Bret McKenzie may be best known as one half of the musical comedy duo Flight of the Conchords, but lately he's getting a lot of attention for his work as music supervisor on the new Muppets movie, including an Academy Award! He shares the songs that shaped him as a teenager and laid the groundwork for his hilariously quirky, and funky style – from James Brown and Harry Nilsson to Leonard Cohen. His song "Man or Muppet" is up for a Grammy award in 2013.
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Note: This interview originally aired on November 30, 2011.
1 - You Give A Little Love - Paul Williams
2 - Papa's Got A Brand New Bag - James Brown
3 - Think About Your Troubles - Harry Nilsson
4 - Sweet City Woman - The Stampeders
5 - Tower Of Song - Leonard Cohen
Dan Wilcox: Hey, this is Dan Wilcox from KCRW and I have the extreme pleasure of sitting here with Bret McKenzie who is one half of the musical comedy duo Flight of The Concords and music supervisor for the recent Muppets movie. Music is obviously a huge part of his work, so we are very curious as to see what songs have inspired him over the years and today we are going to be playing excerpts of some of them as part of KCRW's Guest DJ Project. Welcome Bret.
Bret McKenzie: Very nice to be here.
Dan Wilcox: Excellent.
Bret McKenzie: It's a pleasure.
DW: Excellent. So what have you brought for us?
BM: The first song is by one of my favorite songwriters Paul Williams, who sort of famously co-wrote "Rainbow Connection". But he also did this movie called Bugsy Malone. It's called "You Give a Little Love" and it's the final song in the movie.
It's kids being gangsters, but when they sing, they have adult voices. So it's a pretty unusual musical idea to have kids acting, adults singing their voices so the songs sound awesome. It was big in New Zealand. We thought it was huge. We didn't know it wasn't as successful in America, so when we came over here and I was like "Bugsy Malone" and everyone's like ‘what are you talking about?’
Song: "You Give a Little Love" – Paul Williams
BM: In high school I was in a production of this show and I played Bugsy Malone. So this was one of my "big breaks".
DW: You were the Scott Baio character.
BM: Yeah, it was a big role for me and I had to say ‘Tallulah you're ha-racing my motor’. Yeah, that was one of my classic lines.
DW: I'm not even sure what that means, but it does sound awesome.
BM: It was a cool song and he has this great sort of knack for melody.
DW: That was the song "You Give a Little Love" as done by Paul Williams from the Bugsy Malone soundtrack. I'm sitting here with Bret McKenzie. What's next for us?
BM: You know what the first song that I heard that really blew my mind, was James Brown "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag". My friends were all musicians and we were trying to start a band and I remember we'd never heard anything like it. It was like something out of the 50's, when people heard rock and roll for the first time. We were just like ‘oh my God. Listen to that. How are they doing that?’ And so then we spent a couple of years basically practicing James Brown grooves and James Brown beats.
DW: So you heard that, and how does that eventually transform into Flight of The Concords.
BM: Well, I was always pretty committed to trying to make our songs as funky as possible. I was always putting extra little funky beats in.
Song: "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" - James Brown
DW: That was James Brown, with Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.
Up next, you have a favorite of mine – Harry Nilsson. But I’ve never heard this track – “Think About Your Troubles”.
BM: I think he's probably my favorite artists. He's definitely right up there. I just love his songwriting. It's nice and surreal. And his production is just beautiful. Particularly “Nilsson Schmilsson”, I guess that's his biggest album. And then he went on to do this animated show called "The Point". This was just sort of inspirational to me, 'cause it's kind of a use of music in a really interesting way to make a cartoon, but the music is a big part it. And there aren't many shows that use music -- I mean the Muppets is good for using music- but not many shows use music as seriously as something like this.
Song: "Think About Your Troubles" - Harry Nilsson
DW: Tell us about "The Point".
BM: It's set in a cartoon world where everyone's pointy. They've got pointy heads and things and they're all trying to find out what the point is. And so I think its a child being on an adventure, looking for the point.
DW: And the main kid has no point.
BM: Yeak, so he's looking for the point.
DW: Out of that soundtrack, what was it about this particular song that drew you to select it here today?
BM: I thought I'd play this song because it's one of the ones that many people know of Harry Nilsson. And it paints a beautiful picture as the journey continues in the song.
DW: We just heard Harry Nilsson's "Think About Your Troubles", this was selected by our guest here Bret McKenzie. And Bret, what is next for us?
BM: Okay, the next song is called "Sweet City Woman" by a band called The Stampeders.
I was working, you know, this year on this new Muppets film. We were looking for songs that had banjo in them. Because the banjo is one of those instruments that, I guess, isn't used as much as many other instruments because it's quite difficult if you're going outside of the bluegrass sort of world. You know, to try to incorporate a banjo into a pop song, it's not that…you know, you don't hear Kanye using a banjo very much.
DW: So did the Muppets kind of speak to you more through the music and the musical numbers? Is that kind of your main connection to the Muppets would you say, when you were young?
BM: It's hard to remember when you were a kid what you liked about it exactly, but I do just remember loving the show. And, you know, they had great cameos on the show, Elton John doing "Crocodile Rock" with crocodile muppets on stage biting at his feet. It was great stuff. So yeah, I did love it, and I guess like it was a subconscious influence on what I've ended up doing with my life, doing musical comedy. The TV show Flight of the Concords, I mean you could describe it as the Muppets meets Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Song: "Sweet City Woman" - The Stampeders
DW: A lot of these songs happen to be songs from the 70's What is it about music during that era that you like?
BM: The 70’s for me definitely seemed to be the golden age of recorded music because, having worked in the studio a lot, I've become more interested in production of when music is recorded. And it seemed like in the 70’s people just had endless amounts of time getting a good sound. You play like a new record next to a 70’srecord and there is really no comparison.
DW: What's the deal with the Sweet City Woman, what's she all about?
BM: Well, she's just a really Sweet City Woman.
DW: It's all in the title.
BM: It's all there man.
DW: You don't really need to know anything else.
BM: This is more of a vibe, this song. Yeah, it just really cheers me up.
DW: So we just listened to the song "Sweet City Woman" by Stampeders. Bret, what’s your last song?
BM: Well, another one of my favorite artists is Leonard Cohen. Around the same time as I was listening to James Brown with my band at school, we were also listening to a lot of Leonard Cohen. And I was one of those guys who, like my voice didn't really drop till I was you know, a little bit older than my friends. So I was like 15 or 16 or something, and there's nothing more difficult than a young man with a high voice trying to sing Leonard Cohen. It was brutal time for me but, nevertheless, I made it over the initial hurdle and he's a huge influence. There seems like there's never a time when it's inappropriate to play Leonard Cohen.
DW: Well, let’s give it a spin then. This is Leonard Cohen with the track Tower of Song
Song: Tower of Song - Leonard Cohen
DW: Leonard Cohen his lyrics are cerebral and sometimes very heavy relationship stuff, how did you process that as a young kid?
BM: You know, I probably didn't know what the hell was going on. I just connected with it. He just is really playful with his songs and his lyrics. There's a lot of gags in there. And I also loved his bizarre, almost Casio tone production.
DW: Bret, thanks so much for coming down here.
BM: You're welcome. I hope people are enjoying these songs.
DW: I'm sure they are, and for a complete track listing and to find these songs online go to kcrw.com/guestdjproject and subscribe to the podcast through iTunes