The Phoenix Foundation’s Samuel Flynn Scott on longevity, listening to your old work and the band’s four-date tour with the NZSO to celebrate their 20th anniversary.
Tonight, in their hometown of Wellington, the Phoenix Foundation start their four-city tour with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in celebration of the band’s 20th anniversary.
Like many things in Samuel Flynn Scott’s life, it started at Garage Project, running into Hamish McKeich over, drinking some beers. “We know Hamish from around town and it was pretty much his idea,” Scott told me in his cramped home studio in Grey Lynn, where he’s relocated for a couple of years. “He seems like this unlikely guy to be the big star of New Zealand classical music conducting, although all classical music stars seem to have long hair and dress like Jarvis Cocker.”
The band has planned to do a theater tour of New Zealand this year, even before they realised it was a big anniversary. So when the importance of the year hit, and McKeich sold them of the idea of something orchestral, it all fell into place, with the help of arrangers Gareth Farr, Claire Cowan, Chris Gendall and Hamish Oliver.
So, for four nights over two weekends at the start and end of August, the Phoenix Foundation will perform a set of songs from every stage of their career with about 70 people on stage. A fitting way to celebrate the band’s 20 years and six unclassifiable albums.
“This will never come back,” said Scott. “It’s so expensive and full-on to stage that we’re not going to be pulling it out every few years. This is a once in a career opportunity.
The Spinoff: When Hamish brought the idea up, was it an immediate yes?
Samuel Flynn Scott: Not exactly. We’ve always had a bit of a fear about doing these things wrong. So we really had to think about whether this was the right time, whether it was going to be a genuinely new thing. I don’t like it when bands get a big orchestra and don’t use it to full effect. To me, that feels like a bit of a lost opportunity – it’s a bit of a token thing to generate a different type of ticket sale. And we’re just not the sort of band to do that. We always want to stretch ourselves and sometimes that’s been our problem I guess. But this is a situation where we can be completely indulgent with arrangements. We’ve always been an arrangement band. It’s pretty hard to put us in a genre – we’ve made stuff that’s really heavy, stuff that’s really windy and foley, stuff that’s totally electronic, totally MIDI-based, instrumentals – to us the defining factor is that we’re always searching for an arrangement.
How did you write a setlist for a 20th anniversary? How do you condense a career into one set?
Me and Luke started the conversation because we’re the singers and we wanted to figure out what we wanted to sing with an orchestra. And we thought about the instrumentals we’d like to play with an orchestra. We wanted to show the different personalities and different characters within the band, because we’re a pretty weird band in the everyone contributes and writes.
We also thought we needed to have things in there we’ve never played live before because it was an opportunity to play a pretty different setlist. And we needed to have some total favourites. If people don’t leave these concerts going, ‘fuck that was the best thing I’ve ever seen!’ then we’ve failed. Because we’ve got every opportunity to put on an awesome show, so getting the setlist right was pretty important, getting that arc from interesting to populist.
They’re songs that really represent important moments in the band for us. There’s ‘Let Me Die A Woman’ which was one of the songs where Luke and I really learnt how to produce a song and a track where I think my songwriting went to another level. I was a really terrible songwriter for a long time. I wrote the worst shit! It’s so bad when I go back and think about some of the songs I wrote. There was some kind of switch that went off in my head and ‘This Charming Van’ and ‘Let Me Die A Woman’ came together. And our production came together. We were still young but it felt like it had been quite a long build to get to that point where I could make something that I could feel comfortable telling people to listen to it.
We’d already done an EP that has its charms, but I don’t like it really. I honestly don’t. I find my lyrics really embarrassing.
It’s usually hard to listen to old work. How long does it take for something to be old enough that it might still be a little cringey, but you can see how it’s good again?
It probably takes about six years. The first album has songs on it that are so heartbroken-selfish-young-man-who-doesn’t-understand-the-world kind of songs. I find them pretty cringey. That level of self-pity that you can have just doesn’t make sense to me now. But they are still beautiful songs that lots of people like and I shouldn’t shit all over them. But I think that first record is a really interesting sounding record. We made it for like $500. All of we were just learning how to do stuff and when everyone involved is just learning, you can get quite a special result. And you can never recreate that. You should never think, ‘Oh, we should get back to our roots and try and do something more nieve’. That would be terrible! You’ve got to do what’s happening in the moment.
On like ‘St Kevin’ and ‘Let Me Die A Woman’ – which happen to be the two we’re playing from the first album – there’s definitely an interesting sound. We weren’t making indie rock, we weren’t making alt-country, we weren’t making anything that was relevant to the time. ‘Let Me Die A Woman’ had a weird drum machine pattern which was probably influenced by Björk or something but didn’t really sound like her because we had no clue how to make electronic music. There’s a naivety and a disparity of influences that made some interesting things and I can see that now. And I can see how some people, when it came out, thought, ‘Here’s an interesting band that we should pay attention to’.
How did the arranging process work? You send them the setlist and they send you the arrangements? Was there much back and forth?
We’ve only gone back and forth on two or three details. They’re all just really incredible at what they do. And they spent months putting these things together. All the arrangers are really different and all have different sensibilities. I mean, we discussed things before they made their arrangement, about how we wanted things to go, but mostly we just told them to do what they do. This will be more interesting if it’s not us devising how it should go. We thought about trying to do some arrangements ourselves but then we thought no, we should just leave it to people who know what they’re doing. And I’m completely blown away by everything we’ve been sent. It’s going to sound amazing.
Is it surprising?
Some of them are very surprising.
Like they see things in your music that you haven’t?
Yeah. There’s one that Gareth Farr has done that’s so beautiful. It’s from a pretty song – ‘Burning Wreck’ by Luke – with all these layers of synthesizers and stuff. But he’s made this arrangement which I can’t describe to people. It feels like it’s 100% the composition but also a completely new thing. It’s almost just the distilled version of what those melodies can be. Like every melody has become the best version of itself. It just translated really well to an orchestral arrangement. We won’t do too much band stuff with that. It’ll be like Luke Buda with an orchestra like you’d see Frank Sinatra with an orchestra.
Bands speed up and slow down, often to good effect.
Orchestras probably do that more than bands. But you don’t want to be out of sync with the orchestra.
What’s it like for that to be out of your hands? Like, you’re playing to a conductor, right?
Yeah, there’s a song where I’m playing the guitar and the orchestra is coming in and out based on my guitar, with lots of big pauses so I’m just going to have to learn how to follow a conductor. But they count in a different way. They’re counting ahead of the beat cos they’re triggering people. But Hamish is a master. He knows what he’s doing.
There’s been an increase in these classical music collaborations.
Yeah, there has. And I didn’t really notice that until we had agreed to do it.
I assume that one reason is they’re trying to get replenish the classical audience.
Yeah, that might be an angle from the NZSO.
So do you feel any pressure to do that?
No. I don’t think so. I think the NZSO is pretty popular. They are good at doing a broad range of things, from very niche classical concerts to Star Wars on the Wellington waterfront and stuff like that. They’re the national orchestra and they have to be an orchestra for a lot of different people. So doing shows with bands might be a bit about replenishing their audience but it’s also fitting their mandate. For them to exist, it’s such a big cost to the taxpayer – I assume they get mega-funding – that they have to be the nations orchestra. And I think they do that, they do a pretty diverse range of things.
20 years is a long time to be in a band.
Yup. It’s kind of longer if you think about other bands we were in together. We were in a heavy metal band called Komos and very briefly in some kind of shoegaze thing called Sprink. So it’s more like 25.
How have you stayed in a band for 20 years?
I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. There are all the tensions you’d expect in any band. Of course, we have moments of music differences that can get horrible and intense. Which is, of course, what makes bands good. Those tensions are what makes a band a band. People should never be able to do whatever they want all of the time.
It weird because I do think people make their best work at certain stages in their life. But we’re making a new record at the moment and I think it’s really incredible and we’ve been pushing each other quite hard and we keep dropping things and reworking them. So I guess we keep doing it because we know that when another person fucks us off when they’re telling you something about your song that bumming you out, once you get passed the bummed out bit, you’ll probably try the idea and find that it’s a good idea. If you can always keep that in mind, that people are just trying to make things better.
The NZSO and The Phoenix Foundation – Celebrate!
WELLINGTON | Michael Fowler Centre| Thursday 2 August
AUCKLAND | Town Hall| Friday 3 August
CHRISTCHURCH | Isaac Theatre Royal| Thursday 30 August
DUNEDIN | Regent Theatre| Friday 31 August
This piece (as well as several gems in the Phoenix Foundation discography) were made possible by NZ On Air.