Gitbox
Nigel Gavin 


Nigel has long been a featured player in the New Zealand music scene, playing guitar, banjo, mandolin, bass (indeed, almost anything with strings) with the Nairobi Trio, the Fondue Set, the Jews Brothers, the Blue Bottom Stompers, Below the Bassline, Jonathan Besser's Bravura, and in collaborative ventures such as the free-jazz Vitamin S and his own group Snorkel. His dedication to guitar-craft earned him a place in Robert Fripp's legendary League of Crafty Guitarists, which led to the formation of the multi-guitar group GITBOX REBELLION and Rattle’s inaugural release, Pesky Digits.

For more information, visit nigelgavin.com and Gitbox Rebellion

 



 

Nigel Gavin is one of New Zealand’s musical treasures. The eccentric range of his musical projects is matched only be his astonishing virtuosity with stringed instruments and his prodigious musical imagination. Guitarists will be simply astonished by the technique on display here. Nigel’s finger-picking is so fast, so smooth, and so laden with sudden virtuoso explosions that it is damn near impossible to work out either what he’s doing, or how he’s doing it.”
- Tauranga Weekend Sun

 

NZ Musician interview by Trevor Reekie

Tell us about growing up in America and how you got started in the business and ended up in NZ.

I had no live music around me as a kid in long island NY. Just bird song. There wasn't anybody playing any instruments in my family or environment. How I came to play music is a mystery. My parents broke up rather early in my development. When I was quite young I worked in Alaska on a construction site in the bush, not far from where the exxon valdez dumped its toxic cargo. I hated it at the time coming from a big city, but it was a very beautiful place. Upon returning to the "lower 48" as they call it, I got a job in a circus since it just called for someone who could do hard yakka. There I met up with performers of all kinds, later leading to jobs being a roadie for groups in California. That’s where my first real experience of music hit me. From then I had my first encounter with real instruments. I seemed to have developed a knack of plucking on the guitar which has served me ever since. From there I moved from the wings to centre stage.

Jump forward a few years… I found myself a very unhappy camper for a variety of reasons including creative frustration. I was seriously considering jumping out of my 5th floor apartment window, when I had a rare and timely visit from my father. He told me he had actually been born in New Zealand… and I could even go and live there if I wanted. I also found I had a brother there, who I hadn’t heard from in over 15 years. So I visited a few times and in 91 made it my permanent home.

How has your musical career progressed since the time this photo was taken? What are you doing these days?

Since then I’ve toured regularly 3 or 4 times a year around NZ plus regular trips to Australia, America and Europe, most notably with the Jews Brothers, Bravura and Whirimako Black. Also in the last ten years or so I’ve taken on the challenge of playing the 7 string solo acoustic guitar. I released 2 solo CD's Thrum and Visitation and recently an in-concert DVD, a job with the circus, produced by Costa Botes of Forgotten Silver fame. I was involved in a tribute concert for Mahina Tocker who sadly died recently. She was someone whom I met early on here in NZ and played with through the years. She used to make me laugh! I got to play with one of my musical heroes Dr. Eugene Chadbourne, a leading light in the world of improvised music and a very humorous writer. When I’m not touring I get down to a bit of teaching with some very patient guitar students.

What’s the one artist and/or record that you would say has had the most influence on you? and why?

One artist!! Impossible to say for my whole musical life… at different times there’s been different heroes. People like Jeff Beck, due here next week in fact, has always been full of surprises and always keeps you wanting more. Igor Stravinsky, John Lee Hooker, Zappa and Beefheart. Ravi Shankar and George Harrison I saw together when I was a young lad. My current interests lean more towards improvised music… my old pal Robert Fripp continues to influence with amazing solo performances as well as with King Crimson. Then the absolute king of improvised music Keith Jarrett! I’ve just finished listening to his album called Sun Bear, a 10 disc set of live piano improv's recorded in Japan. That guy puts me to shame! (Though I might have a better voice.)

What would you consider your proudest musical moment (and your worst musical nightmare)?

Once again just one moment? You don’t play professionally for 35 years and only have one! (I could write a book if I had finished school instead of joining the circus, LOL!) Anyway I'll give you a couple: The aforementioned Robert Fripp came to NZ in 1990 for a weekend guitarcraft workshop, [and] Gitbox rebellion were in attendance. Upon completion of the course, Robert asked if I would travel to the states to teach the League of Crafty Guitarists [Robert's group] some of my tunes. For those who don’t know much about Robert Fripp, even [Jimi] Hendrix was one of his fans! So you can see that was a great ego boost. I ended up joining the group for a few years touring round the globe and giving workshops in the US and Europe plus working on several albums. 

Now, conversely, the worst nightmare - I really can’t remember ever having a completely bad gig. One of the most frightening challenges I’ve been offered would have to have been to play banjo with the Auckland Philly Orch on a piece by Aarron Copland. My reading for guitar is far from perfect but on the banjo completely nonexistent! So I learnt the piece by ear like I usually do. Now classical musicians tend to play by the eye rather then the ear… with sheet music and getting their dynamics from the conductor. I was abruptly brought to heel when I was found guilty of playing with feel! Anyway the gig went fine in the end. I feel you should never shy away from a challenge, you’re never really given more than you can chew in this life.

Tell us the worst places you have ever played and the best thing that ever happened to you on tour?

I can address both questions with a single answer: playing with the Jews Bros at a festival in Nuremberg, Germany. For those of you who aren’t nuts on history, Nuremberg was the home to the Nazi party during its reign. People warned us it might be dangerous for a band called the Jews Brothers to appear in such a place. Some of the buildings Hitler created were still standing. Most conspicuous was where he had those massive rallies that you see in the old footage. Well, thankfully, modern Germany is vastly different and the band had its warmest reception ever! The festival attendance was around 25,000 people. We sold 250 CD's in 20 minuets. On top of that we got treated like artists, something that rarely happens in NZ. I’m afraid this country has a long way to go before it learns to appreciate its creative talent...lets go rugby! (let go rugby, lol!)

As a teacher, how do you advise your students should someone equip themselves to enter today’s music industry and what should they expect?

The best advice is to avoid anything called an industry. It usually means a faceless entity callous to the human heart, will be judging your value. However we do need to barter our wares as good crafts people. Don’t expect an arts council to feed you. We must pay our own tab! If what you create doesn't have the skills to pay the bills then get a day job. That doesn't necessarily mean what you play is not relevant as artistic expression. It just might mean people can’t ignore it in cafes or weddings. Also being rejected for a grant can start you on a bitter road to self loathing. Don’t rely on your mummy to wipe your bum and daddy to give you your allowance. It’s all about the music, its all about the music, and once more...its all about the music!

If you have any oblique strategies that help you stay motivated as a creative person or even get you through life, what are they?

Follow your muse! Something my students constantly hear me say. Muse, not the band, but the Greek god of music! You really need to know what your direction is. It’s better to sit and practice scales all day waiting for the muse to call you, than to embark on a musical journey that’s not yours. You can think you'd like to be a studio geek and churn out every style and genre at a moments notice, but you'll really be no more than a big mac commercial. Not that I’m knocking my dearest friends who do such work. But I think deep down they feel they've let the muse down. In short, know thyself!

You’ve worked with and been rated by King Crimson’s Robert Fripp … How did you come to his attention?

We have a mutual friend who lives near fielding. She had told him about GITBOX REBELLION and how we practiced and played. He surmised that what we were doing was somewhat similar to what he was doing with Guitarcraft. We both were very interested in Gurdjieff's ideas, he through J.G. Bennett, and me through NZ's own Abdullah Dougan. So out of the blue he called me up. He offered to come down here and spend a few weeks and put on a beginners guitarcraft workshop. He really loved it here but he's never played in Australasia. Kiwis don’t really go for the prog-fusion thing. (Too much practice and self control maybe!) Way back before my muse called me I was taken to see The Eagles. It was a show put on by the greatest promoter of all time Bill Graham. He purposely would mix and match groups of radically different styles so as to educate the punters. All glories to the memory of St. Billy! Anyway the support band was King Crimson. My pal's and I had never heard anything like it. Blew our little minds. In fact when The Eagles came on we only lasted 3 songs before they bored the pants off us and left for home to discuss what on earth we had just witnessed. Changed us forever that show. Years later when on tour with Robert I mention that memorable evening to him. His reply was, "oh really?, we all though it was a rather bad performance that night" LOL!

Have you ever felt daunted or intimidated playing with musicians of that calibre and how does one overcome those reactions?

Never intimidated. That’s more something for your beloved sports people. Inspired, yes. Let’s not confuse talent with celebrity though. Thats a whole nuther thing altogether. Celebrities can make you shit yourself. People with talent can make you kiss yourself. Every once in a million years talent and celebrity come in the same package. Like da Vince or Little Stevie Wonder!

The most important thing that you have learned from musical improvisation is?

Being present in the moment. Technique may or may not be relevant in this idiom. Art is the capacity to re-experience ones innocence. Childlike simplicity goes hand in hand with virtuosity along the sun lit path of improvisation. To improvise is the highest honor the muse can bestow. But you gotta have trust in the muse and keep a healthy sense of playfulness. We must embrace hazard and make it our friend.

What are your recollections of the music scene back when you started compared to now?

It was a very frightening world. A world with different languages, fashions and cultures. Who was this little pip-squeek who dares try and join us? As time goes by though you realize its just people. Like a big family at christmas time, Moms on the gin, Dads watching football and big sister is giving you a chinese burn. Years later you suddenly notice "wow, I’m part of this scene now, and have been for some time". At first you worry about how you’re gonna get some gigs. It looks impossible. Then comes the time when you’re glad you don’t have a gig so you can get a life. You need quality time to create. Hurtling around the world playing festivals may actually impede your creativity, as you’re just flat out all the time. It’s a fine balance. Like single handedly running an organic farm!

What’s been your most sobering musical experience and what did you learn?

Hearing myself recorded for the first time. I thought I was hot shit till then. "I be the great guitar mutha-fucka!" But, oh my god, that can't be me! It was the first time I had heard myself full stop. That was some nasty tonic. I started practicing the very next day....for the first time. This was the beginning for real this time. To this day I eat humble pie every morning. Keeps you ever so 'umble it does.

What’s the best book about music that you have read?

Sooo many! Dr. Eugene Chadbourne's: I Hate The Man That Runs This Bar. It's a very funny, loving book about living the life playing and touring, with just about every situation your likely to encounter as a muso. Second would have to be Ravi Shankar's biography: My Music My Life. Bloody fingered dedication.

Whats on your playlist right now?

The aforementioned Keith Jarrett album Sun Bear.
Everything by a band from Oakland California called Sleeptime-Gorilla Museum. The best band Ive heard in 20 years!
Plus heaps of stuff my students give me to listen like greek bouzouki music, Jerry Douglas, the new Metalica, the new Cynic, even Slipnot! Thats one of the best parts about teaching is students bring in things I'd never hear otherwise...and usually I enjoy them!

Instruments are square, but music is round.
Le Chaim!