@ 1993 Bill DeYoung
Crowded House is a band of mixed emotions. Songwriter Neil Finn rarely takes things lightly; the landscapes painted by the 33-year old New Zealander are for the most part oblique, and darkly passionate, poetically somber ruminations on life, love and the everyday pursuit of nirvana.
His melodies, on the other hand, are anything but simple and repetitive frames for depressing diatribes. Neil Finn is a melodist of considerable gifts and his musical phraseology has been compared most favorably to that of none other than P. McCartney in his mid ‘60s prime. He has that sort of singing voice too, world-weary and innocent all at the same moment.
But Crowded House has a reputation for cutting up onstage, pulling faces and cracking jokes at the oddest moment. In their photos and in their interviews, the Melbourne-based trio sometimes seems like Australia’s equivalent of the Three Stooges. And Crowded House videos almost always feature some degree of madcap comedy, even when there’s nothing funny at all about the song in question.
Crowded House is a band with an image problem.
Most recently, there was the Tim episode. Tim Finn, Neil’s older brother, became an official member of Crowded House last year – he was integral to the writing and recording of the group’s third album, Woodface, released in July of 1991. Much was made of Tim’s signing on at the time; it bore an ironic resemblance to that moment in 1979 when Neil joined his brother’s band Split Enz, after it was already well accelerated on the international pop scene.
Reviews of Woodface were nearly all glowing (Crowded House has been a critics’ darling, if not a record-breaking chart act, for quite a long time now). Not a few of the raves pointed out the brilliant writing and harmony-singing act of the Brothers Finn. This has been a long time coming, it was said over and over.
Crowded House, the quartet, hit the road in September to support the album, starting in America and moving on to Europe, the U.K. and back to the States. When they returned stateside, the first week in December, Tim was gone. Many fans didn’t even know about it until Crowded House took the stage in their town.
“Everybody had a feeling of unease about it,” Neil Finn explains. “We all tried to make it work in various ways, by changing things around a bit onstage and that, but at the end of the day it was trying to fit four people into what was essentially a three-man operation.”
Those three – Neil Finn, drummer Paul Hester and bassist Nick Seymour – had established a fun, friendly way of playing live, often without a set list, frequently taking audience requests. But for brother Tim, it just didn’t happen. “He’s a front man, and he wasn’t getting enough to do onstage,” Neil explains. “He was feeling disconnected from it, for large chunks of the evening. For obvious reasons.”
Neil says it all came to a head the afternoon before a November concert in Glasgow, Scotland. “We’d already decided internally that it wasn’t going to last,” he says. “Paul and I had talked about it. So we actually had a big meeting about it. And Tim had been feeling the same thing. But once verbalized, it had to finish right there. Because you can’t go, ‘Well it’s not working, but let’s finish the tour.’ You want to change it right there.”
In concert, guitarist Tim was standing behind an electric keyboard, and during the non-Woodface songs, he basically just nodded along. “I felt uncomfortable about surrendering any of the stage to somebody, because I’ve become used to being able to steer the thing along,” Neil says.
“I think vocally we’re still very strong, Paul and I have been singing harmony for six years. Certainly with Tim there were certain moments in the set where a brotherly kind of harmony thing happened, and it was very cool, but I feel we’ve gone back to normal to a large extent, and it feels very familiar.”
Says Hester: “We found out what it was we liked about ‘the band.’ When Tim joined, we lost something onstage. And we’ve got more back now – there’s more things we can do, inside the songs.”
“We were too polite with Tim in the band. We were always aware of each other, not wanting to speak over each other, in between songs. It just wasn’t as loose.”
So Tim left – disappointed, his brother says, but also feeling liberated. That night, the Glasgow audience called out ‘Where’s Tim?’ a few times and then proceeded to forget about it and enjoy the show. Tim returned to his home in Madrid to pick up the solo career he’d put on hold when he joined Crowded House. Neil says they’re still on good terms.
“We’ve had a very close relationship over the years, and I tended to focus on he and I working together a lot more than was probably necessary. We’ve really given (Woodface) our best attention. I feel satisfied with that, and I think now the way is open for us to work more, but in a less restrictive context, for him and for me. We put all our eggs in one basket, basically.”
Neil says his brother is a better-disciplined songwriter, and many of the songs they wrote together for the album would never have been completed were it not for Tim’s ability to complete song ideas. Says Neil of himself: “I’m hopeless with getting things finished. Tim’s very good at that; he doesn’t like leaving things half done. He was good with providing beginnings for songs too – he would suggest an idea and I would find myself running with it and getting quite abstract about it, and taking it somewhere he didn’t expect.”
Says Seymour: “Tim’s coming and going has actually helped Crowded House realize what we are. The corner that we’ve possibly turned since Tim left is the realization that we have an undeniable chemistry that we have to try and get on the record. The spirit of intuitiveness when we play live together, we’ve never really got onto a record.”
Born in 1956 in the volcanic central region of Northern New Zealand, in a small town called Te Awamutu, Neil Mullane Finn began taking piano lessons at the age of eight. By that time, his other brother Tim was playing Beatles, Kinks and Move in high school rock bands, while Neil watched enviously.
The first album Neil bought was by Donovan; when he was 12, he was strumming an acoustic and had determined he, too, was destined to be a musician. The brothers’ Irish mother and Kiwi dad (who toiled, office bound, as a farmers’ accountant) supported their musical ambitions.
With Paul Judd, Tim started the wildly outrageous aggregation Split Enz in 1972. Although the band enjoyed some success in disparate corners of the world, in most places (the U.S. in particular) it was best known for its garish costumes and sculpted, parrot-like day-glo hairstyles. The music was too ambitious, perhaps too self-consciously “arty” to go mainstream in America.
When Judd quit in 1977, Tim recruited little brother Neil, then 19, to take his place. Neil first appeared on the Dizrythmia and Frenzy albums, playing electric guitar and doing a bit of singing. “I See Red,” from Frenzy, was Split Enz’ first big Australian chart hit, in 1978.
In 1980, Split Enz released True Colors, a stylish, poppy album that traded in wholesale the group’s tendency toward over-arrangement for a clean, spartan “new wave” sound. Neil, who was handling a good share of the songwriting, turned in “I Got You.” This song ultimately became the band’s best known in America, almost cracking the Top 40; in Australia, it was #1 for 10 weeks. “I Got You” is pretty quirky by Crowded House standards; a better Neil composition from this period, perhaps, is the lovely “Message To My Girl.”
After four more tries, Split Enz finally split. Tim had departed before the making ofSee Ya Round, the group’s swan song, which was never released in America; as front man, Neil toured the band’s Aussie and European hot spots several times, losing enthusiasm all the while. “We had a measure of success in quite a few places in the end, Neil says now. “We didn’t put a lot of time into America – we possibly could’ve done better if we’d have toured more.”
Split Enz never got over that identification as a “Band from Down Under.” Trendy for a while, but almost always the kiss of death in the end.
When you got down to it, the Finn brothers weren’t even Australians. The people on the continent tend to view New Zealanders as country folk. But if you’re a New Zealand musician, you need to make it in Australia. That’s where the trails of the music business first pick up in that rather remote corner of the world.
Still, says Neil, “There’s a sense that unless somebody somewhere else confirms that you’re good, maybe you’re only ever just ‘good for an Australian band.’ There’s a slight feeling of dissatisfaction, and there’s a few people (today) that fall into that category, who’ve only ever had success in Australia. They can make a good living out of it, actually. It’s a good country, but there’s always the feeling: Am I a contender, or was it just because I was in a small country?”
After See Ya Round, Neil Finn set to poking about Melbourne for musicians to help him carry out his plan for a new band, one that would be his vision and not an inherited one.
Recently-minted Enz drummer Paul Hester, from Melbourne, became Finn’s first partner in crime. With the addition of Melbourne bassist and motion picture art director Nick Seymour (whose brother Mark played guitar in the Aussie group Hunters and Collectors), the group was hastily dubbed the Mullanes (after Neil’s middle name) and played a select few gigs around Melbourne. (Guitarist Craig Hooper was in the band at first, although he dropped out rather quickly. Hooper is co-writer, with the other three, of the Crowded House song “Recurring Dream.”)
Taking a cue from the “always a bridesmaid” profile Split Enz had cut, Finn bypassed the Australian and British record business and made straight for America. Capitol Records had signed the group on the strength of Neil’s demos, and in mid-1985 the trio moved to a cramped rental house off Los Angeles’ Sunset Boulevard to begin the “bonding process” that would turn them into a full-fledged band and, hopefully, would produce a good record.
The trio was put together with producer Mitchell Froom, who began to shape Finn’s demos into recordable songs. While recording, the trio played acoustic club shows around California under the name Largest Living Things. Other monikers they considered were Krakatoa Chorus and Barbara Stanwyck’s Chest. Eventually, the band became Crowded House; after the cozy digs they were sharing. They played acoustic shows – in tiny clubs and seafood restaurants – before and during the recording process.
The Crowded House album, released in June 1986, has a kind of post-punk urgency to it, although the songs are clean and melodic – sort of acoustic power pop, if you will. There was none of the arty eccentricity of Split Enz, none of the production overkill of other bands from Aussieland, i.e., Midnight Oil and Men At Work. The album was clean, and simple. There was sweetness, but it wasn’t cloying; there was anger, but it wasn’t brutal.
“There was a bit of angst on the first record because we were desperate to make an impact, you know?” Finn says. “We’d moved to L.A. to record the album – new venture, new band, so there was an edge to it.” Finn’s melodic songs covered sublime, otherworldly territory (“Don’t Dream It’s Over,” “World Where You Live”) and the twin topographies of fanaticism (“Mean To Me”) and self-doubt (“Tombstone”).
There were happy songs (“Something So Strong”) and sad ones (“Hole In The River”) and even a rehash from Split Enz (“I Walk Away”). But mostly Crowded House had a fine pop sheen to it, a sense of adventurous tunefulness that didn’t overpower the clever lyrics, and clever lyrics that never suffered because of inferior melodies or arrangement.
Crowded House hit the road, augmented by Split Enz keyboardist Eddie Raynor, as soon as their album was released. “World Where You Live” did nothing for them at radio or retail, but “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” released as a single in the beginning of September, eventually crawled all the way to #2 in America, in late February 1987.
“There was quite a long period before we had a hit single,” Hester remembers. “It was probably eight or nine months. But we ended up touring right at the time that single was moving up the charts, so it ended up we did everything at the right time. There was a real build to it.” Within a year of its release, Crowded House was a platinum album.
For the latter part of 1986, and the first month of the following year, it seemed Crowded House were everywhere. They did TV, they did concerts in any little venue that would have them, they did interviews, and their videos were all over MTV. In a pop world cheated out of the promise of punk, with charts resigned to diluted “new wave” junk like Tears For Fears and ‘Til Tuesday, Crowded House was real, they were sincere – and then they were hit-makers. They had arrived.
Today, “Don’t Dream It’s Over” remains the group’s only real hit. But they don’t mind the identification. “The only thing you can hitch onto with that song, in a real identification point of view, is that it offers a sense of hope, and timelessness,” says Seymour.
“If it were something specifically like a dance craze that we were known for, that could be the nails in our coffin, if you will. But I think the basic premise about the band is that we are timeless. And as long as we adhere to that, we’ll be fine.”
Mediocre Follow-Up was Finn’s working title for the second Crowded House album. Recorded in both L.A. and Melbourne, the album was released in the summer of 1988 as Temple Of Low Men. The title was a reference to the then-raging controversies over evangelists Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart.
“A lot of people have a very passionate liking for the album – more so than the first album, in many cases,” Finn explained. “I really enjoyed the first album, I must say. A lot of people really like both. And a lot of people who really like the second record thought the first one was a bit sort of cheesy-sounding or something. I listen to the first album fondly; I guess it was an exciting time in a way. But I think the second album had more rewards for repeated play; the first album, you could probably forget about more quickly.
“I see them as being quite different from each other.”
Crowded House reached maturity on Temple Of Low Men. Produced once again by Mitchell Froom, the band turned in tougher, more assured performances. Finn’s singing was more relaxed than on the first outing – he credits mixmaster Bob Clearmountain for giving the recordings a seamless quality.
His songwriting improved on the second album too. He wrote songs expressing pure love and passion (“When You Come”), high-grade anxiety (“In The Lowlands”) and the extremes of infidelity-related paranoia (“Into Temptation,” “Better Be Home Soon”). There was a comedy song – well, they thought it was funny – called “Sister Madly,” featuring sometime opening act (and fellow Froom client) Richard Thompson on guitar. Although most people reported it took a few listens to get into, Temple was considered a superior record in nearly every way.
Of course, it was a resounding flop at the record stores. One reason was probably the observation, repeated ad nauseum in practically every review of the album, that it was “darker” and “more pessimistic” than Crowded House .
“It was really more fun to make than the first one,” Hester reports. “We had a good, enjoyable period in the studio when we made that record. We don’t look at it ourselves as a rather serious, somber record. Songs like ‘Better Be Home Soon’ and ‘When You Come’ are quite uplifting. It’s one of those things that a few people mentioned, and everyone took that tack with it. It becomes a common thread. But it’s not really the case. We thought that album was pretty ‘up,’ really. We used to giggle about it when someone would say ‘It’s so somber’ or ‘They’re so dark on this record.’ Not that it was a bad thing, just slightly misread.”
Temple Of Low Men wound up on numerous critical best-of-lists at year’s end, but the lack of a hit single – both “Better Be Home Soon” and “Into Temptation” were given a shot – meant it never found the same mass media audience as its predecessor.
Hester: “We pretty much toured all the way through the first album, and then we did the second on the back of the tour. We didn’t really have a break until the end of the recording of the second album, I suppose, and we had to sort out a few things with our lives. We’d been away from home and things had gotten out of whack a bit. So we took time off, and we stayed home for quite some time. The second album really didn’t sell as many copies, I suppose, because we didn’t get around and do the job on it – we touched on a few places, but we chose to go home and sort out our lives a bit.”
To support Temple, Crowded House did a short tour of big cities, appeared on David Letterman and the MTV awards programs, and went back to Melbourne. At Finn’s insistence, a longer U.S. tour was called off. The father of two had dedicated “Better Be Home Soon” to his family on the MTV show, and he intended to follow his own advice.
Both Crowded House and Temple Of Low Men sported garish Seymour paintings of the three band members, looking goofy on the former, and shadowy caricatures on the latter. Hardly barometers of the squalls blowing within. And then there were the videos for “Something So Strong,” “Better Be Home Soon,” “Now We’re Getting Somewhere,” “When You Come” and others depicting Crowded House mugging and acting silly, for no apparent reason.
Strangest of all is the clip for “Into Temptation,” Finn’s beautiful ballad about what he refers to as the “dread and exhilaration” of an adulterous one-night stand. The video is a straightforward lip-sync until the final two minutes, when Hester and Seymour start cracking up and pulling faces while Finn sings away in the foreground.
“There’s one little shot, but pretty much it’s a somber clip, mostly,” Finn says defensively. “You can’t keep the three of us on set on any given film clip day and not have some point where somebody loses it.”
“It bounced off Neil’s rather poignant delivery of the song,” explains Hester, adding that the video’s director was the one who chose the laughing bits out of a full day’s shooting. “It was probably more tragic than funny, in a way.”
“Well,” interjects Seymour, “most of our humor is pretty tragic.”
Finn gets back to the point. “We grapple with the question, too. And even onstage we’re aware of the fact that we undercut our most dramatic moments with humor sometimes. It’s a fine line that we walk – sometimes we get it right and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes the balance is beautiful. We tension-and-release an audience really well. But occasionally, we’ll tell them a joke before ‘Hole In The River,’ and the whole mood’ll just become too weird. So we don’t get it right all the time – we’re aware of when we cross the line.”
Finn says he believes the group’s audiences appreciate such unpredictability. “We decided early on, through playing three-piece acoustically, that the personality of the band doesn’t have to be a forced thing. We can be pretty much natural. And the way we naturally are together is to create humor – rather than taking the business of being a pop musician too seriously, which to us seems ridiculous. The nature of the music business is eminently laughable. We’re not being snide or cynical by saying that, we just think it is. And if you open your eyes and look around you, there’s plenty to laugh at.
“Unfortunately, perhaps it does mean that people might get pulled off by that. They might think, ‘These guys don’t really take themselves serious enough, so why should I?’ And therein lies the enigma of Crowded House! We are aware of the duality of the band. When we’re together, we are almost lost to hopeless frivolity – a large percentage of the time – in order to get through the certain media things that we do; we tend to strive for the ridiculous. And that is in contrast, sometimes, to the intent and the character of the music.”
Finn may be a hopeless romantic, but he’s not, he insists, just plain hopeless. “For me, most of the songs are trying to obtain some kind of personal identification with the singer,” he explains. “In many cases, people regard them as a diary of my life, which I don’t regard them as myself at all.
“I think all these songs are pretty much hopeful, myself. I feel they’re all tinged with hope. I haven’t written a truly nihilistic or hopeless sort of song in the whole time that I’ve been writing, that I know of. There’s a few desperate ones. But again, the aim of a song is to make people feel involved with what they guy’s singing about, and – even if it’s an indirect sense – it’s the emotion that comes through they connect with. So that’s the measure of success, if people condemn me to the doomed basket.”
What does it mean? Finn comes up short of giving away his secrets. “I’m comfortable with however people want to listen to it,” he says, “and for that very reason, it doesn’t bother me that some people find some of the lyrics obscure. Because ultimately I’ve always believed it’s the sound of the words that’s the most important.
“Stacked up behind that on the list of priority is some good imagery, the odd line that confuses and forces somebody to take notice after a few listens – and right at the bottom is literal logic.”
When the third Crowded House album finally appeared, in July 1991, its title was inscrutable: Woodface. It gave no clues as to the state of Neil Finn’s songwriting. There were no cartoon mug shots on the jacket this time. Oh no. For Woodface,Seymour contributed an oil painting of a sort of jack-o-lantern face, patched together with scraps of wood. Through the eyes, nose and mouth were visible the stars in the sky. What, fans wondered, did this have to do with the music inside?
That was precisely the point. “One of the things that appealed to us about the rustic quality of Woodface, the picture, was that it had to do with the homemade, cubbyhouse-type, Wooden Horse of Troy sort of aspect in a very high-tech, competitive album covers area,” Seymour explains. “The minute you put any kind of artwork in a jewel box, it becomes really high tech or modern looking, or international in its packaging.
“And Woodface had a real hand-made, stuck together out of gnarled bits of wood quality to it that I think appealed to the band. And it had a striking, unsettling quality to it in its mask-like design.”
Finn: “I think we throw too much at people, and we expect people to understand the heart of the band despite a lot of contrary messages. We’ve had this discussion about image many times – it’s been a sticking point in Nick’s and my relationship.”
The group’s faces don’t appear on the Woodface jacket precisely because Finn requested it; he was tired of seeing his own image used to sell product. The blowup between he and Seymour nearly broke up the band, before the first note of Woodfacehad ever been recorded.
In the meantime, Finn had discovered a new bond with brother Tim, whose solo career had been going nowhere fast.
“In Split Enz, the roles were very well defined,” Neil explains. “Tim was my older brother, he was the lead singer and I was the youngster, and we didn’t really feel comfortable enough to write together.
“But, having spent some time apart, we came back with a real enthusiasm for what each other does. We enjoyed singing together, and we just believed that we were going to write songs. We had no pressure on the situation.”
At Tim’s home studio in Melbourne, the brothers recorded nearly 20 new songs together. Eventually Crowded House regrouped in Los Angeles with producer Froom and started to piece together their new record. But the songs that Hester and Seymour liked best were the Finn/Finn ones that Neil strummed to himself during the rehearsals.
“The lines between what was going to be a Finn brothers record and a Crowded House record became very blurred,” Finn says. “And in the end we decided it was better to try and make one good album than try and split yourself between two and not do justice to either.”
After a period of suspiciousness from Hester and Seymour, who were afraid of a Finn power block, it was agreed that Tim Finn should officially join Crowded House.
Eight or nine of the songs the siblings had cut in Melbourne were cued up in the L.A. studio, and the rest of the band added parts to them. Then more material, new stuff of Neil’s and one by Hester, was recorded by the full band.
Woodface is a lovely record, full of swirling, romantic images, uplifting melodies and a good dose of Finn’s brooding good taste. The first single issue was the brothers’ “Chocolate Cake,” a backbeat-heavy dance floor raveup about American excess. It was silly, and like the jacket art, it pretty much had no relationship to anything else. The accompanying video showed the band in leisure suits dancing in formation with giant insects.
“I’ve always been pretty wary of trying to paint too many impressions of yourself,” Finn says. “’Chocolate Cake,’ in hindsight, may well have undone us. It started off as a live song, which was tremendous fun to play. But as a first single a lot of people were put off by it. It was confrontational, which was good in a sense – people either loved it or they hated it. But maybe it gave an impression of the album which was quite remote from what the album actually was.”
It’s conceivable that listeners couldn’t get past “Chocolate Cake,” which opensWoodface, and get to the meat of the record. They may have missed songs such as “Fall At Your Feet,” the soulful ballad of longing that is the spiritual heir to “Into Temptation”; “Weather With You,” a beautiful melody about place and time; “There Goes God,” a humorous slam (on the surface anyway) at weekend Christians and those who consider God pop culture; killer Finn ballads “Four Seasons In One Day,” “She Goes On” and “As Sure As I Am.”
On “It’s Only Natural,” the Brothers Finn perform a tightrope harmony act over a melody as bright and bouncy as the early Beatles and just as imaginative.
It’s a song about death, though. Typical Finn.
Woodface ends with a 30-second snatch of tune, a loud and nameless Hester-led jam that comes a good minute after the last song has faded.
“We deliberately did that to wake people who’d fallen asleep during the last two ballads,” Neil reports with a laugh. “If you’ve listened to 14 songs in a row, man, my hat’s off to you. I couldn’t do it on anybody’s record.”
Crowded House hit the road hard to support Woodface – feeling that the lack of touring exposure had contributed to the premature expiration of Temple Of Low Men. It didn’t help; the tour got rave reviews, but Woodface never broke the Top 100.
And then, of course, the thing with Tim. “Even if nothing more happened with the record now, it’s not something that we would dwell on as being ‘Do we go on? Or not?’ Neil Finn says. “There’s been a whole series of things about this record which have made it a bit of a disadvantage.
“One, the amount of time between records. Two, Tim joining and then leaving is probably confusing for people – at best. For some people, it would seem the band doesn’t know what it’s doing. But there’s a kind of inherent belief that we will have our day, and whether it’s this record or the next one, as long as we keep our focus on what we are, then it will happen.”
“I think we are the greatest band in the world,” says Seymour. “I really do. I go to see a lot of groups, and I think we’re one of the most consistent groups that I’ve seen. So I don’t believe there’s any reason why, if we keep the formula going for the next few years, we will not be regarded as such.”
Note: Of course, the ‘greatest band in the world’ finally gave in to commercial failure and internal bickering in 1996, after the brothers’ Finn album and the brilliant Crowded House swan song, Together Alone. Paul Hester was the first to call it a day; Neil Finn then lept into a solo career, made a second record with his brother, and re-formed Crowded House – with Nick Seymour and stage-and-studio keyboard perennial Mark Hart – in 2006. Paul Hester had committed suicide the previous year.
That catches us up, as of 2012. There are several other Finn interviews on this site.