I was excited when I heard a new Muppets movie was in the works. I became more excited when I heard it would be a musical. And then I became ecstatic when I learned that Bret McKenzie would be the film’s music supervisor. My elation came from being a huge Flight of the Conchords fan. McKenzie is one-half of the folk-music-comedy duo (the other half being Jemaine Clement), and through their albums and HBO series, they’ve shown they can easily play with any music genre.
Earlier this week, I got to speak with McKenzie over the phone and we discussed his process on creating the songs for The Muppets, his musical and comic inspirations the possibility of a song from the movie being nominated for an Oscar, his work on The Hobbit, his future musical endeavors, a ukulele orchestra, and more. Hit the jump to check out the interview.
Collider: I want to start off by talking a little bit about Chris Cooper. He’s not really known for his rapping skills, but he did a pretty good job in the movie. Could you talk a little bit about creating the song and working with him on it?
BRET McKENZIE: Yeah, I was given the job of being Chris Cooper’s rap coach. My first session with him was on Skype, Chris Cooper and I; that was when I first met him. I’m a big fan of his, so I was star struck as well as having to teach him how to rap. What we did was we did a bit of freestyling on Skype, which, with the slight time delay on Skype, there wasn’t that much flow. But then we got to the studio in Los Angeles and he was great. He took it very seriously, like any good rapper. I think he did a good job. On that song, I wrote Chris Cooper’s parts and Ali Dee [Theodore], a New York songwriter, he wrote the original song and I wrote the rap, if that makes sense.
Which song came together the fastest?
McKENZIE: I think “Man or Muppet” was the song that from beginning to end was fastest because there weren’t changes to it. “Life’s a Happy Song” was also very quick, because I wrote that very quickly. But then once we started working it into the film, we had to move it around a lot. It had a bridge that we added in that the producers wanted and then we took it out again and they hated it, so there was a lot of coming and going on that song, whereas “Man or Muppet” was a very smooth transition from song idea to recording to video.
Which song took the most time to get it right for the film?
McKENZIE: That’s actually Tex/Chris Cooper’s song, because we probably did twelve different versions of that track trying to get the right balance of comedy and hip-hop.
McKENZIE: On my laptop there are, particularly Chris Cooper, the rap. [laughs] There’s a lot of different versions of that song. But then there are also dozens of demos, like James Bobin…Disney got hundreds of demos submitted for the songs for the film and then when I came on board, they already had a lot of these demos. Each song has at least twelve different versions. It was a very long-winded process.
James Bobin directed eleven episodes of “The Flight of the Conchords” and I was wondering, how does working with him on the TV series compare to working with him on The Muppets?
McKENZIE: Well, the main difference was, because I don’t act in The Muppets, I was in the studio a lot, so we didn’t spend as much time together. But other than that, it was very similar. We have a great shorthand because we’ve done forty or fifty music videos together on “Conchords.” It’s very easy for us to communicate what we’re trying to do with a song and with the visuals.
In November, you said that there were plans to do a “The Flight of the Conchords” movie but you first needed to come up with a story. Has there been any progress on that front?
McKENZIE: [laughs] That really blew up as quite a big news story.
Yeah, I think everyone wants a little more “Flight of the Conchords.”
McKENZIE: Yes, so that hasn’t changed. We’re still just throwing ideas around.
McKENZIE: No plans at the moment. We haven’t toured New Zealand or Australia. I really want to play New Zealand because we haven’t played here in years.
Are you going back and forth between New Zealand because of The Hobbit right now?
McKENZIE: No, I finished The Hobbit, but I spend half my time in New Zealand and half my time in America. In New Zealand I work with hobbits and elves and when I’m in Los Angeles, I work with frogs and pigs. [laughs]
As a comedian who inspires you and as a musician who inspires you?
McKENZIE: I listen to a lot of different music. Comedy-wise, it’s probably more films than stand-up; I’m not really a big stand-up fan. I do like Mitch Hedberg though, I think he’s one of the few stand-ups that I would sit down and listen to. Music-wise, I listen to everything. Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman, I guess I like a lot of 70’s music.
Yeah, you can definitely hear that in a lot of your songs. Are there any other non-“Flight of the Conchords” music projects you had in the works?
McKENZIE: Not at the moment. I started a ukulele orchestra a few years ago in New Zealand, but then I had to leave the country because I was working overseas so much. I might try to do something with them.
Did you say ukulele orchestra?
How does that work?
McKENZIE: [laughs] It’s another novelty music project I’m working on. It’s a pretty funny band. This band is made up of…it’s a pretty interesting story but I don’t know if you want to write it up. I don’t know if this is the right column for it.
McKENZIE: We wanted to start a band that had no rules, right? So we decided the band would be a ukulele band. We started playing at a café and the rule was anyone who wanted to join the band was allowed to join the band. [laughs] You didn’t even need to be able to play the instrument. We had people coming into the café, we were in the corner playing ukuleles and they would come in and get their coffee and then the next day they’d come back with a ukulele and join the band.
What does that sound like?
McKENZIE: Well, we got up to twelve people and they had to close it down because the café was too small.
You mentioned that you’ve wrapped on The Hobbit. You were in The Lord of the Rings as a very minor character. Do you get to say a few lines this time around?
McKENZIE: Yeah, I’m a slightly less minor character. It will still be a little cameo. I’m back as an elf, but this time I’m in 3D. It’ll feel like you can touch my pointy ears. [laughs] That was a cool job. It was really exciting working on that, seeing Peter Jackson in action.
I saw some behind-the-scenes footage and apparently they have to make you up differently from a normal film because they’re shooting at 48 frames per second. What was that like and have you seen the playback of the footage?
McKENZIE: I haven’t seen any of the footage. Sorry, I haven’t seen any of it. There’s something about the redness that 3D changes. They put more red on you because the red disappears, or something?
McKENZIE: That was more for the dwarves than the elves with their prosthetics, noses and things.
And because the elves are sort of drained of color, they’re very pale. Does that have anything to do with it?
McKENZIE: Yeah. It doesn’t matter if we don’t look healthy. [laughs]
What was the atmosphere like on set? Did it feel like the last films or did it feel like there was a bit more pressure this time around?
McKENZIE: No. Peter Jackson was very relaxed. He’s so good at what he does, it was a very calm set. I think it was probably more relaxed than last time. It was different for me because last time I was an extra and I wasn’t allowed to look people in the eye. This time I got to have cups of tea with Ian McKellen.
Do you know if Peter Jackson has seen “Frodo, Don’t Wear the Ring?”
McKENZIE: Yeah, yeah, yeah, because we sang that, Jemaine [Clement] and I sang that at the wrap party for Lord of the Rings. It was fun.
There are certain songs from the TV series that haven’t been released on albums yet, like “Cheer Up, Murray.” Are there any plans to bring those songs out?
McKENZIE: [laughs] I love that you pulled “Cheer Up, Murray” out of the bag! I was thinking about that the other day. There’s probably an album of B-sides we could put together.
McKENZIE: I think it was a good time to finish the series because I thought it was good to end on a high. We were sort of struggling to come up with new material to meet the deadlines, so I felt good about that.
Was writing songs for the TV series a different process for you than writing them for an album?
McKENZIE: Well, by the second series it got quite chaotic because when you’re recording TV shows during the week and then going in the studio on the weekend to write the songs for the next week so it was really high-speed songwriting. It was slightly different. The difference was, the first season, a lot of the songs were from our live stage show. We developed those songs in comedy clubs and so the rhythm of them…they were full of punch lines and jokes so that you can keep a comedy club alive. The second season, we started writing songs more for videos so the songs had visual ideas within them that the punch line may not be so much in the lyric, but in the visual of the music video.
You were shooting through the week, but when you were writing songs, did you have the idea of what the next episode would look like?
McKENZIE: Yeah, we normally had the story, we had a song idea, but we hadn’t actually written the songs.
James [Bobin] directed most of the episodes, but occasionally you got to work with, one episode I believe Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) directed?
McKENZIE: Yeah, that was amazing.
McKENZIE: Well, we met him in New York through mutual friends. That was one of those moments where, one of our influences…we got to work with one of our idols, which was really exciting. Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, people like that, whose music videos we’d grown up loving and who’d influenced our style, we got to work with him. It was great having him doing a music video, doing two music videos with Michel Gondry was a real highlight of the show. His main aim was to drum; he loves drumming. He kept on asking me when he was going to come in the studio and drum on the tracks. It was really fun and he’s a different style of director. It was interesting having a film director on a TV set because they work differently from TV directors.
So there was a different style between him and James in filming?
McKENZIE: Yeah, there was, but by that stage, James had set up the tone so there wasn’t that much freedom for Michel to move that around.
Switching gears to go back to The Muppets, the songs have been getting a lot of Oscar buzz. When you hear about that, that at least one of the songs will probably be nominated, what are your feelings about that?
McKENZIE: It’s all quite surreal, but at the same time very exciting. I’ve grown up hearing about the Oscars. It would be amazing if we get to go.
McKENZIE: Yeah, it would be an incredible honor. I think none of us working on The Muppets film even…it just seems like a world away from the awards. When you’re making the film, you’re just in your own little zone. You don’t really think about the audience or how people are going to react, you just don’t know. It’s been really, really great watching people enjoy the film and seeing it come to life.
When you were writing the songs, how did that work? Did you write your songs around the actors, knowing their registers and what they could or couldn’t do? Was there some casting involved to fill the need of a performer who could hit the range of a song?
McKENZIE: No, they’d already cast everyone. They cast everyone on their acting ability. I just write the songs for me so I can sing them and I just change, transpose them to suit the characters. The tricky ones, the Muppets are much harder than the actors, because the Muppets have very small ranges. Miss Piggy and Kermit have a very small window where they can sing before it doesn’t sound like the character. That was tricky. We had to change the melodies to make it work for them.
Did you speak with the Muppeteers? I’d imagine there’s also some difficulty just in facial expression and what they can and cannot say or what words they can’t form.
McKENZIE: They can say anything, but you’re right, sometimes the mouth doesn’t really articulate what they’re saying.
Were there any Muppets that you particularly enjoyed writing for?
McKENZIE: Well, Miss Piggy is such a great character. She’s so conflicted; she’s so aggressive and simultaneously, so sweet, that I think she is comedy gold. I really enjoyed writing for her.
McKENZIE: I wasn’t involved in those. Yeah, I didn’t do those. Ed Mitchell produced those and yeah, that wasn’t my part of the film.
Were there Muppets you found that you could use, not necessarily for singing, but more as instruments, like Beaker?
McKENZIE: Yeah, Beaker and the Swedish Chef are two Muppets that are funny to write for because they’re hilarious because they don’t do lyrics. They’re great patch lines. Like if you can’t come up with a good rhyme, they’re really good to use.
Because of the previous Muppets movies and because the Muppets sang in those movies as well, did those movies provide a kind of guideline when writing the songs for The Muppets?
McKENZIE: Yeah, I just listened to all the old material over and over again and got a sense of that sound, that Paul Williams and Joe Raposo established. Because Paul Williams did The Muppet Movie, Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher, I think that’s the sound that I remember mostly. It’s the illiterate mayhem, that kind of 70s, that kind of sound. That was the sound that Mickey and I, he’s the guy that I produced with, we were trying to capture and keep alive in these songs. Did you ever hear it said, apparently it’s said that, “If the music sounds too good, it’s not right.” That was kind of the quality I think that makes them “Muppety.”
It seems like there’s also some elements of your songwriting in some of the songs; there’s some balance there.
McKENZIE: I just wrote the songs in a way and produced them in a Muppet-style.
I was watching it with my brother and when “Man or Muppet” came on, we could definitely hear the tone in that one.
McKENZIE: That clearly sounds like a Conchords’ song. I wrote three-and-a-half of the songs, if you include Christopher’s rap. And then (unintelligible) wrote the Kermit “Pictures in My Head” song and Ali Dee wrote the rap part.
McKENZIE: Well, thanks man! Fingers crossed we get some sort of nomination. I wonder how many tickets we get because I wonder if Kermit or Piggy will come along.
I would be surprised if the Academy tried to tell Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy that they don’t have seats.
McKENZIE: I wonder if Kermit gets a seat to every awards, he just doesn’t go…
Yeah, he just has a constant seat filler for him.
McKENZIE: Yeah, just some other frog that has to sit there.
I can’t imagine Miss Piggy not taking up an invitation to go to any award ceremony.