Flight of the Conchords star not retreating from spotlight

There’s a common perception that Bret McKenzie and his comedy partner Jemaine Clement disappeared – or, at least, retreated – from the spotlight after the success of their cult hit sitcom Flight of the Conchords.

That TV series, concerning the deadpan, laughably inept efforts of the “fourth most popular folk-comedy duo in New Zealand” at making it big in New York City, ended nearly 12 years ago.

Musician Bret McKenzie.Credit:Rebecca McMillan

These days, 46-year-old McKenzie is back in his native Wellington, New Zealand, but for many years post-Conchords, he was either living in, or commuting regularly to, Los Angeles, working as a songwriter and music supervisor on various US television and film projects – most prominently two contemporary Muppets movies.

It turns out McKenzie had a rather complex relationship with LA, and now he’s unpacked the experience on some of the songs on his debut solo album, Songs Without Jokes.

Bret McKenzie and The Muppets.

“Well, I didn’t go in to [the album] wanting to write a record about America,” he says over a Zoom call from Wellington.

“But I think going between New Zealand and America gave me some perspective because I didn’t ever sink into [either] one. I was seeing Los Angeles as an outsider, and then I’d come back home and see New Zealand as an outsider.

Previously, whether it was for Flight of the Conchords or The Muppets, McKenzie had been writing film and TV songs that played for laughs. But at home his music tastes leaned into vintage soft-rock and classic singer-songwriters – Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman, Steely Dan and Dire Straits.

McKenzie has now veered more towards his tastes and away from the comedy he is known for with an album of “straight” songs made with top-shelf LA session musicians.

With producer Mickey Petralia (Flight of the Conchords, Beck, Peaches), he assembled a crack band, including drummer Joey Waronker (Beck, REM), producer/songwriter Drew Erickson (Lana Del Rey, Father John Misty), Steely Dan guitarist Dean Parks and bassist Leland Sklar (James Taylor, Jackson Browne).

“I’d met some of these musicians doing songs for films,” McKenzie explains. “I had such an amazing experience working with them and learning how to record things really fast, because they’re so good. And [composer/arranger] Chris Caswell – who worked on the original Muppets [music] with Paul Williams – was friends with older LA musicians as well, so we brought those two worlds together.”

Although this is far from a comedy album, McKenzie’s wry sense of humour is still all over songs like If You Wanna Go (“if you wanna go, baby, you should go,” shrugs the deadpan lyric), the sardonic That’s LA (“drive down Sunset and the tears roll down my face”) and his breakup song with the US, America Goodbye.

Musically, the album is drenched in an aviators-tinted nostalgia, This World channelling Randy Newman and first single A Little Tune a convincing and fun Harry Nilsson pastiche.

“I’m constantly inspired by Harry Nilsson,” he reflects. “I love his production, his songs and the detail. I just love that LA studio sound from that period and the sound the studios were capturing. It was just a magic time.”

Alongside forthcoming tours in New Zealand, the UK and the US (Australia is tentatively slated for early next year), McKenzie is also juggling work on several film and TV projects.

There’s a Netflix adaptation of Aaron Blabey’s book Thelma the Unicorn, New Zealand director Taika Waititi’s animated TV series of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Disney musical comedy movie Bob the Musical, starring Channing Tatum, and a SpongeBob SquarePants offshoot film, Plankton.

So the perception that he disappeared must be frustrating?

“Not too much,” says McKenzie modestly. “I’ve been so busy, but I’ve worked on several projects in Hollywood that have been in development, or not happened, or got cancelled, or plans changed, or come back to life later.

“When you’re behind the scenes in development, it’s quite a challenge to get things through to the production stage if you’re not working on big franchise projects.”

Songs Without Jokes is out on 26 August.

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