Interview with Musician Joe Kye

By: David Alvarez


Q:  Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
A:  I was born in Korea, moved the States when I was six years old. Lived in Boston for a couple of years and then moved to Seattle Washington starting at the beginning of third grade. That’s where would consider my roots to be. I’m based in Sacramento now and about to move to Portland. I’ve been basically moving around a lot my whole life and in many ways it defines who I am.

Q:  When did you start playing the violin?
A:  I started playing the violin in 4th grade up in Seattle. They had an awesome public school system music program where you’re allowed to choose an instrument. I chose the violin and started taking some private lessons in 6th grade through the generosity of some private teachers who gave me scholarships. I started looping as a sophomore in college and writing songs probably around the age of 16.

daVIDAlvarez photos - Joe Kye (4)
Credit: David Alvarez  I  On top of the WAL artist lofts in Sacramento

Q:  How did you come about looping?
A:  I came about looping through watching Andrew Bird, a friend of mine burned me his CD The Mysterious Production of Eggs and I was looking on line and I found that looping is indeed quite a thing and there’s a lot that you can do with technology on stage.

Q:  So where did your violin’s name Stanley come from?
A:  The name Stanley came from my sister. We didn’t have that much money growing up. My dad was an international student and dependents of international students are not allowed to work. So my sister and I shared a violin for a good number of years. She had that violin first and she gave it the name Stanley. I felt bad renaming it so it kind of stuck.

Q:  Do you have just the one violin or more than one?
A:  I have just one violin. I wish I had some other violins. So if anybody wants to give me a violin please do.

Q:  Do you play other instruments?
A:  Yeah, the first instrument I played was the recorder in 3rd grade. I play guitar, I sing and play the mandolin a lot too. I love the mandolin.

Q:  Your music seems to touch various genres. How would you describe the style of music you play and how did it develop?
A:  I think the label, if one must, of the genre that I play would be Indie String Pop. At the same time I’d like to think that it’s indicative of my journey. So whether that’s catatonic scales from old folk tunes to blues music, to jazz music which I was surrounded by at Garfield High School. Classical music in which I was trained in. Underground hip-hop to my mom’s Stevie Wonder records. There’s so many different musical influences that I grew up with and I’d like to think that the music I then put out into the world is a reflection of a lot of those different influences.

Q:  Talking about your high school Garfield didn’t it produce Jimi Hendrix?
A:  Yeah, Jimi Hendrix went there, Quincy Jones went there, Macklemore went there. The music program there is absolutely fantastic. I didn’t mention, I actually started singing formally when I was at Garfield. I joined Vocal Jazz my senior year. I also tried out for the senior musical which was Cabaret that year. I played Herr Schultz an emotionally driven old German Jew so I think it kind of fits the bill.

Q:  What brought you to Sacramento and when?
A:  My wife is in resident at UC Davis Medical Center. We moved down here in 2013. I was actually a high school teacher up in Seattle around that time. When we moved down here I decided “You know it’s about time I gave myself permission to pursue something that I’ve always wanted to do.”

Q:  Tell me a little bit more as to what happened after high school?
A:  Sure, I had the privilege of going to Yale University where I like to say that I was a closet musician. I studied History and Ethnic Studies basically really trying to understand my role and my identity as an Asian American immigrant in modern day America. What that means, what I can learn from the African American culture and what they’ve done as far as creating solidarity and also how to engender change in society towards a more socially just community.

Q:  How would you describe the Sacramento music scene?
A:  It’s been fantastic. The music scene in Sacramento I would say first and foremost is driven very eclectic. There are a lot of different things happening here and I think that has been very influential for me. To be able to see the Love Defenders who are a teen funk rock band absolutely amazing. Then you have soul singers, soul and R&B singers like Zyah Belle and James Cavern. You have classical musicians playing at Sac State. You have amazing jazz players like Joe Gilman. There’s a real diversity in the type of styles here. It being a smaller market, and a smaller scene I think that as an artist trying to develop your craft, it’s an amazing place to be. You’re rubbing shoulders with so many different genres and skill levels. So like at Luna’s, if you stop by there you could be seeing some of the greatest jazz musicians. Also playing with 15-year-old high school kids who are really trying to just develop their chops. So it’s a really cool scene and a lot of elements that are just going around.

daVIDAlvarez photos - Joe Kye (44)
Credit: David Alvarez  I  On top of the WAL artist lofts in Sacramento

Q:  You released an EP last year and received a couple of Sammies Awards. Can you tell me how you felt about that and where did the title Joseph in the Well come from?
A:  I guess I’ll start off with the title Joseph in the Well and where that came from. My Korean name is Hyon Kye. So when I moved to the United States I was given the name Joseph. I guess there’s a lot of immigrants in the bible but Joseph is kind of one of the earliest immigrant stories. He leaves his hometown of Canaan and is betrayed by his brothers and sold into slavery in Egypt. Then it’s kind of this rags to riches type of story where he overcomes a lot of prejudice a lot of trials and tribulations in order to become kind of like this big government guy in Egypt. So that idea of Joseph, and that being my name, and the moment in which he has been betrayed by his brothers. He leaves his hometown of Canaan; he’s not quite in Egypt yet. His brothers betray him and throw him into a well before they sell him into slavery. So there’s that moment in time where he’s stuck in the middle of those two countries, of those two cultures. I often times I feel like that as well. In trying to communicate the idea of Joseph in the Well is a good symbol for that.

Q:  So how did I feel about releasing the EP?
A:  It felt fantastic. I remember in high school or even at Yale I was looking up recording studios and looking at the rates of how expensive it was to have access to those spaces. I never thought it would be possible. So then to not only be a career musician but to get into Fat Cat Recording Studio with Sean Stack, one of the best studios in town and be able to devote myself fully to creating and producing an EP, a full recording, it was amazing. It was such a privilege for me and it felt fantastic to finally get it out there. Have production be a vehicle as opposed to an obstacle.

daVIDAlvarez photos - Joe Kye (3)
Credit: David Alvarez  I  On top of the WAL artist lofts in Sacramento

Q:  Are you married?
A:  Yes! I’m married.

A:  When did you get married?
Q:  I got married June 9th of 2012.

Q:  How and when did you meet your wife? Was it love at first sight?
A:  I’d like to say so that it was love at first sight. We met at Yale, she was a senior and I was a sophomore. I knew of her, I remember her being the hot senior. She saw me, I think, singing at an Asian Idol competition. A campus wide singer competition and the only stipulation was that you had to sing a song in an Asian language. She saw me there and we met through a mutual friend and the rest is history.

Q:  Your parents/her parents in USA or are they back in Korea?
A:  They’re actually back in Korea. My parents moved here in 1983 with us. My dad got his PhD in East Ancient History and then moved back to Korea I believe in 2008.

Q:  Are your wife’s parents Korean as well?
A:  Yes, they are second generation1.5 generation Korean-American. They both went to school here.

Q:  Your Facebook cover and profile photos were taken at Bernie Sanders’ rally at Bonney Field in May. How did you get involved in that and have you always been interested in politics?
A:  I’ve definitely always been interested in politics. My dad is a history professor so I grew up watching history documentaries of Korean uprisings. Of World War II and its roots and about the Korean War. I was surrounded by so many history books. So in that case I’ve always been interested in politics. How power is used to squelch the masses. How power in all of its forms whether that is, you know, capitalism, totalitarian, socialism; how it can be used to manipulate or subjugate the people. In that regard, segwaying into the Bernie Sanders rally I was contacted two days before the Sacramento rally by Jerry Perry who’s an amazing promoter here in town. Bernie was looking for some musical acts and wanted to make sure the local scene was represented. Within a span of two days I learned a couple of songs, put together a set list and played probably one of my top musical experiences ever. It had over 20,000 people of all races and genders and orientations. I mean united wanting to express and to be heard. It’s not something that you normally get at a club where I think people are really looking to escape and kind of let go of the world. So the rally was a place for fervor, that political fervor and energy. It’s very hard to replicate.

Q:  Give me your thoughts on Bernie Sanders.
A:  Bernie Sanders is awesome. A lot of the issues he stands for I would say I completely agree with. Of course, I think that with every politician there are advantages and there are disadvantages. With Bernie I think it really comes down to the issues. Do I think he will be able to engender a lot of change within Congress? Maybe not. With Hillary Clinton I think she is basically you know DC Royalty and in that regard would probably be able to engender some more change within Congress and within the quagmire that is our current Legislative Branch. At the same time I hate her foreign policy. I think she’s got terrible foreign policy. She’s a war hawk, has supported war in the past and you know I think one example is that she’s fully in support of fracking in other countries. Of course she was in support within the US as well but has recently changed her mind. But it’s okay to fuck with the environment anywhere outside of our country. So for me at this point the DC Primary has just happened. Obviously Donald Trump is galvanizing a very jingoist, impoverished, mostly white America that is really on the heels of fulfilling the heap of that economic recession much like Hitler did. So whatever we have to do to avoid Trump becoming president, in my opinion, it needs to be done. At the same time, you know, in 1968 it was the voice and the pressure of the people at the Democratic National Convention that led to some changes in policy within the Democratic Party.

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Now that the DC Primary is over and for all intents and purposes Bernie will not win the Democratic candidacy. I still think it’s important that the issues he stands for get the right platform at the Democratic National Convention. I think that if all the Bernie Sanders supporters are able to take that political fervor and apply it to the party at the convention then at the very least will be able to pressure Hillary into making some very important concessions that I think need to take place for America to become a stronger democracy. I mean campaign finance reform all that. I will say given what I just stated as far as my opinion is concerned. First and foremost we need to have face-to-face conversations.

If you’re a Donald Trump supporter please let’s talk. Facebook is not objective media it’s not giving you actual opportunity to discuss with other Americans that share any viewpoint outside of yours. My Facebook feed is very biased. I’ll be the first person to say that. That is not news. Whenever there is bias involved, whenever there’s money involved right I mean. Same goes for really mass media in general but specially Facebook. They have an algorithm that’s designed to feed you exactly what you want to hear. So in a democracy you have to talk to people who disagree with you. If you do talk to many conservative Americans our end goals are actually very similar. We want to be able to pay for our kids education. We want our kids to have a decent education, it’s really how we go about executing it that I think we sometimes disagree on but need to work together to compromise and build that common platform to get to that end. It’s mass media outlets, it’s Facebook, it’s social media that’s is really just trying to sell us ourselves and what we believe. It takes extra work to actually get out there and exercise American democracy.

Q:  I hear you talked at the rally about your immigrant experience. Did you choose that topic or did someone else ask you to talk about that?
A:  I chose that. I definitely try to connect with the audience at whatever show that may be specially at such a political rally. I thought it was important that people know that I am an immigrant. At the same time I also posted the day after that I never felt more American in my life. So yes it was certainly my choice to talk about my immigrant past.

Q:  For those people that hear the word immigrant and they don’t even know what it means. What is your personal experience in getting a green card to becoming a citizen and what did that mean to you?
A:  Actually I’m not a citizen right now. I’m still a green card holder. I got my green card in 2012 some 20 years after I arrived in the States. I moved here at the age of six. I would say for all intents and purposes I’m American. English is, at this point, my primary language. I think I have the linguistic skills, as far as Korean is concerned, of a dumb 3rd grader so the fact that I still had to wait 20 years when it wasn’t even my choice to move to this country I think it’s absurd. The fact that my dad was here studying for a higher degree at one of the most prestigious universities in the world at the University of Washington yet was unable to find a way to support his family legally I think it’s also absurd. My mom had to work washing dishes at a teriyaki restaurant. She didn’t take a job from anyone you have to be basically an illegal immigrant or illegal worker to even accept a job like that. So I would say migration is natural. Humans have been migrating since the dawn of humanity. When we draw these borders and try to hog what is ours and say they are them. I think all that does is engender hatred and misunderstanding. It’s about educating and communicating. Teaching our children to collaborate with people who are not like them, who come from different cultural backgrounds that’s what is going to lead us closer to a just world.

Q:  You played the national anthem on your violin à la Jimi Hendrix. Any plans on setting a violin on fire while on stage?
A:  That I will never do! Actually I think that it’s really funny you should mention that. I do not plan on setting my violin on fire ever! If at any point I have the desire to break an instrument on stage I would rather give that to a child who cannot afford to buy an instrument. We had a lot of trouble as a family securing an instrument for me and my sister to play. So the idea of taking a thousand dollar guitar. A thousand dollar plus right like a Jimi Hendrix guitar and then breaking it on stage. I understand that it’s a statement, an artistic statement, and I appreciate it but I personally would never do that.

Maybe I would buy a very cheap violin just for the purpose of burning it. I think electric guitars are different too because a lot of them are mass produced whereas violins … my violin is not an expensive violin by any means but it was built in 1938. The wood has developed over so much time and the idea of … well it’s got a name right. The idea of lighting Stanley on fire it feels cruel to the violin itself. A lot of violins outlast their owners, their masters. If I’m playing an electric violin maybe that’s a different story.

Q: Where is the best place to check out your work?

Q:  I understand you’re planning an Asian tour next year. Where and when? Is it still in the planning stage?
A:  Yeah, it’s definitely in the planning stage. Right now I’m planning a tour September, October. West coast tour win a LA hip-hop artist, spoken word artist Jason Chu whose album I had the privilege of producing over the last few months and then hopefully recording a full length album. My first full length album tentatively titled Migrant. Then I’m planning on embarking on a world tour. So we’ll hit up every coast of the United States and then find my way over to Asia. Go visit Korea, go work with some of the great folk artists that I’ve been working with here. Get in touch with my past a little bit, get in touch with my roots.

daVIDAlvarez photos - Joe Kye (20)
Credit: David Alvarez  I  On top of the WAL artist lofts in Sacramento

Q:  Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
A:  I hope to be basically doing what I’m doing now. Collaborating with a lot of different artistic groups. Working on my original projects. Touring the world and spreading the message of peace and empathy and mutual understanding. Hopefully using my music as a tool to engender conversation to that end.

Q:  Anything else that you’d like to discuss that we didn’t cover?
A:  I will be playing at California WorldFest which is an awesome festival in Grass Valley. Boz Scaggs is headlining. I think there’s a lot of like minded people that will be playing there trying to break down cultural and natural boundaries through music, though that medium. I’ll be playing both Saturday and Sunday, I believe it’s July 14-17. It’s going to be really fun You should come out. I’ll have the full band there.

Q:  Can you tell us about your experience with racism?
A:  So racism … man there’s so much to talk about. I guess the best way to do it is to root it in a story. In my sophomore year of school on Halloween. I was walking down the street, this is at Yale University. You would think that a bastion of progressive thought and education. As I was walking down the street in the afternoon a car drove past. A group of youngish white guys rolled down the window and as they were passing one of them yelled “Great costume. How do you get your eyes to stick like that.” I wasn’t physically hurt at all but it did point out my otherness. It also made me feel like I didn’t belong in that community in this country. I mean that could easily have been a car full of Asian guys yelling at a black man walking down the street. Racism, I think, is basically when we resort to our biological impulse of categorization. It’s a biological impulse that is then fed by our media outlets … like oh here’s a categorization of Asian now we’re going to give you a list of descriptors you should associate with that color of skin. So hard working, really good at math, the model minority basically but also not a leader, will never be a leader, is passive and does not know how to go and get things for himself. The list goes on for any of the other different races. It’s a natural impulse everyone has racist tendencies in the sense that we want to jump to conclusions about our fellow man. It’s our ability to actively fight against that fight against these stark characteristics that we’re led to believe are true and work. Work specifically to break down those assumptions. We can then at least push down that racist tendency.

So when you have people like Donald Trump saying that all Muslims should be deported from the country it’s so ridiculous in the sense that it’s fear mongering and it’s specifically drawing a line and saying; people who do not look like us should get the hell out of our country. When a lot of Trump supporters say okay let’s get the Muslims out of the country they’re probably more likely to point out a Sikh man who’s wearing a turban and has brown color skin who by the way Sikh is not Islam at all. Then look at an Indonesian person and tell them to get the hell out of our country. Because Indonesia, I believe, is the country with the most Muslims per capita. So there’s a lot of racial fear that Trump is using in order to galvanize white America. His slogan “Make America Great Again”, makes no sense America was never great for people who looked like me. America was far worse for people who were black. That slogan of “Make America Great Again,” how does that apply to them? It doesn’t. Xenophobia is very powerful, very, very powerful we have to fight it within ourselves.

Looking at June 16 issue of SN&R there’s a question in there that I would like you to read and answer.
What’s the first thing you would do if elected President? Well first of all I was not born here so there’s no way I could be President. The first thing I would do if elected president … I would take half our military budget and put it into education.

  • David Alvarez

For More check out Joe Kye’s blog!

For Joe’s music, go here!


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