Saturday, August 06, 2016

The Phoenix Foundation (NZM 2003)

NZ Musician February/March 2003 (Vol:10, No:7)
By Shaun Chait

Interviewing some bands is like drawing blood from a stone. Not so The Phoenix Foundation. Luke Buda has told me stories about half of the band's songs while we wait for co-leader Sam Scott to arrive to start the interview. Such vigour and enthusiasm makes Wellington's Phoenix Foundation a pleasure to speak to, and typifies their approach to their music and recording.

To describe dual vocalists/guitarists/keyboardists Buda and Scott as animated characters is an understatement. On their recent Big Day Out excursion, Buda wore a Las Vegas plastic visor and huge grandmother glasses. Scott's attire included a cowboy hat and a dress, prompting startled locals in every North Island small town to inquire where they were from. This desire to be different – to try something out of the ordinary, is an approach that surfaces loud and clear on 'Horse Power', their debut long player due out this month.

The six-piece combo has been kicking around in some form or another since 1994, when Buda, Scott and fellow PF founder Conrad Wedde got together and started playing.

The Phoenix Foundation proper began in 1997, with several line-up changes since. The sound has also evolved, from what was originally a heavier feel into what is now a combination of whatever influences or styles the band feel like playing. Buda and Scott themselves struggle to define it, preferring to explain the styles of the different songs rather than the album as a whole.

"We keep changing our sound, it's an ever evolving thing," Scott justifies.

"It will never stop changing as we always get bored playing the same thing," Buda chimes in.

This eclectic bent has seen them installed as firm compilation favourites, appearing on a host of discs from the likes of Radio Active, capitalrecordings and various magazines. Radio and internet sites have also been quick to recognise their talents, with extensive play and achievements including tracks winning the 'Best Unreleased Song' and finishing number two on the national alternative radio charts for the year.

The Phoenix Foundation have spent considerable periods of the past seven months recording 'Horse Power', the full length follow-up to 2001's 'China Cove' EP. Recorded at The Surgery with Lee Prebble(who runs the studio with members of TrinityRoots and The Black Seeds), work started in July last year, the band going in for a few days every week or two right up until January.
"This recording has been a huge part of our lives, especially for me, Luke and Conrad," says Scott.

"The idea was to have a really live sounding band take album, 'cause there's a lot of us," Buda continues. "We wanted to play fresh tracks that excited us to keep things interesting, but because they were new we weren't that happy with the arrangements, so spent the next seven months mucking round with it."

'Interesting' and 'exciting' are key words for PF. They aren't content or comfortable with standard instrumentation and arrangements. They take great delight and pride in searching for weird or unusual sounds that leave the listener guessing.

Scott expands: "In July we had the blueprint for the songs – the threads and structure. Then we took them completely apart and spent seven months putting them back together. If something didn't engage us, we reworked it. We wanted to make something different and new. The new Flaming Lips album is brilliant because it's so different. We wanted to make the same impression."

"It was also about keeping ourselves interested in what we were doing," Buda adds. "If a song sounded like it was recorded in a toilet with a $3 mic, that was cool as long as it was engaging and excited us."

With Prebble adding his creative vision to the band's, it seems little wasn't thought of. "There are songs recorded with a mic in a bucket of water, another recorded from inside an oven, lots of weird noises," Buda enthuses. Apart from This Charming Van (so named when Scott made a list of silliest song titles), an older recording they used untouched, every track was played with, sometimes to the point where it became almost unrecognisable.

Bruiser was a punkish song that worked really well live, but when we recorded it none of us really enjoyed listening to it," Buda begins before Scott picks the story up: "So we decided to take it to its final conclusion. We added extremely inappropriate keyboards and it became a recording experiment where the song took a back seat to us fucking around with it. A few friends who really liked the song are not happy it's now so unrecognisable."

The finished product is one of the most genuinely original songs you will hear. Let Me Die A Woman was originally recorded in Buda's bedroom. Once in the studio all band members had a go with it, Scott and Buda doing the 'song' stuff, and the others adding drums, forward and backward loops, and the like. Sister Risk is a little excerpt from a selection of songs the band circulated a couple of years ago which has been pulled around and made into a new full song of its own. Lambs Scott describes as "... the only political song I've ever written. I was really pissed off with things going on in the world at the time, but the song came out really optimistic!" 

The recording process, as you would by now anticipate, was an interesting one. "We got a whole bunch of nice mics, threw them into Pro Tools, then spent a week doing band takes", Scott explains. "Sometimes we used analogue as a compressor to get the sound we wanted. We used a lot of studio tools, toy keyboards, any dinky thing that might make a cool noise. We went in every direction possible."

The resulting sound is variously called (with much prompting!) terms like "electro lo-fi" (Buda) and "organic and acoustic music that's been fucked with" (Scott).

"Unfortunately there's no way to really describe the sound because each song is in its own little world," Buda reminds. "As an album it's so contrasting. The majority is reasonably insular. It's a stoner headphone album. There's lots of deep sounds, reverbs, things put there for the purpose of sounding weird that people wouldn't hear unless really listening."

If all this is making the album sound unlistenable I should apologise, the result is far from it. The Phoenix Foundation have delivered a grower (four listens plus) that is held together by having underneath it all a fair dose of pop and a ton of melody. It's quite beautiful, sad (they prefer melancholy) in places, and has a mellow, downbeat feel.

"It's not depressing but certainly not jolly. Lazily unhappy," Scott offers. "Everything's been worked really intensely."

'Horse Power' will be out on capitalrecordings, a label that is making a name for itself as a home of Wellington indie music. Buda and Scott describe capitalrecordings as having been influential in the album's making, and say that having a label actually into the music (capital did the approaching) has been great. The deal is for NZ and possibly Australia, and a couple of thousand units have been pressed. The band are also being shopped to English labels by their management team of Toby Larmer (also manager of TrinityRoots) and Richard Gordon (ex-Creation, and best man at Alan McGee's wedding!).

The Phoenix Foundation album may not be the only one they shop. Last summer, while PF were on hiatus, Buda recorded and self released a solo album. 'C Sides' was quietly slipped into stores under the Buda name with no fanfare (receiving a favourable review from this mag at least), and promptly sold out it's small run.

"I didn't have any idea I would be releasing an album during the two months or so I was recording it," Luke reflects. "I did it at the Church (PF's former studio) on a digital eight track and mastered it at Inca. The sound is mainly eclectic pop. It's got nice atmospheres and is really sound focused."

With demand still high a year later, Buda is looking at a possible distribution deal and further pressings. The Phoenix Foundation attention now turns to promotion. The band plan to do as much work in NZ as possible.

"I'd like the album to get enough attention that people who will like it will know it exists," says Scott. To do this, the band plan three radio singles aimed at any format that will play them song untouched. They readily admit they've been bad at getting out of Wellington, and plan to address this with spot gigs followed by a large scale tour.

After that, don't rule out another change in sound. Both Buda and Scott cite Queens Of The Stone Age in getting their heavy juices flowing again.

"We don't set ourselves any boundaries. Just because we're weepy now, doesn't mean we won't go back to being heavy," Scott states. With 'Horse Power' guests ranging from John White (Mestar) to Luke Benge (Paselode) it's already obvious anything's possible. In a world where it's getting harder and harder to come up with something new, country cock-rock opera must be looking a pretty attractive option.

No comments: