I never expected our Save Music in Chinatown benefits to support Castelar Elementary’s music program to last this long. For five school years now, our all-ages matinees inspired by the neighborhood’s punk rock past at the old Hong Kong Café (but with cookies and little kids dancing around in front like the Peanuts Gang in a Target Video) have raised about $10,000 annually to help provide an extensive music education to largely immigrant, English-learning, and underserved students. We also have a lot of fun exposing kids that can handle it to DIY culture. All the while, we’ve made a lot of friends in LA’s storied punk community. Adolescents, Channel Three, Alice Bag, Mike Watt, Chuck Dukowski, Rikk Agnew, Phranc, Alley Cats, The Crowd, The Gears—our list is way too long to list and includes rad newer bands as well as some from China!
Our fifteenth show is the most shamelessly selfish lineup yet. Most of it is newer bands with members of older groups that never got very big or popular back in their days. But I loved them and want people to check out the current music, too. These are punk rock lifers who don’t play for fame but love and the scene.
Cringeworthy is a tribute to Cringer and J Church, bands that Lance Hahn used to play in. It was a big deal to me when I found out that he dug GR, the magazine that I helped make, and it wasn’t long before we became friends and he would stay at my house with J Church when they toured through Los Angeles or even just to visit.
Lance was a DIY dynamo who would write a song every day, release singles and records nonstop, contribute to a bunch of compilations, and tour with bands that ranged from Subhumans to Seam. Our overlapping interests stemmed well beyond punk rock, and conversations spilled over into Asian cinema, vegetarian Chinese food, lefty politics, and baseball. He was supposed to play my wedding but came a week too late—perfect for a guy who not only had Charlie Brown on his record covers but who embodied that sort of relentless persistence in the face of doom, surrounded by oddballs. The miscommunication actually worked out for the best because we were able to hang out for a much longer time, and that turned out to be the last chance I’ve have to see him before he died from a variety of health-related issues.
Cringeworthy includes Cringer drummer Kamala (also of Kamala & The Karnivores), her husband Frank (Star Fucking Hipsters, The Love Songs, Degenerics), my cousin Anthony (RAD, Sick Burn), and Lory (also RAD and Sick Burn). They have played only a handful of shows and it means a lot to me that they are traveling all the way down from the Bay Area to play our humble benefit. I will try not to cry during their set, especially if my 10-year-old daughter Eloise happens to grab the mic during one of my favorite Cringer songs.
I asked Anthony and Kamala some questions on the cusp of this great occasion.
MW: Can you remind me why and how Cringeworthy started?
AL: George Chen contacted me about doing a one-off band to pay tribute to Lance for the Epicenter Zone Reunion weekend in July 2015– a series of shows celebrating the 25th anniversary of Epicenter Zone.
[Lance’s partner] Liberty was one of the event organizers, I recall. Lance, of course, was such a central figure to Epicenter, being the record buyer and store manager at various points. You couldn’t really do this anniversary and not acknowledge Lance’s importance to Epicenter.
The original plan was that George would play guitar, I would play bass, and Adam Pfahler would play drums. The songs we were considering were all J Church songs, since Adam used to drum for J Church. I remember that Adam really wanted to play “Sound of Mariachi Bands,” in particular. The vocalist position was never quite pinned down, because almost immediately Adam decided he couldn’t manage the time commitment.
We then got in touch with Kamala and found out she was interested in doing this project. At that point, it really became a Cringer tribute band, because Kamala played drums on so many classic Cringer songs, but of course not in J Church. Since Cringer was a 4-piece, we needed another guitarist, and Kamala’s husband Frank was the perfect choice because he is an amazing guitar player and all-around great person.
Later, George moved to L.A. from the Bay Area, so it became necessary to replace him in order to play a few more shows. Lory from RAD stepped in and learned all the songs–some on bass, some which she plays guitar on.
The short answer to this is: to pay tribute to Lance Hahn, and have a lot of fun playing these songs that mean a lot to us over the years.
MW: Lance once told me that he tried to write one song a day. Wth so many Cringer and J Church songs to choose from, how did the band come up with a set list?
AL: We started from the set of songs that Cringer commonly incorporated into their live sets back when Kamala was their drummer, and just picked the ones we liked the best. Besides having Kamala’s lived experience and fantastic memory, I had a couple of old Cringer set lists I had hoarded away, plus the Live in Europe VHS tape, to provide guidance.
To humor me, everyone learned “Yellow Blue & Green,” which is one of my favorite J Church songs because of the bass line. All the rest of our set is Cringer songs.
MW: Kamala, did the songs come back pretty fast? Has it been a weird trip back in time in any way?
KP: Yes, songs came back pretty quickly. I guess it was muscle memory!
I wouldn’t say it’s been weird–more like conflicted. On one hand, it’s great to have had enough distance from playing the music to realize they are special and it’s been great revisiting it. On the other hand, an endeavor like this can feel like ego-stroking nostalgia. And there was some reticence about doing J Church songs for me. There was never a conversation about Cringer breaking up. J Church just formed in its place while I was recovering from a broken finger gotten on the Cringer/Citizen Fish tour. However, J Church’s songs, in reflection, are very special and I’m happy to incorporate a song into the set. It turns out that “Yellow, Blue, and Green” is one of my favorite songs that we play.
MW: Can you talk about that first Cringeworthy show?
KP: As indicated above, it was the Epicenter Reunion show at San Francisco’s Verdi Club in July 2015 since Lance was a well-loved volunteer at Epicenter. The show was mayhem, in many ways, because they had so many acts (spoken word, bands) in such a short period of time and no equipment backline. So, I think we had 20 minutes to set up, play, and then get our equipment off-stage. It was strangely silent after we played our set of five songs. We thought that people didn’t really like what we did, but it turns out that most people were crying because they were moved by hearing Lance’s music again.
MW: Wait, I thought everyone got sick and it was a big disaster!
AL: That was the second show! We were gonna play the Lookouting Fest in January 2017, but 3 out of 4 of us got the flu and were really sick the day of the show, and then had to cancel at the last minute. We got to play Gilman again in January 2018– sort of our triumphant makeup show.
MW: Did you expect other shows to happen?
KP: This will probably be the last show for the foreseeable future. We all have busy lives and other bands.
MW: What possessed you to come down and play our benefit?
KP: We have the great honor of being asked but also have an inside track since Anthony is your cousin. It’s a small but fantastic cause in this dystopian world and the billing is eclectic. As a life-long sober person, playing in the middle of the day at an event attended by people of all ages at a venue not focused on alcohol or meat markets is pretty much heaven.
MW: As punks from the Bay Area, do you feel connection to the Hong Kong Cafe or that thread of underground music and culture? Is it exciting at all to play in Chinatown?
AL: Not being from L.A., I mean I can’t claim to have any direct connection with the old Hong Kong Cafe. For me, that connection would be with old venues where I did see bands I loved back in the day, like J Church at Jabberjaw, Jawbreaker at Macondo, or any number of bands at the Smell.
Of course, I feel a connection with the DIY spirit and passion that makes Save Music in Chinatown so special– bringing bands, music fans, and non-music fans together for a righteous cause really appeals to me and makes me want to be a part of it. Having it hosted at a venue in Chinatown is just a bonus, moreso because as a Chinese person whose dad was born in L.A. Chinatown, I treasure the neighborhood and what it means to the longtime Chinese community–and less so because of the punk connection!