Nigel Gavin is one of our best-kept secrets: a guitar wizard with gregarious performative impulses and an astonishing discography. GARY STEEL subjects him to the Witchdoctor Q&A.
If you’ve never heard a note played by Nigel Gavin before, then you’re in for a surprise. In fact, chances are you’ve enjoyed his exquisite guitar-picking without realising it because he turns up to add his special acoustic sauce to other people’s records so often that piecing together a complete discography would probably be a nightmare.
But it’s on his own projects or those where his collaborative creativity is let fly that Nigel’s genius really shines. The American-born, NZ-based guitarist always has a lot of music projects on the boil, but next month he revisits the past with two Auckland Festival performances by the all-guitar group that made his name here in the early 1990s: Gitbox Rebellion.
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Gary Steel – Probably the first question that would pop into the head of someone watching you perform for the first time would be: how and where the heck did he learn to play like THAT!?!
Nigel Gavin – I suppose my acoustic style comes from following my muse, hearing the music in my head and then finding a way or technique to bring the music into an audible dimension. My electric styles are more or less related to the music and players I listened to throughout my life from my early teens onwards. I didn’t really know how to practice until after about 10 years of exploration. That certainly raised the bar!
Gary – Who are your biggest influences as a guitarist/musician?
Nigel – Early influences were Beatles, Mahavishnu, Zappa, King Crimson, and many more of the progressive types of music that has never been very popular in this part of the world… so far!
But the first real musical epiphany would have been seeing the Disney film Fantasia as a wee lad, most especially the dinosaur chapter with Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring. It is still a very powerful piece of music in my life.
Gary – It’s quite hard to get a handle on your work because you’re so versatile and have performed in so many different contexts. Can you tell about your involvement with your favourite groups and pairings and what you enjoy about them?
Nigel – There’s been so many musical circles it would be impossible to not leave some out.
Obviously, my few years playing with Robert Fripp and The League Of Crafty Guitarists were an exceptional experience, linked directly from The Gitbox Rebellion here in NZ. Both of these groups gave me a great way to expand my compositional skills, which would eventually see me take on the 7-string solo guitar music I still explore.
Also, a recent activation is the group Neon Quaver, a kind of jazz fusion band that used to play at the legendary Gluepot Corner Bar. We’ve recently released a new album and it’s pretty good! It includes Richard Adams on violin whom I often play duo with.
As a sideman, I do occasionally enjoy playing in more standard idioms: folk, jazz, Latin, surf, freeform improv and classical. I have even performed several times with the APO which is way out of my comfort zone. Comfort zones can be the end of the line for creativity.
Then there’s the Jews Brothers Band that’s been going for almost 30 years and originally grew out of the legendary Nairobi Trio.
For the last five years, I’ve been a member of Tiny Orchestral Moments, a collective based in Seattle, and a truly amazing and rich diversity of international talent from across the globe. We’ve recorded nine albums as well as being featured in a documentary series. None of this has yet been released.
Gary – I notice that your 1990s group, Gitbox Rebellion, has recently been unearthed. Is this to be an ongoing thing? What’s special about Gitbox?
Nigel – Yes, Gitbox reformed a few years back. Over the last 20-odd years I had been asked if I could reform it for various festivals. But it’s not something that one or two rehearsals can bring back to life. However, the time was right as several original members were in the same town and keen to breath life back into it.
So we’ve had a few small tours and recorded a new album of material.
The members are contributing more amazing music than ever before.
I think what’s special about this group is we have people of all levels of playing and experience coming together creating a rich tapestry that’s rather unique.
Gary – Sonia & Nigel is new to me. Tell me about that. Also, what else are you currently up to in a performative sense?
Nigel – Sonia is my partner who moved here from Paris a few years ago. She has introduced me to a whole different world of music, some of it French. We’re occasionally playing a French Repertoire as a duo.
I have regular Auckland gigs at various watering holes. Then also in Ponsonby, there’s One2One cafe which must be one of the most fantastic scenes in all the world. So many great musicians the world over pass through and share their music.
Gary – Have you always been a professional/full-time musician? This must still be a rarity in NZ.
Nigel – Yes I have, along with teaching and the occasional film session.
I put my successful musical life down to serving music in an as honest and effectual
way as possible. My students often hear me go on like a broken record: “You look after music and music will look after you”.
Gary – You’ve got some pretty special guitars. Can you tell us a little about that? Do they require special skills? Does having handmade guitars contribute hugely to the end result?
Nigel – I’m seriously blessed with good instrument karma!
I have handmade 6 and 7-string acoustics made here in NZ, David Olds and Laurie Williams respectively. I play an 11-string fretless instrument called a Glissentar made by Godin in Canada, and a fabulous 6-string electric solid body made by Brian Moore in New York.
The list goes on, but I am not a collector by any means. If I find I’m not using an instrument I’ll pass it on or sell it to someone who would really love it.
Gary – Apart from the various gigs you do as a jobbing musician and other collaborations, you’ve got a long history of more personal creative pursuits, including four utterly brilliant solo albums. Are you working on another at the moment?
Nigel – Yes, those albums really channel my deep muse. I’ve got one still in the can waiting for me to get it out there in some format. As people are re-embracing vinyl perhaps it would be cool to make a “fuzzy warble” again. These particular musical adventures I attempt at one take, win or lose, with only the most minimal editing. Or I leave it for another day or never again.
It’s a very energy-intensive way to work but I feel the most rewarding.
Gary – Anything else you’d like to add?
I believe this next decade will bring music back into people’s lives once again.
Once we get over the razzle-dazzle of the current technologies that have actually hindered more than helped. Things like Spotify are sure handy but it’s helping to drain away our quality of life and livelihood. Music in schools must return and not through illuminating screens. Hands-on, ears on and let’s play!
- Nigel performs with Gitbox Rebellion next month as part of the Auckland Festival: March 7 at Warkworth Town Hall and March 14 at the Civic Theatre. Tickets available here. Nigel’s website here.