Ready to Soar

NUVO | July 15, 2007
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- Maybe it's their camera phone -- an actual camera glued to a cell phone. Or the way they compliment a woman by saying she's so beautiful she "could be a part-time model." Or their pitch-perfect pop music parodies.

Actually, there are dozens of reasons why the band Flight of the Conchords, whose work is depicted on Flight of the Conchords the TV show (10:30 p.m. Sundays, HBO), is the funniest comedy act to come along in years.

Flight of the Conchords follows the musical duo from Wellington, New Zealand, as they try to break into the American market. The pair, Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, has a manager called Murray who insists on taking attendance before every band meeting, a lone fan, Mel (who has some serious stalker tendencies), and songs that'll make you laugh and want to sing along.

In an interview here, Clement and McKenzie said they started as roommates, then taught themselves to play music and write songs. In early gigs, they pretended to be stadium rock stars, but ultimately decided to be themselves.

On TV, they're muted version of themselves. In person, Jemaine laughs easily and often; rail-thin Bret quiet but extremely sharp. They're joined by James Bobin (Da Ali G Show), who saw them perform and signed on to co-create the show.

Asked what Americans should know about New Zealand, they started out with statistics: 4 million people, a quarter of whom live in Auckland. Then this:

Jemaine: "I fancy toothbrushes and Lord of the Rings."

Bret: "There's a great little cafe on Kantara."

Here's what else they said:

Q: Should we take attendance?

James: We're all present.

Bret: Good. That means you watch the show.

Q: I think the show's great. It's so deadpan and so unlike typical American humor. Have you watched American sitcoms?

Bret: American sitcoms are the bulk of New Zealand television.

Jemaine: There are definitely more American sitcoms than New Zealand sitcoms. I think the last New Zealand sitcom was probably 19 years ago. They're just making another one now, which, coincidentally, is going to play after our show.

James: Why so few sitcoms?

Jemaine: Because comedy is banned in New Zealand. I don't know. They just don't make much comedy.

Q: Who came up with the idea of the band having one fan?

Jemaine: It's a lot easier to handle than having more than one. But we're also trying to keep our band at the lowest strata possible.

Bret: In every part of the world, we pull it down to the minimum.

Jemaine: For instance, in a real band or in another show, they might go meet a record producer. But we go and meet a guy who makes greeting cards that play tunes. And that's sort of our equivalent of meeting a record producer.

Q: The conflicts, too, are interesting because Bret's character creates the bulk of the conflict.

Bret: So far. It does change. I think I do often tend to set the story off a little bit.

Q: Are you comfortable being the antagonist?

Bret: Yes.

Jemaine: No. (They laugh)

Bret: I think that was slightly accidental. I guess out of two characters, I'm the more foolish one, so I might get in a situation Jemaine's character might have avoided.

Q: If Bret ever did leave, would it become Flight of the Conchord -- without the s?

Jemaine: It's something we'd have to think about.

Q: You guys are really good at aping every style of music -- hip-hop, soul, rock. How do you do it?

Bret: We work with a guy called Mickey Petralia, he's our music producer. So we've had a helping hand to capture the sound. We would sit in the studio and we already had songs which had influences like Barry White or Prince or the Pet Shop Boys or Bowie. We'd be in the studio and listen to tunes by those artists or artists of a similar genre and listen to the tones and the instruments used and we'd start the recording, emulating those sounds so it was something similar but also new.

James: These guys don't really like one genre of music. So they feel as comfortable doing Prince as they do doing Sean Paul and Marvin Gaye. It's an overall embrace of music as a whole.

Q: Well, a lot of people like music, but to be able to spit it back so perfectly. ...

James: That’s true. It's appreciation, as well, I think. And it's obviously being gifted, as they are.

Jemaine: Sometimes the stuff comes later. Like the song "The Most Beautiful Girl in the Room," the idea of that was the idea of a guy who's not very good at compliments. So that was the basis for the idea -- it was a comedy idea, not necessarily that it was going to sound like Prince.

Bret: We love a lot of music. But we can also see the humor in it as well. So we try to capture that. It's not like we're parodying it in a kind of mean way. We put a lot of care into the music.

Q: How do you decide what style of music to use?

Bret: There's one song we wrote for the show, "Inner City Pressure" ...

Jemaine: It's the one that sounds like the Pet Shop Boys.

Bret: Initially, we wanted a song that was about being poor. We thought we were going to do it in a Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five hip-hop sound, but we decided not to because we'd already done a couple of hip-hop tunes.

Jemaine: And James liked the Pet Shop Boys video (for "West End Girls") and wanted to do something like that.

Bret: So we just pushed it into that format.

Q: Who came up with your hip-hop names?

Jemaine: I think we probably came up with our own.

Bret: I think Hiphopopotamus came first, and then Rhymenocerous came as a secondary hip-hop mammal. There are a few other hip-hop names. We did a show in Edinburgh with a few friends. Can't remember the guy's name.

Jemaine: Yak Daddy. And I think Dmitri called himself the Pop and Lock Ness Monster.

Bret: I hope you'll use our hip-hop names throughout the article.


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