Crowded House: Farewell to The WorldPaul Hester


PAUL HESTER BURSTS INTO THE BAR OF THE SEBEL TOWN House, Sydney's legendary showbiz retreat - Kiefer Sutherland is also in residence - to announce that he's just been told by Channel Nine that is show is postponed until the morrow.

Slight, bigheaded and with an antic countenance that would make him a natural Shakespearean mechanical, Hester is the most charismatic member of the group. His conversation is peppered with noises, mimicry, mime, all manner of mugging. He could easily make a crust as a stand-up or in talk radio. Leading with his chin, flexing his body like Norman Wisdom, he casts himself as the small, puzzled individual against the world.

Earlier that same afternoon, he and the rest of the group ad played a short acoustic set in a lecture theatre at the Sydney Children's Hospital, the chief beneficiary of this weekend's show. It was a strange spectacle for the band as looked out. Some of the nodding heads were wearing ER style skull-caps, having come straight from the operating . Here and there were children who had been wheeled carried, either in chairs or in beds. The group tried to put me spirit into their greatest hits but their faces betrayed their unease at singing pop songs under the curious gaze of a five-year-old made bald by chemotherapy or the nurse wheel the cot containing a two-week-old baby connected up to drip and an electronic monitor.

After finishing, they posed for pictures. Hester bolted as on as he decently could and was found moments later crying his eyes out in a corner of a supervisor's office. The following afternoon he is fully recovered, ordering tea and cakes in the suite he's sharing with his girlfriend and all daughter, and settling down to talk for the first time out his flight from Crowded House.

Your relationship with Neil seems to be at the core of this group. How would you describe it?

I hooked up with Neil in Split Enz back in 1982 and I considered myself under his wing. I just watched him and Tim. That relationship carried on through the Crowdies but by Together Alone I didn't feel like that anymore. We were all equal and had similar things about us and we all had our Achilles' heels. We just knew all about each other. There weren't any surprises and what we did at Kare Kare was we set up a really strange situation without knowing it. We lived together, worked together, cooked together and it was just insane. Neil had this stomach problem and Youth and these engineers had flown direct from Brixton to Kare Kare where there were no shops or smokes or people or trains, and there were these Dickensian waif-like boys sitting in this room just freaking.

Youth was so much like Neil in The Young Ones. If you shut your eyes in that house it was like The Young Ones in the South Pacific. Neil and I had come to a point where I felt like Rudolf Hess, I wasn't sure I could stay with it. Youth was at least trying to make it fun - (Cockney accent) 'Here's a circle of rocks, get in it and play your guitar. Here's a crystal, stick it up your arse and sing.'

It was fun but fraught. I thought that was really the end of Crowded House in a funny way. The personal relationships between me, Neil and Nick really took a beating. We really put each other through it. It took a toll on everything, people fell by the wayside and you thought, Jesus Christ, it's just for a bloody record, should this be happening? I probably held Neil responsible and it wasn't his fault. He was just trying to make the bloody thing work. When we're trying to do a record it's just Neil trying to get his songs out and it must be a hell of a thing to go through.

And the album budget was full of things like bridges which were built to deliver equipment over and gravel was bought. The Americans looked at the budget and said, 'Gravel?' Lots of marijuana was bought and hidden in drawers and pillows and it was all gone in a couple of weeks.

Dugald, this poor fella who was the one roadie we had with us, one day he had to go to town and drop off somebody's stool sample to a doctor, pick up an Indian visa for Youth, several sticks of incense, several cartons of cigarettes, get some musical instruments, get some groceries and be back by three.

When we went to mix it in Melbourne with Bob Clearmountain I think there was still an aura over those tapes because Bob was coming out saying (hysterical American mix specialist), "I cannot mix this song because there's no track sheet, there's just pictures of mushrooms and crystals! Where are the drums?'

How would you describe your state of mind going into this final show?

Quite emotional. I don't know about the other boys but I'm not used to all this playing. I've been gardening for the lost couple of years. I'm like a home-grown bomb. I could go off at any point.

I'm much better now we've had a gig or two this week to warm up. The other day was the first time we'd actually played together in front of an audience in two years, so there were a few things hanging that were resolved that night, like are we going to be able to tap into this again, the spirit of it, so it could feel natural and like we were when we were on a roll. That for me was a big question because I haven't been around for a while. But once we got away and had a few chats it was incredibly familiar. Now this big show with all those Australian icons like the Opera House and Harbour Bridge around you call up all these images that you wouldn't normally reference if you were playing in a room or a hall.

What have you been up to since you left the group?

I've got a recording studio called The Lodge which is strictly for gentlemen. I've learned to engineer and I've got into sonics. It's weird saying this when I've been in a band for 10 years, but I now know about sound. The Lodge is all analogue, valves and magnets. And I've got a little TV show which I've put together which ABC [Australia's's public broadcaster] say they want to do. It's a half-hour show where we get a singer to sing with my combo.

I've done a lot of gardening. I've built a retaining wall a few weeks ago with bricks and cement and it's still standing. I liken myself to the Peter Sellers character in Being There. I feel like Chauncey Gardener being put back in the band for one more round. People give you all this kudos and you think, Well, I'm just here. When you're in this position, people read things into what you say and it's funny because I haven't had that for a while. The power of the microphone and the PA and the situation. We're all on-stage and the others look at me and they know I'm a loose cannon. There's an element of, We're all on board again and you're here too, aren't you, Paul? The other night I ended up jumping around and doing things I never thought I would do again.

Did you realise what you'd been missing?

Yes, I think the working thing of it. I really love the crew and the building of it all. I miss that camaraderie.

But when you were there you found it claustrophobic?

Yes, I was wrestling with the boys in the band for the last year or two and I lost the bout. I wanted to take what we had, which was a certain amount of success, and make it work for us in a lifestyle way. This was my pitch to the boys on the bus late at night. Let's have six months work and six months off. Let's work in the places where we're strong and stop trying to conquer all the new frontiers. That was my whole tack for the last two years. Depending on what had been going on I'd have the boys on side or not. In the cold light of day, a fox would come in or something would happen and we'd say, 'I don't know what we were thinking of lost night. Let's get back on the road."

The boys were more driven than I was, and I was thinking it was just pointless. Like in North America, we'd done more and more promotion and sold less and less with each album. I was saying, 'Why do we do this? It's killing us. It's killing me.' It was an equation too difficult to be dealt with so I just dealt with it myself.

What was the turning point?

Just a week before, while we were in New York, Kurt Cobain shot himself. And I'd never met him or anything but in a funny way it made me think of all that. I just thought, How can you do that with a kid and a girl? All right, your band thing's fucked but... It just made you think about all those things. He must have got to a point where he couldn't deal with it.

And I'd been vagueing out a bit at gigs. The week before, a couple of times my mind wandered and I actually forgot where we were at, and I was completely out of sync with the boys and that was quite scary for a couple of seconds there. I'd never felt like that before. I'd always felt that we were all in it. So that was quite a shock to me, and the boys picked up on that and we got to Atlanta, had a few days off, and I got really sick and had a bad migraine and had to drive 50 miles to see a doctor. And Mardi was there with me and six months pregnant, and we'd been in an earthquake together a few weeks earlier just hanging on to each other in this room, and I was just thinking, Am I trying to tell myself something or what?

I saw Mardi on the bus in the afternoon - we got kicked out of the hotel and had nowhere to stay that day and we were in this car park outside this place and it was just too sad. So I found the guys and we went into this little room backstage at the Roxy and we had this little meeting, and I just talked for about 30 minutes straight and got it all out on the table and everybody just went, OK. There was never any doubt from the others. I think Nick was a bit pissed off that I was leaving him to fight the battles on his own. Neil was absolutely euphoric. He was throwing his arms around me at the end of the night. After hugging Mardi and telling her he loved her, he was just... There was something about me leaving that he wanted to do. He was getting a on the fact that I was doing it.

He wanted to leave himself?

When we were talking the other day about songs to play this weekend, there's this song by Mental As Anything called If You Leave Me Can I Come Too? He looked at me and said, "We should do that!'

What are your treasured memories of Crowded House on-stage?

It's just big and small. There's big memories of big outdoor concerts like the WOMAD show in San Francisco with Peter Gabriel in 1993. There were 115,000 people in Golden Gate Park on a beautiful day. We used to do this human pyramid for big concerts. Three of the crew would come out and make the base and we'd get on top and I'd be on the very top. Stunts and hits, that was our recipe for big shows. And Neil got everyone to put their hands up and the world just went pink. Amazing.

I think in Holland we had a happening where Nick was painting on-stage. We had a four-by-two canvas set up and Neil was interpreting his work with the acoustic guitar. Nick is Tony Hancock in Th Rebel. That's where he lives. Just a whole load of Crowded House bullshit just clicked in one big night in Maastricht, or wherever it was. One of those nights with the Crowdies where you could almost step out of your own shoes and watch it.

So all that business was an important thing about Crowded House?

Yes. Because we enticed people in through the doors with the records, but then when we got them into the concerts it was like OK, this is what we think, how about that? And people would be a bit taken aback at first. Why are they stopping? Why are they talking? What's happening? And we just loved that. I think that was Crowded House's thing in music in the'80s and '90s, being able to do that.

But was it detrimental to the mystique that groups need?

Definitely. I think that's what tripped us up. Also Neil's a guy who's been in a band before and he wanted to be involved in everything, and I think that wore him down and didn't allow him to have as much fun with it as he could have. That mystique the British groups, that's their thing. They do that beautifully. Young pimply kids who are 10 can do it in England. They're not too anxious to lay it all out. Let'em come to you a bit.

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