Interview: Bret McKenzie

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Last week I got on Skype with musician/actor Bret McKenzie to discuss his work on the music for ‘The Muppets’.  One of these days I’ll be able to share the actual audio with you of my interviews (I have a chat with Mike Mills and one with Jeremy Irvine caught in limbo for that exact reason), but for now, a transcription will have to do.  Bret was a lot of fun to talk to, and I hope it comes off in the interview.  We spent about 5 minutes making small talk about the wonders of Skype when he called me, so the transcription starts off a few minutes in after that back and forth (don’t think anyone cares about Bret being impressed that I can record the conversation and me betraying my lack of knowledge about my macbook/garage band as well as a recent failing with my iPad), but hopefully it still comes off naturally.  Anyway, let’s get to my chat with Bret McKenzie.  Enjoy everyone!

JOEY MAGIDSON:  I love talking about the Muppets, so this is a pleasure for me Bret.  How about you, have you always been a fan or is it something a little on the new side for you?

BRET MCKENZIE:  No, I was always a fan.  I grew up with the Muppets in New Zealand.  The Muppets were on TV, and there were only two channels here when I grew up – so it was either watching the Muppets or the news.  So, I watched it, and years later ended up working on it.  So I was a fan, but I never expected to be working on the film.

JOEY:  That seems to be the consensus for everyone involved working on the film.  I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like the Muppets, so to get the opportunity to be a par of a project like this, they feel like, “How could I say no?!”

BRET: Yeah.

JOEY:  So how did you end up working on the film?  Did they come to you?

BRET:  Yeah, well, James Bobin, the director of the film, who also created and directed Conchords with Jemaine and I, asked me to write the opening song because they got dozens of people to do demos, and they were trying out different ideas, and he hadn’t quite found the song he needed.  I was really interested so I wrote that song, they liked that one, and then I ended up writing a couple more.

JOEY:  Do you have a favorite or are they all kind of all your children – the songs?

BRET:  Definitely my favorite is Man or Muppet because the video and the song really work well together.  I feel like James did an amazing job with that video, and I’ve always wanted to write a power ballad.  I love that genre, so I’m pretty happy with that one.  I think Life’s a Happy Song is undeniably catchy, so that also has a lot of charm, as well.  In terms of the movie, I like Man or Muppet more.

JOEY:  Well I have you to blame for Happy Song being in my head…

BRET:  Yeah, it’s one of those earworms.

JOEY:  I re-watched the original Muppet movie shortly before seeing the new one, and all the songs and a lot of the lines came back to me, so when the first song for the new Muppets movie came on I was very curious to see how I would react.  I remember leaving the movie and sitting on the train just humming the songs and going “oh god, again…”

BRET: (Laughs) Yeah, well that’s great!  A lot of those original songs like Moving Right Along are amazing, and a big influence on me for this.

JOEY:  It definitely shows.  Out of curiosity, were there any songs that you put together that didn’t wind up in the film?

BRET:  Yeah, I wrote about ten different versions of that Tex Richman rap.  (Laughs).  That song came and went a lot.  Oh, and I wrote one for Ms. Piggy that didn’t end up in there.

JOEY:  Well, hopefully it’ll be on the DVD or something like that.  The songs were great.  I will admit that when the rap song started I was thrown a little bit…

BRET:  Yeah, so was I!

JOEY:  It works though, surprisingly enough!

BRET:  We were all surprised.  We were all worried that it was going to be one of those, you know, bad 80’s rap jokes, but he really delivered a pretty hilarious performance.

JOEY:  Exactly and it just kind of fits, because it’s sort of a good version of an 80’s rap song that you would see in this type of a movie.

BRET: (Laughs)  Yeah, that was one of the highlights of the job – teaching Chris Cooper to rap.  My first version with him was on Skype.  I’d say, “I’m Tex Richman, Mr. Texas Tea…” and he’d rap back to me.

JOEY:  I hope you saved that!

BRET:  Really funny, I wish I would have recorded that!

JOEY:  So besides that, obviously you have a history with the director.  How closely did you end up working with Jason Segel?

BRET:  Well, I worked with Jason and Nick Stoller a little at the beginning, just when we had the demos of the songs and we were going through them, kind of punching them up.  We were seeing if there were any little gags or ideas we could add to them.  Once the film got going, and once the recordings got going, I was in the studio with grown men pretending to be penguins and Jason was on set.  I really enjoyed working with him – Jason is a hilarious guy.  He was just really fun, and the perfect guy to be doing a Muppets film.

JOEY:  I had actually done an interview with Kermit the frog and he said the same thing.

BRET:  Yeah, he’s infectiously positive about the Muppets, which is such a great quality to have when you’re making such a big film, to have someone that’s so into it, driving it forward.

JOEY:  I think he kind of had the same fear that everyone who loves the Muppets had, which was “Is this going to feel like an old Muppets film or is it going to feel like Alvin and the Chipmunks…or worse?”

BRET:  We all had that fear! I think that’s why we worked so hard on it.  That it was going to turn into something like a Hanna Montana film.

JOEY:  I have a question someone asked me to ask: For the promotional stuff, like the parodies and trailers, were you involved with the music for things like that?

BRET:  No.  The trailers were done by someone completely different to the production.

JOEY:  Alright.  I figured I would ask because it’s one of those things that are hard to find out, and they fit with the movie so well.

BRET:  I love the trailers, but I don’t know who did them.  They just showed up!  I saw them the same time that everyone else saw them – when they were on YouTube.

JOEY:  They were quite good.  The Dragon Tattoo one was the one that seemed to be the favorite one.  The Pig with the Froggie Tattoo or something like that.

BRET: Yeah.

JOEY:  Besides coming up with the music for the film, was there anything that you did while the filming was going on, or was it all in studio?  For example, were there any on-screen or background instruments or vocals or anything like that?

BRET:  Oh, yeah yeah.  I wasn’t on screen or anything like that but I did a lot of background vocals.  I developed a pretty solid Muppet repertoire.  I can do a fairly cohesive background Muppet vocal.

JOEY:  It’s definitely a very specific type of voice, so that’s impressive.

BRET:  The weirdest thing in the studio was: I was working with Mickey Petralia, he’s the producer I work with a lot, and he’d be in the recording booth and I’d be down on the mic, going, “Okay, new track: this is Fozzy”.  And then I’d do some sort of quite rough Fozzy demo.  And then I’d do, “New track:  Ms. Piggy”, “New track: penguin”, “New track: rats”, and I’d just keep on going through until we had this… because once you get about ten muppet voices, it sounds like a big group singing.

JOEY:  Awesome, and that’s something to keep for parties.

BRET:  Yeah – a good party trick!  I think a few of them made it through to the final film.

JOEY:  It sounded like a number of voices so it’s really effective work.

BRET:  Yeah, so hidden in there are some of my voices.

JOEY:  Another cameo.  How does it feel to know that you might get nominated for an Oscar?

BRET:  Very surprising.  Because we weren’t making this film with awards in mind, you know what I mean?  It didn’t feel like we were making a classic drama or something.  Plus, I’ve never really worked on a big film so I’m completely new to the whole film awards thing.

JOEY:  The funny thing is, when it comes to the Muppets, they actually do have kind of a good Oscar history and it’s usually for their music.

BRET:  Yeah, it’s true.  What’s crazy is that Rainbow Connection didn’t win an award!

JOEY:  It’s shocking when you look at it now.

BRET:  It is shocking when you think of what a classic song that is!

JOEY:  If you look at the Oscars and their original song nominees, there are some amazing songs and usually the most popular one doesn’t win.

BRET:  Yeah – I don’t know if that’s good or bad for me.

JOEY:  The thing with you guys is, you have a number of songs that are possible.  I’ve seen people predict that there will be two or three nominations, myself included at times.

BRET:  It would be awesome.  Maybe Rainbow Connection should win sort of a… belated award.  We should have just changed a couple lyrics and re-entered it.  An award would be great.

JOEY:  If only it were that simple.  The thing is that the way that they vote really does favor you.  The way that they vote is that they watch the songs, instead of just listening to them.  It’s good and bad.  It’s good for films that make use of the music in a really interesting way.  The downside is sometimes you get something with a really great ending credits song (and they used to be nominated all the time), and now you never hear of that anymore.

BRET:  Right, because it’s not exciting to just watch the credits.  Fingers crossed that we get a nomination.  That would be amazing!

JOEY:  The Muppets have a good history with that.  I mean, they had Rainbow Connection, they had The First Time It Happens, I believe Muppets Take Manhattan had a song or score too nominated too.  The Muppets are not strangers to the Oscars, they just haven’t quite won yet.  This could be the year though…

BRET:  Yeah, it would be really awesome.  And I wonder if Kermit will get to come to the Oscars.  Maybe I could take Ms. Piggy as my date.

JOEY:  I mean, I’ll already be watching the Oscars but I’ll tune in twice if that’s possible, if that happens!

BRET: (Laughs)

JOEY:  So, what’s coming up next for you?

BRET:  I’ve been doing this film, Austenland with Jerusha Hess, who co-wrote Napoleon Dynamite.  It’s a period rom-com.  I play a stable hand.  So I’m just finishing that, and it comes out this year sometime.

JOEY:  Sweet.  I know a lot of people have asked about a Flight of the Conchords movie.  Is that something that’s being considered or is it just kind of something people are talking about that you think is a great idea and we’ll see what happens?

BRET:  Yeah, well it’s definitely something we want to do.  I’ve said that recently and it kind of got blown up into a big news story.  It’s something we want to do but we haven’t written it yet so… we have to write it.  (Laughs).  It’s a while away, it’ll take a while to write.

JOEY:  I’m sure people will be glad to hear that because you guys have a following bigger than even I realized.  When I got the e-mail from Disney asking if I wanted to do the interview with Bret McKenzie I was with my girlfriend and she went “What?!”

BRET:  (Laughs). Yeah, I think it’s because we disappeared.  And people are like, well, they don’t know what happened to us.  Or even where we live.

JOEY:  Well, don’t tell them, because they’ll come find you.

BRET:  We’re hiding in New Zealand.

JOEY:  That’s a big country – you’ll be fine.  Have you had the chance to see any other films this year?  Are there any you particularly like?

BRET:  Oh, yeah.  I love Bridesmaids.  I really hope that wins something – that was just hilarious.  And the other film I really love is The Trip.  Probably my favorite scene is where Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon do the hypothetical funeral speech,

JOEY:  It’s one of those comedies that no one saw, but everyone who did see it loved.  Even I missed it, and I see everything.

BRET:  It’s amazing, it’s so funny.  It’s so refreshing to see something that shouldn’t have been a film become a film.  I mean, how would you pitch a film about two guys going around trying delicious food?  That and Young Adult, that’s another comedy I really liked.

JOEY:  I liked that one a lot also and it got kind of ‘hit or miss’ reviews.  I tend to like movies that are a little different though, all things being equal.

BRET:  I’ve started watching films on fast forward.  If things aren’t moving, just watch it in fast forward until you see something interesting.

JOEY: Well played.  Especially if it’s a weird flick, that could be a fun thing to try one day for giggles on my part.

BRET:  I’ve actually done this film in New Zealand recently called Two Little Boys that’s really dark, you might like that.

JOEY:  I’m up for anything.  I literally, about a week apart, watched the Human Centipede II and the Elmo documentary Being Elmo…in the exact same theater.  They’re about as different as types of puppetiering can get.  But that’s what I like about the Muppets – they’re different but they’re classic at the same time.

BRET:  Yeah, it is fun the way the film breaks down that fourth wall, as well.  It’s one of my favorite lines when the Amy Adams goes, “this is going to be a really short movie”.

JOEY:  The funny thing is, one of the things I’ve heard people really liked was Travel By Map.

BRET:  Yeah, yeah, that’s a classic.  Well, I think it’s a really easy gag to remember.

JOEY:  It fit because I remember watching one of the Muppet movies and one of my favorite things was the fork in the road, when they drive by the giant fork in the road.  It appeals to a three or four year old but at the same time I’m twenty four now and I look at it and go, “it’s still genius.”  That’s the thing about this one, the first five or ten minutes, you’re waiting to see – Is it going to be the Muppets?

BRET:  Yeah, I know. ‘Is it going to work?’

JOEY:  And then the third act when it just becomes the Muppet Show… it was really like a blast from the past.  I’ll admit, I got a little teary-eyed when Rainbow Connection came on again.

BRET:  Yeah, it’s so beautiful though.  That’s one good thing about that opening song, or that whole sequence, it really kick-starts the movie and makes it feel… by the end of that song, I feel like the audience has relaxed and knows that they’ve got a Muppet movie.

JOEY:  That’s the same way I felt.  I was watching the kids watching the movie at the same time, and they were into it, as well as the adults… it was kind of a nice movie experience you don’t always get.  Especially since it was an early screening for people who came knowing it was the Muppets so it runs the risk of them feeling like “hey, this isn’t what I’m used to…” But this movie was incredibly well done.

BRET:  Thanks, man.  I’ve got to go – I’ve got a whole run of interviews to do.

JOEY:  Go for it, hopefully they all go well for you.

BRET:  Thanks man, well, I’ll hopefully see you either in LA or New York.

JOEY:  Fingers crossed our paths cross.

BRET:  Cool man.

JOEY:  You take care.

BRET:  You too, bye.

There you have it.  I hope you all enjoyed my chat with Bret McKenzie.  He’s a very cool cat, so this was an easy interview if ever there was one.  His contributions to ‘The Muppets’ are one of the reasons why the flick is as good as it is, so we all owe him a big thank you.

Thoughts?  Discuss on the Forum!