Sometimes, stripped-down acoustic music is all you really need to hear. Sure, loud and fast music is good and great, some can listen to it for hours on end. But sometimes, you just get tired of having someone shout in your face, and you just want to hear organic feel-good tunes with a passionate message.
Koji finds his place in this very environment. With a history of playing shows with bands like Such Gold and Title Fight, he has managed to never completely stick out like a sore thumb. This could be attributed to different things, like the cohesive nature of the different facets of the small punk scene. When he isn’t “talking the talk” through playing music, he’s actually “walking the walk” through his non profit and activism work, which is pretty punk if I do say so myself.
One late July afternoon, I had the awesome opportunity of interviewing Koji at the West Palm Beach, FL stop of the Vans Warped Tour for UTG. Throughout the interview, we discussed things like the collective “Warped” community, Koji’s upcoming full-length, Invisible Children and activism as a whole.
Even though it’s safe to say that you’ve found your niche within the punk community. How well do you feel you’re reaching out to new crowds that wouldn’t want to listen to La Dispute, but would listen to All Time Low?
I’d have to say that there’s a pretty big mix of kids that may have attended the tour. Maybe say, last year: I think last year there was a different vision in terms of lineup. When a lot of us were asked to do this tour, we were really skeptical about doing it, but when started to find out about who got asked to do it (bands like Hostage Calm, Title Fight, Transit, and A Loss for Words). A lot of my friends and peers that grew up in the same scene, we found out that they were asking all of us, and it became clear that they wanted to go further with this theme of diversity (which I think Warped Tour has done really well), and that’s taking punk, taking emo and hardcore, and putting it alongside ska, rap, reggae, and lots of different styles of music. This year is kind of a pivotal moment for not just me or the tour, but for this generation of music, and the expectation of that these are all “pop kids”, these are all kids that are following bands on the main stage. I think there’s always been this tradition of these kids who come out for the mid-level stage, or the small stage to hear or experience music that they may have just found out about.
I know this is pretty long-winded for a straight-forward question, but I don’t think it’s the All Time Low kids that are coming to see me even though some of them are. I think it’s the kids that are wearing Title Fight shirts, Hostage Calm shirts, and Ceremony shirts. You know, just like cool bands that I listen to. Minor Threat shirts have been in full force over the last few days. So I think there’s been a really diverse crowd, and it’s a lot of kids have been coming out to Warped tour that may have stopped for a while, or this is their first time, and I’m noticing that a lot of people that are at my set are people that have never seen me before.
This is something that I’ve been asking myself, it’s “who is the ‘Warped kid’ that is coming to see my set?” Because to be honest, I’m shocked that anyone is here on any day that I play… I’m shocked. So it doesn’t matter what you listen to, or what brought you to Warped Tour, but if you ended up catching a band set, let alone my set, I think it’s a really special thing, because there’s so many other places that you can be, and yet we chose to be here with having the experiences that we do. It’s our own unique one, just like our lives, and just like our musical tastes.
That’s what’s really special, and so I love anyone that comes to see me whether they listen to La Dispute or All Time Low, I really do.
I know that footage of you performing a new song has surfaced recently. It’s still untitled, right? You still don’t have any ideas of a name for it, right?
I have a whole new album written, no titles for the songs, and no title for the record. I don’t even know if I’m supposed to be talking about it, but I’m the type of person that really relies on friends, family, and community to work on my work together. I depend on everybody, so being able to share a new song, and really feel like it’s connecting with people has been really reaffirming, and it’s kind of setting me in the right direction for my album. So when people that have been following me hear this record, I think are going to see a little bit of themselves, because that’s what I’m really trying to reflect EM not just my own experience, but that of everybody that I’ve come into contact with.
What else could we expect from your latest album?
It’s hard to say on a street date, we already started on the record and it’s not finished, but the band that’s playing on the record is really wonderful. It wouldn’t be the same record if it wasn’t for Brad from the band La Dispute (he drums), and then also Matt Warner who’s in Balance and Composure (he played bass). We have a lot of really cool guests. My brother sang a little bit on the record, we have some really great session players that played on it. My new friend Collin who plays in a band called Gypsy who’ve put out one of the very best records this year played guitar on some of it. So like I said, it’s a real community effort, and we’re kind of through the demoing process, we’ve gotten a lot of the meat of it done. Now I just have to go home and finish it.
I found out from a friend that you used to go by “Koji on the Roof” before you decided on just using Koji. What was the reason for the name change?
It’s not a very interesting story, it’s just that everyone called me “Koji”, and when I started touring I didn’t have a band, so I just went by Koji.
So I’ve been told that you’ve done work for the “controversial” non-profit, Invisible Children. Now, I know you’re not exactly a spokesman for IC, but as someone who knows the heart of the people that work at the organization, is there anything that you’d like to say to the public to help break up that tension?
Well what I first want to say is that there is absolutely nothing “controversial”. We’re trying to bring an end to child soldiering, to human trafficking, to injustice of any kind, anywhere. I think people should first know that I do have a bias with this organization because some of the first friends that I ever made on tour were people in Invisible Children. From 2005-2012, I’ve been working hand in hand to try to bring an end to that conflict, and I think a lot of people (with respect to Invisible Children) make a lot of assumptions thinking that they only care about this issue, or they’re not informed, or they’re not doing it the right way. But the fact of the matter is that activism, just like life, is messy. It’s imperfect, and ultimately we have to decide what’s right for ourselves. So I think I’m uncomfortable with the tone of negativity that people have taken when talking about this issue, or what it is to be a non profit in 2012.
What I want to say is that their work is important, that I know it’s coming from a good place, because I know these people, and I have so much love for them. If it wasn’t for that community, I wouldn’t be the same person I am today. I hope that people have grace for me when they recognize that I support this issue, I support this organization. I hope that they’ll be patient with me and understand that it’s not just this issue for me, it’s education, it’s the environment. In my home state of Pennsylvania, there are so many pressing issues in my local community and I dedicate myself to that, and it is possible to focus on local issues as much as it is to set some time aside to send positivity around the world. It’s a personal choice for everybody, and I’m not here to impose myself or my beliefs on anyone, just as I don’t think any organization should do, my ask (if there ever was one) is that people be patient, be forgiving, be loving to anyone because we’re all human beings at the end of the day. Behind the institutions, we’re individuals, we’re human beings, and we need to love and respect each other.
A lot of people associate me with Invisible Children, but I think the bulk of my work has been with other organizations. For instance, Resolve is a policy-based organization; they’re the only DC-based group who is dedicated to bringing an end to the LRA atrocities: to restoring peace to the region, rehabilitating child soldiers, like really making sure that this [issue] is on our nation’s radar.
This really hasn’t taken the form of awareness for me, I’ve been in the trenches in lobby meetings, like meeting with legislators to talk about this issue.
I think that at the end of the day, people don’t value their own voice, which is why they have such a hard time listening to other people because people are so overwhelmed. People are so pacified with the amount of choice that we are presented with everyday, with the feeling that their effort doesn’t make a difference, but if art, if music, if activism has shown me anything, it’s that when you take your life into your own hands, when you recognize your accountability, your responsibility to yourself and to the world, and you exercise what it is you care about through work, you can really make a lasting impact. Real change starts with ourselves.
If there is any mission that I have (and it’s not one specific issue) it’s just that if people see the way that I do music, I hope that it’s empowering to other people; because arguably, there isn’t room for someone like me to be successful. From someone in my little scene in central Pennsylvania, where I was one of the only Asian kids playing music, I’m one of the only minorities here on this tour… Very few people on this tour have taken a stand on certain issues, and have been vocal. There’s nothing about me that’s marketable. I only exist because there’s something resonating with people. To the kid who thinks he can’t, I hope that he feels encouraged. Even if I don’t change their mind, I hope that I point them in the right direction, and I hope that’s something worthwhile.
What’s your “stranded on a desert island” album?
Man… I don’t know. If it’s a really hot desert island, I would probably bring the record that I listened to a lot as a kid, I had a 1986 Volvo that only had a cassette player, and so I always listened to Illmatic by Nas whenever it was hot outside (or even when it was cold, too.)
But if it was a chillier island, I would probably bring Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by Wilco.
What do you have in store for the next year? Is there anything that you’d like to add?
I’m going to play shows, I’m going to keep making music, I’m going to release the most important work that I’ve ever done in my whole life, which is my first full-length, and I’m going to continue to give my all. That’s what’s next year.
Written and conducted by: Adrian Garza