The Phoenix Foundation’s latest offering, Happy Ending, continues the band’s flight. BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM talks to drummer Richie Singleton about the new album, the recording process, and some of the cynicism underlying an ostensibly happy album.

THE PHOENIX FOUNDATION is one of New Zealand’s best current bands. Featuring gorgeous off-beat melodies, layers of studio trickery, and an appealing eclecticism, the band have released excellent three albums – the charmingly introspective Horse Power, the brilliantly eclectic Pegasus and now, Happy Ending. The new album certainly feels different from its predecessors, the sound lush, with glam David Bowie-esque melodies, and caramelised textures. But the lyrics are dark, Sam Flynn Scott (who seems to have had the biggest say lyrically) casts himself as an outsider looking on, almost with disgust, at the state of the world. In this album Scott’s like the drunken guy you might meet at the rugby, or a hick pub, lobbing home truths about your yuppiness, which you can laugh off, but deep down really get to you.

It is hard to deny Happy Ending feels more upbeat musically, more unified than say, Pegasus. Drummer Richie Singleton says “it’s just where we at we were at, Pegasus was a lot darker by nature, this one was a lot happier. We kinda exorcised a lot of those sad, dark demons and we were wanting to have a bit more fun.” And while he admits “there’s much more sparkle in the whole sound”, there’s definitely a conscious apocalyptic feel to the album, which finds the band singing for example, “we’ll bear no children / and the fruit of our loins will spread / like dust through this dust bowl”, or suggesting the birds and bees will be left over once we’re gone. “I work at the Sustainability Trust here in Wellington, I definitely know what’s up with that stuff. You kinda become quite cynical about our drive for success and for material wealth. It has ended up folding back upon us and causing this situation where we’re actually going to make this planet inhospitable.” Singleton suggests it’s only inevitable that a group of people concerned about the “environmental degradation and the bleak outlook for the future” would filter this through the song-writing. “You just express what you feel”.

To me, at least, what made Pegasus so good was its musical experimentation hiding underneath its pop melodies. Happy Ending eschews some of this experimentation somewhat for a more cohesive approach, a tactic that probably makes sense but loses some of their distinctiveness. There is the instrumental ‘Omerta’ however, but there’s certainly no tracks like ‘Cars of Eden’. However, that’s not to say this album was recorded as such. “We actually recorded about seven or eight more tracks than are on that album. In terms of those sessions – if you look at the sessions as a four month period month of work, it was probably more eclectic than Pegasus.” The band had to sit down one evening with some beer and wine and listen to everything that was recorded and make the hard choices. “It was kinda like what would make a good album, and plus how much work is involved in finishing these songs. A bit of it was being realistic on how much work would be needed.” Those cut out won’t be left languishing somewhere – Singleton assures me they’ll be released. “Maybe an EP next year, or another album, or just as singles. They’re all really good tracks.” Singleton also emphasises their experimental nature.

Prog’s pretty hot (huzzah) at the moment, and the Phoenix Foundation can fit into the prog aesthetic of the evolution of their sound, or frequent changing of their sonic template. In the future, Singleton admits “I think it’s potentially going to change I reckon because everyone has always been interested in lots of different things. As we’ve got better as musicians and as we’ve understood the production process better we’ve learnt how to make really, really different types of music. I’m not saying a different genre, more a different sound. We’ve all learnt how to become really patient in the recording process with creating a different sound. Now that we’ve got these skills we’ve got this freedom to really do some crazy shit.”

While the band members seem the casual, unassuming type, the type of people you wouldn’t look twice at on the street, but there is considerable song-writing talent in many of the members. One wonders what the creative tension will be like, especially given that Luke Buda, Scott, Conrad Wedde and new bassist Warner Emery all have released or planning to release solo work, and there is considerable cross-fertilisation with other bands in Wellington. (In fact, Singleton himself contributes to the song-writing process too, with a song that was recorded as part of the sessions.) “I don’t know if I really know what creative tension is. There’s definitely like I’ve got an idea and everyone gives it a go, and then half the people like it and half the people don’t like it. But there’s never like a battle of wills. If you can’t resolve it then flag for a little while and then pull it out together. It’s really good, those guys are really good to work with. There’s creative tension but in a good sense. No-one agrees but shit, that happens all the time. Someone will come in the morning and there’ll be like right man let’s try this idea, and someone reckons it’s shit, but they give it an hour or two to give it some weight. They’ll give the full attention even if they’re not convinced about it. That’s one of the best things about the band.” Singleton goes on to say the secret to this band’s longevity – they’ve been around for years – is “tolerance and patience.”

It’d probably be a fair statement that the Phoenix Foundation are probably more renowned as a studio band. It’s where they can pile layer upon layer on their songs, mess with particular sounds, and this album clearly benefits from a mellifluous production style. Singleton’s less inclined to agree. “I think it’s fair enough to think that, but actually no, we’re probably equally both. We love the studio, because it means you can record stuff and do all that crazy production stuff. But part of being a musician is getting out and playing live. It makes you feel really alive. It’s definitely half and half. It would come across that we’re more of a studio band – we don’t record how we play live. Ironically though, Happy Ending was “an attempt to capture how we play live.” Singleton confesses though that it’s hard though once the band reaches the studio not to mess around with it. “We did band takes, but they’ve got a massive amount of production on top of it. The rhythm section is pretty much a band take.”

It’s probably understandable to see Singleton’s love of the live performance given his background. Unlike some of the core members of the band, Singleton wasn’t a Wellington High old boy (Scott, Buda and Wedde were schoolmates), and he was instead plying his musical trade in Nelson. “I started out playing metal and then when I was living in Nelson I went to this massive reggae and world music phase. I had this world music group called Mystery. We did lots of shows and played at the Wearable Arts, that kind of thing.” He was introduced to the band via Will Ricketts. “I knew Will from Mystery, because he played with at a few shows with us, like the Gathering. When I moved to Wellington, he said ‘you should get in and play with these guys’. We recorded ‘The Drinker’. That was the first track that we did with me there.”

The band dipped the toes into the American market, something which Singleton was most enthusiastic about. “It was awesome, it was real good, awesome gigs. People loved it, though we had whole rows of people dancing. It was wicked. None of the shows were very big, the biggest crowd was probably 350 people.” Pegasus is due to be released at the start of next year in the States, while Happy Ending will be released at the end of next year.

The Phoenix Foundation make albums that grow with every listen, and hopefully they’ll win some overseas fans with their sound. In the meantime, their new album Happy Ending is very good, another excellent release by a band whose unassuming, un-rockstar nature belies some brilliant rock n roll song-writing. With catchy-as-hell songs like ‘Bright Grey’ (which Singleton suggests “is a nice colour”) and ‘No One Will Believe Me When I’m Dead’, Happy Ending is well worth getting a hold of. And given their upcoming national tour, if Singleton’s enthusiasm for their live show is anything to go by, that too is well worth checking out.