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INTERVIEW: What is Congress of Animals?

06 November 2018

Congress of Animals is what happens when a bunch of NZ’s most prolific and respected musical talent gets together and jams without any particular goal in mind.

Included in the group is Bret McKenzie (Flight of the Conchords), Age Pryor (Fly My Pretties, Woolshed Sessions, Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra), Justin Firefly (Fly My Pretties, Woolshed Sessions), Nigel Collins (Flight of the Conchords, Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra) and Ben Lemi (Trinity Roots, French For Rabbits).

I spoke to Age Pryor who, despite the legendary lineage of the bands members, still described it as a “little collaborative project”.

What is congress of animals?

We’re calling it a loose collective. So it’s a little collaborative project and it’s come about because a few friends were kind of jamming with each other kind of casually and we started working out these songs without really having any plan. We weren’t trying to start a band, it was nothing like that, we just wanted to play some music together just for fun and it’s grown the more we’ve done it and the more we’ve got together and we’ve kind of ended up with this quite large repertoire of songs.

So we’ve kind of just decided it’s time to actually play them because it seems crazy to have all these songs that we’re working on and trying out that we think are good and nobody hearing them. So we decided it’s time to get on the road and play them.

So when you formed you didn’t really have any goal in mind?

No, we still don’t really have a goal in mind. We’re not trying to be a band or a working entity of any kind, we’re just playing together because we enjoy it and we feel like we’ve got a sound that’s just kind of happened of its own accord. And to be honest I think it’s the best way for a band to form, like obviously it is a band because we’re playing shows but we haven’t really ever been thinking of it like that and I just know of lots of other groups that I’ve been involved in and my friends have been involved in and that have come about in this way and actually kind of ended up doing quite a lot because they started from what I think is the right place which is just starting with music.

It must be kind of liberating just making music, doing what you love

Exactly, and I think that’s why, that’s the whole point, it’s because all of us are musicians and we all work in music all the time so sometimes the business can take over. In fact inevitably the business takes over, like it’s actually it’s one of my personal things I always get annoyed by because there’s always more business to do than than there is music. Like you’ll spend a lot of time in the music but there’s always more to do around that to get it out and get it seen, to tour it, to get your recordings out, all that kind of stuff. There’s all this stuff behind the scenes that nobody actually got into music for in the first place.

So looking for little ways that we can circumvent that and get back to focusing on the music as the first priority.

How does the songwriting work?

So everyone brings songs to the group that they’ve written themselves and for that moment they’ll direct the group on what to do., So everyone is producing their own tunes for the live shows and for the recordings, so whoever wrote the song it will be their call on how it’s arranged and what it should sound like. But there’s also the joy of finding surprises in what other people from the group might bring to the song, so it’s a very kind of open collaboration in that sense.

I’ve been comparing it most to Fly My Pretties, it’s kind of a similar model. When you go to a fly my pretties show you’ll see a bunch of different songs from a bunch of different people who are playing in the band.

So it’s like a congress more than a collective

For us it feels kind of more joined together, like it’s kind of like a special meeting not a permanent fixture. I guess in a congress you might make a bunch of decisions together and we’re doing that in a musical format. I kind of like the mix of formal and temporary that that word implies.

How does the live show work?

There is a bit of instrument swapping because we’ve never actually played the song before, we’re just rehearsing it up at the moment, it’s never been performed and Dunedin will see the second ever performance of it. So we’re as excited as anybody else to find out what form it actually takes. We are swapping instruments a fair bit, everyone in the band can play a bunch of different instruments, so we’re trying to limit how much we’re swapping around just for easy logistics but there is a bit of to and fro.

The things I’m liking about it is there’s a lot of variety from one songs to another because there’s a lot of different styles and different songwriter so moving from one song to another is quite fun because they’re so different.

The quality of the songs stay the same but, it’s a little bit hard to describe but you can kind of feel the essence of the write in each song.

This group is a bit of a kind of symbolic turning point for me because it’s nice to be coming back to original songs because I was missing that a bit with the ukulele orchestra because we’re doing lots of covers, so it’s really nice to be back kind of really celebrating original writing and playing with friends and doing all this original music again that’s all brand new.

Are you more happy in collaborative space?

Definitely, I have put out solo albums as well but they’re collaborative as well, I’ll get friends in to play with me and do parts. Yeah I think it’s actually the thing I like most about music and probably what got me into it in the first place is that it is a means to hang out with other people and do something meaningful with other people.

Anything else?

We’re really looking forward to playing in Dunedin and I encourage folks in Dunedin to come see it because I think it’s a special show, I think it will be special in the sense that it won’t ever be like this again, it’s a kind of one off special event and a bit of a custom project that won’t necessarily be around in this form for long term. So I think if people want to see, especially if people like any of the bands any of the bands that we’ve come from, like any Concords fans or Trinity fans or Fly My Pretty fans or Ukulele Orchestra fans it’d be a chance to see people that they’re familiar with from those contexts in a different setting and yeah, I think it’s going to be really good.

Do you think potentially this could be the only tour you do?

Absolutely, could be, we just have no idea how far it’s going to go because we’re just trying not to make many plans about it, not to cement anything down. So as far as we know this is the only time we’ll be playing Dunedin ever, but it may happen, I hope it does but we don’t know.


Obscure and unofficial media from gigs in Dunedin, New Zealand since 2014. More Info