IN SEARCH OF A HAPPY ENDING

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 Ide
alog 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.”

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STUFF OF NONSENSE

What a surprise it was to log onto the Stuff website today and see the headline pictured to the left “Peter Griffin is God”. One of the better headlines the subs have come up with, if I do say so myself. Unfortunately it was that other Peter Griffin …

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THE LESSONS FROM MORGO

Lesson number one: Don’t eat at the Thai restaurant at Paihia. I did on the evening of Morgo’s second day after just about everyone else had dispersed south and my stomach has only just come right. The Thai beef tasted a little funny when I was eating it but I just assumed that was the tang of MSG or something. Boy did I pay for that mistake!

Anyway, Morgo was a great event once again. I hope the feature below, which ran in The Business gives the impression of a tight-knit group of entrepreneurs getting together to discuss some of the issues their businesses are facing, because that’s what Morgo is. Without any proper representation for the IT sector at an industry level it’s sort of a defacto event for setting the agenda, examining the isues of importance. In addition to the feature, I also blogged from Morgo for the Herald:

MORGO: A tale of two tech listings
MORGO: Going global from NZ

MORGO 2007 – highlights from the tech talkfest

By Peter Griffin

Jenny Morel knows how to get a good crowd together. The venture capitalist’s invite-only retreats have, for five years straight, drawn the top ranks of the tech sector.

Last week’s Morgo summit in Waitangi was no different.

The seeds of business deals have been planted at Morgo, stock exchange listings quietly planned. A sense of kinship pervades the proceedings. The competitive spirit may have come out during the haphazard games of Segway polo held on the manicured lawn of the Copthorne Hotel, but Waitangi was full last week of innovative people united in the goal of growing their technology businesses quickly.

If anyone knows a thing or two about that, its Trademe founder Sam Morgan, who in the space of seven years built his tiny internet auction business into the country’s most popular website before selling it last year to Fairfax in an unprecedented $700 million deal.

Morgan also knows the value of Morgo – he met entrepreneur Craig Meek at last year’s conference and went on to invest in his data visualization company, iVistra. It was Morgo that put him in touch with DeviceWorks, which recently won worldwide attention with its Lomak light-operated mouse and keyboard, which is designed to help the disabled use computers. Morgan is now an investor in the business and is casting the net wide for new opportunities to plough his share of the Trademe sale proceeds into. Morgan’s investment adviser accompanied him to Morgo in the hope of finding some leads.

“I’ve made a few start-up investments and I’ve made a few social investments,” says Morgan.

“I don’t invest in stem cell research, just because I don’t get it,” he says.

He has underwritten the formation of a micro-finance scheme in Samoa and in addition to iVistra and Lomak, has put money into people management software maker Sonar6. Morgan spent much of his talk at Morgo outlining how little his life has changed since the Trademe sale. He has earn-out targets to meet, so is still preoccupied with Trademe.

“I’m planning on being there in some capacity for quite a while yet,” he says.

But he recognizes succession planning is underway and that involves building a team he trusts – then leaving them to get on with their work. His “Don’t be a dick” mantra, the equivalent of Google’s “Don’t be evil”, became a bit of a catchphrase at Morgo.

“Moving out of the picture means making sure everyone has the ‘Don’t be a dick’ certificate,” says Morgan, who sits on the board of listed accounting software Xero, the creation of another Morgo regular, Rod Drury.

“I really hope it’s the Nokia of New Zealand,” Drury said of Xero towards the end of his speech at Morgo.

“This is a ten year play. I plan to work until I’m at least 50,” he added.

After last year selling his mail archiving company Aftermail to US software company Quest, Drury could have retired. That wasn’t an option. Drury says the aim was always to sell Aftermail so he could fund his next venture, which he always anticipated would be a public company, listed on the NXZ.

“I thought if we want to be here in the long term, we’ve got to do it as a public company,” he said.

For Drury, preparing Xero for going global has meant investing heavily in getting top talent onboard and designing a software platform that can easily be tweaked for bigger markets.

“The breadth of the wall chart was built from day one,” he said.

“We did a lot of R&D so… we could have one system across the world.”

Sysdoc founder and director Katherine Corich faced a different challenge trying to scale her document management company in Britain – negotiating the old boy’s network that pervades business over there.

“It’s definitely a land of old boy networks,” she told Morgo. No more obvious was that than in the Government sector, where Korich says seven IT providers claim over two-thirds of the budgeted IT spend.

“You have to align yourself with one of ten providers. I’ve focused on getting non-executive directors with extensive UK government experience,” she said.

If those who spoke at Morgo honed in on some specific examples of how they have refined their businesses for global expansion, it was left to Endace-founder Selwyn Pellet to issue a rallying cry for the tech sector in general.

“As New Zealanders, we don’t have to be second class citizens. We are good,” Pellett reminded his fellow entrepreneurs.

But reeling off a list of similarly small countries that have grown thriving technology sectors – Ireland, Israel and Finland among them, he reminded them that New Zealand is “outgunned and outnumbered” and needs some visionary thinking to stay competitive.

“If you stick with five – ten per cent growth a year, it’s not going to happen,” said Pellett.

“The business plan needs to be a hairy-arsed audacious goal.”

Endace, a maker of networking management technology with a global blue chip client base, was the first New Zealand registered company to list on the London stock exchange’s alternative investment market.

“If you want to get out of the trenches and start charging, list your company,” Pellet advised. But for those considering a public listing, and there were several at Morgo, we told them to “look beyond the listing”, to have a long term goal for success.

“We listed Endace. The end goal was the listing. Suddenly we had to pump really hard to get going again.”

Endace had created seven New Zealand-based millionaires who have gone on to reinvest.

“Instead of us being bought, we’re going around the world buying companies.”

“The entrepreneurs in the room have to do more and more companie
s. They’re not allowed to retire,” he added.

Andy Lark, a Silicon Valley-based marketing guru, who heads NZTE’s technology beachhead in the US and is a director of Morel’s No. 8 Ventures, likewise encouraged kiwi entrepreneurs to think big.

“The real model for me is Israel. These guys are building more hi-tech companies than any small nation on earth,” he said.

“It’s because they’ve differentiated between what’s a good business model and what allows them to succeed outside of their market.”

Later, in a small session devoted to using the internet to overcome the tyranny of distance, he explained how much New Zealand companies can do with blogs, wikis and search engines to cheaply market their companies.

“People are breaking down the barriers between themselves and the customer using the web,” he said.

“Information is a commodity and it doesn’t cost too much to share it.”

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