11 Questions: Mark Miyake
interview by Brent Cole
I recently met Mark Miyake when our daughters connected at the Bellingham Girls Rock Camp this past summer and was delighted to hear all the cool things Mark and the audio crew are doing at Fairhaven College, which has included Champion Street Studios the last couple years. As we chatted I was struck by the passion and excitement he has for the students, music, and program at Fairhaven.
I’ve gotten to know a bit about what makes Mark tick and now you will as well. Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce Mark Miyake.
Who are you and where did you come from? Tell us about yourself.
My family immigrated from Japan to Flushing, Queens when I was two years old and then moved out to the suburbs of the city a few years later. I left for the University of Chicago after high school as a bassist, drummer, NYHC hardcore kid, Deadhead, lifelong country and bluegrass music fan, and a classics major. After two years of unsuccessfully studying Roman poetry and more successfully studying Icelandic sagas and playing DIY basement shows, I dropped out to focus on touring and recording with a punk band, which I did for several years while also learning the ropes of arts management and live and studio audio technology in local Chicago venues and studios. Upon returning to college at Indiana University, I discovered the fields of ethnomusicology and folklore (the ethnographic social sciences that connect music and creative production to community, culture, and society) and was hooked. I stayed in Bloomington, IN through completing my doctorate and then got a job at Empire State College of the State University of New York, where I served as Assistant Professor of the Arts and Social Sciences for five years before coming to Bellingham in 2015 for my current position as Assistant Professor of Music and Society at Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies, leading our program in Audio Technology, Music, and Society. Since entering academia, I’ve also continued to perform, present, and record music in a wide range of capacities. I’ve been heavily involved in local, regional, and national public arts organizations for the last two decades and currently sit on the boards of the Center for Washington Cultural Traditions and Make.Shift Art Space as well as serve as President of the Northwest Chapter of the Society for Ethnomsuicology.
It’s a peaceful fall Sunday’s morning in town, what are you doing?
Spending time with my family hiking, exploring, or just hanging out at home playing board games or goofing around in the yard. It’s remarkable and wonderful how much three kids can fill your day with doing “nothing.”
If you weren’t a professor in Bellingham, what would you be doing and where would you be living?
In a literal practical sense, probably playing music, running shows, and working in a recording studio while teaching in higher education at a far less fulfilling institution close to friends and family in New York or Chicago. In a broader sense, I love what I’m doing where I’m doing it right now, so any other scenario would be disappointing.
What initially drew you into the academic world?
I think that I was really drawn in twice- first as a student in high school when I changed my career plans from aeronautical engineering to being a scholar and teacher and then later during my second time through college when I actively decided to pursue a career in higher education rather than continue with my more “professional” music career as a musician, manager, and audio engineer. The first time was really about thinking that I could remain a student forever- I discovered that I didn’t like the idea promoted by the scientists that I was exposed at the time that questions had right and wrong answers and that research projects had a definitive end- I far preferred the process and debate of issues in the humanities and social sciences and wanted to explore every rabbit hole forever, which is what I thought the academic lifestyle was all about. The second time- when I was an adult really choosing a career and profession- I was able to make that choice with more of a real knowledge of what it meant and also knowing that I wanted to focus on teaching and mentoring students. I very much enjoy the research and writing element of what I do, but I definitely consider myself a teacher and mentor first. That’s what both drew me into and keeps me in academia- it’s the students, not an abstract notion of intellectual exercise.
What is your favorite aspect of working with students learning audio engineering?
I love working with students to help them to discover what it is that they most want to get out of their learning in this field and then helping them to get to a space where they feel comfortable with that application. Students who are interested in pursuing a career in audio production might be unsure of what kinds of jobs might be available to them, what specialties they might want to pursue, or how they can best get started with their professional lives. Students interested in utilizing their audio skills to further their pursuits in film making, event management, graphic design, or any other related field might be having trouble knowing what audio skills would be most useful for them and/or how to pursue those skills or make those connections. Other students may already feel comfortable with the audio skills that they’ve learned, but want to pursue related areas for their own scholarly or professional enrichment or development. I feel that it is very much my job to get all of these students to a point at which they have a solid idea of where they want to get to in terms of their learning and skill sets and also have a plan for how they can get there. Helping students to see where they are in relation to their goals and to see pathways that they can take to get there is definitely the most fulfilling part of my educational life.
What is your first memory of music?
All of my first memories of music are actually of making music- singing at school or banging around on a ukulele that my uncle gave to me as a toddler that I immediately covered with stickers from my favorite Japanese cartoon show. My parents had no interest in music and we didn’t even have a real stereo in the house until my brother and I literally pulled a boom box out of the trash and just sort of snuck it into our room when I was about ten years old. Up until then, all I had ever been able to listen to was country music radio on the car stereo.
Your daughter went to the Bellingham Girls Rock Camp this year, can you tell me your thoughts on the importance of the camp?
It’s really impossible for me to express what BGRC has meant to my family—especially to my oldest daughter, who has been going to BGRC since the first month we lived in Bellingham. It is rare to find a space anywhere in the educational and developmental landscape that both effectively teaches young people a particular set of physical and academic skills and also effectively provides an environment that fosters the growth of the self-confidence and self-awareness necessary for those young people to continue to build on those skills even after the session is over. In addition to directly addressing the pervasive sexism, misogyny, racism, and other oppressive biases of local, regional, national, and international music industries, BGRC gives their campers the tools to appropriately identify and overcome these obstacles and allows them to feel comfortable taking ownership of that process for themselves. I could not be more proud of the fact that BGRC is largely run by current students and graduates of our Audio Technology, Music, and Society program- I cannot think of another organization that exemplifies the goals of our program in a more clear and directly successful manner.
Where is your favorite place to take the family in Bellingham?
There are so many incredible places for spending time together as a family in and around Bellingham that it’s almost impossible to pick just one. The Hertz Trail in Lake Whatcom Park has emerged as a family favorite over the last few years, but you’re just as likely to find us at Lake Padden, the Spark Museum, the Bellingham Public Library, our local playground, or any one of the dozens of other places we’ve grown to love here.
What do you hope the recording studio accomplishes within the dynamics of the local music scene?
My hope for the Audio Technology, Music, and Society program specifically, and Fairhaven College more broadly, is to provide the students who comprise a large part of the local music scene with the skills necessary to grow the scene in productive and socially responsible ways. Our goal is to empower our students to be productive and conscientious members of any community in which they participate. If the education provided by our program and the physical resource of our recording studios can help the local scene to sustain itself both musically and equitably, then we are doing what we need to be doing for our local community.
What are your top five desert island classics?
Well, I’ll assume that we’re talking about albums rather than individual tracks and that this is meant literally- so not “best” or “favorite” or “influential” but albums that would comprise the entirety of my music collection forever. Here’s the thing- I can’t do this in five albums. I tried. I really, really did. But here’s ten in alphabetical order:
Blood, Sweat, and No Tears—Sick of It All
New Plastic Ideas—Unwound
Out of Hand—Gary Stewart
Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell—Social Distortion
That Within Blood Ill-Tempered—Shai Hulud
The Low End Theory—A Tribe Called Quest
Tropics and Meridians—June of 44
Any last thoughts?
Thank you so much for asking these questions and giving me the opportunity to answer them in such an open format. It’s been an amazing experience these last three years to be so welcomed into the local Bellingham community as well as into the local music and arts scene here in the Pacific Northwest. Hope to see y’all at the next show!