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For Yamada “Taka” Takahiro, traveling across the globe to be closer to the bands he loves is no big deal.
Yamada Takahiro can hardly contain himself. He’s just spotted the tower of Tenleytown’s Fort Reno Park poking out above the treetops a block away. He points out the car window and cries, “There it is!”
Taka, as the 22-year-old native of Okazaki, Japan, is called by nearly everyone, has never been to Fort Reno before. But he recognizes the turret of the Civil War-era signal station as if it were the Eiffel Tower. “I’ve seen that picture so many times,” he says, referring to the cover of the Fort Reno Benefit compilation CD.
When Taka arrives at the park, the first act, Filo Betto, is already a few minutes into its all-instrumental set. But he doesn’t bother to find a seat on the grass. Instead, he makes a beeline for a blue van parked on the side of the stage, where drummer John Davis and his Q and Not U bandmates are sitting in a small circle, along with Ian MacKaye of Fugazi.
Taka plunges in and starts chatting with Davis. In a few minutes, he’s moved on to Brian Lovitt of Arlington-based label Lovitt Records. Lovitt reminds him of the night in April when David Nesmith of the band Bats & Mice played an impromptu acoustic set of songs by Sleepytime Trio, one of Lovitt’s former groups. Taka starts to sing one of the songs and play a little air guitar.
“I have the 7-inch,” he declares proudly.
Later, Taka listens intently as Frodus frontman Shelby Cinca feeds him a punch line: “The mushroom says, ‘Why don’t you serve me? I’m a fun guy!’”
Taka blinks, then wails, “I don’t get it!”
Taka runs into several more people he knows, flitting through the crowd until the next act, Black Eyes, takes the stage. While the rest of the audience surges forward to form one arms-folded, head-nodding mass up front, Taka prefers to stand alone, by an empty corner of the stage. Occasionally, he snaps a photo of the band with a disposable camera. Otherwise, he stands almost perfectly still, gazing upward. Though he rocks out a little during Q and Not U’s set, he says he really lets loose only for Fugazi: “Yeah, I riff on Ian’s guitar.”
Until five years ago, Taka had never heard of MacKaye. And until three months ago, he had never set foot in Washington. But now, Taka just may be D.C. punk rock’s most devoted fan. Besides memorizing the Dischord catalog and hosting D.C.-area bands on tour in Japan, in March, Taka moved to Washington to be at the epicenter of the music he loves.
Taka is now a fixture at the Black Cat and Galaxy Hut, semifamous for accosting his idols with a gaping mouth, an “Oh my god!” and a meticulous rundown of every band they’ve ever played with. Local indie-rockers return the affection. After all, Taka treats them as if they were Elvis.
“He’s really well-versed in the minutiae of ’90s D.C. rock,” says Davis. “I grew up then, so I know all that stuff, too. He’s like a kindred spirit.”
“He’s such a positive dude,” adds Cinca. “It’s pure, too. It’s really refreshing. So many people are superpretentious. Taka uplifts you.”
An hour before the Fort Reno show, Taka squats on the floor of his Columbia Heights basement apartment. He’s only recently moved into D.C. from Rockville, Md., where he’d been living with a host family he found through his English-language program. “These are really local, local,” he says, riffling through a pile of 7-inch singles.
He pulls out a record by the Warmers and declares the band his “favorite.” Within five minutes, he’s made identical pronouncements about Hoover, Smart Went Crazy, Engine Down, and Fugazi. Taka says that back in Japan, he has more than 1,000 records. But though he says he spends his “whole money” on music, he insists he’s no collector.
Collector or not, he certainly talks like one. Taka almost got into an argument recently with New York band the Panthers, three members of which were once in the hardcore outfit Orchid. Taka told them that he owned a particular Orchid 7-inch. When they denied having put it out, Taka responded by listing everything their old band had ever released, recalls Matthew “Cornbread” Compton of the Richmond, Va., band Engine Down. “They said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, but if you have it, OK.’”
“Taka is such a fan that he actually knows more about certain things [about] our bands than I do sometimes,” says Lovitt. “He just remembers all these really obscure things, then asks me about it, and I have no idea what he is talking about some of the time.”
Taka’s intensity can be overwhelming. After he sent several gushing e-mails to former Faraquet bassist (and Washington City Paper employee) Jeff Boswell, the local rocker says he was apprehensive when Taka announced that he was moving here: “I thought he was this crazy girl from Japan.” When they first met, Boswell recalls, Taka greeted him with an eerie “Hi, Jeff. You have long hair now.”
Boswell now counts Taka as a friend, as do most of the musicians he’s approached. The members of Engine Down even made two short digital films while Taka was on tour with them last year. One features Taka exclaiming “What the fuck!” The other explores Taka’s legendary passion for Tofutti.
Even this obsession has roots in the music scene: Taka says he’s been a vegetarian ever since he saw an image of cows being slaughtered on the cover of a 7-inch. At Fort Reno, he points to a man swinging a bat through the air, and says, “He’s hitting fireflies. I don’t like him.”
“I don’t drink alcohol. I don’t smoke. No drugs. And no coffee, no soda,” he says. “[I’m] just really normal.”
On a recent afternoon, Taka strides into Tryst Coffeehouse and Bar in Adams Morgan and heads straight for an employee named Joe Wong, who’s sitting by the front counter. Wong used to be in the Milwaukee math-rock trio Akarso, but for once, Taka doesn’t want to talk about music. Right now, he’s more interested in some chai.
Soon, Taka is sipping from a brimming mug and reflecting on his pre-Fugazi days.
From elementary through high school, he recalls, he was consumed with pitching and playing shortstop. Then, one day in 1997, based on “rumor” and “reputation,” he bought a Minor Threat album. “People call that music punk rock, but I didn’t know what punk rock is,” Taka says. “People said, ‘This is great.’ That’s why I like it.”
He says he didn’t get truly hooked on D.C. punk rock, though, until a friend translated the lyrics of pioneering emo group Rites of Spring into Japanese for him. “That changed my life,” he recalls.
From then on, he tried to learn everything he could about Washington-area bands—hardly an easy task. Though many American groups are popular in Japan, “not so D.C. music,” says Taka. “Few people like it.”
Meanwhile, a friend who books Japanese tours for foreign bands asked Taka to put up the San Diego quintet Tristeza after it played in Nagoya, where Taka is an undergraduate economics major at Chukyo University. When he’s in school, Taka lives an hour outside the city in a house with his parents, who he says don’t mind obscure foreign rockers sleeping on their floor.
In return, the members of Tristeza offered to show him their own town. A few months later, in August 2001, Taka arrived in San Diego. “I didn’t have a serious reason to go to San Diego,” he says. “Most people come to the States to study English. I just wanted to feel American-style.”
Taka, however, quickly learned the value of language proficiency. His second day in San Diego, his host dropped him off at his English-language program and told him to “take 711” to get home, referring to a bus. “I don’t know what the hell she’s talking about,” Taka recalls. “After school, I wait for five hours at 7-Eleven. I don’t have her phone number yet. I saw many police car driving. One came up to me. He ask me, ‘What’s your name?’ I say ‘My name is Taka.’ He say, ‘That’s you!’ My host mom called the police!”
He soon hooked up with Tristeza again and accompanied the band to a gig in Tijuana. In January, he returned to Japan, but not because he was homesick: Engine Down was playing in Nagoya. “My mom asked me why I wanted to go home,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Because my favorite band is playing.’ And she said, ‘Shut up!’”
Taka got one of his college professors to write an e-mail to the members of Engine Down before the group arrived in Japan, saying how excited Taka was to see them. The band later crashed at his house. Taka then toured with them for a few dates, selling merchandise and playing translator. Afterward, he stayed in Japan for a couple of months, washing cars and working in sake bars to save enough money to move back to the States.
This time, he decided to move to Washington. “I always wanted to come to D.C. because Dischord was here,” he says. “I always had a question why D.C. music scene so good. That’s why I wanted to know what was happening here.”
Having been here a while, Taka thinks he knows why D.C. has produced such good bands: basements. He says that while hanging out with his musician pals, he’s noticed that many of them practice underground.
“It’s easy to find a place to practice [here],” he says. “In Japan, we have earthquakes; we can’t have any basements.” In his hometown, he suggests, indie bands don’t thrive, because practice space is scarce and expensive.
His other theory is that “people [in D.C.] have great soul.”
“Even [if] I just met a person who I never met, they were nice and talking to me about music,” he says. “It’s been a really fantastic time.”
But soon, he says, he’ll be going home. He still has a year of college left. More important, his funds are running low. Recently, he spent a night sleeping on a bench outside the University of the District of Columbia rather than pay for a cab back to Rockville after a show.
But he’s definitely sticking around to see Engine Down perform at the Black Cat in July. And, of course, to see Fugazi play Fort Reno. Then he and his girlfriend, whom he met in San Diego, will travel around Europe before heading to Japan.
“I wish I could be here more,” he says wistfully. “Like forever.” CP