What’s your story? It’s the simplest of questions with the most complex of answers guaranteed. For many Asian Americans, the answer begins with our parents emboldened by the pipe dream of a better life for themselves and their family. The roads leading towards this dream were tumultuous for so many generations preceding us, wrought with unfathomable hardships and obstacles. For Timothy Den of the Chicago and Miami-based independent band, Ohvaur, these roads were a reality he experienced first hand. The truth is, such roads and journeys are never ending and have everything to do with our personal ongoing stories. With Ohvaur’s newest record “A Memories Chase”, Den looked to the past, present, and future for inspiration, how he remembered the past, how he experiences the present, and how he hopes for the future. I spoke with Den to try and gather some further insight into his incredible story and how it lead to “A Memories Chase”.
Andrew: As I was reading the open letter you posted accompanying the album, I frankly had difficulty pinpointing you geographically throughout the whole story. How did such a whirlwind experience affect who you are today?
Timothy: Moving around so much as a kid was really a jarring experience, but it’s made me adaptable. I feel like I can adapt to any scenario or circumstance just because I’ve done it all my life. I don’t know what it’s like being in one place at all. i get restless and curious.
A: So how did you find time to incorporate music into your life amidst all that?
T: As a kid, I did nothing else, I didn’t care about school. Even as I was entering college at Boston University, I still didn’t care. By the time I was a junior, I was touring and missing classes. I loved going to school, but I was really just a hoodlum kid from Miami, real typical Miami scumbag. I really credit Boston for turning me into a decent person but I learned far more from being in a touring band than in school. I saw the country. That process itself is a challenge, you forgo your friends, your family, and any sense of stability. Your life belongs to the road.
After doing that for so long, I got burnt out on it real bad. I didn’t find stability until I moved to Chicago. I chose stability, I chose to be in love. It was freeing in a way, because if you’re doing music professionally, how well it’s received has a great influence on you. Music became something I could do purely. It was super freeing to do whatever the hell I wanted at my own pace.
With the “Asian mindset”, in my opinion, you could be good at anything as long as you try hard. I’ll do what it takes to make money as long as I can make my art pure. Even in terms of writing, when you’re young there’s so many in the moment things you can write about. Now in my mid thirties it’s become more of a struggle. What do you write about? What else is there to say? That comes into play when I write music now.
Especially these days, I’m finding less and less time to do music. When we started Ohvaur, we didn’t really know how we would pull it off. Half the band are traditional rock musicians and the other half are more on the electronic side. With this project, I was at a place in my life where I didn’t want a fully committed band. With my last band, we all worked terrible jobs and toured for months at a time, doing press, and doing interviews. I just really wanted to get out of that cycle.
At the time of starting Ohvaur, I had moved to Chicago, started my own business, and met my wife, so the band had taken a much more hands-off approach. We got together when we had time, so it took forever for us to figure out what we were doing, how the sounds would mesh together. Once we figured out the technical aspect is when I started focusing on the music, albeit on my own time. I was spending half the year in South America working with my father and the other half in Chicago. So I’d work a full time job all week long, an then lock myself in a room on weekends and just make music. Build up the tracks and then send the files to the guys. It was a super international process. The electronic guys live in Miami. We’d send stuff back to each other while I was in Peru, and when I got back to Chicago I’d rerecord with the guys here as demos. It was a whole two years of just doing that. Since the album’s been done, especially with a new son, I just haven’t even had time to touch music.
A: So do you feel that this new record serves as a summation of your journey thus far, encompassing your music, touring, traveling, and conflicting cultures?
T: I really do. It’s a summation and a closing of something I’ve carried with me for 20 years. I have plans to keep making music, but I’m not surprised if this is the last thing I do. What more do I have to say right now musically? That’s on my mind all the time. If I’m going to create something, I want it be something worth creating with something substantial to say.
A: What purpose does the album serve for you? Is it closure? Tribute? Remembrance?
T: It’s exactly all of those things. It’s documenting, it’s sharing something that’s bizarre. Lots of people are multicultural, but I have yet to meet a person that mirrors my experience. It’s rarely such a combination of three cultures. There’s a song on the album called “Not one single part”. There’s a line that says “two thirds outsider, one part lie”. In any contact I find myself in regarding culture, that’s generally how I’ve been perceived. My face is Taiwanese, I’m six-foot-three, two-hundred pounds, and I obviously don’t fit the general mold. My grandparents were all northern Chinese and came to Taiwan after the Communist take over. I barely have any pure Taiwanese blood. My other cultures also play into it. In Peru, my sense of humor and the way I speak Spanish is very Latin-American. I was a six foot tall Taiwanese guy in a sea of Amerindians. Here in the Midwest, it’s a whole another story too, with people presuming who you really are and what your identity is in relation to other Americans here. With all those things blended together, it’s like I’m always out of context wherever I am. But all of those things are huge parts of me, yet it’s never that simple. Each culture comes with its own expectations. I never fall into any category easily.
A: At the same time, I feel like having these multiple aspects of identity is in a sense, a privilege, something that I value greatly. Especially considering that my being here, was the result of years and years of struggle at the hands of my parents and their predecessors. I think it’s a bit difficult for some people to grasp the concept of a multifaceted identity.
T: Absolutely, what really motivates me are the people that came before me. In my open letter, both sets of my grandparents went through unbelievable hell to get out of China and start over in Taiwan. My father moved to South America without speaking a single word of Spanish. He slept on park benches to save a single American dollar. Looking back on their struggles, it’s like what I have I ever done that is even close to that? How could I complain about anything? What do I think is hardship? I constantly keep that in the back of my mind. It’s a reoccurring Asian theme, facing insurmountable hardships but just gritting your teeth and pushing through it.
A: At what point in the writing process did you realize that this was a story you had to tell?
T: The whole issue of identity is something I’ve always grappled with. Back in my college days is when I really started thinking that I wanted to tell the story of me and my family’s tumultuous journey. But as a 19 year old, I really couldn’t trust myself to do it. I felt that it would come off overly cheesy or melodramatic. I kept putting it off, but it would slowly show up in a lot of the things I was writing at the time.
For “A Memories Chase” one of the guys in the bad had come up with the title, and it resonated with me. At the time, I finally started becoming comfortable going back to places from my past such as South America or Taiwan. By that point, after nearly 20 years away, being back almost seemed like a fuzzy dream.I was in my thirties going back to places I hadn’t been since I was a child thinking I would remember all these specific things, but did I really have those memories? It’s like I had created a mental picture for myself so I had something to hang onto, instead of it washing away with time. To walk the same streets as I did 20 years ago, it hit me. These memories are real. I lived here at one point in time. It was the smells, the noises, the humidity, the traffic, sensations so specific you couldn’t just replicate that anywhere. All of those leftover feelings made their way into the song, all those places you once called home. Even though they no longer resemble the memories you previously had, they’re still very much a part of you.
With “Tracks in America”, I wanted it to have the feel of a chain gang, like migrant workers on railroad tracks. As cheesy as it may sound, our immigrant parents came here to lay their tracks for those that follow. It was kind of a starting point for the story, the commonality of immigration throughout history. I’m not an expert on human migration, but I can at least tell what I know. It morphed into a mission statement of my experiences and stories. At a certain point, it dawned on me that this was shaping into the story that I’d always wanted to tell. It was finally the right time for me. Initially I was really really worried about doing it, but I just had to think, now or never.
A: Is there a lasting message that you want to get across with the record?
T: I would hope that the record resonates with people of multicultural ethnicity, and to those who aren’t, at least try to offer some sort of glimpse into that existence.There’s all these questions at the emotional core of the album. What does home mean to you? What is your identity? What makes you feel like you belong and why? Do you feel like you’re American/Asian-American? What does that further mean? These are all questions that I constantly ask myself. I’m all these different things, but what does that mean? How does that define me? What can I call home? How did you get to that home? For so many here in America, they left their homes to come here and at a certain point, you have to realize this is your new home. How do you define home? and how does that home define you?
A: And you end off the album with “Home”. Tell me about that particular track.
T: There’s a lyric in the song. “I’ve spent years struggling to reclaim places that I called home. Then I will never belong because my home will always be with you” It addresses all these questions. Can I be more American? Can I be more Taiwanese? Can I be more South American? What can I do to feel more at home in these different cultures? That track is like my own declaration. Start your own chapter, start your own history. Don’t look back so much because at some point you have to start your own journey. You can become the starting point for your next generation. For me, that song is about my wife. It doesn’t really matter where I came from or where I belong, or what culture I came from. This person is my home and where I belong, and she makes me whole. That song closes out the album specifically for that reason. Despite all these questions, I’ve finally found a home in my wife and my child.
Andrew Lo relocated to the Midwest from Los Angeles and currently resides in the windy city of Chicago. He received his bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. He is a self-described music obsessive and spends much of his time creating and consuming anything music related.