Mike Park (Asian Man Records) and Lizzie Cuevas (Teens In Trouble) Talk the Asian American Punk Experience

The artists on their Bay Area adolescences, parental approval, and more.

Mike Park is the founder of Asian Man Records and a musician in the bands Skankin’ Pickle and The Bruce Lee Band; Lizzie Cuevas is a North Carolina-based artist who fronts the band Teens In Trouble. The latest Teens In Trouble single, “I’m Not Worried,” recently came out on Asian Man, so to celebrate, the Bay Area natives hopped on a Zoom call to talk about their own experiences growing up punk.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Mike Park: So, Lizzie, when you started going to shows, or getting kind of interested in underground music, how old were you?

Lizzie Cuevas: I was definitely still in high school. I grew up in the Bay Area and I started learning how to play guitar around the end of eighth grade. As I started playing more and meeting friends who were also into rock music, we would go to local shows, which were just a bunch of local bands around the Bay Area. So we’d go to venues like the Pacifica Boys and Girls Club — I don’t know if you’re familiar with that one. We could only go to all ages shows, so it was just a bunch of high school bands or 20-something year old bands playing around the Bay Area at the YMCAs and Boys and Girls Clubs.

Mike: What year is this?

Lizzie: This is probably 2001 to 2004. And then after that, I started probably my first band when I was a sophomore in high school. We played a bunch of covers from, like, Green Day and Weezer. That was the only stuff we played. We didn’t really have original music. Then I started another band my senior year of high school, and that was the first band that really played out at shows. We got to play some bars, but we weren’t allowed to be in the venue until our set time. And shortly after that, I joined the band called Sputterdoll in the Bay Area. They were really known in the Bay Area punk scene, and that was sort of my first real big band, that did small tours and played around the Bay Area.

Mike: Were you the only person of color in the band, or were there other Asian American Pacific Islanders?

Lizzie: So in my first gigging band, called The Ampfidelics — don’t look it up — I was the only person of color. For the longest time, I always felt like I was definitely a minority in the scene, until I joined Sputterdoll, where we were all Asian.

Mike: Oh, wow, cool. 

Lizzie: They were the first Filipino rockers I’ve ever seen. I mean, I come from a Filipino background and the high school I went to was dominantly Filipino, but I didn’t know a lot of people like me who were into the same kind of things or even the same kind of music. I just thought that wasn’t the thing. It was just like, you had to be the only Filipino in these rock bands. But then when I met Sputterdoll, it was two Filipina women and a Chinese guy. It was cool. Joining their band, I was just exposed to this whole underground music scene with other Asians and other Filipinos. I know you’re familiar with Bindlestiff.

Mike: Yeah, I was curious if you were part of that scene.

Lizzie: Yeah, we did a bunch of shows for Bindlestiff and met other bands. I think there was Eskapo, a big hardcore Filipino band. The Skyflakes was another.

Mike: Wow, that’s great. I didn’t know you were integrated into that Bindlestiff scene. Even for me, when I saw that happening, that was really exciting. Because I was so aware of my surroundings at the time, and to see that Bindlestiff scene where they were putting on their own festivals for Asian American Pacific Islanders, that was mind blowing to me.

Lizzie: Yeah, it was super cool. So I feel like I owe a lot to that scene. I still talk to the members of Sputterdoll, and the all the stuff I know about, like, rocking out was from Sputterdoll.

Mike: So when you started touring with Sputterdoll, would you guys talk about the perceived stereotypes of Asian Americans as being the studious type, versus being this rock band? Like, what were your parents thinking of you guys going on tour?

Lizzie: [Laughs.] I know we’d joke around about how Asian parents would see this. I don’t really know their own experiences with their parents too well, but I do know it was something that my parents didn’t really understand. But we had kind of a strained relationship — I moved out of my parents’ house at 18, because they were very overprotective and we didn’t see eye-to-eye on a lot of things. So by the time I was out playing shows, they weren’t really thinking about what I was doing. But it would have been the thing where, you know, my mom would say it was too dangerous to be on tours or being out on the road and playing shows, and I should be paying attention to school and that kind of stuff.

Mike: Well, that’s the stereotypical response. I mean, my story is very different in terms of growing up. In my high school, there were only five male Asian American Pacific Islander in my graduating class of 1987. And out of those five, four of us were in a band together. We joked about it a lot, but we were very all-in on this idea that were a minority at the school. [We were] very in tune of who we were and the social status or stereotypes of being Asian American. And then when we started playing music, none of us had the support of our parents. Everyone had the same path of, “You need to go to a good college, you need to go Stanford, you need to go to Berkeley.” Those are the big two, and doctor, lawyer or engineer. And everybody was very talented, too, this four of us that were playing together. And I feel like all of them could have made a living in music, but only me.

Lizzie: Yeah, I was the complete opposite because I went to a school that was mostly all Filipinos — Westmoor in Daly City. What’s up, Rams! But a lot of them weren’t really into rock music, so I found the only five white guys in the high school who were playing in bands. [Laughs.] So that’s the very first band I started, with those guys.

Mike: Yeah, and that’s great because a lot of times you’re just searching out for anybody that is like-minded that wants to do music. And that’s what happened to me when I graduated high school and I wanted to continue playing music, I just met people at the local junior college and we started my next band. That was really the first real band that I was in.

Lizzie: How did you even get to start playing music at all? Was guitar your first instrument? I had that typical Asian upbringing of me and my two sisters had to play piano.

Mike: Of course, I played piano and then I played saxophone starting in fifth grade. I played that until ninth grade. And then ska. [Laughs.] Ska in the ‘80s, so this is like the Two-Tone movement coming out of England. We met some other kids from another high school, and they wanted to start a ska band. So we had [members from] four different high schools, so we found everyone who was into ska in the South Bay and started a band. I was the de facto horn player. And so that got me playing again, because I quit after my freshman year because I thought, Oh, it’s not cool. And I never stopped after that. That was 1986, and then getting Skankin’ Pickle started at the end of ‘88, and kept going.

Lizzie: That’s cool that you kept going. There was definitely a time where I felt like I was done. Music is definitely my biggest passion and it’s something that I am constantly reminded about. But because of the relationship with my parents — who I totally get along fine with now, we just had a couple of years where we weren’t talking to each other, until they realized, “Oh, I guess she is totally independent and fine on her own.” So there’d be times where my priorities would have to be somewhere else. I would try to go back to school. That’s actually how I ended up quitting Sputterdoll the first time — I was just working these dead end retail jobs and living paycheck to paycheck, so I was like, “I should probably get my degree or something.”

But every time I step away from music, I just  feel like something’s missing or I get depressed. I started Teens in Trouble as a solo project in 2015 when I was between jobs. I put out “Santa Monica” and had plans to write an EP or maybe a full length, and then I got a job again. At some point, a year into that job, I was like, Maybe that’s it, I only had the one song left. It was kind of sad. I felt like I was knowing less musicians in the scene, so I wasn’t really as connected to the scene anymore. People had moved on and bands that I knew before had broken up.

Mike: Yes! You’re growing older. That’s what happens.

Lizzie: [Laughs.] Yeah, it was just sort of depressing. And like the pandemic just kicked everything off again and I’m writing so many songs now.

Mike: Yeah, the pandemic was great for me too, in terms of creativity. The group of people I’ve been playing with in The Bruce Lee Band — Jeff Rosenstock, Dan Potthast, and Kevin Higuchi — Dan’s the only one who lives close in Santa Cruz, and Kevin’s family’s in San Jose. So I knew he was coming for Thanksgiving. And Jeff is in LA. I put out a group text, “Let’s quarantine together Thanksgiving. Do you guys want to record?” And everyone was like, “Yeah!” Because everyone was just yearning for that feeling of playing music together. So being able to do that was amazing, we had such a good time. We had recorded that EP, and then Jeff like a month later was like, “I have some time off from work, let’s do a full length.” So we jumped right back into it. So, yeah, the pandemic really helped me to be my most creative I’ve been in years.

Lizzie: Same, it’s weird. For me, it took a while. I started watching a bunch of friends’ bands’ live streams, because all their tours got canceled. Rivers Cuomo did a Zoom live stream and he was talking about [how] he was reading this book called The Artist’s Way, which was just how to get unblocked and start rediscovering creativity. And I was like, I’ll check that out. I’m not doing anything else right now. And that sort of just unlocked everything. Towards the end of 2020, I decided to go on a solo retreat in Asheville. I just drove for hours and rented an Airbnb and was like, OK, I’m just going to be here for a week, see what happens. If I don’t write any songs, I won’t beat myself up about it, but I’ll try. And that’s when I first wrote “I’m Not Worried,” and then just kept writing from there.

So that kicked it off. I still am pretty new to North Carolina, so I know very few people. It’s kind of hard to get together with people and be like, “Oh, hey, let’s start something new.” Every musician I met here, I think, I met through Craigslist. How do you meet new musicians? 

Mike: Well, it seems like you’re getting integrated into that community. You’re playing in a band with a guitarist for Discount. 

Lizzie: [Laughs.] Yeah, right. And that was random too! I found this drummer on Craigslist, and he found me and this guy, Ryan [Seagrist], who was in a band called Discount. So we’re also in this post-punk band called Blab School together. We’ve been playing a lot of shows around here. I think we’ve played five shows so far and we have four shows coming up this summer.

Mike: Wow, that’s great.

Lizzie: It’s been nice to be active playing music again. But now, as you talked about getting older, playing my first show after a while and doing the punk rock stance and feeling it in your legs — you’re like, Oh, I can’t do that anymore. It’s not the same.

Mike: You can’t do it anymore! [Laughs.] Come on.

Lizzie: [Laughs.] You have to have the proper amount of stretching before.

Mike: I definitely can’t do that anymore. I can barely move anymore. How old are you?

Lizzie: I’m 36.

Mike: I know you didn’t tour a lot — from ‘89 to ‘96, I did 200 shows a year, every year. And so if we’re talking about the Asian American experience getting out of the diversity of the coasts, when I started hitting those Arkansas, Missouri, Alabama… The truth of it is, there’s not a lot of Asian kids going to punk and ska shows outside of big cities. So I was very in tune with that — every show I would look for Asian people, and if I saw an Asian person at the show, I would talk to them. I toured so much, people would go, “Oh, you did the same thing last time.” I would ask them questions and they would say, “You asked me this last time you played here.” But that’s how in-tune I was with that fanaticism of finding other Asian Americans. Did that ever happen to you, where that’s all you could think about?

Lizzie: I mean, we’ve only done West Coast tours, so a lot of the places we played were pretty diverse. I think the only experience I’ve had with like, Oh, wait, I’m Asian, is [Sputterdoll] played this farm in the middle of nowhere in Oregon and like we were definitely the only Asians there. And I mean, they loved us, but we got a lot of comments like, “What are you.”

Mike: I was going to ask you that! “What are you?” That’s a big thing, especially with your last name, Cuevas. A lot of people, I’m guessing, assume you were Hispanic.

Lizzie: Yeah, a lot of people have thought I’m Hispanic because of my last name, and then just from appearances alone. Or they don’t believe I’m full Filipino.

Mike: I don’t believe it. [Laughs.] Just kidding.

Lizzie: My own family didn’t believe it! I visited my dad’s side of the family in the Philippines in 2014, and they didn’t believe I was their daughter. So I don’t know where that comes from. But my grandparents, and I think my family generally on my mom’s side is a little bit lighter skinned, they have more of like Spanish features.

Mike: So was that a big thing for you, from the beginning of your life to now? Do you get a lot of, “What are you?” 

Lizzie: No, actually, the weird thing for me is it’s never been a major conversation point. I think I’ve just been doing my own thing, and I feel like people, when they talk to me, it’s mostly about like… 

Mike: Video games.

Lizzie: [Laughs.] It’s mostly about the things that I’m doing versus what I look like or anything about my race. It’s never become a conversation point, which I don’t know really what to make of that. I think it was more of a conversation point when I was in Sputterdoll, because that was very much like “this is an Asian band.”

Mike: I wish I knew about Sputterdoll. Why didn’t you guys send me any music? 

Lizzie: They were just so DIY to the core, they just wanted to do everything themselves.

Mike: That’s great. I mean, if I had gotten a submission from a three piece band from the Bay Area that was all Asian American, at the very least, I would have listened to it immediately.

Lizzie: Yeah, everything was all self-released and self-recorded, sometimes DIY to a fault. But I thought it was just such a great experience.

Mike: So, my story is very different than yours in terms of Asian identity. I grew up here in Los Gatos, which is a suburb of San Jose — I had kids constantly coming up to me doing karate kicks, slanting their eyes back, making ching-chong gibberish. And it was so bad where I remember distinctly being at home and thinking to myself, I wish I was white. That’s how bad it was for me. Or, Why did my parents immigrate to the United States? I wish we lived in Korea.

Lizzie: I’ve never experienced that directly. I always felt like the places I was growing up were pretty diverse. I think the first time I’ve ever seen racism with my own two eyes was on the MUNI where there was this Filipino teenager, and a white guy came up to him and pickpocketed him in front of his face and called him a savage. I was just shocked to see that. But nothing directed at me. I don’t know if that’s because my upbringing has been so sheltered — we weren’t really allowed to go out and and that’s probably why I started writing a bunch of music on my own. I taught myself guitar because I was just home all the time and I had nothing else to do. 

I don’t know if this is the same for you with an Asian household, but there wasn’t a lot of communication either. Definitely no asking, “Oh, how are things going? How are you feeling?” It’s just like, “Did you do your homework?” [Laughs.]

Mike: Yeah, same.

Lizzie: So I had to have some outlet to express myself. But I was pretty sheltered, just because my parents immigrated here from the Philippines in the ‘80s and were afraid of a lot of things that they’d see on the news, which is its own sort of issue. 

Mike: Yeah. I think the only difference is, you were able to grow up in a more diverse school system. It’s totally different from the ‘80s to 2022 — Los Gatos is very diverse. At least, the Asian American population here is massive. It’s just a different time. But for me, back then, it was very, very rare to see someone who looked like me. And if I had grown up even 10 years later, I think it would have been a lot different experience.

Lizzie: Yeah. And even after living in California for over 30 years and then moving to North Carolina, where a lot of my friends were just like, “North Carolina? What’s it like? It must be super different.” But I think because of just the time we’re in now, there is more diversity here. It’s not definitely not as much as California, but also I’m sort of in this bubble of The Triangle area where you have a lot of college towns and people from all over convening. So it’s a little bit more progressive. There are some cool local bands here, like Bangzz is this duo with an Asian lead singer who’s a woman and a Black drummer. They do noise punk.

Mike: That sounds awesome. I had told you before that when I post about you saying [you’re] this new artist coming out on Asian Man from Raleigh, North Carolina, there’s always comments that are excited like, “Oh, North Carolina! That’s where I’m from, I need to check this out!” I don’t usually get that kind of response when I say from the East Bay, Oakland. There’s just so many bands, it’s overkill. So I think it’s the first time where I really recognized, Oh, there must be a cool little supportive network of music lovers in the Raleigh area.

Lizzie: Yeah, as I’ve learned since moving, there’s a really vibrant music scene here. I’ve been to so many shows, played a bunch of shows — more than I have in like a long time.

Mike: I’m really excited for you. It’s fun for me with Asian Man Records — I don’t like working with rehashed bands of yesteryear, I like working with new projects, watching it grow. So it’s exciting to see your excitement, but also it’s exciting to see the perspective of people listening for the first time. I’ve only heard good things. Everyone’s really excited.

Lizzie: No pressure! [Laughs.] Thank you, I’m really excited too. And just being on a label like Asian Man Records that has a lot of the same values I carry — I have to say, I want to be on a label where I feel represented. 

(Photo Credit: left, Lea Suzuki)

The bright-blazing new creative project of Lizzie Killian (previously of The Glowing Stars and Sputterdoll), Teens in Trouble refracts the sounds of punk, garage, and dream-pop through a prism of memory, melding past and present with the kind of sun-dappled clarity that can only come from hindsight. Armed with huge guitars, catchy hooks, and disarmingly direct lyricism, Teens in Trouble plays brisk punk-rock that nods to the fuzzed-out, surf-influenced sounds of ‘90s alt-rock idols Weezer and Pixies and ‘60s garage-rock, but is equally informed by Killian’s own years of youth in revolt.