BY RUSSELL BAILLIE
It's early last Sunday night on Queen St. At the Classic Comedy Club and Bar the "private function" notice is on the blackboard outside. Inside, what must seem a very big stage to first time stand-ups is crammed with guitars, amplifiers and drums.
Backstage, Aaron Tokona, the burly lead singer of Weta, is still worried about his voice, which has been suffering from a combination of flu, an early-morning transtasman flight a few days ago and duty-free cigarettes.
But that's not stopping his warmup ritual, pacing about and muttering his own little mantra: "Conquer the fear, lose your inhibitions."
He says later that he thinks it's a line from a Neil Finn song. But wherever it's from, it's been put to good use in the past year or so as Weta has gone from the sporadic live work of just another Wellington band to the relentless gigging that's been a product of basing themselves in Melbourne, complete with management and a deal with major label Warner Music Australia.
The Classic's tables and chairs are full with radio competition winners and media, the show part of a promotional campaign for Weta's debut album Geographica.
It is being released on this side of the Tasman a few months ahead of Australia. There, it's out in the New Year to avoid the Christmas rush, here it's part of an avalanche of Kiwi bands with debut albums.
The band of Tokona, his younger bass-playing brother Clinton (who's nicknamed "Tookie"), drummer Clinton den Heyer and guitarist Gabriel Atkinson take their positions and for the next hour or so prove a tight, blistering, punchy, exciting live band. And an entertaining one, too - Tokona senior has obviously lost those inhibitions.
At one stage he heads into the audience to do his harmonica-playing party piece on a blues-rock workout which stands in contrast to the grand guitar-scapes elsewhere. Throughout, he teases the happily stunned small audience as well as his bandmates, his own stand-up routines punctuated by his laugh, a big infectious runaway machinegun.
That laugh comes rattling down the phone from Wellington a few days later where he and the rest of the band have been catching up with friends and
family: "I'm going to go home to Mum's place for a boil-up tonight. My sister is bringing all her kids over and I bet by the time I leave there I'll have a full puku and I'll be really really tired of those kids jumping on my back."
Weta formed in Wellington in 1995 originally as a set of two brothers - den Heyer's brother, Hayden, was Atkinson's predecessor pre-Melbourne. Having forged a friendship with fellow Windy City rockers Shihad ("They're our bros, we were fans, man, and we will always be fans") they were soon supporting them regularly as well as Bailterspace and American tourists Soundgarden, Everclear, and the Foo Fighters.
A debut EP Natural Compression was released and with the encouragement of Shihad's Australian management - which in turn gave them a connection to the A&R department of Warner Music Australia - they decided to up-sticks for Melbourne.
But why did no one think to sign them here?
"It was very localised in Wellington," says James Southgate, managing director of Warner Music New Zealand. "Not that you need to be approached but there was nothing really going on to suggest you should be getting on to these guys. Had I seen them I would have been under no illusions about how good they are."
The head-West-young-man option just fell into their
lap, says den Heyer.
"We deliberated about it for a long time and we thought at the very least we should give it a go. Shihad had paved the way over there and at least we were going over to some people that we knew. Also it was this opportunity to better the music, to better the band.
Atkinson: "It's a country where you can stay on the road for three or four months and by the time you finish that tour, if you want, you can go back and do it all over again. People would have forgotten about you in Perth by then, and you'll come back around and they'll go, 'Oh, that's right, I saw these guys three months ago'."
New Zealand has a long tradition of exporting its best bands to Australia. Especially ones featuring brothers.
Clinton Tokona tells a story that indicates his older sibling's musical determination has been there for quite some time.
"I used to live with that fella in my room when I was young. When he was 16 he used to play guitar from 6 in the evening until 6 in the morning, have an hour's sleep, and get up and and go to school. I'd be, 'I'm so tired, knock it on the head man,' but it's sort of rubbed off on me. When he left the house I picked it up as if it was routine."
Laughs Atkinson: "There's almost something telepathic watching these two sometimes. When it's going off, whether it's on stage or having a brawl in the pub, it's quite an amazing vibe to be in on too. I'm sure it's like being in AC/DC with the Young brothers."
Well you get the feeling that if Tokona senior could fit, Angus Young-like, into his old Naenae College school shorts he'd probably wear them on stage for a laugh.
Back then, he admits he went through a bit of phase and was dead set to become another widdly-widdly superguitarist in the manner of Joe Satriani or Steve Vai. Playing with his then college band Pride and Joy he won the best musician prize at an early schools national rockquest covering, he says embarrassed, Satriani's Surfing with the Alien.
But those fretboard indulgences aren't part of the Weta
"Yeah, it's probably a good thing, but never ever deny your roots. I was a Steve Vai and Joe Satriani kid and I will be to the end. No one plays guitars like those boys."
They can't write songs, though ...
"No, they can't write songs but they can play guitar. And they can't sing either but they can play guitar."
The Tokonas have another brother who plays drums in a Wellington reggae band. It seems you can blame Dad for the musical offspring: "He always had harmonicas and stuff and guitars and slides just lying around and it was never like, 'You've got to learn this and you are not coming out of your room until you are good at it.' It was always, 'Well, there it is, it's lying there, if you are going to pick it up and play it, sweet. If not get outside and play'."
What about the perception that you don't see many Maori guys in rock bands these days?
"Yeah, that's a funny one. The perception is because people think it's white music and rock'n'roll is always represented by white bands - AC/DC, Guns 'N' Roses - but that's music that we've all been influenced by too, it's accessible to everyone. The Rolling Stones is accessible to everyone whether you are Samoan or Maori or Pakeha it doesn't really matter. You are what you are influenced by."
And with that Tokona lets out another of ammo box-emptying chuckle.
* Weta headline the pepsismokefreerockquest at the Auckland Town Hall tonight.