It's business, it's business time as Flight Of The Conchords returns for a new series. Stephen Armstrong gets freaky with Bret and Jemaine
Flight of Conchords could have been created with 2009 in mind â€“ two lo-fi and confused Kiwi musos, grappling with relationships and genteel poverty while trying to hustle their music career in a skanky corner of New York. Its depiction of useless bands is so spot-on that the Guide is delighted to report the real-life duo are uncannily similar to their on-screen characters, mumbling through interviews in a downbeat Kiwi drawl.
Bret "When the show was on air we could walk down the street and absolutely no one would come up to us, apart from in Wellington where we're on the news every day. Six months later people would come up and say, 'Hi' all the time, just down to the net stuff. But because we use our real names in the show people will yell out, 'Hey Bret!' and you're not sure if you know them. And then when they come up to you, most of the time people do the roll call â€“ 'Bret?' Present."
Jemaine "In fact, a lot of time when we do interviews journalists do the roll call. You didn't."
We should have. Sorry.
Bret "Even our real music manager gets a kick out of doing the roll call. It's dangerously similar to some of the scripts."
Jemaine "Because we have a very similar attitude to our career."
Bret "I think in the show we're more enthusiastic about it."
Indeed, the Conchords did have fame rather thrust upon them. They'd been touring their "New Zealand's fourth most popular folk parody duo" for five years when they arrived at the Edinburgh festival in 2002. "We looked like a folk duo, we were acoustic and we realised how uncool it was to do funny songs," Jemaine explains. "So we'd just talk about how popular that was in New Zealand. Being in a folk parody band was cooler than being in a band. And that's stuck even though we've only ever done two folk songs in our career."
Performing in a damp cellar and living off the takings from the handful of CDs they could flog at the end of each gig, they were slowly starving until spotted by the likes of David O'Doherty, Jimmy Carr and Rob Brydon. More and more performers crammed into the tiny venue each night â€“ "On complimentary tickets," Jemaine points outs indignantly â€“ until the Conchords became the comedians' comedians for the next few years. An inevitable HBO special led to the equally inevitable offer of a series, although the boys' reaction was less predictable.
Jemaine "When I heard we got the first series I couldn't sleep for three nights. Halfway through the first series they asked if we'd do the second one and Bret had heart palpitations."
Bret "I've never had such a physical reaction to a piece of information. I got a tic."
Jemaine "It's true that we haven't technically agreed to do this series. I couldn't bear to say yes."
Fortunately, years of flatsharing as ex-students in Wellington plus the extremely odd reactions their subtle combination of good looks, comedy and the funk got meant new material was never going to be a problem. The Conchords struggle with their woefully incompetent manager Murray, grasp at the sparing love shown by a range of baffled women and grapple ineffectually with being stalked. This obsessive fan Mel â€“ played to breathtaking perfection by Kristen Schaal, a US comic it is currently illegal to describe without using the word "kooky" â€“ is based on a variety of real-life groupies. Many stem from Bret's fleeting appearance as an elf in The Lord Of The Rings, a non-speaking extra role with unanticipated consequences.
Jemaine "There's one episode in this new season that's loosely based on when Bret and I stayed at a fan's house in LA because we'd run out of money. She was a fan of Bret's work in The Lord Of The Rings. The only thing she wanted to do was to watch the extended DVD of it."
Bret "So the three of us were sitting on the couch watching my deleted scenes. Which was pretty weird."
Jemaine "And she'd say things like, 'Hey, Bret, there's another 40 seconds of you in the "making of".' More women are being added to Mel's character the more we tour. I got a ceramic bust of just my lips the other day."
And you've been voted sexiest people in the world by an Australian magazine.
Jemaine "Yeah, but have you ever been to Australia?"
Bret "It is ridiculous, though."
Jemaine "Because we're such horrible people. Or at least, I'm a horrible character. And Bret's an idiot."
Series one cut up this Brooklyn life with songs that carelessly gutted the middle-aged hipster that is pop music. Perfectly designed for the YouTube generation, the mock Barry White foolishness of Business Time ("You turn to me and say something sexy like, 'Is that it?'/ But I know what you're trying to say girl, you're trying to say, 'Oooh yeah, that's it!'") and the faux-rap grandiosity of Hiphopopotamous V The Rhymenocerous ("My rhymes are so potent that in this small segment/ I made all the ladies in the area pregnant") are flying round cyberspace faster than electrons at CERN.
Where the second series deviates from the first is in the connection between song and story. Having toured for years, the Conchords had a truckload of tracks and would weave the plots around existing musical material â€“ hence their live showstopper Albi The Racist Dragon led to an episode where they were mistaken for Australians and refused service by a fruit seller, while If You're Into It prompted a Yoko Ono girl-splits-up-the-band storyline.
With season two, the stories usually came first, meaning other characters get to sing and the songs are a tighter plot fit. One episode where Jemaine is forced into prostitution to help pay for an extra coff ee mug allows merciless spoofs of Kelis's Milkshake and Sting's Roxanne. "But what usually happens is, all the episodes are about girls because that's what all our songs are about," Jemaine admits.
The downside is that the songs work less well as stand-alone downloads. Although perhaps that's no bad thing. The rebirth of the comic song may have given us Sarah Silverman's I'm blooming Matt Damon, but for every masterpiece there's an idiotic US stand-up singing some dumbass song about everyone thinking he's gay and becoming a hit with people who would have found the Two Ronnies funny as hell. "The point about comic songs," Bret concludes, "is that they only really work if the character singing them doesn't think he's being funny. He's got to believe sincerely in every word." He grins. "That's why R&B is intrinsically funny."
Although ultimately it's the songs that may just kill 'em. They've exhausted almost every song they've written and are ploughing away at a new canon, but the slacker culture is strong within them and they secretly revere perfection. As a result, season three is proving as painful to write as the Stone Roses' second album. They duck the issue at first. So what's next?
Jemaine "A movie."
Bret "They're going to have us played by two younger guys." Jemaine "Benicio del Toro and Orlando Bloom." But really. There's talk. Is the second season going to be the last?
(Perhaps slightly unprofessionally) Nooooo! (Awkward pause â€¦)
Jemaine (Consolingly) "Well, no then. Don't worry. Everything will be OK. Do you feel better now?"
Er, um. Yeah, sure, thank you. Thank you very much â€¦
Waiting to land: Artists the Conchords have yet to mock but would love to
Bret "We tried to do that this year, but it's really hard to do."
Jemaine "We can't play guitar like Brian May. We met at college doing a comedy musical."
Bret "We were the worst."
Jemaine "We were just playing single notes."
Bret "To think that we are now in a successful band is just ridiculous."
Bret: "But then there's a really good parody of him in that film Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story." (Both stare at the floor in disappointed silence)
Bret "He makes me laugh more than anything deliberately funny."
Jemaine "There's an R Kelly-style video online called Let Me Smell Your Dick which is actually a serious song about this jealous woman who's suspicious about her boyfriend: 'There's something going on, it's five in the morning, let me smell your dick.'"
Bret "Engima is that Gregorian chant band. Or we could do Deep Forest - basically any early-90s ambient techno."
Bret "US3. Or the Brand New Heavies. Something we could use an Ominchord in. Jemaine had an addiction to Omnichords. For a while I'd go round and every day a new Omnichord would have arrived by Fedex. You must have one of the most extensive Omnichord collections in the world."
Jemaine "Which is about six."
â€¢ Flight Of The Conchords, Tuesday, 10.30pm, BBC4