Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) Talks Music and Comedy with Phoenix Foundation

The longtime friends get down to the business on the topic of funny music.

Jemaine Clement is best known as one-half of the musical-comedy duo Flight of the Conchords; Samuel Flynn Scott and Luke Buda are founding members of New Zealand indie rock band The Phoenix Foundation. To celebrate the release of the latter’s Friend Ship — out tomorrow via Memphis Industries — the longtime friends talk the relationship between comedy and music, and much more.
— Annie Fell, Talkhouse Senior Editor

Samuel Flynn Scott: We were just talking about the clarinet as you walked in, and you’ve just been at a flute lesson. 

Jemaine Clement: That’s right. 

Samuel: When you wrote about having to be a prostitute to pay for flute lessons—

Jemaine: I didn’t know that one day I would actually be doing flute lessons. But maybe there was something there. 

Samuel: Do you think people are like, “Oh, Jemaine’s learning the flute,” and then raise their eyebrows a little bit?

Jemaine: They go, “he must have sold his body to pay for those lessons. He has to earn $60 a week.” Well that’s not unrelated, because we had a flute as a prop in that song, where I pick up a flute and don’t make any noise from it. And since I had a flute, I thought I might as well start to learn it and our tour manager started teaching me how to make it make a noise. So one did lead to the other, and I just enjoyed it.

Luke Buda: Are you learning any specific style of flute? Are you learning jazz flute?

Jemaine: There is a lot of jazz, yeah, and some classical.

Luke: I kind of feel that jazz flute is a very unfairly maligned sound.

Jemaine: It’s all because of Anchorman. Yeah, we were gonna talk about comedy and music — I can’t use flute now in a comedy context because Anchorman’s done it. Also, American Pie.

Luke: Do you think the reason the flute was in Anchorman was because it was already an object of jokes? I don’t, are we actually going back to Jethro Tull here — is there something about the guy from Jethro Tull?

Jemaine: Do you find him funny?

Luke: I actually don’t. I think it can be funny.

Jemaine: It can be a bit much.

Samuel: The way you hold it looks funny, because you look like a prancing sort of prince of the people, or the pied piper or something.

Jemaine: Well, hat guy in Jethro Tull was really going for that prancing prince of the people thing with his look. The way he holds his leg…

Samuel: Did he wear leather pants with tassels and stuff?

Jemaine: I don’t know Jethro Tull very well, but I believe he would hold up one leg onto the other leg. It’s like, “OK, I can’t play it with my teeth, I can’t play it behind my head because I need to blow it, but I can lift one leg, so that what I’m gonna do.”

Samuel: Yeah, that’s inherently funny.

Jemaine: I’ve got a question for you guys. You have some funny lines in songs, but do you ever say to each other, “no, that’s too funny. This is a beautiful song and you just slammed a joke in there”? 

Samuel: Yes. We also wrote a song that was so funny and so dirty that we decided we couldn’t play it to anyone ever. 

Jemaine: I think me and Bret [McKenzie] had one song like that, which not even in a comedy club would it have been appropriate. 

Luke: [Laughs.] I really want to hear this song now.

Jemaine: You don’t though. You would regret asking. 

I was listening to your new album last night and I laughed a couple of times. I laughed at the part in “Former Glory” — it’s like an autobiography, and you get to this part where you say, “And then I started a band, and it was this band.” And it brings you right to the moment. I liked that. You’re brought into the story, because you’re listening to this band, and you’re brought to the present moment. That made me laugh, not because it was a joke exactly, but because I didn’t expect to be involved. 

Luke: Ah, right, because it’s breaking the fourth wall in the song. 

Samuel: It’s like a one man show.

Jemaine: It’s like when an author writes a novel and they bring themself in.

Samuel: Kurt Vonnegut—

Luke: Describing how big his penis is in [Breakfast of Champions]. The character is uncomfortable about a person on the bus and he’s like, “that’s because it was me, the author.” And he’s like, “my penis is one-inch long and five-inches wide.” That’s what it says in the book. Anyway.

Jemaine: Is that a passage you’ve memorized? 

Luke: [Laughs.] I found it pretty inspired. 

Jemaine: I read that not so long ago, because I had the t-shirt first and people would say, “you love that book, huh?” And I’d say, “I haven’t read the book.” 

Luke: Well, the book is better than the t-shirt. It’s a bit more detailed. 

Jemaine: I like the book as much as the t-shirt. I’m not saying one’s better than the other. I’ve worn the t-shirt a lot and I’ve read the book once. 

Luke: The t-shirt is more multiple use. 

Jemaine: It’s one I can go back to.

Luke: I’m gonna go back to the lyrics now, back to me. It’s interesting, I don’t feel like I’ve got a lyric-writing process, and it’s more like I’m desperately trying to find some words to go with the cool song I wanna record. That one, like many things just kind of came out. Not in one sitting, but just like, oh, I’m gonna do this straight up song about my life, that’ll be kind of funny. The problem about the “and it was this band,” line is, I’ve performed it solo a few times, and I’m like, man, what line can I replace “and it was this band,” in for it to — it feels weird.

It’s interesting you find it funny, because we were practicing that track the other day, and that is a line that is so sort of in-the-moment that it makes me a bit uncomfortable. I felt a bit uncomfortable singing it even in front of my good friends from the band that it’s kind of about.

Samuel: I think this is a bit of a recurring theme with your songs, where they sometimes have these glorious moments where in your head, you’re going to the glory because A. You like glorious moments in music, and B. Because you find it entertaining and a little bit funny to do something that’s a little bit Queen or maybe Wham! or something. Just like a real glorious pop thing. And then when we do it well, you get self-conscious of that moment of glory or something.

Jemaine: When you say “moment of glory,” you mean like a big key change, or…?

Samuel: When the energy builds in the right way, and you hit that musical point that there’s a bit of a rush in the room.

Jemaine: I also found funny in a similar kind of way, you have the Symphony Orchestra build up this big swell, and then it leads to a whistling. That’s a moment, too, that I found beautiful. 

Samuel: When we were mixing that too, I was like, “we need to turn down the orchestra, you can’t hear the whistling enough.”

Jemaine: [Laughs.] Yeah, right. Turn down the National Orchestra to get someone whistling. Who’s whistling? 

Samuel: That was mostly me and Conrad [Wedde]. 

Jemaine: Well done.

Samuel: That was one of the first things on the song. Well, I’d written the song, and then I sort of forgot about it for a few years, and then I started recording it. When I was recording it, I was playing a keyboard, and before I recorded anything else, I started going, [whistles.]

Jemaine: It sounds a lot better on the album.

Samuel: I’m not a good whistler. 

Jemaine: But, you’ve managed to make it sound good. You might have to bring a whistler in when you do it live.

Samuel: Conrad is a very good whistler, so he’ll probably tackle a lot of the whistling duties. 

Jemaine: OK, so when you said it’s “mostly you and Conrad,” it’s mostly Conrad. 

Samuel: Not on the recording.

Luke: You can do a lot in the studio.

Jemaine: [Laughs.] OK. I love that moment. How do you ask a symphony orchestra to join you?

Samuel: It was a long process. It wasn’t easy.

Jemaine: Asked them one by one.

Samuel: It was gonna be so expensive, and then they came to the party very much at the last minute like, “we’ve got this special funding thing, and we can do it all as part of our outreach to different parts of New Zealand’s music.”

Jemaine: Uh-huh, they try to reach new audiences.

A lot of those people, their whole approach to music is different than a band. They work from nine-to-five, and they have their breaks, but there’s no sort of—

Samuel: They don’t like to jam, that’s for sure. 

Luke: I’m gonna be the voice-of-boring-reason here: I sort of thought that sounded a bit crazy at first too, but then when we were rehearsing with them, it was like, actually this is the only way. Because it’s a band of 90 people, so it’s not like, “Ugh, hang on, I’m a bit over it today, can we just go an have a coffee instead?” 

Jemaine: Though I also did a show with the Chamber Orchestra, and they were also like that even though it’s reduced. A reduced orchestra that you can fit inside a chamber. And they’ve all been learning their instruments since they were six. 

Samuel: Were you playing music before you were doing comedy?

Jemaine: Sort of. I mean, I’d have a jam with my flatmates, had a bass and things like that. We didn’t really think to make it funny, but we weren’t really that comfortable with being sincere, either. We only ever played for each other, really.

Samuel: I remember the first recordings I ever did were really silly, because I felt uncomfortable.

Jemaine: I think that’s a thing a lot in New Zealand, in music. You were talking about feeling self-conscious about mentioning your friends in the band — what do you think it was that made you uncomfortable?

Luke: I think it was because of the thing that you said about the song, that it brings you into that very moment in a really big way. It just feels like we’re playing the song, and then I’m like, “I started a band with my best friends, and it was this band!” I just feels quite big.

Samuel: Like I might go, “I don’t know if we’re best friends.” 

Jemaine: [Laughs.] Yeah, I would’ve guess that what would make you uncomfortable was saying “best friends,” because it’s hard to be open in New Zealand. I feel like a lot of New Zealand bands use metaphor a lot, and you don’t really know what the song’s about. They don’t wanna say “I love you,” or something like that. It’s embarrassing to get up in a bar and say that idea. People have mentioned that to me when talking about Flight of the Conchords stuff. I remember doing an interview in Ireland, and there was an Irish musician who was like, “why can’t you just not make a joke of it?” A lot of our songs would come from real breakups and things, early on especially. But we couldn’t just say, “I’m really hurt.” We talk about real people, and then in the song it’s all disguised as a character in a different place — a place that sounds very similar to where I grew up, but just slightly different. [Laughs.]

Luke: Isn’t that a classic storyteller thing anyway, that you’re often telling your own story and the characters, I mean… 

Jemaine: I really like when you hear bits of people’s real life, like that “Former Glory” song. Or I’ve been listening to this singer called Michelle Gurevich, and she’s got a song about her mother, and you’re just hearing these snippets of real life, and you’re fictionalizing the rest yourself because you’ve only got a three minute window into their real life. 

Samuel: I love the bleak realness of that Purple Mountains record. The lyrics are profoundly sad and really funny and very honest all at the same time. Those specific details make it more heartbreaking, but they can also make it funnier at the same time.

Jemaine: There is often humor in bleakness. You have this song called “Miserable Meal,” and there’s a lot of dark and gloomy images, but it’s done really lightly. 

Samuel: How do you take songs and make them into actual standup comedy?

Jemaine: I guess what Bret and I would do — we just got a gig in a comedy bar, and were like, “Well, people like it when we say this.” Because a lot of our early songs weren’t funny exactly, they were just weird situations, or just trying to tell an imaginative story. But playing in the comedy bar every couple weeks made us head toward the jokes more. We were doing other comedy shows together and separately that were just jokes, so we were like, “Maybe we can do this in the music as well.” More jokes, more funny moments. We hid it away, at first, from those dark — a lot of our first songs were about death and murder, and definitely a lot of breakup things.

Luke: I love the way the second full-length album is just really sexy. [Laughs.] Was that deliberate?

Jemaine: I don’t think so. I guess there’s two ways we write songs — maybe three. One is from real experience; two, is like any other song, just imagining characters or a story. And third is just to make fun of other songs, and I think we were doing that more. We had a song on the album called “Demon Woman,” which was just making fun of “Devil Woman” and all these ridiculous kinds of songs. 

Samuel: There’s so many songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s that are just like, “Women are evil.”

Jemaine: 20 years of this one evil woman. Literally calling a woman a demon is just so stupid. 

Samuel: I’ve noticed recently there are quite a few comedians putting out sincere records. Would you ever make a sincere record?

Jemaine: I can’t even imagine it. No. Just moments of sincerity is what I hope for.

Samuel: Bret has in the past, and I think he’s doing it again.

Jemaine: Yeah, he’s doing a solo album.

Samuel: So did it feel like you were the comedy writer and he was the music writer in that band?

Jemaine: No, not necessarily. I would write a lot of the tunes and he would have a lot of the ideas for the songs, and we could easily flip over. I guess for him, he has lots of musical outlets whereas I only have that one, so that would be where I put all the riffs and stuff. We often would start with just playing each other a riff.

Samuel: Would you write songs separately as well?

Jemaine: Yeah, often.

Samuel: I think me and Luke used to write a lot more songs together.

Luke: We did that with films too — when we were in film school, we’d all be in the same room trying to compose cues together. Now it’s all as far away from each other as we can be [Laughs.]

Samuel: I think there’s advantages to being in the room together the whole time, but it just takes a lot longer. 

Jemaine: Yeah, often if it’s a song I’ve written, I’ll have written three-quarters of it and go, “it needs a bridge,” or something like that, and Bret will always be good at figuring out what the thing is it needs.

Luke: It’s an interesting thing, the idea that you’ve got a riff you think is cool and you want to make it into a piece of music, but you guys go into making a piece of music thinking people will find it funny. That’s kind of interesting. It’s not like you’re sitting down on the guitar going, “I’m gonna make a real funny riff,” right? 

Jemaine: No. I think some people do that — there are instrumental tunes that are funny, those Spike Jonze things where he’s got lots of popping sounds and quacks and things like that.

Luke: There’s an amazing Ween track called “Pink Eye (On My Leg),” which is an instrumental track that’s got both a dog barking solo and a groaning solo on it. Oddly I find it kind of beautiful.

Samuel: They’re one of the bands that really straddles comedy music and beautiful music. We’ve talked about this because they’re a band we listen to a lot, and there have been people in tour parties who are like, “This is awful, why do you guys seem to listen to Ween so much, it’s insincere bullshit.” Which we all find it really quite beautiful. 

Jemaine: Yeah, one of my favorite songs of their is “Your Party,” and I find it — I mean, it’s funny, and I find it sincere in a way because it’s such small things they’re talking about. It’s describing just going to a party with his wife and they’re having a nice time, and there’s tri-colored pasta.

Samuel: Oh, the tri-colored pasta.

Jemaine: [Laughs.] And then he goes home, goes to bed, and he pictures himself throwing a party and having a great time. It’s sincere because it’s such small and relatable things that you wouldn’t usually sing about, so it’s an unusual view into someone else.

Samuel: I think they only became a funny band because they were young wasters who didn’t wanna be sincere. If you listen to their first records, they’re just so stoned and goofy.

Luke: People can sometimes feel uncomfortable if they don’t know whether they’re supposed to laugh. My partner said to me once that she feels Ween are making fun of her, which is not how I feel about it at all. I feel like I’m being involved.

Jemaine: You feel like you’re them.

Luke: I feel like their take on the world, where you find the absurdity of things and celebrate [it], does not necessarily mean that you are not acknowledging some other reality. Everything is pretty absurd, even real feelings. 

Jemaine: I was thinking, when people say something’s funny or it’s not funny, those words don’t even mean anything. It’s only I find it funny, or I don’t find it funny. It’s such a personal thing. Same with music. There’s one thing that you have to find in your band, finding what you all like, so you can all exist within it and all enjoy it.

Samuel: How much you push things toward the irreverent or the earnest, that’s a really divisive things in bands I find. People get creeped out. When we were making Horse Power, there was some debate in the band about songs that I now find kind of cringe-y that I was writing.

Jemaine: I love that album, what songs do you mean?

Samuel: Ah, like “Sally.”

Jemaine: I love that song, I actually learned it on guitar.

Samuel: Wow.

Jemaine: I had it on my mp3 player at the time, and I remember being on holiday listening to it and learning it on guitar. I think I told you this — on Flight of the Conchords, the girl that we’re fighting over at the start is called Sally, named after that song. 

Samuel: I didn’t know that. 

Luke: I didn’t know that either, and I feel a really funny sort of thrill of excitement. 

Jemaine: [Laughs.] And then on that show, we wrote a song called “Sally,” which we really just threw together and have only done a couple times live. So our song’s named after your song. 

Luke: Your song’s named after the girl who’s named after our song, which is about someone who isn’t called Sally. 

Samuel: I sometimes get this feeling like — because our careers have been very intertwined. I was in a weird Nativity production with Bret when I was a child, and I remember thinking, man, this guy knows how to be in front of an audience, when we were probably 9 or 10 or something. I was like, wow, this Bret guy really knows how to put himself out there. I felt a little kind of jealously that I didn’t know how to connect with people in that way. Then if you get through the years of, he was in the Black Seeds and we had the same manager and stuff.

Jemaine: Then we all worked together—

Samuel: On Eagle Vs. Shark, which was probably your first major film role. And that was our first scoring job. We’ve done so much comedy stuff since then, even though we’re not comedians — we make the music for New Zealand comedy films, it seems. 

This is the bit where it really becomes quite surreal for me: Then we were really trying to break a miracle or something —

Luke: For about a month.

Samuel: Yeah, like 12 years ago.

Jemaine: Oh, we played the same city on the same day.

Samuel: Yeah, we were both playing in Philadelphia, was it? But you guys were shooting the first season of Flight of the Conchords and things were going pretty good for you guys at that point. We were kind of really struggling to get anything happening, and I started to feel like we were actually the real Flight of the Conchords, like that band in New York that’s got nothing going on. 

Jemaine: [Laughs.] There’s such a difference between the gigs we’d play before the show and after the show. We went from little bars to big arenas. So, have a comedy show is the thing to do.

Luke: Do a show about your band failing. 

Jemaine: Yeah, because that show is — a lot of the things in those episodes are what our gigs were like. When we played Canada the first time, we went to Vancouver and did a show at 11PM on a Sunday, which is really hard to get anyone to go to any show.

Luke: I probably wouldn’t go to a show at 11PM on a Sunday.

Jemaine: No. So we were out a 10PM on Sunday trying to give out free tickets. We only got one person to come, and Taika [Watiti] actually was doing the lights. [Laughs.] Me and Bret onstage and Taika doing the lights — then me and Taika would do our show, and Bret would do the lights for that one. But when the lights went on, she was gone — the one person we had. We don’t know when she left. We put that in the episode. So we were also that band for quite a long time, but we didn’t really care because we were trying to make ourselves laugh. 

Samuel: And it’s just exciting when you’re from New Zealand to go and be in New York or LA or something. I remember we did one show in New York that was like the afterparty of the American premiere [of Eagle Vs. Shark], and there was quite a few people at this party. It was like a bar with a roof terrace, which is such a rare thing in New York, so everyone went up on the roof with their free drinks and was partying, and we were like, playing in the basement. 

Jemaine: You should’ve been on the roof! But maybe there was a sound ordinance that prohibited that.

Samuel: Yeah, probably. But there was one person watching the show, which was quite weird, and they were watching right up close to the band. But to make it even weirder, it was Michel Gondry. [Laughs.]

Luke: Actually, Cliff Curtis watched us too. That was the other thing, because I remember my pedal wasn’t working or something, and he came up like, “whaddya need? Can I help you?” It’s was like, “what the hell, that’s Cliff Curtis!” 

Jemaine: It’s hard enough when you’re playing to a big crowd and there’s one person you recognize. We played here in Wellington when The Hobbit was shooting, and Billy Connolly was there. When I was a teenager, I wouldn’t really buy music, because we only heard Top 40 stuff. I didn’t know there was good music that wasn’t in the top 10 until later. But I would just get Billy Connolly tapes and CDs and stuff.

Samuel: Well, he’s a music-comedy crossover guy. He makes some sincere music as well I think, and some funny music. 

Jemaine: He started off more like that. We’d hear him say funny little bits between the songs, and then the songs kind of disappeared. But seeing him there in the audience really threw us all off. I was finding it hard to concentrate.

Samuel: I was at that show.

Luke: I know that because I shared a urinal with Billy Connolly, the big Scottish legend. Didn’t see his haggis. 

Samuel: We also played a show to very people in LA.

Luke: Can we not list all the shows we’ve played to very few people? [Laughs.] 

Samuel: I think you and Bret were at the show in LA. Anthony Kiedis came in and we were having a big jam — he looked at Luke playing with his pedals, and for about three minutes while Luke was having a jam, he looked very closely at what Luke was doing, and then walked out again. It was like a weird fever dream. But I guess that’s what happens in America. I was talking to the band afterwards, and no one else saw him.

Luke: I still don’t believe him, to be honest.

Samuel: I did go talk to the bartender about it and was like, “did Anthony Kiedis come in?” And he was like, “yeah, he lives around the corner, he comes in”—

Jemaine: To check out people’s pedals.

Samuel: He walks in and out of gigs all the time, it’s just what he does. Unless the bartender was a ghost as well.

Jemaine: What are your influences on this album? Because I’ve noticed lots of new tones I haven’t heard from you before. 

Samuel: I think on this album, we’ve been less afraid of showing our influences. I think the last couple of records, we really tried to make everything like a brand new sound.

Jemaine: But because this one has so many things you haven’t heard before, like an orchestra leading to a whistling solo —

Samuel: And also female voices makes it feel very different. 

Jemaine: You have your first song, “Guru.” 

Samuel: That’s very Television influenced. 

Jemaine: How’s that? Is Television a band?

Samuel: [Laughs.] Yes, Television the band. 

Jemaine: Well, I work in TV, so that’s what I think when someone says “television.”

Luke: Do you say that? Like if someone goes, “what do you do?” — 

Jemaine: “I work in TV.” [Laughs.]

Luke: “I’ve never heard of the band Television, but I’m familiar with the business.”

Jemaine: [Laughs.] That song reminded me of some Eastern scales, like something you would write on one of those organs people play in a yoga class. But it also reminded me of The Stranglers. Do you like The Stranglers? 

Samuel: Yeah, yeah, The Stranglers are great.

Luke: I think the Eastern scale thing, that’s in theme with the song, right? 

Jemaine: Well, what is the song about? 

Samuel: Well, to be honest, I was walking along and I just went, [sings] “I don’t need a guru, maybe you do, maybe voodoo,” just kind of singing it to myself. 

Jemaine: The song doesn’t sound anything like that. Is that what the lyrics are?

Samuel: Yeah, that’s how it starts out. I just sat there like, oh, I better go write a song that starts with that line, because it feels like the start of a song. Then I had to kind of think of what the song was about. It might be the one track on the album where the lyrics are a bit perplexing and abstracted. Whereas, I think a big theme of this record was us not trying to hide our intentions behind mystical, spacey imagery and stuff. 

Jemaine: Which I would say The Beatles started that, with songs about like “sitting on a cornflake” — songs where the lyrics are possibly nonsense, but definitely open to your interpretation. [“Guru”] reminds me of The Beatles’ Eastern phase a little bit, but it has some ‘80s beats, and then other things that don’t sound familiar to mem

Samuel: I think it very much sounds like the band Television in a lot of ways, or like Iggy Pop a little bit in the way that I’m singing. It’s the lowest I’ve ever sung.

Jemaine: Yeah, that’s what reminded me of The Stranglers. 

Samuel: It’s one of those things where the guitar solo is very worked out, like it’s gonna be this shape and it’s gonna go through this kind of mystical phase into this blues-y phase, into this kind of rockin’ bit. 

Jemaine: Rather than improv.

Samuel: Yeah, rather than jamming out. I guess what we’d maybe do in the past would be more like, we’ll build an intricate arrangement of synthesizers and it will kind of swirl around in this interesting way. Whereas this one is very much a kind of composed guitar story. 

Jemaine: The whole album is quite intricate, like so many layers. Especially when you have an orchestra, and working out how to make that fit with a band. So many great harmonies. There’s so much thought put into it. 

Luke: Too much.

Jemaine: No, I don’t think too much!

Samuel: I think we’ve always been really obsessed with layers, and I think sometimes we’ve gotten to the point where there’s so many layers in a song, you can’t hear some of the coolest bits. 

Jemaine: It’s hard to stop yourself. But I think it’s really well-chosen.

Since 2015’s GUYD The Phoenix Foundation have been writing, recording, touring with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestracreating the acclaimed soundtrack for Hunt For The Wilderpeople, building shrines to light, creating scores for VR, producing other artists and baking sourdough. Now they are ready to release some more music into the swirling oblivion that is 2020.