Of Ukuleles, Tolkien, Garfunkel and Bond: A Chat With Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords
October is Folktober for fans of New Zealand's fourth most popular digi-folk parodists, the mighty Flight of the Conchords; following the second season of their acclaimed eponymous HBO show, which bagged several Emmy nominations including one for Best Comedy Series, Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement last week unleashed I Told You I Was Freaky, a collection of tracks from their second season plus some classic nuggets that longtime fans will recognize, busting at the seams with their trademark brand of folked-up funk and terrifically clever lyrics. (It's impossible to overstate the anthemic genius of "Too Many Dicks On the Dance Floor," surely the greatest protest song against being cock-blocked while clubbing since... well, ever.)
We spoke with McKenzie via phone from New Zealand (Clement, presumably, is off doing press for his starring role in Gentlemen Broncos, which opens Friday), to discuss, among other things, the album, that oft-rumored third series of the show, and the thrill of getting one of your idols to do a role you wrote especially for him.
So you've been home for a bit, you recently reunited with your friends in the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra and did some shows.
They were a blast, yeah I did a handful of gigs with the Ukulele Orchestra. I was pretty rusty, there was a little bit of miming involved. I dropped some Randy Newman on the punters.
How did that go down?
Some of the shorter people in the audience were slightly offended. They didn't catch the bridge... [in "Short People,"] he wins back the short people with the bridge, he tries to emphasize that it's ironic just to make sure people understand a little.
The Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra, with Bret McKenzie, performing Outkast's "Hey Ya!" in 2006:
Guess it's all about the delivery. Surely the ukulele helps, too, it's all about the ukelele.
It's all about the ukulele. My current mantra is "Ukes, Not Nukes."
Here's a burning question about the new Conchords album for the geezers out there...
Do it, get it off your chest.
The first thing some of us thought of looking at the cover art of I Told You I Was Freaky was the cover art for Seals & Crofts Summer Breeze. Was that nod to that album?
Yeah, that was an inspiration point. We love that album... cover. I don't know the album very well...but hasn't it got, it's got [the track] "Summer Breeze" on it, right?
It does indeed.
Yeah, I love that song. So yeah, you busted us.
Looking at the tracklist for the album, it does play in large part as a soundtrack for the second season of the show, but there's still a wealth of material going back a long way to your early days as a group. "Petrov, Yelyena and Me" is one of your very first tracks.
Yeah, that's a really old song. That was back in the day when we only knew three chords... There's still a few [older] songs, but many of them are completely unusable. A few songs that we couldn't get into the TV show, they didn't fit the format. There's one called "Stana" that's sort of a Western epic, but it requires... the characters in the song are one man and his doppleganger, and they end up becoming lovers. Unless we animated it, it didn't really fit into the Lower East Side world of the show. If we do another album, I think we'll have to start fresh pretty much and come up with a whole bunch of new songs.
And it's still up in the air at this point whether there's going to be another season of the show?
Yeah, we're gonna decide this month, I think. We toured the States earlier this year, and we're touring Europe next year. We're still undecided, but whatever the case we'll need a lot of songs whether it's an album or another series. I think it would possibly be "the difficult third album." Do they say the third albums are easier or harder?
Well, third films in a trilogy have a reputation of being difficult, maybe that goes for third albums too.
It would be good for it to be more like Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien kind of had a trilogy in mind, though, didn't he?
But I wonder if Tolkien first thought "I'm gonna write two... no, you know what, I'm gonna write another one!" No, I think you're right, I think he had a grand plan. I think that's what we're missing on our team, the Tolkien player. Someone with a master plan. Jemaine and I are more day-by-day.
So, [series co-creator] James Bobin isn't your Tolkien player?
[laughs] Nah, James is more week-by-week.
Given that you're still deciding on the third series, was there any kind of pressure from the network or elsewhere given that the show got a lot of recognition from the Emmys this year to press onward?
The Emmys didn't have that effect on me, but the Emmys are more of an opportunity to go to a fancy party. Seems like a lot of hard work, to make a TV show, just to go to a party. I think we're pretty concentrated on the creative aspect [of a third season], whether we can just come up with the material.
The second season of the series really raised the game in terms of the guest stars you brought into the show, like Kristen Wiig, Jim Gaffigan, and landing Art Garfunkel, that was really impressive.
We were stunned that he agreed to do it!
Garfunkel meets Garfunkel (sort of) on Flight of the Conchords:
Had you written the episode with him in mind?
Very, very specifically with him in mind, and we got in touch with him early on to make sure it wasn't a dead end. So we were so, so excited... we're huge fans of his. You know, he did that film Carnal Knowledge, that was one of our early inspiration points as well, for the show. The first half of Carnal Knowledge is quite similar to our show, and then [it] just takes a very, very dark turn, which we don't do, obviously. Maybe we'll try next to get a drama slot.
And other than people like Garfunkel that you've worked with on the show, have there been other people you've met who have either been fans of the show or of your music that have surprised you?
Oh, yeah, it's amazing, once you have a TV show so many people find out about you. I guess they're all at home watching TV.
No one in particular that's left you starstruck?
Um, yeah. Jemaine Clement. [laughs] He's a big fan of the show. No, when we toured live we get a lot of famous people who came to the show. I was pretty excited, I got to meet Pierce Brosnan, he came along and watched the show in Santa Barbara. Also, I think what happens is, it turns out that it's normally their kids who are the actual fans. I think the parents are fans as well, though, the show is one that parents can watch with their kids. And it does seem like it's a pretty sweet deal to be the child of a celebrity, because you can get tickets to anything you want to see. I guess that's one of the perks. When I did meet Pierce Brosnan, I was quite amazed that his son was starstruck by Jemaine and I, even though his dad is James Bond.
That's the thing, though, he probably feels like his dad is his dad, and Sean Connery is James Bond.
Yeah, yeah! There's that great story about Tom Waits trying to impress his son, his teenage son, and he took him to a music shop, and no one in the that shop recognized Tom Waits. And then on the way home, they stopped into a junk shop, like a rubbish tip shop? And all the guys there kept on telling Tom Waits how much of a big fan they were!
So the tour next year is definitely taking you to the UK, according to the NME... this is the first time you've done gigs over there since you did the BBC radio show several years back, isn't it?
Yeah, it's ages ago, almost five years ago. We're gonna go there next year, we're still figuring it out at the moment. We try to leave New Zealand during the winter there, that's why the band started really. [laughs] That actually was the reason why we started touring overseas, and that's why we became successful. We went to Canada first, and then to Edinburgh for four years in a row, just to get away from New Zealand's winter. I think if New Zealand had a more temperate climate, we would never have left. If we started up in L.A., we probably never would have played beyond our house.
That can be a bummer too, though, if you live here. Once you travel and experience what seasons are really like. It's easy to undersell the experience of being cold.
That's true, and winter can be quite a creative time, because you're forced to stay inside and amuse yourself with your imagination.
Is there any place you guys haven't toured yet that you really want to see?
You know what I want to do, is a tour of the cities called Concord. There's one, I think up north of New York?...
Yeah, it's in New Hampshire.
Conchords Tour the Concords. Let's see, there's one in California, there's the one New Hampshire. There's one in Australia, and one in N.C.... what's N.C.?
That's it, but there's got to be more. Hopefully so the tour will be a bit longer, otherwise the tour's only gonna be three days long!
But your fans are dedicated, they'll travel if they have to!
They'll just have to travel to the nearest Concord. It'll be a short trip for few, and a big trip for many. That's something I want to do. And I just spoke to someone in Finland, we've got quite a strong fanbase in Finland. So we're probably going to head up there and do some gigs and try the sardines.
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