Flying high with Oscar
Neala Johnson From: National Features April 18, 2012 7:00PM
BRET McKenzie: Oscar winner. Jemaine Clement: erm, not an Oscar winner.
After 15 years making beautiful music together, could a little gold statue cause a schism in New Zealand's fourth most popular folk parody duo, Flight of the Conchords?
"Well, I just came from band practice," says McKenzie, ominously. "And Jemaine ... he's built his own Oscar. He made a papier mache one."
McKenzie's Oscar, won in February, says "Best Original Song" on it. What does Clement's papier mache one say? McKenzie thinks about it.
"I can't believe I'm starting this. This is a bad rumour. This is a bad lie. What does it say? Um ... I'm stopping this here!
"It hasn't affected the band dynamic at all."
Indeed, after two seasons of intense success and togetherness while starring on their self-titled HBO TV series, McKenzie and Clement have happily taken separate paths in recent times.
"We haven't worked together for over a year. We're used to working on other projects now," says McKenzie.
Those other projects have included, for McKenzie, The Muppets - it was the song he wrote for that movie, Man or Muppet - that bagged him the Oscar.
He also filmed the comedy Two Little Boys in NZ with Aussie funnyman Hamish Blake (it will be released later this year), shot the US indie comedy Austenland and returned home to Wellington to reprise his (tiny) role as a Lord of the Rings elf in Peter Jackson's The Hobbit.
"It was really fun getting to work with Ian McKellan and Hugo Weaving, because last time I was an extra, so I wasn't really allowed to look them in the eye. Now I'm allowed to have cups of tea with them!" McKenzie gushes.
"Hugo, Ian and I had a very good time. We spent a while making up songs for Hobbit: The Musical while we were waiting around on set. It could be a Broadway classic."
When he says he was an extra on Lord of the Rings, he's not lying. McKenzie's "character" was really a creation of internet bloggers who obsessed over his two seconds of screen-time, naming the elf "Figwit" (Google it).
"People are still amused by that, very much. I think that's why Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh asked me to come back and be on the films, for fun," says McKenzie. "And depending on the edits, it'll be another very small cameo ... I wanted to do a battle!"
As for Clement, he did his own animated song and voice act in the hit Rio, popped up in Despicable Me and Dinner For Schmucks and will next be seen in Men in Black III.
McKenzie admits the Kiwi pair did wonder if they would always be a package deal - that the industry would only want them to perform together. Or that they'd only be wanted if they were doing music. Clearly, it hasn't worked out that way.
"Off the back of the show we've had so many cool opportunities both together and individually," he says. "America, at least, is happy to work with us either way, it seems.
"And I've been doing all sorts of things - some acting, some music, some writing. But people still see us as the guys from the Conchords - I don't know that we'll ever shake that."
They won't shake it, but you get the feeling this pair, who first came together as part of a five-man comedy group in the mid-'90s while at university in Wellington, couldn't stay apart anyway.
It's little surprise to hear, then, that Flight of the Conchords is back in full effect and rehearsing for an Australasian tour. This is a big deal in more ways than one - they haven't performed in Australia since becoming international multi-media megastars.
Their last appearance here was at the 2003 Melbourne International Comedy Festival, where they won Best Newcomer. But that wasn't Clement and McKenzie's Australian debut.
"Jemaine and I started off doing a five-man show called So You're a Man, which is a play where we wore skin-coloured bike shorts with detachable penises," McKenzie says. "That show got cancelled after a week. Australian audiences were not as amused as the New Zealand audiences were by nude suits."
A couple of years later they returned to the Festival as Conchords.
"We did the late show at the Hi-Fi Bar and we did our main show at a little bar across the road ... people were into it. I think we might have won an award. I don't remember."
Their triumphal return shows in July will be much, much bigger. After all, the Conchords have since played to 17,000 people at the Hollywood Bowl and 12,000 at London's Wembley Arena.
"When we played in Australia last time there would have been about 20 people," McKenzie says. "But the jokes that make 20 people laugh make 10,000 people laugh, too."
But bigger doesn't mean different.
"In some ways it's the same show - it's just me and Jemaine sitting on stage singing songs and talking in between. I remember someone at (UK newspaper) The Guardian was totally perplexed by the fact that so many people want to come and see our show even though it's kind of a bad show.
"The ratio of energy, like, when we're up on stage with just two guitars or a guitar and a xylophone, the amount of noise that we make compared to the noise the crowd makes is a very peculiar equation."
Previous Conchords classics include You Don't Have to Be a Prostitute (done Police Roxanne style), Hurt Feelings, Too Many D--ks (On the Dance Floor) and Hiphopopotamus vs Rhymenocerous.
"It's good taking a break from working so intensely because now we have fresh material," McKenzie says. "For a while there we were working together every day for months. It was like an old married couple, we were finishing each other's stories. Now we've got fresh things to jam off."
As for the stage set-up on this tour, "it's as big as the two of us can do," McKenzie laughs.
"I'm currently working on some home-made pyrotechnics. And Jemaine's painting the backdrop sheet."
The HBO series is pretty much done with.
"It was really fun, but doing the writing and acting and the songs, we ran out of energy ... I think that's why most people just do one of those jobs," McKenzie laughs.
Yet, they have mooted the idea of a Conchords film. "Maybe while we're on tour we'll come up with a story," McKenzie says. "Maybe we'll make a movie, but we're in no hurry."
He's tight-lipped, but it could be another brush with a major studio for him after The Muppets.
"Hopefully, having an Oscar will help get the ideas through."
AT HOME WITH OSCAR
LAST time Bret McKenzie flew home to Wellington, he had a little something extra in his carry-on.
"Yup, got an Oscar in the house now," he grins. "He's very popular when people come around. There's been a lot of photo opportunities with my family. People are less interested in coming to visit me and more interested in coming to see that."
McKenzie reckons he's only just getting back to "normal" now after his Academy Awards experience in February.
"It was very surreal. It's been a pretty crazy few months. Really fun. It's so Hollywood," he laughs. "It's weird being home now and thinking like, 'Oh, last week we were in a room with George Clooney and Meryl Streep!'
"I'm still getting over it, getting used to it. A friend of mine was like, 'Do you remember getting up on stage?' And I actually don't remember from the moment they called my name to when I got off stage ... "
At least McKenzie knows he can always relax at home.
"Wellington is a good place to come back to - people are pretty low-key about it all. People do know who I am pretty ... pretty well now though," he laughs.
SEE Flight of the Conchords
VIC The Plenary, July 14, $50-$84.30. On sale now, Ticketmaster. Rod Laver Arena, July 15, $50-$84.30. On sale April 26, Ticketek.
NSW Sydney Opera House, July 5, $50-$86.50. On sale now. sydneyoperahouse.com.au. Sydney Entertainment Centre, July 6, $50-$86.20. On Sale April 26, Ticketmaster.
QLD Brisbane Entertainment Centre, July 7, $50-$86.35. On sale now, Ticketek.