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"You hope you’re gonna be a ‘likely sex symbol’. But we’ll accept ‘unlikely’": Jemaine Clement talks 'Flight of the Conchords'

The fourth-most-popular folk duo in New Zealand's bassist speaks

"You hope you’re gonna be a ‘likely sex symbol’. But we’ll accept ‘unlikely’": Jemaine Clement talks 'Flight of the Conchords'
09 August 2018

Hi Jemaine. It’s 9.30pm in New Zealand. What are you doing? Tucked up in bed?

That’s a very personal question, Ralph. I’m not tucked up in bed, no.

Are you at home?

I’ve just come back over from Europe. I was in England a couple of weeks ago. I’m only just getting over my jetlag. I’ve been going to bed at 8pm. This is late for me.

You and Bret recently played the O2. What was the most surprising thing about playing a space that big?

The far end of the venue is like another town. The O2’s actually bigger than the town I grew up in. It’s about 2,000 people bigger than my home town.

You’re in a film coming out soon called Festival. Are you a festival fan?

I’ve been on both sides. We played Glastonbury and we were in the comedy tent. Glastonbury’s actually quite segregated with the performers – at Reading and Leeds you can get lunch with the bands, but at Glastonbury you’re in the comedy tent and you’re only allowed in that area for camping, so you can’t have lunch where the bands are. You have it with the jugglers and stilt-walkers.

Did you go to festivals when you were younger?

A little bit. I once had a terrible experience of going to an electronic dance music festival in New Zealand for the Millennium. And I don’t take drugs, so it was very monotonous. There are all these different sub-genres of electronic music that sound so similar to me but apparently quite different to other people. It was really like being inside a headache. It was a lot of neon.

What’s your best festival experience?

Bret and I played Glastonbury the year that James Brown and Paul McCartney played. So that was a very special one. I went to Coachella and saw Prince play. But we didn’t play that one, we were just watching. 

“I once had a terrible experience of going to an electronic dance music festival in New Zealand for the Millennium… It was really like being inside a headache.”

The names that you mention there prove that you guys are in the upper echelons of…

Hold on, hold on, hold on. We were on a different stage to those people. We could just go and see them.

Still. I wondered whether you feel like a rock star and, if not, what would it take to make you feel like one?

I feel like that would take a mastery of my instrument that will probably never happen because I’m not a full-time musician. It’s something I do for two months a year. 

What’s the marker of rock stardom? Is it when you employ someone to hold your drink while you’re drinking it?

That would make me feel so awkward. We sometimes try to get call-and-response things going and occasionally they work. But often they don’t.

Would you ever consider making a serious album? Maybe even a solo venture?

I don’t think I could actually do something completely earnest. It might be more serious, but I don’t think I could ever do something completely serious.

There’s not an inner Leonard Cohen scrabbling to get out?

I wish there was. He is my favourite songwriter. But no. At times I would try as a teenager, but it was really cringeworthy. New Zealand and England are culturally similar, but England has a lot of sincere songwriters. New Zealand doesn’t, historically. New Zealand men don’t really express themselves emotionally. Maybe they do a little bit more than English people. But in songwriting they don’t – for some reason it’s embarrassing. 

Were there any songs you guys were working on that didn’t make it onto the setlist for your UK shows?

There was a love story about a couple who met on a dating app and we were describing the man sending a dick pic through the stratosphere, carried by satellite, in quite a beautiful way. We didn’t quite get that finished in time.

You’re no doubt aware that you and Bret are that dreaded phrase: ‘unlikely sex symbols’. When did you realise this was the case?

I think in setting out to do this kind of thing you hope you’re gonna be a ‘likely sex symbol’. But we’ll accept ‘unlikely’. I do remember that change. In our gigs, when we used to play to 10 people, we’d always make a joke about sex symbols and how women were attracted to us because we played comedy folk music. And people would laugh. And then, at some stage, they didn’t laugh any more and they’d just go, “WOOO!” At some point people did start sounding very interested. 

It’s a good problem to have. 

It made me blush.

The Festival is at cinemas from 14 August

(Images: Getty)