|L-R: Fran Kora, Dan McGruer, Brad Kora, Laughton Kora and Stu Kora|
NZ Musician, December/January 2008 (Vol:14, No:1)
By Martyn Pepperell
For unobservant listeners, the first major hint that Kora has pulled the carpet out from under them will be their new album cover art. Actually cover art is the wrong way to put it, the real hint is the 14 page comic book that comes with the CD.
As guitarist Laughton Kora tells me, "People were probably expecting a big old Pounamu on the front, and a whale bone".
With a healthy degree of disrespect Kora flung away the South Pacific floral pattern and brown paper imagery commonly associated with New Zealand roots bands, opting instead for a Marvel Comic-style superheros versus super villains standoff of intergalactic proportions. Friends Damon and Kieran Oatswere actually drawing and colouring for Marvel and Hasbro, so why not call on the old Whakatane connections one more time? The post-apocalyptic tale told is of five brothers locked in mortal combat with the mighty Deathness and his cohort Billie Jean.
Think Final Fantasy, X-Men, Spawn; throw in a dash of classic martial arts movies and Street Fighter 2. Imagine a world laid to ruin; dark, dirty and oppressive, a world where small groups of renegade mutants and superheroes wage constant battle with mysterious evil overlords. A realm where magic is real, aliens walk amongst humans and anything you could ever imagine, can and will happen.
This fantasy land of the mind may be the birthplace of everything created by Kora, a band at the heart of a new iteration of New Zealand music. Kora multi-process and regurgitate (Kora-fication?) rock, funk, house, reggae, dub, metal, hip hop and more, in a fresh and original approach to constantly keep dance floors across the country tuned in and twitching.
Evolving faster than they can be tracked, categorised or sometimes even seen with the naked eye, by the time you think you know who and what Kora are, the group has shifted into a new form and vanished down a side alley into the night. What was once considered a dub gorgon could easily emerge from a manhole as a huge heaving tech-house monster or an equally surprising rock juggernaut somewhat reminiscent of Faith No More.
Regardless of what form Kora take on, the end result is always the same - a sea of sweaty hypnotised party goers pushed to the edge of physical endurance, tired and worn, but feeling vibrantly alive all the same.
"We want to be a live band always. Don't get me wrong, we love the studio and we love tweaking around, but it has to have come from a good live feel," tells Laughton.
Although Wellington-born bass player Dan McGruer, plus Whakatane brothers Francis (guitar), Stuart (guitar), Brad (drums) and Laughton Kora got their start playing music in family groups from a young age, competing in Rockquest and Battle of the Bands competitions or studying music, Kora didn't officially get off the ground as a group until 2002. They rose from Wellington of all places, a city that was under the spotlight at the time due to its burgeoning roots music explosion at the beginning of the new millennium. The jump-off was their brilliant single Politician a song that in retrospect seems like sheep's clothes hiding the wolf, if you get what I mean.
Despite the band members living in four, sometimes five different parts of the country, since inception Kora have recorded and released a platinum-plus selling EP ('Volume') in New Zealand, secured distribution for it in Australia, Hawaii and the UK, extensively toured here and Australia, held top spots on numerous radio, Internet and magazine charts, featured on several television documentaries, performed at festival events such as Big Day Out, Rhythm & Vines, Soundsplash, Splore, X-Air, and played alongside the iconic likes of Spearhead and Shihad.
In September this year Kora departed for the UK to play shows in London and Scotland with Crazy Pand Norman Jay. They also brought a long overdue announcement to the table. Three years after the recording of that first EP, Kora's debut album was almost ready for release. Mastering was done in the UK by Kevin Metcalfe at Soundmasters International and on the 15th of October it was released to the New Zealand public. In less then two weeks it achieved gold record sales and, in a seriously historic moment became the second independently distributed album to debut on the official charts at number one in 20 years. Second only to guess who? Fat Freddys Drop.
At the start of November I made the trek to Auckland to meet up at a not so-out of-the-way bar with Laughton Kora and the band's sound tech Richie Allan to discuss their recent UK tour, album release and the group's plans for the future.
Relaxed and easy in conversation Laughton exudes effortless laid back cool and humble humility, mixed with a predisposition towards the vague. Sound tech Richie (a man who probably spent 25 hours playing Playstation last week) is much the same, except he's very tight on specifics and, as Laughton chucklingly relates, "It costs you a dollar a word with this guy...haha". Thankfully laughter is free, and we get plenty of it over the following hour.
"In London we played at a club called Koko in Camden, with North Shore Pony Club and local UK acts Crazy P and Norman Jay," recalls Laughton. "The crowds were wicked man, a lot of British people came to the gig. Crazy P really brought their own crowd, and there were definitely some ex-pats as well, but it was surprising seeing all the UK dudes hanging out. Then we went to Scotland with Crazy P to play a show in Edinburgh. Scotland was hard case, it was the day before New Zealand played Scotland (in the World Cup). I think we saw about three Scots at the gig, the rest were Kiwis aye. Amrik Rai fromShiva Records helped out with the organisation of both shows. He's releasing our music over there, Amrik's a wicked dude."
While in the UK Kora dropped in to see Kevin Metcalfe at The Soundmasters International, a mastering engineer they were introduced to through a mutual friend. With a catalogue of work that includes David Bowie, Queen and The Prodigy, Kevin seemed like the one.
"He was a wicked dude man, he chucked on our track and the first thing he said to us was "We better fatten this one up,". I thought 'Awesome, that's the man we want to hang with'." says Laughton.
Recording began on Kora's album about a year and a half ago with most of the music written on the road while touring, then recorded over several separate stints in Auckland, Whakatane and Edgecombe. Once completed it was mixed in Wellington, downstairs at band member Dan "the token white dude" McGruer's parents' house.
"I'm a builder, so we built the mixing studio to specs," Laughton continues, chuckling along the way. "And Richie went to school for techies, so he is able to do our studio recording and mixing as well as the live stuff. All the boys had a go on the computer, it was awesome," says Laughton. "We used a couple of sets of reference monitors, Yamaha MSG 7s, and MS10 sub, and used these MSV 5s too, then Fran brought in these little computer speakers, we plugged them up and just kept looking at them and laughing," explains Richie. "I did all the recording straight into Cubase with a bunch of RME audio interfaces" he continues. "It was pretty simple, but it suited us," says Laughton.
For a group of five people living in nearly as many different parts of the country, to write and agree upon 14 songs worth of music is no mean feat, much less to record and engineer the whole project themselves. Laughton and Richie don't downplay or overstate this accomplishment, but I get this feeling that most times they met up to record, the group took off to spend an afternoon catching white-bait or having a barbecue at the beach and the majority of the album wrote, recorded and engineered itself.
"Brad plays drums, bass, guitar, piano and sings, Stu is the same, Fran is the same, I'm the same, except I can play harp. Thinking about throwing some distorted electric harp in the mix sometime," laughs Laughton. "Dan's pretty much the same.
We all use Fruity Loops, well we did, I think I'm the only one who still does. It's awesome for sketching down ideas and trying them out aye!" he says. "Someone will bring a riff or a full song idea to the table and we will work from there. After a while when you have written a song you start listening to the song and follow it, you know? We had to put our egos aside and let the music go where it wanted to. I think the fact we all play a few instruments is part of how the songs come about. My feel is different to Stu's, so when we need to we swap instruments, Fran plays keys different to me and so on" explains Laughton.
A lot of listeners may have been surprised by the small quantity of reggae/roots cuts on 'Kora', a fact confirmed when Laughton tells me , "Brad has been saying the reggae heads ain't too happy back home,".
Personally, considering the direction their live shows have moved the last two years, I was far more surprised Kora didn't include any drum and bass tracks on the album. As expected Laughton has a great response for this one.
"Nah, it hadn't aye. People were saying things about Kora like they are touching on all the genres. We're kinda weary of that as well, we don't just want to play cliche drum and bass, we want something that feels like our drum and bass. We've been working on a couple of tracks in that way for sure but we weren't ready to put one like that down on our album. I'm not too sure with the whole genre thing, we wonder who we are too. It's always odd seeing us labeled as a reggae group because we aren't really."
Brothers they may be but with such a diverse set of tastes and backgrounds, you have to wonder how they all agree on a direction for their music. As with all things Kora it sounds like a fairly open and democratic process - they all get a chance to develop their own vision.
"The drum and bass is Brad's influence. He used to be a real technical metal drummer and I think he misses getting to cut loose like that. Dan is really interested in club stuff, his influence is more like the Pops and Bubbles song. He's right into that side of the production, and he's like 'What about something for the club?' and we're like, 'Go hard dude!'"
"I'm really into singers like Mike Patton, Stevie Wonder, Iron Maiden, and of course you have all the uncles and aunties, they can sing up north, got the feel and everything.
"When it comes to playing, I love Angus Young, lately Paul Gilbert, David Gilmour, George Benson, those guys have been played in our house for years.
"I got into dark tech house for awhile. Ritchie Hawtin was my man, I had a friend in Queenstown who got me into it when I was still an AC/DC boy. He showed me these really dark, long, minimal tunes. House is the shit man, really enjoying it aye. I love my cheese also, nothing like a good 'yyeeeaaahhh' you know?"
"I think we're still going through a studio process. That was our first time in a studio. I reckon we're really just getting started, but from a better point of view then we had in the beginning. More writing, more playing, hopefully going to do some more festival shows in Australia. It's wicked aye."