“Seems to me that the musicians responsible for the soundtrack to filmmaker Taika Waititi’s recent triumph Hunt for the Wilderpeople played no small part in its success. The band goes by the name Moniker but is made up of core members of Wellington’s The Phoenix Foundation. They share with Waititi a sly sense of humour and a playful but polished craftsmanship that means that the song and the cinema are a close fit.
Thinking about the music after watching the film pushed me towards The Phoenix Foundation’s back catalogue. They’ve never been at the top of my playlist: The humour can be a bit too arch and the tone too self absorbed and the whole a bit rootless. That being said, their 2015 album Give Up Your Dreams is worth a listen and the title track is a cracker.
The song describes a band thinking about their career and the struggle to make a living from music. This reflects the reality of being a “Kiwi band” — a group might enjoy critical acclaim and have a loyal fan-base but sweat to make a sustainable income. “Sitting at the back of the van / . . . wonder if you can / get up and walk out of this catastrophic career / . . . I’ve been writing jingles / bloggin’, makin’ movies and worse,” sings the narrator.
In a 2014 interview the band told Radio New Zealand National, “Sometimes [making a living from music] is a horrible, terrifying nightmare, but we’re still doing what we love”, but it seems in this song that the struggle to cobble together a living is getting too much for the narrator. “Can anyone help me, it’s starting to fall apart at the seams,” he says. “I’m a loser and I’m losing my belief / . . . ain’t gonna make it so let’s break up and move on.” However, this aspect of the song is “a bit of a joke” as they explained in another RNZ interview last year.
The band do love what they’re doing and want to carry on — “We’re doing fine” — and they wrote the song as something of a reminder to just get on with it.
“‘Give Up Your Aspirations’ might be a better title, ‘cause I think it is really about that aspirational culture we’re told we have to follow’,” Samuel Flynn Scott, one of the band’s songwriters and singers, told RNZ. “It’s an anti-aspirational thing,” fellow vocalist- songsmith Luke Buda added. “There’s a lot of pressure to have an exceptional life.”
The band discussed the way many people curate their lives on social media, displaying only the most interesting features of their daily existence and leaving out the small, ordinary parts, seeing them as worthless. This aspect of the song, the truth behind the jest, is what struck a chord with me.
My wife and I recently welcomed our third child and his arrival has brought into focus again what my life is really about: loving and serving my family. This is often hard, small and ordinary — even in the midst of the utter joy of sharing a house with my best friend and three wee dynamos — and Give Up Your Dreams has been a prompt to continue to work on the ongoing project of resisting the temptation towards a life that in any given moment could put lying on the couch with my feet up ahead of getting the kids in the bath or doing the dishes.
“Go grab a pitchfork and stab it in the heart / All your dreamin’,” the narrator sings, and I’m reminded that the daily struggle to put others before self requires active choices that sometimes may require a certain violence.
But another voice — a divine one? Or the narrator’s wiser self? — speaks late in the song. “Don’t let anyone tell you that all your dreams will come true / . . . The world is a cold, dark planet floating through infinite space / on a ceaseless journey to its own destruction / and all we can do about it is be all right about things and get on with stuff.” Bleak but not necessarily nihilistic. It continues, “You’re not a loser / You’re a human / and I love you”. There’s the guts of the song: I need to remember that to flourish as a human requires a choice to love others more than I love myself, and that love, God and grace are found not in seeking my own ease, not in trying to meet the pressure from the world to aspire to a certain kind of glossy existence, not in dreaming unanchored dreams, but in the minutiae — the drudgery, often — of daily life.
“Your daily encounter with Christ takes place right where you work,” said St Josemaria Escriva. “There we must seek sanctity, in the midst of the most material things of the Earth, serving God and all humankind.”
Or as The Phoenix Foundation might put it: “I love you: be all right about things and get on with stuff.”