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Flight of the Conchords
The Hope of a Nation
Apr 01, 2008 Spring 2008 - Flight of the Conchords
By Matt Fink Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern
A country mysterious enough that most Americans don’t even know enough about it to form a dismissive caricature, New Zealand is much more than just the place The Lord of the Rings was filmed. Renowned for its stunning geography and abundant natural resources, it’s the farthest outpost of English-speaking society, a country with roughly half as many inhabitants as New York City. But New Zealanders must be people with a sense of humor. Why else would they adopt the kiwi, a plain-looking and flightless bird that is smaller than a chicken, as their national symbol (and the moniker by which they are known to the rest of the world)? Ask someone on the street to name someone from New Zealand, and they’re likely to come up with Keith Urban, Russell Crowe, and a bunch of people from Australia. But the cultural tally between the two countries is getting closer: Australia has kangaroos, the Outback, and Paul Hogan; New Zealand has Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, also known as Flight of the Conchords.
The rare musical comedy act that’s actually funny, Flight of the Conchords officially reached American shores in the summer of 2007, the logical conclusion of nearly 10 years spent perfecting their act at out-of-the-way comedy festivals and dank clubs. First they won over the judges at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, then they launched a highly successful radio comedy show on the BBC in London, and followed that with a breakthrough 2005 HBO standup special. After a few false starts, they soon landed in the United States with their own eponymous HBO TV series, two musicians playing the role of two musicians who shared their names and many of their experiences. Now, in 2008, the only frontier remaining is the pop charts, and, with their self-titled Sub Pop debut, they’re in a position to put some intentional humor back in the Top 40. If it seems like it took them a long time to get here, it only goes to prove just how far away New Zealand really is.
“The other day Jemaine and I walked through the streets in Wellington, and a group of people just stood up and clapped,” laughs McKenzie. “That’s pretty weird.” For two shy Kiwis who weren’t even sure that their songs about robot holocausts and girls that are pretty enough to be part-time models were even funny, the attention might not be altogether welcome. “When Jemaine and I started the band, we weren’t necessarily trying to start a comedy band,” he explains. “We just started writing songs, and they ended up being quite weird. And we had worked in comedy theater, and we performed our first song at a fringe festival in a late-night club. And it was ‘Foux du Fafa,’ the French song, and we knew it was kind of funny, but the audience reaction made it sound funnier than we thought it was. But we never tried to crack the non-funny music scene.”
That may be true, but their first full on stab at studio recording is far more than just a joke. On this album, recorded with Mickey Petralia (Beck, Eels, John Cale), Clement and McKenzie reinvent and reconstitute many of the tracks they’ve used to make their reputation, offering definitive versions of tracks that went around the world with them and ended up being the centerpieces of the scripts they wrote for television. But making a comedy album comes with pitfalls and with an entirely different set of criteria. How would they recreate the atmosphere of a live performance when there’s no one laughing? Would the songs be strong enough to hold up as music? Just how much replay value does an album of comedy songs have anyway? They had already conquered comedy, performing, and acting, but just how good would their record have to be for a joke band to be taken seriously as recording artists?
Spinal Tap and Tenacious D—that’s pretty much the extent of legitimate non-parody musical comedy. But, unlike Flight of the Conchords, those bands were made up of actors who already were established; seasoned performers who had Hollywood contacts. For them, music was just another project in their career portfolio. For Clement and McKenzie, aside from a few obscure film appearances, musical comedy is their career portfolio, a full-time gig that ensured that they wouldn’t be able to simply camp out in a studio for a month to craft the definitive document of their music. They had a TV show to make.
“[The album] is probably the most difficult thing that we’ve had to do,” admits Clement, speaking from McKenzie’s apartment in Wellington. “We’ve made some attempts at recording our songs in the studio, but when we did it with just a couple guitars and our voices, it didn’t often have the energy. With some recordings, we went way overboard with the instrumentation, and just adding another instrument can really change it. With this one we tried to be reserved yet have energy. We try to make a groove that we like. It’s not like our live show. Even though it doesn’t sound like it would take a lot of time, we have to practice it and try to get in the rhythm of playing it. You get rusty.”
Though the duo were already recording the songs for the TV show, they soon found that their initial plans to simply do extended versions of those tracks would be insufficient for the album. These were songs that they’d performed hundreds of times over the course of the previous four years, and they were starting to feel predictable. To keep the process interesting, they would have to tweak the formulas and pump fresh blood into the jokes that were so familiar that crowds had begun singing the punchlines.
“We wanted to try and keep a little bit of the lo-fi failure that we achieve on stage,” McKenzie cracks. “So we wanted to keep the guitars up in the mix, and I think we did that. I think we got a little more lush than we expected to. There’s a fine line. Sometimes the more you put into the production, the comedy would disappear from the song. Occasionally we got the odd friend of Mickey’s to come and play instruments we couldn’t play or didn’t have time to play—the drummer on a couple of tracks, the bass player on one track and a girl who sings on ‘Foux du Fafa.’ These people’s names I don’t know,” he says, laughing after an awkward pause. “We really try to sneak as much music around the jokes that we can.”
Mostly working on weekends and whatever production breaks they had from the show, recording sessions went back and forth between Los Angeles and New York City; they were still finishing up the album when they returned home to Wellington in the fall. Before they were done, they had laid down definitive versions of most of their favorite tracks, from “Inner City Pressure” (a Pet Shop Boys-esque ode to poverty) to the heavy-panting R&B slow jam “Ladies of the World.” There’s a spot-on recreation of What’s Going On-era Marvin Gaye on the silly social commentary of “Think About It,” and two Donovan-aping flower folkies preen over the sitar-laced psych-pop of “The Prince of Parties.” There’s even a delicately finger-picked acoustic ode to abstinence in “A Kiss Is Not a Contract.” Serge Gainsbourg, Donovan, Bowie—everybody is fair game, and it all sounds so good that you’ll keep listening long after the jokes cease to cause rib-rattling laughter.
“They were very meticulous,” Petralia explains, having worked with the duo for the entirety of the album. “Once we got going on the songs, it was constant working, and we were trying to meet these deadlines. There was this one time that we thought we could finish it in one week, and they still had these ideas that they wanted to try. Cars were waiting to pick them up in my driveway to take them to the airport, and they were still trying to rewrite lines and try different harmonies. There was no way in hell. I ended up going to New Zealand for 10 days to work on the same songs. Things were being dialed in, in terms of arrangements and vocal parts, while we were mixing even. They’re really good like that.”
Having worked on sessions with artists such as Beck and LCD Soundsystem, Petralia knows something about working on high-profile projects. He admits that since he was unfamiliar with the duo and their music, he went into the studio not knowing how much handholding he’d have to do, but says that his fears were quickly allayed. Before long, Petralia’s cast of guest musicians was left on the sidelines, and McKenzie was taking over the bulk of the instrumental duties.
“They’re not just comedians first and musicians second,” he says. “I considered them as much musicians and songwriters as comedians and actors. Jemaine’s really good at his nylon string-plucking and picking, and Bret is amazing at keyboards, guitar, and bass. I think we hit 60 years of music and styles, and I think we did each one justice, style-wise. There might have been a decade here or there that we were a little light on, but we’ll make it up next time,” he says, indicating that he’s already eager to dive into the second album. Where does he see them going next? “Two words: acid jazz.”
The Distant Past
To anyone surprised that McKenzie can do more than write jokes and strum a few chords, don’t be. Ask him who his influences are, and he names musicians not comedians. Ask how he formed his sense of humor and he’ll say he doesn’t know, that he doesn’t particularly like comedy albums. Ask him about his songs, and there’s a part of him that still seems somewhat surprised that anyone thinks his songs are funny at all.
“I think Beck was one person that I was really excited about, just how weird and freaky he got,” McKenzie explains. “That song ‘Debra’ was pretty inspirational, because I like songs that really capture a character but that are also musically very satisfying. There’s a New Zealand band called The Front Lawn, who were a duo in the ’80s and the early ’90s—they did really beautiful narrative songs and filmed short films for their songs. They’re probably the band that is most similar to Jemaine and me. They aren’t as much comedy, but there are funny, weird moments in their songs.”
Having grown up in Wellington trying to master James Brown’s classic “Funky Drummer” on a childhood drum kit, McKenzie always has been a performer if not exactly a comedian. McKenzie grew up riding horses and pirouetting (his dad was a horse breeder and his mother was a ballet teacher), but he had no interest in being a jockey and he was too small to lift the girls. And, despite growing up on a steady diet of American TV—MacGyver, The A-Team, M*A*S*H—it was Rowan Atkinson’s cult British show Blackadder that became his first comedic love. Still, nothing could compete with his affection for music.
“I used to play in a band, a reggae dub band,” he continues. “That’s a pretty big sound in New Zealand. Second to Jamaica, New Zealand has the highest Bob Marley sales in the world. What rock music is to America, reggae is to New Zealand. I used to play in a band called The Black Seeds, and we played festivals and had three platinum albums in New Zealand. Relatively large sales, but it’s a small country. That’s a band where I wasn’t being funny, but I would often crack jokes in between songs.”
Of course, when McKenzie left the band to devote his full attention to Flight of the Conchords, The Black Seeds album went to #1 on the New Zealand charts, but McKenzie hardly had time to worry about potentially missed opportunities as keyboard player for a reggae band. He was already cracking jokes on stage every night, continuing the project that had started years earlier while innocently sitting around and fumbling over guitar chords in the house where he and Clement met while both were in college. While they had grown up in radically different settings—McKenzie in the city; Clement in the rural outskirts—they found that their senses of humor overlapped nearly perfectly. But where McKenzie grew up obsessed with music, Clement was a kid consumed by comedy.
“This is the story of every comedian, that they watched TV and then practiced voices on their brothers and sisters, and I was one of the nerdy kids that did that,” Clement admits. “It’s not that I thought I could, but I wanted to. I had a suspicion that maybe I could do it, but it wasn’t until I was in high school that I tried it in a couple of shows. I played the part of an English explorer, and I remember one teacher who didn’t like me saying that I was pretty good at that. I thought that was pretty big of him, because we would always clash with each other.”
Inspired by The Simpsons, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, The Tracey Ullman Show, and the aforementioned Blackadder, Clement looked for every opportunity he could find to hone his chops on stage. But music was always just off on the periphery, his interest stunted by years with access to nothing but Top 40 radio. When he finally found Jimi Hendrix and Talking Heads at age 17, he was ready to try his hand at it himself. “I did notice in school that the girls loved it when one of the guys sang a Beatles song,” he says. “So the first song I learned was ‘Blackbird’ by The Beatles, which is still the only song that I know that we didn’t write. It still works. The girls still love it.”
It wasn’t until he met Bret that he played an official gig. Joining the tradition of bands whose names are a play on words, McKenzie named the band after a British supersonic jet (the “Concorde”) and started telling people that the moniker came to him in a dream where a flock of flying V guitars flew in a V formation reminiscent of a squadron of those iconic airplanes. Like The Beatles, another band who said their name originated in a dream, they’d change the spelling to give it a more musical twist. By the time they were ready to start opening comedy nights as the band that would play while people found their seats, they discovered that their songs were funnier than they had imagined.
“We took it really slowly,” Clement says, explaining that he was so nervous during early shows that he couldn’t make his hands form the chord formations on his guitar. “We were performing for a couple of weeks and trying to write two songs a week. When we first went on, we put on these British rock characters that were kind of like Mick and Keith, like old rockers. The big joke was that we had these acoustic guitars and almost all of the songs were quite gentle. Eventually, we relaxed and started to speak quite normally. In the early days, we would just talk and talk because we enjoyed that, and eventually people would yell, ‘Just play the song!’ When we first played for the first couple of years, we were playing this place where only 12 or 20 people would come. [It was] a big venue, too, like a 200-seater. I remember Bret’s dad saying, ‘What you’re doing is world class. It’s international class,’” he says with a dignified accent. “And I remember thinking that was really funny. It turned out he was right, didn’t it?”
It did. But no one had any reason to believe it then.
Two of Us
Though no one knows exactly where the first comedy duo originated, it had already solidified into its standard dynamic of a comic and a straight man by the early 1920s and vaudeville. Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, The Smothers Brothers, even Tenacious D—they all adhere to this format. Flight of the Conchords does not. Ostensibly two straight men playing off each other, the duo took things in stride, working for six months at a time and then returning to their other projects: McKenzie to The Black Seeds and Clement to his various television, theater, and comedy shows. But after they received a nomination for the coveted Perrier Comedy Award at the 2003 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, they could no longer ignore that they had full-time jobs if they wanted them.
“The next year, a totally different kind of people came, more like the followers instead of the kind of people who go out and find what they like,” Clement explains. “They just didn’t understand what the fuss was about. And we were playing in a big venue now, which made it really hard because we were playing to all these confused people. I remember one guy going up to Bret—and it was one of the best shows that we’d done, and this guy who was maybe around 70—he went up to Bret and said [in a thick Scottish brogue] ‘I’ve been coming to the Edinburgh festival for 12 years, and that’s the worst thing that I’ve ever seen.’ And he just went on and on and on about it. He was so angry about it that I was kind of glad that we’d subjected him to the worst show he’d ever seen. But usually I sort of like people to like it. Sometimes people think that we’re trying to be weird or hip, but we’re not. We’re just doing what we think is funny and we honestly hope that people like it. We don’t care if they’re cool or whatever job they do or how old they are.”
But almost immediately, Flight of the Conchords was very hip; their comedy was used to sell British mobile phones and their performances were on Australian TV. By 2005, the BBC came calling to ask them to create a program for radio, and they began to explore the concept of a mostly improvisational show centered around two hapless musicians struggling to make it in London. An unmitigated success, it was only a matter of time before television came calling, again and again.
“We wrote a pilot for New Zealand television, but it was a different show. That show got turned down,” McKenzie says. “About the same time we got picked up by NBC to do a pilot, and it was a similar show but with us living in Los Angeles with an American manager. And that didn’t get made, either,” he laughs. “Then HBO picked us up. In New Zealand, it’s quite a big story about how TVNZ turned us down. ‘It wasn’t good enough for TVNZ but it was good enough for the rest of the world!’ There are a lot of stories like that in the papers. We’ve become an example of what’s wrong with New Zealand television development.”
Given almost complete creative control, the Conchords set about finding a cast and writing scripts. The struggling duo that shared their names and faces would be transplanted to New York City, and since conflict is an essential for engaging narratives, the “two straight men” approach to comedy would have to change.
“On stage, we just kind of mess around,” McKenzie says. “We don’t really have characters. But we kind of needed to carve them out for the TV show, so that there was more difference between the two of us. I think my character has been pushed more in the idiot, stupid direction. And Jemaine’s is probably more unpleasant and mean than in real life.” Clement thanks him for his compliment. But even though they’d reinvented their characters, people still wondered if they were, essentially, playing themselves. “People ask that question a lot,” McKenzie says, “and it’s pretty funny to think. Well, of course, it’s not us on TV! It cracks me up. I go into town, and I’m walking through the street and people go, ‘Hey! Where’s Jemaine?’ People just presume that you go along like you do in the show. We use a lot of our life experiences and stories and mannerisms, but we’ve turned them up to 11 to make them funnier.”
Those experiences, such as being seduced by a stalkerish fan that stands vigil outside their apartment and working with a clueless manager who finds them one dead end opportunity after another, turned into the characters of Mel (played by Kristen Schaal) and Murray Hewitt (played by comedian Rhys Darby, an old friend and fellow New Zealander). Their other friends from the comedy circuit were given recurring roles, with Eugene Mirman, Arj Barker, Demetri Martin, and Todd Barry filling out the cast. Still, the relationship between Clement and McKenzie would form the focus of the writing.
“We think of the characters sometimes as a married couple, and I’m not sure if in that relationship I’m the wife or the husband, but sometimes with couples you have someone who pushes the other one a little,” Clement explains. “And Bret plays such a good victim and with such innocence that I feel like it’s funny to pick on him. The characters are friends, though. I guess my character is aggressive, but he’s also really wimpy. He wants to do these things, but he’s too scared to, so he’ll make someone else do it. I think those are attributes of myself, unfortunately. I think that’s how that came up. I’m always restraining myself, and I try hard not to offend people, so when I play that character, I get to say all of the mean things that I’m thinking.”
With deadpan comedies and droll faux-documentary shows in vogue, Flight of the Conchords couldn’t have arrived at a better moment, something readily acknowledged by Darby, a collaborator with the duo for the past eight years. “The timing was perfect in terms of this new style of comedy being a big hit over the world,” he says. “The awkward, no laugh track, realistic style of humor had just come about, and we were just part of that, as well. The Americans hadn’t heard the Kiwi accents on the television. I’ve spoken to a lot of people who say that there are so many sitcoms, and they’re all the same thing. People are bored of them. And then this thing comes along, and it’s almost like when The Monkees first came on here. That was something of a novelty and a weird and wacky thing. I think the novelty factor is perfect. People are watching these novelty people from a novelty country. It’s refreshing.”
Even so, Clement is quick to acknowledge that making the first season of the show wasn’t terribly enjoyable for him, as the hectic schedule and homesickness kept the pair scrambling to stay one step ahead of their deadlines. “When we heard about the first season, I couldn’t sleep for days,” he says with no sense of exaggeration. “We had done the pilot, and I was quite excited about that, but I wasn’t expecting it to be so hard. When we had to come up with more, I lost sleep for sure. There came a point where we could see the end of the tunnel, but it didn’t get easier. We just had more and more to do. We had written much of the scripts before we started, but some of the other scripts had to be written, and we’d have to check them and rewrite them and make sure they were in our style. It really was like making a TV show and two albums worth of music in the time you have to do a TV show. It was really hard.”
While it’s generally acknowledged that neither McKenzie nor Clement have much in common with their characters aside from their unflappable demeanors and long vowels, it’s apparent that Clement shares at least some of the fictional Jemaine’s occasional bouts of insecurity. Now, as the second season approaches, he seems open to the idea that the latest phase of the project he started as a hobby might be nearing its end. “I can’t really imagine doing more than another season, because we had almost 30 songs in the last season,” he says candidly. “I think we’re going to do 10 episodes next season, so that would be another 20 songs. How many comedy songs are there? How many comedy ideas are there for songs? It’s hard to imagine it beyond a second season at the moment. I haven’t actually said yes, and no one has noticed,” he laughs. “I’m interested in seeing how far it goes before someone mentions it. Everyone is just going ahead with it. I want to see how far we can go before someone notices that we haven’t agreed to it. I think that gives me a little insurance in the back of my mind, where I can just leave and say, ‘Well, no one ever asked me if I wanted to do it.’”
Folking the World
As they prepare to film the show’s second season this summer, it looks as if Flight of the Conchords have done the unthinkable by not only starring in the first international hit television show written by and starring New Zealanders but also by becoming the rare act to tear down the barrier between willfully silly comedy and remarkably accomplished music. In February, they won a Grammy for their EP The Distant Future—New Zealand’s first Grammy in 25 years. Now they can write songs specifically for the new episodes, as they no longer are saddled with songs that required bizarre twists in narrative because they were written long before anyone ever thought they’d be making a TV show. But before they are retired, those classic songs, their greatest would-be hits, will be sent out to meet the world one more time, and everyone who missed out on them the first time around given one more chance to find out at least one thing about New Zealand.
“I’m always on the cusp of quitting,” Clement laughs. “I’ve never been that serious, and the Flight of the Conchords thing was, honestly, just a hobby. Any opportunity that we were offered, we would take, just to see how far it could go. It’s at its logical conclusion now with a TV show and an album and stuff, but we didn’t expect that. We’ve never taken it too seriously, but we do work quite hard at it. It’s more the external pressures that keep us doing it.”
Whether or not they take it seriously, the rest of the world is watching and listening, and if the duo are uncomfortable with the attention now, things are about to get much more claustrophobic. Having conquered comedy clubs and cable television, they could soon achieve the kind of ubiquity that only a pop song can.
“I can’t imagine why anyone would want to listen to the Conchords album over and over again,” McKenzie says thoughtfully. “But maybe they will. I definitely can’t stand it, but that’s because I spent hours working on it. It terrifies me, the thought of hearing it on the radio or going into a restaurant and hearing it being played in the background. I just find that very embarrassing and uncomfortable,” he says with a shudder. “It’s a funny thing. Standup you only want to hear once, but because we’re putting our jokes in songs, you can hear them over and over again. It’s hard to describe, but I don’t like the thought of it. I think it might be something that I’m going to have to experience later in the year,” he says dispassionately, deadpan to the very end. “I don’t think I’m going to be standing up in the restaurant singing along.”
International class, indeed.