Interview Date: 07/09/2010
Run Date: 07/20/2010
Neil Finn has been in the music business since the late 1970s, when he stepped into the band Split Enz, a band founded by his brother, Tim, but after making a name for himself within that group, he ventured forth to build his own. Since releasing their self-titled album in 1986, Crowded House has been together and apart, but at present, their status is the former: they’ve just released a new album, Intriguer, and are currently in the process of touring the world and elsewhere. Bullz-Eye caught up with Mr. Finn recently, and we chatted about the current state of Crowded House, the possibility of a Finn Family Band album in the future (his son, Liam, is a fine musician in his own right), and which song is harder to cover: “Billie Jean” or “Sexual Healing.”
Neil Finn: Yeah, hi, is that Will?
Bullz-Eye: It is!
NF: Hi, it’s Neil Finn here, Will.
BE: How are you, sir?
NF: I am well, and I am reporting in for my interview.
BE: (Laughs) Excellent news. Well, I guess it would be only appropriate to begin by chatting about the new album, Intriguer. I know that Jim Scott had produced the previous 7 Worlds Collide album. Did you guys just kind of stumble upon him because of the Wilco connection?
NF: Yeah, when the 7 Worlds Collide record was being conceived, I asked the Wilco guys if there was anybody that they had worked with that they would recommend for this project, ‘cause I was still considering who might be the best, and they suggested Jim. And Jim was just an absolute joy to work with on that, such a positive presence, always moving things forward. Then I thought he would be great for the Crowded House record, and, again, he was a joy to work with.
BE: My understanding is that the last record, Time on Earth, was a project that had originally begun as a solo album but evolved into a Crowded House album.
NF: That’s right, yeah.
BE: What was the difference going into Intriguer? I know it was intended as a Crowded House album, but did it feel like one while you were making it?
NF: Yeah. We had a lot of miles together under our belt as a band again, and we’d played a lot of gigs. The intuition and instinct was back and was there, we’d spent a good amount of time working the songs out from scratch all together, road tested them, so, yeah, I just think there’s a more cohesive nature to it. It feels more like a band record. I mean, I certainly don’t feel bad about Time on Earth in that regard. I think it has a great presence to it in my mind, but this feels more like a band record. It feels like everyone’s got a bigger part and the character of the band is more on show.
BE: Yeah, I’d heard that you’d road tested the songs a bit. Which of the tracks would you say evolved the most from inception to actually laying them down in the studio?
NF: Well, there are quite a few that really changed and developed a lot. “Isolation” is one. The way we originally played that one on stage a couple of years ago, it was a completely different song, really. There’s one line that, melodically and lyrically, stayed the same, and that’s the title line. There are a few people who have bootleg recordings of that first incarnation of that song who were quite shocked by what happened to it on the record. But it serves them right for listening to bootlegs! (Laughs)
BE: I understand that Jon Brion contributed some samples to “Twice If You’re Lucky.”
NF: Yes. In his normal flamboyant manner, he came in and, barely listening to the track, with a little sampling keyboard, recorded his own voice seven times and played an amazing little part, and then he did some guitar as well. I mean, Jon’s fantastic when he doesn’t know the song. (Laughs)
BE: Obviously, you’ve worked with him many times before, but how did you guys cross paths in the first place?
NF: I was taken to Largo by Grant Lee Phillips years ago. We’d just done a gig together, and it was part of his community in L.A.. It was such a revelation to get to see Jon play, and then to get up and play with him and see how loose and unscripted that whole thing at Largo is, it totally fitted and suited what I was trying to do. Yeah, I’ve been a regular there ever since, and I’ve had the pleasure of playing with Jon so many occasions now. It’s been really great.
BE: I know that Liam turns up on the new album, at least to a small extent. Do you guys anticipate working together more consistently in the future?
NF: Well, I look forward to working with him in a more significant way at some point when our paths and schedules intersect. We both talk about it, and I’m sure it will happen, but he’s busy making his second solo record now. But he may be in New York in the coming weeks, and we’ll probably get him up on stage when we play in New York, so there’ll be occasions.
BE: I have visions of there someday being a Finn Family Band album.
NF: That’s a good possibility, yeah. There’s all sorts of permutations that are possible. To further confuse the general public. (Laughs)
BE: You mentioned how the band had grown together over the course of many gigs together, but how quickly did the line-up gel once Matt Sherrod joined the ranks?
NF: Well, Matt is an incredibly solid presence and a wonderful person to have around. He’s very positive has a really great feel, and he’s now, I think, grown into the band in the sense that he and I…when I’m playing my acoustic and presenting a song, he slips into just the right amount of swing in his playing, which is something that you just get from doing a bunch of gigs and playing a lot together. The chemistry…there’s a certain amount that you get straight from the very start, but there’s a certain amount that you earn from playing a lot of shows together.
BE: I’m curious what you think about fans who have followed the band from the very beginning but haven’t grown musically in the same way that you have. Like, for instance, say they love the more propulsive stuff, but then they hear an album like Intriguer and think, “This is a bit more laid-back than I’d been hoping for.”
NF: Well, I mean, everyone sees it a different way, but it’s funny you should say that, ‘cause I just spoke to someone before you who thought it was a more propulsive album than the last one. (Laughs) I think it just depends on which songs rise to the surface and what mood you’re in when you listen to it. You know, albums reveal themselves over a period of time, I think. Some of our fans…you pick up some and you lose some along the way. Not forever necessarily, but…I know myself there are artists who I love and who I would regard as my favorite artists on the planet, but I don’t buy every record they put out and I don’t tune in every time they put a record out, so you have to accept that to some extent. People come and go, and then years later sometimes…I mean, I’m a huge Neil Young fan, and I didn’t listen to the album On the Beach for the whole time I was growing up and loving his records, and it wasn’t particularly because I didn’t like it. I think I probably listened to it once and nothing particularly picked up. But it’s become one of my favorites now, and over the passage of time, certain albums reveal themselves.
BE: Our music editor, who’s been a fan of yours for years, said something along the lines of, “I don’t expect them to write an entire album’s worth of songs like ‘Locked Out,’ but I’d at least like one or two.”
NF: Yeah, well, I mean, there’s a song called “Saturday Sun” which…it’s not like “Locked Out,” but it’s pretty up-tempo. But if he wants us to write faster songs, then maybe… (Starts to laugh) I don’t know, that just seems like a strange thing to do for its own sake.
BE: With Time on Earth, I was wondering how you hooked up with Ethan Johns. I thought he did a really good job on that album.
NF: Yeah, he did. He didn’t do the whole record, but he did most of it. I’ve known Ethan for awhile…I met up with him at Largo, actually, funnily enough…and we talked about doing a record years ago, so it was great to work him. He’s nice, and he’s made…I think his influence on the records he’s made in the last ten years has been really obvious. The Kings of Leon, the three albums he’s made with them, in particular, I think have a certain charm that… (Hesitates) I’m not knocking their last one, but it has a bit more of a stadium feeling about it somehow.
BE: What would you say is the most underrated Crowded House album?
NF: Uh… (Laughs) That’s a hard question. By what standards? How do you rate them? I mean, if you’ve been on the website, which I very rarely do but occasionally have, where the fans’ forums are, they discuss those kinds of issues quite at depth, and there are people who’ll swear that Temple of Low Men is the best album we ever made, and there are people who’ll swear that it’s the worst album we ever made. And there’ll be people who think this is the worst album we’ve ever made, and then some will say it’s the best. It’s just…I don’t know if there’s a quorum. I guess I wouldn’t know. (Laughs) But in America, I think Together Alone didn’t get as much notice as it should’ve. To me, that’s my favorite Crowded House album, but for some reason, in this country it didn’t really get that much credit. So possibly my answer is Together Alone. Possibly. (Laughs)
BE: How do you approach albums nowadays as far as the promotion process goes, given how much radio has changed in Crowded House’s career to date? Do you have certain expectations for your albums that you’ve adjusted along with the marketplace?
NF: Well, I’m trying to be realistic about the way things are. Radio is…well, I don’t think it’s ever been particularly easy for us. We struggled for six months to get any radio on our first album, and then suddenly something picked up. I think there’s always a possibility, but I don’t think it’s good to plan around massive radio exposure. I think we’re very lucky to have a live audience that comes to see us play, and they’re a community of people who are very dependable and turn up, and we’re delighted about that. As I say, I take a long-term view of albums: all the artists I love, without exception, really, have had peaks and troughs in their career commercially and airplay-wise. In fact, I wouldn’t expect to hear most of the albums that I love on any kind of radio, except maybe some community radio out there somewhere.
BE: When it comes to doing a Crowded House setlist nowdays, do you try to spread it out amongst all of the albums? Do you just do a best-of set plus a few scattered tracks from the new record? How do you approach it?
NF: We try and give coverage to all the records, but it’s really hard to get everything in there, obviously, ‘cause there’s a lot of songs. We change the set every night. We mix it up. Some people are going to miss out on their favorites, and some people are going to be delighted to get some obscurities that they didn’t expect to get. But I think it’s more important to make every show a unique experience rather than try and provide a greatest-hits experience to everybody. I think that the people who are coming along are coming based on a long association with the band, and they quite like to hear things that are a little bit less obvious.
BE: Do you have a preference when it comes to playing electric versus acoustic?
NF: No, not really. I mean, any given night can be a transcendent thing, you know, depending on how tuned in you are and how tuned in the audience is. It’s the nature of the day sometimes.
BE: I realize this is kind of a broad question, but I’m curious which permutation of your career has been your favorite. I’m sure it’s hard to nail down, but between Split Enz, Crowded House, Finn Brothers, and your solo work, is there any where you’ve been pleased nearly 100% of the time?
NF: You’re right: I can’t really make that differentiation. (Laughs) But in recent times, we had an extraordinary experience making the 7 Worlds Collide record recently. We released a double album with some amazingly talented people occupying the studio that I built in Aukland, and that was a pretty dream scenario. It was kind of crazy, but as intense as it was, it was a feast of music and really good people. So that would be an answer of sorts. That one would be hard to top.
BE: Do you anticipate doing another 7 Worlds Collide album, if possible?
NF: Yeah, I’m not sure. The 7 Worlds thing has happened twice. We did a series of live shows eight years ago, and then we did this album, so it’s a concept that seems to be pretty enjoyable and resilient. We’ll have to something slightly different. That’s the nature of it. But that’ll be a few years off. I love the idea of bringing things together with an incredibly tight deadline and just the force of will, creating an experience…a happening, as it were.
BE: That live album really blew my mind at times, first of all because you had Johnny Marr helping you out on “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out,” but particularly when I heard you guys rip through “I See Red” with Eddie Vedder. Was it weird hearing him sing Tim’s words?
NF: Yeah, but it’s great just to hear songs reinvented. Eddie has an affinity for that song, and he sang it incredibly well. He knows how to rock, and with Liam’s band playing like young men around him, it was a pretty impressive thing to see.
BE: Did it make you feel younger as a result?
NF: Well, sure, it did. Except I wasn’t allowed to be part of it, and that made me feel old. (Laughs) But it was an amazing time.
BE: Speaking of reinventing songs, I’ve got a couple of collections from “Andrew Denton’s Musical Challenge,” and I love your take on “Billie Jean.”
NF: (Surprised) Yeah!
BE: Was it a struggle for you to pull that off? My understanding is that they don’t give you much warning before you’re supposed to tackle it.
NF: Not much warning, but they give you the words, and I knew enough of it to fashion a cover of it. It’s a very durable song. Most good songs are. They can be played in a number of a different ways, so, yeah, that was my take on it. I haven’t heard it for awhile, so I can’t even hardly remember how I did it now. (Laughs)
BE: You also did nice work on “Sexual Healing” as well.
NF: (Laughs) Oh, yeah. That was a hard one, actually. That’s a hard song to do!
BE: And then to close on a completely left-field note, I’m a big fan of your song “You I Know,” which appears on an album by Jenny Morris…and, to my knowledge, nowhere else.
NF: Oh, yeah!
BE: How did you cross paths with her and come to contribute to her record?
NF: She’s an old friend of ours, basically, and I’ve known her for a long time. She’s a very dear friend, and she just asked me if I had a song that she could do, and that one…it wasn’t completely finished, but it was in reasonably good shape. I gave her a little demo, and it just seemed to suit her.
BE: Do you get asked to offer up songs to people’s projects with some regularity?
NF: Yeah, I get asked on occasion. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. (Laughs)
BE: Well, Neil, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you. Good luck on the tour, and best of luck with the album here in the States!NF: Thanks, Will! Well, we’re looking forward to getting on the road. It’s always nice to get to places that we don’t get to very often. Cheers, man! All the best!