Speaker of the House
Master tunesmith Neil Finn is glad to be back sharing the load in Kiwi group Crowded House after a series of solo runs – but he’s still calling the shots, he tells TONY CLAYTON-LEA
ONE OF New Zealand’s most popular musicians is checking out Shoreditch, his London base, for a few days while he’s doing interviews to promote his band’s new album. Neil Finn is used to such mooching around. Now in his early 50s, Finn has been – whether in a band or solo, or with his brother Tim as part of the simply-named Finn Brothers – at the coalface of quality pop music for the best part of 35 years.
Via cult Kiwi group Split Enz, Crowded House and his solo years, Finn has gained something of a reputation as a tunesmith, and it’s not too much of an overstatement to claim that he (occasionally in cahoots with his brother) has rivalled the likes of Lennon and McCartney and Squeeze’s Difford and Tilbrook for a tilt at the title of pre-eminent classic pop songwriter.
And yet while his solo and collaborative material has always been quality, polished pop, it has always been Crowded House that has tickled the public’s fancy. From their formation in 1986 to their final gig 10 years later (on the steps of Sydney Opera House, where they performed a teary farewell in front of 100,000 people), the band clocked up a dozen Top 30 UK hit singles. That’s at least one tune per year you could whistle without fear of derision. The regrouped band’s new album, Intriguer, continues the knack of delivering classy, lingering and durable pop that appears to extend summer into autumn and beyond.
“It feels like we have arrived at a cohesive, focused point with the band,” says Finn. “With Intriguer, we’ve seen it through from the start together; everyone has had a hand in every song, and we have, I suppose, more experience and more intuition now. We’ve picked it up a bit, and are kicking some goals.
“Am I still up for it? Well, it doesn’t feel any different now in an aspirational sense than it did when I was younger. I’m a little wiser now, of course, and the body is probably not quite as sharp and nimble as it used to be, but inside my head I’m still absolutely besotted with the idea of making music. The whole mystery of it is just as intriguing as ever. It’s a fascinating thing, to be truthful, and sometimes there’s a lot of struggle, but it always seems to be worth it.”
Finn’s solo years, which saw him release two very smart pop records in the form of Try Whistling This(1998) and One Nil(2001), more or less floundered as his wandering creative spirit (Finn terms it as “restless”) went hither and thither from recording project to project.
Of that period of time, he says he was “following my nose and my best instincts”, but the implication is that a band format is the one he is happiest in.
“We were out and about yesterday in London doing promo, and if you’re a band doing that it’s a joy, what with all the banter, whereas if you’re doing that by yourself it can easily become a bit self-conscious. There are a lot of aspects about being in a band that are great. Apart from the sounds you can make as a composite unit or character, there is also stuff to share with people. I enjoy the shared load, and it’s a good contrast to performing solo.”
What about the level of autonomy that comes with performing solo? Does he feel he has to relinquish that in a band format? “There is obviously some compromise and allowance for other people’s opinions.” Finn wavers diplomatically before delivering a killer line: “I have a pretty strong opinion about my own songs, though, so perhaps solo it’s autonomy and within the band it’s dictatorship! Now, that’s a good quote but it’s not entirely true. Maybe the best way to phrase it is assertiveness. People fight for their own views as well, of course, and it’s an open enough environment for everybody’s views to be considered, and not to be totally dismissed.”
Which, not to put too fine a point on it, means he’s still the boss? “It’s fair enough to say that. In the finishing of the songs and the record I’ve put so much individual effort into it that there’s a limit to how many opinions at various points I want to seek. Basically, I use my judgment and the other guys trust it.”
If there’s a strong opinion about something, admits Finn, then the band members tell him, and sometimes he will concede that a good point has been made. “But yes,” he laughs, knowing there’s no getting away from it, “I’m still the boss.”
Does it still surprise him that, more than 30 years since he first started writing songs, he is still engaged and enthralled by the process and energised with the end results? “I can only speak for myself, because everybody’s relationship with music is slightly different. There are people out there because they like the idea of being in a band so they can – or so I’m told – get to meet girls, and there are other people who just want to make noises in their bedrooms, and bury themselves in music. I can relate more to the latter, but there are all sorts of grey areas in between.
“It’s a struggle, though, and you need a strong force of will to keep going forward. To be stuck in front of a blank page is a terrifying place to be sometimes. For me, there’s something about the fact that at a certain time of the day there is no one in the world that has heard the piece of music I’ve spent hours working on. That’s a very special feeling.”
What has always been around, reckons Finn, and will always be a great leveller, from pauper to prince, city academic to village idiot, is the power of the melody, the strength of the tune and the sentiment of the lyric. “Music is about connection, and if it connects to the person in the street I don’t think there’s any greater usefulness or gift you can give. In our family, we always sang at parties, and the idea of lighting up a room with a tune that everyone can sing was great. Some of the greatest musical moments in my life have been at about three in the morning, having had quite a few drinks, with a bunch of people sitting around a room playing Abba songs, or really corny songs – singing them as if our lives depended on them. A lot of layers of intellect are stripped away at those times, and that’s when music becomes an incredibly pure influence.
“But I’m always so delighted when I’m on stage and I hear the audience singing back one of our songs. It’s such a beautiful feeling.”
Intrigueris released on June 6. Crowded House play the Royal Theatre in Castlebar, May 29, and the Olympia Theatre in Dublin, May 30