Recently, Koji finished up a tour with Such Gold, Tommy Boys and Brigades. We had the chance to catch up with him after his set at Strange Matter in Richmond, Virginia. He’ll be releasing “Fury” in June with No Sleep Records, and he’s very excited to share his new music with his fans. He’s an incredibly passionate artist who puts his heart and soul into everything he does, while remaining incredibly humble.
Modern Vinyl: Congrats on signing with No Sleep! Even though you’ve worked on some No Sleep projects in the past, what made you decide to sign with them?
Koji: I think there were a lot of people who would’ve been great to put the record out with, and people who were interested, but the number one thing that made me feel great about signing with No Sleep was when I was reflecting on how I wanted to spend the next few years. I realized I wanted to invest a lot more into doing advocacy projects, and they seem so supportive of the advocacy and activism that I want to do to accompany my music, and they also really loved and respected my vision. And I really love and respect their vision and commitment to teamwork. Music doesn’t happen alone and it takes a lot of moving parts, and I just felt it in my bones. It felt like the right thing to do, so I’m putting Fury out with them in June.
MV: Since activism is such a huge part of who you are, how did you first get involved, and how do you try to incorporate that into your music?
Koji: Well, activism was really seeded in me by my parents; both of them. Professionally, they lived lives of service. My dad was in the military and worked for the state. My mom is an occupational therapist. My earliest memories are going to work with my mother, who worked with special needs kids at the Capital Area Intermediate Unit, where she’s an occupational therapist. I think working with kids with intellectual disabilities, Down syndrome and autism was really informative to me, especially when I started music, because I continued to volunteer from the time I was very young, to all throughout high school and into college and even now. I feel like she always encouraged me to bring my music and incorporate it into my volunteering. I feel like having an audience of special needs kids and adults really teaches you as a performer to be a better listener and to communicate because they’re not connected to the culture of punk and hardcore, and don’t have the same frame of reference. I’m not a person who knows a lot of covers; I was performing a lot of original music for these folks.
I really think the special needs community taught me most of what I use today, in terms of being a performer and how to connect with the audience. Fast forward to 2015, and the way those very formative experiences have taken shape is in the way of partnerships with non-profits, whether that’s giving away my discography to bring awareness to a certain issue, like Ebola. I donated a lot of money to Doctors Without Borders via my Bandcamp this past fall. We’re organizing on a very localized level; food drives at every show to benefit the local food pantries. So like, international issues. It really ranges. I’m sorry, I’m so scatterbrained! It’s such a huge question to answer.
But basically, in engaging in these social justice issues through music and this platform of music, I want to show people, and especially young people, that you can make a difference on a local level; utilizing your time and your talent, it doesn’t take money necessarily to make a difference on these issues. I just want to encourage people to know that their voice has power, and collectively, we have the power to move mountains. I think that’s one of the things music has done for me is highlighted that you can express yourself, and when you do, you can create waves.
MV: Politics. It can sometimes be a really tricky subject to talk about. For example, a few weeks ago, you brought up standardized testing and education on your Twitter. What inspired you to reach out and start those conversations with the community and your fanbase?
Koji: No idea that I have is original. Nothing that I do in my music is original. I mean, even though they’re compositions that I write, I’m one person that knows that I stand on the shoulders of giants. I’m just one link in a chain of human history of people that want to express themselves. For me, I really look to the people that I’m playing to for inspiration on what projects to take on. I don’t think I would be talking about education if I didn’t have students and teachers alike coming to my shows. I have so many educators that come to my shows, just as much as students. I ask them about their experience, their frustrations with the institutions of education or healthcare, or the policymakers that are making the legislature that affect all of us.
I see that frustration, and I want to report on that. Knowing that music is this platform to spread ideas and to kind of spark action, I try to make the most of my time. I don’t know how long I have to make music or how long I have to live, so I want to spend as much of my waking life dedicating myself to community and to collaboration, and to making work and making change. Just being engaged and present. I think we focus so hard on the past, and so hard on the future, that we forget…it’s a nation full of people practicing yoga, but they don’t give a shit about how they treat strangers on the street, or people they work with, or even their friends. It’s not a holistic practice in many cases. I want to hold space for a different conversation than what’s being had in the mainstream.
It’s just a continuation of the work of the bands that I grew up listening to; they’re the punk and the hardcore bands that said “You have a voice, do something with it.” Growing up in Central Pa., being Japanese, Filipino, Spanish and Portuguese ethnically, but having been born in Harrisburg, Pa., which is divided by a river where you know, growing up in Central Pa., the West Shore is the “White Shore,” the East Shore is the “Black Shore.” You grow up knowing that, and I’m like, “Where does that leave the yellow guy? I don’t know. In between Pirates and Phillies fans, Steelers and Eagles.” Just the cultural divides. I was always scanning and I still am scanning for evidence that we can transcend those social constructs; those barriers we build up and meet on a human level. How do we break everything down and meet everyone as equals? Music has allowed me to ask that question, and to come closer to an answer and to a truth that is more universal, as limited as my relative viewpoint is. I think it’s empowering to be engaged with the arts. It’s empowering to be engaged with whatever you feel like your purpose is. I just hope to pass that on, because it was passed on to me.
MV: I wish there were more artists like you today who would do that. The younger generation, especially with the rise of Tumblr, is definitely becoming more aware of social issues and what’s going on around them, but at the same time, there’s still so much they don’t know about.
Koji: Right! And because everything’s on the Internet, it’s so easy to hide away. We’re so self-curated that the troll might come along every now and then and challenge an opinion that we have, but how much are we engaged in a dialogue? I feel like we have this 24/7 running monologue going on and we’re so aware of this audience we have via social media, that we’re not really tasked with engaging in real life, and with the things that are in front of us. Just to bring it back to being present. That’s the challenge of today; to be present-minded, open-minded and open-hearted.
We’re told from a very young age in America, indoctrinated with this idea of capitalistic individualism, which is so toxic. We forget that we’re beholden to each other, and our well-being is really dependent on how well our neighbor is doing, the next person is doing, how our friends and family are doing. We forget that. That sense of kinship, that sense of humanity. We lose that, because we’re pacified by our things and our technology and our social media. How do you break that down, and find what it is to be? It’s not a question that’s new, just like the things that I’m saying and the things that I’m doing. It’s just the questions we’ve always been asking as a society. It’s just that the circumstance is different now. We’re still responsible and accountable for how we interact and love one another.
MV: You’re releasing “Fury” in June and you played some of the songs off of it tonight. What can fans who weren’t at shows on this tour expect to hear from that EP compared to your past releases? Are there any plans for more new music beyond that?
Koji: This has been the most productive time of my life. I spent a good three-and-a-half years touring full-time, without a break, which looked like 150+ shows per year. Last year was the first time that I had time to think and time to be a human and invest in my family and friends. In that space just came a flood of songs. So Fury is just a fraction of the material that I’ve been working on. It really represents sonically, some searching that I had to do. I got so close to my own music that I forgot what was inspiring me.
I kind of went on this quest to see bands that I hadn’t seen before that were important to me. I saw Guided By Voices, Superchunk, Built To Spill, Mission To Burma and a lot of other bands that were really important to me when I was growing up. I think sonically, this record represents that type of songwriting, and the type of textures and colors that really opened my eyes after I found punk and hardcore. There were people making other music and that other music is kind of what inspired the new direction that we’re taking with this record. It’s crazy to play these songs with Ben [Kotin from Such Gold], who wasn’t on the record, and we never had a rehearsal with him. And Matt Covey, who plays drums in Such Gold, who filled in because our drummer, Dennis Wilson, had to leave the tour. So we’re at three drummers on this tour, which is insane. We’ve had three first shows on this tour, which is only three weeks long. It’s been crazy too. You really have to be listening and be playing at your top level to make it work. I think that’s been one of the most exciting experiences and most challenging growing experiences I’ve had on tour.
MV: You’ve been on the road for the past few weeks, and the tour with Such Gold, Brigades and Tommy Boys is about to come to a close. What have you been listening to while out on the road?
Koji: It’s a lot every day. It spans everything from Pantera to Fleetwood Mac to A$AP Ferg and A$AP Rocky to like Illmatic by Nas to Ethiopian jazz. Or like Brazilian guitar jazz music. It really, really ranges. We’ve been jamming to The Jesus Lizard really hard in the last couple of days. It’s very eclectic, and probably not what you think when you’d think Koji music.
MV: Speaking of releases, what are some of your most anticipated ones coming out this year?
Koji: Supposedly there’s new Flaming Lips and new Wilco [coming out]. There’s like a lot of new stuff coming out. But I’ve been really impacted by the latest Title Fight record and I really like the new Sleater-Kinney record. I thought that the Father John Misty record was really powerful. I’m in love with the new Action Bronson. It’s so sick. He knows how to write a beat better than most people right now. I just love it. I was also really stoked on the new Kendrick, but I’d say I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of records like Hyperview, or the one from Bronson.
MV: Which is more of what people would probably expect to hear you say.
Koji: I mean, yeah, it’s all in the family. Ned [Russin, Title Fight] played on my last record, which blew my mind. I support everything they do. I think that direction they’re taking with this new record is really brave and it’s going to make waves.
Life is too short to make something you think people like. Just make the thing you like. It’s good to be wrong. It’s good to fail. It’s good to take a chance and succeed.
MV: Warped Tour is coming up! What do you like about performing on the Acoustic Basement stage, as opposed to playing with a full band? Do you have a favorite Warped memory, as a performer or a spectator?
Koji: Oh man. For me, Warped was a really inspirational thing. You’re told a lot of times that you’re wasting your time if you like art. I heard pretty much every year of my life that art was a waste of time and could never be a career. When I was going to Warped when I was younger, my cousin Jack [Dalrymple]; he played in a band called One Man Army. He’s part Filipino too. I would go and see him, and I thought it was cool to see someone I was related to play with bands like NOFX, Lagwagon, Alkaline Trio and Hot Water Music, so many cool bands that I was listening to at the time.
It was like, oh, someone that’s blood to me is out on this tour. Maybe me, as a mixed Asian-American, maybe I can actually do this. To be able to play Warped Tour for a second time and do the whole tour in full is a real honor. I didn’t know if I could play music and have a career in music and have a career in the arts. I went to art school where on the first day they told you that only two percent of your graduating class is going to work in the field…which is kind of the reason I dropped out. But all that to say, it’s a really full circle moment for me to be playing Warped, because at every step of the way I was told it wouldn’t work out, and you wouldn’t be able to have the life you want because real life is going to set in and you’re going to have to compromise.
What is real life? What is compromise? What are our values? I’ve been able to remain curious, and to remain engaged because of this music thing. Warped Tour is just an extension of that searching and that journey, so I’m really excited to play it.
MV: As a fellow South Central Pennsylvanian, I’m curious about some of your favorite places in the area. When you’re back in Harrisburg, or even the surrounding areas, where do you like to go and unwind from tour life?
Koji: (laughs) I hang out at my parents house or my grandma’s house. But beyond that, I love coming home for traditional Filipino events. I love coming home for Little Amps in Harrisburg. It’s like a coffee roaster and record store. It’s great. It’s really great! They have a great record selection, and even better coffee. I love that there’s more and more cultural hubs in Central Pennsylvania. For a long time, after the fire hall scene had died out, culturally it was like a desert, and there was nothing going on. Now there’s all this new energy happening in Mid and Uptown Harrisburg, which is revitalizing those neighborhoods and bringing in a lot of talent and retaining a lot of talent. Harrisburg is the place that you leave. But now when I go back, I see so many people that are staying and building; that inspires me to no end. I want to work harder, because I see people growing community and making work and that makes me want to push.
People I think are moving away from the suburban sprawl and back into the cities. I think it’s one part economic and it’s one part answering this disconnection because of technology. People are looking for genuine community, because we feel so separated from our real-life selves, and we’re living these more curated self-compartmentalized lives, and we’re less engaged with our true selves. I think people, in response to that are searching for real community, and they’re finding answers. It’s really cool.
MV: Out of all of the great artists to come out of the Pennsylvania music scene, I feel like you’re a bit of an anomaly as a singer-songwriter given the thriving metalcore scene in Lancaster, and the upbeat pop-punk scene in Philadelphia. How has that helped shape you as a musician?
Koji: Harrisburg is a place that’s in-between. For as homogenous as someone might write it off, there’s such extreme poles in Harrisburg, whether we’re talking about income and equality, racial segregation, or the type of education you can get; the things that you have access to. It’s also very much an urban environment, and within 15 minutes of leaving the city, you can be in the mountains or in farms. It’s a very dynamic place, but it’s not branded that way. I think in the same way, going to shows, there’s so much different types of music (at the time that I was able to go to shows). So like, being able to open up for Joe Lally from Fugazi, or bands like Aloha or Elliott. I was the acoustic guy that opened up for a lot of emo bands, or indie bands, or like weird [bands]. I played in a spazzy hardcore band that also opened up the weird shows.
I think just being exposed to so many different sounds, and having the opportunity to do that and to see it, it made me feel like there was no rules; which I think that so many people that start bands think “Oh I need a backline, a trailer and a van, and some laminates and I’m gonna act like a pro and whatever.” No. In Harrisburg it got done the most messy, sloppy way. It was always mixed-genre shows, it was always about community and inclusion at its best. It was about those things. To me, that’s the way I like to carry it. That was really influential. You can sound however you are, and it’s really about keeping it 100: are you real or are you not? I don’t feel like I’m beholden to an aesthetic, but I’m beholden to a standard of honesty and commitment to my craft. That’s what I learned in Harrisburg.
MV: Here at Modern Vinyl, record collections are kind of a big deal. What’s your personal collection like? How did you end up collecting records?
Koji: [I started collecting with] 7-inches, because I was poor so you buy 7-inches. And then you’re also told at a very early age that you’re suckered into buying every local band’s thing, and you’re supposed to support. I don’t feel like people have the same “oh I need to support!” mentality because you can just Spotify everything now. People that do collect records are very intentional, whereas like when I was a kid, that’s how you heard the songs. You either bought the CD or the 7” or you don’t have the music; there’s just none. Napster was fuckin’ new and I had 56k Internet. We would go over to my friend’s house, or the friend’s house with cable or DSL Internet, and slowly download individual tracks on Napster, and then burn it to CDs. And you could listen to music that way. But really, it was just about trading records and CDs in homeroom in seventh grade, and that’s how you were hearing songs, and being exposed to new music.
I feel like my record collection…it’d probably disappoint your staff. I’m not precious about it. I like to give away my records. I think after a while, I just want to share the music that I’ve connected with. There’s a small collection that I have that I’m like not gonna give away: a friend gave it to me for a birthday present, or it’s a record that changed my life, or it’s a record I got at a show that’s very important to me. Those records I’ll keep, but everything else is like…I’m kind of always buying records and passing them out like books. I don’t ever expect to see them again. Like I just want people to hear it, in the same way I am about my music. I just want to put it out into the world so people can have it and pass it on. I’m not the person that needs every variant, or a particular pressing.
I’m the same way that I am about music and searching for human moments in a live show or going to see shows. That’s the way I am about records. Vinyl collections are meant to be shared. If you’re sitting alone listening to them by yourself, I’m in the school of “You might be doing it wrong. You should bring some friends over, or make a tape or like put it back out into the world.” We can’t be defined by being an elitist nerd about having stuff. Fuck stuff. It’s about shared experiences; that’s what makes music powerful. If we’re experiencing it individually, and you keep it for yourself and you’re selfish about it, then how in the world did you get exposed to it? Someone put you on. I think we need to be generous with our music. Share it.
MV: Not unlike those godawful record flippers on eBay who sell things for beaucoup dollars.
Koji: I think it’s stupid. I hear people buy my earliest demos for like $150 for a 7” or something like that. I’m like, “If you had written me an email, I would’ve sent it to you. I have like 10 in my house.” It should be democratic and accessible, it shouldn’t be this elitist, crazy thing. But at the same time, I do respect people that are passionate about collections, because it is also kinda sick, like sports memorabilia. Records are like the same sort of thing. If you connect with it, and that’s your shit, more power to you; just fuckin’ do it. Me? I’m like, “I don’t know. Just whatever.” I live out of a bag most of the year, so I don’t see my records; that’s why I give them away, because someone should be listening to them.
“Fury” comes out on June 16 and is available here for pre-order. There are two 7″ variants: transparent purple and transparent blue, as well as a digital copy available. We’d like to thank Koji for taking the time to speak with us.