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Nine Songs
Bret McKenzie

The award-winning comedian and songwriter guides Max Gayler through the songs that spurred his lifelong love of storytelling and the electronic breakbeats that have followed him through his accomplished career.

18 November 2022, 09:30 | Words by Max Gayler

No jokes doesn't mean no laughs. Bret McKenzie's taste in "serious" songs is still laced with comedy.

It's something we see throughout the world of entertainment. Genre hopping is often labeled as something avant-garde, juxtaposing, and ultimately risky. But this is how artists stay fresh and relevant. If artists like Bob Odenkirk had just stayed a writer for SNL and The Simpsons, Saul Goodman would never exist; and if Bo Burnham never took risks, we'd miss out on works of art like Inside.

Bret McKenzie is another funny-go-serious artist. After two decades dominating the world of comedy through his seminal work with Flight Of The Conchords, his Academy Award winning songwriting for 2011's The Muppets and composing songs for The Simpsons, he released Songs Without Jokes his debut solo album in the summer of 2022.

One of the most otherworldly benefits for someone in McKenzie's position is the legendary talent he's surrounded by. Working on huge projects has afforded him the opportunity to work with world class session musicians, many of whom have featured on some of his favourite recordings in history.

Acclaimed musicians, including guitarist Dean Parks, bassist Lee Skylar, producer Drew Erickson and drummer Joey Waronker were brought into the recording sessions for his first solo project, with little convincing according to McKenzie. Finally able to tour throughout the world again, having waited for years since a short UK trip as Flight Of The Conchords, he's armed with novel stories of how the world and the road have inspired a unique set of songs that have soundtracked his life.

"I'm at the end of a 5-week tour so I'm a little dusty," he tells me from the comfort of an L.A cafe early one morning. In prep for our interview, he's let his mind run wild, digging for the visceral remembered inspirations he sometimes glosses over. He talks fast, eager to spill his adoration of each song and the impact they’ve had on his brilliant career.

At one point he even gets halfway through explaining his love for Nadia Reid's "Richard" before changing his mind. "I go to a lot of her shows, and I always try to lay low so she's not like, "Oh great, Bret's here again, doesn't miss a show."" He decides to cut it in order to bring up a different song.

From the legendary recording techniques used by Steely Dan that inspired early Flight Of The Conchords songs to the innate and poetic patterns that have brought him to the other side of the world, McKenzie's Nine Songs reveal the stories that made a beloved character in music.

“Tower of Song” by Leonard Cohen

There were a few Cohen ones I wanted to go for, but I had to choose this one. It's a song about songwriting, which is always nice, but I loved it long before I became a songwriter.

What I love about Leonard Cohen is that he reminds me of when I was a teenager. Me and all my friends were all into Leonard Cohen and we'd walk around the high school singing his songs. My voice hadn't broken at the time, so it was always a real conflict - I sounded very odd singing his songs with a boy soprano voice.

I guess I had a very cool group of friends who were staunchly alternative and into the things like Cohen, but one of my friends had a dad who had really good taste in music and that's how it opened up for me with Leonard Cohen, which is different. Sometimes it comes from your siblings, but my early love for Cohen and I guess songwriting in general came from my friend's dad.

My brother introduced me to Duran Duran and Depeche Mode, that was more the vibe that I got from him. Although, I guess that also ended up being pretty influential for me too [laughs].

“Peg” by Steely Dan

To be honest, I love Steely Dan and it's hard to pick just one song. That's the way Steely Dan fans are. “Peg” has backing vocals on it by Michael McDonald and I love that sound. The romanticism of the recording studio hit me when I started listening to Steely Dan. They're notorious for their months upon months in the recording studio, creating these such hi-fi records.

A lot of people really don't like Steely Dan because they're a bit too jazzy and they push their audience away, but I love the sound, the playing, the musicianship. And "Pig" is just so complicated to play. I watched a documentary about the making of it and you hear the backing vocals on it, and they're the most insane things you'll ever hear. [Starts singing the backing vocals to "Peg"]. It's like some sort of German opera going on behind this tune. They're maniacs, they really are. Lots of my friends really hate it and it's not their cup of tea.

One thing that Steely Dan do which is great, is they famously used a pair of scissors as their hi-hat sound on one song. That little snippy sound. Jemaine and I did that for "Leggy Blonde" with the Conchords. So Steely Dan inspired the recording technique for that song. [Laughs]. The stationary breakdown.

I'm constantly bugging the people in my band like some kind of mega fan and they're full of incredible anecdotes in the studio too. Dean Parks, who plays with Steely Dan, played guitar on my record and in one of the songs I said, "I want a Steely Dan solo". And he was like, "Yeah I got that covered." So he does this solo that sounds exactly like the real thing, which makes sense because he did them all for Steely Dan. He leaned in and goes, "You know Brett, sometimes with Steely Dan tunes we'd put an acoustic guitar in to glue it all together." So I look at the producer Mick and I'm like, "Well let's do that then shall we?" [Laughs]. We added it in and it genuinely all did lock in together.

It's like being the princess to a bunch of musical wizards. That might be why it's one of my favourite things to do, being in the studio with these wrecking crew players. They're almost a different generation and there's nobody else coming up to replace them, because they don't make albums like that anymore.

“Electro Boogie Vol 2 (The Throwdown)” by Dave Clarke

I still can't find this thing on Spotify, but it was a very important record to me growing up. When I was about 8 years old, I was a huge break-dancing fan, so at my birthday party instead of playing the usual birthday games like musical chairs or pass the parcel, I had a break dance competition with my friends.

I had been given a cassette tape called Break Dance Volume 2 and there was a song on there called “Electro Boogie”. That was kind of the start of my love for the vocoder and electro funk.

I love those synth bass lines and the funk sound. Daft Punk came out the other side of that. I was very interested in the early hip-hop version though. Even early on, I could tell the good ones were when they got the groove down perfectly.

The breakdown on this album had quite a lot of vocoder on it. You know, [vocoder voice] "Breakdancing / Moving to The Beat / Freak out". What's interesting is that sound eventually became Conchords "Robots" song. It really was. I'd always had a love for the vocoder, the machine that makes you sound like a robot. I guess that seed had been planted at my 10th birthday party.

It's funny how when you're at that age, things can be incredibly influential. When I was 12, I came on a family holiday to Los Angeles and I remember looking down at the city thinking, "This is amazing." And now funnily enough I've ended up living here. A part of me actually wonders whether something about it seemed exciting or otherworldly and that's what drove me here.

“Hit the Road Jack” by Ray Charles

This is the first song I spent hours singing along to in my room as a kid. I learned all the words and I remember it being the first time I'd began to love songs that tell stories, which has been a lifetime love for me.

I've written a lot of songs that tell stories and I've always loved those songs, so the idea of me as a 10-year-old in New Zealand singing along is so ridiculous. [Sings] "Oh woman, oh woman don't you treat me so bad". [Laughs]. I was really feeling the 'getting kicked out of the house by his missus' vibe. 10-year-old me had a lot going on apparently.

A song called "A Little Tune” from my album, even though it's Harry Nilsson -ish, doing this arrangement was very much inspired by Ray Charles. I've got a new song which is called, "I'm Getting Too Young for All This Shit" and I've got a backing vocal arrangement that's got a Ray Charles style arrangement where it jumps backwards and forwards.

I'm touring with backing vocalists, and it's inspired me to try it more on the record. I guess Ray Charles was very interested in that relationship between the lead vocal and the backing vocal. He really does it better than anyone else.

“One Man Parade” by James Taylor

This was more of a recent discovery. And when I say recent, I mean in the last five or six years. The bass player I work with plays with James Taylor and is on this record. His name is Leland Sklar.

What I love about this record, One Man Dog, is that this song has the most amazing feel. They recorded it in a cabin somewhere. I don't know if it was James Taylor's house or somewhere else, but you can see there's this cool energy of the musicians all hanging out.

It's all quite throwaway and it's full of fragments of songs. It feels almost like James Taylor had a three-album deal and this was the last one he needed to get out of the deal. But this one song, "One Man Parade" just has the most amazing feel to it. I really love this song.

“Here Comes the Sun” by Nina Simone

This is a song that everyone knows, but this version is liquid joy. I recently watched that Summer of Soul documentary, the one by Questlove, and I realised while watching it that I've never seen Nina Simone playing live before. I've heard all her music, but I hadn't seen much video footage. Seeing the power of her playing live and her intensity and staunchness was so inspiring.

She was so tough and so respected. This recording is almost like a gateway to her music for me. I love George Harrison's song to begin with, but what she does to it is so uplifting and so beautiful.

She is the direct line to the source. I guess it's more spiritual. This is one of my go-to songs in any situation. It's a guaranteed smile on my face.

“Claude Rains” by The Front Lawn

The Front Lawn are New Zealand band from the ‘90s and they were a huge inspiration to Jemaine and I, They're actually a very big influence for Conchords. They've got a couple albums and their songs are very narrative. I love that whole album, Songs from the Front Lawn, and "Claude Reigns" is a song about Claude Rains in the movie Casablanca. It's a really unusual song, but it's so beautiful.

They did a lot of theatre shows around New Zealand, so their style is quite specific. It's very hard to name a specific sound, but I grew up with it. It's singer/songwriter, but I don't have a real reference point. It's not like anything else, let's put it that way. Maybe that's what is so magic about it.

Don McGlashan is New Zealand musical royalty, so you can listen to any of his projects and expect me to be inspired by it.

“Beyond the Stars” by Tami Neilson

Tami Neilson is a New Zealand-Canadian singer. She sort of comes under… [pauses] country isn't the right word, but she's in that crowd. She recently did this song as duet with Willie Nelson. She did a concert in Wellington and obviously Willie Nelson was not there, so I ended up singing it on stage with her. She always gets people on stage to come up and sing with her and it was really, really fun. I did kind of a mixture of myself and Willie Nelson, but they were quite big shoes to fill. It was really, really cool.

She just has one of those voices. It's unbelievable. It's kind of like doing a duet with Aretha Franklin. Her voice is so big. I almost wanted to say, "Hey, could you make some room for my voice? Maybe just dial it back and not crush every note?!" [Laughs].

She really is such an incredible talent. I saw her concert and I really see her as one of the best.

“Sail Away” by Harry Nilsson

I really am such a huge fan of Harry Nilsson and there's so many songs to choose from, but I've decided to go with his cover of Randy Newman's "Sail Away". For me, this is two birds with one stone, because I get to mention two of my biggest inspirations. I love Randy Newman's original version of this song, but Harry Nilsson brings his epic powerhouse to this song and just crushed it.

He's famous for 'The Lost Weekend’ with John Lennon, where they tried to outscream each other in the studio until there was blood on the microphones. I think after that his voice was never quite the same, but he's probably one of the greatest power ballad singers ever. “Sail Away” is right in that pocket for him.

There's a whole album called Nilsson Does Newman where he does a whole collection of Randy Newman songs. You've definitely got to check that out.

Bret McKenzie plays O2 Shepherds Bush Empire on Sunday 20th November 2022

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