Why the Phoenix Foundation is teaming up with the NZSO

by James Belfield / 31 July, 2018
From left, Phoenix Foundation’s Chris O’Connor, NZSO associate conductor Hamish McKeich, Lukasz Buda, Will Ricketts, Tom Callwood, Samuel Scott and Conrad Wedde. Photo/Stephen A'Court

From left, Phoenix Foundation’s Chris O’Connor, NZSO associate conductor Hamish McKeich, Lukasz Buda, Will Ricketts, Tom Callwood, Samuel Scott and Conrad Wedde. Photo/Stephen A'Court

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How best to celebrate 20 years of keeping a band together? A breezy summer winery tour? A best-of compilation? Maybe a comprehensive box set with specially curated artwork?

Not if you’re Wellington’s Phoenix Foundation, who have chosen to mark two decades in the left-field art-pop business with one of the biggest creative challenges of their careers – a tour with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Hamish McKeich.

The idea came from NZSO guest artistic planner Tony Pierce, who in 2016 melded US indie giants the Flaming Lips with his Colorado Symphony Orchestra for a performance of album The Soft Bulletin. Who, he wondered, was the Kiwi equivalent of the Flaming Lips?

The Phoenix Foundation already had an in: “Hamish was already interested in us, because he frequents the same Wellington bar as us,” says frontman Sam Scott.

“It makes sense musically, because as we’re now a bit of a heritage band, we’ve been around long enough to do things like this,” he says. “It’s such a huge undertaking and every person in that orchestra has worked exceptionally hard to get where they are, so you’re drawing on millions of hours of greatness and talent. Of course, we had to do it.”

The project also coincided with the 20th anniversary of Scott, Luke Buda and Conrad Wedde forming the Phoenix Foundation at Wellington High School in 1998. Since their 2003 debut album Horsepower, the band have mixed low-key electronica with guitar-fired indie pop; their wry lyrics have occasionally given way to widescreen instrumentals.

That cinematic side has also made them among our most successful soundtrack composers. They scored Taika Waititi films Eagle versus Shark, Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, as well as other productions, although none of the film music will be part of the concerts, as originally planned.

The band’s extramural creativity has also extended to solo albums for Scott, co-frontman Buda, guitarist-keyboardist Wedde and percussionist Will Ricketts, and Scott and Buda were producers on Dave Dobbyn’s 2016 album Harmony House.

So, they have experience working beyond the confines of the band. And, with six group albums (one a double) and a couple of EPs, there’s no shortage of material that could be enhanced by the NZSO’s backing and its conductor, a long-time fan.

“I really like them,” says McKeich, “so I thought it would suit to have them bring that Kiwi quirkiness to the performance without being saccharine.”

A year on, and just a few weeks before the opening performance in hometown Wellington, one of four main-centre concerts, the pressure is on. Facebook message groups – as Scott is now based in Auckland’s Grey Lynn – are “getting insanely out of control”. His laptop is overflowing with folders and files of arrangements for 14 tracks, including two new ones.

Four arrangers were commissioned to reinvent the songs. Percussionist-composer Gareth Farr was asked to arrange Burning Wreck off 2007’s Happy Ending – a song the band have never played live before; Chris Gendall is combining Morning Pages, the instrumental closer for 2005’s Pegasus, with its opener Twilight; Claire Cowan’s arrangements of three favourites – Hitchcock, Black Mould and Modern Rock – will open the show; and Hamish Oliver is seeing how 60-odd people whistling new track Transit of Venus might sound.

Scott has enjoyed making space for others’ interpretations of his songs.

“As an indie band, it’s easy to be centred around being a pained musician obsessed with your own vision … and that’s a bit like where we’ve come from,” he says. “But now we’ve handed over so much power to all these other people and it feels great. They’ve put so much effort into the arrangements that it’s become really exciting.

“If we can now connect on stage so that sometimes the orchestra are taking the lead and sometimes the band are taking the lead, and you’re always doing the best for the song, then it should be huge. But we’ve still got to do so much work, because we don’t want to show up and be useless in front of the orchestra, we have to be on our A-game.”

McKeich is an old hand at the orchestra-band hybrid. His past experience has taught him what works and what doesn’t. He says it’s vital to pick the right music and the right band – not necessarily go for the most popular option.

“I’m not sure, for example, that Lorde would suit an orchestra,” he says. “And it has to be interesting music – Coldplay-lite would be dull and there would be nothing for the orchestra to do except fill in the gaps. And then some bands use up the full-frequency bandwidth with a wall of sound, and that doesn’t leave space for the orchestra to poke through.

“Phoenix Foundation understand that they’re not playing the same as they normally play. They need to rethink and reinvent what they do, and let the orchestra take over and bring their own colour.

“That’s important, because otherwise it just becomes an accompaniment to a band doing the same thing and there’s no point in the orchestra being there.”

Although it’s likely recordings of the shows will be released later, the band  clearly wants to produce an experience that cannot be repeated.

“We were wary of it as a concept,” Scott says. “We’ve seen a lot of bands do it and it doesn’t quite come out right because they don’t fully commit to it being a different thing.

“But the way it was pitched to us, everyone said the right things: you’re a rock band but you have this layer of weirdness and arrangement to your music, and this is what we want to connect with.”

And as for a winery tour?

“It’s hard to find a well-paying tour in New Zealand, so I won’t dismiss a winery tour, but I think I’d want to tour a lot of natural wineries, and no one would come.”

The NZSO and the Phoenix Foundation perform at the Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, August 2; Auckland Town Hall, August 3; Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch, August 30; Dunedin’s Regent Theatre, August 31. Scott is also talking songwriting and performing at WORD Christchurch festival on September 1 and 2.

This article was first published in the August 4, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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