September 2012

Arts & Letters

I Told You I Was Freaky

By Robert Forster
Once again, without emotion: Bret and Jemaine on tour earlier this year. © Tracey Nearmy/AAP
Flight of the Conchords

They would have to be one of the most successful two-man bands to come out of New Zealand playing a mixture of folk, rock, soul and rap and with a song called ‘Epileptic Dogs’ in the last few years. Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement are Flight of the Conchords and on this, their first Australian tour, they bring tales of rock’n’roll excess – complimentary muffins eaten in hotels; being caught in a lift on the way to a gig and after 14 hours of “tears and urine” pressing the ‘help’ button – that make you wonder how they could brave another stint out on the road. But they have – they breed them tough at the Victoria University of Wellington.

Bret and Jemaine met there in the stage and film department in 1996. Jemaine remembers that Bret was “wearing a hat”. After two years of the usual student theatre tomfoolery – does Body Play, a theatre piece “about male body issues” that involved a five-man cast wearing “nothing but skin-coloured bike shorts to give the audience the illusion that they were naked” ring a bell for anyone who has joined a university drama club? – McKenzie and Clement started writing songs together. Songs are where it began. And the ability to write them, sing them and be adept (even inspired) enough to play them on their instruments of guitar, bass and keyboard remains the centre of the act.

The act is a piss-take. A blank-faced comedy of embarrassment charting the lives of two thirty-something musician losers who wish to launch their songs into the world. The songs are parodies, which often zero in on black music styles, especially soul. White artists usually target country music and heavy rock for pastiche and parody – and the Conchords do don tight-fitting lycra for the riff-based crunch of ‘Demon Woman’:

 

Demon Woman,
You sit on a rock,
Looking nice in your frock,
But you’re scaring my livestock.

 

– but it’s when they are tinkering with the formulas of ’70s soul music that the boys feel most at home. Two things help them pull it off. Both singers possess strong voices that stretch convincingly from sexy Barry White bass to Sly Stone falsetto, and the wild sexual content of the genre’s lyrics plays hilariously against the stumbling, romantically awkward persona and patter of both ‘characters’.

If they’re losers from New Zealand, why are they playing to 8000 people willing to endure one of the worst music venues in the world, the Brisbane Entertainment Centre? The answer is that beside the quality of their comedy and songs, there is the genius of their career. It’s been a quick step over the past decade, from awards at international comedy festivals, to a BBC radio show, to a TV series on HBO, and a pair of top-selling albums. More recently, the tousle-haired New Zealander who won an Oscar this year for Best Original Song was Bret, and starring as the villain in Men In Black III beside Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones is Jemaine. No one’s scoffing back in Wellington now. And the thousands of well-mannered under-thirties trailing into the concert hall bring with them an affectionate familiarity with the TV episodes and the associated albums – which prove to be the foundations of the show.

The staging of the performance is surprisingly modest: two chairs, a few instruments, a cello player (“New Zealand’s second-biggest orchestra”) and minimal lighting. It is a small theatre performance, unchanged and installed in a venue many times the size. This has its folksy charm, but it takes away production options and sparkle that the show will need as it struggles after an impressive first hour. Also unexpected is how strong the songs are in comparison to the intervening patter. There is a semi-improvised feel to much of the chat between Bret and Jemaine, which leads occasionally to dead-ends and lulls. Jemaine starts riffing on the “lulls”, and that’s funny, too, as are the stories and the general toying with performance clichés. When, though, is a long silence in a hall not an artistic choice but poor showmanship? The TV show keeps the dialogue short and tight, and it is noticeable as the night proceeds that the songs follow each other more and more quickly.

The songs. That must have been the eureka moment back in 1998. They are the key to the group’s appeal and good enough to sustain the band’s albums, Flight of the Conchords and I Told You I Was Freaky, as enjoyable stand-alone productions – a rare feat among comedy albums, particularly ones focused on music. ‘The Most Beautiful Girl (in the Room)’ is a great Prince take-off:

 

Looking at the room, I can tell that you,
Are the most beautiful girl in the … room,
(In the whole wide room).

 

Jemaine sings her praises: “You could be a waitress”; “You could be an air hostess in the ’60s”; “You could be a part-time model”. Finally, there is food:

 

Now I can’t believe that I’m sharing a kebab,
with the most beautiful girl I have ever seen.

 

‘Business Time’, a big Triple J hit, is cruder:

 

Girl, tonight we’re gonna make love,
You know how I know? Because it’s Wednesday.

 

Later things get down and dirty:

 

I remove my clothes very, very clumsily,
Tripping sensuously over my pants,
Now I’m naked, except for my socks,
And you know when I’m down to just my socks,
What time it is … it’s business time.

 

The lyrics, dry on the page, may look prankish, but what lifts the Conchords is their decision not to mimic the production values of the music they parody; instead, by building the tracks on the minimal and quirky instrumentation of indie rock, they manage to recast the songs and make them their own.

Does parody come with a built-in shelf life? Is that why there has been no new TV show or album in the past three years? Certainly, Flight of the Conchords are very funny in bursts; yet outside of experiencing the live performance in a smaller venue, the TV show may be the best way of enjoying the group. It also has one other central character, their manager Murray, played brilliantly by Rhys Darby. If he’d walked on an hour into the concert, it would have breezed to a conclusion. Or else he might have stayed backstage where managers belong, telling the boys before they hit the stage, ‘Give them your best hour and leave them wanting more.’

Robert Forster

Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.

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