Exit Interview: Allen Huang

Photo by Jesse Rivera

One thing about Seattle music: it’s hard to make money but simple to rule a niche. The flipside, however, is that when a key figure leaves town, it’s a huge blow. Remember Decibel Festival? Sean Horton put everything on his credit card. Then he moved and our city lost its major international electronic festival. It was amazing while it lasted.

This year we face the departure of Allen Huang, the DJ, event producer and promoter who is pretty much the only reason we’ve had Asian music in clubs and bars these past few years (aside from super mainstream acts that come to the Showbox). His underground club night Dial Up, which later became Customs, brought exciting performers from Japan, Korea and Taiwan. His bar nights City Hunter and JK Pop featured 100% Asian music. To make it happen, Huang lost money on purpose. He saved up working at Microsoft and other tech companies, lived frugally and did music events for the love. On the eve of his send-off party/all-star Customs throwdown tonight at the Crocodile, we had to wonder: Who will take up his mantle?

What’s behind the move to Taiwan?
My fascination with Asian music and the scenes in Asia is what got me started doing shows. I wrote about music for a long time. I wrote in a couple zines, Redefine magazine, SSG. Not like I got a lot of readers, but people liked what I had to say. I started writing about Asian music. I didn’t want to be the 35th review of some indie rock record; I wanted to write about stuff nobody was writing about. I was listening to all these things anyway, so I was like, I’m going to write about this stuff—the Japanese bass scene, or Taiwanese ambient scene, or Korean vaporwave. After a while I realized the better way to show people what I appreciate about music was not necessarily writing, it was creating events and adding to the economy of being an artist. So I started throwing shows. After the first couple of months I booked Seiho’s US debut. That was huge for me. I’d been following him and was like, This guy’s so good. And I predicted that a lot of Japanese music scene staples would want to see if they could come here too.

Did you know Seattle would care?
Of course not. But I loved it. Seattle’s always had a chip on its shoulder for not being regarded as cool as, not even New York or L.A., but like, San Francisco. I thought if I brought this stuff here, people would listen to it. We have world-class radio, world class tastemakers, we’re a music city. We’re not a tech town with a music element. We are a music city being overrun by tech.

Did you lose money?
Yeah, I lost a ton of money. I’d worked a long time at Microsoft and other places. I don’t spend a lot. Even though I spent probably $10,000 a year on this stuff, it’s money other people would put into a hobby.

When did you start?
First week of 2014. Our first night was Dial Up, with Marz Martinez at Q nightclub. Club music was becoming more than house, it was getting to the point right before Jersey Club was really a west coast thing, so we started doing that and it was really fun. We started booking guys who were in that Moving Castle, Soundcloud scene. We booked Soulection – Esta, which we set up like two weeks before he came. He did 500 people that night. We were open and built trust with new artists. As far as new artists here, it was pretty scattered and producers had pretty specific criteria. We were game for anything though. It was me, Alex Ruder, Alex Osuch, Reed Juenger. Ben Chaykin came quickly after, doing our designs, and then Denise Zhang doing social media. We would just email each other like, Do y’all like this? And if we did, we’d book it.

What are the other nights or crews that comprise your body of work as a showmaker?
JK Pop with Reese Umbaugh—Japanese and Korean pop music. We started in the Alibi Room, packed it, moved it to Barboza, it did well there. City Hunter: we started that at the Living Room when Alex Ruder was doing his Hush Hush nights. It’s my version of the night everyone does when they play ‘70s and ‘80s music from their jukeboxes, except mine’s all Asian music, it’s Japanese funk and boogie from the ‘70s and ‘80s, Thai pop from the ‘70s, Korean trot music and the early K-Pop, New Jack Swingish stuff. It’s cheesy. Real bubble economy stuff. Not just puffy jackets, but that mentality of top class, genuine, premium content. Only the best synths. Only the best recording studios. And it showed in the music. The music was pristine.

There’s also Jet: Friday nights at Barboza [ed. note: Barboza changed programming and Jet is moving]. I tossed them booking favors. I think there’s a good crew, Cash Bandicoot always has his producer friends play—it’s a fun party. And then Customs. Customs is Dial Up evolved. It’s us breaking free from a venue restriction and doing anything we want to do in any size, any format. Usually electronic. I’ve done a couple of rock bands. Customs is named for the international slant to it, as well as the ritual slant to it. Everyone has to go through customs. And everybody knows the local customs.

When did you get more into Asian music?
Ever since I was buying CDs from Columbia House. My first CDs were Nirvana Nevermind, Eric Clapton Unplugged, Spin Doctors and the Final Fantasy 3 soundtrack. My dad listened to Asian music all the time, as well as Mariah Carey. He sang a lot in college. He was a Chinese opera singer. He put on the face paint and everything. It was intense stuff.

Did he follow up on that when he immigrated?
Absolutely not. There’s no venue for that and he had a family to take care of. That’s just not something an immigrant gets to take with them. The most he did was buy a karaoke machine in the basement. Pretty good voice still. But anyway, I didn’t think of Asian music as a thing that needed to be represented until college. I listened to a lot of rock music. Obsessed with SPIN’s top 100 alternative albums. Super white scene. It made for a sense of detachment that I wasn’t able to recognize until I got to college. Why do I feel so alone at shows, but I like the music? Maybe it’s because none of these people look like me and I don’t look like any of these people. I’ve had a lot of conversations with Tomo Nakayama about this. I went to one of his shows out in Ballard, and I went outside, and he hadn’t even finished his set yet, and someone congratulated me on a great set. That wears you down a little bit. That was 2007.

Fast forward to listening to Tricky and Dizzee Rascal, and happening upon my best friend in college, who was Japanese and a big DJ Shadow fan, UNKLE fan. He was like, You should check out this scene in Japan, the netlabel scene. The underground, weird, pop/bass scene happening there. Everything put out for free on the net. Getting out of their gabber phase and getting into dubstep and garage. This was 2010. He was sending me stuff from Japan. I ate up as much as I could. The netlabel scene back then, there was just a ton of it. I was like, I can find music from every color of the rainbow here, and it’s all made by Asian people. I started making DJ sets out of that stuff, and meeting other people around the world who were also into that. I started talking to Trekkie Trax and put them on a DJ Paypal show in 2014.

You mentioned being obsessed with rock music.
I wrestled with the white acceptance thing for a long time, being interested in things that appealed to white audiences but always feeling token in those spaces. Like it wasn’t for me but it was OK that I was there.

So how are you supposed to feel?
I don’t come from a place of pain anymore. It’s not about the bands or music being white anymore. It’s the local level, the people putting on the events. They were all white too. With Customs, it’s not an Asian night. JK Pop is an Asian night. City Hunter is an Asian night. But Customs isn’t. It’s me, and that’s what I like, but the idea is that I’m not coming from a white experience. I hope that’s somewhat inspiring to younger kids. I love when kids ask me about how to get started. I want to provide a model for how to do these things without conceding the ethnicity, and the worldliness of being Asian American, or Hispanic American, or whatever. Especially Asian Americans in America need some fleshing out of their cultural capital. It’s happening with Eddie Huang’s stuff. And my brother [b-boy, marketer, community organizer Michael Huang] doing his part. We’re slowly breaking out of the model minority thing. You don’t have to be a doctor or lawyer. You can lose $10,000 a year on shows!