JM: It’s interesting that while the band started in 1974, you didn’t release your self-titled debut album on Arista till 1979. Why did it take so long to get a recording deal? How did that eventually happen?
DK: It was utterly unlikely that we would ever get a record deal. We just wanted to see how far we could take this and see if it could be viable on other levels like scoring and doing live music events. We never thought we could become part of the mainstream American music scene. Like I said, we thought we could simply offer a perspective on things that were uniquely Japanese American. Through the CETA Program, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, we hooked up to play at Brockman Galleries in the Crenshaw Area, and played everything from Jewish community centers to schools in Watts. We were also the first Asian American act to play the Watts Towers Jazz Festival. Wayne Henderson of The Crusaders heard us and set up a series of showcases and thought he could help us get a record deal, which floored us. A lot of labels were interested, but Larkin Arnold, the new VP of Arista, was most excited. He was looking to diversify American music on their label. Clive Davis heard us and didn’t really connect with us, but he let Larkin sign us. Behind the scenes, people were telling Larkin he was crazy, that we would be lucky to sell 25,000 units. In our first three months, we sold 120,000 units and were chosen by Billboard and Cashbox not just as jazz group of the year, but group of the year in general. We surprised everyone! We later followed Larkin to CBS Records.
JM: What are the advantages and disadvantages of self releasing? How is the new album J-Town Beat being distributed?
DK: We’re doing all the traditional online routes, from iTunes, and CD Baby and are actually selling a lot of physical product on Amazon. Also through our website, WWW.HIROSHIMAMUSIC.COM. Our website also has my notes on all of the songs on the album. You learn a lot about marketing this way. The main advantage to me is that I can write the songs I want to write and we can record the songs we want to record, without any interference or corporate red tape regarding musicians contracts. That was a very difficult part of recording for labels. We could never have recorded a track the album opener “Red Buddha” in the past because it violates the formulas, mixing ancient Japanese elements, including kabuki shouting, with electronic drums and a pop groove. Big labels always insisted that we make our first four songs potential radio singles. When we put June’s beautiful song “Have You Ever Wondered” on Departure, that was our own way of protesting that mentality. Every song of J-Town Beat has a cool story behind it, but the overall concept is a tongue and cheek look at the disconnect between Japanese American and Japanese society. This is especially illuminated in the track “Meiji Mambo,” about the way some Japanese people regard us Sansei. We are adventurers so we found a different way to add this perspective. Another cool thing about running our own label is the ability to create and market side projects. We just started a cool series of recordings called The Sessions, where we will bring in an artist, who will do one of our songs, one of his or her songs and then a third on. Our first artist was the extraordinary singer/percussionist Vinx. These will eventually be available on our site and other outlets.
JM: “J-Town” is the nickname of Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo. Tell me about that place and what it means to you personally? How does the music on the new album reflect the spirit of the place?
DK: I grew up there, and the Union Bank there was near my dad’s Texaco station. We were an East LA family that would walk or drive over the bridge to work at the station. My dad used to build race cars there. During that time, J-Town was flourishing as a Japanese American center and dad had the only service station. My brothers and I pumped gas and did lube jobs when we were kids. To me, the place has always had a richness of multi cultural experiences, with streetcars and busses passing with people speaking Japanese and Spanish. There was an amazing energy and vibrancy that inspired the multi-ethnic approach I take to every project, especially J-Town Beat.
The concept for the album originated with memories of our late friend Duane Ebata, who was a driving force of the Japan America Theatre in Little Tokyo. When he ran that venue, he created a place where Asian American artists could be showcased. During one series which he called the J-Town Beat series, June and I each did major solo concerts. Looking for that through line for this new album, I wanted to make that kind of statement about cultural diversity in America. I thought back to Duane’s last trip to Hawaii, when he didn’t have much time left. We talked about keeping that flame alive and telling that story. I like to think that with J-Town Beat, we have done just that. This album is our statement that after all these years, we can still own who we are and will continue to create our music as long as we can.