Flight of the Conchords' Bret McKenzie on Rejecting Coldplay, Struggling in Vancouver and His Breakdancing Phase The Exclaim! Questionnaire
"When the lights came up, we were playing to no one. It was depressing at the time, very depressing, but now it's very funny"
Published Aug 25, 2022Unlike so many other legacy comedians, Bret McKenzie is keeping up with the times. The Flight of the Conchords member and Oscar-winning songwriter of The Muppets is known for his light-hearted, subtly disarming folk tunes, but he decided to put humour aside on debut solo album Songs Without Jokes (out August 26 on Sub Pop), his way of acknowledging the generally horrifying State of All Things. "Trying to justify writing dick jokes when the planet is collapsing, politically and environmentally, I guess I was struggling," he says to Exclaim! "I know comedy is important and I know laughing is important and it's powerful, but I found myself wanting to say some different things."
But he can't not be whimsical — he just can't help himself. Surely he must see at least the fun in earnestly singing lyrics like "Look around, the planet is bleeding / A child is crying, the parents are weeping / The air is filthy, they don't recommend breathing" atop the orchestral pop stylings of Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman, right? The songs grapple with today's problems, but they're every bit as charming, silly and heartfelt as one would expect from the motherflippin' Rhymenoceros.
And rest assured, McKenzie isn't done trying to make people laugh on purpose — "I've been writing some new songs and I feel like I've lightened up already by doing this record" — but not after he takes Songs Without Jokes on the road. "Now, I'm putting together a seven-piece band and we're gonna start touring and playing it live," says McKenzie. "After the last few years of being very Zoom-heavy and very at-home ... I just am really, really excited about performing live and reconnecting with audiences." The tour hits Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver in October and November, though after reading his answers to Exclaim! Questionnaire, you might be surprised about that last city.
What are you up to?
I'm doing a few different things. There's a movie called Bob: The Musical that I'm working on with James Bobin, who directed Flight of the Conchords and the Muppet films I worked on, and a screenwriter called Deirdre O'Connor. It's a musical about a person that gets trapped in a musical. Something goes wrong, and then they wake up and everyone's singing songs. And it's a funny musical comedy. That's, like, early stages, but that's fun.
I'm working on a few animated films. One of them is with Jared Hess, who did Napoleon Dynamite, I've known him for a while, and he's doing an animated film, a family film about a unicorn. I've been working on songs for that. I'm working on an adaptation of a George Saunders book called The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. That's for the stage; it's a theatre production. It's a kind of surreal political comedy about an idiot who becomes president of a country and his rise to power. It's a really funny long story or a short novel that I'm helping adapt for a stage show. It's really, really dark, and the main character's brain falls off all the time and he has to bolt it back on. Strange, strange world.
What are your current fixations?
I'm really enjoying Cate Le Bon and her new record, Pompeii. I saw her play live recently in New Zealand, and it was really an amazing live show. I came across this cool David Lynch book called Catching the Big Fish, and it's a book about meditation, consciousness and creativity. I'm a big fan of David Lynch, and this goes into his creative process and promotes meditation. I've tried a tiny bit of meditation, but he makes you want to try meditation. I just love hearing creative people describing little tricks and things they use to come up with ideas and techniques. So that's a really cool, cool book, I think most people would dig that and find something they can relate to.
Just this week, I've been bugging out on Alice Waters, who is a chef from a restaurant [near] San Francisco called Chez Panisse. She's a cook, she's got a lot of cookbooks, and she is all about buying local and making food from fresh ingredients. I'm kind of buzzing out on that because I'm always looking for ways to adjust my lifestyle to be better for the planet, and she's been on that tip since the '90s. It's cool hearing someone who's been preaching this for a long time. You're like, "Oh, right, yeah, you know what you're talking about. I'm catching up!"
Where do you live and why?
I live in Wellington, New Zealand. I was born here. And I love living here and I decided to stay here, it's a great place to raise my kids. I spent a lot of time in Los Angeles, but I decided New Zealand was a better place to raise my kids, and so I go between the two for work.
What's the last book or movie that blew your mind?
Questlove's documentary Summer of Soul, I watched that quite recently. Seeing Nina Simone play, she's a big hero for me, and it only made me love her more. Seeing Stevie Wonder's drumming solo at the front, seeing Sly and the Family Stone breaking through, and understanding more of the context of all those artists. I loved it, and that feels like a must-see for musicians.
What has been your most memorable or inspirational concert and why?
One of the concerts that I've played that's really memorable is the Hollywood Bowl, which is this huge L.A. venue, outdoor amphitheatre. I think it's our biggest American show and the venue is so big that, when you said to the crowd at the back of the venue, like, "Make some noise at the back!," it sounded like they were an invading army coming up the hill from miles away. It was this roar — it sounded like an army of Orcs coming over the mountain. Unforgettable night. That was a very special gig.
I was lucky enough to watch Leonard Cohen from backstage in Milwaukee. I think on a Conchords tour, we happened to play the same night and we finished our show and rushed to Leonard Cohen and caught the end of his show from backstage. We got to see Lenoard Cohen coming off and exiting and going back on for the encore, and it was just a little magical glimpse into his world. It was cool.
What's been the greatest moment of your career so far?
I've been very lucky and had a lot of great moments to enjoy, but winning an Oscar, I gotta admit, is definitely a highlight. I think people imagine Los Angeles is really shiny and glitzy, and people outside Los Angeles think that that's what L.A. is like every night, just celebrities and parties and glamour. It's really not, but that night, it is like that. That night, it felt like the L.A. that I imagined L.A. would be like was real. That was really cool. And it felt like you were in rooms that were like Madame Tussauds, but the people were alive. So it was really great and a very special night for me.
What's been the worst moment of your career so far?
One of the worst gigs was in Vancouver, where the Conchords were playing the Vancouver Fringe Festival and we were very new and we were struggling to get an audience. We managed to convince one person out on the way home with their groceries to come in and watch our show. The venue was off the beaten track and we managed to convince this woman with her groceries to come and watch our show in the hope that we'd create a buzz, get some word of mouth going. And she was the only person in the audience and then, somewhere, in the middle of the show, she managed to sneak out, so when the lights came up, we were playing to no one. It was depressing at the time, very depressing, but now it's very funny.
And I imagine you've played Vancouver since and you have an audience there now?
We're good now. We're good.
Who's a Canadian musician that should be more famous?
Bahamas! He's sort of really famous, but then some people don't know him. I feel like he could be a lot more well-known, his music's amazing, but probably in Canada he's really famous, right? I've listened to a lot of his music, and he gets played in our house a lot, [particularly] Sad Hunk. He's so funny! I had never seen him live — I've just come across him probably through the algorithms. The algorithms introduced him to me.
What advice should you have taken, but did not?
It's more of a regret, but when we were writing the second season of Conchords, we got invited to open on an American tour for Coldplay, and we had to turn it down because we were on these deadlines for writing the TV show. I don't have many regrets, but I really regret that, because it was gonna be opening in these huge venues and I think it would have been really fun flying around on a plane with Coldplay. It sounds like it would have been really fun. They were fans, they liked the show, and they were like, "We'd love you to come play, you'd just do, like, 15 minutes before the show, or 20 minutes?" It would have been super fun. I don't know who told us we couldn't do it or how it worked out. I'm sure we could have pushed the shoot a month — it wouldn't have made that much difference.
What was the first song you ever wrote?
When I was a teenager, I wrote a song about a parking warden. That was me noodling around on a guitar and a Casiotone [keyboard], as a teenager at home. I can't remember exactly what it was like. It might have been [about] loving someone that you don't want to love.
You got to "Loving somebody you don't want to love" from a parking warden? Where's the journey there?
I can't even remember, I just remember it was about a parking warden. I don't know, I honestly can't remember more details. It was a kind of love song about a parking warden.
I feel like there's some foreshadowing there about how you'd end up writing songs in the future.
From the get-go, I was always writing pretty weird songs.
What do you think of when you think of Canada?
On a day-to-day basis, maple syrup is a big feature in our house, so that's probably my daily reminder of Canada. But, as a kid, I went to Banff a few times. My mom was a dance teacher at an art centre there, and we went to Banff, I think, three times. I remember I was introduced to peanut butter and banana sandwiches; I'd never come across that before. That was kind of my first first Canada thing, and then with Conchords, our first international tour was to Canada. We went to Calgary and Vancouver, the one I mentioned we had the difficult time [at]. So those are some of the things I think about with Canada.
I also think New Zealand and Canada share a sort of underdog quality [being] next to a bigger country: New Zealand to Australia, Canada to the States. New Zealanders are famous for being polite, and I think Canadians are too, so I think there's a simpatico with Canadians I have. In a small country, or a small place, you can't really be a dick, because you're going to see that person the next day. Whereas in a big city, you can be a dick and you never see that person again. I think that actually makes you be a nicer person, because it's just the nature of surviving in a smaller place.
What was the first album you ever bought with your own money?
It was a cassette tape and it was a compilation of breakdancing music. I was really into breakdancing. I was about eight or nine. I recently was trying to find this album, and it was not on Spotify. I couldn't find it anywhere else. I thought, "That's weird," and I Googled it and I found out it was a release that only came out in New Zealand and Australia, a compilation of breakdancing songs that I think they'd produced just for this New Zealand-Australian breakdancing market. It was a breakdancing album you might get at Walmart or something like that. It wasn't cool hip-hop; it was, like, made-to-order pop breakdancing music for the Australian-New Zealand market. I don't know why it was so big, but, at my eighth or ninth birthday party, instead of birthday games, we had a breakdancing competition. We had the music playing and we had to do backspins and whoever had the best backspin got the prize.
What was your most memorable day job?
I've had some pretty crazy day jobs. When I was 12, I had a window-washing business at the local suburban street, and I would wash the windows, but I really wasn't that good at it, but I had five or six places I would wash the windows. One of them was a job at the museum in Wellington, and I had to dress up in a full-body rubber costume of a native lizard called a tuatara and lizard my way around the history museum on Saturday mornings. It was a pretty bad job because it was this rubber suit that different people would use, and it had a really acrid [smell]. I never washed this rubber lizard suit. So that was a pretty funny job. There were three characters and three friends, [all of us] actors. We did it on Saturday mornings.
If you weren't an artist, what would you be doing instead?
My dad is a farmer, a horse trainer, and my mom is a dance teacher. I grew up with my mom in the city and the arts, but I could very easily have grown up in the country and probably would have been a farmer.
How do you spoil yourself?
Artisanal baked goods. There's a local bakery that an old friend from school started, Baker Gramercy, and it's, like, expensive sourdough bread that I seem to have become really addicted to. I love supporting local businesses and everything, but that's probably my favourite shop. It's tiny, but it's really cool. There's a big queue out the door.
What's the best way to listen to music?
While cooking, I reckon, is probably one of the best ways, because the problem now is we all just go to the next track so quickly if you don't like it, but if you're cooking, you've got something else going on. You just might be a bit more patient and give the music more time.
What do you fear most?
I really don't like public speaking, which is weird because I do a lot of big concerts. I don't mind doing shows, acting, singing, but I don't like just standing up and talking. I don't like the public speaking version of that.
When you gave your Oscar acceptance speech, was that in that public speaking territory?
I can't even remember it. I think I blacked out. I was in some sort of autopilot zone at that point. It's funny, I used to speak at school, no big deal at all, but over time, doing so many jobs where I'm public speaking but in character, there's something about stepping out of that I just have a bit of a fear of, and I have no idea why.
If you won the lottery, what would you do with the money?
I'd probably build a really great recording studio with lots of vintage audio gear in Wellington, because we don't really have one, and then give the rest of it away.
What has been your strangest celebrity encounter?
Backstage at the Oscars in the green room hanging out with Tom Cruise, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Douglas and the Princess of Monaco around a cheese buffet. I was sitting there going, "What is happening here?!" and Brian Grazer, the producer, is going, "Bret, do you know Tom?" I was like, "Oh, no, I don't know Tom. Hi, Tom!" There are lots of little gems in Hollywood, [like] waiting in Seattle for an airport shuttle with Iggy Pop and Flavor Flav [for] the Seattle Bumbershoot festival at 6 a.m.
What is the greatest song of all time?
Leonard Cohen's… I was gonna say "Tower of Song," but "Hallelujah" is probably a better song, though it's very overplayed. I'm gonna go for Leonard Cohen, "Hallelujah." I think people will be playing that song in 100 years. Something very powerful in that song.