Flight of the Conchords: interview
We caught up with Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, aka Flight of the Conchords, in New York while they were filming the second series of their Grammy-winning hit comedy, which airs on BBC4 in May. The laconic Kiwis gave us their bite-sized views on everything from their sex-symbol status to curing American financial ills...
Their choice of band nameBM ‘We had the name before the terrible Concorde crash, but we were worried that people would think it was a joke based on the tragedy. Which it had nothing to do with.’JC ‘I think some people did think that. But we soldiered on with it.’BM ‘We just didn’t play in Paris.’
Why Kiwis are naturally reticentJC ‘In New Zealand, people don’t like the New Zealand accent, so we weren’t able to get a TV show there. They watch US shows.’ BM ‘They don’t understand their own accents, so they don’t talk very much.’
What to expect from their new and improved live actJC ‘Bret’s thinking of getting up from his chair, walking to the end of the stage and walking back.’BM ‘I saw Mick Jagger perform, and he runs around, so I was going to walk around. A little bit.’
The importance of knowing your audienceBM ‘We sometimes talk too much. People will shout, “Sing a song!” The people never yell out: “Do some banter!” We’re disappointed that the banter isn’t more popular, that there aren’t banter requests. We’re looking to release a single of banter.’
All the hearts they’ve brokenBM ‘Seven hearts combined. Jemaine’s more the heart-breaker. He’s broken four.’JC ‘Bret’s trying to catch up.’
How to repair the American economyBM ‘The government should do a budget… They need to put aside a certain amount each week for rent and then some money for food and then some money for partying, having a good time.’ JC ‘Put aside some for invasions!’
The likelihood of getting a third seasonJC ‘It’s unlikely.’BM ‘We’re going straight to the fourth season.’
‘Flight of the Conchords’ on-set reportOn the set of ‘Flight of the Conchords’ in Brooklyn, on a rainy day in November 2008, a crew member paints an actress from head to toe with brown and white flowers. The pattern painstakingly mimics the wallpaper in the bedroom of the lead characters, Bret and Jemaine. Later, in a music video, the actress slowly emerges, dancing, from her camouflaged background.‘So, is she in that outfit when you get home?’ asks director James Bobin. ‘Yeah,’ replies Jemaine Clement, who plays one of two Kiwi ‘digi-folk’ musicians struggling in the big city. ‘That’s weird.’ ‘Yep – it’s comedy.’While shooting the second season of the critically acclaimed HBO series (on BBC4 on Tuesdays), Clement and his co-star Bret McKenzie, along with Bobin (the three executive producers created and write the series together), are as fastidious as their paintbrush-wielding employee. Each shot requires multiple takes – not due to mistakes, but because the actors improvise and write on the fly. As McKenzie puts it: ‘The deleted scenes would be a ten-disc box.’For example, in a scene at a police station, shot earlier in the day, band manager Murray (Rhys Darby) arrives to rescue Jemaine, who’s been arrested. During what is at least the fourth take, though, Clement turns back to the cop unexpectedly, before leaving, and says, earnestly, ‘It was nice to meet you. And the other guy who hit me.’It’s the funniest moment in the session and quintessentially indicative of the show’s appeal. You can relate to it. And it’s made the real Bret and Jemaine, who used to have more in common with their eponymous characters, international stars.Among the denizens of their real-life fans are some as strange as the fictional stalker, Mel, played by Kristen Schaal. ‘A lot of people come up and joke, “I’m the real Mel!” ’ says McKenzie. As well as garnering a general fan base, Clement and McKenzie have become sex symbols for the thinking woman. Schaal explains the appeal: ‘They’re gentle; they’re gentle clowns. Women love dorks.’ Then she adds with a laugh: ‘I think masculinity is on the way out.’ Some of the gifts showered upon the duo at gigs include cookies, stuffed sheep, dolls and T-shirts.Popularity raises expectations. Clement and McKenzie exhausted their well of songs for the first season and many wondered if they’d be able to create enough new tunes to fill another dozen episodes. ‘Yeah, we’ve written miles more songs this year,’ says McKenzie. ‘But it feels like it’s been the same amount of work; there’s been more to do, but we’ve gotten faster at it.’ Sensing that the boys are shrugging off the magnitude of their efforts, Bobin chimes in: ‘We spend the entire week shooting and then on the weekends they’re in the studio writing and recording songs.’The Conchords have held on to that trademark modesty and quietude, even as they’ve become savvier in entertainment-industry navigations. Jemaine admits to a growing impatience – ‘When dealing with people, I would expect Bret to be a bit more diplomatic, whereas I tend not to like the person’ – but when he’s asked if that’s their good-cop-bad-cop routine, he’s quick to clarify: ‘It’s more like polite-cop-slightly-less-polite-cop.’In one philosophical discussion, the duo explain that it’s difficult to garner material without anonymity, that it’s a challenge to process life into art when that life is in some way false. ‘Now, when we walk into a party, it changes the dynamic; it’s hard to experience it because there’s another layer,’ explains McKenzie.Does that mean the second season won’t stand up to the first? What if their diehard audience accuses them of losing their touch or selling out? ‘We don’t talk to our original fans any more,’ says McKenzie. ‘Yeah,’ adds Clement, ‘they’ve lost it. We like our original fans’ earlier work much better.’
The second series of ‘Flight of the Conchords’ is on Tuesdays at 10.30pm on BBC4 from Tue May 12. The first episode is repeated on Fri May 15 at 11.30pm.
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