'For years if was just a hobby. Now it's got Conchords crazy'
FLIGHT Of The Conchords duo Bret and Jemaine have only one fan, a stalker, get racial abuse from a fruit seller who thinks theyâ€™re Aussies and battle to woo the same girl... who goes off with someone else.
The tale of two hapless Kiwi musicians trying to make it in New York and failing is a huge hit on stage, TV and CD.
But in real life the popularity of Flight Of The Conchords has soared to cult status, with Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement becoming huge stars.
Theyâ€™ve picked up multiple Emmy nominations and last year won a Grammy for Best Comedy Album. Live shows across the US are sell-outs.
As I meet them before a Chicago show, they each receive a silver disc for album sales in the UK.
Spoof songs such as Inner City Pressure, Hiphopopotamus vs The Rhymenoceros and Muthaâ€™uckas are key to their appeal, which has them acclaimed as New Zealandâ€™s top export.
Backstage, Bret, or â€œBritâ€ as fans often call him as they try to mimic his Kiwi accent, agrees. â€œI suppose we are their biggest export now.â€
â€œMaybe not. Lambâ€™s still pretty bigâ€ adds a deadpan Jemaine.
â€œOh yeah,â€ says Bret, who is much livelier in real-life than his drippy character. â€œMaybe weâ€™re not the greatest export. Weâ€™re still losers I guess.â€
While stalker Mel (played by the brilliant Kristen Schaal) is the duoâ€™s sole fan in the HBO series, in reality Conchord mania is here.
Iâ€™m told how other journalists sent to interview the band have even displayed stalker tendencies when in their company.
â€œThe crowds do get fanatical at the shows, laughs Bret.
â€œThey shout out requests and sing along. They know the songs better than we do! Thereâ€™s even one fan who brings props to go with the songs.
â€œShe throws jellybeans when we play Albi The Racist Dragon and throws an eye-patch to me when we play Bowie (in the series David Bowie gives Bret doomed advice on how to be cool, in a dream).
â€œFans come up to us in the street and say â€˜I love your show, so youâ€™ve got two fans now. Me and Mel.â€™ We hear that all time.â€
Jemaine, who lets out a machine-gun laugh every other sentence, says: â€œBut not everyone likes us. And I definitely get sick of seeing us everywhere.
â€œYesterday I was in a restaurant and had a guy shouting â€˜BRET, BRET, BRETâ€™ and then he came over and said in a disappointed tone â€˜Oh, itâ€™s you, Jemaineâ€™.
â€œThen he said, â€˜Iâ€™m a fan... well of the CD, itâ€™s much better than the show.â€
Bret laughs: â€œWell I had a guy who said to me, â€˜Hey, Flight Of The Conchords. I tried to watch the first couple of episodes and, er, well I like the theme song.â€™ â€
Bret and Jemaine met at the University of Wellington in 1998 and have performed together ever since.
In 2002 and 2003 they performed at the Edinburgh Fringe and in 2004 they made an award-winning series for BBC Radio 2, starring Rob Brydon.
Then HBO signed them up for TV and the first series started two years ago. â€œFor years it was just a hobby,â€ says Bret. â€œNow itâ€™s got crazy. Conchords crazy.â€ Tonightâ€™s live show sees them take to the stage dressed as robots before playing songs from their first album and forthcoming follow-up (both on the legendary Sub Pop label, home of Nirvana).
The first series and show saw songs influenced by the Pet Shop Boys, Barry White and Marvin Gaye. In their new batch of songs, thereâ€™s the R Kelly-inspired Sugalumps, tearjerker Hurt Feelings and the side-splitting Too Many Dicks On The Dancefloor.
Bret says: â€œIn the new series thereâ€™s Visage/Eurythmics synth stuff and a bit of The Police and Roxanne too. And Daft Punk. Oh, and Flight Of The Conchords â€” we are a big influence on ourselves.â€
Adds Jemaine: â€œBut we donâ€™t always take a song and then parody it. We start off with ideas and then it develops into a style.
â€œOn the first album thereâ€™s the song The Most Beautiful Girl (In The Room). It didnâ€™t come from being a parody of Prince but from an idea about a guy whoâ€™s not very good at talking to a woman.
â€œThen we wrote down the lyrics, then the tune and when we produced it, it turned into that.â€
Bret continues: â€œToo Many Dicks On The Dancefloor came from an experience we had in Canada.
â€œWe were in a nightclub, four New Zealand guys, and these Canadian guys were like â€œHey, too many dicks! Too many dicks! Spread out the dicks! So we just used that and put it into the script to sort of make fun of them.â€
Other storylines and songs in the new TV series see Jemaine turning to prostitution to make money, Bret starting a gang, the pair battling over a woman with an epileptic dog, writing a jingle for a lesbian toothpaste ad and manager Murray (Rhys Darby) arranging a meeting with New Zealandâ€™s Prime Minister.
Bret says: â€œIn the new series the world stays pretty similar. We stay in New York with the same characters around us. We considered the band becoming really successful but we just decided to keep it in the small world of failure.
â€œFor the toothpaste jingle story, we were trying to think of the most humiliating job you could get.
â€œWhen I was 20 I had to dress in a boat costume, handing out flyers to advertise the local ferry.
â€œIâ€™d bump into people who I was in school with in suits. Theyâ€™d ask me what I was up to and Iâ€™d say â€˜Oh Iâ€™m an actor, er, pretending to be a boat.â€™
â€œThat was pretty embarrassing.â€
Oscar-winning screenwriter and film and music director, Michel Gondry directs an episode of the new series â€” Unnatural Love â€” where Jemaine accidentally sleeps with an Australian.
He says: â€œWe met Michel as we have a mutual costume designer! And our show is really low budget for an American TV show and Michel fits well into budget as he has low-tech ideas.â€ Bret says: â€œWe met him when we were filming last year and he liked the show. He said he was interested and we liked his stuff, so it was a perfect match.
â€œWeâ€™ve even watched his music videos for inspiration, so it was a real treat. His mind is so creative.â€
After working hard on the second TV series, Bret and Jemaine were keen to get back on the road.
Bret explains: â€œPlaying live is like a break for us. We love it. With the live shows you can quickly test out new ideas.
â€œItâ€™s not scripted and thereâ€™s no set list and so we throw in a few surprises to see if it works.â€
Jemaine adds: â€œWhen you write a script, everything gets analysed and weâ€™re kind of guessing if people will like it. But in the live show we just say what weâ€™re thinking and it always seems to work out fine.
â€œAnd we only work two hours a day whereas doing TV, itâ€™s like 14 hours a day. Sometimes we fall asleep backstage and we have to be woken up two minutes before weâ€™re due to shoot.â€
Though straight-faced throughout the show, even at parts which have the crowd falling off their seats, they admit to moments in filming where they lose it. Bret laughs: â€œI donâ€™t crack up too much, Jemaine cracks up a lot. I get into a zone.â€
Says Jemaine: â€œIf you know where to look, you can see us cracking a smile â€” usually something to do with Mel or Murray. Rhys makes us laugh the most because he comes up with a lot of surprises.
â€œHe, Kristen and Arj (Barker, who plays their pal Dave) will come and revitalise us when weâ€™re tired from filming.â€ After the show, SFTW joins Bret and Jemaine for drinks in their hotel bar, where more people seem to be gawping at the pair than Britney Spears, also in the bar.
I ask Bret how important is it to stay fresh and not be overexposed?
â€œWeâ€™ve always made sure that we donâ€™t do this too much,â€ he says.
â€œI think we will probably do some film development stuff â€” separately.
â€œItâ€™s good to work apart, as it is together, just to freshen up and get some new ideas.â€
So what about Flight Of The Conchords? Will there be another series?
â€œWe never plan like that. We didnâ€™t even plan a second one. We might consider doing one based in New Zealand but thatâ€™s just an idea.
â€œWeâ€™re pretty much performing the same show that we performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 2002 to 50 people. Now itâ€™s 5,000 people.
â€œWe never expected this and we want to make sure we donâ€™t run out of steam.â€
The new series of Flight Of The Conchords, which began this week, continues on BBC4 on Tuesday at 10.30pm. Album follows in summer.