Fran Kora is a versatile character. He’s been a star in theatre productions, and in a movie as well. He’s been a sports presenter on TV. He’s slain audiences in all directions with Kora, the band that bears the family name. And he’ll soon be on stage with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra as part of the Modern Māori Quartet.
But that talent should come as little surprise seeing that he was raised in a musical household where his dad encouraged the kids to have a go on all the instruments that he’d accumulated over the years.
Here, he shares with Dale some recollections of the path he’s been travelling.
Kia ora, Fran. I’ve seen you in a number of bands, especially with Kora, across the years — and I’ve been very impressed. I also saw you in the stage show Raising the Titanics, which was really enjoyable for me because I’m from a showband/cabaret background. Then there’s been the Modern Māori Quartet. And a few years ago, you were a movie star in The Pa Boys. All these different forms — which makes me wonder how you describe yourself when someone asks you what you do.
Good question, that one. But, as kids, we grew up entertaining. With our father. Grew up playing RSAs, rugby clubs and Cossie clubs in Whakatāne. Dad showed us the ropes with that style of music. Waltzes, rock n roll, foxtrots. Songs for people to dance to.
Dad also had that classic Māori humour. Very Prince Tui Teka, Billy T James style. That was our grassroots, with us starting around six or seven years old. And going all the way through to about 18, until we left home.
Tell us more about your dad, please, Fran. And your mum.
Dad’s name is Tait Kora. From Waimana, Tūhoe. Mum was born and raised in Whakatāne in the Wairaka area. She’s Ngāti Pūkeko. Music was always a big part of our lives. Dad had a whole bunch of bands coming to the house. When I was a kid, there were bands all over the place and especially around the Eastern Bay of Plenty.
Our band was called Zig Zag. I played the bass. My older brother, Brad, played the drums. Dad was on the guitar and the harmonica. And he was the lead singer. My aunty Sheree was on the keyboards. And she sang. That was our band for many, many years. All the way from when I was in Standard 4 through to finishing high school.
We’d play pretty much every weekend. Always played our gigs with the old man. So, yeah, we had a lot of stage time as kids. And we had a lot of fun. Kind of grew up a bit too fast, I suppose. We saw a lot of drunken moments — and a lot of adult things as a kid. Early on, I used to have to hide behind the speaker boxes because I was too young to be playing in the RSA. But the duty manager would see us and turn a blind eye. This brings back a whole bunch of memories now.
What about the wider family?
Both my parents have got big whānau. There’s something like 11 on my mum’s side. Maybe 9 or 10 on my father’s side.
Mum’s maiden name is Rangihika. I do know a little bit about her side of the story. My great-grandfather was Kereopa Weka from Parihaka and he migrated to Waihi. He’s buried there. He changed his name from Kereopa Weka to Rangihika. I think he was on the run from the feds, back in the day, when all that Parihaka stuff was going on.
He’s in the marae there at Parihaka. You can see his photo next to Te Whiti. That’s my mum’s side. Dad was the driven one. Mum’s always been very quiet. Quite shy. A quietly spoken lady. But a heart of gold. They were like yin and yang. Dad was the “go and get it” kind of guy. And Mum was the kick back kind of woman. That’s the combination that made us four boys. My three brothers are Laughton, who’s the oldest, then Brad, and me, and Stuart is the youngest. And there’s Mila, our half-sister.
I really like guitars and I wonder whether you, as a kid with all these musos coming through your house, got a bit excited about that — and maybe about a favourite instrument too.
I didn’t think too much about that. I was too much into sport as a kid. And Dad was really driven. He’d crack the whip and make us rehearse all the time. I hated it. Hated rehearsing. It wasn’t until I got a bit older and more experienced — I’m talking about when I was 12 or 13 (laughs) — that I started to appreciate what my father taught me.
The instrument that I first got was one he bought me. It was a four-string Samick bass. Just a cheap one. And I had that bass for years and years. You just learned to use what you had — and that was it. I just got used to playing that crappy old bass.
But then, after playing for ages in the whānau band, you took yourself off to drama school.
Drama school was a massive stepping stone for me. And for Laughton who started a year after me in 2001. But there’s a story behind how I got there. It was 1998. I was a year out of school. My girlfriend at the time was living in Tauranga, so I’d hitch across from Whakatāne most weekends to see her.
One weekend I got a ride from an old Māori fulla, a kaumātua. And, as we were driving along he started just mouthing off all this information about me. He said: “Boy, you’re from Tūhoe. Your mum’s from here. You like music. You like performing.” And for the whole trip, I was sitting in the back of the car just freaking out and thinking: “How does this guy know? I’ve never met him in my life!”
Anyway, we get to Tauranga and, as he pulls over to let me out, he grabs me by the arm and goes: “Boy, I see great things happening for you. I see billboards. I see your name on billboards. I see you on TV.” And he just mouths off a whole bunch of things. And he said: “Avalon. Avalon is a name that pops into my head. If you believe in the Lord ... ” — I wasn’t a very religious person — “ ... if you believe in the Lord, everything will come true.” I said: “Cool. Thank you.”
I had no idea what that meant. I hitched back to Whakatāne after the weekend, and I told my mum the story. She said: “That’s a tohunga, boy.” And a week later, my mum and dad must’ve been talking about it because they said: “Avalon’s down in Wellington, boy, if you want to go down there and study drama.” And they applied. We drove down. Did an audition. I spent two years first at a performing arts place and then ended up at Toi Whakaari. So that’s where it all began. From hitching a ride to Tauranga to see my girlfriend, and then ending up in Wellington to study drama.
The music didn’t stop while you were at drama school, did it?
No. Laughton and I would play at the local cafes just to make some extra money while we were studying at the drama school. From there, someone picked us up. It was Mikey from Loop Records. And it all started from there. We recorded Politician and the rest is history. So that’s where it all began. Kora the band. Humble beginnings from a small cafe.
With Kora you played some amazing gigs. What are the ones that stand out for you?
Most of the shows that I’ve really enjoyed have been the New Zealand festivals. I’ve always loved playing around New Zealand. I love this place. But, yeah, been to some other cool places: Japan, throughout the States, UK, Europe. And one of my most favourite gigs ever was in a small place called Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen. It was in what had been a barracks when the Nazis occupied Sweden in World War II.
When you were songwriting with your brothers, were you writing with a social conscience? With the idea that your music would help to bring about change? Or were you just looking for a groove?
Nah. I never really thought about that. If you’re playing with a bunch of people long enough, you find your grooves by telepathy. Originally, we were just groovers. Not necessarily songwriters. But from doing the songwriting stuff, you develop enough skills to find your own style.
But, the storytelling, that’s my main part. I’ve always got to have the story. Some of the other boys just feel the groove and then stick lyrics on top. Me, personally, I always prefer to start from the lyrics and then it’s easy to make the sounds out of your story. That’s just the way I like to write.
I know Laughton prefers to write riffs, grooves and loops. Then he just tries to find his way through it. It’s different for each member of the band. Different for everyone. Depending on the song, it’s different for every single creative musician I suppose. They’ve all got their own style of how they make the song.
There’ve been New Zealand bands and songwriters who’ve been really influential. Like Herbs with their anti-nuke message and politics almost every time they rolled out a song. But who was it, here and overseas, that made an impact on you?
Ah, yeah! Growing up, I always liked Supergroove. You had the masters: Dave Dobbyn, Herbs and Bob Marley. Ardijah was really awesome when I was a kid. And other New Zealand bands. But Dad never wanted to limit what we listened to.
That’s because, if you were a band in a small town, you had to play everything to get the work. Covers. Everything was covers back then. But that was real good, because it gave you different things to groove to. Different styles that you had to play. Which comes across when the boys write their music. Everything that Dad taught us.
With Kora, you guys have been getting it moving too. Especially when your mate Dan joined in. You merged that lovely sound of you four brothers and then added a bit of electronic and techno across the top. It’s created a really powerful sound. A pretty good formula.
We’ve actually taken a step back. Our latest tracks have got no synthesizer, there’s very little post-production and it’s actually quite raw. We’ve gone full circle back to where we started from. And I prefer it that way. A lot of music today is just too perfect. There’s too much post-production. I switch off. It’s not interesting on my ears. I like listening for mistakes or hearing slightly flat notes. To me, that’s more human. So we’re trying to go for a more human sound now.
You’re a guy who’s had the background to understand drama and the multi-instrumental talents of our old Māori showbands. The patter and the gags. And Raising the Titanics and the Modern Māori Quartet have that flavour.
Yeah. They both have that legacy. All those bands were brilliant. Billy T James and Prince Tui Teka are perfect examples. I don’t think there’s ever been anyone funnier in Aotearoa than Billy T and Tui Teka. Both Māori. And both with that particular Māori humour. Multi-instrumentalists. And highly-skilled artists. You can’t top them. Even with our quartet, we play it safe compared to the legends.
With Tui Teka, it was very difficult to work out what made him such a wonderful entertainer because he didn’t have a voice of magic. But he could be very charming. Sensual as well. And he could have an audience in the palm of his hand just by rolling his eyes. What do you think was his magic?
I think it was just that he was who he was — and he was all aroha. He was just such a generous, big, open, loving person. And he didn’t hold anything back. What you saw was what you got.
Now, with the Modern Māori Quartet you’re delivering some of that style of entertainment. It’s a simple style based on strong harmonies and predominantly acoustic guitars although you’re incorporating a bit more backing and picking up the bass. How did that get under way?
Well, all the boys went to Toi Whakaari. We all went to drama school at different stages. We used to turn up to these parties and the guitar would come out. And the boys would start to sing. So they went: “Hey man, let’s make something of it.” And that’s how the quartet got started.
Also, none of us wanted to wait around for a phone call for an audition for a part in a TV series or theatre show. So instead of waiting for work, James decided: “Hey, let’s create this.” And soon we were making a living from what we like to do. Which is have a laugh. Eat lots of food. Drink lots of purified water. And see the world.
I understand your first gig was at the Huntly RSA. But now you’re playing festivals in Europe and everywhere.
The boys went to Uzbekistan for a festival called the Sharq Taronalari. I didn’t make it, but we had a friend who replaced me. That was a world music festival with 60-something other countries and the boys came away with an award, which is pretty awesome. Just a few months ago we came back from a Hobart festival called the Festival of Voices. That was amazing. Not long before that, we were doing a tour around England ending with the Salisbury Festival.
And the next step?
That’s to write all our own stuff now. Most of the showbands play covers. That’s been how it goes. But in today’s world, you really need to have your own music. Having it kaupapa-driven.
Is your dad still playing?
Yeah. He can still play, that old bugger. He’s on the keyboard nowadays more than anything else. But, yeah. Guitar, harmonica and saxophone, too.
And what do you boys do to thank him for the support he gave you when you were young?
I don’t think we’ve really said thanks. It’s just been a raise of the eyebrows and a big smile, eh? You can tell the old man’s pretty proud. It’s good to have him here.