Luke Buda’s second solo album, Vesuvius, finds the Phoenix Foundation member in high, idiosyncratic form. He talks about his sophomore effort to BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM.

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Luke Buda: Vesuvius

LUKE BUDA has come up with a gem of an album. Mind you, coming from the Phoenix Foundation coterie of musicians, it’s not hugely unexpected – the Wellington collective are some of the more talented musicians around, and there have been a barrage of quality Phoenix and solo related material in the last couple of years. He’s also released one of the best pop songs of the year, ‘My Imminent Demise’, a song that would have been merely really good if it wasn’t for the over-the-top strings which send the song into some glorious cheesy stratosphere. That song is the album’s brilliant centrepiece, but it’s surrounded by the melodic cleverness and anti-cock rock that you’d expect from a Phoenixer. It’s also a little different to Buda’s first solo album, 2006’s Special Surprise, which was synth and texture heavy. Vesuvius is a bit simpler in that respect, but the idiosyncratic touch is still highly evident.

Given that the Phoenix Foundation are continuing to make very good music (Buda envisages a new album by early next year), it’s interesting to see a number of their members take on solo albums as well. Samuel Flynn Scott’s Straight Answer Machine and Conrad Wedde’s Bronze have both been aired this year. “If you have a drive to make music and specifically I think really enjoy recording music then, you’re just going to want to be doing it.” For Buda, working as a solo artist has its benefits, especially in relation to a band with a number of writers. “It’s not like the other guys make you fight to put your idea forward, but it’s just the energy of being with five other dudes in a band. It can mean you’ve got to be reasonably confident about what you’re bringing to the band and all that shit. And Sam especially, writes lots of songs so he’s always got something he could bring to the band. If you bring something to the band you’ve got to be ready for it to end up being nothing like what you thought it’d be like at the start, which I suppose is the point of collaboration. The other thing is I enjoy playing around with Protools when I’m by myself.”

I ask if there’s a bit of rivalry in the band, given all this solo output. “Actually in the band room we’ve got this chart of sales which is connected to the internet, so whoever’s got the most solo album sales is the coolest guy in the band.” I was just about to believe him when he said “nah, there’s no rivalry. I just find it more inspiring. Sam recorded his album in two weeks in the beginning of this year, Straight Answer Machine, and it was out a month later. And I was like ‘holy shit, he nailed it, man I should start working a bit harder’ listening to all these great songs. There’s not a sense of competition if that’s what rivalry is. Everyone’s on each other’s albums and stuff. I’m into it.”

This does mean the album gets read within a Phoenix framework, but that doesn’t seem to bother Buda too much. “I don’t really mind. It’s just music that I’ve made in the past, and I actually think it’s good. It’s a really great platform to be as a reference point. It’s great there are people out there who are interested in the album I’ve made because they like the band, because in the end I was one of the people that worked to get the band to where it is or wherever. No I don’t care if people compare it, it’s inevitable. We felt there might even be more of a backlash about the fact we’ve been releasing these solo albums. I thought people might start saying ‘who the fuck do they think they are, all of them putting out solo albums?’ We’ve already started recording the next one and that’d be out the start of next year I reckon hopefully in the meantime we’re doing a four song 12 inch with Slowboat Records. I reckon if you’ve got lots of vibe-ing you may as well do lots of stuff. Fertile, it’s fertile at the moment, you might as well harvest, because who knows when winter comes. We’ve got to store it away.”

The album is quite different to Special Surprise, both in terms of its sound and the way it was recorded. “I started recording Special Surprise at my house and basically finished all the tracks structurally and lyrically and most of the arrangements before I went to the Surgery where I spent a week where we just recorded drums and some vocals and Lee Prebble mixed. This time I wanted to record it from scratch from the Surgery. The only song that was recorded fully at the Surgery and was a live band take on Special Surprise was ‘The Stallion’. I thought that you can hear that song has a lot more live energy because it’s a live take and it sounds better than the other tracks because it’s all recorded by a dude who knows what he’s doing and has got some gear, as opposed to me in the spare room in our house. For this one I just did demos and I tried to get the demos as finished as possible. I suppose the difference between Special Surprise and Vesuvius was that we did a week of live band takes with Craig Terris from Cassette on the drums and Tom Watson from Cassette was the other guy that was there the whole time on guitar and bass.” A variety of other musicians came along too, including other Phoenix members.

“Sarah [Jane Parton, Buda’s partner] and I have been really into that epic thing where people aren’t holding back for the sake of any sort of cool. It’s like you watch Queen Live at Wembley, there’s no modesty. There’s the stadium and the music is just going ‘raaaaaaahhh’ and I reckon that’s great as you like don’t turn into some egomaniac because you’re playing all this triumphant music. I think playing to a 150 people down at the Bodge is, I’m pretty sure, going to keep my feet on the ground.”

There are also fewer synths involved in the album. “For one thing both of my really nice synths are a bit broken at the moment, and also, what I do think we managed with the new album there’s less wasted space, I think it is better than the first one in terms of song-writing and structures. It wasn’t hard work arranging them like ‘My Imminent Demise’ for example, doesn’t really have any waste, it’s two minutes forty. I didn’t feel the need – things felt strong enough without more embellishment. It’s still quite layered in parts, but then there are parts where there’s not that much going on. In ‘Crystal Ham’ in the verse, it’s really just acoustic guitar, bass and drums and singing, and it’s not often in Phoenix or on Special Surprise where it just comes down to that. That’s one of the fun things about the Phoenix Foundation is because there’s lot of people you can do quite big arrangements and you can pull them off live. With this one I suppose with the demo process and the way we recorded it, we stuck to the idea of doing something that was concise and quite focused.”

This doesn’t mean Buda is holding back either, something which most New Zealand musicians tend not to do. But writing grand pop songs is also something you can’t do half-heartedly, or not believe in. “I find it harder to hold back. These days it’s not as hard to do as it was back then that’s for sure. Back then a band like ELO would have been running several tape machines in parallel and actually cutting bits of tapes and sticking them together to do their funny effects. Now Lee Prebble’s got Protools and he’s got 96 tracks and you can use music like a word processor, and personally I find it easier to add lots of shit on. That’s just me. I like lots of overdubs and lots of vocals. Most of it’s just doubling lots of stuff, that’s the ‘70s thing, they do lots of harmonies and then they double it all and then the voices, you know like the Queen harmonies, have that real wall of noises. I like that stuff, it sounds really warm. Sarah [Jane Parton, Buda’s partner] and I have been really into that epic thing where people aren’t holding back for the sake of any sort of cool. It’s like you watch Queen Live at Wembley, there’s no modesty. There’s the stadium and the music is just going ‘raaaaaaahhh’ and I reckon that’s great as you like don’t turn into some egomaniac because you’re playing all this triumphant music. I think playing to a 150 people down at the Bodge is, I’m pretty sure, going to keep my feet on the ground.” That said, Buda says “I don’t think that much of Vesuvius is that overblown – have you heard some of that Electric Light Orchestra stuff? Sheeeeit.”

The album highlight for this reviewer, as mentioned was ‘My Imminent Demise’ with its cascading strings and jaunty rhythms. “If you took the string section away – that was what Tom McLeod did, there’s just an acoustic guitar and an electric guitar. It’s quite simple really. That one sounds like that because I asked Tom McLeod to have a listen to some of this ELO stuff and he already knew it, and said ‘don’t get too hung up on what’s cheesy and go for it’. That’s just the way things sound when you’ve got strings. That one I didn’t have to do too much to make it sound like that because he did it all.” The video, directed by Taika Waititi, has Buda as some kind of alien, and apparently its meaning has been subject to a number of interpretations (he seemed vaguely prophetic to me). “One that I like is Conrad and it’s this all powerful superhero who’s just confused and lost and doesn’t know what he’s supposed to be doing with these amazing powers. Taika had a title before it came up but we decided instantly that it was too much: ‘Abandoned on a strange land, he wandered lost and confused. The rest of the party left and they forgot this dude on this wasteland’.” It’s a bit of a Bowie ‘Ashes to Ashes’ kinda thing. “Yeah Bowie’s a huge inspiration, just in the fact he likes to use himself as a funny character and he takes on funny looks and he’s not afraid to wear ludicrous outfits.”

Despite the ‘star power’ involved on the album, Buda doesn’t have too high expectations for Vesuvius in terms of sales, having learned from previous experiences. While the band are able to scratch some sort of a living, Buda says “people have a perception that the Phoenix are quite successful, or at least I get that perception – when I worked at [the café] Deluxe, people asked me often ‘what are you doing here?’ but in the end actually the only reason we’ve got a profile is because we toured lots up and down New Zealand. That’s the only thing I know about the industry is don’t fucking expect anything unless you’re willing to make it sound like what commercial radio sounds like. Which is shit. So, other than that, there’s just a small group of people who are interested in music and it’s a reasonably sad state of affairs. I’ll be losing money on Vesuvius. It sounds like a bitter rant, but it’s not really.” Buda is anything but bitter, cracking jokes throughout the interview, and imparting a clear love of music from Sigur Ros to Will Oldham to ’70s pop. And while he doesn’t necessarily take himself too seriously, he takes his vocation, the music seriously, and the result is another excellent batch of pop songs from the Phoenix stable of musicians.