The Phoenix Foundation’s Samuel Flynn Scott talks acoustics and politics – both sounded out on his new album, Straight Answer Machine, with band Bunnies on Ponies – to BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM.

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Samuel F. Scott & the B.O.P:
Straight Answer Machine


Straight Answer Machine finds Samuel Flynn Scott in a warm place musically. Given the pervading sense of light in the Phoenix Foundation’s A Happy Ending, it’d be safe to assume that Scott is in a happy place at the moment. He simply admits to me that “it was a happy album to make.” The album ended up being made “vaguely holistically I guess. Lee Prebble had some time in the studio and I kinda came in for an afternoon with Craig Terris and we just banged out that song ‘Moist People’ instrumentally. We did that in an afternoon, and thought ‘that was really fun, let’s book a few more days.’” They ended up doing five songs in four days and thought “‘why don’t we come back into the studio after New Years and see if we can finish an album’. We spent about twelve days in the studio.” Scott admits that it was “quite an extraordinary little period of recording for me.”

This rather ad hoc approach ended up creating impressive album – a loose, acoustic-y album, quite different in feel to the dense, textured Phoenix Foundation work. The Phoenix Foundation work was quite labour intensive, and he suggests that there are “positives and negatives with both ways really. It’s just nice to have a project to do things differently.” It caps a remarkably prolific period for Scott, however Scott suggests that “I don’t feel like musicians put out anywhere near as much music as they did in the ‘60s. All the artists who used to put out an album every year are better than the bands today.” As a result, he’s not too worried about being picky about what he releases and doesn’t. “Other than the first Phoenix Foundation EP I don’t really feel like I’ve released anything I’m not too happy with.”

The album does sound much more like A Happy Ending than Scott’s first solo album, with the poppy melodies more to the fore. “That’s true, it is more like Happy Ending, which I think is kind of ‘cause me and Lee were getting into routines for engineering and sounds. We had these big punchy sounds we used from Happy Ending. The vibe of the sound was more upbeat and fun than anything I’d done before, and I guess I was heading that way with Happy Ending, less of the angst-y young man vibe.”

Scott formed Bunnies on Ponies with Tom Callwood and Mike Fabulous on drums and “it sort of evolved over the years”. The core line-up is Scott, Craig Terris and Callwood, but Cassette’s Matthew Armitage and Thomas Watson are key members too. Scott says the line-up “will probably continue to evolve ‘cause everyone’s got a lot of their own stuff going on. It’s nice being in a band where it doesn’t feel like you’re in it for a long haul, where you don’t have to mortgage your life.” As one of the principal song-writers in the Phoenix Foundation I ask about the rationale behind having two strands of creativity, especially given that the two strands aren’t hugely different. “I don’t know, it just happened. It just happened kind of naturally. I had more songs than I can do in the Phoenix Foundation. I just wanted to do things my own way, but not vastly different from the Phoenix Foundation, perhaps just a little less worked on.” He claims he doesn’t have to worry about trying to squirrel songs away for his solo work, or make decisions as to which goes where. “I write songs and then use them for whatever project I’m using at that time.”

Given that he’s known for the Phoenix Foundation, and given that this article is full of Phoenix Foundation comparisons, I wonder if being a member of a most excellent band becomes a deadweight to carry around. “I think it’s probably more helpful than anything, I definitely see it as a positive. People don’t seem to say this isn’t as good as the Phoenix Foundation. They might, but they don’t seem to say it in the reviews. I’m not trying to make stuff as composed or as accomplished as the Phoenix Foundation so I’m not competing with that. I’m not making these sound-scapes from the planet Jupiter or whatever we do in the Phoenix Foundation. Sometimes I don’t know what we do in the Phoenix Foundation.”

On politics and ‘Union Man’: “It’s definitely not my focus, I don’t have a particular point of view, or that I’m in some position to tell someone what to do. I just have my opinions and I’m in a position to say shit. I’m not a journalist so I’m not accountable for what I say. I can say ‘I wish that terrorists will go into John Key’s house and pull out his teeth with pliers’. That’s the good thing about being a musician, you can say really ridiculous horrible shit and get away with it. Because obviously I don’t really wish that anybody will pull his teeth out.”


Straight Answer Machine has much more of an acoustic, folk sound, with fewer electronic sounds and a more organic sound. “I’m not much of a synth guy, I really love them, but I’m not much of a synth manipulator. We stuck to instruments lying around the [Prebble’s] Surgery.” There are some ambient loops that layer the music, and Scott suggests there’s a “mix of classic rock-y stuff and avant-garde noise things off in the background.” There’s also a considerable use of the trumpet, which beautifully mingles in the album. “That’s just having Thomas Watson around.”

However, it is only when I ask Scott about politics that he really picks up. After all, in ‘Union Man’ he suggests cutting off the hands of John Key. There’s some frustration from Scott over how the general public appear to perceive the country’s direction. “I think we’re on a fast train to just self-denial, and kind of right wing curmudgeoning doom. Everyone seems to think New Zealand’s in this really terrible place. I can’t see how National are going to make this better. I can’t understand why anyone has any faith in this politician who doesn’t have any ideas.” He points to recent moral panics over graffiti/tagging as an example of the media getting caught up in a non-issue, suggesting young people have always been naughty in trying to push boundaries. “I don’t see the problem with tagging at all – I think our cities are ugly and full of horrific developments, tagging spices it up. I think New Zealanders are looking for things to get fucked over about.”

Apart from that brief Key reference, Scott stays away from the political. Except in interviews. Given that that ‘Union Man’ line is rather memorable, it has proven a major talking point in the album. “I don’t do it very much. I definitely don’t want to come across as a Bono type of character. Especially because I think U2 are one of the most boring bands in the planet. It’s definitely not my focus, I don’t have a particular point of view, or that I’m in some position to tell someone what to do. I just have my opinions and I’m in a position to say shit. I’m not a journalist so I’m not accountable for what I say. I can say ‘I wish that terrorists will go into John Key’s house and pull out his teeth with pliers’. That’s the good thing about being a musician, you can say really ridiculous horrible shit and get away with it. Because obviously I don’t really wish that anybody will pull his teeth out.” However, Scott certainly isn’t going to be voting National. “The idea that anyone human can consider being rightwing just makes me feel sick. The whole kind of ethos behind everything to do with even a centrists and pseudo-Leftist parties is making sure businesses run smoothly so civil servants can be paid, so making the poor remain poor. Sometimes you think we’d be better off if everybody grew their own vegetables and there were no roads and everybody waded through mud for three hours to watch the one imported American film that came on steam-liner. I’m really on a rant now.” He was being facetious too. But there’s a real sense of anger towards New Zealand’s perceived direction, in spite of the happy feel of the album. But Scott’s album is much warmer than the occasional political aside – Straight Answer Machine is yet another album from the ridiculously talented Phoenix collective that continues to push sweet melodies and unconventional arrangements to the fore.