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Interview with Samuel Scott of The Phoenix Foundation
Contrary to what the album title would have you believe, The Phoenix Foundation’s forthcoming album Give Up Your Dreams is a wildly uplifting and fun compilation of music that will inspire you to get your ass into gear way more than any artificial stimulant ever will. Music editor Kate caught up with co-frontman Samuel Scott at his Newtown studio to find out a little more about the motivations behind this crazy intriguing album.
Kate: Where did the whole idea for Give Up Your Dreams come from?
Samuel: We were just on tour and stressing out about all of these career things and whether we were gonna break through to the next level or something, and we kind of forgot that we were actually having a great time doing what we were doing right then and there. It was just about re-establishing that connection with enjoying making music and not being so aspirational. I think society makes us very aspirational these days. Things like Instagram mean that people curate their lives and make it look like everything’s really perfect and that their house is from the set of Mad Men or whatever. So even though we’re all doing that, we look at other people’s Instagram or Facebook feeds and go “wow, that looks so much better than the reality of my life”. And as a result you feel like you need to brew more kombucha and make your own sauerkraut or whatever.
K: That’s literally one of the things I feel like I need to be doing right now purely because of Instagram—just fermenting things in general.
S: Yes, it seems very trendy at the moment. I haven’t gotten around to fermenting anything yet.
K: So would you say that this is The Phoenix Foundation at their most stripped back and authentic?
S: Maybe. I don’t know. I don’t think there’s any record we’ve ever played that’s inauthentic to ourselves, so I wouldn’t think that this album is anymore authentic. I think there are definitely things about this album that are big shifts for us. We wrote the songs mostly together as a band on this record and we also had a really good time recording live—probably more so than any other record, but then we spent months tinkering with those live recordings and adding a million layers. We were just trying to record really exciting rhythm tracks. We wanted things to feel really exciting and that was the whole purpose of the process this time round—to make it feel exciting and new.
So I don’t know about authentic, because it’s not a very important thing to me. I don’t really believe that we have to be one type of band. Bands always talk about getting back to their roots and I don’t wanna get back to my roots. I don’t even know what my roots are. I just wanna make whatever music I feel like making today, and that might be completely different to anything I’ve ever done before. Sometimes I wanna make music that I was into when I was 14, and sometimes I wanna make music that’s like things I’ve only just heard which are made by teenagers now. It’s okay to be inspired by anything at any point in your life. You shouldn’t feel like you’re being inauthentic to make a different kind of record.
K: Title track “Give Up Your Dreams” is super fun and upbeat, but the music totally juxtaposes the lyrics—was that always the intention?
S: Yeah, I think so. The song definitely got more and more fun the more the band worked on it. It sort of sounds like aerobics music.
K: Maybe that’s why I liked it so much!
S: Yeah, once we’d hit on that groove, we we’re like “okay, let’s make this like 1980s Jane-Fonda-aerobics-video-music”. So yeah, it’s got kind of this aerobics music feel mixed with this depressing lyric. But by the end of the song there’s something really uplifting about the lyric. It’s not meant to be depressing. I think if you listen to the whole song and listen to the lyrics and that weird voice of God in the middle that’s telling you you’re not special, it’s actually the idea that you can get a release from that.
K: Yeah totally, it’s kind of liberating.
S: Like, you don’t need to be striving to be the most successful person in your craft—you should just do it. Do what you wanna do and don’t worry about the consequences.
K: Was the recording process different this time around compared to previous albums?
S: Yeah, we did it mostly just in our own studio. Last time round we did some recording at Roundhead and we did recording in the Wairarapa in an old barn, like a field type situation. So we spent quite a lot of money on the last record before we’d even mixed it. It was a very long and difficult process.
We recorded GUYD in our own studio and we set up for a really long time. There were very few time constraints and very little pressure on us. We didn’t necessarily have a goal of how many songs we wanted to get out of it or anything, so there was never any panic during the making of it and I don’t know if I’ve ever felt that on a record before—there’s always some sense of panic, so that was really cool. I mean, parts of the process were quite difficult because we were doing it in a different way, but in general it was a pretty low-stress recording.
K: With regard to the songs themselves, there are some pretty interesting themes explored—how did they come about?
S: Yeah, I mean for some of it we were trying to tap into a bit of reality writing in the way that Sun Kil Moon did on that record Benji. It’s really, really confessional—unbelievably so. We’ve gotten nowhere near that, but we quite often just write about weird cosmic shit that makes no sense. There’s some of that kind of cosmic stuff on the album, but we tried to infuse that with some real-world things that were relevant. So Luke wrote a song about health problems, which was actually mostly about his partner and me both having back problems. So he was writing about his life partner at home and his life partner in the band both having these terrible back problems, and I guess his personal reaction to being in the middle of that. So that’s quite real, and it’s either boring or refreshing, depending on how you want to approach it.
K: I guess if you can make something that’s very much “going through the motions” interesting and cool, then why not?
S: Well yeah, every song I wrote when I was in my early twenties was about breaking up with girls and feeling terrible, and it seemed so relevant back then. Now when I have to go back and sing those songs at gigs I think, “wow, I don’t actually understand who this person was”. ‘Cause then in your mid-thirties it’s sort of like, I don’t really feel those things as strongly. Instead, I feel a whole bunch of other things stronger than I did back then. Things like paranoia about house prices, back problems or raising children.
I think it’s kind of dumb to write about things that are no longer relevant to where you’re at in your life. We could try and pretend to be a younger band than we are, but y’know, I’m 36 and I’m going to write about whether or not I should find a better set up to pay for my mortgage, which is kind of what Give Up Your Dreams is about. But people just need to take it with a grain of salt and know that my tongue is firmly in my cheek. I’m not trying to bore people. I’m trying to create a bit of subtle entertainment. It’s all supposed to be fun.
K: So in light of GUYD, what would you say to all of the downtrodden students out there who live as though they’ve got the world on their shoulders?
S: I’d say don’t worry about how things are going to turn out because they’re going to turn out how they’re going to turn out regardless. But do put effort into them turning out well. If you put the effort in without the worry you’ll do a better job, you’ll enjoy it, and you’ll get somewhere. I think that’s what it’s all about. Having the confidence to fail means you can enjoy trying things.
Confidence in failure is really something that we don’t teach people enough in this world. The best musicians, the best scientists and the best storytellers, they’re not afraid of doing something that’s going to turn out completely shit. If you’re trying to come up with a new theory to understand the history of the universe but you’re worried about whether or not it’s going to be wrong, you’re never going to actually come up with anything new. It’s the same with music. It’s also so fucking hard to sell anything these days. We live in a culture where you can’t sell anything. The biggest selling point you can have is how interesting you are.
Give Up Your Dreams will be available online and in-store from Friday 7 August. Get it in you.