’d never do these days but, back then, I don’t know what I was thinking.
Goddamnit came out and, when I heard that thing, it was just insane. It might be in the top five greatest punk albums ever—ever. For a year, I’d come to work and it’d just sit in the CD player and the first thing I did was push play. Every day, for a good 365 days, that’s the first thing I put on, sometimes multiple times a day. It was just so powerful. There’s no flaws on that album. It’s perfect. It’s a perfect record.
How quickly did the record start to take off?
It took off pretty quickly, especially in the Chicago area and the suburbs. Once that came out, people would burn discs for other people and it was basically like tape-sharing. It was going viral on the physical front. It was in people’s cars, in their house, at a show at the Fireside Bowl they’re playing it between bands, and that heart-skull tattoo was starting to show up on a lot of people’s bodies. It just kept growing and it didn’t stop.
You listened to it every day for a year and your love for it hasn’t diminished?
It still gives me the same feeling. I can put it on and still feel like it was one of those days when I played it for a whole year. I still feel that excitement. When I see them play it live, I feel that excitement and energy. You can see it in the crowd. When they did those Past Live shows, and they’d do those two albums a night, they’d play My Shame Is True and it was them opening up for themselves. They’d play that, and the crowd was respectful and there were a few people singing along, but when they broke into Goddamnit, it was like, “Okay, the headliner is on.” It was like a hardcore show. It just showed that the energy that record has is timeless.
- alkaline trio
- laura stevenson
- bomb the music industry!
- mike park
- asian man records
- the broadways