Bret McKenzie on Strange Caravan, his new band that isn’t a band and isn’t his

Henry Oliver talks to writer of funny songs and not funny songs, Bret McKenzie, about his new project/tour Strange Caravan and which is definitely 100% not a band (even though it’s very similar to a band).

A few years ago, a few old friends started an irregular jam session, intending to help each other work on their songs. Those friends just happen to all be super accomplished Wellington musicians: Bret McKenzie (Flight of the Conchords, Video Kid), Age Pryor (Fly My Pretties, Woolshed Sessions, Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra), Justin Firefly (Fly My Pretties, Woolshed Sessions), Nigel Collins (Flight of the Conchords, Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra). Ben Lemi (Trinity Roots, French For Rabbits). Now they’re on tour, travelling the length of the country, playing each other’s songs, loading their own gear.


The Spinoff: So you’re making serious music…

Bret McKenzie: Yeah, I’ve been back in the studio, going on tour with non-comedians. Back on the road, man!

Why make serious music now?

The world doesn’t need jokes at the moment. I think it’s a balance of wanting to do something different and wanting to do something new – though it’s actually not that new for me, but I’ve spent the last few years doing Conchords stuff and writing songs for films. Those are really story structured jobs.

This started off with me meeting Justin and Nigel to work on songs. That was purely for writing songs that weren’t for a film or for Conchords or anything specific. It was just a fun project, like ‘Oh great, I can write a song and it can have along guitar solo because it doesn’t need to be cut down for film, or it doesn’t have to tell a story or connected to a character.’

It’s very slowly grown from a weekly jam into recording some of the songs. I’ve spent the last few years recording in LA so it was fun working on something with some old friends and getting to use my studio skills. Though, with the comedy stuff, songwriting doesn’t really change that much. Lots of the same ingredients go into comedy songs as non-comedy songs. So it’s not massively different but I’m not having to write punch lines.

When did it turn from being a jam into being a ‘thing’?

It started very casually. A couple of years ago we started to record the songs but only recently did it become something I was really pursuing. I think I’d reached a bit of a Hollywood fatigue and I’m just very refreshed by pursuing something that’s different.

Are you a band?

It’s not what I’d call a band. It’s something in between. You know Fly My Pretties or the Woolshed Sessions, I think those are good examples – it’s not really a band but a group of songwriters and we’re like a session band for each other’s songs. It’s not really a band in that it’s not a unified voice – it’s five different voices and everyone helps each other play their songs. But when you say to people it’s five different songwriters, some people are like ‘that sounds like a band, isn’t that what a band is?’ So I guess it is a band.

The Beatles are just four songwriters!

The Beatles! It’s a lot like the Beatles except there’s five of us.

So what’s Strange Caravan and what’s Congress of Animals? It’s very confusing.

It’s complicated, right? You try and decipher it: I wanted to do a tour, so we came up with the Strange Caravan tour. At the same time, the guys decided to release an album, but I didn’t have any songs ready for the album so I’m not on it. That’s why there’s a blurriness to it. There is an album but technically I don’t have any songs on the album so it’s not my album.

So the album is called Congress of Animals and Strange Caravan is the tour, but you’re just a bunch of dudes.

Yeah, so I’m just doing the tour. But I play on the album. That’s why it’s a little vague.

So what are your songs about?

I’ve been writing songs looking at living between living in between New Zealand and America. I’ve noticed my songs tend to be about those two things. I wasn’t really conscious of it until I’d collected a bunch of songs and noticed it – these songs about what life is like there as well as what my life here is like. Because I end up living in between the two places so I have this strange dual-experience.

I go to LA and I have a complete world there and have a community and everything. And then I come back to Wellington and I have another community here. So I have an unusual perspective on these places because when you arrive somewhere you see it quite clearly and then you get swept up in what you’re doing and you stop seeing it. But going between the two places, I’m constantly reminded about what’s good or bad about these two different worlds.

How do you see Wellington now? You’ve been there forever, but you’ve had an opportunity to be able to be away from it a lot.

I love it! Maybe that’s partly why I wanted to tour New Zealand. I’ve grown to love New Zealand more having been away from it and being able to work in America. Wellington has its challenges and New Zealand isn’t perfect, but sometimes when you go to America, New Zealand seems really good.

How do you think that you are different in these different places?

In Los Angeles, it’s really career-driven. That’s one of the big differences. And you kind of get swept up into really focusing on your career. In New Zealand helps you balance career and family and life, which is healthier. In LA, there’s an imbalance – people are obsessed with their work.

I’m sure it’s going to be exciting to see the country from a tour van. On the road!

We’re going to be in a van, travelling around. It’s going to be great! It reminds me of old Black Seeds tours. I used to do this all the time with Black Seeds. A lot of time in the van, a lot of solid comedy happens in the van. A lot of depressing times and hilarious times.

And you guys did that summer tour video, right?

Yeah, yeah. That was one of the best videos we ever made. We just had a three day holiday and they taped it. A really good idea for a music video: go to the Coromandel and hang out.

Is this the final realisation of the Blue Samanthas?

Yeah! Age was in the Blue Samanthas! It’s basically the Blue Samanthas reunion tour. That was our high school band and we did a tour of Wellington high schools. One a week. That was my first tour. It was lunchtime gigs. It was Age’s idea. He’s really smart. We were quite famous in Wellington high schools for a year. For years, even into my 20s, a lot of people knew me as the guy from that band.

The Strange Caravan Tour:

15 Nov Blue Smoke Christchurch
17 & 18 Nov Sherwood Queenstown
23 Nov Haumoana Hall Hawke’s Bay
24 Nov Meow Wellington
29 Nov Totara St Tauranga
30 Nov Hollywood Cinema Auckland
1 Dec Sawmill Leigh

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