Friday, June 15, 2007

The kiwis invade, casually

This weekend marks the invasion of the kiwis, as both the box office and the boob tube welcome quirky New Zealand products. First, the film Eagle Vs. Shark hits theaters Friday (in limited run,) closely followed by the HBO television premiere of Flight of the Conchords on Sunday. To be more accurate, though, it's truly a Wellington invasion, as this NZ town is the home to the creators and stars of both. Add to that the band The Phoenix Foundation, who wrote the music for Eagle Vs. Shark, and it's like the entire Wellington scene has mounted an attack on our fair shores.

Album: The Phoenix Foundation - Horsepower
Download: "Sister Risk" (via Young American Records)

The Phoenix Foundation just finished touring in support of their debut album Horsepower, a great indie rock synthesis of folk and atmospherics ala Grandaddy or early Beta Band. They're widely considered New Zealand's best band and I had the honor to talk via phone and over a few beers, mostly with singer Sam Scott - main singer and one of the songwriters in the group. The following interview is cobbled together from our communications while they were in Seattle for Eagle vs. Shark's SIFF premiere.

DL: So how did TPF get involved with Eagle Vs. Shark?

Sam Scott: Wellington's not that big of a place, so we all [director Taika Waititi (Cohen) and actor Jemaine Clement were also in a comedy duo called The Humourbeasts] knew of each other from going out to parties and clubs. Apparently Taika was listening to our album Horsepower while writing it, and when he approached us, knowing he'd been nominated for an Oscar [for the short, Two Cars, One Night,] we were like "yeah, I think we'd be into that" as it would be an awesome opportunity. While we're influenced by bands like The Pixies, Velvet Underground and the like, we're also influenced by a lot of soundtrack music. Conrad Wedde [guitarist for TPF] did a lot of the compositions for the film and he and Luke (Buda) are really into Vangellis, Ennio Morricone, and things like that. There's this, I guess I'd call it landscape music that we're into... kind dreamy.. atmospheric...

DL: Kind of like the French band Air?

SS: Yeah... we're very much influenced by Air in a lot of ways. Which is funny because they were backed at one point by the band Phoenix, and a lot people thought we took our name from that, knowing we were into Air.

DL: Speaking of your name, I'm interested in hearing about the origin of the band name, knowing that there's a couple interesting possibilities.

SS: It was from the television show MacGyver [the corporation that Richard Dean Anderson's character worked for] but also kind of making joke of DJ groups in Wellington who had names like the Roots Foundation... Dub Foundation and names like that. It's sort of a silly name in light of that, but here it is nearly ten years later and we can't change it now. But MacGyver was a cool show when we were kids so...

DL: But then there's also the...

SS: Oh yeah... then years later we were googling the name and up comes this right-wing business group that tried to cause coups in various countries, to create their own... uh...

DL: Yeah, in the South Pacific [Minerva, and later in the Bahamas with Abaco,] they tried to create these libertarian enclaves, essentially tax havens.

SS: Yeah, but they never managed to do it. But that's just about the worst thing that we wanted to be associated with. We're pretty left wing and happily pay our taxes.

DL: So is it weird at all to be touring in support of an album you recorded four years ago?

SS: It should be weird, but it's not because we quite like the songs and it feels like the right way to introduce ourselves to America, the sort of starting point for the band. We didn't want to forget about that album, and I think we're going to get our next album [Pegasus] out fairly soon... late this year or early next. Hopefully then we'll be up to speed by next year.

DL: Musically, New Zealand has had only a peripheral influence on America at best. Neil and Tim Finn [Split Enz, Finn Brothers,] Chris Knox [Tall Dwarfs and Toy Love,] Martin Phillips [The Chills,] The Clean are what comes to mind when...

EVERYONE: We love The Clean! They're definitely a big influence on us.

DL: I thought so... them and possibly a bit of The Chills came to mind when I thought NZ bands with you.

SS: Not so much The Chills for me, but definitely The Clean.

DL: Knowing their limited sales here in the states, do you see it as a challenge? I mean, even Neil Finn's popularity here is via Australia (with Crowded House.)

SS: Yeah, I guess it's a challenge, but we'd certainly be happy with the level that The Clean acheived. We're not in it to make loads of money, just enough to keep putting out music for people to hear. And being associated with the movie helps, I hope.

SS: Speaking of that, it seems like there's a kiwi invasion afoot with you guys, the film and Flight of the Conchords all coming at once... is there more on the way?

SS: It's funny, almost like Wellington's taking up residence here in the states or something. And yes, there's certainly more where we came from.

Later in the evening, Scott and Buda quickly give me a list of other NZ bands that are golden in their minds: Lawrence Arabia, The Reduction Agents and The Mint Chicks. All worth definitely worth checking out.

They play their set, which shows their musical growth since the casual masterpiece of the their debut. "We've changed the songs a bit live, speeding up the tempo and making them a bit punchier," says Scott, and it shows. Pegasus came out in 2005 to rave reviews in NZ (see video for song "Hitchcock,") and they've got another album at the ready. Meanwhile, last year both Sam Scott (as Samuel Flynn Scott, see "War over Water,") and Luke Buda released solo albums (Conrad Wedde has one the works as well,) but you can only find Buda's electro-pop gem Special Surprise here if you look (Buda thinks this is due to Arch Hill Records association with Touch & Go.) A track from this also appears on the soon to be released Eagle Vs Shark Original Soundtrack.

"Going Fishing" is the first single from the soundtrack, and features snippets from the film. The song shows a bit of the Grandaddy love...

Eagle Vs Shark Original Soundtrack is available currently only through iTunes

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