(1996, Bill DeYoung)
The landscape of contemporary pop music would be far less interesting were it not for the semi-annual appearances on record of the Finn brothers, Tim and Neil. Tim started Split Enz in his native New Zealand, in the early ’70s, and a few years into it allowed little brother to join. By the time the band ended in 1984, more than a few truly great songs had been written and recorded.
It was in ’86 that Neil assembled Crowded House, tapping into a muse that no one, not even the arty-farty, formerly parrot-haired players in Split Enz, suspected he possessed. The band had just one American hit (“Don’t Dream It’s Over” in 1986), spending the rest of its 10-year existence keeping a relatively large cult following extremely happy.
Crowded House’s highwater mark, arguably, was the third album, Woodface, released in 1991. The ever-restless Neil had broken up the group, determined to start anew, and found himself in Melbourne, Australia writing a batch of wonderful songs with brother Tim. One of these was called “It’s Only Natural,” and in a wink it became a prophetic title: Tim was made the fourth member of a revived Crowded House, andWoodface was born. He left the band rather suddenly during a British tour and resumed his on-again, off-again solo career with a delightful album called Before and After. Afterwards, Split Enz (with both Finns in tow) reunited for a triumphant tour of their homeland.
Inside Crowded House, Neil and his mates issued their fourth collection, Together Alone, in’93. Although it was well received in Australia and the United Kingdom, the record was stillborn in the States. Midway through the Together Alone tour, on April 13, 1994, drummer Paul Hester quit the band.
From then on, it was only a question of how long till Neil gave up the ghost for good.
Neil, Paul, Nick Seymour (bass) and sometime member Mark Hart (keys and guitar) reunited and recorded three new songs for Recurring Dream: The Very Best of Crowded House, which ends the band’s increasingly strained relationship with Capitol Records. In June, after a handful of (reportedly dispirited) promotional shows in London without Paul, Neil made the official announcement: Crowded House was no more.
For him, the next move, perhaps unsurprisingly, was toward Tim. The brothers had spent a month in mid ’94 cutting an album they called Finn, with Tim on drums and piano, Neil on guitar and piano, and everything else split between them. It was eerie like Split Enz and ethereal like Crowded House, yet it sounded like neither of those formidable entities. Bubbles were burst and expectations dashed. They had a blast doing it.
American release took nearly a year, owing to some protracted legal stuff with Capitol (and, as you’ll see, other reasons), and in the interim Tim joined forces with Irishmen Andy White and Liam O’Maonlai (the latter from Hothouse Flowers) as ALT, to make the quirky little collection Altitude. (“If you think the Finn album is non-commercial,” Tim says….)
When the dust cleared this spring and the brothers found themselves with a nice contract from the Stateside label Discovery Records, they were threatened with a lawsuit by a British band called Fin. “We could have fought it, and probably would have won the day,” Neil says (after all, Finn is the brothers’ legal surname), “but in the end we just couldn’t be bothered.” And so Finn became, in the United States and other key markets, The Finn Brothers.
The brothers were interviewed separately, just days apart; Tim was in Sydney, Neil in
London. They agree on (almost) everything.
Do you think it was inevitable that you two would make a record together?
Tim Finn: It was complicated by the fact that we were both completely committed to Split Enz, and then Neil became part of Crowded House. Even then, there was sort of an unspoken desire, I think, all the time.
Neil Finn: It was something we’d talked about for a good 36 years, and in a way, it was surprising that it’s taken this long. The songs that we wrote for Woodface were intended to be for a Finn Brothers record way back then. It’s been ticking away, and the time presented itself; and we jumped in.
Do you remember when you got serious about music?
TF: I had an epiphany when I was quite young. I was standing in somebody’s kitchen and I heard Eddie Hodges sing ‘I’m Gonna Knock on Your Door.’ It’s a very corny old pop song, pre-Beatles. But he had an adenoidal quality to his voice, and I guess I could relate to it. He sounded like a little boy singing, and I remember just stopping and being rooted to the spot.
NF: I guess the spur into action for me was when he started to learn piano. I remember he learned “Laura’s Theme” from Doctor Zhivago when he was about 13, and I was about 7, and I felt compelled to do it myself. So I sort of learned it, and realized I could do it, and kept par with him, in a way. Or tried to. I watched from afar as he got a band together, and was very envious.
Was there a healthy sort of brotherly competition going on?
TF: I don’t think I was aware of that. It just seemed natural that he would follow my path to some extent. I guess I was entirely comfortable with the relationship and didn’t really question it. I guess he watched what I was doing and he wanted to do it too. But it didn’t annoy me or anything.
NF: I wasn’t too aware of it being overly competitive, especially in the early days because there was enough of an age gap between us to where I wasn’t really a threat to Tim. I was the little brother. I guess there was an element of competition once I joined Split Enz, in a sense that when he would write a song, I’d want to do one better or something, so it would spur me into action. I wouldn’t say at any point that there was an overt competitiveness. And even now. There is to a degree – on the tennis court, more than anything else. We kind of save it for appropriate venues.
After you left Te Awamutu, Tim, you fell in with an art school crowd in Auckland, and that’s where Split Enz began, right?
TF: We grew up in a very small town, in a very small country. I think I’d always had an artistic feeling, but I didn’t know any artists. It would’ve been a ludicrous thought. It was a huge leap for me, really. It took me until I was 19 before I actually though that I could drop everything else.
I gravitated toward them, hung out with them, took drugs with them, started playing music with them. And my whole life changed.
Neil was the little brother back at home. Do you think he was jealous of the early Split Enz?
TF: He might have been envious. He would’ve wanted to have done everything the same way, because what he saw from a distance of a hundred miles and six years was basically five or six young men develop an obsession, and a tremendous amount of self-belief out of nowhere.
There were no role models, we didn’t know anybody in groups and stuff, but we certainly felt that we were the best band in the world, that we were the logical inheritors of music’s next step. It was an absurd thought, but we were completely compelled to follow that destiny.
And he saw all that, and he would’ve hungered for it. And it also became like a talisman for him, or an icon if you like.
Even to this day, I think that Neil will never be able to escape that feeling that Split Enz were the ultimate group. Even though he was in a group that became more successful. I left in the end due to two things: One, I’d fallen in love and wanted to drop everything and be with this person who didn’t live in my part of the world, and B, I’d done a solo record which was surprisingly successful.
Did it ever become a question of “too many cooks” with Neil writing and singing away in the band?
TF: No, there was never any question. It was a great luxury to have his songs, and it was all about the group. It was a complete group ethic.
Neil, when you had the initial success with Crowded House, was Tim happy or envious?
NF: A little bit of both, I think. And I was a little bit pleased for myself, and a little guilty that it wasn’t Split Enz happening for me. Having spent a lot of time in that band.
He’d worked for 12 years with Split Enz, and although we’d had a degree of success in various places, nothing as sort of conclusive as what happened to Crowded House’s first album. So I think it was a little hard for him. At the same time, he was in London, kind of twiddling his thumbs a little bit.
I remember at the point we went Top Ten, rang him up – he was feeling a little distant from it all – so I suggested he come over for a few days and join the tour. He came into New Orleans, and we had a couple of really good gigs where he got up with us. And I think it sort of helped him a little bit to feel like he was part of it to some degree.
Tim, how would you describe your initial reaction to Crowded House?
TF: I was pretty in awe of Neil’s songs. That first record, I can remember listening to it for the first time and thinking ‘This is an amazing record.’ To see it go all the way like that, I guess I would’ve wished that for Split Enz, but at the same time I couldn’t deny it for Neil. It was like, he earned it, you know?
Tim joined Crowded House, then left midway through the Woodface tour. Did it get ugly?
NF: I wish I could tell you that it got ugly. There was a couple of tense moments on the tour, one particularly in the hippie love capital of Australia where we got really nasty. Those sorts of places want to drag out the dark side of your nature.
Tim was being asked to play a role which he was very unfamiliar with, a musician playing a bit of keyboards and sort of hanging around a bit until there was a song he was involved in. And similarly for us, we weren’t use to having another strong personality onstage, and it upset the rhythm of the band a bit.
OK, what’s the hippie love capital of Australia?
NF: Byron Bay – it’s in Northern New South Wales. I remember it because we’d had a huge to-do, and I was out in the car park streaming in the car. I’d gone out to get away from it all. I was sitting in the car stewing in my own juices, and tis hippie woman came up to the window and said ‘Neil, I can help you. You’ve got to let your chakra go.’ And I wasn’t in the mood.
You both participated in a Split Enz reunion tour of New Zealand and Australia in 1992. What was that like?
TF: It was fantastic. We played to bigger crowds than we’d ever played to when we existed. A lot of younger people coming along that had never seen the band, and they’d heard about this legendary New Zealand band! They were from 10 or 12 years old through like 40, 50. And they went completely berserk – it was a celebration for New Zealand. I think. It felt like it.
Everybody got on really well, made lots of money, and it was an entirely positive experience. There was a live album, called Anniversary, I think, because it was 20 years from our inception.
The Finn Brothers has a lot of rough textures on it; it doesn’t sound very much like Woodface or Together Alone.
NF: It was a different time, a different place and a different state of mind. So to some extent, you surf that and you go with it. It was less sophisticated than either of those records, deliberately. Partly because we only took a month to do it. And we were playing everything ourselves.
And we were interested, with (co-producer) Tchad Blake, in making it kind of chunky and homemade-sounding. We didn’t really make it with anybody else other than ourselves in mind; we certainly didn’t want to re-create what happened withWoodface. It’s less two-part harmony oriented, partly because of the way we were writing the songs – Tim on the drums, and I was on guitar, or bass and piano. . we weren’t working with the two acoustics. It is what it is, and I’m glad of it. I think we weren’t concerned by its commerciality, and for that reason possibility it’s not a particularly commercial record.
TF: There’s certain naivete in the drumming – it hangs in there, but it doesn’t sound like anybody flash playing the drums. I don’t have too much technique but I can hold down a beat.
The way we felt was very joyous, even though it’s paradoxically quite a moody record, there was a lot of joy and pleasure in the making of it. We would start a song and work it till it was done, rather than doing a whole lot of rhythm tracks and then over-dubbing. So every song had a day and a half, or a two-day atmosphere built around it.
We went up to the Cook Islands after writing the songs, to soak up a bit of the atmosphere of the Pacific Music Festival. We particularly fell in love with the tea-chest bass, which we’ve used on five tracks. It’s a very forgiving instrument.
Well, I have no idea what any of the songs are about.
NF: We don’t make them deliberately obscure, but we’re quite happy to leave them open-ended. For me, lyrics were the things in songs that grew on me least. I was always taken by a couple of lines first in songs, and in a way I didn’t really care what the rest of it was about. There was always a couple of lines that just hooked straight in there and set me thinking. That’s the main thing, that there’s a few images that stick out. I think some of the songs are fairly clear.
Did you feel a commercial pressure in making this record, pressure to make it sound a certain way?
TF: We didn’t think about it much, apart from just wanting to make a record. Nobody even knew we were making it. I think it’s a special record, and people who like it really seem to like it enormously, and it’ll never cross over to a mainstream audience, but that wasn’t our intention. We had very modest expectations for it.
NF: Tchad Blake is really into leaving things pretty bare, and it was partly his influence that prevented us from doing what we would often do, to double-guess ourselves and go ‘Well look, we’d better smooth this thing out a bit.’ Or ‘This is a bit lumpy-sounding, we’d better do something about it.’ He encouraged us to do a lot of one-take performances.
The first single in England was ‘Suffer Never,’ which doesn’t seem to have any hooks in it at all.
NF: The guitar’s the hook, in a way. There was just an attitude about it that we really liked, and a slightly psychedelic quality. I have often in the past been persuaded to put out the least offensive song as a single first. Which is what the record company always go for. With this record, we thought well, what’s the most deeply atmospheric thing? And I felt really attached to ‘Suffer Never’ at the time, so we pushed that out. It may have not been a commercial choice, but to me it defined the record a little better than, say. . .well, I’m more pleased with what’s going on in America, because ‘Only Talking Sense’ is probably my favorite song on the record.
Crowded House was breaking up as the album was taking shape. Did you talk about the band’s problems?
TF: Not so much during this recording period, no. It was very pure. We didn’t really talk about much else except what we were doing. But, yeah, there has been talk over the years. Neil’s wrestled with it a lot.
Neil was very loyal to the idea of the combo, you know, the humble combo. The four-piece band, the three-piece band. He’s very attached to that notion and it’s served him extremely well.
But juggling personalities and egos and shit like that, after you get to your mid-30s. . . you’re a bit over that sort of thing.
Why did Paul drop out of Crowded House?
NF: A combination of tour fatigue, a low tolerance for the shenanigans of being in the band, promotion, photos … I think he was a little sick of himself as a jester figure. He lost his sense of humor about it a little. And I would say a degree of laziness, in that he’s a man who loves to be in front of the television with a joint in his hand and a cup of tea. And have a nap in the afternoon. And it became quite harrowing, the touring.
He was having a baby at the time, too, and I think he was felling a conflict within himself. It wasn’t unexpected for us because he had been getting progressively less enthused about being onstage. And the shows were suffering a little. Sot to some extent when he left were kind of relieved, because at least it was a way forward. Whereas we’d been struggling with this kind of weird darkness.
Tim quit midway through a tour. Paul quit midway through a tour.
NF: It happens a lot! When Tim left it was very much a mutual thing. Paul definitely sprung it on us. Prior to that tour he had said, ‘Listen, I don’t think I’m going to be able to get beyond this tour. I think I’m really going to have to call it quits, but I’ll do the tour.’ So at the point he left, we felt a bit let down, and it made life quite difficult for a few weeks, obviously. But we did soldier on. But his timing was shocking.
Do you think the band’s lack of commercial success was a reason for his departure?
NF: It had provided a pressure for the band and Paul too. I think Paul to some extent thought ‘Well, maybe this is never gonna happen.’ I would say that contributed to his state of mind. And at the time, we weren’t feeling that there was a lot of support from Capitol. We were touring the Midwest and we had Sheryl Crow with us, who was just at the beginning of her meteoric ascent. We had noticed the difference between what her record company was doing in every city, and what ours was. We’d arrive in towns and there’d be big window displays of Sheryl’s record and we would struggle to find ours in the shops at all.
That was discouraging, to say the least. I wouldn’t overstate it and say that was the reason the band broke up, because although we’re ambitious for our music – I love tapping into the ol’ mass psyche – it wasn’t the be-all and end-all for the existence the band. We also had other places, like England was very successful for us, Australia and New Zealand were still good, and Canada to some extent.
That must be frustrating, when everyone wants to hear ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over,’ and all the time you’d been writing progressively better songs.
NF: I believe so, yeah. On the other hand, the people we were meeting in every city were people who knew those records. We were doing shows where we didn’t do ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over.’ Copping a bit of flack for it, I might add.
I still feel the records didn’t get the shot they deserved in America. I think Together Alone was dismissed to some extent by a lot of people in America. Partly, I think, because they didn’t listen to it enough. And it wasn’t put in their faces enough. The biggest handicap to get over with anybody, and particularly with us I think, is trying to get people to listen to something more than once. That requires keeping on it and working it until people take notice.
Were you frustrated by the albums’ lack of success?
NF: I don’t feel that they were failures in any form because of lack of commercial success. It’s easy to say that, but there’s a few people around the world whose opinions mattered more to me than the mass. And I’ve had their support in the main. So it doesn’t discourage me to the point where I feel like giving up or anything. Not even close.
But critics don’t sell records. In the end, over a period of time, you build up a certain respect level which does man something. It opens doors for you and gets you into good places with good people. So there’s part of me that’s not altogether unhappy with our career path, in the sense that we’ve never got to the point where superstardom has dictated terms to us. We’ve been successful enough to make a good living, and to tour the world, and I can continue to make records as long as I will, I think.
Why did Together Alone appear in the U.S.A. six months after everyone else got it?
NF: I can’t even remember. I think because we’d established ourselves withWoodface very strongly in England, that was fine to put it out before Christmas. But Capitol felt it would just get lost before Christmas. And what happened was, it got lost after Christmas.
Will you miss the camaraderie of the band after 10 years together?
NF: I will to some extent, but I’ve been through enough in my life now to know that you can’t just expect things like that to continue forever, that kind of chemistry. And you should be willing to let them go, rather than hang on out of some kind of nostalgia or loyalty to it. I’m proudest, really, of the fact that as a live band we were willing to go out on a limb. Every night was different. We jammed, and we involved the audience. That much I think is a rare thing and I’ll always be quite proud of that.
But in the end, it wasn’t difficult for me to let go of. Maybe it was partly because Paul wasn’t there and the chemistry wasn’t the same, but we could’ve continued and made good records. I really got to a point where I craved a new context and felt restricted by the band instead of it being an open thing. It felt like a restricting thing.
How did you decide on the tracks for Recurring Dream?
NF: We threw around a whole lot of different possibilities. And the record company in England actually researched the fan base quite heavily about what songs they really wanted on the record. And we left a couple of things here and there off that have not worn very well for us. It has to be a compromise, in a way, because there were certain songs would’ve liked to put on that we couldn’t.
So what did you leave off?
NF: ‘Chocolate Cake.’ For a variety of reasons, just as a piece of music it didn’t wear very well for me.
The Finn Brothers did a short summer tour of America. What happens next for you?
TF: I’m just going to come back to Sydney and learn how to cook. Neil wants to do another record, in some shape or form, I want to do another Alt record, and I’ve got a solo record I’ve just finished, which should be coming out early in the next year.
I think in about a year or so, Neil and I will definitely do another one.
NF: I’m going home, and I’m going to make another record, that much I know. I’m sort of enjoying the delicious feeling of freedom that having made this decision has brought. I’ve got quite a lot of ideas brewing in my head which I want to explore. I suppose technically speaking I’ll be making a solo record, but there’s gonna be a collaborative nature to it. The idea of a solo record is less appealing than getting the chance to play with a few different people and creating different sounds.
(A whole lot of water under the bridge since 1996 – and if you’ve read this far, you know. RIP Paul Hester.)