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Interview: The Phoenix Foundation Speak Out About 'Friend Ship'

Interview: The Phoenix Foundation Speak Out About 'Friend Ship'

Annabel Kean / Photo credit: Ebony Lamb / Tuesday 3rd November, 2020 11:43AM

The Phoenix Foundation fellows are boarding their Friend Ship tour, rigging the sails, and navigating Aotearoa throughout November for eight album release shows. The album is their seventh, and has seen them return to the pop sentiments of earlier collections like Buffalo and Pegasus, and recruiting some of their favourite musicians for collaborative duties. One such collaborator, and Pōneke peer, Anita Clark (Motte) is joining the band for the tour and "violining up a storm like a one woman orchestra". Before they're run off their feet sharing music new and old in gorgeous venues like Wellington's Opera House and Ōtautahi's Isaac Theatre Royal, Phoenix Foundation front man Samuel Flynn Scott caught up with Hans Pucket's Oliver Devlin. The pair dive into how Friend Ship was created and where it sits in the Phoenix Foundation's oeuvre, as well as the best ways to enjoy peanut butter on toast. Check the full run of dates here, and scroll down a wee way for the full interview...

UTR proudly presents…

The Phoenix Foundation - Friend Ship tour of Aotearoa

Friday 6th November - St Peter's Hall, Paekākāriki
Thursday 12th November - Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch
Friday 13th November - Starters, Dunedin
Thursday 19th November - Totara St, Mount Maunganui
Friday 20th November - Sawmill Cafe, Leigh
Saturday 21st November - Powerstation, Auckland
Friday 27th November - The Cabana, Napier
Saturday 28th November - The Opera House, Wellington

Tickets available via Banished Music

Oliver Devlin: Hey, kia ora, it’s Oli. I just got a chance to listen to the album this morning, and was getting my thoughts together... this is my first time interviewing somebody, so I guess bear with me.

Samuel Flynn Scott: Ok, I’ll be really difficult, I’ll make sure I give you no answers.

Haha, yeah. Just yes or no. Straight up.

Yep, really flat.

I just finished listening to the album, and oh boy, wow. That is a heck of an album you’ve got there.

Oh thank you!

It’s pretty stunning. Really nice way to start the day, sitting and eating my banana and peanut butter on toast and listening to some really beautiful music.

That’s a good toast combo. I’d sort of forgotten how delicious it was but I’ve been making it for my sons and then eating it myself. It’s just really good right? Banana and peanut butter.

Peanut butter is having such a cultural moment I feel, but I’m a wimp, I can’t deal with it by itself. Even with how delicious it is, I need a little bit of banana, a little bit of honey or something.

I think it needs some sort of lubrication. I don’t understand people who eat peanut butter on toast without butter. I feel like it’s really claggy if you don’t have jam or honey or something else to change the texture a bit... these are the important topics for UnderTheRadar.

Yeah, we could just keep talking about breakfast.

Yeah sure. But officially I don’t eat breakfast, supposedly. I’ve fallen off the wagon a bit lately. It’s a dieting thing. This is what bands hitting forty have to do now.

Oh okay, I’ll look forward to that.

Leading up to photo shoots and stuff, you gotta hit the intermittent fasting pretty hard.

That’s a great segue, I’ve got my notes here… You’ve worked with Nadia Reid, and Hollie from Tiny Ruins, and Anita Clark, and Amelia [Fazerdaze], and also the entire NZSO. There’s a bit of a theme there going across the album, well obviously friendship, but how did that come together? Collaborating like this, and bringing all these people into The Phoenix Foundation?

We were maybe half way through the record and I was living in Auckland by this stage and me and Luke [Buda] were having a big conversation about how we wanted to finish the record and what we needed to do to give it something special — not just make it another Phoenix Foundation album. And at that stage the NZSO thing, we were still working out how we were gonna do it, if it was gonna happen, and I’d just done the Neil Finn album, with the choir. That choir was people like Reb Fountain, Fazerdaze Amelia, Hollie from Tiny Ruins, and I just loved singing with these women. They have incredible voices and I was listening to so much of their music. I was listening to Fazerdaze, I was listening to Nadia, I was listening to Tiny Ruins. I was listening to Aldous. Most of what I listen to at the moment is New Zealand women. I didn’t used to listen to that much New Zealand music, and I didn’t used to listen to that much music by female songwriters, I don’t think. I’ve always been a huge fan of various female songwriters, but I wouldn’t say it’s dominated my listening, and the last few years it’s really like 80-percent of what I listen to crazily.

I think for a lot of people it’s just a real shift in energy in terms of what we want out of music or something, or just doesn’t feel stale. And so we wanted to tap into that, because that’s what we’re interested in, and it should make our album better and we get to work with some people that we like hanging out with and whose voices we really love, so it just kind of made sense on every level.

One of the songs on the album — is it Luke who’s singing about his life? And starting a band in high school and everything? [Former Glory with Anita Clark]

Yeah, so that’s very much a Luke lyric, because it’s about travelling to New Zealand from Poland and it’s all very — I mean, I love how explicit the lyrics are in that. I don’t mean explicit in a rude way, it’s just that they say what he went through.

That was a really beautiful moment for me on the album, after coming through that whole experience and how hard that must have been. When the band comes in at the end he’s like "Things got cool in high school, I started a band with my best friends". I was like, 'Oh shit'.

They say you shouldn’t write songs about being in a band, that’s kind of passé or whatever, but I like funny songs bands write about their own little stories. And our one goes back a few years, so why not?

Were you all thinking about that while recording that song for this album? I suppose you’ve been celebrating 20 years of the band, you’re probably sick of being asked questions about the history of it.

Oh na, I mean it’s fine really. It is what it is, especially after doing the NZSO tour which was the 20 year celebration, it’s like, well, we kind of have to accept that at some point you move into a different sort of zone of what you mean to your audience. This is the really interesting thing about working with Nadia and Hollie, you know they’re about ten years younger than us, but they were listening to our music in high school, so the music we were making in our twenties had soundtracked some of their teens. Which is when we met as a band, it was in our teens, and we started to lend each other records and influence each other.

I can absolutely say the same for me as well. I was thinking, the first time I heard you guys was the Eagle Vs. Shark soundtrack.

Ah right! So many people heard us through soundtracks.

Your songs, and the instrumental songs from that album, and then The Reduction Agents were on there as well, and it felt like the whole scene that was going on here. It was quite exciting to come across this trove of all this New Zealand music all at once.

Yeah and most of that music probably, I’d say everyone knew Taika, other than the famous international acts on it. People talk about the ‘scene’ or whatever, but it was never like a ‘cool scene’, no one ever felt ‘cool’ in that world. I think we were all nerds. There was this place called, I think it was Cable Street and it was a warehouse where people like Taika, Age Pryor, Bret Mckenzie and Jermaine, they’d all be making music or putting on little play. You know you’d just go to parties there cos that was the cool, loose party, and you’d meet people there and it’s kind of how you’d end up on their soundtrack. And I kind of loved that time. At this point in my life I can’t connect with people in those ways, and I do miss that, because I’m not young and going out to random things, and because some of that culture doesn’t really exist anymore. Because people don’t have those warehouse spaces where a bunch of artists from different mediums can hang out and work together.

Do you think that your approach to music has changed a lot with that change of environment as well? Or does it still feel like it’s coming from the same place.

You know it does change at different times when we have different motivations. I think with this record we tried to tap into some of the motivations we maybe had sort of 10, 15 years ago. We talked a lot about really focussing things back to songwriting and lyrics on this album, cos I think we got quite caught up in performance. Because we got better as musicians and we got better as a band, and a lot of what makes Give Up Your Dreams a cool record is the way we’re interacting with each other, but we maybe didn’t put that much time into a lot of the lyrics. Whereas with this album, that’s what I said to Luke, that that’s what I’d like it to be about. And he kind of groaned a bit like ‘oh god, lyrics are so hard uh’. Then he came out with ‘Decision Dollars’ which is this personal song about being hungover, and then ‘Miserable Meal’ which people would have heard on the NZSO tour, and that’s again quite a personal song, quite a beautiful song.

Kind of Burt Bacharach-y sorta trumpets in there.

Yeah the arrangement by Claire Cowen which is really cool. And then him just writing about being a Polish immigrant coming to New Zealand and getting beaten up for his lunch money, until the one day he fights back and feels some sense of worth or something, buys a guitar, and meets the people that will become his lifelong friends. It’s like a little mini epic tale, I love it. He wasn’t that into making the lyrics the kind of be all and end all, but in the end he just nailed it. Great stuff.

How about yourself? How’d you find your lyrical writing on this album?

Well, I put a lot of hours into it. ‘Transit Of Venus’, again that’s a very personal story and I’m really just writing about exactly what was happening at the time. I did write that song with my wife when we were supposed to be doing the dishes together and I was annoying her by singing about the stars and planets through the window instead of drying the dishes.

You’re writing it in that moment?

I was writing it in that moment! I was in the kitchen.

That is so beautiful.

Yeah and she was like ‘that sounds really good Sam, but actually could you please do the dishes’.

And then getting to take that to the NZSO — is it Claire doing that arrangement as well?

Ah no that’s Hamish Oliver doing that one.

Yeah, and adding the celestial element to that.

It really does make sense.  I was really unsure about having such a big, bold, Hollywood film kind of arrangement on it, but I was completely wrong. It’s beautiful, it’s great. I’m so glad we did it.

The way that whistle manages to- it cuts through perfectly on top of that huge, mass of humans.

You’ve gotta make the whistling song right? You’ve gotta have a whistling song at some point in your career.

I’d just love to ask you about ‘Landline’ as well, cos that is a straight up, solid gold hit. Fantastic.

I sure hope so! But I won’t hold my breath [laughs]. But no no, I always think ‘aw yeah this one’s pretty catchy, this is going to be the one’, ‘this is the one that’s gonna work for people’. Then I’m like ‘aw no, no one likes it, once again’.

Do you feel a little bit like you’ve got some particularly beautiful gems on this album though? Do you have a little glimmer of something, some hope that there’s some pretty special music on this album? Or are you trying not to think about how it’ll come across to people.

I dunno. I feel like it’s a pretty solid album. I mean, I have my favourite albums, they’re probably Buffalo and Pegasus. I mean I really enjoyed making Give Up Your Dreams, that was one of my favourites to actually make, the process was really cool. But I’d put this up there with Buffalo I think, in terms of the songs. ‘Landline’ is a funny one, cos it’s so much poppier than the rest of the album, but I think it’s good in the context of the album, it’s just got a little bit more juice, and then those really really mellow ones like ‘Trem Sketch’, it allows those songs to be there as well. It kind of balances the force or something. So yeah, it’s a very poppy song, but it’s a song about reaching out and being there for your friends when they’re suffering from depression or anxiety, and also being understanding if they’re not available for you, or you’re not available for them, cos it kind of goes back and forth this thing about ‘being in the blue’. It’s very fun and catchy, but it’s also written from the perspective of someone who’s seeing a lot of mental anguish amongst the people that I love. It’s just amazing how all this shit, we’re writing about all this anxiety and stuff, and then it’s got worse and worse. The whole global situation’s got worse and all feels even more relevant than when we were making it. But ‘Landline’, weirdly, the themes on it are quite central to what the album’s about.

That’s the kind of pop music I love. It’s got enough under the surface to stick around really. It’s really got something to say, and there’s some pretty straight ahead lines in that song, but you know that it’s about something a bit deeper and a bit apocalyptic or something.

Yeah there’s a lot of apocalypse in the album.

I think that the messages that you’ve got on this album are just really perfectly timed for where we are right now, and maybe you got a bit lucky with that, or maybe you were feeling what was already going on.

Sorry, hang on one second Oli. ["I’m in the middle of doing an interview — it’s just there, it’s that building there"] Sorry, I’m directing my dad into a mechanic's. It’s a very weird thing that I’m doing right now, at the same time I’m doing this interview, but this is life!

I’m wrapping up!

Hey I’ve been listening to a bunch of Hans Pucket, I mean I’ve heard you guys obviously through the years, but I thought I better listen to Oli’s music to prepare for this interview and I was really enjoying it by the way. Good lyrics, they’re fun.

Good lyrics! I’ll hold onto that one, thank you.

Lyrics are hard man.

They’re so hard. Maybe that’s why I had such a good time with it this morning as well. It’s a good thing to listen to right now, and thank you for that.

I can’t believe the NZSO’s on it, it’s amazing. I can’t believe that Nadia’s on it, Hollie, and Amelia’s on the track that’s on the 7”.

It’s amazing. I’m a huge fan of orchestral pop music as well, there needs to be more orchestras on pop recordings.

Now that I’ve done it, I know why there isn’t more! It’s really hard to make it all come together, but it happened, and the NZSO really came on board.

We have to appreciate it while it’s here. Anyway, I’ll let you go and hang out with a mechanic.

Thanks Oli, have a good day man.

The Phoenix Foundation's seventh album 'Friend Ship' is out now via The Phoenix Foundation / Universal NZ.


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