Images by John Hook

It’s just past 4:30 on a Tuesday afternoon in Downtown Honolulu and Mark Koga stands in a recording room with his eyes closed. He’s wearing a faded black tank top and a pair of red khaki shorts that match his red shoes. The room is completely quiet, almost awkwardly still. Strapped across Mark’s body is an acoustic guitar, and around him sits a kick drum and a family of speakers. Breaking the silence, Mark opens his mouth and hums the tune to his latest song, belting out a few words from the chorus with special emphasis on each vowel. As the final words ring out, Mark slowly opens up his eyes and looks at his voice coach, James Macarthy, for approval. The coach nods his head.

At this point, it suddenly occurs to me just how different Mark is from the rest of his peers. Where other 17-year-olds are filling their days dreaming of surfing, football, and cute girls, nearly every waking minute of Mark’s life is spent focusing on music. Rhythms, beats, and chords follow him everywhere, like a shadow. His mind is never quiet; it’s as if a symphony of potential songs are constantly simmering away inside of him. Slowly, the rhythm mixes with the beat, the drums come alive, and chorus sprouts life. Each element thickens until a song is born. For as long as he can recall, the music has always been there.

Nearly a decade ago, Mark picked up his first instrument, the cello. “My mind has always been focused on music,” says Mark. “Even when I was 4 years old, I started playing the cello. At first, like any kid, I wasn’t into taking music lessons, but then I fell in love with it.” By the time he was 11, Mark’s interest had turned from classical to modern. He began showing interest in the bass guitar, and through a fortuitous string of events, Mark was introduced to the local punk scene in Honolulu via the band 86 List’s lead singer Josh Hancock, who agreed to show Mark a few chords.

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“Josh sat down with Mark for a few sessions, and he picked it up really fast,” recalls Mark’s father, John. “The next thing I know, Josh is calling me up and asking if it’s okay if Mark fills in at one of their shows. I was sort of shocked because he just learned to play the bass, but now a punk band wants him to play in one of their shows. Not to mention the show was gonna go on until late, and it was a school night, and he was only 12. But I talked to my wife and it seemed like Mark, who had always gravitated towards music, had a real opportunity to be a part of something that he was passionate about, so we said yes.”

According to Josh, the speed in which Mark picked up the bass was baffling. “Not long after teaching him a few chords on the bass, he was subbing in for our bass player. He was only 12 or 13 at the time, and he was playing with us at all these shows. We even opened up for Bad Brains together. How many 13-year-old kids are on stage opening up for an iconic punk band like Bad Brains?”

Mark had become immersed in the punk scene in Honolulu, and whether he knew it or not at the time, his life had just changed. Music was his true north and would guide him forward. But as Mark moved into the depths of his teenage years, he began feeling that something was amiss inside of him. Although it felt impossible to pinpoint, he knew that something seemed misaligned in his head. His passion for music was never stronger, but his ability to navigate himself through everyday situations was waning.

After struggling to fit in with his classmates, Mark jumped around to different schools on the island. Eventually finding the interactions unbearable, Mark’s parents pulled him from school, and he was later diagnosed with having Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism that makes it difficult for people to navigate social situations.

“I had felt that there was something wrong with me by the time I entered the eighth grade. I wasn’t sure what it was, but the doctors said it was OCD and ADD. It wasn’t until I watched a movie about a pro surfer, Clay Marzo, who had Asperger’s, that it really hit me. He was describing it, and I was like, ‘That’s exactly what I have…that’s exactly how I feel.’” The doctors later confirmed Mark’s self-diagnosis and he began taking medicine to combat the effects. Still, Mark says he continues to struggle in social situations. “A lot of people think that when you have Asperger’s, it means you don’t want to be social. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I really want to be social, but it’s not easy for me.”

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But while Mark speaks openly about his struggles interacting with others, he doesn’t want it to define him. That’s not who he is. Music is who he is. And when he’s on stage playing, the angst washes away with every chord he strikes and every note he sings.

Currently, Mark has his own band, slightly reminiscent of Green Day and aptly dubbed Koga, and has been playing shows throughout the city. “When I get on stage now and start playing, I don’t feel awkward at all. It all sort of just goes away. But when I have to interact with the crowd, it becomes a lot more difficult for sure. I’m working on that. My voice coach is also an acting coach and he’s teaching me how to interact on stage with the crowd. It’s all acting, I guess.”

Mark is adamant that no matter what happens, music will be a constant in his life. In fact, Mark has recently begun trying to wean himself off his medicine and is now even questioning the validity of his diagnosis in the first place. (This comes, interestingly enough, with American Psychiatric Association’s decision to remove Asperger’s syndrome from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders.) “I want to get off the medicine,” Mark says, with newfound clarity. “I’m sick of it making me feel so numb.”

In the coming months, Mark is set to release his first album and when he talks about it, his eyes light up. “I can’t imagine being in a situation where I wasn’t playing music all the time. It’s not like I can stop. I really couldn’t even if I wanted to. It’s a part of me, and it always will be. It’s who I am.”

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