Discussing Poland, piano teachers, and favourite Phoenix tracks with Luke Buda ahead of the Phoenix Foundation’s fifth studio album release.
This April, Luke Pawel Buda Facebooked that his rent had bounced, and he was looking for any work, except. So I engaged the Phoenix’s humorous (co) front-man to review Wilco. I asked him to take take a photo of me with Mavis Staples as we walked towards the green room post gig. He said no, but relented to my pushing a slice of Apple Pie Bedesque dessert. “I need to go to Moore Wilson’s to get some saffron”, he jested re: Sam Scott’s gourmet habit, during a highlight of the tomfoolery at Fandango’s January preview. In February we caught up at his aforementioned Aro Valley abode, discussing Polish Catholic piano teachers, zeitgeisty Phoenix favourites like ‘Blue Summer’ and ‘Bitte Bitte’, pingas, and Boy’s ‘Flock of Hearts’.
* * *
ALEXANDER BISLEY: So, favourite Phoenix album—cliché, I suppose—it’s kind of like choosing a favourite kid?
LUKE BUDA: Nah, it’s not like that, I’m just gonna say Fandango at the moment because it’s the thing that is the nearest. It’s gonna take me at least a year before I start admitting that I see the flaws, do you know what I mean?
AB: Right, you’ve just had the baby?
LB: Yeah. Sometimes you just have to understand that, sometimes you have to roll with the punches to get the shit finished and then you still have to feel enthusiastic to get over that. We’ll see what people think of it. I feel pretty good about it. It’s our most ambitious work. It’s a double album, for God’s sake. Got an eighteen minute track.
AB: Looking back to Horsepower and Pegasus, Happy Ending, Buffalo, are there tracks for you that—it’s a bit of a silly parlour game—you’d choose as particular favourites?
LB: I haven’t listened to Horsepower in ages, but the much maligned track of Horsepower, I still really like, which was ‘Bruiser’.
AB: I’m one of the maligners.
LB: Oh yeah, whatever. Strangely it’s a track that polarises people. I remember one of the reviews in the States was, “this album’s alright, until it get to this song, ‘Bruiser’, where it’s amazing.” And the PR company in the States had been trying to get us to take it off the album, and we’re going “nah, fuck you.” It’s not boring. Sometimes I like a really appropriately and beautifully arranged song, and sometimes I like it when people just shit something out and make it insane.
On Pegasus, I really like ‘Hitchcock’, ‘Sea World’, ‘Cars of Eden’, and ‘Twilight’. ‘Slightest Shift in the Weather’ I feel is a track that never fully nailed the vibe. ‘Morning Pages’, the first track, the really quiet one, I think it’s really nice.
Happy Ending, ‘Gandalf’, probably, is standout. ‘Bright Grey’, I think at the time I was pretty excited by, but sometimes the more straight rock tracks lose— because you can’t kinda do anything with them, they lose some of their sheen when you’ve played them live for years—you just have to find that rock enthusiasm again, whereas if it’s more of a interestingy track, you can keep getting into a zone.
AB: One of you guys’ real talents is those sharp lyrics that hook people in. Like in ‘Gandalf’, “she came on like November, pretending to be summer.”
LB: Sam, mostly. Mostly Sam. With ‘Gandalf’ we got together to write the lyrics and it was a classic Sam and Luke lyric-writing session. He’s got the gift of the gab, that guy, in that way. He’s got a very funny wordplay thing going on. He’s quite good. If you get him drunk and get him in the right mood and get him comfortable enough to be rapping, he can bust out some pretty hilarious abstract rhymes, that’s for sure.
AB: Do you guys have any tracks that haven’t been released, Phoenix Foundation bootleg tapes?
LB: Haha, yes we do actually, we’ve got this one from Horsepower that wasn’t very good, unfortunately, called ‘Rotten Town’, which is kind of strangely reggae-ish. And we’ve done one that’s left off the new album because it just doesn’t fit, but it’s probably gonna be our biggest hit, which is a London rap called ‘Dalston Junction’, about working in a secondhand bookshop on Charing Cross Road. And the British record company hate it, but we know it’s probably gonna be the song that makes us.
LB: Seriously. No, not really.
AB: But it’s got some good qualities?
LB: Oh well, it’s kinda like a ‘Bruiser’ in a way, if we’re gonna be serious about it. Check it out. [‘Dalston Junction’ plays] There you go. ‘Dalston Junction’! There’s a couple of others. There’s loads of tracks we abandoned on this album, crazy as it seems, even though it ended up being a double. The only way we could fit an eighteen minute song on was if it was a double.
AB: Tell me about ‘Friendly Society’ influences?
LB: Well strangely enough, I think the middle section, where the drums come in, was definite Stone Roses. Mostly that track is me having a late night jam around on my acoustic guitar, when it started off it was about six minutes and it got more and more crazy and insane and we went into the big Stone Roses bit. [mimics: “brm, drm, zhdmmbmmjmbm”]
I’m pretty pleased with ‘Friendly Society’ because I remember reading somewhere that bands or artists are never as weird or as interesting as they think they are, and sometimes I listen to some of our songs that are some of the more straight ones that I do actually like, but I go “man, this is quite straight.” With ‘Friendly Society’, when we nailed that, mostly a live take, I like the sense of being able to let go with shit. It’s eighteen minutes… Shit, this one meanders off for a while, who cares? I’m into it. Actually into a bit of meandery self-indulgent. I’ve meandered off now with my sentence. Much like the music.
LB: I felt pretty proud of ‘Flock of Hearts’ at the time. I felt very proud of the chord progression on ‘Flock of Hearts’. Probably because I’ve heard it lots, probably because it is a kind of an up-pop number and there’s something about that that I find immediately gratifying and the fastest thing to burn out for me. Whereas some of the more perhaps pretentiousy musicky numbers last a bit longer for me?
AB: I love that line on ‘Blue Summer’, “we could be unemployed together.”
LB: A lifetime ago. It was over twelve years ago, I’m sure.
AB: But then resurrected for Eagle vs Shark?
LB: In a way that’s the song that got us signed to Capital Recordings. It was my song that I made by myself, but we called it the Phoenix Foundation. So there you go. Those guys fuckin’ owe me everything, man, the other dudes.
AB: How to make a living: film and TV, that’s a good angle for you guys?
LB: Yeah, just last year was a bit barren, and I wonder if that’s because most of the work’s in Auckland and maybe if we lived in Auckland and went occasionally to say hi to people, maybe then that work would come. We just didn’t get much work this year, that’s all. It’s a bit of a dilemma. I mean it’s kind of sad; to be able to pay the rent, I occasionally have to make jingles for ads. Ultimately I think, well, what are my options? The dole? What, the dole is cooler than that? Not really. Washing dishes?
AB: Talking to Mike Fab, he was saying, “Wellington markets itself on being the creative capital of New Zealand, but in reality that’s a fantasy. Increasingly there’s no way musicians can afford to practice and record. We might all have to end up in the Hutt.”
LB: He’s totally right. It took Lee Prebble three or four years to find a suitable space that he could afford for his new studio, because he has to move out of the Surgery, he’s had to go further out. We recorded Horsepower in there. Trinity Roots, all the Black Seeds albums, heaps of people, he’s been recording in there the whole time. Done a Dave Dobbyn album in the Surgery, for God’s sake, The Islander, “Welllllcome home.” Dave Dobbyn’s a great dude, by the way. I feel very chuffed to have hung out with him on that one day when we did that Flight of the Conchords song. He was a hilarious and entertaining man. If I had a party here, I’d totally invite him. I have parties here all the time, man!
AB: There’s been a lot of stress for artists, contrary to the council’s ‘creative capital’ slogan.
LB: Yeah, and the reason that Lee’s gotta move, is: apartments!
AB: ‘Bitte Bitte’, another one of those sharp Sam Scott lyrics, “What do we do, now that all of the yuppies replaced us?”
LB: “When all of the squats have been turned into gallery spaces.” I think that’s one of his best lyrics. I think what he’s trying to say in that song—I think this because I’ve heard him say this to people in interviews—is that ultimately it’s alright, we’ll just move on to the next spot. Yup, things are just gonna constantly keep changing, and it’s okay, we’ll just go to the next neighbourhood. But it’s definitely happening isn’t it, in Wellington?
AB: Do you have musical memories from Wroclaw, Poland?
LB: Nah, not really. Had some piano lessons when I was about five, but they were just typical funny piano, the thing I do remember was that the piano teacher was a mad Catholic. He would bring around little Catholic kids’ mini zines, with little stories from the Bible and little cartoons for kids that my parents weren’t really into, and he’d sort of leave them for me.
AB: I like your work on the keys on Fandango. You’ve still got family over there, right?
LB: Yep. My dad’s actually moved back, he lives in Warszawa. We were there in 2011. My grandparents live in Wroclaw, only about two-and-a-half hours’ drive from Berlin.
AB: Has there been any—
LB: Talk of Poland? In 2011 we said no to a couple gigs in Spain. We could go to Poland for the sentimental value, and—I would love to, I would love to take the dudes to Poland—but until we have some kind of industry support, there’s no point.
AB: So UK’s number one for this tour?
LB: The gigs booked in the UK, they’re all definitely step up from last UK tour venues. The one in Bristol’s quite cool, it’s like an old ship in the harbour called the Thekla, and loads of [good] people play at the Thekla, and the Electric Ballroom in London, which I think is reasonably big, like eleven hundred or something like that, and the Òran Mór, in Glasgow, which is an old cathedral they’ve turned into a three-level pub with a big venue down the bottom. We played there previously. And they have two hundred and fifty whiskeys in the Òran Mór. All the pubs in Scotland rule hard. I really like whiskey.
AB: Who are some other New Zealand bands you really like at the moment, apart from the Feelers?
LB: Lawrence Arabia, Connan Mockasin, Unknown Mortal Orchestra. I really like the Mint Chicks’ last album. I haven’t heard Opossom, but I’m really keen to hear it.
 “Something people don’t know about Luke is that he is an excellent contemporary dancer. One day this band will end, or take a break, that is the day I retire as a songwriter and become the pianist for Luke’s solo dance company,” Sam Scott told me yesterday. In 2007, when I interviewed him about Happy Ending, he asked Buda and I whether we’d ever had a threesome? “No,” I said. “No,” Buda said. Scott continued: “I was talking about threesomes with Jessica [Scott’s wife], the other day. She said ‘isn’t that boring for one of the people?’ I thought ‘you obviously haven’t seen much pornography’.” Buda later chirped he wasn’t about rock‘n’roll’s orgiastic excess life. “It ain’t really like that for the Phoenix.”
 “I love the narrative quality of keys. I think Luke totally gets that—he’s good at using keys to add drama, or tension, or to shift a song through some sort of catharsis,” Buda’s partner Sarah Jane Parton told me very recently. ”The thing about his playing is that he’s incredibly aware of all of the brilliant and trained piano players out there and, consequentially, doesn’t think he’s that shit-hot in comparison. I reckon he’s pretty good on the keys for someone who thinks he’s only okay. We live in a teeny tiny house, as you would’ve noticed, so—as much as we’d like to have one—we don’t have a piano or keyboard at home. We simply can’t fit one in. This means that I only ever see him playing keys at his practice room or at gigs. Our eldest son Moses has just started piano lessons, which is pretty exciting. He’s learning from a pianist, Treefrog, who lives a few doors up the street from us, and he’s loving it. I harbour a fantasy that one day he’ll play alongside his dad. I think they’d both really like that.”
© Andy Palmer 2013. All Rights Reserved. More images at acpalmer.com/buda.