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Big Dreams in Little Tokyo

Chazz Hannah reflects on his music journey and how his upbringing has influenced his style.

I was raised in a Japanese-Hawaiian household surrounded by my grandpa, who played guitar, and my mom and dad, who played ukulele and bass, respectively. When I didn’t hear them practicing their Hawaiian music before gigs all over the LA area, I spent time with my grandpa, who was constantly listening to bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Who.

It would have been ridiculous if I didn’t one day pick up music myself. However, if most guys who picked up a guitar in their early teens were honest, our admitted primary aim was to get girls. Once our efforts had proven to be futile, we then moved on to creativity. That’s where I found myself after writing my first few songs during my freshman year of high school.

My life path took me to San Pedro High’s Marine Magnet campus, a place where, if memory serves me right, I was one of seven or eight people of Japanese descent. This made me an outsider. At that age, I was also terribly socially awkward… which made me even more of an outsider. So, when my regular diet of bands like those that my family had brought me up on, and ones that I had discovered myself, like Pink Floyd, The Black Keys, and The White Stripes elicited songs of my own, I thought that I had finally found my guest pass into the gates of the popular crowd.

Taking my handful of songs about the fresh, new, teenaged feelings of romance that I had in my chest, I set out to find a group of people to help me bring these creations to life.

I can still remember being pent up in a San Pedro garage with three friends, nothing but the tubes of our amplifiers to keep us warm, and recording our first single, a pair of songs titled “If,” and “Asian Girl.” We burned those on CDs and sold them all over campus to our school friends, a lot of whom came to see us play our first gig at a church talent show. However, high school took its toll on our ranks, and I soon found myself with only my loyal bass player and long time friend, Eric Bertone, at my side by the time we graduated. That year, we played the 2018 installment of the Straight Outta Little Tokyo (SOLT) festival, gathering friends to help us round out the sound on keyboards and drums.

This formula of writing songs and then finding the right people to play them has pretty much been my primary creative mode, and no matter the band, I’ve always seemed to come out the other end of a song with an indie rock vibe with a hard moving bluesy slant to it. It was disheartening at first to not have a band to regularly collaborate and write with, but I looked to band leaders like Robert Fripp of King Crimson, who has remained the sole constant member in a revolving gallery of players under a name. If you look at advertisements from the 2018 and 2019 installments of SOLT, you will see the moniker that I adopted in that era of my creative life: From The Silence. It sounded cool when I was 17 years old and desperate for a name, but there’s not much more meaning than that.

All this is to say that my process of creation has always been independent, and informed purely on my influences and experiences. 

As an ethnic outsider in my early high school days, the subject matter of my songs leaned into my Japanese identity. I would write love songs that referenced Japanese culture and took place in settings familiar to members of the JA community, but also dealt with matters important to my generation. I’ve always trusted this as my goal: to make music that explicates my experience as a Japanese American, but resonates with everyone. 

In my musical journey to produce music that fits this mold, I’ve been influenced by a wide variety of things – even things outside of music. As much as I try to find a sound that feels like Led Zeppelin playing in a ramen shop, I try to imagine myself writing the score to a Toshiro Mifune movie that doesn’t exist. Some of my favorite things to do in my free time are to go shopping for records or watch a movie at the New Beverly Cinema near the Fairfax district. It’s through discovering new albums and watching movies that I’m driven to create art of my own, trying to elicit the same awe and wonder that I get out of those things that I find.

For example, one of my favorite compositions, a hard rocking tune called “Oh, Yuki!” was written for a Meiko Kaji character in the samurai film Lady Snowblood. In the song, I tried to capture what it would sound like if the Doors and the Who got together and collaborated on the score as I call out to the film’s dejected heroine and let her know that she can run away with me. Another example would be the song I use to close out all of my gigs, titled “When I Come To Get You,” which is about the universal experience of getting ready to pick up someone for a date, but also an attempt to capture what it would sound like if the Black Keys scored one of Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns.

After the COVID-19 lockdown interrupted live music for a couple of years, it was so exciting to have played at the 2022 installment of SOLT at the Terasaki Budokan in Little Tokyo. As an artist whose creations have always been born on the intersection of their Japanese identity and the show business extravagance of Los Angeles’ film and music scene, I couldn’t think of a better place or audience for me to play my music for. 

Now that I’ve graduated college and finally have some time on my hands, it feels like a momentous move towards a commitment to my musical passion that I hope will lead to more gigs in and around LA. This year, I shed the From The Silence name and went in as Chazzu-sama with my band The Tasty Waves (I won’t tell you what movie that’s referencing). Even though the band members and name are different, all the music is still coming from the same bright-eyed cinematic lens, the same guy sitting in front of his amplifier, trying to pluck out just the right notes as he longs to see the Japanese American experience expressed musically and authentically.

Please follow my Instagram (@chazzu_sama) and stay up to date on my musical efforts and journey! I can’t wait to share my art with a growing audience.

Straight Outta Little Tokyo 2022
Article featured in this issue:
October 2022
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