As inspired and inspirational as it was at the time, 15–plus years ago and counting, it is nonetheless remarkable just how enduring has been the legacy, mythology-even of Weta – the fun lovin’, hard rockin’ band fronted by Aaron Tokona, and shared with his bass-playing brother Clinton. Having gone to ground for some years (he has talked publicly since about dealing with bipolar disorder), Aaron returned to big stage prominence alongside Nick Gaffaney in Cairo Knife Fight, and in 2007 established his own project, AHoriBuzz. Named possibly in reference to the challenges of manic depression, ‘Into The Sunshine’ is the name given to the first AHoriBuzz album, released in July this year. Sammy Jay Dawson investigates.
Since creating AHoriBuzz (a solo project based around a group of friends that love and enjoy each other’s musical company) in 2007, guitar virtuoso Aaron Tokona has shown a uniquely Kiwi DIY attitude towards his craft. It’s not indifference, but AHoriBuzz gets wheeled out of the workshop only occasionally, a bit like a high performance hot rod that’s always being further refined.
Glitter In The Gutter and Turnaround were the project band’s first two radio singles, followed in May 2013 with Sugar, billed as ‘an epic mixture of soulful infectious Hori funk’. March last year brought Providence, followed later in the year with Into The Sunshine. Each has featured some fellow Kiwi music luminaries, the esteemed likes of Holly Smith, Laughton Kora, Jonathan Crayford and Riki Gooch (plus others) involved in various ways.
Those tracks make up the first half of debut album ‘Into The Sunshine’, which is backed, in the manner of a double EP, with remixes of the same tracks by other local production/remix luminaries such as Rhombus, Dick ‘Magik’ Johnson and Ben King.
Despite not releasing a full-length recording until ‘Into The Sunshine’, his psychedelic, anything-goes collective has forced itself into the public consciousness, partly because of Tokona’s outspoken internet blogs and accidental political involvement. And, of course, his widely respected skills as a mind-blowing guitarist.
“I’ve never really thought, ‘Oh I have to do this, I have to do that’,” he admits. “I’ve never really thought that way. All you’ve really gotta do is experiment and find what you like the sound of, shove things in different holes and see how it changes the sound. There’s never been a time when I’ve consciously sat down, opened up a guitar magazine and looked at the star ratings on new pedals.”
And experimented Aaron surely has. Originally making a name for himself with late ’90s Kiwi rock heroes Weta, he was asked to fill in on Aussie band The Superjesus’ NZ tour on guitar. His virtuosity on the instrument left a lasting impression, and he was invited to join the band as a full time member, but opted instead to focus on Weta.
Although Weta were very much in step with the nu-metalesque sound of the times, it left little room for Tokona’s own guitar sound which was evolving exponentially to include the blues funk and jazz influences of his youth. While their millenium album ‘Geographica’ saw the band gain mainstream success in both Australia and NZ, it also signalled Tokona’s exit from the band.
Since the turn of the century he has become one of the longest serving members of Fly My Pretties, as well as being in high demand as a studio session guitarist. There was the Kim Dotcom album debacle, as well as the little matter of Cairo Knife Fight……
“It was forming Cairo Knife Fight in 2007 with Nick Gaffaney that really led to the set-up I have now, because Nick is such a monster behind the drum kit!” he says. “You had two guys on loop pedals, and this freak on drums that loops himself and then plays bass at the same time. So I kind of got into this, ‘I’m gonna go wage battle’ mentality, meaning I had to really sort my itinerary out to musically wage war against that guy, and that band and that get-up. That’s what originally got me into looping, which was a bit before it became trendy. Everywhere you look now someone has a fuckin’ loop pedal!”
Aaron’s current guitar of choice is a Gretsch White Falcon, played through two Fender Pro Junior amps and a heap of pedals. His effects arsenal includes a Boss DD-20 Giga Delay, TC Hall of Fame Reverb, Electro-Harmonix POG 2 Octave, Electro Harmonix 2880 Multi-track Looper, Boss SL-20 Slicer, Boss AW-3 Dynamic Wah, Digitech Hyper Phase Phaser, Crowther Audio Hotcake Overdrive, Firehorse FX Fuzzkill 70, Electro-Harmonix Soul Food Overdrive, Ibanez CF7 – Chorus/Flanger, TC Nova Repeater Delay…
“And of course the trusty old Boss TU-2 tuner! I’m really liking the Firehorse Fuzzkill at the moment, adds plenty of dirt for the times when you need it to fuzz the hell out of a song.”
Anyone who has experienced an AHoriBuzz show will be familiar with Aaron’s White Falcon. Based on the original 1950s model, with its cream finish, gold trimmings and signature Bigsby bridge it really is a thing of beauty, one that never fails to strike up conversation with fellow guitar-philes.
“I love Gretsch guitars,” he grins. “They kind of remind me of the women I like, curvy. The instrument has to be sexy to look at. You have to want to root it. I like to think my style reflects that also. A good guitar makes you want to pick it up, makes you want to look at it, makes you want to touch it and it makes you want to make it scream.”
His Gretsch endorsement came about not from within NZ but via a guy named Robert Knight, one of the great classic rock photographers.
“He took heaps of famous photos of Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin [etc.] back in the day. So Robert is one of the main photographers for magazines like Guitar Player and Guitar World. Just so happens he discovered Cairo Knife Fight, through a friend, and really liked the band and what I was doing on guitar, so he put me in touch with the head of Fender. At the time I was using a Gretsch copy, seeing as Fender own Gretsch, and yeah they just sent me a White Falcon guitar and made me an endorsee, just like that!
Picking up the guitar as a “horny teenager”, he discovered he had a talent for the instrument early on. Originally attracted to the “fretboard wankery” of shred artists such as Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Gary Moore, his tastes soon expanded to include the likes of The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Elton John, John Coltrane and Mozart.
“My first guitar was a Diplomat that my dad bought it for $10 off the neighbour. My second was an American Fender Stratocaster; there were a lot of various guitars after that, half of them I don’t remember. There was a Firebird I had there for a bit… lots of Strats… anything that has six strings that can stay in tune, ya know?”
He remembers it as a natural progression, right from learning the solo for Hotel California. Nailing that, he says, made him want to nail the solo from Third Stone From The Sun and so on.
“It just so happened to be that I was naturally good at it. When you find things that come really easy to you and you’re good at and want to keep getting better at, it must be the thing you’re meant to do. There was never a moment where I thought, ‘I’m good enough to do this as a career, I should try and do this as a job. I just always did it ’cause I enjoyed it, and life took over really.”
Arguably it’s the soulfulness of the blues and the pure groove of funk that is at the heart of his sound. That is perhaps the most exciting and refreshing thing about Aaron’s playing – no matter what genre he’s involved with, his sound is uniquely his own.
“I think it was the early ’90s. I was in an Auckland guitar store and Carlos Santana walked in. He had a gig that night. I was this snotty-nosed little Maori boy from the Hutt who didn’t really know shit. He’d pick up a guitar and every single one he played sounded like him – it didn’t matter what guitar or what amp it was! It was then I realised the tone you get is really from your fingers. It doesn’t matter what amp you have or how many pedals you get, you’re only ever gonna sound like you.
“Same as David Gilmour and all those guys. It’s partially that those guys have had such great tones for so long – the whole ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ mentality applies. But it’s also innate. It’s part of their sonic DNA. Dave could pick up the shittiest guitar from anywhere and he’d still make it sound amazing.”
As AHoriBuzz complete a 53-date ‘Nation Of The State’ tour in support of the album release it will be the first time many new fans will get the chance to see the band. If there’s one thing for certain it’s that each show will be a unique experience from the last – as the man’s own guitar sound continues to evolve.
“I don’t think there will ever be a moment where I’ve found ‘The Aaron Tokona guitar sound’ because I think that journey never stops. You’re continually trying to find the next sound and improve the one you have. The sound I have is really dictated by what I think a song needs. It used to really be the other way around, I’d be mucking around with some pedals get a cool sound, get my Steve Vai buzz on and go. Now it’s more; write the song, see what the song needs and try to imagine what that would be.”