Past, Present and Future Crowded House: Interview with Neil Finn

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Wait a minute. We know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: “Crowded House?

BUT THE BACKSTAGE RIDER’S LOGO IS THE DEVIL’S HORNS! HER TAGLINE IS A CRIB FROM A SEBADOH SONG! IS SHE ON CRACK?”

Calm, kids! Yes, I’m on crack. But here’s why I love Crowded House.

Since oh about 1985 or so, Crowded House (borne from the ash-end of New Zealand’s Split Enz and made out of Neil Finn, Nick Seymour and Paul Hester) has crafted impeccable pop songs.

Mikala and Neil Finn from Crowded House, 1991Neil Finn, I’d wager, is among the top songwriters of his time. Wholly underrated. Crowded House songs make toes tap and your ears relax. Which is fine. Their songs are mostly a comfort, often poppy, occasionally beautiful, sometimes surprising. And truth be told, once and while a bit too AOR/MOR. But ultimately, Crowded House has cornered the market on simple prettiness.

The BSR Backstory
My history (of course, there’s always history) goes back to 1987. I saw the three-piece perform four songs at a charity AIDS hospice benefit in Toronto. It was their first time in Canada as CH. Met them two years later, in 1989, and this time got autographs. Paul drew a little house with three heads coming out of it and told me to “Stay real”.

In 1991, I ended up befriending the band’s crew (no, not like that). I took their sound guy and tech Angus and Brad shopping at Toronto’s Eaton Centre for new headphones for the boards then ended up backstage at Massey Hall chatting to folk legend Richard Thompson and a depressed and drunk Tim Finn (who’d joined little brother’s band for a spell around the Woodface era). When I asked Finn the Elder about how it must be nice to tour with his family (it was also nephew Liam Finn’s 8th birthday and he was on tour with Daddy and Uncle), he said: “I have no family and I am quite possibly going to slip into a coma. I need a change. Something drastic.” All was clearly not well in Finn-land. He left the band soon after.

Paul HesterMikala and Paul Hester, Crowded House, 1991
That night in 1991 was the second-last time I’d see Paul Hester. This time, he told me he was “checkin’ me out.” It was an improvement on “Stay Real”.

A couple of years later he would remember me, and hug me backstage at a MuchMusic live performance before rushing off, looking stressed. In 1994, when I saw the band again twice, Paul was no longer a part of Crowded House. He rejoined the band only for their farewell shows in 1996.

And on 26 March, 2005 Paul Hester hanged himself.

A couple of nights later I was sitting in the 6th row of the Royal Albert Hall in London (where I lived and would meet and see Neil Finn play live several other times over the years) witnessing an intense and emotional reunion between Neil and Tim Finn, Nick Seymour and Mark Hart, who flew in for the show. So yes, I have history with the band.

But that’s the past.
In 2007, Crowded House reformed with “newest guy” Mark Hart and Matt Sherrod on drums and released an album called Time On Earth. It was a sort of Neil Finn-solo-with-a-side-order-of-the-other-guys album.

And now it’s the present…

…and I’ve dialled in the FUTURE as it sits in New Zealand a day ahead of me. Neil Finn is prepared to talk about Crowded House’s latest – and sneaky – platter, Intriguer. I type “sneaky” because it started off a bit meh, then grew, and now moves with its own charms. It is a comfort. It is pretty.

Neil Finn, let’s chat.

The album is stripped-down, sort of dusty Americana. There’s nothing wasteful on it. But did the music start and stay that way during recording or do you pile on, then peel back?
It’s an unfolding process and there’s not a lot of mystery involved. But it’s just trying to be in the day, really. A song that starts off complicated can end up simple. You sense that something in its nature wants to be stripped back and similarly, songs that may obviously sound like a simple country song can be transformed by the group and I love those moments, I like the unexpected shift.

Were there any like that on Intriguer?
There were, actually, quite a number, like the song “Either Side of the World”. Taht started with a very conventional rock beat and actually became much more aligned with the feeling of the lyrics so I’m really happy with that one. And “Twice if You’re Lucky”. Although it started off pretty much as you hear it now, we went to on a convoluted journey to make it a much more complex song only to realize that it wanted to be simple. The song “Isolation” bears no resemblance to the one we used to play…and it’s really worked and is now one of my favourites on the record.

In some of the songs there’s a sense that you’re pondering the notion of being adrift. Like on “Isolation” and “Amsterdam”. Is that a fair assessment?
Neil Finn at MuchMusic, 1993, backstagerider.com photoThere’s a little bit of that, seeking connection and needing to closer to the ground a bit and things that are adrift. Sure. I don’t think it was something I was conscious of in terms of writing in a theme on the record or aware of when I was writing lyrics, but there’s quite a bit about looking at things from the perspective of getting older. I don’t think, and I certainly hope, that it doesn’t sound designed or any way complaining about it, but I’m trying to acknowledge that coming through…

You’ve got 35 years or so combined with Split Enz, Crowded House, the Finn Brothers, solo…what wisdom have you gathered?
It’s a funny business. In a way you do learn a lot and you get stuff out of every experience you have, but it’s really different when you start the process of writing. You really have to dream away to and drift to capture something that makes you feel…it’s such a mysterious process and that’s why it’s so wonderful in a way. It’s like the first time you hear music, it really is invigorating. You need to love it in order to be able to do it. You need to think it’s the greatest thing you’ve ever done and you need to have a feeling attached to it otherwise I don’t think it can be real music.

What do you miss most about Paul’s presence in the band?
As much as anything, I miss him as a friend. There’s obviously things he did in the band that were unique to him and it’s a sad thought to know that we’ll never be able to do those exact things, nor would we try to resemble it any way. It’ll always be a sad and mysterious thing and I can’t really say more than that.

Liam’s now a well-respected performer in his own right. Does he come to you for advice?
We talk a bit about stuff. We understand both the struggle and we give each other a bit of comfort and inspiration but it’s quite a weird business and I don’t think that I could advise him with any certainty because he’s got to work it out for himself. And my experience doesn’t necessarily count, nor should it…Crowded House 2010

So a few people out there on the Interwebs have questions for you. One is, “what song would you sing around a campfire?”
Oh wow. Hmmm. There’s a song that we like to pull out at family occasions that’s Van Morrison, and it’s “Your Own Ones.” Sorry, I mean it’s called “Irish Heartbeat”. It’s a great campire singalong…though it’s not quite a campfire singalong time of year now but get a nice fire going and that’d be good enough.

Another wanted to know if there is somebody you’d like to collaborate with that you haven’t yet had the chance to?
There’s always a number of people I’d like to play with… but I just had a chance to play on stage with David Byrne in New York on a couple of his songs. Having done that, it’d be awesome to collaborate on something new perhaps, but that’s just a little wishful thought…

What is your greatest sense of achievement around Crowded House? What makes you happy these days?
I’m enjoying this a lot. The shows have all been really good on this tour. One of the nicest things is that we’ve got a community of people who’ve gone a long way back with us, so in a way they give us a lot of latitude. They want us to play the hits sure but they’re also excited to hear things from the fringes…and that gives you a lot of freedom. And it’s a nice feeling.” \m/

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7 Comments

Comments
Aug 17, 2010
9:25 am
#1 Susan :

Thanks for the great interview. Neil is awesome and I am so thankful that he and CH continue to tour in the states. I was at that show when David Byrne came on the stage and I have to say it was mind blowing. Crowded House always put on a great show. They always make you feel that they’re playing for you…PS Love the new album. It’s a grower and a groover.

Aug 17, 2010
10:35 am
#2 Shaun :

Great story Mikala! I envy your access to one of the best talents in music. I’ve been a fan for years and will be flying to San Diego this weekend to watch them perform. Just finally bought the CD and “Amsterdam” is near CH perfection. Looking forward to seeing them live!

Aug 17, 2010
2:53 pm
#3 Chris Hooper :

Great interview. I’ve always been a huge fan. I saw them here in Van on their first tour in ‘86 or ‘87? It’s still one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.

Author Aug 17, 2010
3:05 pm
#4 Mikala :

Thanks for the comments, folks. :)

Aug 18, 2010
5:44 am

Another great interview. How do you keep this up? AND, you even worked in a mention of the Split Enz. Awesome. Oh, and nice pictures.

Aug 22, 2010
1:08 am
#6 Fluffy John :

Lovely interview, Mikala! Being a Crowdie myself, I really appreciate his final comment about the range of material they’re able to play at gigs: they played “Lester” during the encore at a recent show in London – I absolutely love that song, and never thought I’d get to hear it live, being an obscure track from an obscure record. Beautiful stuff…

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