Friday, February 10, 2012

Bret McKenzie talks Muppets, Hobbits and Flight Of The Conchords

I was lucky enough to interview Bret McKenzie from Flight Of The Conchords earlier this week. He was just on his way to tape the Conan O'Brien show, where he was promoting the new Muppets film, on which he was musical director. One of his songs, the Harry Nilsson-inspired Man Or Muppet, is even up for an Oscar later this month (and it had better win, or else...)

The main interview went up on the BBC News pages today, but here's the extended cut.

Hello Bret. How are you?
Hello mate. I’m great. How’s it going?

Great thanks... But I’m not the one up for an Oscar! How does that feel?
I’m really proud of it.

And there’s only one other nominee...
I know! The chances of winning could not be any better, unless they had one nominee. But I guess that would make the awards ceremony very predictable.

The weird thing is that the other song is from Rio, which Jemaine [Clement, co-star of Flight Of The Conchords] stars in.
It’s quite funny isn’t it? Luckily, he’s not nominated for the song he did in that movie. It would have been pretty hilarious if it was just the two of us, sitting at the Oscars, competing against each other. There’d have been fisticuffs.

So, what are the particular qualities that makes a song Muppety?
They’ve gotta be slightly... They’ve got to have a looseness. Jim Henson said “if the music’s too good, it’s not right” and so I took that to heart, and kept the songs slightly shambolic.

How do you achieve that with an orchestra, who are used to getting everything note perfect?
Ah, well the orchestra are perfect. They don’t really make mistakes, those guys. Luckily, the Muppets themselves have very imperfect voices – so the vocals always have a quality of infallibility.

Piggy can’t sing very high or very low, otherwise she loses the sound of Miss Piggy. It’s kind of like Wayne Coyne from the Flaming Lips. You know how when he hits the high notes he doesn’t quite make them? That’s what makes it sound so emotional and so great.
Bret McKenzie and Kermit The Frog - Life's A Happy Song

Jason Segel doesn’t have those problems – he puts in an incredible performance in Man or Muppet.
He did a pretty good job of the high note, didn't he? I was really thrilled when he came into the studio and knocked that one out. He’s a really good singer. I had no idea – I mean, he sings in Forgetting Sarah Marshall but I didn’t know what to expect. He’s a triple threat – he can sing, he can act and he can sort of dance.

Would you say you’re a quadruple threat, because you can do all those things AND write the songs?
Yup, that’s where I’ve got him. I’ve got him cornered.

The Footloose dance in the first series of Flight Of The Conchords is one of my favourite scenes.
I’m pretty big on dancing. My mum was a ballet teacher. I think she wanted a daughter but she had three sons, so she made us all do ballet.

It's a great skill to have. It gives you good balance.
[Laughs] I’ve got really good balance. I don’t know if you’d noticed that - but often in a room when some people are falling over, I’m still standing.

You joke, but you’re living on the San Andreas fault now. It could come in handy.
Ha! I guess you’re right.

Anyway, back to The Muppets. When you watched the original show as a child, was there a member of Dr Teeth’s band you wanted to be?
I started off as a drummer so I was always a big fan of Animal. He’s just so wild.

So were you disappointed when Dave Grohl got the cameo?
I didn’t get the chance! I should have done a cameo, but it didn’t really work out. I was around for pre-production and post-production. I wasn’t really there for most of the filming.

What state was the film in when you joined? Were the songs written to a pre-existing script?
That’s right.

Does that make it more difficult for you as a composer?
Sometimes the biggest challenge was convincing Disney because they weren’t that familiar with Conchords. They weren’t sure what sort of movie they were going to make at first, whether it was going to be more of a ‘Hannah Montana meets the Muppets’. But James Bobin and Jason and I were all very committed to making it a very traditional Muppet movie.

I told someone you’d written the lyrics and she said, “is it full of dirty jokes?”
That was one of the restrictions – there could be no dirty gags. I was shut down on a “motherfrogger” joke that I had in there early on. And also I had one gag where a Muppet was reminiscing, “I remember when I was a piece of felt” and that got taken out, because the Muppets are real.

So they never break the illusion?
Yeah, they maintain the integrity of the world. They were pretty much “method Muppets” in the studio. They would refuse to sing lines I had written because it didn’t match the integrity of the character.

How did that feel as the writer?
It was a bit of a stress. There were maybe half-a-dozen versions of each song. Lots of to-ing and fro-ing and lots of edits. And then edits in the picture would need the songs to be re-worked. Often the songs were cut shorter to keep the film moving. That was frustrating for us – you spend so much time in the studio and then the song ends up only 60 seconds long. But James knows what he’s doing and the film has a really good pace.

Like the Chris Cooper rap. That ended up being a very short mini song, but in a way that was much funnier than a long version.

Is it true you taught him to rap over Skype?
You read that? That was a total highlight – teaching an Academy Award-winning dramatic actor how to rap on Skype. He’s a very serious man, and it was an awesomely awkward rap session. The Rhymenocerous was teaching Chris Cooper how to rap. But he really got into it. Later, on the set, he was apparently reading a book on how to rap. I don't know who wrote that. Did Snoop write that? Or maybe Jay-Z's written a book: 'The Dummy's Guide To Rapping?' It's hilarious

So what was your first lesson in rapping?
I was exploring attitude, because he’s a bad guy in the movie. So I wanted to see how nasty he could sound, how scary he could be.

I have to ask: Are you a man or are you a muppet?
I’m a muppet. It’s a question we’ve all asked ourselves.

Where did the idea for that song come from?
The line “man or Muppet” was in the script because they knew they wanted a song along those lines. So that was the title, and I was free to do anything I wanted with that. It’s that thing of writing songs for musicals, which I guess I’m working on more, is that it has to relate to the story. That’s a song where the story and the music lock in.

That always felt like the big difference between the two series of Conchords. In the first one, the script revolved around songs you’d already written – but in the second one, the songs were more in service to the plot.
Yes. Which one did you prefer?

I liked them both in different ways. I have both albums and I probably listen to the first one more... But I enjoyed watching the second series more as a comedy. It felt more complete.
Yeah, yeah. In the first series, the songs were written for comedy clubs so they were much funnier, they’re full of jokes. Whereas the second series, the jokes were often more visual or story-based, so they’re not such a good comedy club listen. We found that, touring the second season songs, they’re not so full of laughs. The first season, we played those for years, they’re built to keep a room laughing.

And presumably the songs for the second series were written under much bigger time constraints.
Yeah, we were writing the weekend before we filmed.

How do you feel about the difference between them now?
I like them all and they’re definitely different. The second ones are less satisfying to play live and I think that’s because they didn’t get road tested. If we’d had a bit more time, we probably could have filled them out.
Flight Of The Conchords - Sugar Lumps

So, has the success of The Muppets got the ball rolling for a Flight Of The Conchords movie?
What’s good is now we’ve all had more experience in doing films, so we’re in a better place to do a Conchords film.

And have you made any inroads?
It’s all very conceptual, so no we haven’t made any definite plans. But it’s something we all want to do, so it’s just a matter of time. Jemaine’s been working on Men In Black, so it’s been a kind of funny year. We’ve been living in different cities. He’s been working with aliens, and I’ve been working with frogs and pigs.

Is it strange to spend time apart? You pretty much worked on the TV series seven days a week for a couple of years.
Yes, we were basically living together. So we’re taking a well-earned break. When we started it was good because we would spend half a year doing Conchords then do other projects. We found it was quite productive and creatively inspirational, because you’d spend time apart and then you’d come together and you’d have different experiences. What happened on Conchords is we were spending so much time together that we knew all of each other’s stories, and we were meeting all the same people so we were running out of material. Very much like an old married couple, bored of each other’s stories.

The Muppets - Official Trailer

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