Why Bret McKenzie is going straight with a new band

by Russell Baillie / 15 November, 2018
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Bret McKenzie. Illustration/Weef

After a year of stadium comedy and Muppet shows, Bret McKenzie talks to Russell Baillie about returning to his music roots in Congress of Animals, a band whose songs are no laughing matter. 

Bret McKenzie has had a backwards kind of year. He went back to Flight of the Conchords for a British tour (result: 100,000-plus tickets sold and an HBO special). Having won an Oscar for his music on The Muppets movie, he is back to working with the felt-faced gang in the Jim Henson Retrospectacle, which hit his home town, Wellington, in April (result: many happy fans of all ages).

Now, he’s going back to being in a band, the Congress of Animals, a collective of five Wellington songwriters playing a national tour and heading to New Plymouth’s Womad festival in March.

It’s a comedy-free show, though it does include in the line-up Nigel Collins, who, while armed with a cello and tuxedo, toured with FOTC as a sideman who was introduced as “the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra”.

For McKenzie, it means playing places rather smaller than London’s O2 Arena, which he and Jemaine Clement filled three times over, or the other UK stadiums they packed in June.

So that British Conchords tour did well.

We are actually bigger in the UK than anywhere else. I don’t know if that’s because we did Edinburgh for all those years and the radio show on the BBC and we toured there for years. We had a really solid fan base before the TV show. So I think there is a lot of ownership.

This Congress of Animals tour may not have as many zeroes in the crowd numbers.

These are obviously going to be some much smaller gigs than the O2.

Is there some weird pressure on you in this group because you are famous for something else?

A little bit. I’m trying to just be a part of the team. It’s a shared night and everyone does a few songs each. But for me, because it’s not comedy and it’s not film, I can do some songs that are just songs for songs’ sake – not tell a story or have jokes in them. I’m really enjoying doing songs that don’t have any other reason to exist other than to be songs.

Isn’t that something you did before the Conchords?

I played with the Black Seeds for a long time, maybe 10 years. Here, I have to kind of relax my own songwriting because when you’re doing comedy songs, you can’t have anything else. You tend to cut everything out, apart from the jokes. It’s the same with film songs – they get cut down. It has to be story, character … it all has to be essential. It’s really fun working on songs that are just completely free. There is a lot more space.

With so many singers in the band, is it a harmony thing?

Yeah. That’s one of the things I love about it. We can do four-part harmonies. It will be pretty lush musically.

Your own songs in this – are they singer-songwriter/ first person kind of songs?

Yeah, they’re more … one of them is kind of Randy Newman-ish and one is quite David Lynch-y. One is kind of a David Lynch-Don McGlashan mash-up. It’s got a bit of a salty, seafarer element to it. But who knows. What you think of your own song is often very different from what other people think.

There was an old Conchords number [The Bus Driver’s Song] that featured in the HBO Special. It’s always sounded to me like a McGlashan song from his Front Lawn days.

Yeah, that was us trying to do a Front Lawn song. When I was a kid, Don McGlashan stayed at my house when the Front Lawn were doing a show in Wellington, and I was the usher for a couple of weeks. I watched their show every night when I was about 10. It definitely sank in. I followed them closely the whole way through. And from there I discovered the Mutton Birds and Blam Blam Blam, but Front Lawn were the band that got me in. They told you little stories that went into the songs – it’s actually pretty similar to what I do. It was a big influence.

Their songs often had tragic characters, but we found touring with the Conchords we needed more jokes for the comedy clubs and [The Bus Driver’s Song] doesn’t quite work in a comedy club where the people are drunk and wanting gags every five seconds. But it does work in a theatre. My songs with this group are not like that. They are not so character- or story-driven.

Congress of Animals: Bret McKenzie, middle, with, from left, Age Pryor, Nigel Collins, Justin Firefly and Ben Lemi. Photo/Lee Gingold

Congress of Animals: Bret McKenzie, middle, with, from left, Age Pryor, Nigel Collins, Justin Firefly and Ben Lemi. Photo/Lee Gingold

As a warm-up, Congress of Animals played at your kids’ school fair. What do your children think Dad does as a job?

It’s quite good when they have to draw pictures of me at work. Most of the time they’ve been kids, I’ve been writing scripts. So they draw a picture of me at a computer writing a script. And when they were younger, they genuinely thought I worked with Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog. But now they are a bit older they have come on tour with the Conchords – they play tag in the empty arenas during soundcheck. They love it.

What’s your relationship to the Conchords now? Is it a thing you bring out of the cupboard every couple of years?

Kind of. This year, even though it was meant to be a few months’ work, it has actually ended up taking most of the year. We do a tour every so often when we feel like it. For the past few years, it’s been every couple of years.

Not in New Zealand, though.

Not in New Zealand, though. I think New Zealand must be next on the list.

With your scriptwriting, are you now in a position where you initiate projects and there is no difficulty getting in the door?

Totally, yeah. But the challenge is that I’ve been concentrating on original stories and that can be quite tricky in Hollywood because it’s mostly franchise-based material now. It’s really difficult to get new stories into production. They really want something that is a toy or a big-selling franchise already. At one point I got sent a toy catalogue – “Do you want to make a movie of any of these toys?”

You weren’t at all tempted by the catalogue?

You’ll know I’ve given up when … no, that’s not fair. It all depends on if it’s a good idea and if I like the idea, I’m in. Most of the stuff I work on now is films with musical elements.

Well, you’re an Oscar-winning song person, so …

It makes sense.

Do you go into those Hollywood meetings and put that Oscar on the desk?

Every time I go over there, I put it in my carry-on, go through security, take it out. “Aww, sorry.”

“You again. Weren’t you here last week, Bret?”

“Okay, Bret. Leave the Oscar in the bag.”

Unlike Jemaine, you haven’t done much acting in other people’s movies.

I haven’t done much because usually you have to go to some place away from where you live for quite a long time, and I’m not that into it, to be honest. You really have to commit to living in a random city with a tax break for six months, and it’s not that conducive to raising three kids.

Or to forming songwriter collectives with your mates and touring to gigs like the Haumoana Hall.

We are going to have to travel around in a van. It’s really old school. A real throwback. It’s a kind of big little tour. I’m just looking forward to getting around the country. I’ve done a lot of live gigs this year and I’m really enjoying it and doing stuff that is not on screens or phones yet. I find that really satisfying. Carrying the gear will be a bit of a shock, but I think playing the music part is very similar and the performing is pretty similar. What Jemaine and I did at the O2 was the same stuff we were doing back in that theatre in Wellington. The songs didn’t change.

Can you be more yourself in this context?

Yeah, I think so. I don’t need to worry about keeping the audience laughing.

Rather than playing a version of yourself, which I guess is what happens with the Conchords.

Well, I guess we always are, aren’t we? I guess I’ll find another version of myself to play.

Are you prepared with Congress of Animals shows for smart-arses shouting requests for Business Time?

It’s a good point. We probably should learn a couple of bars of that song. I was thinking a psychedelic version of Albi the Racist Dragon would be quite good.

Congress of Animals, featuring Bret McKenzie, Age Pryor, Justin Firefly, Nigel Collins and Ben Lemi, play at Tōtara St, Tauranga, November 29; Hollywood, Avondale, November 30; Leigh Sawmill, December 1. Womad, Bowl of Brooklands, New Plymouth March 15-17.

This article was first published in the November 17, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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