The Fine Art of Surfacing
By Stuart Maconie - Photos - Neil Cooper
At last. Loving Crowded House no longer means having to say you're sorry. With Neil Finn still clutching his Q Award for Best Songwriter, the homesick Antipodean tunesmiths tell Stuart Maconie, "Even the hipsters like us now..."
SATURDAY NIGHT IN GLASGOW, TRADITIONALLY the comic's most difficult audience, and it's time to give a big hand to two young fellows with a bright future all the way from Down Under, Neil Finn and Nick Seymour. Neil indicates a figure sheepishly prowling stage left. "That's Dougal, one of our crew. He's a little hurt tonight because there's been a lot of talk about his doubtful parentage. We think Dougal's father was from Glasgow originally. His mother is owed a lifetime of child support. And it's one of you bastards that hasn't paid."
Nick comes forward and, seizing upon this suggestion of the legendary Scottish parsimony, opens his eyes wide in cod amazement. "They haven't paid? Well, you do surprise me."
There is a sharp collective intake of breath. "You're not just going to sit there and take that are you?" taunts Neil. "You're Glaswegians!" The audience, previously warmly encouraging, respond with a hearty and heartfelt "Fuck off!"
Yes, people like Crowded House!
I REALLY LIKE CROWDED HOUSE BUT I COULD never admit it. I mean, they're really uncool and AOR." Neil Finn repeats parodically the admission that he has heard and overheard many times. To be frank, he seems a man not unduly bothered, and neither should he. With a candid and frank stage demeanour heavy on badinage and light on "moves" and "attitude" and a catalogue of songs that celebrate the abiding virtues of the pop tune, catchiness, warmth, tenderness and a light sauce of tart melancholy, Crowded House have risen without trace and now stand revealed as one of Britain's favourite pop groups. This winter it has proved hard to avoid them. At the Q awards, here is Elton John offering warmest congratulations from the stage to Best Songwriter recipient Neil Finn: "One of my very favourite songwriters." There, on Saturday morning kids TV, is Belinda Carlisle answering unhesitatingly, "Oh, Crowded House. Neil Finn, I love him, he's great," when asked about her personal pop predilections. People like Crowded House.
"The oddest people like us. No-one's really as one-dimensional as they sometimes appear," affirms Neil. "With the new album we've changed texturally and made it easier for the hipsters to like us. People don't have to apologise for liking us as much. We have a certain vulnerable quality that people trust. If you're going to go out and sing 'I love you', people have to trust you and not want to laugh. It's very funny that our standard bearer now, internationally, should be Britain, because when we were being embraced by America, Britain didn't want to know. I'd given up on you all. I thought you were weird and unknowable and scene-obsessed and dismissive of colonials. But in the end people are won round. Besides, there's nothing tougher or wilder than a good tune."
CROWDED HOUSE'S TOUR OF BRITAIN BEGINS with two nights at Glasgow's swanksome Concert Hall, a venue more used to cummerbunds and cellos than rock. As the tour bus winds its way from the Clydeside hotel to the downtown venue, there is much discussion of sleep patterns. Most of the House have made the awful trans-global flight from Down Under twice in the last fortnight and are consequently still finding themselves wide awake and watching bad TV movies in hotel rooms at three in the morning. Indeed, the one advantage of this is that it facilitates those tricky to-time phone calls back home.
When asked if he suffers from homesickness, Neil Finn (a family man of some 15 years) responds with a resounding affirmative. "Totally. It's terrible. That's why the gig becomes all-important and if it's bad then it all starts to well up in front of your eyes. All the other places you could be and the things you've put on hold for this. My wife has had to bring up the kids on her own. I rang my son last night and he'd just got into his first fight at school. Ten years old, and I tried to give him some good advice, don't throw the first punch and all that, but really I felt so useless."
Crowded House are also rather pissed off at finding that their expensive radio-controlled stage gear is illegal in Britain because it interferes with taxi communications. However, they resolutely refuse to take Judas Priest's rock'n'roll advice and break the law. "Good idea. Get caught, never get another work permit, never tour Britain again. I think it's better to risk tripping over the leads," says drummer Paul Hester with enthusiastic sarcasm.
Paul, ostensibly the band's joker, is actually the most private of the band during the next few days. Neil is the archetypal nice guy, bassist Nick Seymour The Edge's more photogenic brother, and keyboard player Mark inscrutable to a Zenlike degree. He passes but one remark to the Q contingent during our stay and it is "I've got a tape recorder like that."
Collectively and onstage, though, they are one of the most formidable teams in modern music, able to move adroitly from the visceral modernist rock of Black And White Boy to ballads offset by the swish of jazzman's brushes. The audience are delirious, whooping each number and lapping up each merry aside from the stage. The House are big on banter that, charmingly, manages to maintain an off-the-cuff and unaffected air which keeps it this side of the irksome. At the end of Skin Feeling, Neil finds himself standing foot on monitor in classically naff rock fashion. He gazes down at himself in dismay. "What am I doing? Look, I'm coming on like a rock god." At the back of the stage, Paul Hester's voice pipes up. "Hey, guys, why don't we get a little TV and put it back here and we could watch it and be really rad! "
As Ron Atkinson would have it, they give 110 per cent. Blood, sweat and tears - literally when Nick's tour-ravaged plucking finger loses its callous halfway through, spattering the front row with a fine shower of the crimson stuff.
After the show, the backstage area is awash with admirers (including, as always, a clutch of radio competition prize winners) but the band do not emerge for some considerable time, apparently holding a technical postmortem on what seemed a flawless show. Back at the hotel, most of the band retire ("I never go out," asserts Paul implausibly), although Neil finds a table in the bar and orders that famed rock'n'roll tipple, the small tawny port. Surreally, we are joined by cult live comedian Eddie Izzard (also gigging in town tonight), and Neil and he fall into a long discussion on the prospect of touring the newly PC South Of Africa. Beds are finally made for with the promoter's promises of a trip to Loch Fyne and a lunch of stout and oysters ringing in the communal ears.
THAT EDDIE IZZARD, HE WAS A REALLY NICE guy but he told me that he never does TV. He said that it was something he was very clear about, not doing TV. So I get to my room and I switch on the TV and first thing I see is him. There he is!" Neil Finn has just emerged from the hotel gym, a projected trip to the Highlands having evaporated as completely as Glasgow's autumnal morning mist. "We're pretty fit guys. We work out most mornings. Mark was massively unfit but we subjected him to our regimen and we're pulling him into shape... " He gives up and rolls a cigarette, "Actually, I've been in a gym about four times in as many years. You just fancy it sometimes, when you wake up in the morning and you feel like a slob and a waster and a worthless piece of slime."
Though compendious in its sweep, the band's stage show draws heavily on material from the new album, Together Alone, kept from the number 1 slot here in Britain only by His Ubiquitous Loafness and, gallingly, pegged at the e position in Australia by Michael Crawford's album ("All the mums are buying it"). Recorded in a rented house in the remote and idyllic New Zealand coastal region of Kare Kare, record marks a distinct shift from its predecessors. "Recording in LA and Melbourne had become familiar and sterile," explains Neil. "Also, it struck me that the combination with Mitchell Froom, although I have nothing but good things say about him, had become a little stale and conservative. I was sick of being called a well crafted, well-mannered pop group." Thus, Finn recorded in his native land for the first time and band chose as producer the eccentrically gifted daringly hip British producer, Youth.
'For the first week I was shitting myself. I'd met Youth once and on the first day I found the engineer, Greg Hunter, collapsed on the settee his great long lank British hair falling to the floor. They'd stopped off in Bali on the way and really sick. Classic pom thing to do, hit the beach straight away and turn into a lobster. I thought, Fuck, this is mental. But then after a while I found we'd recorded 15 songs in a fortnight I realised it was working."
As Nick recalls, something of Youth's unconventional hippy approach began to infect the proceedings. "He turned to me one day and said, Hey you've got shoes on. I said, Don't you like them? Don't they go with my socks? He said, Just take ‘em off, man, and get in touch. I thought, This is great, a boy from Briton telling me, an Aussie country boy, to go barefoot!
"And there was surfing to be done and long bush walks to be taken and certain views that had to be seen. We'd have long discussions about politics and religion and philosophy and art and we'd unravel the meanings of existence and, naturally, we'd forgotten them all by the morning. We did begin to loosen up. Previously, the worst accusation you could level at anyone in this band is that they were slack. Neil and I are both from pretty well ordered Catholic families - although mine was the kind that used to turn up for mass late - but even so we began to get that work ethic into perspective."
Both are sanguine about the central absurdity of playing in a pop group for a living. "There's a lot to be said for maintaining that eternal teenager in you, providing it doesn't stop you denying you're a grown up," offers Nick. "On the first night of this tour, I went out to a lot of clubs and got in really late - or early I should say. It's part of the fun of touring provided that you don't get hopelessly fucked up. But then you get into your regime. The callouses form on the fingers and you start to work out how to get your laundry done."
Neil is convinced that being in a band keeps one young. "You're getting paid to be an adolescent. I do find some of the boys club mentality of being in a band pretty repugnant. Boys together can get a little sick, perving at girls and that sort of thing. I mean, a lot of guys say they joined bands to pick up girls but that's never been my motivation. Well, it never worked anyway. But remember, I was in the most asexual band of all time," he says, referring to the fondly remembered and irredeemably strange Split Enz. "We never got girls coming backstage, just boys with weird haircuts and problems at home." There had been an allusion to that band the previous night when Neil had slipped in an impromptu section of the Enz's True Colours. Such off the cuff games of spot-the-reference are a regular part of Crowded House's live show. Tonight Neil will chance a verse of brother Tim Finn's Hit The Ground Running, showing that no ill fraternal feeling exists following Tim's all too brief stay in Crowded House.
For Nick, there exist a few immediate priorities that will occupy the hours until soundcheck. For one, there is the trip to the photo-shop, an almost daily chore for the inveterate filmer. Then there is the matter of finding a doctor to effect running repairs on his gruesomely disfigured digit. "At the moment I'm soaking it in a mixture of vinegar and superglue to try and form a second skin," Nick confesses, "but I'm sure that's not accepted medical practice,"
Later at the venue, as the band tinker with stage gear, the recently returned Nick is quizzed about his appointment with the GP. "He told me to dip it in nail varnish. So I said, sheepishly, that I'd been using superglue and he said, 'Even better'."
As is their wont, the House completely reassemble the running order for tonight's show and invest the performances with a more robust and abrasive edge. At the close of In My Command, Paul Hester goes completely and spontaneously berserk, breaking into a piece of ad hoc drum pyrotechnics that culminates in him, appropriately, delivering a hefty Glasgow kiss to his microphone. "I'm in the mood," he growls. "He's lost it," mutters Neil, bewildered.
At the celebratory drink-up, Nick wanders into the centre of the room and demands: "Where are the prize winners? There must be prize winners. It isn't a gig without prize winners!" Beer is strongly in evidence. Outside in the street, a dishevelled looking man, with the monotonous drone of the newspaper seller, is chanting "wanker" over and over again to anyone who will listen. In the words of the old song, he probably thinks Glasgow belongs to him. Tonight though, Crowded House gave him a good run for his money.
Q February 1994
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