Bret McKenzie tells Greg Bruce some hard truths about the world of musical comedy and beyond.
He's 43 now and he's starting to forget things. People approach him on the street and quote Flight of the Conchords jokes he can't remember. He can't remember exactly when the television series that made him internationally famous was filmed - he can remember it was cold but he can't remember whether that was during series one or series two or both. The other day he listened to a demo of one of his songs, which he does not recollect writing or recording.
Thousands of times now, he has played the songs with which he and Jemaine Clement reinvented musical comedy. They're no longer funny to him. He says they stopped being funny after the first 10or so performances. From that point, he's had to fake it. When he goes into the studio to record a song, he says, he hears that song for 11 straight hours. "It's absurd," he says. "By the time I've finished, I don't really want to hear it again."
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He hasn't forgotten how to be funny. A year ago, he and Clement released a new song, Father and Son, which contains comfortably as many laughs as the material with which they rode to stardom. The pair hardly ever perform together anymore but the comedy of Father and Son feels as natural and unstrained and genuine as all their best work.
"I don't think of that as something that's hard to do now," McKenzie says. "Whenever I'm working on projects, I'm not particularly worried about making them funny. I feel like, 'Oh we'll be able to do that.' It's how to make them work emotionally, or thematically connect things. That's what I find more interesting now."
That's all well and good now he's a multimillionaire with a Grammy and an Oscar; and he and Clement can sell out London's 20,000 capacity O2 arena three nights running, as they did 18 months ago and as they could do pretty much whenever they choose to tour, which is almost never. McKenzie's a bigshot. He can do pretty much whatever he wants. Can't he?
Kemi Whitwell and Niko Leyden are married Wellington artists who work together to create public sculptures that invite you to think about the way we live, travel and interact. They consider their whole lives to be part of their work and they attach their names equally to the projects they produce regardless of who does most of the "work" because they consider the "work" to be a 24-hour act of mutual support.
They live the economically precarious lives of people who have committed full-time to their art but have not yet experienced the life-changing success of, say, an international hit television series or Grammy-winning album.
Last summer, they were getting ready to move from too-expensive Wellington, where they had lived for 10 years, to the relative affordability of the west coast of the South Island. They had just finished an exhibition where they had created a mock luxury-goods-style store stocked entirely with ocean plastics and they were dismantling it when Leyden spotted bigshot musical comedian McKenzie exercising in a park across the road.
She had with her some ocean plastic heart sculptures and a book about one of their earlier exhibitions, involving tiny backcountry huts. She went up to say hi, tell him she was a fan and give him the hearts and the book. He glanced at the book and said, "I've been looking for you."
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This sort of thing is so Wellington.
McKenzie is the biggest of the three bigshot guest curators for next month's New Zealand Festival of the Arts, for which he has arranged a whole lot of shows, none of which is comedy: a bunch of cool indie musicians, a theatrical music experience, a classical Indian musical performer, and an avant-garde play in development, for which he's writing the songs.
One other thing he wanted to include was the work of some artists whose exhibition a few years earlier he had seen and enjoyed but he didn't know who the artists were, so he asked the festival organisers to find them. They couldn't.
"Literally, the people at the festival whose job it is to find artists couldn't find them. I thought, 'If they can't find them, how on earth are we going to find them?' It's not my job to do this. I don't know how you find artists."
Then one morning he was out exercising in a Wellington park when he was approached by one of the artists, proclaiming herself a fan, bearing gifts, including some plastic hearts and a book about an exhibition she and her husband had put on a couple of years before.
McKenzie says, "It's the sort of thing Aucklanders would describe as 'so Wellington'."
The exhibition Whitwell and Leyden will put on in this year's festival is a larger scale version of the exhibition McKenzie had seen and loved four or five years ago. They will create and install a series of tiny huts at locations around the Wellington countryside and provide a sort of treasure map for people to find them.
A few weeks ago, I met them and McKenzie at Wellington's Shelly Bay. They had towed a flatbed trailer to the beachfront and there they began to unfold it, lift its sides and erect its roof. Within minutes, it had become a tiny hut, much smaller than a caravan, not big enough for McKenzie to stand up in, but nevertheless a dwelling of many surprises and delights. It had drawers, cupboards, a kitchen, an underfloor basin, a long-drop, air vents, windows, secret compartments, an awning, chrome dome hubcaps, even a deck. An inner tube around a window acted as a seal to repel drafts and insects. It was made almost entirely of salvaged materials, including wood sourced from McKenzie's dad's property. The metal and some of the fixtures were from a caravan, canvas came from an old Scout tent, the central ridge pole was from an old tent belonging to the family of a friend from the West Coast. It was waterproof. It wasn't quite finished but when it was, it would be windproof.
They call it "Roaming Hut". It's bigger than the other huts they're installing around the Wellington region as part of what they're calling Urban Hut Club. It will travel around the city and region during the festival, both as part of the exhibition and a sort of promotional tool for it.
It was the first time McKenzie had seen the hut.
"It's bloody great!" he said. "It's like a tiny house - a tiny, tiny house."
"A nano house," Whitwell said.
"Look how cute this is!" McKenzie said.
The exhibition will invite people to connect, with the huts, with the short stories that will be left there by local writers, and with other visitors - both in person and through the messages they are invited to leave. It will also express the artists' dissatisfaction with the cleanness, smoothness and glossiness of things these days. It contains within it a manifesto for a slow architecture and a rough, rustic minimalism.
It's both a remarkable feat of engineering and a work of art.
Collaborations are a big part of McKenzie's deal. Not just the obvious ones with Clement, but the more recent ones with big-name international musicians, comedians, movie-makers and other creatives; also the earlier ones with the wider Wellington community of comedians and performers who clustered around BATS Theatre during and after McKenzie's student days and now this most recent one, bringing artists to the people of New Zealand.
"I don't go tramping anymore," McKenzie said. "I used to tramp a bit when I was a kid but one thing that's really weird is when you're in a city and you walk down the street, people don't say hello to each other, but once you walk into the bush you start saying hello to each other ... In the hut you end up talking all night and hanging out and eating dinner, probably, together with strangers. So it's kind of cool the idea of trying to get that into bringing city people together."
Leyden says: "Art is about, like, yeah, providing experiences or interactions you wouldn't necessarily seek out, but are actually really important."
Logbooks, for people to record thoughts and feelings, often feature in Whitwell and Leyden's work. Whitwell says: "That is another coming together space where people have been opening themselves up and really letting out really vulnerable stuff. You can read other people's and see the wider community, what's playing on people's minds and stuff like that. The other huts will have that as well and it can be quite touching. Just this huge, wide range."
The chance meeting of people in communal spaces in urban environments is so central to Whitwell and Leyden's past and present work that it makes their chance meeting with McKenzie in a communal space in an urban environment a suspiciously ideal origin story, for marketing purposes at least.
Leyden says, "When I say the whole of our life is an artwork, those are kind of the cues life gives you that we follow. It works in with our whole philosophy around life quite well. On a smaller scale, things like that do happen quite a lot for us."
Pragmatism is part of their philosophy too, though. The precariousness of their existence as full-time artists, dependent for a decade on the low rent maintained by a benevolent landlord, led them to dream of building a living space that would be permanently theirs, portable, and able to act as a travelling workshop and exhibition space. They prospectively named it: "Tin Can Glamour Van", although that name hasn't stuck. "Now we've got real metal, which lasts longer," Leyden says.
The night before I met them, Roaming Hut had provided accommodation for the artists and their 3-year-old daughter, while the family were between house-sits.
"The vulnerability of being artists means it's important to have a space you can be yourself," Leyden says.
It's both a remarkable feat of engineering and a place to live.
Urban Hut Project will involve maps, driving, walking, cycling, trying to figure out how to get to stuff. McKenzie says that's something he and his kids found appealing last time: "It's quite different to an art gallery, where you know a picture's going to be there or a thing's going to be there. You've been walking around, so when you found it, it was an enormous sort of sense of achievement and excitement."
"We're all about putting in effort," Leyden says. "More effort equals more joy."
A lot of being an artist is getting turned down. Many times, to many institutions, Whitwell and Leyden have proposed concepts similar to the one around which Urban Hut Project will revolve - and every time they've been rejected.
Whitwell says: "If they had been accepted none of them would have turned out as well as this and we wouldn't necessarily have been able to do it here."
Leyden says: We're going to do art no matter what happens, so when things like this happen we know we're on the right track."
Theirs seems like such a precarious existence. Hopefully this is their big break but it must be hard to live on that precipice, constantly needing someone to accept your ideas in order for you to live, or even just to continue pursuing your dreams. They see it from another angle.
"Having a more conventional lifestyle is hard for people," Whitwell says.
"Life is just hard," Leyden says.
"Life is just hard no matter which way," Whitwell says. "I guess we've had enough experience at precarious life that we ..."
"Resilience is a big thing for us and should be for everyone really," Leyden says.
Later, after they left, McKenzie said: "They're so cool, so sweet, and they're honestly so f***ing stoked to be doing it. So many people I work with are so jaded. Genuinely, they love it and they said, 'This is an amazing opportunity; we're getting paid to do what we want to do,' so for them it's been huge. That's really probably been one of the most rewarding things, is giving them an opportunity they're really excited about. That's been quite amazing. I've loved that."
n the last Conchords tour in mid-2018, in trying to write some new songs, McKenzie and Clement found they were starting to repeat themselves, writing songs they'd already written.
"We've written maybe 60 or 70 comedy songs," McKenzie says now, "maybe more, including the ones that sort of didn't get finished. We definitely found ourselves having to work quite hard to find material that we hadn't already done, that wasn't another version of a similar idea. It was quite funny. Not funny, quite ... interesting."
McKenzie was talking recently with one of his friends, the brilliant, lauded, successful American comic Demetri Martin, who beat him and Clement to the supreme Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2003. Martin, now 46, told him: "I tour a lot and it's kind of lonely. You're touring around America, going to these hotels, these s***ty hotels, by yourself - or even not s***ty hotels - you're like a travelling salesman, right? And you're standing there making stupid dick jokes. It was all good when we were 20, like, 'Yeah we're getting paid to go and make dick jokes!' Then 30, and you're like, 'I've got this job - I get paid really well to do this, it's really fun!' Then you're 40. Like, 'This is kinda weird, making these stupid jokes.'"
McKenzie says: "I think it'll get good again once we're, like, 70."
He spends more of his time now on music projects, his own and other people's. He often gets asked to write songs for movies based on books or toys or other easily marketed and merchandisable concepts. "That's the list I'm on," he says.
He's in his 40s now, which is an age at which he says we find out that no one really knows what they're doing.
I asked him: "Does there come a point where we get the knowledge? Or do we just give up and start winging it?"
"Yeah, I don't know," he said. "We'll find that out in our 50s."
As a struggling artist, you do what you want and hope one day people will pay you big money and/or your life will improve. As a bigshot, you do what people pay you big money for and/or hope your life won't get any worse. In the first case, you're chasing success; in the second, you're avoiding failure.
"Film and TV are pretty attractive areas to work in," McKenzie says. "You have success in that and then weirdly it becomes less fun the more successful you are. It's pretty odd because there's so much responsibility in those industries to deliver the product, whatever it is."
Another way of looking at the same problem: When we get what we want, it doesn't feel the way we'd imagined.
I said: "Part of it is the fantasy, isn't it? You're attracted by the fantasy."
"Yeah, that's true," he said. "Yeah. I think I need a new fantasy."
I asked what bits from his and Clement's acclaimed, beloved, now-legendary, infinitely-quoted, embedded-in-the-culture, hit HBO television series he felt they had really nailed. He said: "I think the recording of the Mutha'Uckas song is really good, it really holds up, and the recording of Inner City Pressure really holds up. It's actually a really good recording."
Because I had been expecting him to quote favourite lines, gags or scenes and because that was not what he'd done and because I was confused as to exactly what he was going on about, I asked for clarification.
"The sound of it," he said. "The playing, the music - some of them sound a bit s***ty but some of those are really quite magic - like things fell in place. Like the recording, the performance, the song: it all kind of worked."
Seriously? Regarding his groundbreaking, globally successful television series, with its multiple Emmy nominations, genre-shifting scripts and ongoing comedic influence, the thing he was most proud of was the quality of the sound recordings? I expressed surprise. He surprised me by also expressing surprise.
"Oh yeah," he said, thoughtfully. "Yeah. True. I guess that's what I'm more interested in. Yeah."
I'm no mathemagician but it felt like this was all adding up to something fairly obvious - or possibly obvious to everyone but him. It looked like comedy was maybe not his ongoing passion but just a phase in his life, now past. I wondered if I should put that to him.
I put it to him. He was in the front seat of his PA's car. I was in the back. He turned to me, conspiratorially, and said: "You might be on to something."
It didn't sound like he was joking.
The NZ Festival of the Arts , Wellington, February 22 - March 15. Bret McKenzie has also written music and lyrics for the new UK National Theatre musical adaptation of George Saunders' The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil on as part of the festival.