Crowded House

Mojo June 1994 - By David Hepworth - Photos Paul Rider

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The Band Onstage - Paul, Nick, Neil and Mark Neil Mark, Nick, Paul and Neil - Just before the split Neil & Guitar

SHERYL CROW, WHO HAS COMPLETED her support slot and may well have had a small drink, lies down on the ramp leading to the stage and does a distant, backstroke variant on The Swim. Mark Hart's children dance with members of the road crew. A few yards away Crowded House are burning their way through In My Command in front of a couple of thousand Virginians. The legendary Dougal, Neil Finn's faithful guitar technician, and Jools, the keyboard boffin, celebrate another successful show by gently lobbing pieces of fruit in the direction of drummer Paul Hester. For the first of the encores bassist Nick Seymour borrows a cowboy hat from a visitor and joins Mark Hart for a doleful run through Hank Williams' I Can't Help It If I'm Still In Love With You. Halfway through the number Finn and Hester wander onstage, sit down and start reading magazines. Crowded House in general and Hester in particular are well-known for pushing the stagecraft envelope (naked drum solos are not unknown, impromptu dashes down the aisles are frequent occurrences, at Hammersmith last year he stole some car keys from a member of the crowd, and the previous night in Washington they'd taken the stage bearing the business end of the backstage firehose and an axe) but this is clearly a new one. Hart looks briefly rattled but pushes on manfully. Ten minutes later, when the three original members of the group are lined up at the front of the stage for the customary closer, Sister Madly, and they all wheel to cue in Hart's piano break, there he is, the newest member, leaning on his keyboard engrossed in a magazine. As the number threatens to collapse Hart keeps hold of his reading matter and negotiates the solo with his elbow. The audience roars and laughs at the same time.

Crowded House's success in the UK and Australasia has been built on twin planks. One is their engaging stage performances which are about as free of either European pomposity or American shape-throwing as it's possible to be without actually becoming The Faces. The other is Neil Finn's exceptional songwriting gifts. Crowded House's four albums since 1986 (Crowded House, Temple Of Low Men, Woodface and Together Alone) have seen him develop richly textured and strikingly emotional music - music built for intense repetition and daily use. Compositions like Distant Sun, Into Temptation and Weather With You unfold like dreams, their focus constantly shifting from background to foreground and back again, conjuring emotional climates as vivid and deeply seductive as R.E.M.'s or Steely Dan's.

Together Alone, their strongest record yet, has been in the U K charts for more than six months, kept there by the powerful medicine of word of-mouth recommendation. In June, Crowded House return to the UK to reap their reward for much patient touring with a sold-out arena tour and a headline slot at the Fleadh in Finsbury Park. But in the meantime they must complete a gruelling American tour, playing a different city every day and bussing overnight in order to avoid losing too much money while their album languishes on the wrong side of the Top 200.

On the bus between Washington DC and Norfolk, Virginia, Paul Hester, who avoids interviews despite being the most gregarious member of the group, confided his doubts as to the wisdom of bothering with this kind of tour, The houses were packed and enormously enthusiastic but they weren't translating into sales. His girlfriend, who was expecting their first child, was with the tour but was going home to Melbourne in a few days. Three days earlier in New York, Hester had been the member of the group most obviously affected by the death of Kurt Cobain. Three days after the Virginia gig he announced that he was leaving the group, ending an association with Neil Finn that went back to 1983 and Split Enz days. Two hours later they went onstage at the Roxy Theatre in Atlanta to play together for the last time. The encores lasted for over an hour and took in all the drummer's favourites. They closed M4th Better Be Home Soon, which Finn dedicated to "a man I love - Paul Hester". The conversations that comprise this interview with Neil Finn took place before these events.

I've examined your lyrics closely and two themes emerge. You're obsessed with kitchens and falling on your knees.

(Laughs) There is an appalling number of knee references. It's an ex Catholic thing. There's been a kitchen reference in every album so far. I've done it unconsciously on the first three records, and this time on Together Alone I thought I'd better do it in Walking On The Spot. I like domestic imagery of all sorts. It's a whole world that I'm attracted to.

There's a lot of references to walls and doors, both real and metaphorical, on this record.

There's a point in every writer's life where they've got to look hard and long at the stock images that they use. Bono on this last U2 record has really eliminated all references to fire, which was clearly a big thing for him. It's a bit uncomfortable to talk about for too long because You start to recognise patterns in your own writing.

How do you start a song?

I basically rely on getting my first few lines by just singing something and writing it down and not thinking about it at all. So initially I get just a natural image like sky, sea, sun, earth and then something very domestic like washing. The juxtaposition of those things is endlessly interesting.

Can you remember the process afterwards?

Pineapple Head is an obvious example. It started with my son Liam who had a fever. He was delirious and I was standing by with a cloth to cool him down and he just started talking about all these things. 'Pineapple Head! Pineapple Head!' Then he said "detective is flat' and 'getaway car'. So instead of staying there and doing what a father should do I ran downstairs and committed it to a song. Until my wife Sharon came in and looked at me in horror and said, 'What are you doing here?' At the time you've got to go. There's enough times when the idea pops into your head and you're not on the ball enough to write it down. Liam's 11 and I've exploited him mercilessly over the years. He wrote the line 'here comes Mrs Hairy Legs' in Chocolate Cake.

So does Pineapple Head mean anything?

Pineapple Head has the least meaning in the literal sense of any of the songs on the record, but in a strange way for me it all makes perfect sense. Line by line anyway. And the chorus is put over from the point of view of a fever, a virus, inhabiting somebody. 'I'll play you like a shark and I'll clutch at your heart and come flying like a spark to inflame you.' The rest of it's just a stream of consciousness delirium put down on paper.

All that matters for me is that it has a context or a sense of place.

I grew up realising that the songs that I enjoyed, there were maybe a two or three lines that I hooked into and I didn't think of them in a literal sense at all. They just put me into a different state and also made have other thoughts. It's like that when I go and see a play or read a book. You're enjoying the whole thing but then there are certain paragraphs that make you go, Wow! You think, that describes something I've always felt but never been able to verbalise myself.

The aim of a good song is, within the context of that three minutes, to provide a couple of lines that just go bang into the back of the cranium so that people go, Yes, I know that feeling. And I think the abstract nature of them helps in not leading people too specifically into an intellectual process. I'm a huge admirer of Dylan but not a fan because I never got into that style of song, it always seemed to expect you to have an intellectual response to it. The narrative kind of song has never been my bag at all. Then again it's probably something I should try in order to become a more fully-rounded human being.

Hole In The River on the other hand strikes me as a literal story song.

There are instances where the songs are quite specific. I wrote that song literally five seconds after putting the phone down on my father after he'd told me about his sister having killed herself, and I just wrote down what he told me: 'She left her car by the river, she left her shoes beside. She fought her way through the thorns and the bushes.' Then I added a few thoughts of my own. It was a similar process in that didn't sit down and think about it too much. I just wrote down what he said. It had a very powerful impact on me. lt wasn't an exploitative thing at the time, it was more that I didn't know how to feel about it so I wrote a song about it.

But I like the songs that do carry an overall thread. The writing a good song is enough of a mystery to me that I'm prepared to let this be unexplained and abstract even to me. If the words sound right, if they convey a certain depth or extremity of emotion, it doesn't matter if they don't relate to the line before, particularly.

A large part of finishing lyrics is just making them sound good. Making them sound musical. That's the hardest part to me. I get to a point where I've got half a song done. Ideally you get the whole thing at once but if you do that you're in luck. But what usually happens is that you get a verse and a chorus and you feel so proud of yourself because you think you've written a song that you think, I'll go and make a cup of tea! You come back after the tea and you're not in the same groove any more and it's not easy to get the lines spilling out any more. The ones that spill out always sound good, they mean good things and they have little windows into my subconscious, which I like. They're not always apparent at the time but later on I'll think, Oh, that must have been as a result of this thing that happened to me.

It's almost like working with clay, you've just got to mould the words until they fit the type of rhythm and meter of the song really well. That's where the craft comes in. I'm sure there are ways of training yourself to get into a much more cerebral state so that they can fall out again, but a lot of the time it just comes down to a really concentrated process of sitting down for ages, changing one word here and there.

Do you have to approach things in a set way?

I have a guitar and I sing it and then maybe I'll have a littie sleep because I often get really tired when I'm writing, especially if I'm on my own. That was what was great about writing with Tim, it was a very energetic process. While I'm on my own I rely on getting into a pretty dreamy state anyway.

Do you imagine the finished record early on?

I sometimes hear arrangements when I'm in that half-asleep, half awake state before going to bed. I can hear a whole song, arrangement and everything pouring through my brain and I'm thinking, I really should have a piece of paper or a tape recorder here now. You hear every detail, but I've very seldom been able to capitalise upon it. Some of the songs I've imagined in those situations are like the best songs I've ever written. But I know that if I jump out of bed I'll lose it.

It's easy to see why drugs are such a good tool. Pot is particularly productive for me, but only if I'm feeling undistracted and relaxed.

Do you write all the time?

I don't write on the road much. I've been writing a little in the last week. But generally on the road you get yourself into such a vegetable-like state in which you can get yourself up for the gig, but the rest of the day's just ... [grimaces] If you're disciplined about it you can get out and let the places you're in resonate somehow by interacting with people, but somehow in reality I just get in this twilight zone of elevator, room service, sleep, bus, gig and meet a few people after the gig. On some occasions you meet some great people and you go in their house, and if there are instruments around I feel very inspired and start playing.

How does your wife feel about your songs?

She's into it up to a point. I don't think it would be appropriate to treat my work as any kind of diary or document about us. Our reality is moving along a different line. The songs are sometimes drawing from our experiences but in random ways, jumping from this time to another or this thought to another.

There is a tendency when you start reading lots of reviews to get really intense about what the songs are really about. Sharon's had moments when she's looked at songs and said, "What are you saying? What's your problem?" But because we've been together so long she's realised that they're not any more real than a little skirmish that you might have in the morning before you get out of bed. They're just moments, little vignettes, and they're usually enlarged upon or adapted. There are elements of direct experience, but then there is the business of making it seem that the guy in the song really means what he's saying. A lot of that is inventing a fantasy scenario around it.

But what about a song like Into Temptation, which some people see as one of the most candid songs about infidelity?

Some songs are more personal than others. There wouldn't have been a problem with Into Temptation if people hadn't gone, 'What's he up to? What's been going on there?" That was a song about the nature of guilt and that moment of wavering, when you decide whether to tip yourself over the edge or hang back from it. It's not a song that directly relates to an experience I was having then. But everybody's been in that situation at some time. I knew it, I wrote about it and it's awkward to talk about it. To me it's a question of once they're written it's just The Guy singing it.

Do you get embarrassed by the reactions of people close to you?

I'm nervous about what I write until it's had the band take it and make it sound good or somebody really reacts to it strongly.

There's a responsibility involved. Hole In The River was a classic example. I wrote it as the best document of something tragic that happened and her family were really upset about it. Those are the kind of skeletons in people's closets that not many of us like to confront.

I got to a point where I was reading how melancholic I was and how tortured and angst-ridden the lyrics were that I was starting to feel a bit self-conscious about it, not wanting to reveal as much, and then I thought, Fuck it. All you can hope for is that the song has some emotional intensity, and if that's what it takes to lay yourself open in people's minds then so be it. Like Weather With You is an imaginary scene but it does contain a few direct references to things I've experienced. My sister lived at Mount Pleasant Street and it was an interesting contradiction to Stormy Weather.

Critics always write about words because that's what they're comfortable with, but you've always said there's nothing so tough as a melody. What do you mean by that?

The fact of the matter is that a good tune is the only thing that is capable of being taken by somebody and hummed or whistled, purely on its own. Whereas a good rhythm needs to be playing in a machine. There's not many people go to work and just play a rhythm, unless it's Wipeout or something. Or even a riff, which is good for a bit of jiving round the bedroom but you need the record playing. But a tune you can take with you, because it's kind of yours, and by singing it to yourself you get the same effect as listening to it would've had. So it's a powerful thing, and it's amazing how much variety there can be in a melody given that there are only 13 notes in the scale and most things have been done.

Every Crowded House song seems to have a pivotal chord change which alters the mood, something which is simultaneously elating and sad.

Music is by nature a thing that doesn't need to be explained, which is why people relate to it so heavily, because here's something that doesn't require any intellectual process at all. It just causes a direct emotional response. But the first thing I ever understood was the idea that a chord change can change a mood. That's the deciding point as to whether you've got a song or not. You can create a nice atmosphere and a beguiling little tune but you've got to have some dramatic point where another shade comes in or there's a twist, like in a play when you introduce conflict and it takes you further than you imagined it would. It's the same concept with a song really. The classic thing in Nails In My Feet is the guitar melody in the middle, where it goes major instead of minor. The rest of the song has been quite modal and hymn-like, and there's suddenly this slightly Arabic flavour to it. That's the kind of shift I really find myself attracted to in songs.

The strength of most bands is how they get it wrong, the flaws and the misshapen bits. We are quite limited in many ways. Certainly me. I've never listened to anybody else's records and learned licks. I play what I would call a blues-type lick and it doesn't sound right because I've never figured it out properly, but I'm happy about that. I've never played 12 bar blues. I've learned songs, but I've never bothered with the technical details of how the chord shapes were mode. I've never had the patience to practise an instrument. I always ended up trying to write a song.

Together Alone was your first record without Mitchell Froom as producer, and also the first time you've recorded in New Zealand.

There's a good atmosphere there. The Maori and Polynesian cultures are both a lot more in your face than they once were, and the blend of cultures is becoming really exciting. We wanted to get away from studios and break with the past.

With that in mind, we rang up the production people who had done The Piano and they suggested a house that Harvey Keitel had stayed in at Kare Kare beach in the South-west, so I went out and had a look. It's just this great bunker on top of a hill with this one really big room and these huge windows that slide away so that you could open up one entire wall of the house and it looked out over the valley. Kare Kare is a really magical, quite confronting place because the landscape's very rugged, the weather's very extreme and the sea is really dangerous. It's not a soporific, beachy kind of place. People go there to sort out their relationships, and mad inventors end up there because it feels like anything's accepted. It's a gathering point. It's very isolated. You could say it's the end of the world. There's no shops and you can't get TV because there's no signal. We just went barefoot for two months and did a lot of walking. There are waterfalls where you can stand on a ledge under a ton of water and just be pummelled by the elements.

We tended to look out of the windows and the day dictated the music. If we were working on a really up, frothy, happy song and it was a moody overcast day we'd be forced to change and do something like Private Universe or Fingers Of Love. It was an adventure in itself. A worthy way to spend two months.

How was Youth as a producer?

He was fine once he'd gotten over the culture shock. I've decided that the most important thing a producer should know is the right adjective to use. 'Pagan' was a favourite of Youth's. He used to play Cat Stevens' Tea For The Tillerman every night at dinner.

With this record we put things down and left them which I'm very pleased about because in the past, particularly on Woodface, we were hyper-critical of everything and it sounded really finicky to me, overworked and a little bit polite and overly-thought out. There's a natural crafting instinct with us that we can't seem to deny, so the album isn't Captain Beefheart or anything, but it's definitely one step down a road we'd like to go further down.

I wish we'd taken it a bit further. With Black & White Boy and Nails In My Feet we played for ages at the end and just tripped out, and then when it come to mastering I got weary of the jamming and faded them early. Now I think I should have left them all on...

Onstage, Crowded House are the antithesis of the kind of highly polished act people are used to seeing these days.

We are schizophrenic in that respect. Because of being loose onstage we do find ourselves in areas that we're not familiar with, but we can have a really transcendental moment where suddenly it's very psychedelic or very heavy and it doesn't really fit our job description, but we could potentially be more than anybody would hazard a guess at. I wonder sometimes whether the more conservative members of our audience, when they come to our shows and we get pretty abstract, whether they lose it at that point or whether they accept it and enjoy it.

You seem unbelievably relaxed about the whole business of performance.

It's not always like that. We have very edgy nights. It's a bit of a Catch 22. The audience who've seen us before allow us a lot of slack. They're quite happy for us to meander and find tangents, and yet you sense an unease when we're going down a blind alley and it's not really happening. They seem to be saying, 'Go on, play a song, this is not working'. It's a trade off. We undercut some of the drama of the evening by cracking a joke before a really serious song. It's a hit or miss thing.

You have fans who turn up every night because no two shows are quite alike.

We change the set every night, albeit sometimes in quite a small way. We change the order, we alternate certain songs and we'll put in one we haven't played for a while in order to upset the rhythm of it. I was talking to Steve Scales about his time with Talking Heads, and he said they built the energy level with almost military precision. I thought to myself, maybe we've undercut our ability to deliver night after night. In an entertainment tradition there is a lot to be said for that concept but somehow it's always seemed worth it. Because when those moments work out there's nothing that can touch it. Something happens onstage and we make up a little song on the spot and the audience lean forward, and you can see that they're in the moment and they realise that it's happening just for them. Nothing can touch that connection.

Most stage acts are built for arenas nowadays and the acts seem more interested in impressing audiences than engaging them.

You feel manipulated, absolutely. Sometimes at our shows you get people going, 'Get on with it', but that's about the worst of it. People get sick of us messing around and we look like wankers for about five minutes but we embrace that too. I remember seeing one big show, it might have been Madonna, and I was looking at the kids in the audience and thinking, If the only shows they've seen are these big spectaculars and they've watched MTV and they've bought the records it's quite possible that they've never had an intimate experience with music. They've never sat with somebody with an acoustic guitar and felt what it's like to be in a room as something's going down. It's like watching a video, it's got that kind of emotional impact.

You seem to have mode a speciality of impromptu performances at in store appearances and so on.

The main reason that happened is that when the first album come out in America in 1987, and it was wallowing in indifference, we did a couple of acoustic shows where we just busked. They were so riotous and so exciting and there was so much interaction going on that we told the American record company that we wanted to do a series of those shows. We did a whole series of restaurants. We did an Indian in New York and a Japanese in LA. It was very downmarket, but at the time nobody was really doing it. Everybody came along and it really connected and we learned how to do it really well. We learned how to sing together too. We learned how to relate to each other onstage. Paul and Nick are both pretty extrovert and I'm not. If I was on my own onstage it wouldn't have the same light-hearted edge to it, but they encourage me to come out of myself a bit. You give Paul a bit of slack and he's funny and sharp as well.

But you don't appear to suffer from nerves.

My eccentric Uncle George used to really trot me out at four years old. All the grown ups thought it was great fun, so he helped me conquer stage fright really. I still squirmed with fear and trepidation but most people never get beyond that fear of performance.

Singing's great, getting an audience singing is the best feeling. Some nights I feel it's fake to be exhorting the audience to sing, other nights it's the most natural thing in the world, and on some nights you don't need to because they just do it anyway. We did a gig in Sydney, and I started the first chords of Four Seasons In One Day, and they just started to sing it and basically we just let them sing the whole song. It was just spine-tingling.

I understand you're a Donovan fan.

[Laughs]. When I was 12 years old the first record I bought was by Donovan, because I really liked Catch The Wind. He had these lyrics printed on the sleeve and I wrote a tune for them: 'Precious little do we kiss the sun and drink the rain." That's all I remember of it.

Then I was into The Beatles and the Stones. I bought Neil Young, Crosby Stills & Nash, Led Zep 11, James Taylor and David Bowie. I loved Hunky Dory. It was a real songwriter's record. I love the sound of that record still. Quicksand was a particularly big one for me. I liked the fact that his lyrics were more abstract than any I'd heard before. There was a real mystery to it and also he was slightly gender-challenging. I found that deeply mysterious, because I hadn't experienced anything like that in my home town Te Awamutu.

What was it like?

It's a little colonial country town, a very conservative farming community. It had a large Maori community too when I was growing up, but the cultures were pretty separate. It was a good, pretty chilled-out childhood where you could run around in bare feet and play on the street. I went to boarding school for a year and a half. I didn't take to it very well because my brother Tim was filling me with late '60s propaganda. He'd just gone to university and he was in the demo marches. He was telling me to paint obscenities on the chapel wall. He bought me the Lit-tie Red School Book when I was 13. So it was hopeless rectify. I ran foul of the whole system and left and went to Te Awamutu College, which was the best thing I ever did.

You've just moved back to Auckland after living in Melbourne.

Yes, we're scattered all over. I'm in New Zealand, Paul lives in Melbourne, Mark is in California and Nick is currently stateless. He's a vagrant who has this really forlorn notion that if he stays on the run then he won't have to end up paying tax anywhere. I think he's in for a rude awakening at some point.

Capitol in the US wanted you to go back in and add some songs to Together Alone.

They wanted us to record a couple more. It's pretty common. It was a new record company president and he said, 'I love your album, guys, the best album you've ever done but I just don't think there's a single for the American market. How would you feel about going back and just doing a real simple song? Your career's a bit stagnant in America...' And I just let him say it all and then said no. We're happy with the record, I don't agree with you anyway, there's plenty of possibilities for singles. Nobody heard Don't Dream It's Over on the first record, and that was a Top 10 hit here.

I think if you try to double guess yourself and allow yourself to be guided by a person at a record company it's a dangerous business. It's hard enough to keep your own vision of what you do. As soon as you allow other opinions into it you can lose yourself.

In Britain it's been your biggest yet.

There's a lot of goodwill over there for us. The Americans like the hooks to hit them over the head, whereas the English like fishing around and getting to know a record. There's not the tolerance for it over he People need things to hit them between the eyes. That's our greatest difficulty, getting people to listen to our records more than once. On a listen they often just pass people by, they need repeated plays.

Presumably a Greatest Hits record next.

The record company have got their eye on a Greatest Hits. I don't think it's appropriate at all. I'd rather have a real body of work to make the best of from. It's not far enough down the track yet. I'd rather do really good live record because we've got so many good live tapes th I've just got to sort through. People keep asking, because the shows a really distinctive they want to have a definitive live album. We've got DAT tapes of every gig, and some of them we would be happy to release on their own without mixing them.

But I think we'll do another studio album first. I think it's very likely that we won't tour on the next record. We'll probably do a few things here and there, but we would like to break the cycle now. We'd like have something finished before Christmas, which is not giving ourselves a lot of time. I'd like to make a record where we go in with just three four songs written and the rest jammed up. We've never given ourselves over to that and I think that something good might come to the fore and it would also make everybody in the band feel more responsible for the nuts and bolts of making a record. I'd like to make a quick one.

I'd like to make my own record at some point in much the same way as I make demos at home, just really fast and vague. They have an atmosphere that I've always really liked, and it's never been the same once the band got hold of them. And I want to do another Finns Brothers harmony-oriented record.

I just crave a bit of diversity after this long. It's a very singular activity being in a band.

Today's technology seems to make it easy for any band to make a plausible noise, but there's something natural about your old favourites that's missing.

Ultimately it's never replaced what you get when you have a bunch musicians playing in a room together. Maybe somebody will make breakthrough with computers where they will tap into the randomness of what a computer can do, directly from the brain. Until that point there's always a mechanical process between the thought and the music. Its greatest use at the moment is in trance music, because thats what a machine does to you with its repetitive nature. You work with the drum track going all the time and it gets to the point where you've got this endless beat accompanying everything. It puts you into a trance which is something I don't find entirely comfortable.

Do you subscribe to Neil Young's theories about digital sound?

I'm not sure what they are but I'm sure I agree with Neil. We are subconsciously aware of a coldness with digital technology. I hate CDs I think they're really unfriendly things. I don't mind the disc itself so much as the packaging.

I understand you had to comfort the All Blacks after they lost to England at Twickenham.

That was corny but sublime somehow. I'm not a huge rugby fan. I had a day off and I rang the team and they got me tickets and they said "You've got to come back and say hello after the game'. When they lost I really didn't want to, I thought it was going to be like a morgue. There was just me and Grant Fox walked into the dressing room and it was gloom and despair, all these semi-naked All Blacks with their heads between their legs and the smell of lineament.

After a while a couple of them started to chat to me and then somebody handed me a guitar and everyone was looking at me as if say, "This is a national disaster, man, do your stuff, turn it on for the Blacks". You can't say no to All Blacks. They're physically very inimidating. So I sang a few songs and the mood lifted and they start singing. It was like a scene out of a movie. They wanted to hear all our songs, all of which seemed incredibly poignant on the day. Four Seasons In One Day, Don't Dream It's Over and so on.

I got pissed and went back into town on the bus with them. I felt like I'd walked into sacred territory.

MOJO - June 1994

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