Jess Choi: Marching to the beat of her own drum

Pressed to name some female drummers, I could only think of two off the top of my head: Sheila E. and the late Karen Carpenter, known more for her sublime vocals than heavy beats. (I bet you didn’t even know she was a drummer! Google “Karen Carpenter/kick-ass drummer” and check her out.) This week’s profile, Jess Choi, hopes to change that.

A contestant on “Hit Like a Girl” and contributor to Tom Tom magazine, Choi enjoys breaking boundaries and challenging stereotypes.

PGN: My first question is, did you have a “Go Kickapoo!” T-shirt? JC: [Laughs] I actually did! It’s probably somewhere in the abyss of my closet.

PGN: So what was it like going to Kickapoo High in Springfield, Mo.? JC: Well, Kickapoo High is mostly known for having Brad Pitt as an alumnus. I can relate to him because we both grew up in the middle of nowhere. It was in the heart of the Bible Belt, a very typical conservative Midwestern part of the country. I didn’t have any problems, though; people were very nice and as a teenager I had my group of friends and all was well.

PGN: I can relate to him because we both lust after Angelina. JC: Oh yes, I love her too!

PGN: Was there much of an Asian community there? JC: Not really. I grew up in a predominantly Caucasian area. I think I was one out of perhaps five or six Asians in my high school.

PGN: Tell me about your family. JC: I’m the eldest and I have a younger brother who is 18. We all still live together with my grandmother who is 97 years old. My dad’s a preacher, and my mom’s an accountant. My grandmother has dementia so we all help take care of her.

PGN: [Laughs] They say that the wildest kids are usually the children of preachers and pastors. JC: Yes, I’ve heard that rumor too! I have my days, but I think I turned out all right.

PGN: What kind of kid were you growing up? JC: I was quite shy as a young child and fairly studious. I enjoyed sports too. I took taekwondo from the age of 9 until about 16 or 17. It was a huge part of my life during that time. My dad actually considered sending me to Korea to train for the Olympics but my mother was opposed to it.

PGN: Oh no! Why? I love the Olympics. I’m a junkie, I still have about 20 hours of the Winter Olympics on my DVR. I love the whole global spirit of the thing. JC: I understand, I do too. Do you remember Marion Jones from the Summer Olympics in Australia? I was so intrigued by her! The fact that she competed in five different events was amazing.

PGN: Of course I remember her. [Laughs.] I was ready to hop on a plane to go console her when she got into trouble in 2007. JC: I totally get that! That was my reaction too.

PGN: My other favorite from the Sydney games was Cathy Freeman, the Aboriginal runner. BC: Yes! I remember her. Didn’t she carry the torch? That brings back old memories.

PGN: Yeah. I just saw a program on the foundation she created to help indigenous people. JC: That’s great. I’ll have to look her up.

PGN: What was your most memorable sports moment, good or bad? JC: In middle school, I was extremely into track and field — inspired by Marion Jones. I even did a whole presentation on her, that’s how obsessed I was! So I started running hurdles and trained intensively for them. Unfortunately at my first meet I landed funny going over a hurdle and sprained my ankle. It was disappointing because my coach had trained me specifically for the hurdles and I didn’t make it past that first meet.

PGN: How did you get into drumming? JC: I grew up in the religious community and ever since my preteens I’d always gravitated towards the drummers at church. I liked watching them play and lead the worship or praise teams. I’d be fixated on them, not just rhythmically or acoustically but aesthetically as well.

PGN: Did you play any other instruments? JC: Yes, I was forced to play the piano from the age of 7 or so until high school. I didn’t mind playing the piano so much, I just hated practicing. I didn’t want to put in the time doing scales and all those technical things.

PGN: [Laughs.] So coming from a religious traditional Korean family, which was harder to say: “Mom, I’m gay” or “Mom, I want to be a drummer”? JC: Well, I just came out to my mother last year and I haven’t come out to my dad yet. Keyword, “yet.” So I guess coming out as gay was/is harder.

PGN: Was it difficult growing up in a religious setting as you began to realize your sexuality? JC: Absolutely. It didn’t last long but I went through a whole identity crisis my freshman year of college at Drexel University. Everything I’d been taught to believe went against everything I felt. I was very conflicted but fortunately it didn’t take long for me to get it together. I learned to embrace who I was without trying to “fix” myself. It was confusing and lonely because there wasn’t anyone I could turn to. I wallowed for a year and then I was fine.

PGN: How did it go over with your mother? JC: It was OK, which was more than I could ask for. I truly believed that they would disown me. Between the religious aspect on the left side and the conservative Asian aspect on the right side, it was definitely something that was taboo.

PGN: What denomination was your church? JC: Presbyterian. And we were with one of the more conservative branches. We don’t, for example, allow women to become deacons or ministers. There can be women youth-group pastors but they can’t have any main leadership roles.

PGN: So back to your drumming, did you start out with a band? JC: No, I didn’t have my own drum kit, so I played exclusively with the church.

PGN: At least that gave you a chance to play in public. JC: That’s true. It helped me work on my stage fright. In high school, I did play here and there with some friends but never really took it seriously until my early 20s. I came across an online teacher named Mike Johnston. I randomly found his YouTube videos and he really inspired me. I had a chance to attend a drum camp that he was teaching in California and I fell in love again with the instrument, so much that I started dedicating myself, almost to an obsessive degree. For a whole year I did nothing but play drums, focusing on my craft. After that I joined a band called Flashwing and did some recording with them but probably the biggest band I’ve played with was Panic Year. They were a pretty well-known indie band in Philadelphia.

PGN: What is “Hit Like a Girl”? JC: That’s a drum competition for women sponsored by the magazine Tom Tom. It’s the only female-oriented drum magazine in the entire world. I submitted a video for the contest and I’ve also collaborated with them, creating online drum lessons.

PGN: I read that you were discouraged from drumming because you were too petite. Which begs the question, Does size matter? JC: Um, it’s very subjective. The drums are obviously the most physical instrument and there is a stereotype that female drummers don’t drum as — I don’t want to say aggressively — but as physically as male drummers. But I’m a very physical person. I enjoy keeping fit and I honestly believe it all comes down to practice and grit and passion.

PGN: What are some other obstacles that women face? JC: Visibility. When I first started playing I did not see many female drummers and, as they say, You can’t be what you can’t see. When I later found girl drummers, I still didn’t see many female educators, which perplexed me. I think most women gravitated toward performance and not so much towards teaching. I’m hoping to fill that void a little.

PGN: Tell me about your Drum Shed videos. JC: They are very short — about 15 seconds — drumming lessons on Instagram and Facebook. There are a ton of how-to drum lessons on YouTube, but in this day and age of limited attention span I like to keep it short and make it something that anyone can do, from beginners to advanced drummers.

PGN: As a teacher, do you ever get someone who just has no sense of rhythm? JC: Well, some people have more of an inclination towards it than others but I am a firm believer that, as with any craft, it’s a journey. Regardless of age or skill level, we are all going from point A to point B. It’s funny: They say that Asian people are good at math, but I suck at it. Counting beats is the closest I get; rhythm is all math.

PGN: Being a drummer probably crossed a few lines in the family expectations. JC: Perhaps, but I also toe the family line. I was instilled with a strong sense of familial duty. My parents have always wanted me to pursue a professional career so this fall I’m going to law school. I mean I do have an interest in it but it was definitely something I felt obligated to do, so I’m going to Boston to get my graduate degree.

PGN: I forgot to ask, are you single or partnered? JC: I have a partner, Astrid, and she lives in London where she attends the City University. She’s coming here in August and I can’t wait to see her.

PGN: How did you meet? JC: Through Instagram actually! She started stalking my posts. I don’t usually reply to people when they make comments but for some reason with her I did and things escalated from there. I visited her in March and all went well.

PGN: So she wasn’t a 40-year-old plumber? JC: [Laughs.] Nope, thankfully not a hologram or a 40-year-old man.

PGN: You’re getting around! I understand you just got back from Korea. JC: Yes, it was really nice. I got to attend Seoul Pride and I didn’t even know they had a Pride day there. I’d always been under the impression that Koreans … had certain things that they did not do against the social/cultural norms. But the turnout was incredible, even with the Christian protesters who tried to stop the parade. All the events were held as planned and everyone had a great time.

PGN: I was in Seoul for a women’s film festival — I was part of the queer film section that they had — and I loved it. The lesbian bar there was one of the best I’ve ever been to. JC: Oh wow. I didn’t really get to go anywhere. Maybe next time.

PGN: What’s something fun about your grandmother? JC: She’s the one who initially encouraged me to drum.

PGN: Who was your best friend as a kid? JC: I lived in Chicago for a while when I was 9 and my best friend was a girl named Ebony who lived across the street. We would always ride our bikes to the park and play basketball together.

PGN: What was the first CD you ever bought? JC: I wasn’t exposed to too many musical genres other than gospel when I was a kid. I had a very boring musical childhood. I think the first CD I ever bought for myself was Avril Lavigne. That’s really depressing!

PGN: “Star Trek” or “Star Wars”? JC: “Star Wars.”

PGN: What superhero would you want to be? JC: I’m going to be really gay here … Xena, the Warrior Princess.

PGN: Ever have any paranormal experiences? JC: I have. I was sleeping over at a friend’s house in Lansdale. She told me that the house was haunted by an old grandpa who used to live there and died in the house. I didn’t believe her at first, I thought it was all baloney, until one night when her door opened on its own and the hallway light came on. All through the night, I kept hearing tapping noises on the wall. I don’t know how but I managed to stay there overnight.

PGN: When people look at me they would never guess that I … JC: Am gay. I always get, “I just thought you were some funky Asian girl.”

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