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Bret McKenzie’s Songs Without Jokes is serious business

Bret McKenzie – Academy Award-winning Muppet man – is an environmentally friendly chap.

He has cycled through torrential rain from his house near Wellington Zoo into the city arriving sopping wet to talk about his new solo album and tour. In the interests of the planet he cycles more, drives less.

It’s not easy being green.

Shedding his mac, ditching his bike helmet, he wraps his laughing gear around a hot cup of mint tea to warm up.

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The last time we spoke he was fending off devoted Lord of the Rings fans who were so enamoured by the actor’s fetching elven features their demands that his three seconds of fame morph into something bigger were heeded by director Sir Peter Jackson. Such was the power of precious Ring followers.

Twenty years later he’s less elf, more man, a little salt in the beard.

Those fans have moved on. And so has McKenzie. All the way to Hollywood, literally living under the ‘D’ of that famous sign in Silver Lake, East LA.

He got what any actor going to Tinseltown came for – an Oscar. His, for song Man or Muppet, sits atop his piano at home.

Plenty has happened in between bagging that gold statue and this latest solo gig – more Muppet projects, more songs for animated films, a few acting roles, a gig on The Simpsons.

“I was telling my friends I was doing this, and they were all asking ‘Is it comedy?’” Bret McKenzie says of his new album.

David White/Stuff

“I was telling my friends I was doing this, and they were all asking ‘Is it comedy?’” Bret McKenzie says of his new album.

Comedy has been at the heart of it all – McKenzie’s MO for pretty much his whole career.

He and his Flight of the Conchords partner of days past Jemaine Clement, made their name performing their show of the same name at live gigs the world over and for two seasons between 2007 and 2009 on HBO. It’s always been about the laughs. But McKenzie has always been a little bit serious about music.

And this album Songs Without Jokes, is a serious business, he says.

“Artists like Leonard Cohen have many funny lines in [their] songs, though the aim of the song was not being comic. I wanted to explore that area where comedy was not the main reason for the song to exist,” he says.

“It turned out to be an absolute nightmare because it was such a big jump away from [what I was doing].

“It sounds like the title might be a joke even though it’s trying to help the audience anticipate what it is. I was telling my friends I was doing this, and they were all asking ‘Is it comedy?’

Understandable. The official video for one track – A Little Tune – starring his dad Peter and comedian Madeleine Sami, is a bit bonkers and kind of Muppety too.

And the Oscar went to, Bret McKenzie.

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And the Oscar went to, Bret McKenzie.

But laughs or no laughs, McKenzie, 46, is happy to be where he is doing what he’s doing.

The songs were penned in 2019 but both the album and tour have been postponed twice by covid.

On the plus side it’s given him more time to be home with the family – wife Hannah Clarke and their three kids aged 12, 11 and seven.

He got a gig as a member of the board of trustees at his kids’ school.

“I’ve been helping run the school, which is a hilarious change.

“It’s funny going from writing songs about unicorns for Hollywood to going to meetings to talk about fixing the roof at school. I like it. I like the change. It’s a lot of reality.”

He’s helping to run a writers’ workshop for the kids putting together their school show.

“They have great ideas. They are like professional creators. I do like being involved in their world and I do as much as I can.”

Bret McKenzie's upcoming new solo album Songs Without Jokes is due out on August 26. The musical funny man will play eight shows around New Zealand in September.

Rebecca McMillan/Stuff

Bret McKenzie’s upcoming new solo album Songs Without Jokes is due out on August 26. The musical funny man will play eight shows around New Zealand in September.

But he’s about to take leave of the family and that school gig for the road.

Eight live shows around Aotearoa in September followed by a tour of the UK and North America from September 2 through to November 20.

It coincides with the release of his album, which is produced by McKenzie and Flight of the Conchords and Muppets music producer Mickey Petralia.

It wasn’t a big decision to make songs on his own – it was a side project initially.

He and Petralia were keen to do a free music project with no one breathing down their necks. A no strings operation – no movie studio telling them what they needed the song to be, no script to write songs around.

McKenzie, who was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to film and music in 2012, started writing the songs at home in the evenings when the kids had gone to bed.

If he heard the kids humming a melody from one of them he knew they were keepers.

He took the bits and pieces he had collated to LA and tested them out in the studio. Demos turned into fuller songs which turned into an album.

Recording it in LA, McKenzie found himself in studios with some pretty interesting ghosts.

Gold records lined the walls – Frank Sinatra, Tom Petty, Harry Nilsson (a McKenzie fav).

Mckenzie gets serious on his album Songs Without Jokes.

David White/Stuff

Mckenzie gets serious on his album Songs Without Jokes.

In one recording session he was in the same studio where Whitney Houston recorded I Will Always Love You.

“I was like, this is crazy, just imagining Whitney Houston smashing it in there.

“Working in those rooms was one of my absolute joys, not just hearing the anecdotes of the people who recorded with these people but the tricks they can teach me. It’s like being an apprentice. You learn from all their stories.”

LA is like a second home to McKenzie.

He’d lived in the states for a good chunk of a decade from 2006 living in LA, mostly, coming and going from NZ but more there than here. As the number of children in his family increased it became more here than there.

He loves the optimism of America. It can be ridiculous but when you’re creating stuff and developing ideas a bit of optimism is really helpful because it makes you think it’s going to happen, he says.

“In New Zealand the attitude is ‘Ah, it’ll never happen… ‘ The bar is set low.

“It’s a little bit ridiculous sometimes, that LA enthusiasm, but it’s quite nurturing.

“I mostly love it because I’ve had such a good experience there, but I wouldn’t recommend people go if they are trying to break into the show business industry. It’s very hard.

“If you’re starting out there you get people who take advantage of you. Jemaine and I were lucky. We didn’t have to deal with that.”

Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie in Flight of the Conchords mode in 2018.

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Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie in Flight of the Conchords mode in 2018.

McKenzie and Clement met at Victoria University and later formed what became comedy duo Flight of the Conchords.

Their break came at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2003 when the pair was nominated for the prestigious Perrier Comedy Award.

The Conchords really took off from there.

They appeared on BBC Radio and in 2005 they got another big break on HBO’s comedy series One Night Stand.

Rhys Darby joined them as their hopeless manager in the HBO series about two kiwis trying to make it in the Big Apple.

The Conchords put out six albums and won a clutch of awards – Emmys, Grammys, festival wins – and a cult following to boot.

A couple of years later McKenzie was launched into super stardom when he wrote songs for the 2011 movie The Muppets winning an Oscar the following year for Man or Muppet. The doors of Hollywood opened wide. These days McKenzie can take his pick of projects.

Bret McKenzie with Muppets in 2011.

Stuff

Bret McKenzie with Muppets in 2011.

It’s never really gone to his head, though.

Sure, he gets recognised, but it’s pretty low-key in Wellington.

“I’m out and about a lot and I feel like it’s no big deal here. It’s usually tourists that might stop me. They would be over the moon to see me in Wellington while on holiday. Then they walk down the street and see Jemaine and go ‘Oh my god, this place is crazy!’”

McKenzie was born into a family of thespians.

He and his two brothers toured shows with their parents, dance teacher and choreographer mum Deirdre Tarrant and horse trainer, actor and lawyer dad Peter McKenzie.

He had a ball as a kid being backstage, on stage, acting and dancing.

“I was always at shows taking tickets, ushering, doing other odd jobs, I guess so mum didn’t have to get a babysitter. I just soaked it all up.”

He grew up in inner city Wellington and hung out at his mother’s Footnote Dance studio on Cuba Street. This grungy part of town became his backyard.

He danced four nights a week at Footnote where he developed his love of music. He plays a load of different instruments – piano, drums and guitar mainly. He was a founding member of the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra.

From left: Bret McKenzie, Taika Cohen and Adam Gardiner, performed in Live:TraNZmission at Bats Theatre in 2002, one of many shows McKenzie and his cohort performed at that big little theatre.

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From left: Bret McKenzie, Taika Cohen and Adam Gardiner, performed in Live:TraNZmission at Bats Theatre in 2002, one of many shows McKenzie and his cohort performed at that big little theatre.

At Wellington College McKenzie happened upon a bunch of guys who were into the arts, and together they put on plays and performed in bands.

Not much has changed, he laughs.

He started but didn’t finish a Music Composition degree at Te Herenga Waka Victoria University studying under John Psathas.

He got too busy doing gigs and shows in Wellington to finish his degree.

In the early 2000s the Wellington arts scene was going gangbusters.

He recalls constantly working, not getting paid, but making shows and doing gigs. Having a pretty good time doing it too.

“Every day, all day that’s all we did.

“You’d finish one show, and then you’d be helping someone with another show then be in another person’s play. In between you’d be doing gigs, little tours.

“After I left high school it was quite normal to be putting on shows but for most people I met at Bats [Theatre] it was a huge departure from their childhood. It was a whole new world to them. For me, it was my world. It felt very normal to me.”

McKenzie was raised by artsy folks.

David White/Stuff

McKenzie was raised by artsy folks.

McKenzie was hanging out and collaborating with folks like Clement, Taika Waititi, Duncan Sarkies, Jo Randerson (“I always thought Jo was better than all of us.”)

“No one made any money, but we were constantly putting on shows. Some were good, some were terrible, some were great but in that few years I learned so much about performance. Taika and Jemaine and I – we all benefited so much from that.

The boys all seem to have collaborated and lifted one another up on projects from here to Hollywood in the years since.

What about the girls – Randerson, Loren Taylor et al?

“Yeah,” says McKenzie, “my producer friend in LA asked ‘where are all the women? How come there are so many dudes coming out of Wellington?’”

He ponders this question himself but doesn’t really have an answer, other than to suggest it’s all about getting over to America if you want to make it happen.

McKenzie with his mother Deirdre Tarrant and brothers Justin and Jonny.

Neil Price/Stuff

McKenzie with his mother Deirdre Tarrant and brothers Justin and Jonny.

He credits his folks for instilling into him a good work ethic and a healthy distrust of government funded arts. That route into the business was too unreliable, he says.

“My mum was raising kids, teaching dance, working all the time. There was no room for self-indulgent arts practice. There was no sense of entitlement as an artist.

“I just knew you had to work and work hard to succeed.”

There were plenty of other jobs he did while grafting as a performer.

He and Waititi were waiters at an Italian restaurant for a while – “Taika was a really bad waiter.”

He worked at Deluxe Café as a dishwasher.

Everyone who was working at Bats practically lived there, he says. “They were basically in charge of our nutrition.”

He got a few ads – for supermarket, an ice cream.

He started making decent coin when he joined dub funk band the Black Seeds touring and putting out albums with them.

The only time he has got a weekly paycheck was when he got a part in a Downstage play.

He met Clarke, who is starting a career as a children’s writer, while he was at high school. They have been together for 26 years.

“We’re one of those ‘old’ Wellington couples.”

McKenzie credits his folks for instilling into him a good work ethic and a healthy distrust of government funded arts. That route into the business was too unreliable, he says.

David White/Stuff

McKenzie credits his folks for instilling into him a good work ethic and a healthy distrust of government funded arts. That route into the business was too unreliable, he says.

As for him and Clement, they still see each other, both living in Wellington.

There are no plans at the moment to get together professionally.

“We have had a good break and have new experiences to draw on. If we did, I’d want to do something new. Live shows are always pretty fun.”

Right now he’s got his own show to get on the road.

It’s been a while since he’s toured, but he’s looking forward to heading out with his band of Wellington musicians.

It’s going to be serious fun, he says. No joke.

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


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