It's all about rock for rising Kiwi guitarist

By Scott Kara

Kiwi guitarist Kara Gordon. Photo / Supplied
Kiwi guitarist Kara Gordon. Photo / Supplied

He looks a bit like a bogan dressed up as Jimi Hendrix. And Kara Gordon acts like one too at times. The morning TimeOut meets up with him he's had only a few hours' sleep after playing a gig the night before - one of many he does each week at various Auckland pubs.

"A few mates turned up and we went out on the town," he smiles.

But this local guitar hero, one of the meanest and fastest in the business, is just as deft at playing Hendrix covers and his own heavy psychedelic blues rock songs like Acid Man, as he is at getting his dexterous fingers around a complicated jazz classic.

It was the 31-year-old's jazz prowess that got him into Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music when he was in his late teens.

For his audition tape Gordon transcribed John Coltrane's Giant Steps and Thelonius Monk's Round Midnight - renowned as two of the most challenging tunes in jazz - and performed them on his guitar.

After four years at Berklee, graduating with a Masters in Guitar Performance, he stayed on in America, doing everything from busking in New York to playing jazz festivals in New Orleans.

He loved every minute of his US experience. But the structured nature of classical composition made him break out even more into the realm of rock, blues and - if songs like Demon Hunter from his self-titled album (out on Friday) with his band, the Wreckage, is anything to go by - heavy metal.

"Berklee helped with my playing and the in-depth knowledge of theory. But you can get too caught up in that side of things.

"So now I transfer it into my lingo of playing. It's not as sophisticated harmonically, but there is definitely that [jazz] lineage through it - so it's really about knowing the concepts and making it your own."

He returned to New Zealand in his early 20s and, for the past eight years, he's been playing between three and five gigs a week, which helps him "get by". During that time he's supported everyone from Slash at Vector Arena to Elton John in Dunedin, and met and played alongside some of his guitar heroes like Joe Satriani and Glenn Hughes of Deep Purple.

Gordon, it has to be said, is not a man of many words, and he talks far more openly once the dictaphone is switched off. That's when he tells me he's only had a few hours' sleep and that he's heading home for an afternoon nap before he gets up to do it all over again tonight.

And at 2m tall and around 120kg, this guy has presence. When he loped into the cafe, wearing his Hendrix-style hippie jacket, flared pants and a top hat, many of the patrons took a double-take.

Raised in Glenfield, the self-taught guitarist grew up around music, was practising religiously by the time he was 10 and performed live throughout his teens.

"My dad pretty much got me into learning the history of blues, classical and jazz. But my brother was like, 'yeah man, that's cool, but it's all about being fast like Eddie Van Halen; and getting off your head and getting girls and going round the world'," he beams, before letting out another of his big, bellowing Maori boy laughs.

And this year he got a lucky break after meeting British music mavericks Alabama 3 (best known for The Sopranos theme song) at Womad in New Plymouth. After the festival he played support for them at their Powerstation show in Auckland. They then took him to the Byron Bay Blues Festival with them and hooked him up with contacts in Britain and Europe, from where Gordon and the Wreckage (made up of bass player Ross Larsen and drummer Dean Blake) returned only recently. That trip included a sold-out show at London's Jazz Cafe with Alabama 3 and they played as part of the Kiwi music contingent at Frankfurt's Museumsuferfest festival.

So what did he learn from Alabama 3 and their crazed leader, Larry Love?

"What not to do," he says, cracking up laughing. "But nah, you learn how to influence people from the moment you walk into a room and how to be an over-the-top eccentric dude and get away with it."

And when it's put to him that, with his skills, he should be bigger, he just shrugs.

"Yeah, it is a hard life but I'm travelling the world playing guitar now," he smiles. "I'm just going to get my music out to as many people as possible."

He's also just happy to have an album out, because although he's sold makeshift recordings at gigs to feed the fans, "they were draft copies and now it's something real".

The Wreckage album is raw rock 'n' roll and blues, with a rough-and-ready feel to it. The songs range from heavy and hammering on Party Time to beautiful, heartbroken ballad Tell Me Why.

"I was just trying to combine the great rock 'n' roll bands from the 60s through to the 80s, and then just trying to put a futuristic spin on it," he says.

"I just wanted to show that I can definitely play the blues but also stretch out and shred and do stuff like that. But it's all just blues and rock."

He admits to being a natural showman, mainly because he likes to have fun and put on an entertaining show. When he performs, he's not one of those self indulgent guitar maestros who is constantly looking down at what he's playing. There's a bit of that, but he looks out and eyeballs the audience.

"I just like to have a few laughs and share it around, just like Eddie Van Halen."

Who: Kara Gordon, rising Kiwi guitar hero
Where & when: Galatos, October 5
What: Kara Gordon & the Wreckage, out October 5

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