It has been twelve years since Luke Buda, a founding member of The Phoenix Foundation, last released a solo album. Vesuvius, Luke’s solo work released in 2008, was shortly followed by The Phoenix Foundation’s album Buffalo, which enjoyed a worldwide release with UK record label Memphis Industries. Buffalo kickstarted a long stretch of touring throughout the UK and Europe, “so I just never really went back to doing solo things” says Luke. After a final tour accompanying The Phoenix Foundation’s Give Up Your Dreams in 2015, the band finally took a break. Luke found himself back in his garage studio, scoring films as part of the trio known as Moniker, also consisting of Phoenix Foundation members Samuel Flynn Scott and Conrad Wedde. Films like Boy, Hunt For The Wilderpeople and TV Series Wellington Paranormal are among projects they have worked on. “I'm always in the garage. And sometimes I'm in the garage, doing my job, and other times I'm in the garage, just making music, cause that’s just what I do” says Luke. This time spent away from Moniker “just making music” is when he began amassing the songs that would eventuate in his first solo work in twelve years, the self-titled Buda.
While Buda may be the product of years spent chipping away in the garage, it is by no means a haphazard collection of songs. For one, the project is a response to Luke’s first two solo albums, which he had begun to reflect unfavourably upon. “What it was, was that I was aware that I didn't like listening to my older albums from 2005 and 2008, because I found the lyrics really annoying. The first album was a bit too sincere, and the second album was a bit too cynical” says Luke. “So I was really conscious of the lyrics to not be too indulgent. And to not sound like a pessimistic, wingey old man alone in his garage.” But when listening to and making music is a form of therapy, like it is for Luke, the issue of self-indulgence is a pertinent one. “So you know, play guitar, stop freaking out about the bills, or something that I said at a party 10 years ago. That is literally what I do” he says. For Luke, the answer was an album that is in equal parts soothing and humourous. An album that finds the sweet spot between the personal topics that have always inspired his music, and the whimsical humour of songs that, for example, combine romance with the danger of having high cholesterol.
Before you even listen to the record, a self-deprecating sense of humour is evident: the album cover features a photo of Luke wearing lipstick, frills, and an eighteenth-century wig. “I literally just kind of, one day, got the image in my head” he said. “It was one of those funny little magic moments, which don't happen that frequently. I told my partner about it and I said: I'm gonna be wearing an 18th century wig, and I'm going to have rosy cheeks and it's gonna have me in a circle in the middle. And she just went: ‘yeah, that sounds pretty good.’” This response was all the encouragement he needed; “usually she’s like hmm, I'm gonna have to think about that.” The aesthetic was also inspired by the pompousness of artists like Prince and David Bowie, and the sense of fun it can entail. “There's a thing I quite like about the pompous ones. As long as it's done in a camp, fun way, you know. Not taking yourself too seriously is a big part of it for me. Having fun with life as much as you can.” The camp aesthetic was a way for Luke to balance the potential darkness of his music, as well as illustrate the humourous tone of the songs on the album.
While the sight of Luke as an 18th century crossdresser is enough to dispel any expectation of doom and gloom, this is not to say the album shies away from vulnerability. Despite Luke’s whimsical songwriting, at the heart of his lyrics are stark truths. Brain Jail, opening with the line ‘I’ve got a parking ticket again / Right outside of my house’, is an ode to the feelings of powerlessness and disorder in the face of adult administration; insurance, replying to emails and parking. Candy, while punctuated with a comically low voice repeating ‘Sweet, sweet candy’, is also a heartfelt story about falling in and out of love. ‘It's giving me diabetes / But I just can't get enough’ goes another line from the song. Even for Luke, some of the lyrics on the album are uncomfortably vulnerable, especially when performed live. “I performed the song My Naked Body, solo in Auckland, at the Whammy, and it definitely felt pretty edgy solo” he said. “Sometimes you're just going up to play, you're like, oh my god, do I actually like this shit? Am I about to actually say this shit in front of people?” While managing to sidestep the cynicism of some of his past music, Luke’s sincerity as a songwriter still shines bright on Buda.
On top of the tactile songwriting and visual androgyny, the album isn’t afraid to explore sonic territory some may consider cheesy. Glistening 80’s synth sounds, Oberheim DMX-esque tom fills and Luke’s endorsement of the description of his music as “soft disco” all indicate a carefree attitude about utilising nostalgic musical material. “Some people said to me; oh if someone said to me that it sounded like soft disco, that'd be an insult. Fucking why? Why would you bother be insulted by soft disco? Like, I've got no pretensions about not being disco, or being really alternative, or the word soft. I don't care about that. I think like, the idea that things need to be, I don't know, difficult, or hard edged to be good art is just a boring attitude.” Yet rather than a specific aesthetic decision, this aspect of the album simply lends itself to Luke’s relaxed perspective on music and genre. “I personally don’t really enjoy trying to define, like, music by genre anyway. It's not a big issue for me” he says. “I mean, I listen to all sorts of music and that's just what comes out.” This aspect of the album is perhaps where Luke’s musical influences show the most clearly: he is an avid fan of, among other things, the sparkly synth pop of Yellow Magic Orchestra and the vast ambience of Air.
Another often-made observation about Buda is that, for a solo album, it is chock-full of collaborators. As well as The Phoenix Foundation members Samuel Scott, Conrad Wedde, William Ricketts and Tom Callwood, the album features: Anita Clark, Don McGlashan, Riki Gooch, Dayle Jellyman, Toby Laing, Joe Lindsay, Jacqui Nyman, Chris O’Connor and author Damien Wilkins. This hoard of collaborators has attracted criticism that the album isn’t really solo, at least not by a purist’s definition. “I don't know why, but people are kind of like, obsessed by that,” says Luke. “But it's like, man, if you look at someone like Prince, or David Bowie, they always had a producer that they were working with in a really close way. Or there’d be a guitarist that ended up being a big part of making the record, and they always had bands. I think it's pretty normal” he says. He explains that contributions made by other musicians often added just the right finishing touches. “It was like, I've got every song up to that particular point. And sometimes it's just a moment where you go, right, if I just get a great drummer playing on this, it's gonna add like, 30% of awesome.” He expresses particular satisfaction with Don McGlashan’s horn contribution on She's Arriving Soon. “Luckily, I just know lots of awesome people who added just the right amount of their vibe in the right spots” he says.
In his time, Luke Buda has contributed some of his own finishing touches. In what he describes as a highlight of his musical career, he was asked by Bret McKenzie, from Flight of the Conchords, to play guitar on a parody song he co-wrote for The Simpsons. The song was performed by Benedict Cumberbatch, who voiced a fictional character bearing resemblance to Morrissey of The Smiths. The name? Quilloughby. Directed at Lisa Simpson, the song’s chorus revolves around the line: ‘Everyone is horrid except me / And possibly you.’ When Luke was asked whether his contribution to the episode felt significant, he responded: “Of playing guitar on a satirical Morrissey track sung by Benedict Cumberbatch on the Simpsons? Yeah, it’s pretty surreal." Also, after the episode aired in 2021, Morrissey was so offended that he published a lengthy response expressing his displeasure with the portrayal. For Luke, this was the cherry on top, and his Spotify bio proudly references the incident.
Listening to Luke’s new album, one might even connect its lush, meticulously layered soundscapes with all the years he has spent scoring such films and TV shows. Instead, Luke suggests that his music naturally lends itself to films, not the other way around. “It's a kind of a chicken-egg scenario in some ways, right? Because part of the reason we got film work was probably cause our music has always had a lush vibe to it. The lushness is more like, it's just what I want from music a lot of the time; a bit of soothing relief. So I just end up going for that. It's not like I go; I'm gonna make sure it's really lush. I just end up working on it, and then I'm like, oh, I've filled it up again, y'know?” he says. “But yeah, I would say that I've learnt a lot by making music for film because, well, you got to sometimes do something that you don't even really like to get the job done. That is quite a good lesson in musical dexterity and craft.” Looking ahead to his next solo project, Luke says: “In fact the next one, I'm definitely thinking I'm going to try and pull back a bit. Dry things up and have a few less layers. Maybe get a bit more focused and small. But who knows how that'll go.”
Solomon Powell writes for a new music blog, The Noise Report, which focuses on local Wellington musicians, gigs and other music related subjects. Check out more of his writing at noisereport.co.nz
Photos by Ben Howe