I was lucky for the chance to meet Mei-ling Koller, SOIA guitar tech, a powerful woman in a male dominated profession. Snatching her away from the mayhem backstage, we found a quiet spot in the in the First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia to talk. We explored her journey, from how she started to what it takes to be a female in such a ballsy profession. Being in such a tough profession is trying at times, but Mei-ling Koller has the inner and outward strength, and the fortitude, to excel.
First off, tell us about your marriage to SOIA guitarist Pete Koller.
Mei-ling: I met Pete at the gym. Just some random place, and it was love at first site, and we’ve been together ever since.
How is it on tour with him?
Mei-ling: We try to keep it professional. You don’t see us kissing in the corner. People don’t even know that we’re married until I say to them, “oh yeah, that’s my husband, Pete.” Because they’ll think that I got the job just because I’m married to him. Yeah, I’m married, but I still have to know what I’m doing.
So you’ve been married since you first started working with SOIA?
Mei-ling: Yep, that’s how I got in the loop. I got the hook up, haha. I was just standing around, so I started helping people load in and stuff. So they thought, “Oh, she’s a team player.” It’s very important to be a team player on tour! And so they just said, “fuck it. Let’s get Mei to do it.”
Tell us how you started doing merch.
Mei-ling: I first started doing merch because there was a guy named Joe Garambone, who I’m sure everyone knows. There was a tour that he couldn’t do, so I started doing the merch. And like I said, I started harassing every singer and roadie they ever had and they ever toured with, until I learned how to do guitar tech stuff.
Tell us about the ‘no girl’/’no wife’ policy.
Mei-ling: A lot of bands have a ‘no girl’ policy. They say, “Bad luck! No wives!” And it’s not that things happen, it’s just that they don’t like it. But I’m very fortunate that I get to tour with them and still am some one’s wife. It’s pretty damn cool.
How has things changed since you started doing guitar tech?
Mei-ling: I’m definitely more confident. In the beginning I was always second guessing myself. But now I’m completely confident, and that’s it. That’s the difference. Ladies, be confident! Pick up a guitar and learn. You can do it! If I can do it, you can do it.
How long did it take you to learn what it takes to be a guitar tech? How many years?
Mei-ling: Oh, I’m still learning! It’s been three years. For the past two years, I’ve just really started learning; I’m still learning new stuff every day.
What’s the hardest part about it?
Mei-ling: The physical labor…and having sexist men around you all the time.
Mei-ling: Oh, they’re everywhere!
What’s the difference between touring America, Europe, and Asia, as far as sexism backstage?
Mei-ling: I really don’t think there’s a difference. You either have a good guy, or a sexist guy, and they’re all the same everywhere. You have the good guys who actually have faith, and then you have the sexist guys who think you don’t know anything because you have tits and lipstick on.
As a guitar tech, are you exclusive to Sick of it All?
Mei-ling: I’m trying to branch out, so if anyone wants me, they can email me (email@example.com), but for now, just Sick of it All, yes.
Is it tough to be on the road and touring?
Mei-ling: You have to be a road warrior; you can’t worry about taking a shower every day. That’s pretty much the hardest part – not knowing where you’re going to shower. You can’t be too of a girly girl--but you can still wear perfume and stuff, so it’s not too bad.
Do you have any advise for girls in the scene?
Smile! Be nice. Not every girl wants to fuck your guy. Just smile and be cool! You’ll be surprised that you meet a lot of nice people.
Have you helped in any of the designing of the merch?
Mei-ling: I try to stay behind the scenes with stuff like that. But they have people. They have the band members. They have designers and stuff like that. But no, not me, I don’t do any designing with the merch.
Your steezy, so I figured you did the designing.
Mei-ling: No, I wish.
Mei-ling: Oh, no. I’m a hip hop lady. But Hardcore saved my life (I met my husband). If it wasn’t for Hardcore, I wouldn’t be seeing the world; I wouldn’t be enjoying the shows--I love being a part of the circus.
So you got to travel?
Mei-ling: Yeah, I never thought I’d be going to Europe twice or three times a year. I thought I’d be working in an office; so it saved me from getting a real job! And I get to be a part of the scene.
How is it with all the guys backstage?
Mei-ling: You can do anything you put your mind to! So I’m a woman. We can do anything that they can do. I don’t have a problem working with guys, so why should that have a problem working with me? So it’s like, “you’re a guy, I don’t have a problem with you!” But it’s good…good stuff.
Have you ever considered being in a band?
Mei-ling: I have been in a band. It was an all girl band called Skizonation. Actually Rachel from Most Precious Blood, and Brody from the Distillers gave me a jolt. They really inspired me. They were like, “ You can fuckin do this, girl!” And I did. So if you believe, you can achieve.
Are you still in a band?
Mei-ling: No, we broke up. I played bass. Allie from Fast Time sang. We had a drummer, Susanne, and Deesha on guitar. We were together for four years. We played with Alanta, AF, Sick of it All. But they all had their own stuff going on. So we took a break. At least I still get to keep touring and being a part of music.
What kind of music was it?
Mei-ling: Hardcore punk, basic generic power chords. *laughs* Like Lauren Hill says, “Don’t be a hard rock, when you really are a gem.” You don’t have to be tough. You can still smile.
When you were in a band, did you already know bass, or did you pick it up later?
Mei-ling: Hell no! I just started learning power chords. It was me and drummer. That’s the hardest person to find. For seven months we just practiced, practiced, practiced. Pete was like, “You guys are good.” So he started to play with us to see what we sounded like full. He recorded a demo with us. It was really good, and we started playing a lot of shows. Then once when we started to get our momentum, we had to separate. But it was good. Good times.
Would you like to add anything?
Mei-ling: Believe and achieve, girls, and make lots of babies! That’s it.
Interview by Roya Butler