The tightness of their live show is hardly surprising, given the brothers have been playing together for decades, since they were wee lads. Their previous incarnation was an early 90s band called Aunty Beatrice, featuring several of the Kora brothers. They won the Smokefree Rockquest in 1991. Going back even further, several of the Kora brothers started out playing in their father’s pub band – Laughton first got on stage when he was six.
The genesis towards Kora began in 2001, when Laughton and Dan were playing in a band called Soul Charge in Queenstown. They recorded some demos for Kora as a side project, and Wellington label Loop Recordings expressed an interest.
The band formed in 2002, with Laughton pulling in his brothers from their hometown Whakatane, and setting up in Wellington. This led to them being lumped in somewhat unfairly with the Wellington reggae scene that was on the rise at the time, although their sound draws on a broad range of influences, from funk to metal to house to dub.
The band released their debut EP Volume in 2004, which proved hugely popular, going on to reach gold, then platinum sales status. “The EP wasn’t supposed to do well, it was meant to be a demo,” Laughton told Stephen Jewell at Rip it Up. “Festivals wouldn’t take us because we had nothing out, they were like ‘who are you?’ So we put the EP out and it kind of bubbled away.”
The surprise success of the EP brought with it international distribution deals and spots at major festivals such Rhythm and Vines, Splore and the Big Day Out. “We want to be a live band always,” Laughton told NZ Musician in 2007. “Don’t get me wrong, we love the studio and we love tweaking around, but it has to come from a good live feel.”
Branching out from the local festivals, Kora cracked the UK live scene through touring with British club acts Crazy P and Norman J – including a 1500 crowd at Endeavour Festival in London.
Kora’s first album came crashing onto the album charts at No.1.
Straight off the back of the UK tour came Kora’s self-titled album in 2007. The debut was recorded at their own studio with the band handling production duties. The album included two re-recorded tracks from the Volume EP – ‘Burning’ and ‘Crazy Things’. The EP’s hugely popular track ‘Politician’ was not chosen to make the leap onto the album, despite being Kora’s most listened to track on Spotify, to this day. Laughton told Rip it Up at the time, “Guess what song we’re sick of? The album is more us for sure, not to say that the EP wasn’t but the EP was a representation of who were back then … we’ve evolved a lot from that and, of course, our style’s going to shift.” The album was not only a step away from the conventional roots sound but also the image, with the cover art re-imagining the band as anime style superheroes, and a 14-page comic book accompanying the CD.
Kora’s first album came crashing onto the album charts at No.1, only the second independently distributed album to ever achieve this (the first was Based On A True Story by Fat Freddy’s Drop). In under two weeks it was certified gold, and the album went double platinum in 2010, thanks in part to Kora’s exceptional live act. “They worked that album into probably one of the best shows ... in the country.” Nick Atkinson mused on RNZ in 2012. “It was extraordinary … the band have a real intensity.”
Kora followed it up with a rather unusual remix collection, pulling 1980s UK electronic act Cabaret Voltaire out of retirement to undertake the Kora! Kora! Kora! remix album in 2009, released through UK label Shiva Records. Cabaret’s Voltaire’s Richard E. Kirk saw Kora play in Sheffield, and was given their album by mutual colleague Amrik Rai. “I enjoyed the live show maybe more than the CD. It seemed more intense,” Rai told Barney McDonald at Rip It Up. “They get a great sound when they play live. And I was thinking to myself that I could hear a dirtier, darker version of that album … They’ve got very strong vocals and harmonies that were a pleasure to work with.”
Following the remix, Kora toured the UK, Japan, Singapore and Australia, as well as the members enjoying other ventures outside of Kora. Notably, Stu and Fran joined their soundman Richie Allen in his band Heavy Metal Ninjas, forming in 2010. Their self-titled debut EP came out in 2012, with the New Zealand arm of Warner Music. McGruer also played with Shapeshifter, and Fran – a Toi Whakaari drama school graduate – acted in a number of local films and television shows.
The touring and side projects were – at least in part – to explain for the four and a half years between albums. “We were trying to get something that we don’t have,” Fran told RNZ upon the release of album Light Years in 2012. Kora’s musical experimentation saw them develop the new work for 18 months. “We’ve been playing acoustic guitars for forever, so we know that feel that we like, but it’s not really going to advance – like, how can we get that same feel? What if we did it with eight synths, layered? And people be like ‘is that a guitar or not’ you know? So looking at it production-wise.”
The end result was self-described “alien funk” – an ambitious mash-up of funk, soul and R&B.
“We had too many choices because all of us roll into too much different music,” added Laughton. “So there were moments like, ‘right, we need to listen to the song. What does the song want to do?’ For me, I thought we lost a lot of good material, but for the sake of a good song … we’d fill up these songs with everything we had. ‘I want this synth, I want this run, I want that, I want to sing it like this’… and then just start stripping.”
The end result was self-described “alien funk” – an ambitious and unexpected mash-up of funk, soul and R&B that “steps into the unknown on a bass odyssey, eschewing guitars in favour of a high-tech arsenal of synthesisers, live and sampled drums, plus the otherworldly four-part harmonies of the brothers.”
The critical reception was positive, albeit a little surprised. The NZ Herald review described the album as “The weird and wonderful future of pop” and gave it 4.5 stars.“They have nailed it, crafting an utterly unique collection of intriguingly catchy pop music. Be warned though, it takes a lot of getting used to.”
“Kora manage to come up with a sound you’ve never heard before. It also has a feeling that it shouldn’t work, but it does. Like album stand-out ’Story Ain’t Over’ which is a R&B-soul anthem with a musical backdrop of floor-bending electro funk and something like the theme tune from British TV science show Tomorrow’s World all in one.” Light Years debuted at No.2 on the album charts and No.1 on the iTunes NZ chart.
It was to be the last Kora release with the original line-up. Stu and Brad Kora left the band in 2013 to form a new reggae outfit, L.A.B., recruiting Joel Shadbolt, Ara Adams-Tamatea and Miharo Gregory. Brad told the Rotorua Daily Post in January 2014, “It’s been an awesome journey with Kora ... We’re still 100 percent behind Kora and it’s awesome to see them performing in front of sell-out crowds, we’re just doing something different.”
Laughton also parted ways with the (mostly) family band to pursue a wide-ranging slate of projects. He began performing as a solo act, as well as forming Neon Ninja with Andy Keys and contributing to Kim Dotcom’s album with his brother Brad. Laughton is also an active member of bands NZ Marley All-Stars, Fly My Pretties and Kinetic. Alongside his music projects, Laughton also flexed his Toi Whakaari drama school training, playing Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, starring in TVNZ miniseries Coverband and Live Live Cinema’s innovative reworking of Little Shop of Horrors.
Passionate about teaching, Laughton has joined Red Bull Studios and the NZ Music Commission for ongoing music mentoring, as well as appearing alongside Anika Moa, Annie Crummer and Don McGlashan in the second series of the TV show Songs From The Inside, teaching songwriting to prison inmates. “I really like the idea of watching someone really push their art,” Laughton told RNZ. “So instead of trying to help them write their art, it should be up to them – that’s dance, that’s acting, it should always be up to them, but I’m trying to make everything else around them safe and do-able.”
Following Light Years, Fran acted in The Pā Boys and became a member of The Modern Māori Quartet. Meanwhile, L.A.B. moved from strength to strength, with three self-titled albums released in three years and playing consistently great spots at New Zealand’s summer festivals. Their new single ‘In the Air’ topped the New Zealand Singles Chart upon its release in March 2020.
The single ‘In the Air’ was a NZ No.1 hit upon its release in March 2020.
Despite not releasing new music since 2012’s Light Years (aside from stand-alone single ‘Carolina’ in 2016) Kora continued to play live with various line-ups. Original members Fran Kora and Dan McGruer were the consistent members of these different incarnations – the duo ensuring that the Kora flame never went out. Come 2019, Kora’s live efforts were noticeably accelerated with a nationwide summer tour boasting an ensemble of Fran on vocals and guitar, McGruer on synth, Darren Mathiasson on drums, Marika Hodgson on bass and Karlos Tunks on rhythm guitar. Unsurprisingly, new music was afoot and in July 2020 Kora released a new single, ‘Secret Lover’.
Fran told RNZ, “The new line-up we have is super exciting and it’s a fresh injection of what direction we want to go in ... we’re a lot older and wiser and we’ve crafted our direction in terms of sound … Still heavy, still funky, still very much our sound.”
The track was accompanied by a stylish and sweet music video by Shae Sterling, and is the first release from an upcoming EP. “People ask ‘album, album, when is the album coming out?’ said Fran. “If you watch the trend of music and I asked you when was the last time you bought an album – most people would be like ‘I don’t buy albums’.”
Releasing singles and EPs suits the band for now, as they kickstart their presence on the live circuit. Speaking of Kora’s future releases and shows, Fran told NZ Musician, “I have mad respect for the musos we have, and the bands and projects they play for, and the experience each of us brings to the music. At the end of the day it’s all about the music being played and created. I’m just grateful to have amazing musicians that are good mates and good people.”
Updated by Rosie Howells
Several of the Kora band are involved in a side project, The Heavy Metal Ninjas, formed in 2010 and fronted by their soundman, Richie Allen.
Laughton Kora - vocals, guitar, keys
Francis Kora - bass, vocals
Stuart Kora - guitar, vocals
Brad Kora - drums
Dan McGruer - keys, bass