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The Phoenix Foundation Have Always Done It Their Own Way

Luke Buda tells Rolling Stone AU/NZ about the band’s seminal debut album, ‘Horse Power’, as they play it in its entirety at shows around New Zealand

The Phoenix Foundation

Ebony Lamb

Luke Buda is tired; understandably so. Before our interview, he’s been up late watching New Zealand in the Cricket World Cup semi-finals (the match result won’t be recorded in writing here), and now he has two huge days of band practice to ready himself for.

“I’ll soldier on, the power of the music will get me through,” he says over the phone.

Buda plays in The Phoenix Foundation, who are preparing for a special tour in celebration of their seminal 2003 debut album, Horse Power, the record that launched the Wellingtonians on their journey to becoming Aotearoa indie rock icons.

But even if they had stopped recording after their debut album entirely – if Buffalo and Fandango and Friend Ship and many more hadn’t followed – they’d still be remembered fondly on Horse Power alone.

The Phoenix Foundations’ debut was one of the most acclaimed albums of 2023, the only to be nominated for Best Album at both the New Zealand Music Awards and The Bnet Awards.

It brought sudden commercial adoration for a group of musicians who weren’t necessarily seeking the limelight, and who were just proudly making wonky and weird rock. “We’ve always been slightly outside, or from the outside,” as Buda now puts it.

20 years on from Horse Power‘s heyday, The Phoenix Foundation are performing the album in its entirety at several shows around the country. Following two sold-out dates in Lyttelton, they head to the Hollywood Avondale in Auckland tonight, followed by a final show at Wellington’s Opera House on Saturday, November 25th (see full details below).

Read Rolling Stone AU/NZ‘s full interview with Buda below, as he reminisces about the good times he and his bandmates had making their debut album. Horse Power is also now available on vinyl for the first time ever via Bandcamp.

Rolling Stone AU/NZ: How’s preparation been for these shows?

Luke Buda: We’re trying to do an accurate recital of the album as opposed to what we’ve done in the past. We’ve been going through the old Pro Tools sessions from 2002. They use now-obsolete audio file formats and shit like that.

[We’re] just learning all the actual parts because actually the album was very floaty and vague. There were times when I was looking at keyboard parts like, ‘This isn’t necessarily a part.’

I mean, let’s face it, we were smoking heaps. Basically this is someone who was really enjoying the sound of delay and reverb on a slightly trippy sounding synth, and they’ve just played three notes over the course of the entire song. But anyway, we’re gonna try and find that feeling!

It’s like recreating your youth!

We were so young, enthusiastic, and carefree. Now, [we’re] none of those things, and it’s gonna be interesting to try and pretend to be that.

Spiritualised was a huge thing for me. Even though none of us are really fans of Ride, for some reason it was a Ride album that influenced us deeply, even though we don’t really listen to it very much. It was basically just huge-sounding psychedelic guitars, so we were way more than just a really loud rock band. We were trying to do some other shit, but we didn’t really know what it was.

And so [on] Horse Power, we’re not really sure what we are. And that’s an interesting thing to try and recreate.

A lot of similar anniversary tours are performing truly classic albums, fully-formed records, but that doesn’t sound like it’s the case with you. 

No, it was a learning curve. There was nothing fully-formed about it. Like the first track, “Sister Risk”, it’s mostly just two chords and it’s mostly a live take, we just did our best to get through the song. The space and mellowness of it is actually really nice. It’s people really listening to each other. Now the band’s played lots of gigs so we don’t play tentatively anymore.

Those sort of loose songs are probably going to be a lot of fun to play 20 years later.

Oh yeah, totally. We’ve never played the second song, “Let Me Die a Woman”, the way it is on the album. Why? Because it’s got drum loops and lots of synths. We’ve never played it with drum loops before but now we’ve got the Ableton all loaded up! It’s sort of electronic, I guess. So that’s gonna be interesting.

Was it a group decision to tour this album or was one person really pushing for it?

The truth is I don’t really know if anyone in the band, at first, had a massive enthusiasm for it. I think our manager was keen on it. He was like, ‘It’s never been out on vinyl, so we should put it out on vinyl.’

We’re actually still making music, we reckon we’re probably making the best music that we’ve made, even though it’s way less known than the first few albums, so we didn’t necessarily want to be a backwards looking band. It kind of felt a bit cynical.

But once we started learning the stuff, I was like, ‘This is actually quite a fun project, to be honest, and people are going to probably really be into it.’

The Phoenix Foundation

Credit: Ebony Lamb

As you’re still making music, I think that saves you from any accusation that this is simply a cheap nostalgia trip. 

Because we’ve never stopped, I think both us and everyone else hasn’t really looked back very much. You know what I mean? It’s quite good to be looking back, because when you’re in it, you never really looked back. You’re kind of like, ‘Right, what’s the next thing?’

It’s felt appropriate to find the old photos, think about what we were up to. We didn’t really know what we were doing, but we had the band and a few of our arty friends from school.

A bunch of people had the rent on a church on Frederick Street that had been turned into kind of a music studio. There was a control room and there were also a couple of bedroom upstairs.

We just called it The Church. Everyone paid 50 bucks a week. We didn’t really use the space to its full potential, looking back on it now, but those were really formative years. That’s what we wanted to do with our lives – have a space where we create shit. So it’s been quite fun to look back.

What age were you when Horse Power came out? In your early 20s?

Yeah, like 20. Actually, I probably would have been 24 when it came out, but we would have been recording it the year earlier. I mean, it’s not that young. It’s not like Supergrass.

Were you taken aback by all the awards that came your way at the time?

I think we were surprised when it got nominated for the New Zealand Music Awards. We never had massive support from commercial radio. We never really got blanket support from the music media. We’ve always been slightly outside or from the outside.

I don’t like genres, I don’t like labels very much because I find them reductive, but let’s say it’s gently psychedelic indie guitar music, or mellow alternative guitar music, and this hasn’t really been in Wellington at that time at all.

For a long time, it was just step by step for us. It was good for us in a way because every album that came out was bigger than they had been before. Everything felt really gradual, and kind of organic. Like I say, we never got commercial radio support or anything like that, it was always just touring and albums.

A few other New Zealand artists have also said that they didn’t get support from commercial radio.

I mean, commercial radio is fucking boring. Is commercial radio even a thing now? I don’t know, but it was then. It was a big thing.

In 2011, actually, when Buffalo came out in the UK, we got on the high rotation on 6 Music. And then when the next album came out, Fandango, and we didn’t get on 6 Music, you could really see the difference.

It actually weirds me out to this day that the song of ours that is by far the most successful, the lyrics are actually very strange, about a giant underwater buffalo. It’s fucking weird!

I feel like that always happens. It’s never the song you expect that ends up appealing to the masses. 

It turns out that what the masses wanted was “Buffalo”. Russell Crowe tweeted about it. He misspelled our name. He said “Listen to The Ph-e-onix Foundation… “Buffalo”… Pretty strange stuff.”

So will you just be playing the songs from Horse Power at these shows?

No, it’s gonna be two sets. We’re gonna play Horse Power from start to end, short break, and then come out and do a normal Phoenix Foundation set. A really great one!

The Phoenix Foundation Horse Power 20th Anniversary Tour

With special guest Jess Cornelius

Friday, November 24th
Hollywood Avondale, Auckland
Tickets: Banished Music

Saturday, November 25th
Opera House, Wellington
Tickets: Ticketmaster