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Man with the magic hands

Gisborne is renowned for growing premium fruit and vegetables but not often does it produce famous, world-class musicians. Jack Marshall sits down for a chat with SIX60 lead guitarist Ji Fraser from Whangara before Gisborne’s exclusive premiere of the band’s film ‘Till the Lights Go Out’.

For those unfamiliar with New Zealand's biggest band, two years ago they became the first Kiwi act to sell out Western Springs Stadium playing to 50,000 fans, the equivalent of Rhythm and Vines selling out twice over — plus some.

The venue is usually reserved for the likes of The Police, U2 and Bruce Springsteen, who have commanded the international charts for decades. Perhaps to prove it was no history-making fluke, SIX60 sold out the same stadium again a year later.

Ji Fraser was raised just north of Gisborne on his parent's farm near Whangara but was schooled in town at Wainui Beach School and Ilminster Intermediate.

“I had great parents, great friends growing up, it was cool . . . I had a lot of fun growing up here.”

From humble beginnings to musical stardom, his life began by helping the family raise cows and sheep on the farm. It was a time in his life which taught him a lot — until he forgot the more technical side of farming.

“I used to help my dad all the time on the farm which I used to love. Now I've forgotten everything that he taught me, but some of the character skills he gave me are still there.”

He does, however, maintain a few good farm skills.

“If they need a tractor driver or help with reversing trailers I'm there,” he laughed.

Ji left the Coast at the age of 11 to finish the rest of his schooling in Dunedin, and while it was the end of his story here, it was the beginning of his musical career everywhere.

“I met the other guys in Dunedin and the rest is pretty well-documented,” said Ji, making reference to their tell-all film being shown at The Odeon shortly after we spoke.

“I didn't really get the opportunity to come home to Gisborne as much as I would have liked from that point but I still definitely consider it my home and where I'm from.”

The band started to take off during the group's stay at their namesake flat: 660 Castle Street.

The street is known as an infamous party location, popular with generations of students and “scarfies”.

But the alignment of success in music during university had the opposite effect on Ji's studies.

“It was a total waste of time for me. I studied design and haven't used it at all.

“Obviously my path was different. Once I met the guys I figured out what I wanted to do with my life and the path was pretty clear.”

The film details SIX60's rise and rise from playing house parties in Dunedin through the band's lows and highs.

“They are just going to see a side of us they probably haven't seen before — it's a really good representation of who we are, where we've come from and the types of people we are. Also the reasons we're doing what we're doing and some of the hard things we've been through along the way.

“There are going to be some laughs and some tears. I think everyone who watches it — fan or not — is going to come away with a better understanding of us and hopefully a bit of ambition to do something more in their own lives . . . but I also just hope people enjoy it and have a good night.”

As someone who plays music, I wanted to know what he thought of the creative process: whether playing and making music was a compulsion or a craft.

“It's definitely a craft — it's something you have to work at constantly, something you get better at and find different ways to do.

“But it is also a very cathartic thing — you do feel the need to write and the need to create, so it is a compulsion.”

For Ji, music was a constant in his life growing up.

“There were a couple of guitars lying around the house and my dad was always playing Eric Clapton or Led Zeppelin, so my musical journey really began when I started listening to his music and learning all the songs on my guitar.

“It's funny, because none of us are actually classically-trained musicians, bar Chris.

“We all had an innate love of music and chose it as a pathway to follow.”

Gizzy-born: For SIX60 lead guitarist Ji Fraser, music has been a constant in his life . . . Picture by Liam Clayton