Twelve years since his last, Luke Buda has just released a third solo album, one he’s consciously, and very simply badged as ‘Buda’. While certainly trademark Luke Buda in its blend of catchy psychedelic pop and axiomatic observation, it’s less simple than his previous solo output in a number of ways, one being that it is not so solo. Amanda Mills quizzed him about the album and its musical cast of characters.
Luke Buda is bemused. He has received a message on Bandcamp in response to a pro-vaccination ‘vaxforlive’ message he’s posted on social media. The response is typical anti-vax rhetoric, with a fascinating assertion. Apparently, musicians are making ‘big bucks’ to spread the word of the Government’s vaccine programme. If only.
“The suggestion that the musicians of New Zealand are getting paid ‘big bucks’ to push an agenda… Most of us don’t get paid big bucks for anything, frankly, and actually not being able to play gigs is really bad for us, both financially and mentally,” he says, shaking his head.
Coming on top of a gig-abbreviated 2020 the Covid Delta-variant situation is frustrating for artists and fans. Most musicians – Buda included – have had to postpone their 2021 shows due to the risk of helping the virus spread. The #vaxforlive movement encourages music lovers to get vaccinated so everyone can return to see the live music they love.
It’s been a year since his band, The Phoenix Foundation, released their ‘Friend Ship’ album, which arguably contained some of his best songs with the band. Those tracks include Decision Dollars and Former Glory, the latter an origin story of sorts that framed his early life in NZ as an immigrant. Now it’s Buda’s turn to shine (again) as a solo artist, releasing not only a selection of covers via his Bandcamp page, but also his third album, this one simply titled ‘Buda’.
It’s his first solo release since 2008, and he’s very ready for it to be made public, but why that decade-plus break between records?
“It just takes time, energy, effort, and resources to make an album,” he explains, adding that The Phoenix Foundation have been almost continually busy since their 2009 album ‘Buffalo’.
There’s plenty of other reasons too, of course, not least raising two now-teenage lads. He thinks there’s a big difference between his last two solo albums (‘Special Surprise’ in 2006, and 2008’s ‘Vesuvius’), and this self-titled offering.
“It’s less naive than those albums, which I like… I prefer the craft of experience, and I’ve made three albums with The Phoenix Foundation in-between, so I’ve got more music miles under the belt!”
Perhaps in an unconscious response to the whole Covid problem he’s been trying to steer away from the “sincere or cynical” lyrics of those earlier albums.
“I just had to find a slightly different way, and… inject it with a little bit more humour to offset the cynical, dark vibe.”
‘Buda’ is the whole package. The album cover is arresting, a circular image of him dressed in 18th Century finery (complete with wig and rouge) staring into the middle distance – imagery he says he just woke up and thought of. The intriguing visual invites the listener into what quickly proves to be a collection of beautifully recorded, performed and produced songs that showcase Buda’s well-established knack for melody and a wry lyric or three.
Actually some of the lyrics aren’t his, but come instead from Wellington novelist Damian Wilkins. The two met through Buda’s partner who Wilkins tutored during her studies.
“I got to know him a bit, then he asked me to play [guitar] on one of his albums,” Buda recalls, adding that Wilkins subsequently offered his help with lyrics. “I was very hesitant to go there, I just wanted to keep that precious thing to myself.”
In saying that Buda acknowledges that he finds lyric writing really difficult, and it was his new album’s opening song, Here Comes The Wind, that sealed the contra deal.
“I must have spent a week down in the garage just… trying things out, not getting anything that I was happy with,” he says. “In the end, it was almost out of desperation that I sent it to him. For me, it sometimes takes up to five years to finish the lyrics for a song… but that’s the way it goes.”
Wilkins responded with lyrics the next day.
“I was just like, ‘You bastard!’” Buda grins with mock indignation.
He wrote a new bridge and sent that off, the corresponding words emailed back to him an hour later. Impressed, he sent Wilkins the tracks for She’s Arriving Soon, and Don’t Think In Bed, which the writer also delivered on. While Buda’s own lyrics reference anxiety, and ageing, he laughs when describing the differences.
“All the ones about being fat and old are my lyrics, and all the ones that are interesting words about the climate crisis and stuff, that’s Damian.”
‘Buda’ has been in the works for a while, although delayed due to (Luke) Buda’s busy career – not only as a member of The Phoenix Foundation, but also with his band Teeth, and soundtrack work with Moniker (which include his TPF bandmates Sam Flynn-Scott, and Conrad Wedde).
Actually two of the tracks on ‘Buda’, the epic Here Comes The Wind, and the sweet, hooky Candy, were written for the 2020 film This Town. The Candy in the film has a less full arrangement, while Here Comes The Wind was a demo for the original (unused) opening sequence.
“I was like, ‘Man, there’s something about this I like, it’s quite simple, but I like it.’”
The album does have an inviting simplicity overall but features a roster of some of New Zealand’s finest musical talent. The Phoenix Foundation members are there, as are Don McGlashan on tenor horn (on She’s Arriving Soon), Trinity Roots’ drummer/percussionist Riki Gooch, Toby Laing and Joe Lindsay from Fat Freddy’s Drop, pianist Dayle Jellyman, and vocalists Jacqui Nyman and Anita Clarke.
Collaborating with Clarke (Motte, Ragamuffin Children, Devilish Mary and the Holy Rollers) has been an important aspect of Buda’s recent work. They met in 2015 at the Nostalgia Festival, where both The Phoenix Foundation and Devilish Mary and the Holy Rollers played. After playing together at gigs they became friends. Clarke’s vocals and violin featured on Former Glory, and she subsequently joined The Phoenix Foundation tour.
“I was thinking about getting a woman to sing on a track… And then that worked, and her violin playing was cool, and she sang on another song.”
The band were keen to replicate some of those female vocals on stage.
“Man, we’re a real sausage party of a band!” he laughs. “I was like, ‘Well, why don’t we hire Anita… she plays amazing violin, she plays the keyboard, she sings, she does the percussion… now we’re just like best buds, and now she’s in [my] band as well.”
‘Buda’ is an album of hook-filled, lovely pop/rock songs, frequently with a vein of contemplation, or irony running through them to temper the pop sheen. His work through his career with The Phoenix Foundation and his own albums stands out melodically, often with a retro sound attached, but his songs are timeless regardless of production style.
He draws from different sounds, eras, and production levels as inspiration.
“As long as there’s some kind of mysterious element that engages me, I’ll listen to the person whose only just picked up a guitar… or I’ll listen to a completely preposterous mid-’80s overblown, over-produced thing if there’s something in it I like.”
His style is to write the songs as he is recording and producing them. Typically he doesn’t go into recording projects with even a sound in mind, preferring to let it develop over the process, however with ‘Buda’ he wanted the guitar to star.
“I love playing electric guitar, and I just want to make sure that I do that, and honour that,” he smiles. “It’s very infrequently that I’ll sit down with a guitar or a piano and write a song, like lyrics and changes from start to finish,” he muses. “It’s a way to keep myself excited about the thing rather than playing the same chords over and over I think.
Inadvertently, whatever style that is my style will start to come out. Having said that, Here Comes The Wind was always going to be a guitar smorgasboard.”
He’s wary of notions of ‘good taste’, considering them detrimental to the creative process, and his own style.
“Don’t give me a prescribed notion of what should and shouldn’t be. I’m always trying to do a mix of something that’s accessible, but with hopefully enough of a slightly different little angle in there.”
While a melodically astute composer, he often chooses to add a slightly different angle to counter hooks. Illustrating that, he says he feels “weird” about Who Would Want To Be Lonely as it seems so straight.
“It goes to the chorus three times, and the chorus is quite hooky. The same thing with Candy, it’s quite a lot more straight and saccharine than I’d usually go for, because I wrote it for the movie!” he laughs.
“Maybe the exercise for this one is to try and let some of those things, through rather than destroy them under the guise of some artistic pretension.”
His melodic knack was also recently seen when he played the guitar on the song Everyone Is Horrid Except Me (and Possibly You), co-written by Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie for The Simpsons’ episode Panic on the Streets of Springfield, in which actor Benedict Cumberbatch played the ‘Morrissey-esque’ character, Quilloughby. The episode parodied – and angered – British musician Morrissey, who responded negatively.
“Bret was asked to do some songs for The Simpsons, and so he got his mates from around Wellington to record on it,” Buda laughs. “I am definitely extremely chuffed to have my guitar playing on a Simpsons episode.”
The planned release tour for ‘Buda’ has been postponed until February 2022 due to the continuing Covid pandemic. While they could tour wider NZ at Level 2, social distancing means smaller audiences and it’s not financially viable.
“I didn’t start out doing music to make money, and I didn’t make the album to make money, but I can’t quite lose money either! Pay-to-play is a step too far at the age of 42 with two teenage children!”
There’s also the second Teeth album (with Ant Donaldson, Tom Callwood and David Long), as potentially his next project, and more soundtrack work with Moniker which Buda is grateful for.
“I feel very, very lucky that we’ve managed to get into that world… I’d say it’s impossible to for us to make any kind of living from the band in terms of playing live, especially now,” he says. “With The Phoenix Foundation, we’ll just carry on doing stuff, because we don’t have anything better to do!”