Fanime 2017 celebrates community and non-mainstream culture in San Jose

06/13/2017

In a world that often takes itself too seriously, I am walking through downtown San Jose and I see a host of superheroes walking towards me. I stop outside the San Jose Convention Center for a moment to take in the scene. It’s around 11am, and it feels like the entire world of fantasy is gathered in one place. I am standing outside Fanime – one of the largest gatherings of fan culture in Northern California. By the end of Memorial Day Weekend over 34,000 people will have wandered the halls of the expansive convention center.

When I move inside the convention hall, I see two women dressed in white taking photos and chatting to friends.  I recognise one of the pair as Cami, from my time at Silicon Valley Comic Con. She is standing with Veronica, aka Feisty Vee, who I ask about why she has come to the convention this year. “Fanime is one of my favorite conventions,” she replies, “…I just love the people; everything about this convention is amazing!”

She does not seem alone in this viewpoint, everyone I speak to shares positive stories about the convention and how much they enjoy it. Rachel Rae traveled from Los Angeles for the convention and explained its appeal. “It’s just the experience of being with people who love the same exact culture, and anime, and fandoms as you,” she gleefully says. “It’s incredible! And to be just here, with this energy, and being able to express your nerdiness it’s [a] one of a kind experience.”

She self-describes herself as a geek and goes on to offer an insight into why the feeling of community is so strong, “I like things that are not exactly the norm of this society. I like to watch anime [and] read manga. I dress up as all these characters, and I am religious about my comic books and my video games. That’s not really what the norm is in society I guess. That’s why you embrace it, and you love the people who also embrace it as much as you do.”

Everywhere you look at Fanime there are people laughing loudly, talking about anime, costumes, comics and video games. Walking around the main convention space, there are rooms for teams to sit down and play computer games. Talks which touch on a variety of very specialized topics such as “Self-Publishing,” a “Q&A with JPOP band X4,” and “Anime to See Before You Die”. With 24 hour screening rooms and panels running through til midnight, every topic you can think of is covered. It is billed as a convention by the fans for the fans and it is clear to see. Any corporate presence is minimal; with any sponsorship and advertising feeling very discrete.

As I walk around speaking to people, I only see a handful of black cosplayers. I spot a towering man with long pristine dreadlocks dressed as Aquaman. His name is Dante, from San Diego, and we speak about why there are so few black cosplayers. “…a lot of the characters are not people of color,” he explains, “reimagining these characters is kinda tough because some people, really hardcore fans, are sticklers for it being perfect.” He demonstrates this by talking about his character, “I’m Aquaman, and Aquaman is traditionally a white guy; he’s blond hair, blue eyes. And [they say] ‘you’re not staying true to the character’… [I] feel like I should be able to do Aquaman and Archangel… because I resonate with the characters.”

Other black cosplayers I speak to retell a similar story. I hear about how in the past, at other conventions, people have been referred to as ‘Blackman’ when playing ‘Batman,’ or how compliments about a costume were followed by comments about how a person does not look like the character.

Kerry, from Bay Point, is dressed as an intricate steampunk incarnation of Catwoman. It is a wonderfully unique take on the character, and it stands out from many of the other ‘catwomen’ at the show.

We speak briefly about how it is to be a cosplayer of color, and Kerry mentions how things have changed. “In the previous years it was a lot more difficult, people would straight up ignore you – they didn’t care what you were wearing,” she shares. “This used to be a really evil, nasty, place.” Kerry has been coming to Fanime for six straight years and confesses that she would “throw away a job” to be there. Despite challenges in earlier years she still celebrates the event as the one time of the year, she can really be herself. “This is like Christmas to me!” she exclaims. “I get to do this once a year, and this is so important to me because I feel like I can be myself here; unbridled and just as wild as I want to be,” she tells me. “At home, I can’t be like that, and here I can be whatever I want and [I’d] be damned if anyone tries to stop me!”

Although she has had some negative experiences in past years, she expresses how much she has seen things change, which has been fostered by younger community members making sure it is evident everyone can be involved and have a more inclusive attitude. “Characters in comic books, and manga, and anime, they’re not real,” she says, “but we can make them real, [so] let everyone make them real.”

Part of this change is being driven by the organizers of the event who take creating an inclusive space very seriously. I speak to Steve Young, the Director of Marketing for Fanime Con, and he explains the importance of inclusion. “For us here it’s all about safety; we want to encourage a very safe and nurturing environment for everyone,” he says. He shares how all the members of staff are members of the community so are always striving to make Fanime the best it can be from inclusion to working more with the location community in Downtown San Jose.

“The community itself has been great!” I’m speaking to Trenton, who is dressed as a casual, almost rebellious, rock version of Cyborg. We are talking about the cosplay/anime community, and he is telling me about how welcome he feels. “Gay, straight, old, young, a little bit bigger, a little bit skinnier… it’s different people from all walks of life,” he says. It’s in talking to him that I see the power and importance of diverse representation as he shares some anecdotes about his time as a cosplayer. “I also cosplay as Batman too. When I do that, lots of black families come to me and say, ‘i never see a black Batman this is so cool.’  That means a lot to me. We never had that growing up,” he shares. And it is that opportunity for a weekend, even if only for a few hours, to be whoever it is you want to be, and explore and celebrate whatever interests you are into that makes Famime such a special event.

I think back to one of the first people I met over the weekend, Orianna, from Redwood City,  who dressed as Demon Hunter Tracer (a hybrid from two of her favorite video games; Overwatch and Diablo). She explained to me why she comes to Fanime. “it’s just a really great community and people are allowed to be themselves. I think that it’s really hard to find that, especially in today’s world, where there’s no judgement. People just kind of show up and they do their thing, and people celebrate it, and you’re just allowed to be yourself,” she said. That very simple idea of ‘just being yourself,’ is the thing that makes Memorial Day Weekend in San Jose so special to many people throughout the Bay Area and beyond. While things may not perfect all the time, there appears to be a concerted effort by the organizers, and the community itself, to make it better, and safer, each year for everyone who goes.

Amy Vachal Interview: Brooklyn Singer-Songwriter Talks Post-Voice Journey and Upcoming Album

06/12/2017

Amy Vachal is the kind of singer whose music puts you at ease. Full of acoustic-driven blues and pop folk-inspired tunes, the 28-year-old Brooklyn singer-songwriter has made it her mission to release work she believes in.

Since her successful run on the ninth season of The Voice, where she was mentored to the semifinals by Adam Levine and Pharrell Williams in 2015, Vachal has been working hard to keep her dream alive by playing shows, collaborating and touring with other artists while still being creative and writing.

On her intimate three-show West Coast Spring Tour (playing shows in Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles in the past two weeks), Vachal played from her repertoire of older tunes about love and relationships as well as new material off her prospective full-length album coming late this year. Longtime friend Matt Sucich provided backup guitars and vocal accompaniment during her shows.

I had the pleasure to sit down with half-Filipino artist Vachal before her show at The Chapel in San Francisco last Monday night to talk about her singer-songwriter soul, honest approach to songwriting, recording her debut album and musical hardship post-Voice.

Photo: Amy Vachal/Facebook

Rachel Ann Cauilan: So you just started this tour. How’s the planning process been for you? When’s the last time you were on tour?

Amy Vachal: Gosh it’s been a while. This is my first headlining tour on the West Coast. Last time I was on tour was with Joe Purdy in the fall who is an amazing singer-songwriter. He took me with him to Europe which was my first time and oh my gosh, I’ve never been to so many countries in so little time!

RAC: How was that? How long was that tour?

AV: It was a whole month, so it was 13 countries in 30 days. It was amazing. Joe has a big following in Europe and it’s funny [because] he’s come out with, I don’t know the exact number but maybe 13 albums and I haven’t even come out with one. But he’s built this following over the past several years and it was amazing to see the response to his music. People have been waiting for him to come for seven or eight years.

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Lauv Interview: The emerging R&B sensation you need to know

06/07/2017

Ari Leff, better known as the 22-year-old songwriter, producer and singer behind Lauv, has been taking over Spotify, and for good reason. His songs are merely infectious.

Inspired by the emotions one feels towards the end of a relationship, his debut single “The Other” has struck a strong chord with its listeners, garnering over 83 million plays on Spotify since its 2015 release and simultaneously inspiring five remixes. And though Lauv states he never grew up listening to classic R&B, his childhood of moving around from San Francisco to Atlanta and eventually New York City for college, has worked well for him to create his tasteful R&B-infused late night pop sound.

If you don’t know about Lauv, now is a good time to familiarize yourself with him. Just about to finish his first headlining “late night, deep talks” tour, the eight-city tour in which he sold-out almost every night was only a tease for him.

“I’m dying to tour more,” Lauv said to me in an interview.

I chatted with Lauv before his Toronto show to talk about his music, songwriting past and plans for 2017.

Photo: Lauv/Facebook

Rachel Ann Cauilan: So you just played a hometown show at the Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco last May 24th. How was that?

Lauv: It was super special. I’m originally from San Francisco but moved out there when I was 4. My grandfather who’s the last grandparent I have that’s alive got to come out with my aunt and uncle and cousin, so I got to see them. It meant a lot.

RAC: What does your family think about your music?

Lauv: They’ve been really supportive. I’m super lucky. When I was a little kid they forced me to take piano lessons and from there I don’t know if they knew what they were getting into!

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Gallant is golden at The Greek

06/06/2017

Twenty-five year old L.A. based singer Gallant is a force of nature as he explodes out onto the expansive Greek Theater stage in Berkeley. His set is early in the evening when the venue is still filling up; the first rays of the sunset are starting to beam over the concrete pavilion as a few more people find their seats. Gallant immediately finds his stride, his falsetto tones capture attention each time he reaches for his spectacular high notes; it feels like he is trying to make an impact.

Christopher Gallant is quickly working to redefine an R&B genre which, at times, has been yearning for a new sound and direction. His haunting vocals and stark range helped his 2016 debut album, Ology, gather critical acclaim from across the musical spectrum. His series, In The Room, has been yet another way for him to express himself musically, with daring collaborations with a range of musicians. From Seal to Sufjan Stevens (who Gallant toured with in 2015) have featured on In The Room and the latest edition is a stirring, piano-only, rendition of John Legend’s Overload. The result is a compelling and unpretentious version of the song with everything is stripped back so the focus is drawn to the two contrasting, yet complementary, vocal styles of John Legend and Gallant; the former’s warm tones offset by Gallant’s high, transcendent notes.

Percogesic is Gallant’s second song, and even though it is a lot slower than his opener he still finds a way to spin and twirl around the vast stage. His vocals soar, and in the picturesque and rustic setting of the Greek Theater, his screams feel chilling in a beautiful way. The crowd by now is starting to fill out some more. A glance at the back and you can see the odd sad face tee being worn with pride as if they were members of a secret club of music insiders. Read More

Run River North Interview: Asian-American indie rockers on maintaining sanity and livelihood at BottleRock Napa Valley

05/31/2017

A full day spent under the Napa Valley sun playing to hundreds of thousands of fans at BottleRock Napa Valley, indie rock band Run River North wasn’t quite done. On their way to play their third set in one day just across the Napa River in an intimate jazz venue called Silo’s, the band — physically tired and maybe emotionally drained — still had one more show to play.

“You learn to appreciate those [good] moments a lot more knowing all the struggle that happens,” lead singer Alex Hwang said to me Saturday night.

For Run River North, the path to success hasn’t been an easy one. After a fortunate video “Fight To Keep” going viral back in 2012 — leading the folks at Honda to take notice and book them a surprise gig on Jimmy Kimmel Live! — the band was plummeted into the limelight and have since fought their way to earn it.

“We’re no longer dancing around the fire,” Hwang explained. “We’re in it.”

Known for their heavy-hitting indie rock anthems and Asian-American identities, six-piece band Run River North is a band that makes honest-to-good music. Based in Los Angeles, their music tells the story of their own growth and coming-of-age as individuals, whether that’s growing up Asian-American or reflecting on the personal relationships, friendships or even discouragements that happen in the band or their careers. Their music is a direct reflection of their own experience — and that may be hard to come by in a lot of music today.

“29” is an infectious crowd-inclusive song full of rhythmic guitars, marching drumbeats and lots of oohs and ahhs. Lead singer Alex Hwang sings about his insecurity of turning 29 as he exclaims, “[Your words] hold no weight around me.”

I sat down with Hwang and guitarist Daniel Chae before their last show on their May tour to talk about transitioning band members, writing new music and being Asian-American all while maintaining their sanity on the road.

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Tuxedo (Mayer Hawthorne & Jake One) brought the funk two nights in a row to The Independent

05/19/2017

There aren’t many shows that leave me reeling for hours and staying up all night because of the energy it instilled in me, but Tuxedo was something else.

Playing two sold-out nights in San Francisco at The Independent, soul-funk band Tuxedo, made up of Grammy-nominated soul singer and artist Mayer Hawthorne and hip-hop producer Jake One (50 Cent, G-Unit, De La Soul), brought the high energy, funk and — you bet — tuxedos to the intimate music venue.

“We’re playing the same exact set as last night, but you guys are something else,” Hawthorne exclaimed into the highly-energetic non-stop dancing Sunday crowd.

The duo is on their “#2ndTourAround” and made their second stop in San Francisco, adding an extra night this past Mother’s Day weekend.

They released their follow-up studio album Tuxedo II this past March and are on their U.S. summer tour through the end of June after having played a couple of DJ sets following the release of their album in Europe and Asia.

Equipped with a full band in classy nightwear and a blow-up red heel for accessory, the pianos, keys, drums, guitars, synths and even One’s key-tar took their sound back into a ’70s dancehall as the funk was real.

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Magic Giant Interview: Indie folk Festival-Rockers Strive to Uplift with Debut Album “In the Wind”

05/16/2017

Los Angeles-based indie folk trio Magic Giant is more than their colorful bandanas, tribal-print capes and furry shawls. They’re all about love and community. With uplifting anthems that often drive communal singing, dancing and positivity, they’re a band that has taken over shows and festivals all around the country — from SXSW, Wanderlust, Lightning in a Bottle and RiSE for over 14,000 people in the middle of the Mojave Desert.

Their music has quickly become the soundtrack to summer music festivals and yoga classes around the country, all because of their infectious sound and willingness to engage with the crowd.

The band formed in 2014 and is made up of lead singer, cellist and percussionist Austin “Bis” Bisnow (who comes from a background of pop writing for artists such as David Guetta, John Legend and Big Time Rush), violinist, banjoist and harmonica-player Zambricki “Z” Li (who grew up on Nashville roots music and spent his early career producing for other artists) and guitarist, bassist and cellist Brian “Zang” Zaghi (who is a Los Angeles native and salsa dancer familiar to playing with bands).

The trio has quickly blown up and with only an EP released in 2015, their first full-length LP is set to drop this Friday, May 19th.

“We’ve wanted to share these songs for so long,” Zambricki said to me.

After many shows on the road and numerous recordings done in their solar-powered mobile studio/tour bus, the trio is more than ready to show off their new material. I sat down with them to talk about their new record and kicking things off in San Francisco.

Magic Giant kicked off their US tour at the Rickshaw Stop on Friday. 5/12/2017. (Photo: Marc Fong | marcfongphoto.com | @stillharper)

Rachel Ann Cauilan: I actually saw you guys back in 2014 when you performed at the House of Blues in Anaheim for the Blues & Brews Festival.

Zambricki “Z” Li: Wow! That was like one of our first shows.

RAC: And you guys just started around then. What can you say has changed since then?

Z: Nothing really. We’ve gotten worse. We started off really strong. My strings have gotten rusty.

Austin “Bis” Bisnow: I’ve gone through a couple pairs of boots. Z has a new bandana.

Z: Haha. The biggest thing is we’ve written an album. Whereas before we were playing basically sketches of songs — we were just playing songs that were unfinished or thought they were finished at the time, and when it came time to write the record we had to rewrite them. That’s the biggest thing. We’ve also become closer as friends and bandmates.

Brian “Zang” Zaghi: We’ve got history now.

Austin: And inside jokes.

RAC: How did you guys first meet each other? Read More

Unlikely Heroes Hip-Hop Punk @ Bottom of the Hill Friday 5/12

05/10/2017

Unlikely Heroes bring high energy hip hop punk to Bottom of the Hill on Friday night, and jumping around with front man Enon Gaines is gonna make you sweat good. The genre mash up isn’t so unusual as it might seem. As it turns out, both styles got their start in 1970s New York City and have an expressive authenticity at their root. (Check out this fantastic Rap Fan’s Guide To Punk, which details the shared history.) Unlikely Heroes throws in an eclectic twist with many musical and cultural influences, making their set a great companion to almost any club night. Friday the band will be joined by indie/dance rockers First In Flight and Life Size Models, as well as special guest for their set Georgia hip hop artist Kushton Dior who, Gaines says, “has seriously infectious flow and cadence”. It will no doubt be a hell of a show.

Check out their track “Up for Days” – and then grab your tickets for Friday night here.

 

NOTE: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated May 12th was a Saturday night. It is a Friday. The post is updated to reflect this.

Kawehi does it her way in San Francisco

05/04/2017

Native Hawaiian musician Kawehi’s I Am Eve Tour stopped off in San Francisco on Friday night. The multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter became a viral sensation with her inventive covers of classic records, such a Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box,” and Michael Jackson’s “The Way You’re Making Me Feel.” Her show at The Chapel was the third of six dates on the West Coast before she heads out to Salt Lake City, Denver, and then Europe.

Seeing her perform is at times like watching a wizard work magic; her loop machines and keyboards serving as her ornate staff from which she would cast spells. She was busy at the start of songs: pressing buttons, twisting knobs, and recording vocal layers. There would then be a shake of the head, her upper-body would roll with the beat, like a signal she was ready, before jumping out on vocals to complete the song. As complex as it sometimes looked, she tempered her concentration with a positive spirit as she crafted her music. The more Kawehi performed, it was hard not to get swept up in the excitement of it all.

Acoustic guitar tracks mid-set helped to keep things varied. Not forgetting her roots, she included a medley of covers with even featured a mini sing-a-long to Backstreet Boys‘ “I Want It That Way.”  It made for a playful, crowd-pleasing moment. However, it was her originals which hit home the strongest on the night. She smoothed “Anthem when performing it live, and delivered “Not Another Lame Fight Song  with ferociousness, the swearing enunciated for greatest impact. Playing for just over an hour, the set was varied and kept the audience guessing where she would go next. “Twenty Years, a song inspired by a couple celebrating their twentieth wedding anniversary, provided another opportunity to change pace for a beautiful, poignant and stripped back song.

India based singer-songwriter Zoya opened the night. She also performed solo with a beautiful collection of songs.

Delivering solo performances can be a fraught with challenges. There is a risk of things becoming monotonous and uneventful. The music can begin to feel overly melancholic, or even lonely as the musician bounces between instruments doing it all own their own. This was not the case with Kawehi, she oozes a spirit of fun inclusiveness that makes her live performance somewhat addictive. The morning after the gig Kawehi posted a photo to Instagram; it was the crowd selfie which has become customary at gigs. In the caption, she spoke about her journey from playing to one person (her husband, Adam) in a bar, to filling out San Francisco’s Chapel. This character building journey many musicians go on shows in her performance because sometimes you have to learn how to hold the attention of one person before you can hold the attention of a few hundred.

The Mattson 2 in “A Love Supreme” with Bay Area legends Chaz Bundick (Toro Y Moi), Money Mark and Tommy Guerrero

05/03/2017

Chaz Bundick Meets The Mattson 2 performed live at The Chapel in San Francisco, CA for Sunday night’s (((folkYEAH!))) Presents event. 4/30/2017. (Photo: Rachel Ann Cauilan | @rachelcansea)

Shows on a Sunday night are a little weird if you ask me. But when you hear it’s International Jazz Day and twin guitar and drum duo The Mattson 2 are bringing their modern jazz-rock combo to San Francisco‘s The Chapel, you know it’s going to be a chill night.

Continuing the venue’s string of (((folkYEAH!))) Presents events — a Northern California-based music and events presenter known for bringing unique, one-of-a-kind experiences for both artists and attendees — The Mattson 2 held the stage down the entire night, bringing a collection of exciting and exhilarating musical interludes and arrangements with some talented Bay Area-bred musicians.

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