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by Silke Hartung

Q & A: George After James

by Silke Hartung

Q & A: George After James

Auckland-based James Fistonich aka George After James is the sort of artist with songwriting talent and charisma so evident that his live audiences will independently tell you about him after seeing him perform. His debut EP ‘Wait For You’ is out now and before you google kings of yester and yonder for an explanation of that stage name, hang in there for a full explanation right below. Keep reading to learn why he spent most of his life in China, about pentatonic scales, musical twins, the dranyen and some of his commilitones at Auckland University.

Clearly your stage name has something to do with your actual name, but can you explain why you’re going under the name George After James?

This is true. It’s pretty ironic because I like to think my music is quite deep and thought-provoking, but my name is just a happy chance. My full name is James George Fistonich. I was trying to think of ideas for names a while back but was struggling; didn’t want to go by James Fistonich and options like ‘James George’ were already taken. I was bouncing ideas off a few friends and my drummer, Angus, piped up that ‘George After James’ would be a cool name. I wasn’t sure at first but after a while it started to grow on me.

Can you just tell us a little about your musical genesis? 

I’d have to say my dad playing live DVDs of Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin definitely had a profound impact. Those two are so often the inspiration for new guitarists. And in my own time, I just listened to so much other music.

I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a guitar because so much of the music I listened to was guitar-centric. My parents bought me and my twin brother a couple of guitars when we were 10 and after being shown how to play a few chords, we figured out how to play more songs and taught ourselves. I always wanted to challenge myself, so it wasn’t long before I started trying to play those Led Zeppelin songs my dad played on the stereo so often.

My formal schooling started at the University of Auckland, I majored in Popular Music Songwriting and Performance and graduated in 2019. The guidance from my lecturers was so valuable. I also found a great community there. We all support each other and go to each other’s shows, so I am very grateful for the time spent there and the people I met.

And before that, I understand you grew up in China. Can you give us a rundown on that?

Absolutely! I grew up in a city called Chengdu in the province of Sichuan, a city home to over 10 million people. So life is a little bit different when a city is over twice the population of the whole of New Zealand. My parents worked there. They did a variety of things, from NGO work to a Tibetan travel company, to linguistics research. My brother and I were very young when we moved over to Chengdu, attending local Chinese school early on, and then later an international school. We visited NZ occasionally for a few months at a time over the years, but we only properly moved back in 2016 to start university.

How do you think growing up in China has affected your musicality, for instance in the way you write melodies?

It is something that is hard to communicate, as growing up in China is all that I knew, so it’s hard to compare it. Modern Chinese music (at least from my perspective) is heavily influenced by contemporary pop and rock, so it is not all that different other than being in a different language.

Traditional Chinese music and Tibetan folk music definitely influence me in the fact the I am familiar with it, but my music doesn’t sound like it. In a similar way to how I can speak Mandarin; it influences the way I think and communicate, but you cannot recognise that I speak Chinese by my music. It is hard to explain! I would say the most tangible way my upbringing in China is recognisable is through my lyrics, because those experiences help shape my worldview, my focuses, passions, and therefore determine what I want to communicate and how I do it.

There was a massive devastating earthquake not far from where I lived back in 2008, and again, a life-changing experience that affects one’s view of the world. So it’s less musical influence and more cultural and experiential.

Have you ever dabbled in pentatonic scales or traditional Chinese/Tibetan instruments?

The pentatonic scale is one of the first things guitarists learn in improvisation, and you do quickly notice it sounds distinctly Chinese in isolation. There are so many instruments I would love to play, the ones that have that distinct pentatonic sound alluded to, but too many to list.

There is a Tibetan folk lute called a dranyen which has an amazing sound. It would be amazing to incorporate it into my music someday. People used to be playing it out on the street all over the place when we visited Tibetan areas, a beautiful sound. In answer to your question though, I have only had small tries on these instruments, but someday would thoroughly enjoy having a proper go.

You perform a lot. How do you curate what sort of gigs you support?

The majority of gigs I do are just a collaboration between me and my friends, whether from university or elsewhere. As I’ve continued to play shows I’ve met more people who, like me, want to get their music out there, so doing shows together is a great way to be supportive.

I have definitely been trying to make sure I’m playing to new people as often as I can. I feel that my music is pretty wholesome. I like to think that it’s deep and contemplative but life-giving, so as long as I don’t have to compromise my values to do a show, I’m happy to do it.

Your new EP ‘Wait For You’ was recorded at Roundhead, at home and in a warehouse. How did you choose what to record where, and keep the sound at a cohesive quality?

I got help from all over the place, but those were the three main recording places. I was tremendously blessed to have some time at Roundhead where I was able to do a lot of the drums and vocals. After that, I really just did what I could with what was available to me.

At home, I just went around the rooms listening to which sounded best and set up my gear in there for a day. I used the warehouse because it was relatively quiet and I was able to crank the guitar amps without bothering neighbours!

It is also the home of a grand piano, so I utilised that while I was there. Since I was the one doing the producing and mixing, it was easy to keep everything cohesive because I knew what sounds I wanted. We are fortunate today to have access to fairly high-quality gear that is inexpensive and pretty portable, so as much as the gear at Roundhead sounds like an absolute dream, I could get some decent sounds with my gear to compliment it.

I would say drums and vocals are the most difficult to get right without amazing equipment, so I’m glad I could do that at the studio.

How did you pick your collaborators for the EP?

The guys who play on the record with me are people who have played with me live. There is a bit of a mix as the band has changed depending on who is in the country, but all have played with me live. They are also good friends of mine, I’m very thankful to have them around. Fabulous musicians, they execute what I ask of them so well and they bring their own creative brilliance along too.

Your twin brother and his partner are another up-and-coming NZ act, performing as Lhasa. Does the twin thing have any noticeable effect on you both as musicians? 

Yes, and I’m honestly just a massive fan of theirs, irrespective of my relation to them. Interesting question. We learnt guitar and singing together, pushing each other forward, so I would definitely say it had an effect. It is also one of those things, similar to living in China, that shapes the way one thinks. I can easily say my life, let alone my music, would be considerably different if I didn’t have someone around who looked and sounded just like me! We are also very close, so we throw ideas at each other, get feedback on things we’re working on. We just completed a North Island tour a few days ago, it is nice to be able to go on tour with them, for sure!

Who do you think will enjoy your music? Why should people give you a shot?

I think there is a bit in there for everyone. My music is both mournful and hopeful, reflective and exclamatory, technical but accessible. Whether you’re just a music lover or a contemplative soul, there’s something there for you. I used to listen to a fair bit of metal music, so I’d say there is even a moment or two in there that could appeal to that scene!

But my music is mainly just honest, I may have grown up in an environment that is very different but in the end, there are many things about us all that are the same. Many people just want a place to belong – who do you belong to, or with, and where is that? My music wrestles with loss, loved ones passed away, and leaving friends for another place. And if this sounds cheesy, then just listen to the music, because that’s what the music is for. I don’t really know how to say these things, the music does a much better job of it!

And lastly, of your fellow students at UoA, who should we look out for?

Ah, my friends. There are honestly too many to list. So many stellar songwriters. Christo, Max Earnshaw, Odds & Ends, and Luan have released music. And I know Manuela, Mackensie Grace, and Kin Kachow! are working on material to release, so keep an eye out for them. And so many more.

I really wish I could just list everyone I would recommend but it would be way too long, so those are just the ones I know have gigs and releases soon. Many people from university and outside that are so good.

Apart from those names, I will just say listen to local music and go to shows, because the music is very good and it needs to be heard.