Wellington art-rock institution The Phoenix Foundation have had an epiphany with their new album. The band explain all to James Milne.

Give Up Your Dreams

is a compelling title - one which inevitably makes you go "huh?" and wonder why The Phoenix Foundation chose it for the band's sixth album.

You'd think they've done pretty well with their dreams: critical acclaim in New Zealand, Australia, Europe, and the UK, sold-out tours, festival appearances (including Glastonbury), four of their past five albums have charted in the top 10, they've had 18 NZ Music Award nominations and six wins they've written soundtracks to great Kiwi films like Eagle vs Shark and Boy, and they wrote an awesome tribute song for Black Cap skipper Brendan McCullum called Big Mac.

But receiving critical rather than commercial success has occasionally had them doubting whether they should make music for a living, and feeling frustrated with their dreams.


Which is what led fellow alt-pop proponent Lawrence Arabia, aka James Milne, to give them that key advice. While supporting The Phoenix Foundation on their Fandango tour in the UK, he introduced the idea that giving up their aspirations would give them greater enjoyment in making music.

"I remember the conversation we had in Manchester quite specifically," Samuel Flynn Scott explains. "James almost got a little bit sick of us talking about ourselves maybe, not in an aggressive way, but I just remember him saying, 'What are you guys talking about? You're beating yourselves up about this radio thing, but we're here on tour, we're gonna play this good gig! Enjoy it.'"

Lukasz Buda remembers a different conversation, but came away with the same message.

So seeing he's become their career counsellor, we asked Milne to quiz Scott and Buda - the band's frontline - on why they chose to make that advice the central theme of their album and how they feel after more than 20 years making music together. Here's some highlights of their conversation ...

On whether they've successfully given up their dreams:


I really feel like I took it on board. I definitely tried to actually genuinely change that part of my brain that feels a bit jealous when I see other bands doing well overseas or when I hear that a song hasn't been picked up by a radio station, and try to actually expect those things, and expect things to not go well, so that when things do go well, I feel really good about it, and when they don't go well, that's what I was expecting to happen anyway. Which is hard. It's hard to do that to yourself.

Buda: I certainly haven't been able to. And I know that's stupid, but I can't - it's like that thing in Interstellar, when Matt Damon, says, 'That's the amazing thing about humans isn't it, that in the face of just totally insurmountable odds, we still fight for survival'. I think no matter what, you still go, 'Oh well I hope that this will do alright'. But I'm trying, I'm trying to embrace the idea of giving up dreams.

Working through tough times



I think I got a bit depressed after Fandango to be honest, I think I went through a dark night of the soul, and keeping busy and getting into making music once more helped to keep my mind off that. The only thing that kept me from spiralling in a circle of doom in my own head was making heaps and heaps of demos for the band. I was like, 'Ok, get the computer out and put the headphones on', because then there's only one thing that I'm thinking about, and that's this sound, in the headphones.

Milne: Sam did you also have a dark night of the soul?

Scott: No, I think I'm blessed, and sometimes I think I'm cursed, with an inherent indifference to whatever is happening, good or bad, in some ways. But also, the main thing that I felt around Fandango was, I was definitely frustrated in the same way Luke was, but I felt that any frustration I had was completely overwhelmed by his level of frustration.

So when we came back from Europe I was like, "Oh my God, Luke is so worried about the band, what are we going to do, I don't want Luke to be stressed out, I don't want to lose money, ahhhhh!" And then my back blew out [slipped disc and pinched sciatic nerve], and we had the New Zealand tour, and I couldn't think about anything, because I was drugged. My relationship with Luke changed quite a lot, because we always share a room, and I became entirely reliant on Luke to put my socks on and help carry me to the stage.

Working out what they had to offer


It's like "Well I've got a music career, and I've got respect, and I've got connections, but I'm not going to be on the Edge, and I'm not going to be an international star, then what have I got to offer? What will people be interested in?" And I think the only thing we have to offer that's worth selling, is how interesting something is. So it should be as interesting as you can possibly make it... so often people take the interesting edges off something to make it more commercial, but that's only going to work if it's completely commercial. We've always felt that.

Milne: We just can't rely on our sex appeal anymore [laughter].

Scott: No, I do think it's a trap to try and pursue a scene, especially as you grow older, it's acknowledging the limitations of something, and acknowledging that in your mid-30s you're not actually going to be cool anymore. And I think you have to be comfortable with your cardigan dorkiness.

On making the new album


I was pretty determined to do something completely different, which was kind of a reaction to Fandango I suppose, and the fact that it was often described as a real slow burner. And I was thinking about what Sam said, about what you have to offer, and what are the unique things the band has to offer? And what are the things about the band I'm most excited about at the moment? And the thing I was most excited about was our rhythm section, and if I'm going to be honest, I suppose we're quite a high facility band, so we can play some pretty hard stuff.

I know that maybe sounds weird, but I felt determined to do something different, and to highlight these things, and in order to do that I wanted to smash around the process completely, and I can see why Sam was frustrated by that, because the process I was pushing for was not really from a songwriting point of view. This time I was going, let's be a more of a post-rocky kind of, I don't know how to describe it, kind of an orchestra.

Scott: The thing is that's never been something I've been passionate about, so it had to come full circle, and still have songwriting elements. There was one record I really didn't like and I was really scared that's what we were going towards, and that was the Thom Yorke/Atoms for Peace album Amok.

I just had such a bad reaction to that, and so at the start of the recording process I was like, 'I don't want to make an Atoms for Peace sounding record, I don't want to make some contemporary prog, up-its-own-anus music - even though I love Thom Yorke in lots of other instances. But I think what we did was close to Kraut and Afrobeat, in that there was a fun-ness to it. What Luke was coming in with was pretty fun, especially once we had Bob Lennon John Dylan on the go.

On sticking together after 20 years:


Once you've been doing it for this long, you actually get beyond the point of angst, and if you find you're in disagreement, you go, "I don't really like the way this is going, but then again, if I just go and make a cup of tea, by the time I come back, I might've gotten used to the idea, or they might've changed something, or realised my idea was better."

Milne: Oddly enough, your failure to achieve your ultimate dreams has probably ensured your longevity to some degree, because people suffer when they achieve the apex of that mega success, you know, maybe having to tour 18 months in a row, which means your band relationships break down. But because you guys have had critical success rather than huge commercial success you've been able to temper some of those things, and last as a band.

Buda: Yeah exactly. And we're a bit older now, so we've just gotten used to certain quirks and we're a bit better at dealing with them. On tour we get a bit sick of each other, but we're just better now, at knowing what our limits are and what other people's limits are, and what we can do when we're getting annoyed. And I think ... because we've built up very slowly, we've had a lot of time to learn these things and acclimatise to each new experience.

Who: Samuel Flynn Scott and Lukasz Buda of The Phoenix Foundation
What: New album Give Up Your Dreams
Where and when: The album is out today.
Tour dates: San Fran, Wellington on Friday September 18; Cabana in Napier, Saturday September 19; Allen Street Rock Bar, Christchurch on Thursday September 24; Sammy's, Dunedin on Friday September 25; Sherwood, Queenstown on Saturday September 26; Mayfair in New Plymouth, Thursday October 1; Powerstation, Auckland on Friday October 2, Mauau Performing Arts Centre, Tauranga on Saturday October 3.

- TimeOut