Cairo Knife Fight - Recession Rock
Author: Mark Bell
A suitable analogy for the sort of thing Nick Gaffaney routinely executes on stage with ‘Cairo Knife Fight, might go something like this… Imagine driving a manual car at high speed through the streets of Delhi, while juggling an ice cube, a stiletto and a hamster with your left hand, reciting the alphabet backwards and filling out an IQ test while your passenger yells last-second directions in your ear.
If you could map his cerebral cortex it would probably look like the United States, where Idaho operates the hi-hats, Indiana the bass drum, California does the snare and cymbals, Montana takes care of the vocal phrasing, Utah the pitch, Texas plays the keyboard bass lines, and so on, with whatever is left dedicated to lesser tasks like vision, speech and comprehension.
Gaffaney is a much in-demand drummer who has worked with top Kiwi acts like Fat Freddys Drop, Dimmer, Anika Moa and Goldenhorse. He’s a guy who can laugh about the fact that now his own two-man band, with legendary Weta guitarist Aaron Tokona, is taking off, the phone’s stopped ringing.
They are not an obvious creative pairing and their music seems to possess two supposedly contradictory qualities; on the one hand it’s quite tightly structured but also it has a very free-form, adventurous quality. How do they pull that off?
"It’s probably the writing process to be honest, ‘cause we write it completely as a duo. Like we might walk in with a one bar or two bar idea, but then the rest of the song is completely fleshed out by the drums and the guitar playing – so it comes from a performance base to start with. So I guess that’s helpful for finding something that works both as a spontaneous way of creating a new feeling in a song but also creates a structure which is playable live.”
Playable by Gaffaney perhaps, but when you realise he is often laying down complex drum patterns one-handed while playing keyboard bass in real time as well as singing lead vocals, it’s apparent he’s a musician of rare talent – if not a masochist.
"The point was to get the loop machine so that it would become part of the band, so that you wouldn’t just always lay down a loop and that’s it, you play over it. You’d turn that loop off and on. A couple of songs I loop the bass parts but then I turn the bass (loop) off and play the choruses live with the drums and then turn it back on.”
A self-confessed (reformed) jazz nazi, he realised he would have to let his jazz chops slip in order to move in new directions, something he initially struggled with.
"I’ve moved on to other things and that’s one of the things that’s kind’a hard in some ways, to allow that process to happen, because you feel like you want to be able to conquer all skills. But sometimes you have to let some things go to develop other new ones, and sometimes you just feel like maybe you’re losing something when really you’re gaining something else.”
Cairo Knife Fight did go through a few incarnations to get to its current trim fighting weight – as big as a six-piece at one point. What made the duo model the one that stuck?
"Well I mean we were pushed into it by financial decisions, you know? We needed to become a recession band basically and you’ve got to move on from that, but as soon as we had our first practice we realised that the possibilities were so great. So maybe in a way we could carve new identities as musicians. Rather than just being the guy who plays the drums or sings, now I could play the bass parts, the drums, the loops, in a way create a new identity for a drummer/singer maybe that would be something exciting and challenging.”
Tokona too has his hands and feet pretty busy creating dense overlapping soundscapes via an Electro Harmonix 4-track looping pedal, which he’ll then disengage and charge into one of his trademark adrenalising riffs. Although an excellent singer in his own right, Tokona prefers to leave the main vocal duties to Gaffaney, allowing him to focus more on his elaborate sonic sculptures. He does take one chorus on the new EP and it’s great to hear the unmistakeable echoes of Weta shining through in the mix.
Unfussily titled ‘Cairo Knife Fight II’, the new four track release, runs a full 24 minutes, with opening track The Violence of Action clocking in at an impressive 8.27. The sheer gleeful intensity and virtuosity of both musicians’ playing ensures there’s not an ounce of padding. Gaffaney says that 80% of the EP, recorded like their first album at Roundhead with Neil Baldock, is made up of live, one-take, real time performances.
The tidy logistics of a travelling two-piece is not lost on Gaffaney, with the band already having scored some major support slots (Them Crooked Vultures, Queens of the Stone Age and Foo Fighters) as well as appearing at the CMJ Music Festival in New York, and touring with HLAH in August. As Cairo Knife Fight continues to raise the bar of what a rock duo is capable of, the future looks bright for these masterful purveyors of recession rock.
"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.”