‘Trying not to be funny was a challenge’: Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie on his serious solo debut

He has written duets for man and Muppet, parodied Morrissey in The Simpsons, and become Hollywood’s go-to for bringing ‘heart’ to the movies. Now he’s ready to see if people want to hear the guy behind the gags

When he was “around 14”, Bret McKenzie became obsessed with the Leonard Cohen album I’m Your Man. Its synth-heavy tales of geopolitics, romantic devotion and the poems of Federico García Lorca made it an unusual choice for a pubescent boy in suburban New Zealand. Nevertheless, at school, he and his friends would happily sing along to tracks such as Jazz Police and First We Take Manhattan when passing between lessons.

As they sang, McKenzie listened to the voices of his peers, plumbing Cohen’s baritone depths. Meanwhile his own, still unbroken, squeaked along beside them. Even then, he saw the comedy in this collision: the autumnal wit of the lyrics, the juvenile scratch of the voice. It instilled in him a new sense of how songs could be: “Serious, but also strange, and funny in a weird way,” is how he describes it. “I think that’s always stuck with me.”

Over the past 25 years, McKenzie, 46, has forged a career that has existed in a similar space; songs born at the precise meeting point of sincerity and humour. He made his name as one half of Flight of the Conchords, the comedy duo he formed with his university flatmate Jemaine Clement that grew from the live comedy circuit of New Zealand to a BBC Radio 2 series, an HBO sitcom, sold-out arena shows and a Grammy award for best comedy album.

Rainbow connection … McKenzie teams up with Kermit (left) for the Muppets reboots.
Rainbow connection … McKenzie teams up with Kermit (left) for the Muppets reboots. Photograph: Zachary Scott

Later, he would move into creating scores for film and television, writing songs for big-budget projects such as The Simpsons and the Muppets, while taking up occasional acting roles in films such as The Lord of the Rings and Austenland. His work has been marked by its delight, innovation and wordplay.

This year, McKenzie’s career takes an unexpected turn with the release of his first non-comedy solo record, Songs Without Jokes. Its tracks carry notes of Steely Dan, Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman, its contributors include some of Los Angeles’ most-revered session musicians, and while there is unquestionably great wit at play, there is also sincerity and real tenderness.

“To try and not be funny was a curious songwriting challenge,” says McKenzie, speaking from his home studio in Wellington, New Zealand. “When I started, I felt a little naked, because I think in comedy songs you’re hiding behind jokes. You don’t really open yourself up.”

This is not to suggest the new songs are wildly exposing or unduly austere; rather they just land differently. “There’s still a bit of a lyrical playfulness that I find hard to resist,” he says. “But it was interesting even starting to play these songs to other people and see they were all surprised – this is not what they were expecting.”

McKenzie is well aware of what people have come to expect from him. “I’m hired to put the heart into songs or projects,” is how he explains it. “They’ve got this idea or this thing that they know they can make money from, but they need your soul to put into these songs or these scripts. And the more songs I’ve done for film, the more I’ve learned that if you can get that heart into a song, it can transcend the Hollywood process.”

A good example is Man or Muppet, a track from 2011’s The Muppets that scored McKenzie an Oscar for best original song. The song performs like a traditional power ballad, uniting two characters – human Jason Segel and Muppet Walter – in an emotional climax as each suddenly sees some aspect of himself in the other. “And so I wrote it the way you would write a genuine, heartfelt ballad,” McKenzie says. “But the material is about being a man or a muppet.”

You can trace a similar subversion through his work with Flight of the Conchords. Business Time, for instance, which appeared on the duo’s debut EP, struck the seductive tone of a Barry White number, while its lyrics told of eroticism eroded by domestic routine: “Girl, tonight we’re gonna make love,” it purred. “You know how I know? Because it’s Wednesday / And Wednesday is the night that we usually make love.”

McKenzie with Jemaine Clement (right) in Flight of the Conchords.
Timeless flight … McKenzie with Jemaine Clement (right) in Flight of the Conchords. Photograph: PR

McKenzie recalls how devoted he and Clement were to honing their songwriting. “We used to spend hours singing the same song over and over and over again, just to figure out the way to get a lyric to sit perfectly,” he says. “Because you change a couple of words here or there and sometimes it doesn’t fit, and then you’d be singing and miss the word for the next line.”

Still, it took some time for Hollywood to warm to the pair – or perhaps for them to come to understand the peculiar dance of showbusiness in Los Angeles. McKenzie recalls driving between meetings with studio executives, Clement in the passenger seat, their agent on speakerphone imploring them to just bring a little more pep to their next meeting. “He’d say: ‘Try putting a bit more energy in. Just try it – just be a bit more enthusiastic.’”

Even when he began working with Disney, the studio seemed sceptical about McKenzie’s ability to write songs for the Muppets. And when he wrote Man or Muppet, they weren’t entirely convinced by it. “I had to record another version of the same song because they didn’t really like that one,” he says. “They didn’t really believe I could do it.” He smiles. “Anyway since then they’re obviously very supportive and I’ve been really lucky,” he adds, diplomatically. “But also it was a cultural adjustment.”

These days, McKenzie regards the film songwriting process as half puzzle, half sorcery. “The job is quite a lot like doing crosswords or sudokus,” he says, “but for me it’s usually about getting the melody and the lyric idea. It’s like alchemy where you get it to fuse, I guess. And when I get that right I can usually tell, because I can keep playing it over and over and over again and I still enjoy it.”

Songs Without Jokes took root in the film sessions McKenzie worked on in Los Angeles. Standing in some of the best recording studios in the world, he was surrounded by acclaimed musicians such as guitarist Dean Parks and bassist Lee Sklar, producer and pianist Drew Erickson and drummer Joey Waronker, marvelling at their skill, and startled by the faith they had in him.

“I’d had this idea of wanting to do something different and I mentioned it to Lee one day,” he remembers. “And he was so positive and enthusiastic. He said: ‘That sounds great, I’m in!’ It was a cool moment for me, because his enthusiasm for the idea and his willingness to be involved gave me this real boost of: OK, I should do this! I should go for it!”

He lights up when he talks about this time, these players; of the day Parks rolled up to the studio with a truckload of 100 guitars, of the art of capturing “the weird, awkward, bluesy LA sound” of Steely Dan, and of how Chris Caswell, the longstanding composer and arranger for the Muppets, is himself “quite Muppet-y in a way”.

“Most of them are from a different generation of musician,” McKenzie says. “They’re pre-cut and paste. They just do whole takes of the song, and the takes are really great. People don’t really play like that so much now; I think a lot of songs now are written in pieces and then put together.”

McKenzie celebrates his Oscar win at the Academy Awards in 2012
McKenzie celebrates his Oscar win at the Academy Awards in 2012. Photograph: Peter Brooker/RexX/Shutterstock

McKenzie was keen to conjure a similar era of songwriting and musicianship for the album. Over the years he had collected a number of songs, all without jokes, often written at night and when his children were small. He used his family as a kind of quality control: if his wife poked her head around the door and asked whether he had recorded the track she overheard him playing, he knew he was on to a winner. Similarly, if he heard his children still singing along to one of the tunes the next morning, he knew he’d written something catchy. “It was like the ‘old grey whistle test’ at home,” he says.

Out of these home recordings, he and producer Mickey Petralia, with whom McKenzie had worked on Flight of the Conchords and Muppets material, began to assemble demos. Initially aiming for a 70s sound, their shared love for synthesisers and drum machines inevitably brought in an 80s vibe. “I feel something happened in the 70s and 80s in these recording studios that makes me wish I was there,” McKenzie says. “It just sounds like it was such a golden time of recording, and at these studios in Los Angeles that I was working in, so many of the records on the walls are from that period, and were records I aspired to.”

McKenzie was also struck by the speed with which the session players were able to work. “It’s crazy, the wisdom they have, the studio wisdom, the little things that can really help with the recording process,” he says. With the session musicians on side, he and Petralia reasoned they could make an album in four days flat.

It actually took two and a half years. McKenzie looks sheepish when asked where the delay occurred. “The singing, basically,” he laughs. “All my demos have a real lo-fi, indie looseness to them, because my playing is a little more low-key,” he explains. “But suddenly when the band was super-slick I was like: ‘Oh my God! I’ve really got to pick up my game here, guys!’ So that was a big challenge.” The trick, he says, was to sing the songs over and over, to settle them in. “And I realise now that I’m getting a little more experienced and that I should pay a bit more attention to what key a song is in before I record it.”

McKenzie has now been home for three years – the result of New Zealand’s controlled approach to the pandemic. He talks of how good it has been to spend time with his wife and three children, but a flicker of cabin fever moves across his face as he speaks. “That’s a pretty big shift for me after living and working in Los Angeles, and travelling, and touring for probably 20 years,” he says. “It’s pretty strange.”

Still, there has been an unexpected richness to these landlocked months in his homeland. “There’s a thing with New Zealand where lots of people leave for work opportunities and things,” he says. “But during Covid everyone came back, because it seemed like a good place to be. So it’s been quite an interesting time in Wellington, because there’s been all these cool people returning with all these cool skills.” And McKenzie has kept busy. Just prior to lockdown he was workshopping a musical adaptation of George Saunders’ story The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, with the director Lyndsey Turner and the playwright Tim Price. Since then there have been songs for a Ron Howard-directed animation, the possible revival of a long back-burnered Hollywood project about a man stuck in a musical, and, of course, an episode of The Simpsons titled Panic on the Streets of Springfield, in which he parodied the work of Morrissey.

McKenzie laughs as he recalls writing the track Everyone Is Horrid Except Me (and Possibly You) and the subsequent “weird 2am Zoom session with Benedict Cumberbatch [who in the episode plays Quilloughby, lead singer of The Snuffs] doing his best Morrissey impression”. It was not a particularly big ask. “I’m a pretty big Smiths fan, so it wasn’t hard for me to channel that sound,” he says. “It was just really fun to write an overly dramatic melody. We had a ball.”

The long stretch at home has also given him time to contemplate a Flight of the Conchords reunion. “I don’t know what it would be, and I can only speak for myself, but I’m probably more interested than I would’ve been in the past,” he says. “There’s just been enough time, enough distance; I try and do things that I will find fun, and I think that could be a fun thing to do now.”

For the time being he is looking forward to touring the new record, to being in the room with actual people once more. “I spent too much time working at home. It’s the same for everyone,” he sighs. Still, the task of remote working has meant McKenzie has been reminded afresh just how strange, and funny, and serious and weird his job can sometimes be.

“I do all these Zooms and these emails,” he says, “it’s like having an office job. But then I realise the subject matter is ‘singing unicorns’.”

Bret McKenzie’s Songs Without Jokes is released 26 August via Sub Pop.


Laura Barton

The GuardianTramp

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