The album comes by those characteristics naturally. Finn and his family opened their home (and his home studio) in New Zealand for three weeks last Christmastime to most of the crew from the previous 7 Worlds incarnation — Johnny Marr, Ed O’Brien and Phil Selway from Radiohead, Sebastian Steinberg, Lisa Germano — as well as newbies including Wilco, KT Tunstall, and down-under singer-songwriters Don McGlashan, Bic Runga, and Glenn Richards. The sessions were, by all accounts, full of frivolity, on-the-spot collaboration, and various forms (this being the holiday season) of good cheer; they also marked a musical reunion for various Finn family members including brother Tim, sons Liam and Elroy, and — singing on record for the first time — Neil’s wife Sharon.
In addition to preparing and publicizing The Sun Came Out (which emerges tomorrow in the U.S.), Finn has been readying a new Crowded House album for release this winter and has recently found time to play a few gigs (with and without his 7 Worlds compatriots) in London and Los Angeles. His interview with Popdose, patched in from New Zealand through his U.S. publicist’s office (thus saving your intrepid interviewer a whopping phone bill), found him answering queries about the minutiae of long-past Crowded House gigs as well as reader questions ranging from the profound to the ridiculous. (Sadly, dear reader who calls himself “maxus,” he had no answer whatsoever for the question, “Imagine if writing songs in flat keys suddenly became a major felony. How would you imagine a day in Neil Finn’s Violent Life of Crime, circa September 2010?”) Here’s a live clip from the first 7 Worlds Collide project:
I was at one of the solo shows you did at Largo here in L.A. last month, but unfortunately didn’t make the 7 Worlds Collide show the night before. How did you come to play that series of gigs, considering there was no tour attached?
I was there to do some mixing with Jim Scott [who produced The Sun Came Out], at his studio in [suburban] Santa Clarita. I hadn’t had a chance to play in the new Largo since it moved, though I had been in the old place a number of times. Originally I was just going to do the two solo shows, but as it turned out we had an opportunity to bring several of the 7 Worlds artists in and do that Sunday-night show. It suddenly became a very intense experience – it was a lot of repertoire to learn in a very short time.
The set lists for those weeknight gigs were sort of a wet dream for Neil Finn cultists – mostly album tracks from One Nil/One All and the Finn Brothers albums. Were you looking to accomplish something in particular with them, or were you just testing [Largo resident renaissance man] Jon Brion’s ability to master your back catalog?
It’s always appealing to put Jon through his paces, because he’s really at his best when he barely knows the song. There’s also the attraction of performing a set like that in a small venue like the Largo — it’s a room that responds really well to quiet, reverential music. I like to drag some of those old songs out once in a while and give them an airing.
It was a joyous thing, those shows. We barely had any monitoring up onstage, as you might have noticed. We had to listen very intently to one another, and Elroy was hitting the drums as lightly as he possibly could. But it worked out very well in that room.
Tell me about the impetus behind the new album – why did it happen now? Was it difficult to lure the various artists to your place at the same time?
It was something that had been brewing for a while, actually. I’d been talking to various 7 Worlds people, and there was generally a great desire to get back together and do another album. Finally somebody said, “I’m free at Christmas,” and I thought that would be great. That’s the beginning of summertime here, and I thought, why not bring everybody to my place? I thought it was a cool idea for a happening.
As it turned out, only one person couldn’t make it from the first time – Eddie Vedder’s wife was having a baby around that time. But we were great fans of Wilco, and I had sent them a wishful e-mail, and they turned up, which was fantastic. The whole thing just seemed to gather its own momentum. The logistics of actually getting everybody there aside, I was amazed at the willingness and the energy on the ground.
Recording the album on your “home turf,” as we call it here – did that make the sessions easier for you, or more challenging? And how did it affect the others?
It’s hard to relate everybody’s experiences, but for me it was a really nice time. They flew in, and then they were blown away to be at Piha [a beach hear Finn’s house] at Christmastime with the sun out, with waves crashing and a lot of good people around. We spent a couple days just sitting around getting to know each other, and then it took a while to gear up – there was a bit of circling, finding a rhythm. But once a few songs started to get made, everybody settled into it. I wasn’t always in the studio – I had to be a bit more involved at the fringes, making runs to the airport and things like that.
The album has a laid-back, family-and-friends vibe that’s very unusual for a charity album. To me, it feels in some ways like the McGarrigle Hour album from about a decade ago [which featured a bevy of McGarrigles, Wainwrights, Roches and others]. Was that a feeling you were going for during the sessions?
I’m only dimly familiar with the album you’re talking about, and I wasn’t thinking along any particular lines when we set out. But the album certainly turned out that way. I’ve been asked a bit about [the sessions] since then, and I’ve realized that we created quite a unique situation. There have been many compilations done for charities, but usually the acts contribute from wherever they’re recording at the moment, or songs come from a variety of places. There’s not usually the sense of an actual happening, a gathering of people in this sort of communal environment. It really was special. We had people going off in groups to work on specific things together, or somebody would be writing a song with one person and then would be called in to do backing vocals on something else.
Switching subjects … My favorite track on One Nil is “Turn and Run.” I know you wrote it before 9/11, and you probably wrote it about personal issues, but to me that song is all about what started out as, and should have remained, America’s reaction to that day. (Not in a Glenn Beck way, of course.) Do you hear that from people a lot?
You know, no one’s ever said that to me before. But I have made that connection myself — the lyrics do lend themselves to that interpretation. Of course, that’s not something you would go and talk about, as the person who wrote the song — I wasn’t about to offer up to someone in the press, “Isn’t it interesting how ‘Turn and Run’ sounds like it’s about 9/11?” But I thought about it afterward – there are some lines on that track that turned out to be prescient. I’m happy about it, as long as the sentiment that comes out of that connection is a positive one.
That was a weird time. I wrote the song “Human Kindness” afterward – I believe it was on the album when it came out in the States [as One All]. It references 9/11 only indirectly, but I couldn’t help but write something in the aftermath. All the creative people I knew were affected by it – though, obviously, different people responded to it in different ways, and I don’t know too many who wrote specifically about it.
What’s your attitude now toward the changes that turned One Nil into One All? Was that your idea, to make the changes once the album was finally getting a U.S. release, or were the changes suggested by the label?
I’m trying to remember exactly what happened with that – it’s been a while.
A number of the tracks were remixed, and a couple were replaced with new songs.
Right. Well, the remixes came about because, when you sit with something you’ve done and then have an opportunity to try and improve it … I can’t resist tinkering. The label didn’t have much to do with it – but considering the time that had passed between the initial release and getting a deal for the U.S., maybe the idea of freshening [the album] up a bit was a good thing. I’m sure there are people that prefer each version over the other.
OK, I’m going to move on to some reader questions, then circle back around to some more of my own. Here’s one: Were there things that you didn’t like (creatively or managerially) when you were in Split Enz, swore you’d do differently the next time, yet found yourself doing all over again in Crowded House and as a solo act?
Well … hmm … that’s an interesting question. It’s a long time ago, now. Management-wise, through both Split Enz and Crowded House we were not blessed with great management, to be honest. But one thing I’ve become aware of is how important it is for a manager to manage relationships within a band. That really should be a primary focus. Getting the band to submit to a particular program [of events] should be secondary. We definitely suffered from that exploitative attitude, of people trying to program us too heavily.
Creatively, in Crowded House I was obviously able to be a lot more in control than I was in Split Enz. There were a lot of issues in Split Enz, things I would write that didn’t sound much like what I imagined them to be by the time the band had gotten through with them.
Was that a communication problem between you and Tim?
Well, not entirely. That was a forceful band. Everyone was very opinionated, and we had a way of presenting things [in terms of production] that didn’t allow a lot of space or openness in the songs. We got a lot more layered in Crowded House. I don’t know — any time you’re working with a group of people you end up with some of the same dilemmas. But I like to think we didn’t end up polishing things so much with Crowded House. We let the songs breathe more, and we didn’t mind if the final product wound up a little unkempt.
You know, sometimes it’s … it’s like dealing with people who are obsessed with cleaning house. After a while, you can walk through and everything is spotless, but it winds up seeming … a little too formal. It can seem like nobody actually lives there.
That’s a pretty good analogy. Did you just come up with that one?
Yeah, I guess. Cleaning house … I guess that’s maybe too close a metaphor for my history …
Well, speaking of which, is there a release date for the new Crowded House album? And what sort of mood will it have?
Huh … another interesting question … I don’t know if I can describe what kind of mood it will have. It will be out early next year, I can tell you that. It’s hard to say what mood it has, but it’s definitely an album made by a band. It has some exotic elements on it … hmmm … well, anything I do is going to have some melancholy, and some buoyancy as well. There’s some of both those things on it.
Might there be a Split Enz reunion tour outside Australia and New Zealand in the future?
I would never say never, but it’s very unlikely. There are a number of things stopping it from happening – there’s everything going on in other people’s lives, and I have a lot of things I’m working on over the next 12 months. Don’t get me wrong — I’m sure it’d be a lot of fun, I’m not saying it wouldn’t be, but I’d be worried that it might be too much of a nostalgic exercise. Beyond that, we’d have to work out a lot of things, particularly how we could do a tour in a way that would allow us to make some money. You know, it’s not like here, where we know there’s a built-in audience for anything we’d do. To go to Europe or the States, it’s hard to know what types of venues we’d be able to play, and whether it would be worth the effort financially.
As long as we’re on the subject of reunions, is there any chance of another Finn Brothers project sometime soon, or perhaps a Finns record with Liam, Elroy and Tim?
Well, I guess anything’s possible — and obviously, with all the questions you’re asking, there’s a lot for me to think about. There are no plans now for a Finn Brothers record, but there are some things circling around in my mind, in terms of family-related projects. We have a terrific time working together, Liam and Elroy and myself, and we’re always looking for opportunities to do things. And now that Sharon has sort of announced herself, that adds another level of possibilities.
So she wasn’t shy about being part of The Sun Came Out?
Oh, she loved it! It’s just a question of maintaining the same feel we had when we were working on that. You know, we started “Little By Little” as a jam upstairs, in our pajamas. We wouldn’t want to leap straight from something like that into anything too formal or structured.
Well, here’s a corollary question from a reader: It seems like everyone in the family is thriving creatively. Is it something in the water down there? Or are we someday going to hear stories from Liam and Elroy about what an awful stage dad you are?
(laughs) Well, as long as it’s a good story, I don’t mind. You know, when it comes to this business, you find that a good story is always more important than the truth.
I don’t think there’s anything in the water — but I do think there’s something in the genes. When we play together something is understood, something is instinctive, that you don’t get when you’re working with other people. Sharon is certainly less of a “musician,” in terms of being trained formally, but she has an unshakable feel, and that’s a great discovery. With the boys, we’ve always given them an open-door policy to do whatever they choose. They’ve become excellent musicians themselves – and anytime they want to work together, all the better.
Here’s an interesting question: Imagine Bill Gates became your patron, gave you an unlimited budget, and said, “Go make an album in a completely different style, something you’ve always wanted to try.” In what direction do you think you might turn?
I think I would do something that’s totally instrumental. Something completely, willfully obscure would be quite a good alternative, I’d think. I wouldn’t have to face any of the normal dilemmas.
Well, in terms of finishing lyrics, matching the middle eight to the third verse, the things that give me trouble in my normal songwriting process. I’d love to do a record that’s totally … well, not obscure, I don’t mean that it would lack melody or be completely inaccessible, but it would be interesting to do something where I didn’t have to worry at all about its commercial prospects. I have music like that tucked away in a drawer, of course.
Well, thinking back to the opposite extreme … I saw Crowded House a couple times on your first American tour back in 1987, and I don’t think I’ve ever attended shows that made me so giddy as an audience member. The three of you at the front of the stage together so much of the time, clowning around, and Paul mostly using the brushes. How do you look back on those days?
Those gigs are one of the strongest and best memories, for me, of that whole period. That’s where we learned to be a band, really. We stripped away all the artifice and polish and got down to what we actually do. We learned to sing together. We could tell we were pulling people in with us — that intimacy between us extended out to the audiences. It’s a pretty amazing feeling, to look out and see them leaning forward in their seats — you can see it happening in front of you. And then, when you mix in the humor of someone like Paul, a sense of anarchy ensues.
Why do you think the whole world is so fascinated with Kanye’s outburst? It wasn’t something people were expecting – it didn’t follow the script. I think about that and I think, Don’t we all want things to go wrong now and then? That’s what makes life interesting. And that’s what we were looking for in Crowded House, when we were playing in that format in particular. We were so free in that format, and we were delighted when things would go wrong.
And then I go from thinking about that to thinking of a show I saw you play at the Roseland Ballroom in New York on the last tour [in 1994], and all of that spirit seemed to be gone.
I remember that night – it was one of the last shows we played with Paul in the band. That wasn’t a particularly happy night for us. Paul was in bad shape. Kurt Cobain had just killed himself a couple days before, if I remember. There wasn’t much positive going on that night. Really, it was not a particularly happy tour overall. I remember one thing, though — there was no better show on that tour than Paul’s last night with us, in Atlanta. We knew he was going, and the breaking of that tension helped us all have a very good, very fun night. Once he had left the tour we had some buoyant nights, though I’m not sure the quality of the performances was the same as it had been before. But Paul wasn’t a happy man, and that kind of dominated that tour for us.
[Here’s some more-lighthearted banter from a post-Atlanta TV appearance in Australia:]
I remember a show in Philadelphia on the Woodface tour, when you played “Sister Madly” and then forlornly said, “Temple of Low Men wasn’t such a bad little album, was it?” Was that indicative of some frustration with Americans’ failure to stick with Crowded House after the success of the first album?
I don’t remember that specifically – I suppose that comment might have been connected with any number of thoughts I was having at that time. But you can wake up on the wrong side of the bed one morning and wonder why people aren’t paying attention to you the way you think they ought to, or why this album wasn’t as successful as that album. But that way lies madness. If you start fixating on what should have been, you lose focus on what you’re doing now, and that’s not a good way to move forward.
Everybody has those kinds of dilemmas, anyway. If you have mega-success you just have different dilemmas. Nobody’s home free. I bet you that U2, for all their success, have been pissed off that some record didn’t do as well as the one before that. Aspirations shift continually — from making great music, to being recognized, to winning awards, to selling lots of records. It’s part of the territory.
Anybody who says they don’t have ambitions for success either has a monk-like demeanor — and good on them if they can do that! — but everybody else has status anxiety. The trick is turning those things into positive action, rather than moping about. Jealousy, anger, all the negative emotions, can be turned into positives if you use them to push you onward.