The Phoenix Foundation's Samuel Flynn Scott admits that Friend Ship is a cheesy name for the band's seventh studio album, but says it's a celebration of human connection. He explains why in this track-by-track interview with RNZ Music's Yadana Saw.
The Phoenix Foundation's newest album Friend Ship has some surprising firsts for a band that's been going for 21 years.
It’s the first time singer Samuel Flynn Scott didn't get tired of the songs: "We weren’t getting on each others’ nerves; we were still enjoying the process. It just didn’t feel stressful."
Friend Ship is the band's seventh studio album and the first to feature the band on the cover. It’s also the first time The Phoenix Foundation have collaborated with so many other artists, shaking up the insular male energy first discovered over 25 years ago "strumming guitars in the music room and talking music" at Wellington High School.
"The name Friend Ship is so cheesy but it connects to so many things we've been thinking about with this album and the fact we've had so many collaborators and arrangers."
It's also a reflection of the times, Scott adds: "We've had a lot more female voices on this album because that's what we've been listening to. And that's what I feel everyone is listening to at the moment."
Friend Ship features guests Nadia Reid, Hollie Fullbrook (Tiny Ruins) and Anita Clark (Motte). Many of the songs also draw on the talents of New Zealand's best classical composers and players from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, bringing sparkle and flourish to the deeply personal and heartfelt lyrics that feature throughout the record.
“It’s insane that we've got the NZSO on our new album and that so many people have contributed ... Just all of these people doing all this stuff for our little songs...it is very humbling ... You're either going to go to be egotistical and say 'Yeah, we're finally getting what we deserve!' Or be like, 'Oh my god! How is this happening? We're so lucky!'"
The intention of the new album is to remove any barrier between the musicians and the listener, to create genuine human connection.
“I want them to hear the people on the other side of the microphone with all of that stuff that's in between kinda dissolving away," Sam explains, "I want people to hear the people who made this album, I don’t want them to hear the artifice of music through all its processes and being a product.”
While opening up their creative process to others, The Phoenix Foundation have also poured their own personal experiences into their lyrics. Sam notes how much his bandmate Luke Buda has embraced this – on Friend Ship Buda sings about his childhood experience of moving from Poland to New Zealand (‘Former Glory’), hangovers (‘Decision Dollars’) and mundane domesticity (‘Miserable Meal’).
It's been five years since the band's last release, 2015's Give Up Your Dreams. The band have been busy composing music for screen, pursuing side projects and raising their families. The break has allowed the band more time to write and develop the ten tracks on Friend Ship.
"More than any other record it ties together and it all relates to what I want people to get out of this album," Sam says.
Track 1: 'Guru'
“I don’t need a guru, maybe you do, maybe voodoo” sounds like a throwaway Iggy Pop line that I would really like and would want to open an album with.
"The song is kind of about death or moving on in life or about transition. It's saying you don’t need some magic self-help guide to get where you want to go, you actually just need to have a really open heart and a really open mind and let the freaky energies flow through you.
"It’s the first song in The Phoenix Foundation canon where I’ve gone really hard out into working out lots of guitar solo things myself. I do play a few solos in the band, but more often than not it’s Luke and Con [guitarist Conrad Wedde]."
Track 2: 'Miserable Meal' (with the NZSO)
"I said to Luke ‘let’s make the next album really lyrically driven and make the lyrics really personal and about our personal lives’. He embraced that more I could have ever expected and has just delivered the most incredible personal stories of his life.
"'Miserable Meal' is one of them where you get drawn into his life at home and him in his house pants, cooking food for his family and folding the washing.
"We got [composer] Claire Cowan to do an arrangement, Luke had this horn idea and she just embraced that and added all these other things and put her mark on it."
"There's trumpet, trombone, tuba, orchestra glockenspiel, lots of strings, there's flute, clarinet and bassoon."
Track 3: 'Hounds of Hell' (with Nadia Reid)
"When I started writing this I immediately imagined that there would be a woman singing at certain times because I felt the song was a bit of cry for help from a person sick of the capitalist patriarchy energy in the world and realising they’re part of the problem.
"Nadia’s voice comes in and it is very reassuring - she’s got such a confident voice and so that really anchors the song. Whereas I sound like I’m freaking out.
"I sing ‘God bless the moment’ in the first line and I’m a card carrying atheist. I didn’t want to hold back and cut myself off for fear that I was too earnest. I just wanted it to feel potent.
"It was a really exciting collaboration with Nadia Reid."
Track 4: 'Decision Dollars' (with Hollie Fullbrook)
"I think this is Luke’s best song and I've got my funny little contribution which I’m glad to have in such a good song.
"He’s singing about being hungover and he’s saying how he’s never going to drink again and then we (Sam and Tiny Ruin’s Hollie Fullbrook are on backing vocals) are like ‘hmmm you probably will’.
"Hollie’s voice is just so beautiful, she’s so incredible to work with and her sense of harmony is unbelievable."
Track 5: 'Transit of Venus' (with the NZSO)
"I wrote this song while my partner was doing the dishes and she wanted me to help. I was staring at the stars and playing my acoustic guitar in the kitchen and I think it was slightly annoying for her, but maybe she also thought, 'That’s not a bad song - feels like I should let him write that song.'
"I do like to sing about domesticity because that’s where you spend most of your time."
Track 6: 'Tranquility' (with Hollie Fulbrook)
"Jeff Henderson who is a great improv jazz clarinet player features on this. We sent him some parts I played and he liked what I did so he played like me imitating him.
"But now when we play it live we’re not going to have Jeff there, so I’ll have to play his parts which are trickier and far more intricate and much much better than what I did."
Track 7: 'Landline'
"'Landline' is about being available beyond the digital realm and connecting."
"That is 100% Conrad who added this funky, Nile Rodgers' (Chic, David Bowie), guitar. It's definitely Conrad saying 'I'm gonna try and Nile Rodgers-it-up and add that million dollar guitar part.""
Track 8: 'Former Glory' (with Motte aka Anita Clark)
"This is Luke’s true story about being an immigrant and coming to a strange land and not being able to speak English. I’m really glad he wrote about this for the band."
Track 9: 'My Kitchen Rules'
"I went from not really liking this song, Conrad had these lyrics and he was singing them, then he said ‘I think you should sing it’. I begrudgingly got on board and now it’s my favourite thing on the album.
"It’s a great beat here, and you really get to hear Chris O’Connor’s fantastic drumkit that he bought off the percussionist at the NZSO in the midst of that tour (NZSO Celebrate!) It’s a 1930s Leady kit and it’s got the original calfskins, so the skins are getting close to one hundred years old, and they just sound amazing."
Track 10: 'Trem Sketch'
"This song relates to a time in my life, a long time ago, when I used to stay up late and listen to Brian Eno records.
'Trem Sketch' is very much about that feeling you have when you’re awake at two o’clock in the morning and you’ve really let go of your day-to-day ego and you’re just in a completely floating in space. In my head when I was singing this song I was thinking about listening to Brian Eno records.
"The track features Tom Watson (ex-HLAH, Cassette, Terror of the Deep) playing trumpet and me playing saxophone which I’ve never played on any recording ever before."