Hey now, hey now…Here at Second Disc HQ, we’re bursting with pride to share with you this very special interview conducted by our very own Mike Duquette! Crowded House founder Neil Finn reflected at length with Mike about his band, his career, legacy, and the series of truly lavish Crowded House reissues hitting stores on November 11. We know you’ll enjoy this one! Take it away, Mike…
There are certain songwriters who’ve mastered certain places in their compositions. Think of, say, Lou Reed, and you’ve got witty urban decay, personified. Conjure up some songs by Bruce Springsteen, and you can almost smell the smoke, the sweat and the salt air from the Jersey shore bars where he made a name for himself.
Neil Mullane Finn, the eternally youthful New Zealander who made a name for himself in the ’80s first as a member of New Wave group Split Enz and then as the frontman for Crowded House, conjures up an entirely different kind of place. Picture a drawing room, cozy and inviting, on a lazy weekend. The sun lolls between clouds as the hours pass, causing the shadows of a windowpane to darken and fade. All is calm, even if all isn’t well.
Crowded House–initially comprised of Finn, bassist Nick Seymour and the late drummer Paul Hester when they took America by storm with the flawless No. 2 hit “Don’t Dream It’s Over”–are finally getting their due in the music reissue world this Friday, when Universal Music remasters and expands all seven albums they released between 1986 and 2010. Those albums feature dozens of rare and unreleased B-sides, live tracks and demos from deep in Finn’s archive, plus informative liner notes by key collaborators and witnesses to the Crowded House story.
Recently, Finn spoke to The Second Disc from Los Angeles, where he was staying with his son Liam (a talented musician in his own right). He gamely discussed the road to revisiting Crowded House on record, what fans can expect from these reissues, and what’s next.
“A Certain Amount of Nostalgia is Fine”
For all the popularity Crowded House’s catalog has enjoyed over the years–especially after the band’s reformation in 2007, 11 years after calling it a day–Finn admitted there were challenges to getting the reissues out of the gate.
“Things sometimes need a couple of prods,” Finn said. “We’ve been trying to get these all these things together for almost 10 years. There’s been a few people in and out of Capitol in the U.S. that started the process–it just seemed like, given that we had this event coming up, it was a good deadline to aim for. Everybody needs a deadline.”
“This event” is Crowded House’s induction into the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) Hall of Fame later this month, which they’ll celebrate with a series of concerts at the steps of the Sydney Opera House, one occurring 20 years to the day of their first farewell show.
“Any acknowledgement from your peers or your community is reason to be thankful. We had a pretty good run and a lot of our songs have become ingrained in people’s lives, so I’m always grateful for that,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for us to get together and have a good time–and now doing a couple shows alongside it, so it’s a good time all around… We don’t play that often now, and we want to be presenting in the best possible fashion. Well-rehearsed and in fine spirit!”
While Finn is the chief architect of the songs that made Crowded House so beloved, fans may be surprised to note that he left much of the bonus material selection to another: Jeremy Ansell, studio engineer at Radio New Zealand and longtime archivist for the band. “I think it would have defeated me if it was left up to me,” Finn said. “A certain amount of nostalgia is fine, [but] after awhile it can get a bit overwhelming, so I was glad to have some assistance in the process.”
“We Didn’t Want to Be Half-Assed About It”
Ansell’s attention to detail and fan interest jelled nicely with Finn’s desire to reveal only some of the “certain charm and mystery” of the band. “Jeremy is a real avid collector, and he found things that to me didn’t seem to make the grade,” Finn offered. “For instance, earlier takes of tracks that we might have recorded 2-3 times in studio…I was a bit wary of putting too many versions. You don’t want to reveal the process too much, or it takes the mystery away. It’s a delicate balancing act.
But Finn is proud of the results. “We didn’t want to be half-assed about it,” he noted. “Everything that got on the bonus disc had to argue its case, from the charm of a home demo to some historical interests, or some interesting story associated with how different songs are.”
The bonus material does indeed offer a level of insight into Crowded House’s process that hasn’t been offered before. Even the most iconic recordings the band released took time to come together just so.
“Some of the demos are extremely recognizable; we would go through a process in rehearsal of breaking them apart and trying them in different formats,” Finn explained. “I’m thinking particularly of the song “Private Universe”: the first demo was kind of an uptempo shuffle, a jaunty romp, but ended up being much more of a moody piece. [Producer] Youth encouraged us to try and trip it out a bit. But the first demo has some appeal and charm to it.
“There’s definitely a few things that take time to emerge,” he continued. “The demo of “Walking on the Spot,” which originated during the sessions for the band’s first album, “was vastly different to how it ended up on Together Alone…I’ll make a demo and in some ways it’s quite random how it appears. In some cases those demos are locked in forever as part of how the song is. In some cases, the song seems flawed and you have to try to extract it from that original imagining in order to get its essence.”
“Anything That Brings Songs Out Into the Light”
Some of the bonus material actually finds Crowded House–always a stellar live act–trying out new material onstage.
“There were times where we really hung it out and took chances in trying out a brand new idea without any rehearsal live on stage,” Finn said. “It’s a good thing when it can happen–if you’ve got new songs coming through, to play them onstage. In some cases it can be problematic, that you define the songs too much onstage and you don’t get the chance to explore them and throw them up in the air and reassemble them.
“But generally speaking I think it’s a nice thing to do,” he explained. “Anything that brings songs out into the light; you’re not going around in your own head endlessly, as soon as you play them and get people listening to them, you learn about them a lot more.”
“No Worse Than the Originals”
Where Finn really found himself engaged was the first-time remastering of the original albums and their resurrection on CD and, for the first time in years (for the first time ever, in the case of 2000’s rarities collection Afterglow) on vinyl.
“They hopefully are better–at least no worse than the originals,” Finn said of the new masters. “You’re faced with that kind of technical challenge of saying, ‘Well, the original mastering had the advantage of better midrange, but the bottom end wasn’t as good.’ So you come back to the new one and the bottom end’s better, but the midrange maybe not quite as…It’s a maddening process, and not everybody will agree with our decisions but we put a lot of work into it. We tried to do the best we could and a lot of care and attention went into it.”
One thing the entire Crowded House revisitation did not inspire was a need to pick favorites, or consider how he’d have done things differently. “You make decisions at the time–they’re not always going to be right. There are probably a couple of our studio albums I think we put a bit too many songs on, and was a bit long,” Finn declared. “Largely, I’m pretty happy with the output we had. There’s a few songs on every album I probably think we didn’t quite hit, but I think the majority of every album has really strong material.
“I’m resistant to the idea of picking favorites in general…I can honestly say the music I’ve made at every point since I’ve started writing songs I’m equally attached to,” he continued with a laugh. “If anyone tries to tell me it wasn’t as worthy as some other work, I will defend it. I know the work I put into it and I know the feeling I had for it.”
Finn indulged The Second Disc by sharing some insight into “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” Crowded House’s biggest hit but a single of uncommon beauty and timelessness–one that’s remained a beacon for many in a year that seems to lack any logic or reason.
He revealed that producer Mitchell Froom was responsible for the distinctive sound of the track, with its fluid, R&B-inspired bass line and Hammond B3 flourishes. “These are influences I wouldn’t have come to myself, because they’re more American influences. But I really enjoyed having a new angle, a new shading on the song,” he said.
Finn also credits the “kind of sadness in the air” on the track with a real-life melancholic source: the track was cut a day after Seymour and Hester were replaced with session legends Jerry Scheff and Jim Keltner to “get the right amount of shuffle” on “Now We’re Getting Somewhere.”
“There was a little bit of sadness when we cut “Don’t Dream It’s Over” the next day,” Finn explained. “That comes through in the track, this bigness in depth. It’s [also] mixed a little slower than we had recorded it. We only found out later that the tape machine had been running slow.”
Finn is all too aware of the song’s impact, especially during a turbulent political scene in America. “It does seem to have a universality and appropriateness,” he mused. “It’s an unconscious thing, but you try to create a feeling…and the lyrics don’t spell it out in specific terms, so it allows people to see a lot of different angles in it. I’m conscious of that being a great combination in a song, and it’s not easy to achieve every time. So I’m grateful for that song’s presence. It’s been out there and done some good for people–I feel blessed.”
“At Least Two Records Next Year”
The Crowded House reissues haven’t kept Finn away from forging a new path forward. He released his third solo album, Dizzy Heights, in 2014, and is planning at least one project to follow up.
“There’s a whole bunch of songs coming next year. There’ll be at least two records next year,” he promises. “By a quarter through the year,” he says, an “intimate but cinematic record, which I’m doing in a different manner,” will emerge.
Whether it’s old songs or new, Finn doesn’t tire of playing the material. “As a solo artist I can dip in any era of my material, which I really enjoy,” he said. “All the different entities can reunite onstage…For some people that’s all they want to hear from me, is Crowded House. But it’s all part of a continuum. Some of the process of making Crowded House records was exactly the same as what I’m doing now. It’s a more complex process than people realize. I’m proud of all the things I’ve done, and they all seem to be part of the same line.”
As Finn continues to write and record, on his own or with Crowded House (or any of the other myriad ensembles assembled over the years), one thing’s for sure: with songs like those, the sun will keep shining.
Order the Crowded House reissues, available Friday, November 4, at the band’s official web store.