Not unlike George Costanza’s days of battling Lloyd Braun for top computer salesman, Mike Park has found his “serenity now” moments arranging boxes in his parents’ garage. The Asian Man Records founder and former Skankin’ Pickle frontman has released over 250 records since 1989, introducing DIY ethics and experimentations in punk, pop and ska to decades of impressionable youth. By passing on the lessons and blueprint passed on to him by Ian MacKaye and Dischord Records, Mike Park has directly helped inspire our own homegrown DIY label, Community Records, which brings him to town this month to headline its annual Block Party.
Fittingly, I hung out with Mike on (Community Records co-founder and former Asian Man Records intern) Greg Rodrigue’s porch following their performance together on the Yo Gabba Gabba! live tour, where we discussed Greg’s short limp and thud in the world of parkour, surviving file sharing and striving to just do what’s right (and a lot of off-the record basketball and Fugazi nerding out).
You have been putting out records independently since 1989 with Dill Records and now with Asian Man Records. What was your biggest failure or regret in the learning process of starting a label from scratch; and what would you say was your greatest success?
Mike Park: Well, I don’t know if I have that many regrets. I’m pretty happy with the way things have gone throughout the entire course from beginning to end. However, I did turn down the chance to release the first At The Drive In full- length record. I loved their live show but was skeptical of the recording I was given. That was probably a mistake on my part. As far as successes go, probably from a financial and a personal aspect, working with the Alkaline Trio has been very rewarding. They are just incredible people and some of my best friends. It’s always good to work with friends. But really, the fact that we’re still around after 17 years is a pretty monumental achievement and I would say that is my greatest success.
You’ve run your label out of your parents’ garage since its inception. Are you getting better at Tetris or have you dug tunnels under the garage for more storage space? Seriously though, how do you limit your growth so that it is comfortable for you, but still profitable?
I’ve definitely mastered the Tetris technique, but we actually built a storage unit in my parents’ back yard to store the thousands of pieces of dead stock. I’ve also had to send old units to the recycling plant. In this current state of the music industry, I just need to be extremely cautious as to how money is spent and to make sure there’s good communication with the bands so that they know what our limitations are as a label.
During the rise of Napster I was able to attend a Q&A with Ian MacKaye at Loyola University where he seemed completely unthreatened by file sharing. Have you noticed any impact on record sales nearly 15 years after Napster got the ball rolling? What is your position on file sharing?
Oh geeez yes. I love Ian MacKaye, music and message. I actually often ask myself, “What would Ian do?” when dealing with label issues. However, I guarantee if you asked him now what his sales were like 15 years ago I’d bet my life it’s dropped quite a bit. For Asian Man, it’s no different. We’re doing a fraction of what we once did and I would say that across the board there are no labels—big or small—that have seen an increase in their sales compared to 15 years ago. I’ve had to stop paying for recordings and have gotten more creative with marketing strategies. We sell subscriptions where subscribers get the next 10 releases we put out. I actually end up sending them even more music than what they pay for to help make room in the garage.
Being involved in ska/punk for so long, can you envision a day when there won’t be a new batch of 14- year-old kids wearing Operation Ivy t-shirts? What is it about ska/ punk that makes it such a gateway to a DIY/activist lifestyle?
Ha! I doubt the Operation Ivy phenomenon will ever get stale. I’m certain we’ll continue to see waves of generations to come that fall in love with their music and therefore more shirts, patches, buttons… I think the community aspect of DIY punk makes it so appealing—bands that are proactive in their scene, making themselves part of it, instead of being put on a pedestal. And the message of the bands lyrically all play a part in the equation.
You are currently on tour with Yo Gabba Gabba! and in 2011 you released Smile, a record of children’s songs. How hard is it to transition from writing punk songs about political and social change and enter the world of children’s entertainment?
It was easy. Basically, when my daughter was born, I started playing guitar to her, making up silly songs to help her go to sleep or make her stop crying. And then my son was born; and as they got older I started to write songs to entertain them and that was the beginning of the children’s music world for me.
You have always been a champion of experimentation, mutation and genre-bending, which is evidenced on the Misfits of Ska compilations and releases like Communicate by New Orleans’ own All People. What is the most interesting mutation of ska/punk that you have come across?
The Voodoo Glow Skulls’ first record was something that I felt at the time (when there were so many friggin ska punk bands) did something that nobody else was doing. I also like the Blue Meanies, who definitely had a unique style and of course Mr. Bungle was doing the craziest music ever. What about you?
There are two for me and both I learned about through you: Absence and the Rudiments.
Wow, Absence. Yeah, they were crazy. They were a grindcore band that mixed in this weird dub stuff. I always wanted to hear more music from them.
Can you give us a good story from Greg Rodrigue’s days as your intern?
He just loved music. It was great to see a young person like Greg take the ideas of Asian Man and start Community Records. It’s super exciting. But no super great stories of his time in California except when he smoked weed one day and jumped off my friend’s balcony (landing him in the hospital). Yeah, that’s kind of a good one.
I always thought that if you cut out the single sentence, “Do unto others as you would have done unto you” from the Bible and threw the rest away, you’d have a pretty good book. You are an ordained minister in the Universal Life Church, whose mantra has been simplified to “Do only that which is right.” Do you think that mainstream religions have drifted too far from this obvious and simple creed?
Religion is all political. Based on your congregation, you’ve got to play into their needs as they are footing the bill. I’d love [to see] a universal vision of being a nice person, but realistically life will never be that easy. If it was we’d have no reality television. Doh!
You have been using music to combat racism and sexism for decades with the Ska Against Racism tour, Plea for Peace and your own songs and the artists you choose to promote. This last presidential election and the rise of the Tea Party have shown that racism and sexism are still very rampant in mainstream America. How do we help the rest of the nation evolve?
I remember seeing Saul Williams speak and he put it very blatantly by saying “We’ll probably have to wait for the older generation to die out.” I realize not all young people lean to the left politically, but the majority of them have at least some semblance of progressive thoughts.
Mike Park headlines the Community Records Block Party on Saturday, April 13th at the Big Top, with Dan Potthast of MU330 fame, La Armada, Stuck Lucky, All People, Donovan Wolfington, Sun Hotel, the Lollies and many more. For more info check out communityrecordsblockparty.com