Bret McKenzie: ‘It was different writing songs that weren’t dick jokes’

Early in 2010, Bret McKenzie decided it was about time he started guitar lessons. The New Zealand-born actor and songwriter enrolled himself in a class at the Silverlake Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles, a music school founded in 2001 by Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea. McKenzie’s new guitar teacher was naturally curious about what had inspired him to head back to school alongside children and beginners. He told him he had a show coming up. “He was like: ‘Oh that’s good, where are you playing?’” recalls the 46-year-old in his broad Kiwi accent. Sitting in the light and airy home studio above his garage in Wellington, he contorts his more-salt-than-pepper beard into an awkward grimace. “I was like: ‘Er, yeah… we’re playing the Hollywood Bowl.” He bursts out laughing. “Something very strange happened there.”

Such was the unstoppable rise of Flight of the Conchords, the two-man group McKenzie formed in 1998 with musical partner Jemaine Clement. Sardonically billed as “New Zealand’s fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo”, the pair made a name for themselves on the stand-up circuit before earning global acclaim with a wildly popular HBO sitcom that ran from 2007 to 2009. The series spawned a Grammy-winning album and infectiously catchy viral hits like “The Most Beautiful Girl (in the Room)” and “Hiphopopotamus vs Rhymenoceros”.

Soon the pair were performing to thousands at venues such as London’s massive O2 Arena, where their lack of technical proficiency proved to be part of the charm. “We probably wouldn’t have been a comedy band if we’d been able to play our guitars better,” says McKenzie, who remembers realising at a one-off show with a top-class backing group that a more accomplished performance made the songs less funny. “We were aspiring to be a band, but there was something about the failure of our aspirations that was really the heart of a lot of the comedy.”

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