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Escape Velocity

Test Match Music: The Phoenix Foundation Talk Cricket
Duncan Greive , May 16th, 2013 06:25

New Zealand's Phoenix Foundation are cricket fanatics and have described their latest album Fandango as 'test match music'. Duncan Greive accompanied them to a test match between New Zealand and England and found them waxing lyrical about cricket and music

The sky above is a fierce, brilliant blue, and the air lip-chappingly dry at Eden Park in Auckland on a Tuesday in late March – the fifth day of the final test between England and New Zealand. 10,000 or so cricket fans have skived off work to watch what was supposed to be a relatively early victory for the home side. Instead, England's hopes rise with each passing over. Just after lunch, Luke Buda and Samuel Flynn Scott, the leaders of Wellington's prog-indie quintet The Phoenix Foundation, arrive at the ground. From the pensive expressions they wear, it's clear they've been keeping abreast of the day's play. The New Zealand side's hopes have slowly curdled in the face of England number four Ian Bell's obstinacy.

We settle down in the park's South Stand, at a regulation third man when the bowler approaches, and Scott immediately cuts to the heart of the matter: "We really need another wicket at this point, I reckon." The singer and principal songwriter looks to the sky, but rather than welcoming the gorgeous late summer's day, he grimaces. "If it was cloudy today, this test would be over," he says. Humidity, Scott knows, is a swing bowler's best friend. "But it's so clear, hot, dry..."

In late April, Phoenix Foundation released their fifth studio album, Fandango. They described it, elegantly, as 'test match music' – meaning 'ridiculously long, but a highly rewarding experience for those who can spend some time with it', though other elements of test cricket apply too. It's obedient to mostly-abandoned rules, seemingly possessed of its own language and characterised by a bloody-minded commitment to the form as an end in itself. An album this ornate seems a little anachronistic in 2013, much like the genteel conventions – a tea break! – of test cricket. Fandango, then, appears made for true believers, rather than with any broader audience appeal in mind.

'Test match music'. It was a particularly astute observation, and one which immediately took root in the minds of the band's fans – and music writers. The Guardian sent Flynn Scott along to blog about this series' second test at the band's home ground, the venerable Basin Reserve, a picturesque ground inside a vast roundabout in central Wellington. And I invited the band along to watch what seemed certain to be an emphatic, celebrated victory by our hitherto crisis-stricken national side over this celebrated English team. The first four days had seen New Zealand building an unassailably dominant position, with a huge first innings lead eventually begetting an impossible target of 481 for the shell-shocked English. With a day to play England were 90/4, and on the ropes.

Nearly three hours into the following day, though, and things have turned around. The visitors are 188 for the loss of six wickets, with Bell crawling to an immaculate defensive half century from over 200 balls, while wicketkeeper Prior is charmingly upbeat, and has three boundaries in his run-a-ball 16. With nearly half the day's play gone, New Zealand still require four wickets for victory. Samuel Flynn Scott is absolutely right. We really, really need another wicket.

As tense as the situation is, though, there's no place any red-blooded New Zealand sports fan would rather be. The Phoenix Foundation, despite their impeccable artsy credentials – albums on Flying Nun, film soundtracks, beards – are bona fide sports fans. Rugby, New Zealand's national game, dominates, naturally, with Buda its most ardent fan. Flynn Scott has a theory about this. He reckons Buda's lack of exposure to the game's bastard realities makes him more susceptible to its poetry. "He doesn't know the drudgery, pain and stress when you're playing rugby every weekend," says Scott. "And constantly getting beaten up by people who are twice as big as you." Buda's brief career with the sport ended during a trial as an 11-year-old. "No one at an intermediate school rugby training's gonna say to you – 'you can't pass the ball forward'," he recalls, sadly. "And my parents wouldn't sign the permission slip."

Flynn Scott's cricketing prowess was limited by a slightly lazy eye, which he says "turns on and off every 10,000th of a second". Even in his pomp, though, he didn't terrify opposing batsmen. "I'm more of a gammy slow-medium bowler," says Scott. "More of a Chris Harris. But now I can't even bowl." Instead the band sport is now table tennis. "We've all got quite good at it," says Scott, with a trace of uncertainty.

What they have undeniably got better than quite good at is making albums. Since forming at Wellington High School – an institution which has produced a disproportionate amount of the capital's creative talent – in 1997, the band have grown the determinedly old-fashioned way. That means waiting two or three years between albums, putting out oddball solo records, and building an audience by playing live. Buda, in particular, resents having to apologise for what a decade ago would have been an entirely unremarkable approach to band life.

"Do you read that guy Bob Lefsetz? He's saying 'the album is dead'!," spits Buda, unprompted. "And I think 'no!' Because it's not dead to me." Lefsetz is an attorney and writer known for pouring petrol on the music industry's woes, and generally calling out its most sacred totems. Like, say the 'album', a hoary relic he recently called "an antiquated construct that fits the modern era not at all, but it sustains because it's the only way artists and labels have figured out how to make money."

To paraphrase Buda, that may be true, but it's not true for the Phoenix Foundation. Mostly because if making money is a big motivator for the band, they're not particularly good at it. Later in the afternoon, while lamenting commercial radio's disinterest in their music, Buda notes that he's "struggling to pay the rent". Flynn Scott's housing situation is no better. The opening song on Fandango, a wry synthesiser glide named 'Black Mould', candidly discusses that old rock & roll warhorse, stachybotrys – a toxic, asexually reproducing, filamentous fungus.

"'Black Mould' – it's so much about the New Zealand experience to have a really mouldy house that's making you sick," says Flynn Scott. "That's actually killing you. But, you know, no one wants to think about that."

The song wearily glories in the mundane anxieties common to the damp, depressed villa dwellers of New Zealand, but despite its very literal lyrics, 'Black Mould' is confusing listeners. Surely it's not actually about mould?

"I've had a few interviews where people have said 'what is it – is it a metaphor?'," says Flynn Scott. "And it's not a metaphor! It's just exactly what was going on in my house when I wrote it. We were just really stressed out by having this baby, and having a mouldy bathroom. Dehumidifiers going all the time. Nothing ever drying. It's raining outside. And you're like 'should I use the drier? Can I afford to use the drier?'"

"It's just reality, that song," he adds. "It's not pretend reality, like junkies, gangsters and guns." Notwithstanding that for certain portions of the world junkies, gangsters and guns are every bit as real as mould, he has a point. There is something endearing in the ordinariness of the song's subject matter, and the way the band find elevating beauty growing in the bathroom.

We're a long way from watery Wellington today, though. The sun beats down mercilessly on the tiring New Zealand bowlers, and the crowd who have come to watch them. The session has become almost comically bad for New Zealand. Multiple hard chances have resulted in no wickets from this generally sharp fielding team. The new ball's shine has gone, and with it our pace bowlers' potency. A short ball from the diminutive Neil Wagner catches Prior unawares. He fends it off with his glove, and the ball glances up to his helmet, bounces off the ground and into the stumps. The bails, astonishingly, remain intact.

In the stands, Flynn Scott is cursing like a sailor. When he calms down, he picks up Buda's lead about commercial radio's lack of interest in the band, and their correspondingly small cheques from APRA, the songwriting association which receives and distributes a percentage of radio revenues. Once again, Flynn Scott has a theory.

"I've never understood why governments don't just impose a 45% New Zealand music quota," he says. "Because it would just mean a huge amount of revenue staying in New Zealand. Radio stations say it will kill them, but why? Are people going to stop listening to the radio because of the music they play?"

His bandmate is not convinced. "I'm surprised by this rationale Sam," says Buda, amiably. "There just isn't enough music made in this country to sustain that."

As if to back up his point, the local crowd's response to the endless, glorious singing of the touring English fans known as the 'Barmy Army' has been a single rendition of our turgid national anthem 'God Defend New Zealand'. It was woeful.

After a quiet moment, suddenly Buda sits straight up.

"I do have to get out of the sun now, guys," he says forcefully. "I just had a bit of a 'whoa' moment."

Perhaps betraying their Wellingtonian inexperience with prolonged, profound sunshine, neither has worn a hat, and only Flynn Scott has sunglasses. Between the two of them, there is no sunscreen for all that pasty white skin. We decamp further up the terrace. Alongside the West Stand and back of square leg, we find shade and a breath of breeze.

Buda is immediately revived. Warming to his theme of what he sees as the barren wasteland that is commercial radio in New Zealand, he contrasts it with the musical culture of our on-field opponents. "You get the vibe that the British just care more about music. We played at Glastonbury – that place was a fucking hell hole – and people still flocked there. It smells like shit," he says, before his bandmate interrupts him.

"But a thousand people showed up to watch us in the mud! We were the first band on, you had to wade through mud, we were nowhere near the campground. We were pretty stoked that people actually showed up. But they do. You hear anything about a band being good and people just show up," Flynn Scott marvels.

"I think they believe in the awesomeness of going to see live music," says Buda, leaving unspoken the implication that New Zealanders, well, don't.

They can be a glum pair, at times. It's as if the process of putting out consistently acclaimed albums for consistently middling reward has worn them down. Made them a little bitter. None of it comes through on Fandango, which is big-hearted, richly textured, and generous to a fault. But in conversation the band often veer toward what's wrong with the world. It would be easy to mistake them for a pair of grumpy old men, carping on a sunny day. But maybe they were just hungry?

A while earlier they had dispatched their record company rep to a local café in search of food. When I complimented them on their specific and well-judged instructions – they hadn't been to Eden Park before, but knew the best local take-out food – Buda fixed me with a hard stare. "Can't you tell we know where to eat?" he says, patting his healthy belly. When the pies arrive they are devoured with great relish.

"This is an amazing pie," says Flynn Scott. "This pie's making me feel human again," says Buda. They're clearly pie experts. I ask where these pies sit in their pie rankings.

"Fridge pies would be pretty high up, actually. Pretty high up in the global pie... chart," laughs Buda.

"Good NZ pies are... you get some pretty bad pies around the world. Or no pies at all," says Scott.

"Can you imagine that!", says Buda, shaking his head.

On field things continue to slide out of reach. New Zealand captain Brendon McCullum has set typically aggressive fields, with five or six around the bat to Bruce Martin's not-quite-menacing off-spin. But despite frequent lusty appeals, Prior and Bell are steadfast. McCullum only became captain six months earlier after a tremendously ugly public demoting of his predecessor, Ross Taylor. It was as unpleasant an episode as we've experienced in recent New Zealand sport, and Taylor – a fan favourite – took his leave from the side. While he has now returned, he seems a shadow of his former self. I ask Flynn Scott if there have ever been attempts to depose him from his role as lead singer.

"Well, Luke's singing a lot more songs on the new album, so maybe that's what's happening," says Scott. "I think he's trying to take over."

The tea break looms. Prior manages to rein in the attacking instincts which have him near a half-century, and blocks out an over from part-time spinner Kane Williamson. With four wickets still in hand, this obstinate pair look to have saved the match for England. The deflation in the crowd, the baying Barmy Army – and our own disinterest – convey it all. Out of the blue, in the midst of the final over before tea, Neil Wagner tempts Bell into a push. Southee scoops the catch low at third slip, and the whole ground erupts. "Yeeeaarrrggh!" roars Flynn Scott, out of his seat, fist flailing. Game on.

We move back down, closer to the action, willing the 20 minute adjournment to speed by. Alongside us a elderly chap in the violent red and yellow shirt of the Marylebone Cricket Club overhears our conversation and inserts himself. He first points out the towering figure of former England quick Bob Willis on the edge of his seat a few metres away, then turns to music, regaling us with tales of seeing The Who with Stereophonics ("fantastic", apparently) in support. Buda and Flynn Scott gamely play along, discussing the joys of the recent Neil Young and Crazy Horse tour, until the old man heads back to the bar. The band have occasionally been accused within New Zealand of epitomising that dad-rocker tradition, of over-venerating the grand old men of Mojo magazine. If it were ever true, that sound has all-but vanished from Fandango.

The most prominent instrument here is warm multi-tracked synthesiser. They've leaned on the instrument in the past, but never with such immersion. While Buda has metal roots (sample early music discourse: "which Kirk Hammett solo had the coolest hammer on, hammer off finger tapping?"), it's he who has led the band deepest into this vast, astral sound-world. The breakthrough record was Air's compilation Premiers Symptômes, the constant soundtrack to stoned teenage journeys through the hills of Wellington in Buda's ancient Honda City.

While the rest of the band have more conventional upbringings, Buda is Polish, and his journey to New Zealand involves escape from behind the iron curtain at a young age. Flynn Scott tries to get him to talk up this avowedly glamourous episode, but Buda shrugs it off. He was too young to remember the life they left behind, and is happier talking about the importance of Dire Straits and Genesis records in his television-less household. On Fandango, you can really hear that sound, albeit leavened of those artists' occasional pomposity.

The players return to the field. Babyfaced bowler Stuart Broad comes to the crease. In his piece for The Guardian, Flynn Scott memorably fantasised about "him accidentally ending up on the wing for England against the All Blacks. In this inter-sport dream, Broad is horrifically tackled by Ma'a Nonu and will never bowl again."

Sadly, Broad can bat, and displays a hitherto undemonstrated capacity for stoic defense. Early on, Buda and Flynn Scott sense which way the wind is blowing and wonder how they can contribute to our team's flagging spirits. "Do you think it's time for some quite aggressive sledging?" wonders Flynn Scott, while Buda attempts a slow clap to accompany Trent Boult's lengthy run up. This clap is, I feel quite comfortable in saying, an unmitigated disaster, though one he tries on three occasions – each louder and lonelier than the last – as if to make certain beyond all doubt that no one will join in.

Before he can attempt a fourth, their record company minder arrives. It's time to head away to the next interview. In a little over a session, which should have seen wickets falling regularly and massed public triumph, nothing particularly happened, despite the toil and sweat of the New Zealand side. It's probably best not to view that as yet another sporting metaphor for the band's career.

The following night, the band play four songs to a tiny, packed room at an industry showcase. When I mentioned it as they were leaving Eden Park, Buda warned me "don't expect too much. It won't be any good."

He's wrong. The band jolts a jaded industry crowd from their indifference with big, searing melodies and a sharp reminder of the vitality that years of grind can imbue in a band. Afterwards Buda and I chat on the stairs, and he brushes off compliments as if they could only ever be phony. He is deeply cynical about everyone in this room, and has something mean to say about even the band's most passionate advocates within the local industry. It's unfamiliar, the candour and grouchiness. But bracing too. It's as if, sixteen years and five albums into his career, he's no longer particularly concerned with how he presents himself. The music he creates should say enough.

After they left the ground the previous day, another hour passed before Broad was finally chipped out by Williamson for an astonishing 77-ball duck. The sun-beaten crowd erupts. Two balls later Anderson goes, and suddenly England are nine down with three overs to play. To the crease strolls Monty Panesar, one of the least competent batsmen to ever represent England.

New Zealand try every trick in the book. They let a jab from Prior trickle across the boundary to get an over at Panesar, who looks utterly petrified. He somehow fudges a run, and scrambles a ghastly single. Every ball from then on in carries terrific weight, as five days of cricket bear down on the last pair in the fading light. It is electrifying – a potent reminder of the tension and high drama that can only come from this most expansive form of the game.

And it ends in a draw. Walking from the ground, though, the mood is one of elation just to have borne witness. And while the band weren't there until the end, they might have liked the symmetry. Test match cricket is the gatefold vinyl of global sport, a form for the true believers when the sport's eyes and attention has headed to T20 and the IPL. The Phoenix Foundation's new double LP arrives as a cup-of-tea-and-a-joint experience during an iPhone era, when some commentators are screaming that the form itself is dead. Fandango hopes to do for the album what this afternoon's magical final overs did for test cricket. That is, to none-too-politely suggest that there's some life in the old dog yet.

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