It’s a Tuesday morning in September 2020, and Samuel Flynn Scott is at home, about to go into promotion mode for Landline, the new Phoenix Foundation single. It’s their second single from ‘Friend Ship’ – the band’s first album in five years – and one he rates highly, putting it “…up there with our top three albums” alongside 2005’s ‘Pegasus’ and ‘Buffalo’ from 2010. Amanda Mills talked with him, Covid styles, via Zoom. Made with the support of NZ On Air.
Over the last five years, The Phoenix Foundation band members have branched off in different areas, working with other artists, writing scores, building shrines, and Scott, along with bandmates Luke Buda and Conrad Wedde have crafted soundtracks for film and television under the name ‘Moniker’, notably including TV show Wellington Paranormal, and hugely successful local films Hunt For The Wilderpeople and This Town – which topped the NZ ratings for three weeks in August.
2020 has seen the six members – Scott, Buda, Wedde, Chris O’Connor, Will Ricketts, and Tom Callwood – reissuing ‘Buffalo’ for that record’s 10th anniversary as well as working through Covid-19 lockdown towards the release of their 7th album. They announced a blue vinyl reissue online, and the response was, shall we say, overwhelming.
“The interesting thing about ‘Buffalo’ was the amount of messages and desperation we got from people. You know, ‘When do I get this vinyl? How do I make sure I get a copy?” Scott smiles.
It also proved a good lead-in to completing ‘Friend Ship’.
“It definitely was a good burst of energy… it reminded us that people cared about the band, and it makes you more enthusiastic about putting more effort into new music.”
Historically Scott has been the dominant provider of lyrics, and while earlier albums, (he notes ‘Give Up Your Dreams’ (2015) and ‘Fandango’ from 2013), had the band constructing and rearranging songs through playing them live, ‘Friend Ship’ deliberately focused on presenting songs from the individual band members.
“Each songwriter had clear ideas of the song, and how they wanted it to sound before the band started working on them. There’s a certain focus to someone knowing what their own song is before the band takes control of it. I don’t think either way is better, but this album… there’s just a sort of songwriting confidence.”
Thematically ‘Friend Ship’ tackles modern anxieties and stress in the technological age, as well as the realities of climate change – and how we ignore issues that have become more pressing. While lockdown didn’t influence the themes, it heightened them.
“Those themes run through lots of the songs… They were written before this virus came on the scene, all kind of feel like they’re [now] about the virus in a way,” he laughs. “Lockdown had its strange unexpected positives, and also lots of weird anxiety and freaking out… There’s definitely quite a few things to take away from it that I feel quite grateful about, but it’s really just like a psychological torment on top of the things that we’ve been trying to ignore for years!”
First single Hounds of Hell – a duet with Nadia Reid – confronts human connections surviving “…the absolute human travesty that is modern society,” as Scott explains.
“It was just trying to say something profound about struggling through the quagmire of bullshit that is modern life.”
He thinks the song has added potency due to the pandemic.
“We’ve been able to ignore climate change at our own peril, and we can’t ignore Covid, so we’re all having to face up to a humanitarian crisis together. Maybe we’ll learn something about how to tackle a global issue through this, but probably not!”
He points to the song’s video (directed by Anita Fontaine) as a new visual language for the band – a simple concept of Reid and Scott embracing in flames.
“I think the Hounds of Hell video is us… trying to work with people who are outside our sphere of what people expect of The Phoenix Foundation. There is an element of us wanting to work with more women, and… do things that aren’t just our usual dude/bro kind of world. There’s something about the Hounds of Hell video that does feel quite feminine.”
Work on ‘Friend Ship’ began three years ago, with Scott writing material that had more traditional song structures than what was on ‘Give Up Your Dreams.’ Initially keen to further explore rhythmic and textural soundscapes, he says Luke Buda quickly got on board with the idea of it being a song-y album, Scott praising them as “…some of his best ever songs… people are going to be really blown away with where he’s gone lyrically.”
Famously a Wellington act, much of the album recording was done in Auckland, as Scott lived there for a time, with Buda joining him for recording sessions at a certain friend’s house along with percussionist Ricketts and drummer O’Connor.
“We went to Dave Dobbyn’s studio and did a bunch of stuff together… just kind of finding the way into the album. Dave was around for all of that… we were working away in his garage, and he’d make us cups of tea… he was just… giving us this good energy, which is a real special Dave thing.”
Dobbyn appears on the 7” b-side track, Blood On My Hands. Although the album was recorded at Dobbyn’s studio, Roundhead, The Surgery in Wellington and various band home studios, Scott thinks it’s one of their most cohesive sounding records. Cohesion, he considers comes about by allowing everyone in the band to have their personalities shine through on each track.
While ‘Friend Ship’ is mostly pieced together, Scott makes the point that “if you allow yourself to do it in a way which is free and natural, you can actually end up with something that has a lot of power… as doing something live.”
Guru, for example, began life in the basement of Scott’s dad’s place, before recording a “crazy percussion world” at Dobbyn’s studio with Buda and Ricketts, before Wedde then helped to shape it into the sound on the album. Recording included having O’Connor and bassist Callwood playing together in a room with the song playing in their headphones with live orchestral elements added later.
“It might have been made out of drum machines and loops, but at the end, there’s 83 people playing together live in a room!”
And the orchestra of choice? Only the NZSO! Their involvement came after the joint NZSO/Phoenix Foundation tour in 2018, where they performed new songs Miserable Meal, and the luminous Transit of Venus.
“It felt like it would be really lame not to get the orchestra on the album versions,” he explains.
While it took a lot of wrangling and co-ordination, everything came together, with the NZSO recorded in the studios at Wellington’s Massey University with Graham Kennedy – a day Scott smilingly describes as surreal.
“They’re… putting their skills onto our music – that’s such a ridiculous privilege, and I’ll be forever grateful that happened… it feels like we’ve scammed our way into this position where we can get things like that,” he laughs.
“I’ve been trying to do something with Nadia for years,” Scott admits. “I’ve wanted to record with her because I love her voice. And, the same with Hollie.”
While writing Hounds of Hell Scott envisaged it as a duet, and sent a rough demo to Reid asking if she would like to sing on it. Her response?
“She was like, ‘Yes, absolutely, let’s do it’.”
Fullbrook and Murray he met while working on Neil Finn’s album, and their close proximity in Auckland meant collaboration was easy.
“Honestly, just to hang out and do some singing and talk about making music together… it’s like most musical collaborations, you just make music with the people you want to hang out with, drink coffee with and have a good yarn with, really!” he laughs.
Clark plays violin on Former Glory, Buda’s origin song.
“She was in Wellington when we were finishing the album, she came in very late in the piece… Her and Luke sound fantastic together, they’ve ended up working on a lot of music since then,” Scott smiles. “She’s a great talent.”
Former Glory is a highlight, the song beginning with a Polish choir, reflecting Lukasz Pawel Buda’s beginnings.
“He just decided to… completely start the song, aurally, from this music that’s actually from Soviet-era Poland… everything that’s in that song is all true stories, things that are kind of the part of the legend of Luke.”
The lyrics are rich, telling the story of his childhood in Poland, and facing the trials and tribulations of being an immigrant kid in primary school in Miramar, including bullies. The song ends with Buda at high school meeting his best friends and starting a band, noting ‘and it was this band’, bringing things full circle.
The album’s second single, Landline, is classic Phoenix Foundation – a hook-filled song with considered lyrics about communication. It has a particularly arresting video (directed by Ezra Simons) which finds Scott dressed as a red rotary phone handset. He thinks the Landline video is peak Phoenix Foundation, laughing that it’s like a 1960s surrealist acid-trip gone wrong music video. Landline joins the running themes of human connection and anxiety, themes that are more grounded than on previous albums.
“Many of our lyrics have been quite abstract, about some sort of astral journey… this album, all the lyrics are about school lunches and doing the dishes!”
The band initially considered ‘Friend Ship’ as a concept album about modern anxiety, and while Scott doesn’t think they tried to do that it somehow became a conscious thread through the whole album.
Starting off with ‘Horse Power’ back in 2003, ‘Friend Ship’ is the band’s seventh album, and the cover shot the first time they are all shown. It was another decision made early on.
“We wanted to be in the music videos, we wanted to be on the cover, we wanted to not shy away from revealing ourselves… lyrically and in all of the promotional materials,” Scott explains.
The Phoenix Foundation has high hopes a tour scheduled for November will take place, Covid restrictions permitting and he sees a silver lining to the lack of international musicians touring NZ.
“I think bands will have a really interesting time… we’ll be the only bands around, and if people go and see gigs, see NZ bands and support our venues, it will get live music happening again.”