Bret McKenzie Talks Muppets, Ricky Gervais, 'Flight of the Conchords' Film

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The former "Flight of the Conchords" star has been busy writing music for "Muppets Most Wanted" since winning an Oscar composing for its 2011 predecessor

The Muppets are currently back in theaters with "Muppets Most Wanted," a sequel to the 2011 blockbuster that won songwriter/comedian Bret McKenzie a Best Original Song Oscar for "Man or Muppet." McKenzie returned as the music supervisor for the "Muppets Most Wanted" soundtrack, which entered this week at No. 68 on the Billboard 200 and No. 4 on the soundtrack chart. "The songs are very story-driven," he says of reprising his Muppets work. "I get the script and the characters' perspective comes out from where the story is going. We got these total heavyweights, this killer L.A. session band. I loosely directed them and I'm doing Muppet impressions while they're playing along."

After initially breaking out as "Bret" on HBO's cult comedy "Flight of the Conchords," McKenzie's full-time gig these days has shifted to more behind-the-scenes work with soundtracks and scripts. Billboard spoke to him earlier this week from his home in New Zealand, where he detailed his latest Muppet creations, why Ricky Gervais might be the next Meat Loaf, his new projects and more.

You resumed your duties as music supervisor for "Muppets Most Wanted." What was different this time?

I did all the songs. Last time, I did two or three of them. I came on board at the beginning, whereas last time I came on halfway through and helped sort things out. From the beginning, I was trying to write a group of songs as a whole, rather than doing one at a time. The studio trusted me a lot more. I don't think anyone at the studio really knew what ("Flight of the Conchords") was. So they just saw some random New Zealander who just walked in. They weren't sure what I was up to last time. This time, they were hands off and really supportive.

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You had to prove yourself the first time around, to write songs for Muppets.

[Laughs.] Exactly. The weird thing about the Muppets is that they're kind of sacred and silly at the same time. I'm from a generation that grew up with the Muppets, so I took the job pretty seriously. I didn't want to ruin the legacy [laughs]. Even with Conchords stuff, when we were doing songs that were parodies, they were more a homage than parody.

After the success of the last soundtrack and "Man or Muppet," do you have any theories as to why people connect to songs sung by Muppets?

It's very weird writing a song that's going to be sung by a puppet. Now I'm an expert. One of the key elements of the Muppets success, is that they're not perfect. And that makes them incredibly relatable. There's so much character in their voices and performances; it's so human in a weird way. Some of the key characters like Kermit, Piggy and Fozzie -- they really hold up 40 years later. Working on the movie, you forget that they're puppets [laughs].

Is it easier for you to write for the Muppets now? Do you have their perspective down better?

A lot easier. I now do the demos myself, doing bad Muppet impressions. They're getting quite good now. My Miss Piggy almost made it into the film. Miss Piggy is my strong Muppet voice. If everything turns south, I could launch a career doing a Miss Piggy tour.

Like a weird, grown adult male Miss Piggy cover band.

[Laughs]. Yes, a Miss Piggy Tribute Band.

The Muppets covered "Moves Like Jagger" on the new soundtrack. What makes a pop song "Muppetable" ?

The best ones have an animal reference in them. Elton John's "Crocodile Rock" is one of my favorites. Cee-Lo's "Fuck You" was quite cute with the chickens.

Did you work with Ricky Gervais?

We were in the studio, when we did his vocal in London. I'm a big fan of his. You know he had a band in the '80s?

Yeah. I feel like he's got a great rock and roll voice. He could really pursue a Bruce Springsteen-type career if he wanted. He's got a big, powerful, gravely [voice]. It's got a Meatloaf quality as well. If only he could keep himself from giggling during his performances. That would be one of the problems with his rock and roll show. He'd crack up too much.

Did you two ever kick around a music-based project?

We didn't actually. But that's a good idea.

You mentioned "Flight of the Conchords." A few years ago, there was talk of a film being written. How's that going?

Um ... very slowly would be an exaggeration. We haven't really cracked that one. It'll happen at the right time.

What new projects are you working on?

I'm working on a fairy tale musical for Warner Brothers. That's in the early stages. I'm writing the songs for that. I'm working on a couple scripts. A Fox animated comedy, about a NASA base. An obsolete NASA base. It's still in development. We're still drawing pictures, and I'm working on the scripts. The working title is called "Work Space."

Because you won the Oscar for "Man or Muppet," did you vote for the winning song this past year?

No. I don't think you automatically become ... or I didn't fill out the right form, but I didn't vote for that.

There's probably some forms you need to fill out.

A lot of forms, I don't get, because I live in New Zealand. I'm a big fan of the song "Happy." I was disappointed that didn't win.