The Niceguy Rockstar: Eric Hsu of Johnny Hi-Fi Plays Hyphen Generations 25/10 Party

June 20, 2012

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
, 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


Terry K Park

California-born, Utah-raised, and New York-refined, Terry K. Park is a Provost Dissertation Fellow and PhD candidate in the Cultural Studies Graduate Group at the University of California, Davis. He has taught courses in Asian American media, history, theater and 1950s Cold War American culture at UC Davis, Hunter College, and San Quentin State Prison. As a former performance artist, his off-Broadway solo show, 38th Parallels, premiered in New York City with the Pan Asian Repertory Theater.

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great interview, Terry!

Thanks Erin, means a lot coming from you!  And Eric was super easy to talk to.