by JEFF ECHERT & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & L & lt;/span & et's do some word association. Here's your first phrase: "Asian synth-pop band." What pops into your head? Not much? Simon Young, bassist and founding member of the Slants, had a similar problem. "I was watching Kill Bill and there was a scene with a bunch of Asian gangsters," he says, when the thought occurred, "You never see a group of tough Asians or an Asian band." Wanting to fill the void of the latter, Young placed an ad.
The first reply, quixotically, came from a keyboardist who wasn't Asian. Not a great sign. When you're trying to create something as amorphous and tongue-in-cheek as an Asian synth-pop band, though, you can't stand on ceremony, and this dude brought an overwhelming love of '80s synth-pop to the table, so Young gave him a nom-de-rock, ("Gaijin," a Japanese term loosely translating to "outsider") and ultimately struck his un-Asian face from the Website -- while hoping the rest of the band would fill out along more Asiatic lines. It did, the other members claiming heritage from the Philippines, Korea, China, and Taiwan.
The band's name references the ethnic slur, of course. "At first it was just a funny twist," Young says, "but we all sat down together and talked about it, and it made a lot of sense. We're proud of who we are -- we're proud of our slanted eyes. Rather than make it something shameful, we want to wear it as a badge of pride." Despite the potential for politically correct queasiness, the Slants' reception has been mostly positive. Young claims the only negative responses come from non-Asians, and that the vast majority of fans "understand the humor in the name and what we're doing. If anything, the small amount of controversy around the name has brought us more attention."
More importantly, perhaps, the name is cathartic. To varying degrees, each member (except Gaijin, obviously) has experiences of being "the Asian kid" -- a label that belies their complicated heritage. Young says of his childhood in San Diego that "I got called a gook, but I'm not a gook. I'm a chink."
They've channeled these experiences in song. "Sakura, Sakura" is an "anthem for outcasts and misfits," according to Young, a song about twisting slurs and stereotypes. They throw out fortune cookies at their shows, Young says, just because "we're Asian."
Their sound is energetic and more than a little nostalgic, smacking of New Order and Joy Division, but also newer acts like the Killers or the Faint. Melodically, they're treading familiar ground, but their unique angle lends them a huge following in the anim & eacute; and manga convention circuits, a hilarious double irony.
Being as absolutely comfortable as they are, the Slants will make some people a bit uncomfortable. That can't be a bad thing, though: reclaiming a source of deep pain while giving the gaijin of America a sense of what it feels like to be on the outside of a culture-wide joke.
The Slants with To Something Beautiful, M(o)usa and Blue Bird at Empyrean on Sunday, July 13, at 8 pm. Price TBA. Call 838-9819.