Recurring dream: Neil Finn on remodelling Crowded House, surviving Fleetwood Mac and ruining Split Enz

Hearing the news, I had to pinch myself: don’t dream it’s happening. Crowded House, one of the truly great bands of the 80s and 90s, were back, baby. There were new faces and new music but the really exciting part was the announcement of a national tour that would see them playing all over the country. Hey now, indeed.

It all seemed so unlikely. The band hadn’t released any new music in a decade but had played farewell concerts, reunion concerts and anniversary concerts before immediately closing the door on their adulating audience each time. There had been two extended hiatuses, four “Best of” compilations and lush vinyl re-issues. These are signs that all point to the end of the road.

Main man Neil Finn had released plenty of solo records and been involved in loads of side projects over the years but Crowded House’s door still felt, if not open, at least slightly ajar.

It was only when he moved out to join the legendary band Fleetwood Mac in 2018 that it truly felt like he’d shut the door permanently, leaving Crowded House boarded up, derelict, empty.

“I had the extraordinarily unexpected twist at this point in my career of getting to join another classic band. It was really enjoyable and amazing but in a different kind of way. It put me in the different position of being a supporting player. My whole life I’ve been a front guy,” Finn explains of his experience with Fleetwood Mac.

“They are a classic band and I enjoyed singing the hits but it gave me a hankering for my own classic band.

“I’m not putting myself on the same level as Fleetwood Mac but, nevertheless, we were there.”

They certainly were. In New Zealand alone Crowded House had seven top 5 albums, two of those hitting number one – three if you count the compilation Recurring Dream – and two handfuls of top 10 singles. I’m talking all-time classics like Weather With You, Fall at Your Feet, It’s Only Natural, Four Seasons in One Day, Better Be Home Soon and, of course, the world-conquering, heartstrings-tugging beauty of Don’t Dream It’s Over.

Worldwide they’ve sold more than 10 million albums. And while Australia can lay claim to half of the original line-up, through bassist Nick Seymour and the late drummer Paul Hester, really, those classic songs feel like they belong to us.

I’ve met Finn at his famed recording studio Roundhead in Newton but it’s a busy day, so we’ve ducked behind the reception area and gone through a side door that leads into his wife’s light-fitting shop, Sharondelier and taken a seat at a large rectangular wooden table.

Above us the ceiling is practically groaning under the weight of the many elaborate chandeliers it’s supporting and the light glints and reflects in fabulously kaleidoscopic colour off the many sparkly and glittery surfaces that are hanging, dangling and surrounding us.

Finn’s relaxed and good company but is a little apprehensive.

“You’re my first interview so I haven’t really worked out what I’m going to say,” he says. It makes for a fun and surprisingly candid hour as he works out what he wants to say now, and then repeatedly to the world’s press, about what he calls, “this new season of Crowded House”.

It also explains why early on he says he doesn’t want to talk too much about Fleetwood Mac while quite often bringing up Fleetwood Mac.

The problem he’s yet to work out is that without them, there wouldn’t be this. And that’s because it was through playing the hits of others and seeing the audiences exploding excitement levels night after night, that made him look at his own catalogue through fresh eyes.

“I haven’t [had] that feeling for most of my post-Crowded House life,” he admits, “but I just got the vibe for it, yeah. With the subtext that there was going to be new music. That would always be a necessity in terms of feeling like it was moving somewhere.

“But Fleetwood Mac was the stepping stone to this mindset,” he explains, before adding something that perhaps he shouldn’t.

“There was a degree of frustration in that Mick [Fleetwood] in particular has huge dreams and ambitions that Fleetwood Mac would record and that there would be new records. It’s very difficult to move that mountain for various reasons. I think Lindsey [Buckingham, the long-term member Finn replaced in the group] probably was quite keen to do it as well but … I don’t know. There were just too many reasons why that wasn’t going to happen. But I thought, ‘I can make a new record. If I did, what would be the ideal circumstances?'”

This led to the realisation that if he was going to do it, the House needed some reno work and a new lick of paint after years of neglect.

“For whatever reason I wasn’t very excited about making a record with the same line-up. That’s not putting any shade on anybody but nothing would have happened in that context. I know that in my heart,” Finn explains of the departure of multi-instrumentalist Mark Hart, who’d been with the group since 1993 and drummer Matt Sherrod, who joined in 2007, two years after the sudden death of original drummer Hester.

What did excite him, he says, was the idea of putting together the best line-up of Crowded House that’s ever been, breathing new life into the old hits and really exciting an audience. He cites the feeling he got singing Don’t Dream it’s Over with Stevie Nicks on the Fleetwood Mac tour as an example of the buzz that inspired him.

“That was great that they were so generous with that moment,” he enthuses. “It enabled me to make a connection with the audience. A very real one because everyone knows the song, but it had that extra dimension with Stevie.”

He knew original member Nick Seymour would be in, “He’s always gonna be up for doing Crowded House,” and he’d enjoyed recent gigs he’d played in L.A. with keyboardist Mitchell Froom, who is also the producer of the band’s first three records. To fill Crowded House’s final vacancies Finn wanted to keep it close to home.

“I wasn’t sure if Liam and Elroy would think it was a good idea or not, so I was a bit cagey about bringing it up,” he says of asking his two sons to join the band. “But they went, ‘Yeah, that sounds great.’ There was no hesitation. Their combined experience as songwriters, musicians, singers and arrangers really brought a whole lot of new perspective and fresh ideas.

“I guess, in a way, me joining Split Enz was a similar mindset for Tim,” he continues, referring to his enlistment into the iconic Kiwi band by his older brother when he was just 22. “Even though I was a rookie at that time and probably not really worth a great deal initially.”

Then, stifling a laugh and failing to contain a cheeky grin he says, “a few people out there still think I ruined Split Enz so … I accept that.”

Haters gonna hate, right?

“Yeah!” he laughs abandoning the pretence, “Haters gonna hate. They’re living with their mums in the backwater of … somewhere. I shouldn’t say that. In some ways the band changed dramatically at that point.”

This may be misguided Kiwi patriotism talking but Crowded House has always felt like family. Or, rather, their songs have. We’ve grown up with them, they’ve soundtracked our lives and they have a curious power to make you wistfully think you better be home soon if you ever hear them while travelling overseas. Family, I suggest, is a big part of Crowded House.

“Absolutely,” Finn agrees. “I’ve been in three bands now, which is kind of remarkable now I think about it but some bands absolutely can’t stand the sight of each other and don’t want to be in the same room. Fleetwood Mac, who had that reputation, actually had the most harmonious tour they’ve ever had.”

Then he pauses to push a hint of doubt aside, “or so they said”, before continuing, “That doesn’t mean it was their best tour, it was just a very harmonious tour. I’m used to that and it’s part of what I love about bands, that feeling of a close relationship. That can be intense in its own way too.”

As an example he brings up one of his other former classic bands.

“Strangely with Split Enz some of the things that come up, ideas that come up, there’s still the same fire in people’s belly’s now that there was then. There’s a surprising amount of energy and emotion about things that happened when we were in our 20s,” he says.

“Bands have got a strange way of feeling a very deep, long-lasting connection.There’s a lot of pride involved and ego and everything.”

Which makes you wonder how he’s going to get on now that his two boys are in the band. Slipping into “dad mode” wouldn’t exactly make for a harmonious band dynamic. Not that he’s worried.

“We’re probably all old enough and mature enough, they’re not kids any more,” he says. “They’ve done a lot of stuff on their own. Everyone’s ideas are taken seriously and get discussed. There’s moments where we don’t agree but I don’t ever sense, have ever sensed, that father/son thing where there’s any dismissive feeling or chip on the shoulder or any of those things that do happen in families and might happen in another context.”

That sometimes happens in bands, I suggest.

“Often happens in bands,” he laughs. “There’s none of that. Liam and Elroy have got a lot of respect for Nick but they’ve known him long enough to give him a bit of s*** as well. So that’s perfect.”

You need that right?

“In a band? Completely. I’m not immune either.”

Of course, there’s one member of both the Finn and Crowded House family whose absence must be noted, older brother Tim. His surprise appearance onstage for a stretch of songs at their 2016 anniversary shows on the steps of Sydney’s Opera House was one of the highlights of a show that was nearly entirely all highlight. I expect Finn to be a little cagey when I posit the possibility that Tim might pop up during their upcoming national tour but instead he answers candidly.

“We haven’t got that far because the tour’s just been worked out,” he says. “But we just had a sing together at my sister’s 70th birthday, it was a really wild party, a big hoolie, so we’re more than capable. But I wouldn’t want to pre-empt anything.”

The tour can be classed as a big deal and is really only happening thanks to our “go hard, go early” response to the Covid-19 pandemic. It means Crowded House will be playing at previously unthinkable places like Palmerston North, Napier, New Plymouth, Nelson and Hamilton. A musical silver lining to the dark Covid cloud currently covering the globe.

“We’ve extended the New Zealand tour obviously in part because at the moment we can’t play anywhere else,” Finn says. “We thought, ‘S***, we’ve got to make the most of this.’ Nick and Mitchell will be doing their two weeks in quarantine.”

Which is something Finn himself only just left. As one of our most prominent songwriters and successful musicians he was afforded no special treatment and didn’t know where he’d been spending his fortnight quarantine period until he landed.

“It was a very strange experience. It was okay,” he says of his lockdown in Auckland’s Crowne Plaza hotel. “We had a view. The first five days were beautiful sunny weather. Which was kind of a tease but also nice because Auckland was looking magnificent. It was just a weird experience. When we got back to our house we felt jet-lagged, like we’d just got off the plane. It was strange, we were all woozy. But I’ve got no complaints.”

While Finn is now feeling something so strong for the Crowded House hits he says they’ll still pepper in some new material, including their energetic new single, Whatever You Want.

“The emphasis will be on the old songs and I’m fine with that,” he says. “We’re a hot band. It’s going to be an exciting show.

“It’s a joyous thing to even imagine we’re going to be on a stage,” he smiles. “There’s a feeling, even in the week I’ve been here, maybe it’s the election result being so buzzy but it’s exciting and very positive and optimistic to have the country looking left. I hope it’s in a realistic way and not just symbolically. Time will tell. But it feels really optimistic, so I think it will be celebratory feeling.

“I’m very grateful for the fact that the songs are cemented in a lot of people’s minds. People come up and say all the time, ‘I was travelling around Europe and your songs are what I was listening to.’ You can see that there’s a strong, deep emotional connection there and I don’t take that for granted at all. Then there’s something about that connection of home, being home, that’s deeper again. So all of that should add up. It’s exciting.”

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