The Slants bill themselves as “Chinatown Dance Rock,” which means they have no problem copping to the fact they sound like “the Asian version of the Killers.” The Portland, Oregon-based group, who come to Union Hall next month, made news recently when they attempted to trademark their name, but the U.S. Patent Office rejected their application, citing a section of the 1964 Trademark Act that they say shows “the slants” name “consists of or comprises immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter; or matter which may disparage.” Given The Slants’ heritage, this isn’t exactly the same as our Worst Band Name in NYC contest winners, the much-maligned Ching Chong Song.
Simon Young, the band’s manager and bass player, spoke with us recently about owning slanted eyes, appealing the right to protect his band’s name, and asking the federal government to give the Slants the same legal protections as the Redskins.
How did you come up with the name?
Really, it was just a conversation with a friend when we were coming up with the band. I asked, “What’s common to Asian people?” and they said, “All have slanted eyes.” To me, I never heard it as a disparaging remark. I mean, I’ve heard a lot of harsh, racist things in my life. But this was never something I thought of as a negative thing. I wasn’t trying to be tongue in cheek.
What’s the ethnic make up of the band, exactly?
I’m Chinese-American. [Drummer] Tyler [Chen] is half-Chinese, our singer Aron Moxley was born in Vietnam, our guitarist Johnny [Fontanilla] is Filipino and Hispanic, and we’re touring with a fifth member of the band who if full blooded Vietnamese, but born in Japan.
Before the Trademark Office, had anyone ever complained about your name?
No one of Asian descent! The thing is, only people who have ever had an issue were non-Asian. Someone might say, “Isn’t that a little racist?” And we said, “Not to us.” And it shouldn’t matter. We’ve had nothing but widespread support from the Asian-American community.
What about your parents or grandparents?
No. No one in any of our families has ever had an issue. We often perform for older Asian-Americans. We’ve performed for victims of Hiroshima. Last year, we did a thing for Japanese Americans who’d been in internment camps. All those groups enjoy what we’re doing, and they’re people who should be exceptionally sensitive and aware of issues of racism.
You usually play in clubs. What’s it like playing for older people – especially those who’ve never seen an Asian rock band before?
It’s always really positive. Some of the older folks are not sure what to do, so they will clap along – which never happens in a rock club. Sometime they come up to us afterwards and say, “We have grandkids, they would love you! It’s great that you’re being a positive role model for them.” What we’re doing is unique. It allows a bold portrayal of Asian Americans that you rarely see in mainstream culture, certainly not in the rock-and-roll scene.
Did you have any role models in the music world?
There’s never been an Asian American artist who does what we do. There were bands with a token Asian person in there, but no one who plays what we play, which is ’80s synth-pop or dance rock. The closest thing was Mike Park who founded Asian Man Records, and he had a punk band called the Chinkees.
Why did you file for a federal copyright?
Honestly, our attorney who we started working with a year and a half ago recommended it, and we’d read about it all the time. A lot of music industry blogs strongly recommend it, especially for groups with national ambitions.
Were you shocked when it didn’t go through?
Definitely. Our lawyer’s expertise is intellectual property and trademark law, and he didn’t foresee it at all. Number one, trademarks that are rejected are incredibly rare, and most lawyers never see it happen once in their careers. Two, we’ve never had an issue with the name, certainly not from the Asian American community.
Looking up the Patent Office’s database, you can see that the Washington Redskins, Teriyaki Boy, and even Aunt Jemima all have trademarks.
Yes, and the bands N.W.A. and Cracker. And I mean, it’s kind of funny. These other groups take on their monikers, and we can’t, when our community is supporting what we’re doing.
Can you appeal the trademark decision?
We have one final appeal left. We’ve been fighting this for about a year now, and we’re kind of wrapping up.
You’re coming to New York soon.
We are, we’re going to be at Fontana’s April 19 and at Union Hall in Brooklyn April 20. We’re there with our good friend Dez Cadena, of Black Flag and the Misfits, so it will be a fun punk-rock reunion at Union Hall. The night before, three out of four bands will be fronted by Asians or Asian Americans.