NZ Musician April/May 2005 (Vol:12, No:2)
By Shaun Chait
I'm at Bar Bodega in Wellington. It's rock'n'roll late, suitably dark, sticky, and there is a pre anti-smoking legislation haze resting over the well-lagered crowd. The Phoenix Foundation are on stage, well and truly in the groove. They're playing a brand new song called Slightest Shift In The Weather, and not for the first time during the evening, I cast a knowing look at the friend by my side. His 'bloody hell - are you hearing this?' wide eyed gaze matches my own. We both nod to each other, confirming that yes - the band on stage is indeed doing something special.
Fast forward a year to summer 2004/05 and outside to Wellington's Botanical Gardens. The Phoenix Foundation are playing to an adoring, record-breaking audience of over 3000, and they're positively humming. They are one of the select few originals bands performing over the three week Summer City event and the only indie pop/rock band.
Coloured lighting illuminates the foliage, the sun setting in the distance, and the excited chatter of friends sharing a picnic intermingles with the between-song banter of singers/guitarists Sam Scott andLuke Buda. Glancing at that same mate again, his reflection tells me that The Phoenix Foundation are, at this moment, untouchable.
An anything but 'untouchable' Luke Buda and Conrad Wedde (guitar/keys) sit with me, sipping tea and chatting about the new Phoenix Foundation album 'Pegasus' (due for release on May 16) on a foggy Wellington evening a few months later. In fact 'real' is a more apt description. The duo, friends since high school, are discussing the merits of synths and extolling the virtues of their new, as yet unnamed joint synth side project, momentarily forgetting the focus of this discussion is The Phoenix Foundation - the band they formed with Scott in 1997.
Attention followed quickly with early songs The Drinker and This Charming Van, favourites at the bNet. 2001's 'China Cove' EP was the band's first foray into the recorded world, before their 2003 debut album 'Horsepower' found The Phoenix Foundation a national audience and quickly swelling fan base.
There has been some change to the line-up since then, the six piece now rounded out by Richie Singleton on drums, Will Ricketts playing percussion and newest recruit Warner Emery on bass. Although the nucleus of the band has remained the same, Buda and Wedde agree that line-up changes over the years have greatly influenced the Phoenix sound.
"Everyone in this band is into completely different styles of music," muses Buda. "Me and Con were into metal - Slayer, Sepultura, Pantera, and Metallica, and Sam was into punk - Sonic Youth and The Pixies. But we tried to play really mellow after the early departures, and that's really how 'Horsepower' came about. The reaction to people leaving (see NZM Feb/March 2003) was that there was more space. On 'Horsepower' Bruiser was really the only rocky song. Tim (Hansen - bassist on 'Horsepower') was into session funk, Motown - very tight. Our new bassist Warner is into Iggy Pop and Tom Waits. He likes leaving the dirt in there, which is probably good for us as a band 'cause sometimes we can get a bit musician-y."
Being musician-y is indeed an accusation a listener could level at The Phoenix Foundation, and one they mostly revel in. The love of sound drives everything they do, from genre mixing, arrangements and layering to instrumentation and wacky recording techniques. Their antics on 'Horsepower' included putting mics in ovens and buckets of water. And on 'Pegasus' (the title apparently unwittingly completing an equine quinella), it seems the old horse is learning some new tricks.
"Sea World has got lots of funny treats," exclaims Buda. "We used some water percussion, done by tapping a jar of water while turning it, then putting it through a filter."
Another trick on the same track involved percussionist Ricketts' hysterical giggling being tuned up an octave. For all this, both Buda and Wedde claim 'Pegasus' to be a more straight ahead record than its predecessor, citing the trickery that was left off. "We tried the speaker in the oven trick with Hitchcock, but it just didn't sound right," offers Buda.
"We sampled a single note of Sam's voice and put it into the sampler to create a whole choir, but we left that track off the record. The bridge of All In An Afternoon had 10 arrangements done to it. We tried Enoatmospheric synths, some Greek sounding stuff, a baroque piano and an R2D2 style lead break - but it all sounded try hard, so in the end we went for the most obvious, simple ones ,which was a drumbeat, bass, organ and Sam singing."
The search for sound took them to all sorts of places. "We tried to use people's answerphone messages recorded on tapes taken from the tip," reveals Wedde, much to Buda's (who was away at the time) amusement and delight. The use of keyboards and synths is another interesting angle for a band with three guitarists, but is typical of The Phoenix Foundation's interest in sound exploration.
"We're both heavily into synths at the moment," starts Wedde. "We've been playing guitar for quite a long time, and sometimes it's harder to make them sound different, so it's a matter of finding something different to muck around with."
Luke agrees. "It's about us not getting bored. Everyone's keen to get off their instruments and play something else."
To this end, Wedde has recently been bringing his MPC to practices, and Phoenix have been busy sampling everything into it.
The Phoenix Foundation are nothing if not lush. Their textured, layered, atmospheric sound is the real trademark they hang their instruments on, regardless of the instruments used.
"We can't stop ourselves," says Wedde, explaining away the addiction.
"We go too far!" chimes in Buda. "It definitely comes from a love of synths and trippy guitar - reverb and delay - enjoying that kind of texture in music. It's the idea of putting on headphones and hearing stuff that has beautiful sounds that envelop you. Stuff that's soothing and all encompassing.
"While I have a total appreciation for really real warts'n'all music, I also really love totally unreal stuff full of fantasy and exploration like Air. It comes down to the 'close your eyes and float away on it' thing. It's escapism - musical fantasy."
Coming up with an overall sound for 'Pegasus' seems to have been a natural progression for the band. While not as mellow, quirky or experimental as 'Horsepower', it comes out on the softer side of the band's live shows. Wedde says Phoenix have always found it harder to capture their more rocky stuff in the recording process, and that means they inadvertently write and arrange with a more mellow feel. Buda concurs. "The chaos that comes off on stage because of a direct exchange of energies sometimes sounds stupid recorded, and that's also due to the fact the band doesn't feel the same fire without an audience to feed off."
"That song was the real ray of hope on the album," says Buda no more than half sarcastically.
"It's a funny track but it had to come out because we do make a lot of music like that - it's part of what we do," continues Wedde. However they have largely shied away from that avenue this time, with Cars Of Eden the closest they get to getting carried away. Wedde brought a Toto album into the studio and the band decided the end of the song would be as pristinely arranged as possible, copying the "proficient, ultra-produced '80s sound."
The other sound to the fore on 'Pegasus' is country. Having "stumbled" across the sound during 'Horsepower', this time Buda says they were much more aware of it.
"There's not really many country songs on the first album, but with Nest Egg andSlightest Shift In The Weather there's not any other way they could've happened."
When recording time came around again, The Phoenix Foundation had no hesitation returning to The Surgery to continue their relationship with the Wellington music scene's favourite doctor - Lee Prebble. The reasoning was straightforward.
"Lee's good at keeping it simple. He's got a good procedure going that he sticks to. There's no problems, no worries, and he has a temperament that can handle the band," reasons Wedde.
"Though he's slowly losing it," interjects Buda jokingly.
The album was recorded during a six week non-stop initial period, with the band returning for additional four and two week concentrated bursts, the total timeframe running from May '04 to January this year.
"With 'Horsepower' we did eight months of three-four day sessions and it was pretty hard to get into the flow sometimes. At no point did we have more than two weeks in succession," explains Buda.
"In contrast, with 'Pegasus' we set up all our gear and did band takes with me, Sam, Con and Lee doing overdubs and little mixes. We were there every day for six weeks so we didn't ever take stuff out."
So intense was the process that the band set up a second studio and had visions of recording other music at the same time. The end result is a combination of songs that came together as band takes and others (Hitchcock, Sea World, Through The Woods) that were totally constructed to grid.
"We wanted to be more organised and have the arrangements really sorted when we went in," begins Buda. "There's less editing on the new album and more songs are real band takes, but others were huge struggles and there was a realisation that live and recorded are different. You can get away with more live because it's all about the moment whereas on record it's about multiple listening."The recording process proper was similar to 'Horsepower', but with "better mics, compressors and knowledge".
The end result is "... fatter and hits the speakers more" according to Buda, "... more direct and bold with sounds" is Wedde's view. Album guests include the multi-talented David Long, Francesca Mountford,Mestar's John White and, in a lovely touch, the band's old school music teacher Fritz Wollner.
"He taught four of us at Wellington High School and was a real inspiration in terms of letting us explore our own music," recalls Buda. "He was one of those teachers who never dissed metal or anything, and would ask to borrow a Sepultura CD to check out what it was like."
Both band members nominate having the equally humble Wollner (piano) and Long (banjo) playing alongside them on the poignant country track Nest Egg as a recording highlight.
With the indie success of 'Horsepower' affirming The Phoenix Foundation as good things, a minor bidding war ended with the band transferring from Capitalrecordings to FMR. They shy away from being drawn into specifics, but rumour has it at least five labels showed significant interest.
The buzz created by the band at Resonate a few months ago underlined the reason for the fuss. The only non-Loop band on the bill, Phoenix were the subject of excited talk from both NME's editor and the Universal Publishing UK manager. The band has an excellent track record with award nominations with 'Horsepower' the only Best Album finalist at both the Tuis and bNet awards. Sam Scott going up for the bNet Male Fox title this year has only added to the hype!
On label choice, the old chestnut "had to weigh everything up and go with the best deal" is brought out, though FMR's good record with releasing albums in Australia played a part. Also a wariness of being portrayed in a way they wouldn't like, including too much mainstream commercial pushing.
The first single off 'Pegasus' is the dramatic and rousing Hitchcock, one of three instrumentals on the album. It's accompanied by a stirring video from Rueben Sutherland, and Buda is amazed at the congratulations he's been receiving for a video he had no hand in.
The Phoenix Foundation will be doing the regular touring, and also reveal possible plans for a theatre tour too. An Australian tour will follow. Given that an Australian reviewer named Bruiser his 2004 song of the year, the signs over there are good.
However Phoenix won't be following fellow once -were-Welly bands like Cassette, Fur Patrol,Shihad and Batrider in setting up shop across the Tasman. A more immediate priority is cutting down time between songs in a live environment, perhaps requiring Buda to curb a touch of his oft talked about amusing stage banter.
Somewhat incredibly, the band have never played with a set list, only ever planning the first three songs and seeing how they went! As of last month this has changed.
"First there would be a deliberation over what song to play and then everybody on stage would have to be informed of it," Buda reflects with a wry smile. "... and then we'd have to get ready. Richie uses different types of sticks, and we have so many pedals. Then there's tuning, amp and keyboard settings..."
As discussion turns to the results on 'Pegasus' I ask the lads about their favourite moments. Both plump for contrasts. Luke nominates Sea World for the absolute pure escapism. "Like Celebrate (off 'Horsepower') it had no angst, just the adding on of more fun layers. It was indulgent sonic mayhem."
He then brings up Sam Scott's vocals on Morning Pages, which he states is one of the singer's best performances. Wedde lists the straight-up-ness of Nest Egg and pairs it with the journey it took makingCars Of Eden. "They are two extremes, the most real and the most fake."
So much is made of the infamous 'difficult second album' and Buda and Wedde are acutely aware that 'Pegasus' is their one shot at it. They needn't worry. The album is exquisite - an atmospheric, pretty body of work which creates a melange of moods and vibes to reflect the settings you are playing it in. A blustery, menacing and wet day, a long weekend summer drive up the coast, a late night drinking session - this is an album that inspires and influences listeners' thought patterns and mindset, as any great record must. The songs are at one with their surroundings, providing an exceptional kaleidoscope of emotions. Keep this quality up and The Phoenix Foundation will be able to call their next album 'The Show Ponies'.
At Phoenix's Foundations (gear list)
Pro Tools LE with Apogee convertors / Amek mic pre-amp / Buzz audio compressor / TL Audio EQ / spring reverbs and fx / Quested monitoring / Pearl drums / Weta, Fender, Gibson, Jansen and Rickenbacker guitars and amps / various '70s analogue synths / lots of guitar effects pedals / percussion, Tibetan prayer bowl etc. / piano, Rhodes, organs, strings and horns.