The Muppets: How Bret McKenzie Went From Conchords to Kermit
As one-half of the New Zealand folk duo Flight of the Conchords, Bret McKenzie has toured the world with his onstage partner Jemaine Clement, serenading audiences with such hilarious tunes as "Bowie", "Foux du Fafa" and "Robots." Now he's helping another crop of characters get their musical comedy groove on: those lovable, indefatigable Muppets. McKenzie served as music supervisor on their highly anticipated comeback vehicle, The Muppets, a job that required him to oversee productions of all of the movie's original songs, including two that he wrote himself. McKenzie spoke with TWoP by phone from L.A. about growing up as part of the Muppet generation, plans for a Conchords reunion and how he learned that Muppet chickens don't sing.
TWoP: What's your own personal history with the Muppets?
Bret McKenzie: I grew up watching the Muppets. In New Zealand, the Muppets were as big as anywhere else I think. It was a pretty global phenomenon. I wonder where kids didn't grow up with the Muppets. I don't remember having a Kermit T-shirt or anything; it was on before children's entertainment became so commercial. Nowadays, children are just slammed with products and consumables. The Muppet Show was on before they'd figured out they could make money off the ancillary market, I think. But the Muppets were a very big part of my childhood and Flight of the Conchords definitely has elements of the Muppets in it, specifically the way we mixed music and comedy. The other thing that stands out looking back on it now is Jim Henson's love of music. He let the songs breath; the guest stars would perform songs that were silly or not silly and he'd let them be three or four minutes long, whereas now, songs are cut down to the shortest possible version on TV. Even in this movie they got cut because that's the current style.
TWoP: Based on the trailers, it looks like The Muppets is a full-on movie musical in the tradition of the first three Muppet movies.
McKenzie: It really is a musical and [director] James Bobin was committed to that from the beginning. He's no Busby Berkeley, but he's done a great job with the big musical numbers. I hope that people walk down the street whistling the songs after they see the movie. I hope they go home and sing the songs in the shower!
TWoP: James co-created the HBO version of Conchords and directed a bunch of the episodes. Was it that connection that landed you this gig?
McKenzie: To start off, I wrote a demo for the opening song. The way they were doing it, they didn't hire one person to do all the songs. Instead, they had dozens of demos written by different people. I wrote a demo for the opening song that James liked and Disney liked and then I wrote one for this song "Man or Muppet," which they also liked and then I came on board. My official title is "Music Supervisor," but I was more the song supervisor. My job was to make sure the songs sounded unified and Muppety. I worked with [composer] Christophe Beck a little bit. He was great because he used the different song themes within the score to make it feel like a traditional musical. It's amazing what he's done, because he's managed to weave emotion and comedy within the score. And I tried to put as much banjo as I could in there. I was like, "Where's the banjo in this track? That doesn't sound right, put more banjo in it." [Laughs]
TWoP: After writing songs for Conchords for so long, was it difficult to write in the voices of these other characters?
McKenzie: It wasn't too hard. The songs I wrote were for Miss Piggy and Jason [Segel] and Walter [the new Muppet], but because those two characters don't have histories there weren't any restrictions. Miss Piggy was trickier because she has a very particular range -- if you go too high, she sounds like a little squeaky mouse and if you go too low, she sounds like a man. So that was just a songwriting challenge of getting the key right. But I really just wrote songs the way I would sing them and then I got them to sing them. The Muppeteers really know the characters so well that they would tell me, "No I can't sing that" or "That lyric doesn't sound right." They'd tell me and I'd rewrite it.
TWoP: They're sort of their own continuity department.
McKenzie: Oh yeah, and they take it ridiculously seriously, which is great because it maintains the integrity of the original world. This is the sort of crazy s*** you get up to in the studio with these guys. I'd be like: "Okay the chickens sing now," and they'd say "Chickens don't sing. They cluck, but they don't say the words." So I'd say, "What do you mean -- all the other animals sing." And they'd say "Yeah, chickens don't sing." "Well, what about penguins?" "Uh... maybe. But traditionally penguins just quack."
TWoP: You should have reminded them that the penguins sing in the big Broadway production at the end of The Muppets Take Manhattan.
McKenzie: That's what I'm talking about, consistency! I wish I had those facts to bring up in the recording studio when the guys tried tell me that penguins don't sing. [Laughs]
TWoP: Where there any Muppets you were specifically excited to write music for?
McKenzie: I started off as a drummer, so I was always a big fan of Animal. And I was looking forward to working with Kermit, but I didn't get to write a song for him. Jeannie Lurie wrote "Pictures in My Head," which is Kermit's big number and that was one of the songs that was already confirmed when I came on board. But I still got to produce that song and work with Steve Whitmire [the current voice of Kermit]. Recording "Rainbow Connection" with Kermit was a truly magical experience; it was a positive "What's happened to my life?" moment. The musical numbers in Conchords were always relatively small production-wise, whereas these songs became huge musical numbers with full orchestras and a hundred people singing. So I went from recording my demo in my living room to this massive Hollywood studio hearing an orchestra playing my song. It was a really awesome experience.
TWoP: Now that The Muppets is wrapped, any chance for a Conchords reunion?
McKenzie: I think we're all trying to figure out when we can do it. Next year we're going to do some touring. Touring live is the most fun version of the show for us; maybe not so much for the fans because they don't get to watch it on DVD over and over again.
TWoP: I remember seeing you guys play a show at Fez in New York way back before the show debuted and it was fun to watch other people discover you following the first season.
McKenzie: I remember that show. I had sunstroke that day! We had spent the day in New Jersey with Demetri Martin in his hometown. Then he took us to the beach and I got sunstroke. And then we did that cool show. [Laughs] It's fun for fans who saw the transition. Most people didn't realize that we were a live act, so when we did tour after the show was on, people would come not really knowing what the hell we were going to do. They thought we were just going to do scenes from the TV show and were surprised that we could actually play the songs.
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