PLAYBOY: What’s the story behind your band’s name, Flight of the Conchords?
BRET McKENZIE: Well, we have several different versions of how that happened.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: The truth isn’t very good. We usually lie about it.
BRET McKENZIE: One version is that it came to me in a dream. I dreamt about flying Gibson guitars, which looked like tiny Vs, flying together in a V formation. I told Jemaine about the dream, and mentioned that the guitars reminded me of Concordes. He changed it to Con-chords, and we had our name.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: We also tell people that we considered calling ourselves Tanfastic, which is the name of a suntan lotion. But really, we came up with the name right before our first gig. We were the opening act at a comedy night and we didn’t have a name yet. I went to the bathroom and noticed that the brand of toilet was called “Conchord”. So I came back and suggested The Conchords, and Bret added the “Flight of” part. (Long pause.) See, I told you it wasn’t very good.
BRET McKENZIE: Once we’d done a few shows with that name, it was too late to change.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: And now it’s definitely too late.
PLAYBOY: In your HBO series, also called Flight of the Conchords, you both play characters who share your same names and musical ambitions. Just how autobiographical is this show?
BRET MCKENZIE: We’re more like our characters than we are ourselves. I’d say I’m 130% like my character.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: The math’s a little off on that.
BRET MCKENZIE: I’m more similar to the character Bret than I am to the off-camera, flesh-and-blood Bret.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: They’re more accurate reflections of who we are then who we actually are. Our TV characters are beyond real people.
BRET MCKENZIE: Off camera, I don’t even feel like myself. I’m maybe 70% of the man I am when I’m on the show.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: That’s just show business. It’s the eternal battle between self and entertainment.
PLAYBOY: Since the show’s success, you’ve become sex symbols. As comedians, do you take any of that seriously?
BRET MCKENZIE: I take it very, very seriously. It’s a lot of responsibility. I do everything in my power to promote my sex symbolism. [Laughs.]
JEMAINE CLEMENT: I don’t think anybody in New Zealand, which is where we’re from, takes us seriously as sex symbols at all. It’s just here in America, for some reason. Maybe our accents have something to do with it.
BRET MCKENZIE: I was amazed at how much Americans like the New Zealand accent. In the U.K., they don’t like it at all.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: They make fun of us about it. In England, our accents are just fodder for a lot of jokes at our expense.
BRET MCKENZIE: When Jemaine and I first came to America, people would say, “Your accents are so cool.” I didn’t know an accent was enough to make somebody cool.
PLAYBOY: While performing at your record label’s anniversary party, an audience member threw a pair of boxers onto the stage. What does that tell you about your fan base?
JEMAINE CLEMENT: It tells me that this particular fan liked snowboarding. His boxers had a snowboarding motif.
BRET MCKENZIE: Panties are more traditional to throw during a concert.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: Yes, but beggars can’t be choosers.
BRET MCKENZIE: The warmness of his boxers was definitely the most disturbing part.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: Yeah, you don’t want a warm pair of boxers thrown at your face. Especially when the warmness is accompanied by dampness.
BRET MCKENZIE: Really? They were damp? (Makes nauseated, shuddering sound.)
JEMAINE CLEMENT: I’m actually grateful. Any time an audience member throws their undergarments at you, it’s a compliment.
BRET MCKENZIE: It doesn’t happen a lot for us. We’ve had, let’s see, one bra and maybe two pairs of panties thrown at us during our entire career.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: I’m pretty sure the boxers were the first warm item.
BRET MCKENZIE: Why were they warm, do you think?
JEMAINE CLEMENT: He obviously took them off right there in the theater, right? That’s the only reasonable explanation.
BRET MCKENZIE: I don’t want to think about it.
PLAYBOY: As your fictional manager Murray reminded you on the HBO show, “Girlfriends and bands don’t mix.” Have you stayed true to his advice?
JEMAINE CLEMENT: Not really, no. But I don’t really like to talk about my private life. And also, I try not to take relationship advice from fictional characters.
BRET MCKENZIE: Especially not fictional characters saying lines that we wrote for them.
PLAYBOY: In your songs, you’ve propositioned women with offers of food-play and “double-teaming”. Are you as sexually adventurous in real life as you are in your music?
JEMAINE CLEMENT: Not at all. Although we were offered a three-way once.
BRET MCKENZIE: It was a long time ago, when we were performing at the Edinburgh Festival. This girl came up to Jemaine and asked if he was interested in a threesome.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: In England, the colloquial way of putting threesome is “spit-roast.” Like a pig on a spit.
BRET MCKENZIE: It’s British slang.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: So she asked me if I was interested in having a spit-roast with her, and I thought she meant a barbecue. So I said, “Well sure, yeah, I’d love to.”
BRET MCKENZIE: We didn’t have much money at the time. We were eating a lot of pizza.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: And then she said, “Do you think Bret would be interested?” And I said, “Oh yeah, definitely.”
BRET MCKENZIE: I’d just recently given up being a vegetarian. I was embracing pork and beef.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: And then she said, “I wouldn’t usually ask because I’m a lesbian.” And I thought, “Was does that have to do with barbecue?” It took me awhile to figure it out.
BRET MCKENZIE: Jemaine had to tell her that he was a vegetarian.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: I just couldn’t go through with it. Bret and I are friends and we enjoy working together, but that’s a little too close.
PLAYBOY: You’ve bragged about being New Zealand’s fourth most popular folk parody band. Since your success in America, have you moved up to third or even second?
JEMAINE CLEMENT: I think we’ve dropped a few points. We’re number seven now, maybe even lower. We’ve moved down quite a bit for selling out.
BRET MCKENZIE: There’s a lot of competition in New Zealand for that top spot.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: The most popular folk parody band is probably Guitarded. [Laughs.] No, I’m sorry, that’s not true at all. I just made that up. There’s no such band as Guitarded.
BRET MCKENZIE: It’s not a bad name, though.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: Maybe we should’ve gone with Guitarded instead of Flight of the Conchords. It would’ve put a lot of people off.
BRET MCKENZIE: You’d be asking us questions like, “Wait, so you guys are retarded and you play guitars?”
PLAYBOY: Do you sometimes feel like ambassadors for your home country?
JEMAINE CLEMENT: Often, yeah. In fact, the New Zealand embassy had t-shirts printed up for us that say “Unofficial Ambassadors”.
BRET MCKENZIE: (Lord of the Rings director) Peter Jackson put New Zealand on the map, but he put it on the map as Middle Earth, not as New Zealand.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: A lot of what Peter Jackson purports to be true about New Zealand is actually a lie.
BRET MCKENZIE: Despite what you might believe from watching Lord of the Rings, New Zealand does not have a large hobbit population.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: At least not as many as he makes out.
BRET MCKENZIE: And it’s got a very small community of Orcs. It’s just silly, the stuff he comes up with. You’d need a computer program to create as many Orcs as he had in that movie. It has nothing to do with reality.
PLAYBOY: Is it true you met in a college performance art show about body image?
JEMAINE CLEMENT: Ah, you’ve been Googling us, haven’t you? Yes, that show was at Victoria College in Wellington (New Zealand). It wasn’t the first time we’d met, but it was one of our first shows together. It was specifically about male body image.
BRET MCKENZIE: The experience of being a man in the modern world, and all the problems that come with it.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: We tried to come up with solutions.
BRET MCKENZIE: We wore tight, short, skin-toned bike shorts with velcroed detachable penises. So we could quickly change gender by ripping off the penis and throwing on some plastic fake boobs.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: It was an all-male cast. There were five of us, all men, and we needed somebody to play the women.
BRET MCKENZIE: That was usually left up to me. I was the most feminine in the group.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: We’d have these live demonstrations throughout that show, like how to interact with the opposite sex. There were tips on finding the clitoris. And there was one scene about the female orgasm. It sounds pretty juvenile now. We were young. I was just 21 at the time.
BRET MCKENZIE: I was eleven.
PLAYBOY: Do you remember the first song you wrote together? Was it instant magic?
JEMAINE CLEMENT: Yeah, it was called “Foux Da Fa Fa.”
BRET MCKENZIE: It’s kind of a schoolbook lesson in French put to music.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: When we started, we didn’t know much about music. We weren’t very good guitarists. That first song had only one chord. And then we did a second song with two chords. It started with one chord and then a bridge to a second chord, and then straight back to the first chord. It was called “Rock Beat,” I think.
BRET MCKENZIE: After that we got ambitious. We went up to three chords, and then four, and then five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. We eventually wrote a song with eleven chords.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: It was exhausting.
BRET MCKENZIE: We finally started going back down again because it got too complicated. We stripped it back. Now our songs are usually only four chords.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: That seems like enough. Any more than that and you’re just showing off. We don’t want to get too intellectual and challenging. People only want to hear three or four chords. That’s as much as the brain can handle.
PLAYBOY: One of your first big breaks was in 2005, when Flight of the Conchords starred in its own BBC radio show. Did you think to yourself, “Radio is gonna be our ticket to stardom?”
JEMAINE CLEMENT: [Laughs.] Well, to be fair, radio is a much bigger deal in England than it is here. And it seemed enough for us at the time. We didn’t think of it as a stepping stone to anything else. We’re very short term planners. We were still trying to learn how to play guitars, so just getting on the radio was huge for us.
BRET MCKENZIE: It’s kind of a British tradition to make a radio show long before you ever make a television show. It helps you iron out the flaws in your ideas.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: And it’s ridiculously cheap.
BRET MCKENZIE: You don’t need any sort of budget whatsoever in radio.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: Your characters can be in space or traveling into the future or battling gigantic barnacles with huge claws. Anything you want.
BRET MCKENZIE: The special effects in radio are very inexpensive. I highly recommend it.
PLAYBOY: Before getting picked up by HBO, you were briefly developing a TV series for NBC. What happened?
BRET MCKENZIE: They never called us back. We finished the script and handed it to NBC and that was the last we heard from them.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: They never told us they didn’t like it. They always said they liked it.
BRET MCKENZIE: They never phoned us up to say, “Yeah, uh… no thanks.”
JEMAINE CLEMENT: Is that how people do business in America? They just don’t call you back?
BRET MCKENZIE: It doesn’t matter. HBO is a much better fit for us.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: The premise is pretty much the same. Except all the characters are different.
BRET MCKENZIE: And in the original script for NBC, there was a baby. Jemaine and I were the fathers of an illegitimate child.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: But other than that, it was the same. Bret and I were still the central characters, playing music and living in New York.
BRET MCKENZIE: And raising a baby.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: Yeah, it was Bret and me and a baby.
PLAYBOY: Although your songs are satirical, they can also be musically complex. You’ve mastered genres as diverse as R&B, country and straight-ahead rock n’ roll. Is there any musical style you can’t conquer?
JEMAINE CLEMENT: We tried to do metal once but it didn’t work out.
BRET MCKENZIE: Not loud enough.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: Heavy metal is tough to do with acoustic guitars.
BRET MCKENZIE: I’ve always wanted to try Queen. Does that count as a musical genre?
JEMAINE CLEMENT: I think so, yeah.
BRET MCKENZIE: Freddie Mercury is beyond us. I don’t know how he did it. Maybe it was the tight pants.
PLAYBOY: You’ve also dabbled in hip-hop, giving yourself the rap names Hiphopopotamus and the Rhymenoceros. Will you get into a freestyle battle for us right now?
JEMAINE CLEMENT: We could do some freestyle, but we’d need a day or two to prepare.
BRET MCKENZIE: We can’t just do it off the top of our head. We need some time to think about it.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: That’s the way we freestyle. It’s less improvisational and more… not in any way improvisational.
PLAYBOY: You’re one of the few guitar-based rock acts that utilize the glockenspiel, a German-style xylophone. What’s the appeal?
BRET MCKENZIE: You mean the rockenspiel. We call it the rockenspiel because it just rocks more than any other instrument.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: It has a helluva sound, the glockenspiel. A very sweet sound.
BRET MCKENZIE: And it’s tragically underused.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: Especially the marching band one. Have you heard of it?
BRET MCKENZIE: The marching band glockenspiel – I’m sorry, rockenspiel – you can march with it while you’re playing. Which obviously isn’t all that essential when you’re in the studio.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: No, we don’t usually do much marching while we’re laying down a track. But it’s nice if you’re at home and you just want to walk around and jam. Or you’re out on the street. That’s always nice. I’ll go to the supermarket while I’m playing a glockenspiel. Only problem is, you need both hands to play it, so you can’t get many items.
PLAYBOY: What other odd or little-known instruments do you play that your fans may be unfamiliar with?
BRET MCKENZIE: We used an omnichord recently.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: Yeah, that’s on a few tracks on our last record.
BRET MCKENZIE: Omnichord obviously means “all chords.” It’s like a casiotone version of an autoharp. Do you know what I mean by an autoharp? I used to have one when I went to school, but I don’t know if it’s an American thing. You just press a button and get a g-major or press another button and it’s d-minor. You don’t have to hold your fingers in that position. Thus the “auto” part to the name.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: I also really like the keytar. I can’t play keyboards, but I feel like I can play keytar, because it looks and feels like a guitar. The magic of a keytar is how it gives you a false sense of confidence. It just feels right when you’re holding it.
BRET MCKENZIE: A keytar feels like you’re holding a woman.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: Yeah. Well, a tiny woman with a very skinny neck. And piano keys on her torso.
PLAYBOY: Flight of the Conchords is now performing to sold-out crowds in auditoriums across the world. At what point does it stop being a joke and you become an actual rock band?
JEMAINE CLEMENT: What do you mean a joke? How are we a joke? What are you trying to imply?
(Long, uncomfortable pause.)
JEMAINE CLEMENT: [Laughs.] I’m just pulling your leg. I know what you mean. It’s always meant as a joke, but we still try to make the music sound good. The words can be funny but the guitar can’t be out of tune.
BRET MCKENZIE: The live show is quite different to the TV show. It’s definitely very different from the band you see on HBO.
PLAYBOY: Now that you have some legitimacy, do you feel obligated to act like spoiled rock stars and trash the hotel rooms and destroy your guitars on stage?
JEMAINE CLEMENT: I don’t know if I could bring myself to do it. I used to watch The Who on TV, and when they smashed guitars during a concert, I’d always think, “That’s such a waste. Why ruin a perfectly good guitar?”
BRET MCKENZIE: We could smash some broken guitars.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: Yeah, that’d be fine. And it wouldn’t be nearly as costly. I’d consider smashing some broken guitars. That’d be just as satisfying, don’t you think?
PLAYBOY: You’re more financially conservative than most rock bands. Is it because you know that fame is fleeting?
JEMAINE CLEMENT: That’s part of it. You have to be careful how you spend your money. When we were just getting our start, we got booked for a three-week gig in Australia, a live show, and because the theater paid us in advance, we’d sprinkle our money on different things. One of the things Bret bought was a pair of white leather pants.
BRET MCKENZIE: It was our first paycheck ever, and I spent all of it. I thought we were getting paid for the entire three weeks, so why not blow a little of it on leather pants?
JEMAINE CLEMENT: White leather pants.
BRET MCKENZIE: That’s right.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: But then nobody showed up for our first week of shows, and the theater rather quickly cancelled our contract.
BRET MCKENZIE: I was broke. It was devastating.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: There’s a lesson in there.
BRET MCKENZIE: I don’t regret it, though. They were some pretty sweet leather pants.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: White leather pants.
PLAYBOY: Your self-titled debut was the highest-ranking comedy album ever, beating Steve Martin and Dane Cook, and went on to win a Grammy Award in 2008. You must be raking in some fat cash by now, right?
BRET MCKENZIE: I was amazed at how well the album did. But it wasn’t a financial windfall for us. I don’t think record sales have a windfall anymore.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: If it was the 80s, we’d be millionaires.
BRET MCKENZIE: Even in the 90s we’d be doing pretty well.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: But there are no profits in the music industry anymore. We were smart enough to get involved at the very tail end, just as the industry was fizzling out. Even when we got our TV show, people would tell us, “You know, back in the 80s, you would’ve made millions of dollars.” Awww, we missed the golden age. At least we can tour. The only money is in touring. Well, as long as we pay for our own hotel rooms.
BRET MCKENZIE: There are no perks whatsoever. We even have to find our own apartment in New York while we’re shooting the HBO show. We used Craig’s List. We’d call people up and they’d say, “Wait a minute, aren’t you on a TV show?” “Yep. So is this flat available for three months? $3000?! Are you kidding me?”
PLAYBOY: You wrote a song called “Bowie’s in Space,” where you both do some pretty impressive impersonations of David Bowie. Was he a big musical influence for you?
BRET MCKENZIE: Jemaine and I listened to him a lot when we started out. There was always a lot of Bowie playing in our flat.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: We went through a phase of imitating his voice.
BRET MCKENZIE: It started with prank calls.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: There was a radio station sponsored by a bottle store called “Brown Paper Bag.” And they had a call-in competition where the question was: What is something that you would keep in a brown paper bag? So we’d call and say, (as David Bowie) “Bowie! You’d put Bowie in a brown paper bag!”
BRET MCKENZIE: And so we just kept on saying “Bowie” all day. We couldn’t stop. Somebody would come up to us and say, “What’s your name?” “My name’s Bowie! David Boooowie!” We kept talking like Bowie for almost 10 hours, until it eventually just evolved into a song.
PLAYBOY: Bowie was famous for his androgynous stage persona during the 70s. Do you think rock needs to be sexually ambiguous?
JEMAINE CLEMENT: I think it probably helps.
BRET MCKENZIE: A little bit of makeup goes a long way.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: We’re not full-on androgynous, but we try to spice it up. We’ve worn sparkly tops at a few of our shows.
BRET MCKENZIE: We’ll be in the middle of a song, and then we’ll rip off our shirts to reveal sparkly tops underneath.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: That’s probably our biggest crowd-wower.
BRET MCKENZIE: But I don’t think of the Conchords in terms of David Bowie. We’re more like Hall and Oates, though not nearly as talented.
PLAYBOY: Besides being two guys who can sing in harmony, how else are Flight of the Conchords similar to Hall and Oates?
JEMAINE CLEMENT: That’s probably as close as we get. We’re not similar to them in terms of vocal range or song-writing ability. The way they crank out the tunes is pretty irresistible. We tried to decipher how they made those grooves. All of their songs sound so funky…
BRET MCKENZIE: So irresistible, so addictively groovy…
JEMAINE CLEMENT: But we couldn’t figure it out. Everything we’ve done is so far off.
BRET MCKENZIE: It’s one of the most disappointing things ever when you listen to one of their songs and then flip the switch and listen to one of ours.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: Sometimes we’ll be writing a song and we have the idea of it but not the feel for it. So one of us will say, “Why don’t we put a little Hall and Oates influence into it?”
BRET MCKENZIE: Yeah. “Sweeten it up Hall and Oates style.”
JEMAINE CLEMENT: We’ll try something over and over again like that. And if it doesn’t work, we might say, “Okay, let’s try a little Prince on this one.”
BRET MCKENZIE: That’s even more harrowing. It’s very, very difficult to make a song sound like Prince. As it turns out, he’s maddeningly talented.
PLAYBOY: Fans at your live concerts always seem to know all the lyrics and sometimes sing along with the punchlines. Is that disconcerting?
BRET MCKENZIE: It takes away the surprise. I think people enjoy us most when they hear us the first time.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: It’s become a very different thing than it was in the beginning. Sometimes it feels like we’re doing the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Everybody sings along to every line. I try never to listen to them.
BRET MCKENZIE: We turn it up so loud on stage that we can’t hear them. It’s the opposite of the Beatles. They couldn’t hear themselves because of their screaming fans, but we turn up our speakers so loud that we can only hear ourselves.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: We’ve written a lot of new songs for the second season. I wonder if we’ll be able to play them before people hear them. The trouble these days is, you play a song once and somebody in the crowd will record it on their cellphone and put it on the Internet. Then all your fans have heard it and you didn’t get a chance to play it fresh for them even once.
PLAYBOY: How long can the Conchords survive? Will you continue touring into your senior years, like the Rolling Stones or the Who?
JEMAINE CLEMENT: We’ll be around either for the next hundred years, or we’ll unexpectedly retire in the next seven to eight minutes. Somewhere in that general time frame.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the March 2009 issue of Playboy magazine.)