Blues in New Zealand - An Interview with Bluesman Mike Garner from New Zealand Blues Society



The history of Blues in New Zealand dates from the 1960s. The earliest blues influences on New Zealand musicians were indirect — not from the US but from white British blues musicians: first the R&B styles of The Animals and The Rolling Stones, and later the blues-tinged rock of groups such as Led Zeppelin. The first American blues artist to make a big impact in New Zealand was Stevie Ray Vaughan in the early 1980s. Other blues-related genres such as soul and gospel almost completely by-passed New Zealand audiences, except for a handful of hits from cross-over artists such as Ray Charles.

Mike Garner is a musician living and working with the Blues, founder of the New Zealand Blues Society, a superb vocalist & an outstanding blues multi-instrumentalist.  Mike talks about the history of "Kiwi Blues" and his own blues story.




Interview by Michael Limnios


When it all began for the blues in New Zealand?

From early in the 60s, blues music came to NZ like it did in England and Europe - via enthusiasts - and the early white British bands.


What are the main influences of Blues in NZ? Do you think that the main influence is the scene of England or the U.S.?

It would have been the early John Mayall /Fleetwood Mac/Eric Clapton for many years. Later it was The Fabulous Thunderbirds and Stevie Ray Vaughan. There is, as well, a long tradition of acoustic blues and Sonny Terry/Brownie McGhee would be a strong influence - they played in NZ a few times.  Pretty much like the UK, I guess.


Who is considered the "godfather" of the blues in New Zealand?

Midge Marsden, without a doubt.




What are the differences with the first years of the presence of blues today?

Some of the newer bands have learned more from American bands and artists. Robert Cray, Rod Piazza, for example have influenced a number of players.


What are the most popular local bands of blues?

NZ has only a small population, so each city has one or two blues acts. The best list is here


Who is the leading representative of the blues in New Zealand abroad?

I don't think there is one.  Midge Marsden has played overseas and particularly in the USA, with some success. I've played in a number of countries.

What are the main blues festivals and what are the differences?

The best and biggest was last year's Rotorua Blues Festival

Most festivals combine jazz and blues


What are the bars and clubs that host blues events?

There are almost no bars/venues that specialize in blues


What are the international artists who have a special relationship with the blues in New Zealand?          

Doug MacLeod is the patron of the Bay of Plenty Blues Society:


Do the media help the blues?

NO! not at all - almost like it doesn't exist.


Make an account for current realities of the case of the blues in NZ

Blues isn't seen as significant by the music industry or the media. So all of the blues musicians like me produce our own CDs, fix our own gigs, organize our own tours.


What is the relationship of NZ with the Australian blues scene? 

There are a lot more gigs, blues musicians over in Australia - and a lot more festivals. But it's an expensive 3h. flight across the Tasman Sea - a long way -so it's mostly solo/acoustic blues acts the go from one country to the other.


Which was the best moment of NZ blues scene and which was the worst?  

Don't know the best. The worst was when Jimmy Rogers came here, shortly before he died - and the Canadian agent  didn't organize it properly - he did one gig in Auckland and then the money ran out - and he had to go back home!


Do you think the younger generations are interested in the blues? 

A few are, and the clubs do a great job encouraging young musicians to play blues.


Do you have a message for the Greek fans?

Check out some of the NZ acts here - and buy their CDs via the internet! can also invite me to Greece - a place I've always wanted to visit!


Which is the most interesting period in NZ blues scene and why?  

From the late 90s onwards, when a number of blues societies were formed. It is thanks to them mostly that NZ still has a thriving blues scene.


What mistake of New Zealand’s blues you want to correct?  

While I love Stevie Ray Vaughan, there are too many guitarists who think that is all there is to blues. It's important to go back to the masters and the originators and learn from that - which is exactly what Stevie did.


I would like to tell me if it works music industry creates blues albums in New Zealand.

NO - musicians have to do it all themselves.


What do you think are the landmark albums for local blues?  

Midge Marsden's "Burning Rain" - it sold a lot (went 'platinum') and made him very famous here. Ironically it's his least blues album - later ones are very bluesy.


There are local artists who have made an international career?  

My son, Paul Garner, who now lives in London. He's a blues guitarist who is often in Europe.


Do you believes it has the possibility of someone musician to live only with the blues in New Zealand? 

Definitely not. Some manage to get by with performance, teaching guitar, playing in other bands, etc.


What is the interest in indigenous peoples (Maori) for the blues, there is a native to play the blues?  

There are many really good Maori musicians. Music is a big part of Polynesian culture. On my latest CD I have Richard Anaru - who is a fabulous guitar player. 'Bullfrog' Rata and Darren Watson are Maori and two of NZ's best guitar players.

But most young Maori are into reggae, hip hop, etc.


Do you believe there interested in making known the blues to the neighboring islands of the Pacific Ocean (Cook, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Samoa, etc.)? 

There are blues musicians everywhere! But throughout Polynesia there are two dominant musical forms, each islands own indigenous music, which still thrives, and also a strong interest in reggae and hip hop.




New Zealand Blues Master


Mike Garner is a musician living and working in Aotearoa - New Zealand. He grew up listening to and playing blues in England and moved to New Zealand in 1988. 

His 4th CD, "Cad's Alley", in January 2007. It features guest appearances by Jan Preston (AUS), Paul Garner (UK) and others from the Bay of Plenty, NZ, blues scene. A cut from “Cad’s Alley”, with Jan Preston on piano,  also features on a 2007 compilation “Harmonica Masters of NZ” and was played on USA syndicated blues show “House of Blues Hour”, hosted by Dan Ackroyd.

Another cut from “Cad’s Alley”, Louisiana Hurricane, won 3rd place in the International Song Competition, Nashville, – the only Americana finalist from the entire southern hemisphere!

When was your first desire to become involved in the blues? 

I was hooked from the day I first heard boogie-woogie piano played on the radio in the early 60s, in England.


Who were your first idols?  

They were all acoustic, old time musicians. All the famous names, like Robert Johnson.


Which artists have you worked with? 

I've been in NZ for 25 years, so most of the ones down here your audience wouldn't know. In my younger days in England I opened for Carey Bell, and for people like Joanne Kelly, Chicken Shack, and others.




Is “blues” a way of life? 

It's certainly been with me for most of mine!


Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst? 

Playing in Kathmandu was very special, and being  recognized  as a songwriter in an international competition.


How is your relationship with the other bands?

I try to be respectful of other musicians - and don't criticize what they do - everyone has their own way of approaching blues, performing,  songwriting.


What does the term BLUES mean to you?

It is a form of music and songwriting that I have closely identified with - strange really being a white man living in the south pacific - as different as you can get from Mississippi or Chicago. I like the way blues lyrics can be clever and witty, ironic as well as sometimes predictable. I love the blue notes, I never get tired of hearing that flattened 7th or 3rd, that floats between major and minor keys.


How/where do you get inspiration for your songs?

I usually try to write songs that sit right inside the genre. If people think one of my songs is a genuine old blues I'm thrilled! I write my songs based on my own experiences; driving in NZ, growing older, getting divorced - all the usual things!


What musicians/songwriters have influenced you most as a songwriter?

Son House I like a lot. And Muddy Waters, of course, and Sonny Boy Williamson. But a great many - particularly the pre-war acoustic ones.


Who are some of your favorite blues musician of today?

Most of the great ones are dead, of course.  I really like Knockout Greg, from Sweden. His band has that early 50s sound nailed, as good or better than most American bands. Big Joe Louis, in London.

I really like Doug MacLeod's songwriting. Buddy Whittington has a great voice and plays fantastic  guitar in a style that is unaffected by rock influences.


Is there any similarity between the blues today and the blues of ‘70s?

Yes, of course. But progressively it has become more and more like rock music. Clapton, Mayall, Peter Green were all listening to  the Kings (Albert, Freddy, BB) - while the newer generation are listening to Clapton and Stevie.

Not everyone, but that seems a trend.


From the musical point of view is there any difference between the acoustic and electric blues?

Yes - lots. There are differences in attack (playing finger style instead of with a pick), the chord shapes, the progressions, positions on the neck - lots of things.

On acoustic it's common to play with many different tunings. It's almost like a different genre, now that electric blues has become more like rock. It wasn't always that way.

If Lightnin' Hopkins played acoustic or electric, he was doing it the same way, John Lee Hooker, too. There aren't many electric guitarists who can do that these days.

Except Ry Cooder - listen to his "John Lee Hooker For President" off his new album - he knows exactly how to get that old feel on electric!


What do you think were the reasons for the blues boom at the end of the sixties?

It was a long time coming, didn't just happen overnight. Jazz fans discovered blues in the 1940s. In England, merchant seamen like Ken Collier had heard jazz and blues in New Orleans, so in the 50s it was a  jazz musician, Chris Barber, who brought Big Bill Broonzy and Muddy Waters to Europe - when nobody had head real blues before.  Chris Barber's sidemen included Lonnie Donegan who started playing Leadbelly songs and created "skiffle".

It was out of that. There is a line from Alexis Korner, to the Stones, John Mayall, and everyone else who followed. So it took about 10 years to become a  phenomenon.  The pop music of the day was awful - and the discovery of blues rhythms, guitar phrasing and its excitement  suited the revolutionary mood of the times.


What would you give "Midge" Marsden?

Midge is a real authority on the blues. He has taught blues at university here, for music students, and studied at the University of Mississippi. He's a great guy, good band leader and a fine harmonica player. We did a great show together last May at the National Jazz Festival, which was telling the life story of Son House. I played the Son House tunes on a resonator in the original style, and Midge's band played them in their modern interpretations.


Tell me a few things about the story of Himalayan Blues Festival in Kathmandu, Nepal in 2009.

Yes - it sounds like it can't be true. But they really do have a blues festival there. They can't afford to get the biggest names, like Buddy Guy, which gives people like me a chance!  We played in some amazing places, including ancient temples and palaces.  Blues is a young person's music in Nepal. And there are some very good Nepali players. You can see our blog here and it was also turned into a documentary, see kathmandu blues


How important is your 3rd place in the International Song Competition in Nashville?

It's something I was very pleased with. It was for a song I wrote about Hurricane Katrina that devastated New Orleans, so I was writing a very American story. I also wrote the song in DADGAD tuning, over a rockabilly beat, so it was successful in the 'Americana' category. It's a big song for me here in NZ - and always goes down very well.


What's been their experience of USA syndicated blues show “House of Blues Hour”, hosted by Dan Aykroyd.

Well that was just luck. I contributed a track from my previous CD to a collection of NZ blues songs, on an album called "Harmonica Masters of New Zealand". The record company sent away to a lot of different places, and it seems the track most often played was my song! Cool to have it syndicated across the USA.


Do you remember something funny from your gig with the Motown stars (Four Tops, The Miracles, The Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas)?

That was a huge show - for NZ one of the biggest stages and audiences.  I was just one of the local opening acts but the promoter put me together with a fine Australian guitarist and mandolin player, Nick Charles. We had a rehearsal the night before and worked up an hour long set as a duo. He played mandolin for me, and I played harmonica for him. Went down really well. They had the best food I've ever seen back stage for musicians!


What are your plans for the future?

I've just released a new CD, (5th September) which I'm really pleased with . It covers a wide range of styles.  I love travelling, and would like to come back to Europe in 2012 - so working on that at the moment.



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