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The Contenders: It's easy being Bret McKenzie

The 'Flight of the Conchords' guy dishes on writing tunes for 'The Muppets,' getting Chris Cooper to rap and Jason Segel's Meat Loaf-like voice.

December 08, 2011|By Michael Ordoña, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Music supervisor Bret McKenzie with Animal of the Muppets.
Music supervisor Bret McKenzie with Animal of the Muppets. (Andrew Macpherson / Disney…)

Bret McKenzie is the music supervisor and primary songwriter for "The Muppets," and his biggest competition for award consideration may just be himself. He has at least three compositions from the film being touted by those who track such things: gleeful production number "Life's a Happy Song," disco anthem "Me Party" and existential '80s-ish power ballad "Man or Muppet." Sporting a comfy-looking green hoodie and unruly hair and beard — exacerbated by early-morning dad duties — the affable "Flight of the Conchords" musical comic discussed marrying his adult and meta sensibility with the Muppets via video chat from his home in New Zealand.

How is it to write not a hip reference to, or parody of, but actually for the felt-covered, good-hearted Muppets?

It was an amazing gig. When I was recording Kermit doing "Rainbow Connection," it was a strange "I've made it" moment. Working with the A-list. Because I've worked with James Bobin, who directed the film, for the last five years doing "Conchords," it wasn't as terrifying as it might have been, you know, if I had been working for Jim Henson [laughs].

What was your mandate?

Zero sexual references. There were a few things I had to cut. I really wanted to have Chris Cooper [as the villainous Tex Richman] calling Kermit a "mother frogger." The songwriting was very similar [to that for "Conchords"]. Songs that connect to the story and connect to the characters and are hopefully funny.

How about Cooper's devastating mike control on "Let's Talk About Me"?

There are so many highlights on this gig — one of them definitely was teaching Academy Award-winning dramatic actor Chris Cooper how to rap. It was awesome. The first session, where I was secretly working out whether he had rhythm, we did a session on Skype, freestyling. It was like a very primitive Furious Five. I'd rap a line and he'd rap back. He's such a serious guy, and I'm a pretty unserious guy, so it was a funny combination. Luckily, he used to be in a lounge band. Completely musical; got great flow. We'd go in the studio and he was almost Method, the way he rapped. I think he was reading books on how to rap. I don't know where you get those from, but he was serious.

"Life's a Happy Song" captures the spirit of the Muppets. Was it the first song to come?

Yes. I wrote it on a piano at home and recorded it on my laptop and sent it to James, and he liked it but said I had to record a more professional demo [laughs]. Because all the other demos were quite fancy, Hollywood demos — fully produced songs. He'd have to go into these meetings with Disney executives and play this recording of me in my living room and then play a song [from someone else] with a full orchestra. So absolutely, that's the most Muppety song. There's something about the simplicity and the innocence to it that really fits in the world.

And as it builds, the song becomes self-aware. It's successful as a musical number, but it's also a parody of a musical number. You can still take it seriously if you want; if you parody something too heavily, it falls apart. I was writing songs to work for themselves, but the pictures really push them over the edge. I was amazed how Jason Segel skipping around in a dandy, pale blue suit, how funny that was for an audience. He's a triple threat: He can act, he can sing and he can almost dance.

That's going in the paper.

[Laughs] He's a funny guy. He has so much enthusiasm, and he's got an amazing voice. It's like he's got a little bit of Meat Loaf in his voice. And then there was the time I was arguing in the studio with Miss Piggy about how to sing a song.

Who won the argument?

I won because she left the studio and I used the takes I wanted to use. [laughs]

Any other highlights?

My daughter, who's 2, would say, "Off to work, Daddy? Muppets?" So she now thinks that Kermit is a friend of mine. Which he kind of is.

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