‘A Musical Journey Through the Byways of Life’: An Interview with Alfie Pollitt

Part 4: Livin’ Out of a Suitcase (1974-1981)

Alfie, I wanted to step back and ask if you remember what year you joined and what year you left, because —

Well, I didn’t really leave. 


I joined in well, ’69 I started attending, you know, I went a little before that. A couple of my friends there, we saw Malcolm speak back in the ‘60s before Malcolm got killed, you know. But I don’t remember that because, at that time, I was high all the time. So I had, you know, I couldn’t really tell you. But I was active into the Nation until about ’74. 

And then at that time I started investigating the Sound of Philadelphia music ‘cause some of my contemporaries — Billy Paul, famous singer who had a record called “Me and Mrs. Jones” and Norman Connors who had recorded, “You Are My Starship”, you know, “Valentine Love” what have you, and since we all were contemporaries in the Rittenhouse Square scene and the studio loft scene in downtown Philadelphia and we were staunch jazz people and when they had came out these, these records in the R&B arena, I said, “Must be something to this and if they’re going to do this,” so I started listening to their music and started studying music of the so-called Sound of Philadelphia: the Spinners, album, Mighty Love album, Blue Magic first album, magic is blue… Blue Magic. 

And I started self-teaching myself some of this music, fumbling through trial and error, and also this was during when I was active in the Nation. And at that time I was married, and I was doing these papers, 300 papers a week, and Major Harris who had been with the Delfonics, one of the singers, he got a deal to be a solo artist on a record label, WMOT Records, which is the label that had Blue Magic. They were on their roster. So what happened was, I was studying this, this Sound of Philly stuff, I read about Sigma Sound Studios, I read about the different people who, who were in the rhythm section under Norman Harris and Roland and Carl Chambers, Earl Young, Ronnie Baker, “Have Mercy” Kersey and all these different people and the string players and the vibraphone players and the trombone players, Bobby Martin the arranger, Tom Bell the arranger Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, Cary Gilbert, Phil Terry, Thomas Jamil Wallington, Terry Price, David Cruz, all these people. 

So I taught myself some, like a little medley of Sound of Philadelphia combination thing, you know, so segues, with you know, segues and medley. So I went down to Sigma Sound, got in the lobby, and I seen this guy, and he’s one of the guys I saw on a picture on the album. His name was Larry Washington, and he was a percussionist conga player for the MFSB — Mother Father Sister Brother Band, recording often, and I told him that what I did, and he said, “Well look, let me hear something” so he took me into Sigma into Studio B, which was not been, you know, booked at the time, because sessions were going on at the big studio upstairs, Studio A, “Flagship”. And so we went back there, and he said, “Show me what you got.” So I play him a little medley and stuff and he said, “Man, that’s pretty good. You know, I got a cousin and my cousin’s name is Major Harris. And they’re gonna make him a big star. He’s gonna need a band. So if you like, I’ll hook you up with an audition.” So he hooked me up an audition, I got past the audition, I was with Major Harris on the song “Love Won’t Let Me Wait” when that first came out, was in the band called Major Harris Boogie Blues Band. 

And, I was, one of the musicians named Michael “Sugar Bear” Foreman, a bass player, he grew up with the Delfonics. And he played with them and he played with a lot of people, and so he, we played together with Major Harris. And then he got a gig with Billy Paul. He put me on the gig with Billy Paul. He also put me on a gig with the Futures and Barbara Mason. And, and then he was telling me about this guy that, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, they called him Rug and, or Grass, and nicknames for Teddy Pendergrass. So he said, “Yeah, Rug is going to be probably leaving Harold at some point and going on his own. And so I’ll let you know about that.”

So I got a call one time that Harold left, Teddy left Harold and he had some Blue Notes with him possibly, and he was gonna go solo. So Sugar Bear hooked me up with that, and I became a member of Teddy Pendergrass, at that time it was called Teddy Pendergrass and — the Blue Notes featuring Teddy Pendergrass, or Teddy Pendergrass and the Blue Notes, right. He had three Blue Notes with him, you know: Bernie Wilson, Larry Brown, and Lloyd Parks and the road manager that was with Teddy, Henry Evans, and a guy named Buddy Nolan was, like one of the managers with them, and Teddy had a female manager named Taz Lang and a velvet named “Beaver”.

So, eventually, you know, I went into the Nation, I went into the Sound of Philly stuff. And so I couldn’t be in Philly selling papers every week and stuff like that, you know, because I had a paper bill every week, I had to turn in a certain amount of money every week. And the money went to Chicago to help, you know, all the different operations that were going on throughout the Nation. And so, I was dedicated to that, but I couldn’t do both. I couldn’t, I couldn’t just accumulate papers and not sell them and just pay out of my pocket, you know? So I went on the road with these different road singers and stuff.

Okay, so now we would like to move on to 1974 and beyond and this is when you began to go on the road. So we wanted to begin by asking if you could describe and just talk about the origins of you leaving, you know, you leaving Philadelphia and living this more nomadic life. What cities did you go to? Where did you play? And who were you playing for?

If you’d just just give me a second, I have a list. Hold on a second.

Sure, that’s fine.

Okay, it’s good to be prepared, isn’t it? 


These are some of the places I played, or first, you know, ‘cause I said I was with Major Lee Harris. And we did — matter of fact, we did three shows during, with the ummm, what’s that, umm… “What’s Going On” Marvin Gaye tour. We were the opening act for Marvin. We did like uhhh —


Mobile, Alabama; Columbia, South Carolina; and St. Petersburg, Florida, you know, with Marvin we were the opening act and this was Blue Magic. And then also with Teddy, who opened an act with Isley Brothers. We did a lot of stuff with a lot of people, you know, so, alright, I’m gonna give you some of the Teddy Pendergrass stuff, ‘cause I got with Teddy in 1975 and some of the places we performed were Radio City Music Hall in New York, Carnegie Hall in New York. 

We did that, we had Teddy’s dancers — background dancers — dancers with us, Madison Square Garden, New York, Statler Hilton Hotel in New York — we did a show there with The Spinners, and Muhammad Ali was — he was on on the bill too. He did something you know, I forget. Avery Fisher Hall, he was — what’s that? Julliard School of Music, Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, Dick Clark Premier Theater in Westchester County, New York. We did this show there a weekend with LTD, a group called LTD featuring Jeffrey Ozborne. Westbury Music Fair in Westbury, Long Island. 

Paul’s Mall in Boston, Massachusetts, I worked there with Billy Paul and also with Teddy and the Blue Notes and then later on I worked there with Teddy by himself. Meadowlands Stadium in New Jersey. Latin Casino, Cherry Hill, Pennsylvania, I mean New Jersey. Resorts International Hotel and Casino which was the first Casino in Atlantic City. We worked there with Stephanie Mills. Valley Forge Music Fair in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. We worked with so many people. 

Shubert Theater, Philadelphia which is now called the Merriam Theater, we worked there with Phyllis Hyman, we worked there with a lot of people. Front Row Theater in Cleveland, Ohio, that’s a theater in the round around like, had rotating stages like the Valley Forge Music Fair, was part of that whole circuit in theaters and around. Front Row theater, Cleveland, Ohio, Riverfront Stadium, Cincinnati, Ohio, that was like another theater around. Agora Theater in Cleveland. Agora, Painters Mills theater that was another theater around that was outside of Baltimore. We worked there with Teddy and Luther Vandross, and also we did that weekend we did Constitution Hall in Washington DC with Luther and Teddy. Atlantic City, and we did shows there, what’s that? The Cool Jazz festival, you know, it was The Temptations, Shaka Khan and Rufus. So many people, so many people, I mean really, really big time folks. Columbus Coliseum in Columbia, South Carolina. Sunrise theater in Fort Lauderdale, Florida — that’s another theater around. Marco Polo Hotel, Miami Beach. The Summit, Houston, Texas. Soldier Field, Chicago — that was one of the Cool Jazz festivals — that was Rick James, the O’Jays, a whole lot of different people. Holiday Star Theater, Merrillville, Indiana, another theater around. Greek Theater in Berkeley, California and in LA, we just did shows there with the Pointer Sisters and a lot of people: The Sylvers, Bohannon, Con Funk Shun, Ashford and Simpson, The O’Jays, Martha Warfield, and MAZE Featuring Frankie Beverly. 

Hollywood Bowl, Burbank. The Roxy, Hollywood, we performed there and, and in the audience was Bob Marley, and what’s the guy’s name? Oh man, he’s a famous keyboard player, Billy Preston. Total Experience in LA, Total Experience Club. Mid South Coliseum, Memphis, Tennessee. Hammersmith Odeon, that was in London, England. That was us and Stephanie Mills. The Victoria Theatre in London, England, UK — Stephanie Mills and ourselves. The Savannah, Port of Spain, Trinidad. We performed in Trinidad for a week. Apollo Theater, Harlem, New York. Okay, and other places. We did TV appearances as well. We did Sammy and Company, Sammy Davis Jr.’s show in Hollywood, California. There was Teddy and the Blue Notes and the Midnight Special TV show Wolfman Jack, Burbank, California. Lou Rawls’ United Negro College Fund, Parade the Stars in Las Vegas. 

Video performances, Teddy Live in London. Teddy Live at Lake Tahoe. Teddy Live in the Greek theater in LA, so many places. And his audio recordings were on Teddy, coast to coast live, all of them — it’s like a two albums set, and all the live cuts recorded at the Greek Theater in LA, and in Shubert Theater, now known as the Merriam Theater in Philadelphia. And also we performed, Teddy’s entire band and the background singers, “This One’s for You” which is Barry Manilow’s song — we recorded that on the album, entitled “This One’s for You” which was released after Teddy had his automobile injury. And so, some of what I’ve been involved with on the road, so…

When did he have his injury? 


So you were with him for?

I was with him seven years.

Seven years. 

But prior to connecting with him, well when I first got with him in ‘75, right? And while we were still working with Teddy and the Blue Notes, basically they were doing all the Teddy Pendergrass to Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes material, that kind of material. You know, same format Teddy singing lead, and he had the Blue Notes doing choreography and doing stepping and doing the background singing, you know, and while we were on the road, Teddy apparently had been working out a deal with Kenny Gamble in Philadelphia International records, Gamble and Huff, to be a solo artist. And record so he came off the road, he said he wasn’t going on the road anymore. So those of us in the band, we had to work, you know, we keep surviving so the Blue Notes, they took on a guy who would sing Teddy’s part, who was quite familiar with Teddy’s — you know, there’s a lot of Teddy wannabes around now and in the past. In fact, there’s a guy I wouldn’t say was Teddy Pend — wannabe, but he was a celebrity — he did a lot, he looked similar to Teddy, his style was a lot like Teddy. I was blessed to be his musical director, his name is George Foxx, and George did a Teddy performance stuff and I was his musical director and we had people that were, some of the people that had been in Teddy’s band and we tried to, to come to as close as we could with the sound that we had on the road with Teddy. And it was like a awesome uncanny type situation because people will come to the show and it was like, even my roommate on the road, Greg Moore, who was a percussionist for Teddy, he commented you know, after we did our first show, he said, “You know, this is like, coming to a Teddy show”. The women were there they would like, they’d be, you know, going crazy, you know, just like it at Teddy’s show, but it was a, it was a blessed spiritual situation of working George Fox, being his musical director. We, we had some of Teddy’s people with the musicians, Teddy’s son’s wife was one of our background singers and, you know, we had a really nice run, with George Fox and I applaud him for being a great humanitarian and looking out for myself, personally because I had a, at one point, I had a injury, I injured my arm, broke my arm and George and his wife, Betsy, they were there for me all through and set their lives aside for a year and to make sure that I was cool, healing-wise and, and all that went into it, I applaud them for that, you know. But before, during when I was with Teddy, and Teddy went solo, went to record with Gamble, we had met some of the guys in the band, David Cruz, a percussionist, and Sugar Bear, the bass player. No, no, David Cruz the percussionist and few other guys: William Winn, Raymon Welch, Dennis Dozier, and Bubbie on bass. They had met some people from Kansas City while we were traveling through Kansas City, and people, they wanted to start a new musical Mecca in Kansas City. So they invited us to move there. So we pulled up stakes and moved there, the whole band that we had, and we had left the Blue Notes, because we worked with the Blue Notes and things weren’t working out. But we had the opportunity to be able to, as we would use to say, and some of the musicians say, rather than the frontline, being the stars, we would fire the front line and we’d go out front ourselves, the band, you know, so we had opportunity to be the feature people so we went to Kansas City. We were there for a good part of a year. And while we were there, Nathaniel Mohammed who was Elijah Muhammad’s second oldest son was the Iman there. And so we would, you know, a lot of the folks that was in the band were either Muslims or they would use Muslim names during the time we wer there. We worked at a club called Harlow’s in Kansas City, Missouri, and we backed up some of the singers, we would help develop talent there. I took one of my writing partners, Thomas Jamil Wallington, from Philly International, now he was one of the writers at Philly International, and took him there, and he and I wrote a song called “Kansas City Bound,” I’m packing up, leaving Philly town, gonna create a new brand new sound, Kansas City. So we were there, Kansas City, and did a lot of stuff there musically, and then, but things dried up. And so Sam Reed, who was Teddy’s musical director, and he was with us, and James Carter, Teddy’s drummer, and I were part of that operation. And so we came back to the East Coast, and James got his job back with Teddy, Sam got his job back as Teddy’s musical director, and I got my job back as the piano player. And so we had a run with Teddy solo, from then on up until his automobile injury and James Carter continued even after when Teddy was in a wheelchair, and he and Teddy had, they wrote songs together and produced stuff together. So, you know, that’s some of the stuff that occurred during that time frame.

I wanted to ask — well, it sounds like you had a very intimate and close relationship with Teddy and your bandmates as well during this time.

Yes. We were like a family. We were like, you know, we were part of Teddy’s kind, you know. Teddy cultivated our drummer, James Carter, into one of the greatest drummers in R&B, you know, and the band was so hot, we were known throughout the circuit, you know. And our guitarist, Robert “Wawa” LeGrand helped cultivate our bassist, the late Norman Smith.

Right. And umm —

Not just the band, but the whole picture — the band, the female background singers, you know, it was like a, like I used to see, like when I was working with Major Harris, you do the Apollo Theater, and Al Green was on the show, but Al, to me, his whole setup, the look of the musicians and the band and the background singers — it was like a whole hypnotic thing, a hypnotic thing to the audience that it was similar to with Teddy and with Marvin Gaye and with other people. Luther, Marvin Gate, etc.

I wanted to ask what genres of music were you mostly playing during this time?

This was a so-called sound of Philadelphia. Philly R&B music.

Were you playing jazz during this time at all? 

I was like on the side just doing things but my job was, you know, making sure I was playing this music right, be it having my uniform correct for the shows, being on time, not getting fined or fired for being late, 


For missing, you know the job or not being up to doing the job. So that we had a, you know, focus right on what we did. Just like the discipline from the Nation carried over to the discipline with Teddy. You know, trying to perfect our craft, craft and give a great show and touch the people and play the music correctly. And follow the band leader and follow the artist, Teddy Mr. Theodore Pendergrass.

What would you say were the most difficult aspects of this period of seven years being on the road and being assigned to this work?

Well, I say like for our drummer, James Carter (AKA Karter James). I’ll speak for him. He had to wear a tuxedo. We did shows, you know, we’re doing the shows and they got the hot lights on us. Stage lights, you know? He had to wear the jacket and everything. So sometimes after the show, he had a suit — I seen a suit hung out and water was dripping out of his suit. You know, and he endured that and he wound up with two suits. Everybody else had one suit. I mean, you know, say we had different suits, we had like, white, white suit, you know, white jacket with black pants and a powder blue tux. We had a grey suit with black piping, tucked, like with tails, we had that. I remember, he had the tails, he had two tux tails. Because when we were doing two shows, he couldn’t wear that one suit for the two shows. He’d be soaking wet! So he had to change, you know. So that was a — and, you know, Teddy was a real stickler for us playing what he wanted us to play, and be up on top of the music correctly. Great discipline, you know? And after Teddy’s manager Taz Lang got killed, some of us were blessed to be part at her funeral. Like Cecile Duvail, our other keyboard player, he played like organ. We did the song “This One’s For You” dedicated to Taz, that’s who it was dedicated to, Taz Lang. And he played while the guitar player plays, I played piano and Teddy sang “This One’s for You” for Taz, you know. And at the funeral, Jesse Jackson, preached the eulogy and Nancy Wilson sang a solo.

Alfie, I wanted to ask you, because it seems like playing for Teddy was a difference of genre for you. But at the same time, from the way that you’re describing, it seems that there’s also a continuity from the way you played music in your prior years and growing up into — and then joining Teddy’s group. So I wanted to ask like, I mean, would you say that that’s correct that there was a continuity?

Yeah, because, because, like, I grew to love, you know, in my scope, open up to music, period. Good music. And non-music or bad music — There’s only two kinds of music, good or bad, you know, not so good. So whatever music I’d get involved in, I tried to give my very best and with the Sound of Philadelphia, and when I got with George Foxx, I was like put on the spot because I hadn’t been Teddy’s musical director. So I had to recall what we were doing with the guitar players was doing on different songs, the breaks, the segues, all kind of stuff. So it was like, through the Creator, he guided and led me through that to be able to get into that music. So it became part, it was part of my DNA. I didn’t even know it, but I was able to share that with other musicians that have, have them pull out of themselves to be able to play the music. So it sounded, you know, authentic and organically, like that, even though we were not all the original players in a recording session, but we would emulate so that the vibe that touched the people was right there saying we were so-called “Jazz” saying we were playing Country and Western music, we’re playing children’s music or theatrical music, you know, it’s like all, it’s a ministry. It’s like, you know, I try to be as honest and organic with whatever I do music-wise.

And were you also involved in the songwriting process?

Yes, in fact, Tom Jamil Wallington. He and I, we wrote at Philly International. When I come in, off the road, I come down in Philly International and I could go there and I could see Kenny Gamble. I’d see Leon Huff, I’d see Bunny Sigler, Dexter Wansell, l might see across the street from Philly International where it’s a building now called the Kimmel Center for Performing Arts, right on that same sight was a place called The Fantasy Lounge, which was owned by Miss Loretta Adams. And Miss Loretta was one of two of Kenny Gamble’s financial backers when he started out. First, he had a record store on South Street, right next to Pep’s Musical Bar, and he got into the music through being a record retailer, and then he could tell what the people were asking for, what music, so he got a feel for what, what the public wanted and then he had to get songwriting so she was one of his backers as far as when they opened, they bought the building, 309 South Broad, which no longer exists, but was torn down. I have pictures to show you, to share with you all some point of myself standing in the doorway of the Philly International building, 309 South Broad Street. And, so what was that again?

I was asking if you were involved in the songwriting process.

Yeah! So I used to go to 309 and write with some of the writers. I wrote, I wound up eventually, I wrote with Bunny Sigley years later, but I used to be there and see McFadden & Whitehead. Every day I go down there, I’d see Bunny Sigler, I’d see Tom Bell sometimes I’d see Leon Huff, I’d see Gamble. I’d go to the sessions, there was a studio at 309 South Broad which was a studio, you know, was part of the Sigma Sound Studios. Sigma Sound was at 12th and Race but it was the main studio. But this was another studio. In fact, the studio at 309 was the same studio that where, used to be Cameo Parkway Recording Studios before Philly International where “The Twist” was recorded, I’m told, Chubby Checker or I believe maybe Bobby Rydell and different people like back in the 50s and 60s recording there. It’s a historic building and studio. So, like on a day to day I would be at Philly International writing with my partners, Tom Wallington, City Brown, Douglas City Brown. Terry Price, I worked with him. And we would — there was a blackboard in the lobby of Philly International. Well, it’s when you first walk through the lobby doors into the studio background. The apartment quarters, there was a blackboard that would say, “Who was in need of original material?” Like the O-Jays, MFSB, The Jones Girls, Bunny Sigler, Teddy Pendergrass, Billy Paul, Lou Rawls, all these different people, Dee Dee Sharp, The Futures, and so we would strive to have — and the Jacksons! 

We’d strive to have material to pitch to these artists and hopefully they would pick them up and eventually record them and they would go into their albums or their singles, you know. And also through Tom Wallington, one time, I came home from on the road. See, I would be down there writing all I could and learning all I could — it was like going to a university, but my main job was working with Teddy Pendergrass on the road. So I would come in town and get some schooling, you know, and so one time I came in, Thomas Wallingtom Jamil introduced me, he said, “Look, I got some songs I’m pitching to the Jacksons, to Michael and his brothers. And you want to come on down?” So I went down and I met them. And he was like showing them songs. And, you know, I met them, I met Michael, Tito, I think it was Marlon, Randy, and their father in studio. And Jamil was showing them songs, you know, he had recorded on as a reel to reel to pitch to Mike. (Michael Jackson Voice) “You don’t like that song? I like this about that song and this and that” And, it was like, you know, I see at the time they had left Motown, they couldn’t use the name “The Jackson Five” So they, they recorded as the Jacksons, you know. And, uh, oh! One time when I was working with Teddy in London we did, well, two things — I had met Nina Simone during when I was working with Teddy. I met her at Warnermakers building and I was walking through there and it was like on the ground floor level. And there was a booth where, like say, women will get their face made-up. I think it might have been a fashion fair, cosmetics for African American women. 

I said, “This woman looks like Nina Simone!” So I waited around, I got the opportunity to introduce myself to her. And it was Nina. And I told her I’m a musician, I was playing with Teddy Pendergrass. She said she was in town because her father had recently passed, and she was in there taking care of some family business in Philly. And she said, “Oh, by the way, I’m in need of a drummer and a bass player. Maybe you could help me out.” So I was blessed to be able to hook her up with Eddy Jones on drums and Tony Jones on bass. And, see, at the time, Eddy Jones was working with Billy Paul, he was Billy’s drummer. So he had limited time, he could work with her but, you know, he couldn’t be that dedicated, so Lucky Thompson worked with her for a while on drums. Tony became her bass player for some years, maybe 15 years. 

And so, and then, so Nina became like, my, like a big sister to me, and she would come to the gigs I was doing, I mean, like little bars, she’d just show up and have somebody drive her there, drive her or whatever, you know, just come hang out. So she told me, she asked me, “Do you know Kenny Gamble?” I said, “Yeah I know Kenny Gamble”. She said, “Do you think you could hook up a meeting with him and myself? Maybe he might wanna entertain recording me”. I said, “I’ll see what I can do”. So I got in touch with Gamble, and I let him know. And he said, “Yeah, I’ll meet with her.” So we set up a meeting, she and I went down there. We met in his office, and he talked about possibilities. And while we’re in there, Gamble got a knock on the door. So he said, “Come on in.” It was Teddy Pendergrass, my boss! So Teddy came in and met Nina and they talked. 

And I know he was surprised to see me, his employee in there and with Nina Simone, and I had brought her in there! You know, so it was, it was like interesting vibration in there because the Kenny Gamble aura and the Teddy Pendergrass aura and the Nina Simone aura, all those auras in the same space! You know, and so some time later, so when I was in England the last time, we were doing two shows at this theater. Right? You know, one show and break and then do the other show, the same time, at night. So during the break, the bodyguards, one of Teddy’s body guards, Ty Lee, who’s, who’s now deceased, he told me, “Nina Simone is here and she wants to see you.” I said, “Okay. So could they let her in as a guest because of her marquee value name.” 

So, she, I went to see her and so she went backstage and, you know, greeted Teddy. And then, you know, so she came to one of the shows, as my guest, you know, and they let her in which was cool, you know. But the last show we did with Teddy was at this theater and it was Teddy and Stephanie Mills. And we did two shows. Well, yeah, two shows, and then during our break in the dressing room, see our drummer, he got around, he knew a lot of different people. He knew Marvin Gaye’s drummer, they hung out together. So Stevie’s drummer and Stevie’s percussionist, and Stevie’s bass player were in our dressing room hanging out, right? But in his dressing room, and it just seemed pretty curious to me. 

And then we did the last, getting ready to do the last number on the show, a song, a duet with Teddy and Stephanie Mills called “Take Me In Your Arms Tonight”, written by Mtume, either Mtume or Dexter Wansell, I’m not clear but no, Mtume, yeah, he wrote that song. So we’re getting ready to do the last number, and I’m sitting on the stage and I had a grand piano. I had a white grand piano, which traveled with us which was in flight chases, the roadies brought it all the way over to the UK from America. So we’re getting ready to do the last number, and the roadies came and they took my Rhodes and put it up in front of stage, right? Put a mic on it, then they bought Stevie Wonder and put him behind the mic behind, behind the piano, and so I’m there with the piano, right. So they did that song and Stevie was, he sang on with Stephanie and Teddy and then he did a solo on the Rhodes. He sound real close to Herbie Hancock to me. Solo, he did. Yeah.

Interview conducted and compiled by Michelle Yuan Lyu and Brandon Hai Do.