I caught up with Luke Buda of the Phoenix Foundation as the band was putting the finishing touches on Happy Ending, its latest album and what’s widely considered its best yet. The Herald voted it album of the year. I’d met Luke a few times when he used to call into Wellington’s fringe installation art gallery Show, where I used to live.
The feature’s not on the Idealog website, so here it is in its entirety…
While Flight of the Conchords and Eagle vs Shark play on American screens, the final member of the Wellington creative triumvirate currently chipping away at the US market is aware of the mighty task it faces.
“It’s a huge fucker of a country and there is much, much, much to see,” says Luke Buda, a founding member of six-piece The Phoenix Foundation, which has won critical acclaim and modest sales success with its Eno-ish soundscapes and infectious pop/rock tunes.
With two successful equine-themed albums under its belt, Horsepower and Pegasus, the band is now trying to make its mark in America with the help of New York-based indie label Young American Recordings. That has meant revisiting Horsepower, which was released here in 2004 but debuted in the US just this March.
The Americans, unable to resist a patronising jibe or two, nevertheless seem to like what they hear.
“There aren’t many success stories from New Zealand, so when a band from the land of more-sheep-than-people gains a cult following in the States based on some old-fashioned pavement pounding, it’s a notable event,” wrote a reviewer for Big Shot magazine.
VMan proclaimed Horsepower “one of the most gorgeously unexpected surprises of the year … proving once and for all that movies about hobbits aren’t the only good thing happening in New Zealand”.
There have been numerous gigs in support of Horsepower at festivals and in sweaty underground clubs across America, most recently on a self-funded tour in June. Did the band make its money back?
“No way,” says Buda. “Six in the band, manager, sound engineer. No, no—no way.”
But there’s also the soundtrack to Eagle vs Shark, which the band was primarily responsible for, contributing some original compositions and previously released songs such as the sublime instrumental Hitchcock. More than just providing a soundtrack, the Phoenix Foundation played a part in the film’s creation.
“In a way they deserve some credit for the screenplay,” says director Taika Waititi. “Some of the tracks I was inspired by when I was writing Eagle vs Shark are used in the same places in the movie.”
Buda, who counts famed Greek soundtrack composer Vangelis among his biggest influences, said the band took a completely different approach with the music it composed for Eagle vs Shark. “With an album, you want the music to be totally engaging and you don’t hold back,” he says. “With the music for a film you really are just trying to add to, or help the movement, action, emotion on the screen. So there is a lot of space you can leave that you might not when making music for its own sake.”
The band came on board reasonably late in the piece, but enjoyed a good working relationship with Waititi.
“Taika did a rough cut with temporary score, and we got all the scenes we did music to with that temporary score there as a sort of guide,” says Buda, who also has a cameo in the film. “He was very specific and full of input. I guess in the future I would probably want to be involved earlier, or to try and do some demos for the temporary score.”
Many of the reviews accompanying the June release of Eagle vs Shark in the US made mention of the great soundtrack, which also features Buda’s solo work and the music of other local artists such as Age Pryor and The Reduction Agents.
“We receive album royalties for our own albums whereas the soundtrack is not all our music so we won’t be getting as much for that side of things,” says Buda. But there will be royalties from the theatrical release of the film and should the soundtrack sell well, it will ultimately help Young American shift more copies of Horsepower, which was repackaged with bonus tracks for the US market.
The soundtrack is released through Hollywood Records which, like Miramax, is a Disney subsidiary, but Buda says the band’s dealings with the studio, by choice, were minimal. “A couple of us went and had a meeting with someone in Los Angeles at the Disney studios. Ha! She was very nice.”
Idealog caught up with Buda as the band neared the end of its recording sessions on new album Happy Ending at Wellington’s The Surgery studio. The band line-up is the same as for Pegasus: Buda on guitars, keyboards and vocals, Samuel Flynn Scott on guitars and vocals, Conrad Wedde handling guitars and keyboards, Warner Emery on bass, Richie Singleton on drums and Will Ricketts providing percussion. Lee Prebble again assumed producing duties.
“We came in with the idea of recording great band takes and then just touching them up a wee bit,” says Buda. “But with the last two we weren’t quite good enough to pull it off so we had to deconstruct everything and rebuild it. It was quite an angsty process!”
The band, he believes, is now sounding better than ever in the studio, something he puts down to the extensive touring they’ve done in the last year. “We could just concentrate on making what we already had, sound better, rather than destroying it to make it work at all.”
The results will get a public airing with the album’s release here scheduled for September. Meanwhile, the Americans will get their introduction to the Phoenix Foundation album that went gold on its local release.
“After we release Pegasus over there we will shop around our new improved album to some bigger labels that hopefully may have actually heard of us.”
For the rest of the year, says Buda, the grand plan for The Phoenix Foundation has three equal parts.
“Tour the album. Chill out. Look after children.”