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Karen Maeda Allman's Life in Punk Rock - Part 2

Karen Maeda Allman with Conflict US. Photographed by Ed Arnaud (used with permission by Karen Maeda Allman)

Read Part 1 >>


Tamiko Nimura (TN): It's so fantastic to hear about this I just remember reading [and] doing a little bit of googling on you and of course you know all your bookselling stuff comes up, but it was like yeah there is this picture of you and your “armor” at the Smithsonian, and I thought, “wait a second.” Can you tell me about this, about your armor, and what it was like to put it on?

Karen Maeda Allman (KMA): Well you know, Madonna wore a lot of bracelets and stuff. And she was very influenced by punks in LA fashion-wise, just as I was. That's, I think that's where that came from, and crucifixes, and all that. I wasn't like a big crucifix wearer but… I kind of like that fashion aspect of it, but it was also practical in that if you were in a mosh pit…

In the beginning people would kinda look out for each other but then it got a little bit more gnarly after a while. And so it was good to have spikes on your arm, so you can remind people that, “hey, I am here.”

Though, you know, sometimes they would punch you back. I'm not a wrestler or a fighter, so it was some, yeah….But part of it wasas someone who is multiracial and then also someone who is not majority culture, not white, people would stare you know and so I was like, “I'll give you something to look at, but I'm not pretty.” It would be like five layers of leathered, colored nylons and thrift shop dresses and a bunch of jewelry and black lipstick and stuff like that.

And one of them, one of the local guys, was like, “you shouldn't wear all that stuff. You don't look pretty.” I was like, “pretty?” To me it was funny that he thought I was trying to be pretty by putting all this stuff on. He was a sweet guy but I was like, “yeah, he doesn't get it.”

TN: “Read the punk room, right?”

KMA: Yeah, right. And, you know, I was really used to not fitting in all that well so that was okay.

How I got into that Smithsonian exhibit was doing the exhibit, there's a [punk and zine author and] scholar named Mimi Thi Nguyen. I knew her from [Nguyen’s compilation zine] Evolution of a Race Riot, the zines. I ordered those and come to find out she had been listening to us and knew us. We had reconnected on Facebook and when they were putting a girlhood exhibit together, they were looking for stuff for their fashion section. And so she recommended that some of us send notes to the curators interested and my bracelets and pictures.

And that was so great, because I had donated and given away some of my stuff and I was like “what am I gonna do with this?” and it was so great to be able to send it there and to have it all together in context to talk about it. And it's kinda cool about the Smithsonian, you know. It's like Helen Keller's watch is also in that exhibit, but then there's these regular people like me that were doing our thing. And it was good ….it was nice to hear that I, my work, inspired other people.

TN: Fantastic.

KMA: Facebook's been very interesting because some of those people have come out of the woodwork contacted me like my friend in Nottingham, like Mimi, contacted me that way and also [other] people that I knew who were in bands.

Basically, though, Conflict was created out of the friendship I had with Nick Johnoff, our drummer. He acted as our manager in so many ways. Someone has to book bands into clubs, and he stepped into that role. He was the reason that we were able to play with bands like Black Flag, DOA, and the Dead Kennedys among others, as he’d be in touch with these bands, who were always touring, even in small town scenes like Tucson. Conflict (and his other band, UPS) would usually open these shows.  And he booked the shows we did in the Southwest. He found us our practice spaces and for a while we even practiced in his house.  He was our drummer and he certainly didn’t care that he was playing in a band with two Nikkei women. 

Another guy who is very important to Conflict is a guy named Michael Cornelius and he was the bass player for a band called JFA, Jody Foster's Army. He’s African American, he was a friend of mine. He produced our album, he wrote about us in a zine…He helped us spread the word, about us. I think he liked what we were doing.

And he also had another life at Phoenix College where he has supported so many students over the years, and recently I met a publicist who said that she met him at a real turning point in her life and she felt he really saved her life. And I think that he played that role in the lives of so many people. So by day he's playing punk rock and he still doing that.

I think he's [now] playing in a band called The Father Figures which is people from back in the day….He's a really excellent bass player and guitarist but he also is one of those key people. He’s not like the president of Phoenix College, I think he works in financial aid. But he's like the person that took your hand and helped you when you needed it, believed in you. He couldn't do it by himself but maybe he could like help somebody who just needed that extra thing. And I thought, he’s just so amazing.

You know you hear about you know these famous punk rock peoplehis band is famousbut maybe he's not as famous as like somebody like Jello Biafra or something like that…

But he's touched so many lives in a really positive way. So anyway people started writing about us and it tends to be women or Asian Americans and Lance Hahn of J Church, just one of those people who wrote about us in kind of the mid 2000s. And we had a back cover picture of that issue of Maximum Rock 'n' Roll which is really cool.

TN: So we covered how you got into the scene but then how did you get into [singing] because you were the lead singer, right?

Karen Maeda Allman with Conflict US. Photographed by Ed Arnaud (used with permission by Karen Maeda Allman)

KMA: Oh yeah, well I didn't play guitar very well, so… I couldn't play and sing at the same time and remember the words. So I don't know, I just kind of did it. When we formed Tampon Eaters there were two of us singing, and then the other person dropped out, and so then there was me. And I don't sing all that wellbut you know, in punk you don't really have to. I think, you're supposed to if you're a girl.

And they were my words, and I just never really thought about that, actually. I just was the singer and when we recorded our album, ….Our other people in the band did backup stuff but yeah, I just always was the singer.

TN: Do you still remember what it felt like to be on stage?

KMA: Yeah, it was sometimes it was really great, the best part, actually and I think your husband, his name is Josh?

TN: Right, yeah.

KMA: I think Josh would probably relate to this too: One of the best things about being a band is playing with other people and making music, creating things whether or not you have an audience. It's just like there's… sometimes you're just really in the groove and it's justit's just really beautiful.

And sometimes people will make a mistake and then it becomes part of the song because it's better with that mistake, you know? Like that Dylan song with the organ that comes in kinda late and then it's like this, “Like a Rolling Stone,” We had like a drum part like that…

None of us were all that great at playing or singing, except for our guitarist was really good, but everybody else, you know, we were kind of trying to put it together as we went along, and I guess if I wasn't singing, I wasn't gonna be doing anything.

TN: I think so often we tend to picture punk as this very White scene …And so I was just wondering what was it like to be biracial, Asian and be in the punk scene in the early 80s…

KMA: Yeah, and queer too.… It was kind of weird when we first started our scene was, you know, Tucson and we spent most of our time in in Southern California if we weren't in Tucson or Phoenix. So that meant that there were a lot of Latinos, and there were so many Latinos.

And our best show, my favorite show ever, was at a place called The Vex which was Latino. It was in various locations but it was a Latino East LA kind of a thing, and so that crowd embraced us. And I love those bands. And a lot of the history that assumes that punks were all white are kind of whitewashing… The Latinos that were there, Black Flag? Always had Latinos, a Latino singer, for a while the drummer was Latino, The Zeros, The Bags, all these bands but …

And then it got Whiter in when it became more about the Valley and everything like that and then that totally alienated me but there were so few women singing or playing and that to me was most visible…. [as kind of like] And we were not taken seriously at all because we had two women, and women singing.

But we were always looking for each other. One of the members of found Dead Kennedys was Black… A lot of the bands we played with were at least one person of color, now that I think [about it]… I didn't think about it then, I was just like, “oh my god there's no women.” And then women stopped going to shows because they were just sick of violence and stuff.

The last song I wrote was about this and also about these kids, that they would be really young, they'd be like 14 or 15, they'd be white young boys and they would be so blasted on drugs or alcohol or both and horrible, and…

I was just thinking at the time how horrible they were and they wrote the song and I was like, “OK this is telling me I need to stop doing this “and then later I read some accounts by people like those boys and I thought, “OK, this is what was going on with them” and I felt bad that I didn't have empathy. I just was like, “they're so terrible they’re ruining the scene.”

Now I'm thinking, “oh my god this is why they were like what they were, they were going through a lot of stuff” and so it was good for me to read those accounts later and understand.

TN: So what happened, what made the band break up?

KMA: Oh, the final breakup? Well, I was going to grad school. I had fallen in love with this woman who I just thought she was the one. She was not the one. So I kind of got less interested and we also lost Mariko and that really, our bass player ‘cause she moved away and that really disrupted kind of the flow of energy I think between us all so we had like 1 million bass players and that was terrible. And then we got a bass player and for some reason he and our drummer did not get along.

And then it became like factions, like Diane and Bill and me, and me and Nick, and then, you know, it just felt like we didn't want to. And also Nick had started a band with his wife that was a lot more melodic.

I think he thought, “Well, maybe she should join our band.” But I was like, “you know she doesn't like our music, why is she gonna try to join our band?” …And then you argue all the time. I stayed in contact with him, all three of them, actually, Diane's son is writing now, as my Facebook friend is writing, and Bill as I said became a scientist he played with another band, and then his ex-wife and I became friends.

And his ex-wife was the administrator for the Kiriyama Prize which was my first international prize judging, just seeing adventure so ' cause she got to know me she knew by this time I was working at Elliott Bay and we were talking she was like, “you could be a great judge” like do you think do you want to do it? So that's how I ended up getting my first gig with [judging] the Kiriyama Prize.

But yeah, I think I was just done. I was not interested in kind of what was happening with the scene. I have always been really anti-drug. I don't even like smoking, much less anything else.

I know a lot of people think punk rock is about a bunch of white guys doing heroin and you know, there is that side of it, but it was also protest music and is also protest music and it did give an opening for kind of next generations like Riot grrrl came later, and that was after I was out of all of this and to me it felt very white… But I was interested in what they were doing, but it was like, this is not something for me, but I'm glad it's happening.

Read Part 3 >>


© 2022 Tamiko Nimura

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