One look at Alex Gabriel McKanze and it’s obvious he’s a musician: the tall, lanky 22-year-old has shoulder-length brown hair and a tattoo of the solar system on his right arm. But he isn’t your stereotypical Bushwick rocker: raised in the Paris suburbs by an American father with Cherokee blood and an Italian mother with Gypsy blood, he’s fluent in five languages (and knows a little Portuguese and Latin, to boot). And as a freelance tour guide for Great New York Tours, he’s a walking encyclopedia. Even with a hangover, he can tell you that Henry Hudson discovered the Hudson River in 1609 (adding snidely, “Because the Native Americans obviously never saw it before”).
Actually, the self-taught guitarist is more jazzman than rocker. Two of the tracks on his 13-song CD – “Minor Swing” and “Les Yeux Noirs” – pay tribute to one of his favorite musicians, Django Reinhardt. Before his show at Radegast tonight at 8 p.m., we spoke to him about coming to New York, hustling for work, and all that jazz.
The challenge! Cuz it’s a big city and I love big cities. It’s very international… And it fascinates me about the rhythm, especially the rhythm. It never sleeps, it is always moving. I like it. Productivity… I like that in my music. I don’t like it when it’s easy.
Originally I was in New Jersey, in Morristown, for three months. It wasn’t very good but I had a foot to New York. They gave us a lot of work, very little shelter and barely any food. It was 30 horses, 20 kids. Trust me, you want to take care of the horses, not the kids.
It was a lot of learning because it was the first time I went to live on my own and it wasn’t something easy. Cuz I was 18 and I thought, “Oh yeah, easy, I’ll get a job with the languages and pay the rent and I’ll be happy. But no.”
I went from the stables in New Jersey to Crown Heights doing jobs like waitering, which wasn’t sufficient. Then I started the next year as a travel agent for a company called Volatour, from whom I got a lot of connections. Then the following year I got my tour guide license and started to work freelance. Last year I moved from Crown Heights to Bushwick.
Being a tour guy in the tourism industry is the best position you can get in terms of comfort. Not income but comfort. You get good pay and you get plenty of time. I really saw this as a job and not a career because several times they told me I can upgrade, I can be manager this or supervisor that, and every time I declined. I feel, as long as I am in my twenties, I don’t see why I need to get serious with a job that I don’t really want.
The music that I like is anything from jazz to techno, from rap to opera, and anything in between. So any type of good music. But the one I really like to play, to be honest, is really jazz. Because jazz you use scales that are much more difficult to play with, and I like the challenge. And the best thing is improvisation. You see, I love to improvise because you can do more stuff.
I picked it up when I was 16, but I was learning some chords like “Smoke on the Water,” easy stupid stuff. Then I picked it up again when I was 18, when I came here. Because I didn’t have any friends, so guitar in a sort of metaphorical way became my friend. I play every day, at least an hour or two.
Yes and no. I don’t wanna have money, I don’t wanna have recognition. I want to earn money, earn recognition. I want to work for it. And that’s why I love New York. It’s like, work work work work work.