New Zealand indie band The Phoenix Foundation was formed by Wellington High School students in 1994. The group features two singer-guitarists – Polish-born Luke Buda and Samuel Flynn Scott, the son of a prominent NZ cartoonist. Conrad Webbe on keyboards is the other constant member.
The Phoenix Foundation were initially a metal band named Komos, then a guitar band named Sprink. They eventually became The Phoenix Foundation, taking their name from the spy organisation in the 1980s TV show MacGyver. The members grew up listening to Pantera, Slayer, and Sepultura but chose to pursue a more grown-up sound when they rebranded as Phoenix Foundation. Their textural and pastoral songs are reminiscent of early Pink Floyd, while they can also resemble the quirky pop/rock of Super Furry Animals and the heartfelt alt-country of Wilco. Former drummer Richie Singleton described their sound to music.net.nz as “J.J. Cale meets Pink Floyd at Vangelis’s yoga retreat with canapes.”
The group have sustained their career with work on soundtracks; they’ve recorded soundtracks for Taika Waititi movies Eagle vs Shark, Boy, and The Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Luke Buda told Grant Smithies that “some of us might prefer to just tour the world and play massive Phoenix Foundation gigs and make money that way, but that’s not reality. And making soundtracks is very cool work.”
They’re not the most charismatic band around – it’s not hard to see why mainstream success has evaded The Phoenix Foundation. But they have one of the most consistent back-catalogues of any band I’ve covered on this site. I’ve only covered the band’s studio albums, but there are plenty of soundtracks and solo records from the band around as well.
The Phoenix Foundation Album Reviews
The Phoenix Foundation released their debut album nearly a decade after they formed as 14-year-olds at Wellington High School. Given the long time frame they’d already spent as a band, it’s not surprising that Horsepower is a fully-formed debut. It’s mellow indie-folk – the mood is dominated by mildly melancholy acoustic songs, often with silly titles like ‘This Charming Van’ and ‘Let Me Die a Woman’. The Foundation had expanded to a six-piece by the time of Horsepower – the core trio of Scott, Buda, and Webb supported by Tim Hansen (bass), Richie Singleton (drums), and Will Ricketts (percussion). It’s the only Phoenix Foundation album to feature Hansen, but his busy basslines are often prominent, contrasting with the laidback percussion.
The acoustic songs are consistently good, from the pedal steel laden Americana of ‘Pedal Steel’ to the more esoteric material at the tail-end of the record. At the same time, the silly vocal effect and intense psychedelic guitar solos on ‘Bruiser (Miami 3000)’ is a welcome change of pace at the record’s halfway point. Also noteworthy is ‘Going Fishing’; it’s disarmingly sincere, with dopey lyrics like “You and me, we were going fishing/on a sea, full of love” but it somehow works as the record’s most memorable song.
Horsepower is an impressive debut, with the group’s low-key acoustic songs consistently enjoyable.
The Phoenix Foundation’s second album delves further into dreamy psychedelia. A lot of the tracks are instrumental, while the adjective pastoral applies more than ever. Many of the songs are themed around nature, like ‘Damn the River’ and ‘Through the Woods’. Upon release, Pegasus became part of a top ten in the albums chart that was half New Zealand albums, something that would have been unthinkable a decade earlier. The record features a new bass player, Warner Emery.
Due to its dreamy nature, Pegasus can be less engaging than Horsepower, but its best moments show progression. The seven-minute ‘Cars of Eden’ is excellent – there’s a lovely coda with instrumental interplay between guests Jeff Henderson (baritone saxophone) and Fritze Wollner (piano). ‘Damn the River’ floats by in a mere two minutes, but it’s the most accessible tune, packing a lot of ideas into its brief running time. The band’s Americana leanings are most pronounced on ‘Nest Egg’, with its fiddle and wordplay from Scott. ‘All in an Afternoon’ is pretty and pastoral.
Pegasus isn’t as consistently engaging as The Phoenix Foundation’s best work but it functions well as a mood piece.
Happy Ending was The Phoenix Foundation’s first album after signing a US record deal with Young American Recordings. According to the band, it was “inspired by our forays into the US and playing dive bars in New York’s Lower East Side.” It has a bolder, more confident production that makes the band’s music feel less insular. The band members later recalled that Happy Ending came out the same month as the new Feelers album – they “were like our nemesis band! They just got so much more attention than us.”
The record opens with upbeat, big-sounding tunes ‘Bleaching Sun’ and ‘Bright Grey’, both with memorable choruses, but it reverts to more familiar territory. My favourite song from the record is ’40 Years’, where the drony melody recalls the Foundation’s Flying Nun forebears. The group are more diverse than before- the foreboding pulse of ‘Omerta’ recalls Pink Floyd’s ‘One of These Days’, while ‘No One Will Believe Me When I’m Dead’ veers close to rockabilly. The six minutes of ‘Gandalf’ are very pretty as well.
Happy Ending is a bigger sounding album than before, successfully paving the way for the band’s next record.
The Phoenix Foundation found their perfect balance on their fourth album, corralling their psychedelic instincts into succinct pop songs. Buffalo is bright and breezy, yet the songs are solid and memorable. Scott described Buffalo to The Guardian as “the album that sounds the most like us”, while the band were overwhelmed by the demand for the ten-year anniversary reissue.
In a strong catalogue, Buffalo has a large proportion of the band’s best-loved songs. The group have done other slow-simmering songs like opener ‘Eventually’ previously, but the payoff is much greater when it’s followed by the impressive title track. ‘Flock of Hearts’ has a lovely guitar solo, while ‘Bitte Bitte’ has the great line “What will we do now that all the yuppies have replaced us?”. ‘Orange & Mango’ steers a little close to parody territory with its silliness, but it’s still tuneful. The group are more circumspect on the lovely ‘Wonton’, a provocative title for a touching love song.
In a consistently strong catalogue, Buffalo is a clear career peak.
The Foundation followed up the tight and hooky Buffalo with its polar opposite. Fandango is a sprawling double album, with long tracks and a psychedelic feel. The group claim they were inspired by Can and The Carpenters. It’s occasionally indulgent – in particular, the closer ‘Friendly Society’. But it’s fun to hear the band stretch out and try a bunch of different things; after four disciplined studio albums, it seems churlish to deny them a bit of fun. Fandango was recorded in four different studios over fifteen months, including Neil Finn’s Roundhead Studios. Drummer Richie Singleton amicably left during recording, after completing his MA in Climate Studies, and was replaced by Chris O’Connor.
The sprawling album often feels like a compilation, with little to unify the tracks. But there’s a lot of great stuff anyway – opener ‘Black Mould’ has a great bridge that keeps building, with some great lyrics “This city is a swamp, and the fungus is a circus”. As the album title implies, Fandango has songs you can dance to – ‘The Captain’ has a hint of disco, while ‘Walls’ is close to new wave. There are lots of chilled and pretty songs like ‘Sideway Glance’ and ‘Thames Soup’. The most contentious track is the eighteen-minute closer ‘Friendly Society’, which comes close to a psychedelic sound collage at times. It’s far from my favourite Phoenix Foundation song, but it has enough musicality to make it worthwhile – there’s a great jam section in the middle with a funky bassline and synth washes.
Fandango is a success, the sprawling double album showcasing The Phoenix Foundation’s psychedelic leanings.
Give Up Your Dreams
Give Up Your Dreams is a long way from the mild melancholy of the early Phoenix Foundation. Buda told New Zealand music website Audioculture that he was trying to push the album along, making a lot of demos. He played ‘Bob Lennon John Dylan’ to Scott, who responded: “That is undeniably fun!” Buda told Audioculture “we followed the fun.” Give Up Your Dreams is The Phoenix Foundation’s first self-produced album and it’s more psychedelic and light-hearted than ever.
‘Bob Dylan John Dylan’ is an excellent single, propelled by joyous piano and featuring a singalong nonsensical chorus. Also memorable is the title track, an anti-motivational anthem. It’s apparently inspired by the band realising their critical acclaim wouldn’t translate to commercial success, but it’s framed in jest – “Don’t let anyone say that the world is your oyster/The world is not an oyster.” The dreamy noodling of ‘Prawn’ is pretty, ‘Jason’ devolves from alt-country to psychedelia, while ‘Sunbed’ adds some muscle to the quirky sound of Buffalo.
Despite the negative album title, Give Up Your Dreams is undeniably fun.
On their seventh album, The Phoenix Foundation made an effort to do something special. This was achieved through collaborations – Scott found that he’d been listening to female songwriters a lot, and invited Nadia Reid, Motte, and Tiny Ruins’ Hollie Fulllbrook to provide harmony vocals. They also work with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, who provide orchestration on ‘Miserable Meal’ and ‘Transit of Venus’. Using so much outside help might indicate a shortage of ideas, but Friend Ship is just as strong and creative as ever.
The band are only becoming more diverse as they progress. ‘My Kitchen Rules’ resembles mid-1960s Beatles with the Lennonesque vocal filter, the busy melodic bassline, and a verse melody that sounds like ‘Good Morning Good Morning’. Buda is surprisingly straightforward with his lyrics on ‘Former Glory’, telling of his arrival from Poland as a child – “I started a band with my best friends/And it was this band”. The big orchestral songs are both excellent ‘Miserable Meal’ features Buda on piano with some great lines about the SS Shithole – “the water’s pouring steadily in”. Nadia Reid sounds pretty on ‘Hounds of Hell’, while ‘Landline’ is as hooky and upbeat as anything in the band’s catalogue.
The Phoenix Foundation have released seven impressive albums in a row – they’re relatively unheralded, but it’s a feat matched by few bands.
10 Best Phoenix Foundation Songs
Damn the River
Flock of Hearts
Bob Lennon John Dylan
My Kitchen Rules
Cars of Eden
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