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Whistling Tunes 

Neil Finn escapes from a crowded house

Wednesday, Jul 3 2002
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Photo by Karin Catt

NEIL FINN FIRST GOT REALLY FAMOUS AS THE front man of Crowded House, whose gorgeous, quietly anthemic 1987 single "Don't Dream It's Over" still plays in supermarkets everywhere. In the six years since that band made its farewell appearance on the steps of the Sydney Opera House, before a crowd numbering upward of 100,000, Neil has, among the other usual things that people do, co-scored a movie (Rain), co-authored a book (Once Removed, about his last tour), and released two solo albums -- three if you count the live 7 Worlds Collide, which documents, as does the DVD of the same name, a week of concerts staged last year in Auckland with an improbable pickup band that included Radiohead's Phil Selway and Ed O'Brien; ex-Smith Johnny Marr; Lisa Germano, who accompanies Finn on his current tour; big brother Tim Finn, co-founder of Split Enz, Neil's first band; and son Liam's own hot combo, Betchadupa, supporting Eddie Vedder on a couple of radically thrashed Enz chestnuts. "Certainly that was a peak moment for me," says Neil, "to see a song that I wrote before he was born, suddenly being really beautifully interpreted by him and one of his, you know, teenage idols."

Finn's latest record is One All (Nettwerk), already released outside the U.S. (in a slightly different form) as One Nil. It may just be that I've listened to it about a hundred times in the last two days, but I'd say this is as good an album as any he's made, with the wide sonic palette that also distinguished Crowded House and melodies more immediately memorable than those on Try Whistling This, his first solo album. Despite his old mainstream cred and deft way with a hook, Finn is a maverick by taste and conviction; he makes a music of contradictions, at once populist and private, ambiguous and direct, melancholy and uplifting, death-dark and love-bright, serious and funny. He sings pretty, but with a slightly serrated edge.

I phone him in New Zealand, where winter is arriving. To start, I remind him that we first met 15 years ago, during spring break in Daytona Beach, Florida, where Crowded House had come to play for MTV as "Don't Dream It's Over" was climbing into the Top 10.

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NEIL FINN: I saw a bit of footage from that just the other day, and it looked very strange, we were all so . . . young and kind of . . . I don't know, MTV Spring Break was a strange experience at any age.

L.A. WEEKLY: It almost seems to belong to a different career -- there was a moment then when you were swept up in a kind of pop mania.

We were kind of riding a bit of a wave, with all its attendant mix of excitement and . . . anxiety. Some people get through that anxious period and love it and embrace it and want it more and more; I was one of those sort of people who slightly recoiled from it, and created my own -- you never entirely create your own fate or your own life, but there are choices you make at certain times that dictate what level of success you're comfortable with and feel is positive.

Where are you comfortable?

I'm really happy about where I am right now, actually, in the sense that I'm not a slave to the fairly narrow parameters of the pop industry and the charts -- although if I suddenly had a song rocketing up the charts, it would still probably feel pretty good. I'm drawn now to think about music far more for its own sake, without the expectation that everything's going to jump straight on the radio; it's a much freer feeling, and I've been able to expand in recent times into things like soundtracks and more collaborations, and that feels like a good, natural place to be at my age.

And how does your age feel?

My age feels good. I feel just a modicum, just a small amount of wisdom has crept in through the back door. It took me a long time, but I don't feel as anxious about stupid things anymore -- or perhaps they've just been replaced by more complicated stupid things.

What would be an example of a complicated stupid thing?

Well, it's more existential now. In the old days it used to be, like, did my hair look right on that TV show? I'm probably being a little bit glib -- it was slightly deeper back then as well.

You always had at least a façade of maturity.

But Nick [Seymour] and Paul [Hester, of Crowded House] used to think that it was more of a schoolmasterly air, that I would be slightly disapproving of them. Things like punctuality -- when you're in a band, and you have to sit around in hotel lobbies waiting for an hour for somebody to turn up, it really used to bug me. [Laughs.] And then they'll turn up and somehow make me feel like I'm hung up.

Was Crowded House a democracy, or were you the leader?

I suppose I was the leader in the sense that I did the most communicating with managers, and I was writing the songs. But on the road, inevitably it's a democracy -- there is the odd person in a band that hasn't got much ego, but most have got a fair amount, in order to survive. We used to say that he who threw the biggest tantrum won the day.

So there are fewer tantrums in your life now.

That's true -- being solo has got a lot of blessings. There are, however, things about being in a band that you'll never replace, special magical things: The musical language that develops between people that spend a lot of time together is the character of a great band, and ultimately the most interesting form of music.

Do you try to create situations where you can make something like that happen?

I try to put myself into unusual and difficult situations as often as I can in order to capture the element of struggle in the music. It would be easy to find a technically brilliant band to play my songs exactly as on the record, but it would lack character. There was no way that Paul or Nick were technically brilliant, but they were good interpreters, and there's something about our flaws that gave us a sound. Now, for instance, there were these five shows we did last year in Auckland with a bunch of guests -- we only had three days' rehearsal, and although they were great musicians, it was definitely on the edge of our seats. There's something about that that resembles the experience of what a real band has, those quirks -- nothing's been ironed out completely. It did in fact develop its own kind of momentum and chemistry, and by the end of the week we were kind of a band. And then we got to break up before anything went bad.

I grew up singing at parties, where there was a ritual that everybody in the room would contribute to the singsong, and you would be in amongst a very fluid and in-the-moment kind of expression. I had an Uncle George, a very jolly rotund gentleman who used to drag me out in front of everybody and say, "C'mon, Nugget" -- he used to call me Nugget -- "sing us a song, willya?" This was when I was about 4 or 5, and for some reason the song I always used to sing was called "Terry," which was one of the motorcycle-genre songs, a girl singing about her boyfriend who'd just been killed on a motorcycle. But it seemed to work.

I'm enjoying music a lot at the moment, so I can't wait to get onstage. -

Was there a time when you weren't enjoying it?

Grant Lee Phillips was here a few weeks ago and played a gig at this little club, which we kind of own, and he said a really good thing. He said, "Well, I broke up my band a few years ago, and then I broke up myself. And now I'm just putting myself back together again." And it's a bit like that. It's not like I stopped enjoying music, but I felt it quite hard for a while, getting through my first solo record. It was suddenly being on my own: I had so many options and choices. And just in the last couple of years I've decided that that's the beauty of it.

Neil Finn appears at House of Blues, Friday-Saturday, July 5-6.

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