Photo: Stephanie Watanabe
Eric Hsu has really nice skin. That’s the first thing I noticed when I met him at one of RAMA’s Go!Ohana shows in Berkeley last fall. His face has the smooth, glistening, almost metallic texture of, well, his music. But at the time, I didn’t know he was the front man for a rock band. He just seemed like an approachable guy with a flawless complexion, and being an avid connoisseur of facial products, I wanted to know his personal regimen. So two Asian American men commenced to chat about cleansers, moisturizers, and toners (in that order). After the show, a bunch of RAMA volunteers and supporters, including Hsu, decided to hit up Jaguar, a popular Korean karaoke spot in North Oakland. He punched in the song “Back at One” by Brian McKnight, grabbed the mic and, well, rocked it. I shouted, “You should think about going into music! You’ve got a great voice!” Hsu, being the nice guy that he is with nice skin, smiled.
For fifteen years, Hsu’s great voice has carried Johnny Hi-Fi, which will play Hyphen's 25th issue/10th Anniversary “Generations” release party on June 30 at SOMarts in San Francisco. “I was really happy when Hyphen asked me to perform,” Hsu said, who will share the stage with fellow Taiwanese American singer Cynthia Lin, as well as Above as One, Senbei, and others. “I’ve been a subscriber for a long time. I’m just a huge fan of Hyphen.”
And many people are huge fans of Hsu. He formed the band in 1999 in New York City, which succeeded a previous band he formed called Megalo at the University of Texas in Austin, where he majored in Computer Science. Hsu named his new band Johnny Hi-Fi because he wanted to capture the “coolness” of famous Johnnys -- like Johnny Depp, guitarist Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead (which Johnny Hi-Fi has often been compared to), and Patrick Swayze’s character from Dirty Dancing -- along with “hi-fi” as in “high-fidelity,” which is “the best sound you can get in music.”
Hsu has taken his three-member band across the United States and China, touring with the House of Blues, landing a coveted spot as “Artist of the Month” on Billboard Magazine’s Underground series, and performing in front of 20,000 fans at the 2006 Beijing Pop Festival. His music, which he describes as “mainstream top 40 alternative rock,” explores familiar rock themes like broken relationships and broken political systems. But there is a hopeful quality to it as well. “We once played a show in Ohio. We were being interviewed at a local Fox News affiliate, and a blind, 80 year old woman called in. Her friend had just passed away from cancer. But she said, ‘Your song touched me so much. It helped me through some difficult times.’ She was talking about the song “Until the End of Time,” which I wrote for my friend whose mom passed away. And it gave this old woman hope.”
Photo: Stephanie Watanabe
Hsu has also inspired hope in the small but growing Asian American rock community through “Asian Rock Fest.” This project reflects the discrimination Hsu has faced as an Asian American musician in a predominantly white rock scene. “I started Johnny Hi-Fi in 1999," says Hsu. "At the time, just being Asian American in the music industry, let alone rock, was hard. Everyone struggled. Back in the '90s and early 2000s, when you wanted a gig, you had to submit your press kit with a photo, and as soon as people saw that Johnny Hi-Fi was an Asian-fronted band, they ruled us out.” So in 2004, Hsu channeled his individual frustrations into building a community. “I knew there were some good Asian American rock bands, but I didn’t want us to be fighting these small battles separately. So I wanted to bring us all together.” Six bands from New York City, Boston, Washington D.C. and Pittsburgh played in the inaugural festival. Since then, Hsu has organized it almost every year, and when he moved to Oakland a few years ago, he brought Asian Rock Fest with him to the West Coast. This year, RAMA will co-host Asian Rock Fest at the La Pena Cultural Center in Berkeley on July 13, featuring The Slants from Portland, OR.
In 2006, Johnny Hi-Fi was on the verge of signing with a major label in Asia. “We met with everyone -- EMI, Sony,” says Hsu. “We did a piece with SuChin Pak on MTV that created a lot of buzz. But it’s like Hollywood. A lot of smoke. Now looking back, it wasn’t meant to be at the time. The maturity of the band and the songs weren’t there. So even if a label found one song to push and made us into an overnight sensation, that would’ve been worse for our career. We’ve matured finally.”
Emboldened by this new-found confidence, Hsu announced that he’s moving Johnny Hi-Fi to Los Angeles this fall. “The support network for Asian Americans in L.A. is huge. Still, our goal is never to become the biggest Asian American band -- we just want everyone to relate to our songs.”
Photo: Annie Lam
Hsu’s love of music also translates to wine and food. Using his computer science background, he co-founded the biggest e-commerce platform for the wine industry called “Wine Direct,” and loves to cook gourmet meals. Naturally, Hsu sees a relationship between music and food. “In the movie That Thing You Do, the manager says, ‘Music is like stew. Everything has to come together just right, otherwise it’s just soup.’ When it comes to music, there are so many different components. You have to look a certain way, your stage presence, your songs, marketing strategy, wardrobe, makeup…everything has to be just right. You can have the best songs, but you can’t perform; you can do everything great, but onstage you look like a slob with a tshirt and jeans. Just like recipes -- a little too much salt, or a little too much spice, then you can ruin a dish.”
So then, what kind of stew is Johnny Hi-Fi? “Beef stew,” Hsu replied. “But it has pasture-raised organic beef. And it has soy sauce and sugar, because after all I am Asian. So it’ll be an Asian beef stew. Hearty but not fancy.”
And as for a possible R&B career singing Brian McKnight songs? “I love R&B,” Hsu said. “I grew up listening to R&B in Taiwan in the '70s and '80s, so I have a little R&B in me.” However, Hsu wants to go in a slightly different direction. “I’m going to explore being a jazz singer,” Hsu reveals. “I love Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Billie Holiday. Their songs will never die. So an album of pure jazz standards is in the works.” Hsu is always cooking up something.
Check out Johnny Hi-Fi at Hyphen's Generations: 25 Issues, 10 Years Party on June 30 in San Francisco
The previous issue of Hyphen is available in its entirety for your perusing pleasure. Almost as good as having it right in your hands!