Talking up the ‘Cairo Knife Fight II’ EP back in NZM’s August/September 2011 issue, Nick Gaffaney had this to say to writer Mark Bell. “I think there’s a strong chemistry between Aaron and I that neither of us understand, or even really try to understand. Because we’re extraordinarily different people, we come from opposite ends of the earth really in terms of our upbringing, our lifestyles and attitudes to things, but musically there’s a connection –– that we both want exactly the same thing out of the music –– and that’s quite rare to find.” Or maybe not… Richard Thorne caught up with the virtuoso Kiwi rock drummer to talk about an EP (‘Isolator’) and album (‘Colossus’) he wrote and recorded with Tokona, and is now touring with new American Fight-partner, highly credentialed LA guitarist George Pajon Jr.
NZ fans can be forgiven for thinking that Nick Gaffaney‘s music vehicle Cairo Knife Fight would never sound (or look) as good as it did when he shared the stage with former Weta guitarist Aaron Tokona. What a marriage made in Kiwi industrial-rock heaven that was, the high intensity tummy rub/head pat-defying drumming of long-haired Gaffaney, alongside the grunty, furious electric guitar of one of our most natural rock lead players. Two men making enough noise for at least four, no hangers-on needed, or wanted.
No doubt many were disappointed when it became apparent that the duo had split. Tokona started appearing in a variety of local projects during 2014 while Gaffaney was mostly absent, having hightailed it to the States to write with others and reconsider his band’s future.
It could easily have been a long hiatus, or led to the forming of another interim Cairo Knife Fight combo, but the musical gods evidently had other plans. Within weeks of arriving in LA he had hooked up with George Pajon Jr., formerly guitarist and sometime co-writer with will.i.am of The Black Eyed Peas.
Now aged 46, Pajon’s contribution to the wildly successful hip hop/pop act dates back to their second album, ‘Bridging The Gap’, released in 2000. The hook up seems to still surprise him since he grew up listening to the likes of Iron Maiden and Sabbath.
“I never bought a hip hop record in my life, that wasn’t my relationship with Will. I’ve always been a rock’n roll guy. When Will and I met, to that point he was only using hardcore jazz guitar players, which is the sound of the first record. That record didn’t sell anything, so for the next album he was looking to expand his musical vocabulary, and literally our writing started with him asking me a simple question; ‘Do you know how to play Hotel California?’
“That’s how our relationship started, and he went out and bought literally two or 300 rock records, and would ask me if I could play stuff like that. So that was my voice in that band, and I think that was the unique relationship –– there was stuff on those records that wasn’t supposed to be there. I was adding stuff that other hip hop groups weren’t doing because that wasn’t my background.
“When the Peas ended on November 23, 2011 I was done playing that kind of music and wanted to go back to my roots.”
In April 2013 Gaffaney was awarded an APRA Professional Development Award (PDA), receiving $12,000 cash to spend on personal development, such as co-writing overseas, further education and the like. It gave him the opportunity to check out LA the following year, a destination his wife was also keen on.
Recording for what was to become ‘‘Colossus’ was by then already well in train, indeed he and Tokona had felt it was finished in March 2014, when they were in New York mixing with fellow Kiwi Justyn Pilbrow. Subsequent to that the pair talked more about the album’s future, realising there were going to be problems ahead.
“Aaron has a life heading in a different direction. His daughter was about to turn 13 and he was needing to be around more, and I was looking to do a lot more travel. When you are forming a band and you are over 30 it’s a different vibe than when you are 19 or 20. Plus he had his own musical ambitions he wanted to focus on as well. I loved writing with him and he is behind this version of the band 100%. There was no acrimony, there never was, it’s just circumstances.”
Arriving in LA mid-2014 Gaffaney bedded down on the couch of some ex-Auckland music mates Neil Baldock and Ben Knapp, who just happened to be living in the building where Pajon has his own studio. Indeed Pajon had arranged the space for the NZ pair who he had met previously while recording at Roundhead. A month later Gaffaney joined them, literally landing in Pajon’s back yard.
“When we met our lives were basically in the same place, Pajon says. “He’d moved to a whole new place and I was also starting over. I had a project with another singer I was trying to push [Sons of Mariel] and I ran out of money, and just didn’t feel we could have a long term relationship –– and that’s when we met.
“I’d told my wife that I needed to find someone who had their own vision. You need to see the end game, 10 years from now. I’ve noticed that in successful people –– Will can see 20 years from now.”‘
Evidently impressed by Gaffaney, Pajon says he stayed up until 4am watching every CKF video he could find.
“I played it for my wife and she said, ‘That’s it, that’s the direction you need to go. You can add to that.’”
The pair soon got together in Pajon’s dojo studio, the chemistry was evident and a new model CKF was born. Simple.
Well, not really so simple, since there was the matter of the already-recorded Aaron Tokona-model album. Oh, and a subsequently recorded EP called ‘Isolator‘, planned for release in NZ at the end of January this year.
The EP included explosive single Rezlord, for which video director Karl Lear made one of the most sizzlingly sexual videos that NZ On Air is ever likely to fund. The single and video came out in August last year, making no visible impression on the local charts. Perhaps CKF’s most commercial-sounding track to date, Rezlord also stands out as a highlight of ‘’Colossus’, released just four months after the EP.
Gaffaney agrees the idea of first dropping an EP, then an album just months later, seemed a strange one when he first heard about it. The plan came, he says, from Warner NZ, who the band’s Melbourne-based Australia/NZ manager Tom Larkin had secured the album recording deal with.
“It’s something that Tom said Shihad has done as well. Looking back on it now it was a really good idea. I think the fans that wanted music got their appetite whetted by that.”
Unsurprisingly recording the EP after the album led to some rethinking.
“We thought the album was finished before we did the EP, but in fact it wasn’t, we went back and did more afterwards. Mainly remixing and some re-recording, of vocals in particular.”
Gaffaney says he elected to leave it with Larkin to make the decision whether any tracks on the EP should be added to the album.
“I didn’t have any perspective anymore, so I left it in his hands. And now I can hear the difference. The EP has immediacy and kind of a beauty to it, but the record feels crafted to me. Not to pretend that I wouldn’t change anything on it, but overall I’m extremely happy with it.”
And what of the public response to Rezlord, and the changing CKF dynamic for that matter?
“You’d be an idiot to make songs like this and expect the same result that someone like Royal Blood does. This music is a continuum of the ambition that the band started with. If you don’t get the result you can’t blame anyone else.
“Things take longer or shorter than you expect. I tend to think more about the music and the art of it than I do about the career of it, which isn’t necessarily as helpful as it might be. I see where this will end up sounding, I’ve always known what I want to achieve with it, now it’s just a matter of lining up all the dots.”
On the way to play three NZ gigs in support of the album’s May launch, the new CKF duo joined the tour bus of Aussie progressive rock act Karnivool, playing 17 support gigs across the continent. Gaffaney says the tour has been helpful in the dot-lining respect.
“Their fans are notoriously ruthless on support acts, but I didn’t know that and we were getting nothing but love every night. Four or five nights in I was talking to one of the Karnivool boys about it and he said the response that we were getting was extraordinary. So it made me think that maybe that is an area of the musical world that could work for us, because their audience was indulgent in allowing the length of songs, the twists and turns in expressing what we try to. Rather than, say when we go on the road with Shihad. Their fans are song-based, and while they didn’t hate us, they didn’t necessarily like it either.
“With Karnivool the fans were all in –– they were feeling the vibe from the stage, and that comes from them being a Tool-esque kind of band. I’d be happy for the rest of my life to play the sort of places they are playing and do what they are doing. If we could get to the point of playing to 2000 a people a night, who want to listen to you play an eight-minute song, that would be fine. I liked their fans.”
You’d reasonably guess that someone who has spent a decade playing the kind of international rooms and stadiums the Black Eyed Peas filled would see things differently, but Pajon is both sanguine and realistic.
“I don’t know how this band will end up. I’d be cool with spending the rest of my life playing House of Blues-size venues. I don’t need the success of the Peas. If it comes, great, but that’s not our goal. Our goal is to play the music we love, with a passion, and see it translate.”
Anyone who caught one of their NZ album launch gigs, in rooms as small as Auckland’s Whammy Bar, will attest to the fact that the guy is one freaky guitarist. The sounds (including bass solos) he squeezes out of his down-tuned gats and busy (but surprisingly not over-the-top) pedal board are startling, and his pleasure in being on a tiny sweat-soaked stage, making just as much noise as they possibly can, absolutely evident.
Almost as incredible is Pajon’s willingness to continue playing songs that he had no hand in writing, rather following Aaron Tokona’s parts. It’s surely a measure of his commitment to the CKF cause. While both are keen to get into his LA studio and write together, he sees merit in playing out the newly released album first.
“By us playing it, it’s a natural progression, I get to put my voice to that era of the band and then we can move to the next stage naturally. It’s important for me to understand, play and learn that stuff. [Besides] in America no one has heard any of this stuff, so why spend the time writing and recording new stuff when we can just start playing?”
The duo’s public performances only began in March with half a dozen gigs at SXSW in Texas. Pajon has played the festival many times before and sees it as a very important festival within the industry in America. For Gaffaney it was his second SXSW. He was there in 2012 and says the growth in scale since is marked. They had gigs upstairs and downstairs, and in a container bar. It rained and there was mud everywhere.
“It is a huge festival now, and they’re trying to cram more into that little city. Maybe I’m just getting too old for lugging all that gear around too.
“I personally thought it was important for us to do it, adds Pajon. “I wanted to see what the limitations of this band are. It was important for me to see what the reaction was to this band at South-by, and it was amazing.”
CKF currently have nothing doing deal-wise outside of Australasia, and while Gaffaney confesses to caring little about such things, Pajon is a fan of being with labels.
“They want you to get traction there first. I think everything will fall into place organically, just because of the kind of reaction we’ve been getting from every single show, it’s gonna happen the same way. That’s gonna translate, and if you are patient enough you will get a much better reaction. And absolutely you have to go through a label if you want to reach the masses.”
Always frenetically busy on stage drumming, looping and triggering various other sounds, it’s only been recently that Gaffaney has realised the importance of his singing role.
“I’d never considered myself a singer and now with this band, especially live, I’ve realised that the vocals have to be a lot more important and that I have enough breath to be able to sing.”
Like any new couple they seem to be enjoying learning about each other, and figuring out their band’s possible place in the world.
“I don’t think we’ve got to the nub of the duo thing yet,” says Gaffaney, “it’s still developing.”
The White Stripes, Black Keys and Royal Blood have won over the world as rock duos. Just maybe this is the version of Cairo Knife Fight that will go the distance.