Playing with the band

NZSO associate conductor Hamish McKeich (far left) and The Phoenix Foundation’s Sam Scott (centre...
NZSO associate conductor Hamish McKeich (far left) and The Phoenix Foundation’s Sam Scott (centre) and Luke Buda rehearse at the Michael Fowler Centre. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery
After two concerts with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Phoenix Foundation co-founder Luke Buda is ready to relax. He tells Rebecca Fox about being on stage with 60 other musicians.

After playing their music live for 20 years, the Phoenix Foundation are playing some of their songs as recorded for the first time ever.

Performing live with the 60-strong New Zealand Symphony Orchestra left little room to be impulsive, Phoenix Foundation’s co-frontman Luke Buda says.

"Over the years when you play a song live it evolves a bit, there will be some open ended moments, say in Cars of Eden  we stop in the middle and Sam (Scott) plays his guitar by himself for a bit. Now, when we do that live with just the band, that will be as long as it is till somebody queues us back in.

"Well, not with the orchestra: it’s 14 bars. Instead of re-imagining the material, we’ve had to relearn the original version.

"It’s been an interesting process. And we’ve played a few tracks we’ve barely played live ... [some] we’ve done for the first time ever as it is on the album."

The collaboration meant the band’s recorded songs — selected by NZSO associate conductor Hamish McKeich — were sent out to composers and arrangers Gareth Farr, Claire Cowan, Chris Gendall and Hamish Oliver to create orchestral versions.

"They’ve added another layer to what people are used to hearing," McKeich says.

The experience of the first two concerts in Auckland and Wellington reinforced the hard work was worth it, Buda said.

"It went bloody well. It was quite a relief  ... a lot of work, thought and effort has gone into these gigs by many different people."

Both were near sell-outs, had standing ovations, got great reviews and there were reports of some tears from audience members.

"That’s quite cool."

Buda also hopes that now the hurdle of those first concerts is over, he will be able to relax a bit more on stage.

"It was very, very focused. It took half the gig to start feeling like I was just having some fun rather than concentrating quite hard not to make a mistake and watching Hamish like a hawk, as I’m not used to playing with a conductor."

How the concert came about is a very "Kiwi" story, as it developed out of conversations McKeich and Buda had in their local pub.

"He’s awesome, he’s a mate of mine. He lives down the road and we often see each other at the local pub and we have a nice cynical chat over a beer now and again."

McKeich, who has done many cross-over concerts before, thought the Foundation’s music would lend itself  well to being paired with an orchestra.

While Buda admits to being a bit sceptical about the idea when McKeich first proposed it, he was soon won over to the idea.

He was very happy with the orchestral arrangements. The songs include old favourites and some more "left of field" selections as well as two new songs."It’s very varied, it’s a true cross-section of all our albums and starts off with a bit of a bang.

"Twilight, the last track on Pegasus, is piano and cellos and in the gig it’s just the orchestra. That is quite a beautiful moment. Morning Pages is a very mellow one."

While he does not want to give too much away, he admits there are a few surprises.

"I don’t know if you’ve ever heard an entire orchestra whistling. Potentially I shouldn’t give that away, but I feel it’s quite a cool moment."

There are challenges: rock bands and orchestras work to a different time, musically and in work habits.

"The conductor is conducting a little ahead of the beat and it’s kind of loose. An orchestra kind of glides, especially the strings between notes. Our timing, our whole thing, if someone counts it in, we hit it. Whereas they’re a lot more fluid.

"So it’s had its challenges trying to follow Hamish, but we have some work-arounds."

McKeich says working with drummer Chris O’Connor has made the timing issues so much easier.

"They’ve been so good, backstage too. They’re down to earth, there is no histrionics so it has been a pleasure for the orchestra."

Buda  says if he was to do it again, he’d engage with the material a lot earlier.

"In the band, we work things out in the practice room. We’ll rehearse for hours and fiddle and change this and try it like this but you can’t do that.

"It has been a very different experience."

It has been important that  the band does not drown out the orchestra. So their amplifiers are off stage and the band members wear in-ear monitors.

"In a weird way, I haven’t really heard it. It can be a bit isolating. So I feel like I haven’t experienced the power of the full orchestra."

As well as celebrating 20 years of the band, named after an organisation in the 1980s television show MacGyver, it has also been a chance for the group to get together in one place, as two members now live in Auckland, while the others remain in Wellington.

The band has had a lower profile the past few years — their last album release was in 2015 — after spending 15 years doing annual tours of the country.

"It was time to give everyone a break. So this felt like the right time for a bit of a retrospective.

"We’ve certainly been going long enough and have enough material; six full-length albums, not to  mention all the solo albums."

More recently,  the band has been able to turn its hands to a variety of film and television projects. The band has contributed scores to a number of enterprises, including film-maker Taika Waititi’s box office hits Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

"Having an open mind and also having the knowledge and experience of different sounds has been very helpful in the world of film scores."

But having half the band in Auckland meant they no longer had their own studio, instead working from spaces in their own homes or garages.

They link up through a Facebook message page and Google sheet to compose scores for their film and television projects — the latest were the third season of Netflix cartoon Skylanders and television programme Wellington Paranormal.

"Generally, you are just working by yourself. So getting together in a room and playing some music is fantastic."


The show

• The NZSO and The Phoenix Foundation Celebrate!, at the Regent Theatre, Dunedin, August 31, 7.30pm.

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