20 December 2008

Separated at birth

The Charleston Jazz Band, Australia, 1927; Split Enz, 1975/76

17 July 2008


Sorry no longer seems to be the hardest word. In the same week that the Pope congratulated Australia for its “courageous decision” to apologise for the injustices done to Aboriginals (and then apologised for the paedophilia scandal), an album by an Aboriginal singer has topped the Australian independent music charts for the first time. This is a significant moment in Australia, where over the years the charts have been a whiter shade of pale.

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu is 38, blind, and grew up in poverty 600km from Darwin. He speaks only a few words of English, is extremely shy, and sings in his native language: Yolngu. He taught himself drums, keyboards, guitar and didgeridoo – all by ear, he doesn’t read Braille – and critics have been raving about his voice. It sounds like he is being groomed as the heir to the world-music-pop throne of Hawaii’s Israel Kamakawiwo’ole.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s critic Bruce Elder wrote that the first time he heard Yunupingu, “My immediate response was that here, as far as I was concerned, for the first time was an Aboriginal voice of absolutely transcendental beauty.” Yunupingu may be new to being a solo artist, but he spent many years with the well-known Yothu Yindi band before forming his own Salt Water Band (the coastal version of LRB?).

Paul Hester once told me about the time he recorded an Aboriginal band in his Melbourne home studio. He asked them where they came from. “Fitzroy,” said the band leader, naming the inner-city shabby-chic Melbourne suburb that was then being gentrified. Naah, c’mon, said Paul: where did you originally come from?

“Fitzroy,” the band leader said emphatically. “Listen mate, we’ve been here for 10,000 years.”

27 May 2008

Playing Hard to Get

Eddie Rayner interview, 1988

By Chris Bourke

Rip It Up (New Zealand) September 1988

In the final concerts of Crowded House’s recent Australian tour, drummer Paul Hester went into a rap: “We’re making records / Ed’s making babies / It’s been fun / But it’s coming to an end.”

As always, Eddie Rayner is fending off tempting offers. The latest is to join Crowded House as a permanent member. Affable and accommodating, he’s worked with musicians ranging from the Angels (a month was all he could stand) to Paul McCartney (a “creative disappointment” he’s talked about too much already).

It’s a matter of priorities, he explains. He loves the music and the band, but he wants to do his thing, and Crowded House theirs. And Rayner isn’t interested in the “bullshit” required: the touring, promoting, record companies, managers. Then again, Hester’s farewell isn’t the first time the band has said goodbye to him.

“When Split Enz broke up, there were heaps of things I’d wanted to do for years,” says Rayner. “My wife Raewyn [the Enz’s lighting director] wanted a family, and we’ve now got two little boys, one just a few weeks old.

“When you’re in a band as committed as Split Enz, you can become very blinkered. You think about the band and not a lot else. I had to take control of my own life, and not get dragged along by the band. So I sat down and made a list of priorities. I wanted a family, to write, and have my own studio. Touring came a poor last. I love it, and it’s necessary, but you’ve got to think about it, otherwise you end up doing it forever.”

Rayner has an eight-track, all Midi, studio at his home in Melbourne. He’s been working with Brian Baker, an Auckland songwriter based in Australia – “we’ll probably become one of those awful duos” – and recently he wrote and compiled the soundtrack for the film Ricky and Pete.

“It’s a comedy about two middle-class kids from Melbourne who go into the outback to pull the wool over corporate eyes. It was an in-house affair: Schnell Fenster played the songs, but Crowded House got the best part of the music, the driving scenes. I wanted to do them, but fell in love with their ‘Recurring Dream’.”

He’s trying to adhere to his priorities. “The family comes first. I get offered lots of sessions, but don’t really like that too much, I’ve never worked as an employee.” He also likes to have some quality control – “When I do some crap, I know it.”

An instrumental album is in the works, though after doing a few tracks, his interest is waning. “It’s not as fulfilling as working with a bunch of people.” With characteristic candour, Rayner describes his instrumentals recorded with Split Enz as “just appalling. Awful. When I look back at them, I wonder how they got accepted.”

Rayner says he got all his musical training in Split Enz. “It was a great environment to learn in. Otherwise I’d still be doing cabaret. I learnt so much from Tim, Phil, Neil, Rob – the amount of creative talent was staggering.

“We were incredibly wayward musically. And we used to stumble along, with no game plan. These days young players know so much about the industry, publishing, recording, before they even start.”

Ironically, Rayner seems most at home playing live. During the theatrical shows of Split Enz, or the spontaneity of Crowded House, he’s always got an appropriate line to colour and connect the looser moments. “There’s a lot of covering in the band – that’s why Neil has asked me to join. The whole band likes jamming a lot, and it’s just about my favourite past-time.

“I’ve bluffed my way right through. Some great jazz musicians have invited me to play with them, and I’ve said, ‘You’ve got to be joking!’”

One of our earliest electronic keyboardists (and still probably our best), Rayner regards the day Split Enz bought their Mellotron as ancient history. “The old days” for him are 1980, when he graduated from monophonic synthesisers to a Prophet and Jupiter 8. “I like to have new stuff when it comes out. I don’t read manuals, I hate them.” Still, he’s proficient at listing his gear for techno buffs:

“I’m still using bits and pieces,” he says. “Lots of modules. A DX7, C2P50 piano keyboard with weighted action, through a MXS piano module. An MKS 80 Super Jupiter, S612 Akai sampler, D110 Roland S330, all through an Akai Midi patch bay – and I’ve finally got a Korg stereo mixer!”

As a child in Howick, east Auckland, Rayner had only four piano lessons, though his father was a “brilliant” player, taking on any big-band hit at parties. “I’d love to be able to do that – when someone says ‘play a song’ you can carry the tune and be the whole orchestra. But you’ve got to spend years playing.”

At university in th eearly 70s, while his peers “got serious” with their studies, Rayner joined his first band at the behest of his friend Steve Hughes, bassist with Tramline. “I owe it all to him. We went down to Kingsley Smith’s and bought a Vox organ.” Early bands included Hungry Dog (within initial Enz guitarist Wally Wilkinson), Orb, Cruise Lane, Stuart and the Belmonts (with Brent Eccles, now drumming with the Angels) and Space Waltz. “For a while I was with Space Waltz and Split Enz: so was Mike Chunn”

Ah, Space Waltz, our glam rock pioneers, and the most entertaining moment of TVNZ’s recent nostalgic music weekend. The Bowie posturing of Alistair Riddell still has surprises, as it did in 1974’s New Faces programme. “ ‘Out in the Street’ should be in an art gallery,” laughs Rayner. “We actually did an album. It’s a laugh a minute – you gotta read the lyrics! But some of those old Stebbings or EMI recordings still sound great on radio.”

He ruefully mentions recent Rip It Up ads from overseas buyers seeking classic local records. “That shits me. To think of a few years back when you could go into a store and buy any New Zealand record from the bargain bins …

“I always think about coming back to live in New Zealand. But I probably never will.”

Postscript: Rayner returned to New Zealand to live in 1993. In 1996 he launched Enzso. More recently he has been leader of the house band for New Zealand Idol. Here is Space Waltz, from 1974: when this was first shown on a TV talent show, the nation was shocked – then sent the single to No 1.

26 May 2008

Nice Place You’ve Got Here

An interview with Neil Finn, at the release of Temple of Low Men.

By Chris Bourke

Rip It Up (New Zealand), September 1988

“I don’t want to be one of those wankers who falls apart the first time they get a bit of success,” says Neil Finn.

The man from Crowded House must thrive on working under pressure. Hit records? Everyone wants them, depends on them. Finn does too, but he’s determined to get them with songs that he’s proud of. So instead of writing ‘The Dream’s Not Over, Yet’ he has coolly produced an album that’s one step ahead of the choc-full-o’-hits debut.

“You sense the dangers of success, but there’s a lot more people coming from people whose lives depend on your next record being successful too,” he says. “There’s a feeling that to do anything radical, to suddenly go ‘I don’t want to do that’ is going to effect a lot of people’s lives. That’s the pressure.

Speaking from Adelaide during Crowded House’s Australian tour, Finn says that Temple of Low Men is less singles-oriented than the debut album, as they “let the songs that were around win the day” rather than concentrate on making hits.

“Mind you, having said that, they did put out the most safe choice [‘Better Be Home Soon’] for the first single. That wasn’t exactly my idea. It’s very poppy, but it’s not particularly representative of the rest of the record – there’s more variety and atmosphere on this album. But they wanted they thought was a dead ringer in America, though nothing is a dead ringer.”

Do you like taking risks?

“I’d like to take more than we do, actually. It seems like you’re constantly being drawn to the safest choices and decisions all the time, because that’s what everyone wants for you, or they want for themselves, because it makes their job easier.”

Neil Finn has taken the hard road in popular music, the one marked “highest common denominator” – trying to reach the widest audience with the best music possible …

“Um, yeah,” he says. “I’m certainly not elitist as far as what my desired audience should be. I’m quite happy for anyone to like the record.” Finn says this attitude dates back to when he first got into music. “The thing I most enjoyed was sitting around in a party having a singalong. In those situations the songs that suit best are usually the everyman songs, the ones everyone knows the words to, can sing the melody of … you can usually get a great chorus and feeling out of it. So I’m drawn to that, and I don’t feel very snooty about my audience.

“But I’m pretty desperate to make as good a record as I can, and not be following too many formulas – apart from my own. I think it’s possible to do both: to do something worthwhile creatively and actually be successful as well. It’s not easy but it’s possible.”

After the rousing pop of the debut, Temple of Low Men seems to reflect a more mature Crowded House, in contrast to the amusing, unassuming aspects of the band’s character, especially live. “I like the idea of thumping 12-year-olds with 30-year-old themes,” laughs Finn. “Our audience is quite a broad one, but includes a lot of young people, and it’s good to expose them to things other than the teen stuff they’re hearing. Like the sex trip that most bands are on: ‘Come on baby, give me your everything’.”

The songs on Temple have a soul-baring honesty, examining the various phases of a relationship: temptation, guilt, remonstration, joy, commitment, loss. Any thematic links are unintentional though, says Finn.

“I often feel one-dimensional in that respect. This album is quite introspective. But people should always understand that in any song you try to enlarge on life a little bit, and things that I describe in songs often follow their own tack rather than being directly related to what’s going on with me. Many times you remember things from years ago that steer you in a certain direction.”

And as the writing for an album progresses, the music gets focused …

“Yeah, you go through phases when you’re writing songs. You have certain chord progressions or melodies and stuff, and they suggest atmospheres. I can write something that might sit around for three years, and at the time I wrote it, it didn’t suit.”

Does he ever feel he gives too much away in a song?

“I feel like people think I do. I feel a bit vulnerable because of it, in the sense that people would relate it to my own life. And I suppose I have concern for my family in that respect. It’s not pleasant for them sometimes to see the way people perceive my songs, and that’s a pressure in itself.”

Balancing the brooding ‘Into Temptation’ and ‘Never Be the Same’ is ‘When You Come,’ an ecstatic moment of commitment. “I was pleased with that one. It’s a fairly positive song. Like a lot of them, the lyric came quite subconsciously and it doesn’t really make incredible sense. But there’s a lot of imagery there which I really empathise with.”

Finn’s lyrics are occasionally obscure, but full of imagery, with their meaning only coming clear through the feel of the music, after many listenings.

“It’s the same for me, too. A lot of the time I don’t really understand what the songs are about till months and months later. I have a sudden realisation that, ‘Oh yeah – I know where that would have come from’.”

The swampy ‘Mansion in the Slums’ comes from observations of life in LA, says Finn.

“The twin quest for glory and success, and they’re hopefully married, but people con themselves that they’ve got spiritual values as well. It’s that New Age Shirley McLaine stuff: ‘You are God, it’s okay to be wealthy and successful and just love yourself.’ I dunno, it’s me taking a whimsical look at that. The isolation tank reference is directly from hearing talk from people in LA. There was a spate where people were getting into isolation tanks for relaxation. I’ve never done it, probably I should give it a chance, but I always thought I’d rather bounce round on a trampoline for relaxation.”

The arrangements on Temple have a complexity and wit that producer Mitchell Froom (pictured at right) gets across with a natural clarity.

“That’s probably Bob Clearmountain in many ways, the guy that mixed the record. He’s done a very fidelic, very clear mix. But Mitchell was good at stripping back arrangements, so obviously he was involved.”

The record seems so much your voice – why didn’t you co-produce?

“People seem to take more notice of that production credit than I actually do. Of course I was as involved in the arrangements as Mitchell, but I’ve never been particularly precious about taking credits. As long as the music ends up close to the way I imagined it.”

Although all the songs on the album were written by Finn alone, the band is playing more as an ensemble now. “Yeah, I think we’ve got more subtlety in the feels, we stretch out a lot more,” he says. “Mitchell was a lot more aware of what we were capable of doing, and we were a much better band from having played so much.”

Finn admits that he’s the leader of the band. “Because I write the songs I have much more concern with the way they turn out, I suppose. Nick and Paul are happy to play, get into it, and try and avoid as many interviews as possible.”

Why didn’t Eddie Rayner play on the album?

“It was difficult with Mitchell also being a keyboard player. But I think we were stupid. We probably should have got Eddie on the record, because then he probably would have been available to tour with us all year – instead of being a difficult bastard and only wanting to tour a month or so here and there! He’s an incredibly valuable person to have around, and we beg on our knees for him to tour with us. He’s with us at the moment.”

All the critics references to you-know-who must get tiresome (much of Temple seems like a follow-up to Abbey Road) …

“The Doobie Brothers, right?” laughs Finn. “It’s starting to irritate me now. Most of the time it was meant as a compliment. I’m flattered in one sense, but I do feel now that it’s time I was staking my own territory and people needn’t say those things. On the next album I’ll look at diffusing that. It hasn’t been anything I’ve consciously gone for, but I know it resides in me because people mention it so much. I’m prepared to copy that one, but I’m going to do something about it.”

Aiming for the highest common denominator isn’t the easy route to credibility. Take the veteran US writer Robert Christgau who dismissed Crowded House as “Art pop, obsessed with craft. Full of itself. Product, for sure.” Was he alone?

“He’s probably the most noticeable, but I imagine there were others. To be quite honest I didn’t’ see that many bad reviews. We had a lot of extremely good ones. I’m always wary not to take either extreme too seriously. You learn more from the bad ones than the good ones. The good ones pamper your ego, but the bad ones have a bit of resonance. Even if you disagree with them they get you thinking about your potential.”

Sometimes the hard sell of the last album was off-putting, the cute humour making Crowded House look like the new Monkees. The video for ‘Something So Strong,’ for example – even the band expressed doubts about it when they were last here …

“There are certain things that get away on you,” says Finn. “It wasn’t like we were contriving silliness. It really did come out quite spontaneously. But I’d rather have that than take anything too seriously as far as promotion goes, because really all of it is pretty tacky and by doing it you’re implicated yourself in the whole mechanics of the industry.

The video in question was made by an Australian friend of the band, who had a particular vision. “He liked the idea of, as he put it, ‘tapping into the soft white underbelly of mid-Western America,” says Finn. “He wanted to penetrate the heartland of niceness, and subvert it once we’d got them. But that aside, I think it looked a bit much like a toothpaste commercial myself. Certain people you’d never expect really liked that video. Elvis Costello for one. That surprised me.”

In an interview before Split Enz’s last tour in 1984, Finn reflected that he didn’t think he’d like massive success, saying he’d feel too guilty.

“Yeah, I do have a measure of that. I don’t really know if I enjoy success as much as I should. There’s this feeling that everyone’s expecting you to be incredibly happy about your success. But in many cases what it means – in the short term anyway – is that your life becomes completely chaotic. And you can’t help feeling that it’s having an adverse effect on your ability to keep writing good songs. But that’s not really guilt I’m talking about.”

Did you experience any writer’s block for this album?

“There hasn’t been a year of my life without a good three months in which I haven’t been able to do a damn thing. In fact the first six months of this year I’ve been so busy I haven’t been able to write anything. It worries me. I hate the fact that so many other things become involved in what you do when you make records and are part of the industry, and are looking for success and all of that. You actually do what got you there in the first place less and less – and that’s write songs.”

Speaking of busy, you’re off to the MTV awards straight after the Australian tour …

“Everybody in New Zealand seems to know about that! Why?”

It was given as the reason the proposed August 31 gig didn’t come off …

“Aw, was it?” says Finn, hurt by apparent cynicism. “Fuck them! That’s not the reason we’re not coming. We’re doing the Letterman show in America for starters, and that’s more of a reason. But the main reason it we didn’t’ want to just rush through, in one door and out the other. We’re incredibly busy, and that’s why I didn’t want it to feel like a token appearance in New Zealand. I hate coming in for a day, you see about a dozen people you know quite well land don’t get a chance to talk to any of them.”

To keep your face in front of the pop world, you’ve got to go along with a lot of the hoopla …

“Oh god, there’s lots of things. We’ve tried to avoid some things, and even then we’ve done stuff I wish we hadn’t. You find yourself in situations where it’s very hard to be completely uncompromising on a day-to-day level when you’ve been brought up to be reasonably polite and agreeable about things. I look with envy at people like Chrissie Hynde, who’s able to be a bitch and therefore get what she wants. I wish I could be a bit more like that. I’m sure I’m capable of being a bastard, but I do find it hard to say no to people. But we’ve done this to ourselves, and I figure if 80 percent of what you’re doing is okay, then you’re doing pretty good.”

Rip It Up cover photo (c) Chris Mauger, taken in Sydney, September 1988.

05 May 2008

WC Fields was wrong

I think 'She Called Up' is the best radio single off Time On Earth: it's catchy, has a great groove, and puts a smile on your face. (I've even got used to the silly chorus, though still think a ragtag brass section would work.) It's very early Enz-ish in its loose nuttiness. And the video with a United Nations-like children's choir is really charming.

But just in case you haven't seen this, here's a clip from a recent show in New York. Odd that 'She Called Up' wasn't on the set list, though.

13 April 2008

Getting Mighty Crowded

Not on this Saturday morning.

Devon St, New Plymouth, New Zealand,
March 2008.

08 April 2008

Endless summer

Neil Finn has always been a champion of the Womad concept. When the first New Zealand Womad took place in 1997, he made an effort to get the idea across to an Auckland public that was either ignorant or apathetic. (Probably both, though the setting – Western Springs park – and lineup were excellent. It wasn’t all throat-singers, and offered a final performance of the original Enzso show and the first performance in New Zealand of Richard Thompson.)

So it was a nice surprise, if not completely unexpected, when Neil offered to come to the rescue after the lead act at this year’s Womad had to cancel. The “barefoot diva” Cesaria Evora suffered a small stroke in Australia, and in her place Neil performed a solo set.

Since the first two Auckland Womads – which had disappointing sales – the festival has moved 200 miles south to New Plymouth, in the centre of the North Island. There is a strong folk tradition there, a hardcore of old hippies, veterans of the 1980s Sweetwaters rock festivals, and now their teenagers. Plus, Wellingtonians and Aucklanders of a similar ilk only have half the distance to travel.

The setting is sublime: Brooklands Park in the heart of New Plymouth, which is like a botanical gardens of native bush, set around a natural amphitheatre called the Bowl of Brooklands. In front of the stage is a pond between the performers and the audience, often breached in the past by drunks (or by Tim Finn, rowing a dinghy around during ‘Dirty Creature’ in a 1980s Enz show). It has also hosted huge events such as the Seekers at the height of their fame or, recently, a solo show by Elton John.

But the toe sandals are out at Womad, and among the stalwarts there’s a slight atmosphere of disinterest for mainstream pop. Nevertheless the organisers have programmed the festival brilliantly, with mainstream acts at the perfect ascendant moment of their career (Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Beirut) combined with soul veteran Mavis Staples and a top array of “world” music that has broken through to western audiences: Toumani Diabate, the Terem Quartet, Taraf de Haidouks, and the “Ray Charles of Cambodia”, Master Kong Nay. Also there is a strong contingent of New Zealand music at its best: old hands Midge Marsdan and Don McGlashan, plus the Phoenix Foundation, SJD, and the ubiquitous and always welcome Age Pryor.

Neil looked a little lonely standing on the dark, wide Bowl of Brooklands stage, dressed in a deconstructed navy pinstripe jacket, with a birds-nest hairdo. He opened with ‘She Will Have Her Way’, fleshed out with 12-string acoustic, and then he said, “Ill now do a song as I actually wrote it”. Starting slowly, and singing Love can make you weep, it took me a moment to recognise ‘Something So Strong’ performed as a delicate demo, using just barre chords.

The thousands of people perched on the hill, snapping their mobile phone cameras or waving fluoro-lights made Neil say “I feel like I’m tripping”, and he responded with ‘Silent House’: All the flickering lights / had filled up this silent house ... His electric guitar provided a raga-like drone as a bed, to song that just gets more captivating.

In a set of favourites – this was a middle-New Zealand crowd, rather than a crowd of Crowdies – ‘Only Talking Sense’ sounded very fresh. A subtle ‘Private Universe’ and exquisite ‘Four Seasons in One Day’ would have coaxed a sing-along elsewhere; at the Bowl, it’s always a bit tricky trying to connect with the audience over the moat.

‘Anytime’ is a hidden gem off the One Nil record, but even more glorious performed live, with arpeggios from roadie John adding to its dramatic build. Don McGlashan emerged with his euphonium for ‘English Trees’, Time on Earth’s real stayer. Its mournful tones were just perfect to take the Hammond organ solo on a slow, careful ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’: it was like a Salvation Army band coming down the street, the very sound Neil was aiming for on ‘Together Alone’. The versatile McGlashan and whatever band he chose to perform with would be the perfect support act for the next Crowded House tour.

As the crowd melted into the trees and home to bed, on one of the smallest stages Age Pryor and his Suspicions were going off. Check out his 2007 album Shanks Pony: there are enough melodies and harmonies there to be sure that, whatever Crowded House is producing right now in the studio in Auckland, New Zealand’s songwriting is in good hands for the future. Thanks to Womad's smart system of having acts play more than once (to avoid clashes), Pryor was to have performed nine times during the weekend, including his own band, with Jess Chambers and the Firefly Orchestra, and the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra. A bug (a firefly?) prevented the latter; it would have been great to hear what he added to their spirited version of ‘Weather With You’.

03 April 2008

House Guests 2

When writing Something So Strong I really enjoyed interviewing long-time Crowded House engineer Tchad Blake. He came on board towards the end of the first album, and was a stalwart during Temple of Low Men and Woodface. Those magnificent textures on ‘Whispers and Moans’ are his work.

Blake is the best kind of Californian: intelligent, relaxed, but not too-cool-for-school. Low-key, and happy to have his achievements speak for him. His work with Mitchell Froom for artists like Los Lobos (the masterpiece Kiko), Richard Thompson, Bonnie Raitt and the Bad Plus certainly do that. Many other engineers one meets are blowhards, but not Blake. His website is minimalism itself.

It’s rare that you see an interview with Blake, and this recent one is really for tech-heads only. It’s about the gear he used to engineer Suzanne Vega’s Beauty and Crime, for which he recently won a Grammy. A much better interview is this one from Mix, when Blake was based at Peter Gabriel’s Real World studio in the UK.

But this posting isn’t about Blake, it’s about the net and how it has made the world a smaller place. It was while writing SSS that I started using the net every day, and it quickly came in handy. There was no Google then, but through user-groups and people’s generosity you could easily get some Irish folk buff who knew the lyrics to, say, ‘The Parting Glass’. Or track down the engineer of ‘Weather With You’ (Blake is the exception to the rule that if someone has a personal website, they will usually love talking.)

In 1996 I was a subscriber to the Randy Newman newsgroup Little Criminals. There were only 60 of us, and I wasn’t one of the half-dozen who regularly posted. The only other site that I subscribed to was Tongue in the Mail, brilliant for tracking down facts and keeping up with the news but, like Little Criminals and any fan site, also an outlet for those with too much time on their hands.

The reason I subscribed to Little Criminals was that Newman’s archivist was also a subscriber, so you got news pretty much from “slot-mouth” himself (to quote one early reviewer of his singing). One day in 1997 the archivist wrote that Newman was about to make his first proper album (ie, not a film soundtrack) in nearly a decade. What did the fans want from it?

Well, I knew what I didn’t want: an album with the Eagles as backing vocalists, Toto providing drums and Jeff Lynne on synths. So I made the case that the album should be produced by Mitchell Froom. Like Newman, he loved the piano, appreciated real, analogue instruments, was a “classical” producer who knew the orchestra and had a palette of sound, and, most importantly, appreciated a good song. He was also intelligent and shared the same mordant sense of humour.

I heard nothing back. But a few weeks later Something So Strong was launched and Tchad Blake happened to be in town. I mentioned to him that some Newman fans were pitching for him and Froom to produce him. “Oh yeah,” he said. “We heard from his people the other day. Unfortunately we’re booked up.”

Bugger. Meanwhile Newman was booked to score Maverick and Pleasantville. A couple of years went by, and suddenly – after 11 years – Newman’s non-soundtrack album Bad Love was released. The producers were Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake.

I interviewed Newman on the phone about the record. Without prompting, or telling him I had written Something So Strong, he mentioned that Neil Finn was one of his favourite current songwriters:

“Crowded House – that’s of interest,” said Newman. “But most stuff isn’t. I just met [Neil] out here he was doing something. They were good records. I remember Knopfler when we were making Land of Dreams, he just loved that band. I hope he told Neil, or told ’em both.”

So I couldn’t resist telling him the story of how I had written to his archivist suggesting Froom and Blake. He listened patiently then said enthusiastically, “Oh yeah – that’s how it happened.”

Bad Love was beautifully produced, but not the most consistent set of songs Newman has ever released. Still, ‘Miss You’ is like a heart-breaking haiku, and gets me every time. The album was Newman’s worst selling, he later cheerfully recalled. It only sold 70,000 in the US.

But he went back to Mitchell Froom when the time came to record The Randy Newman Songbook – solo piano renditions of his best songs. It was sub-titled “volume one” but the Little Criminals are still waiting. Froom almost eschews making records to be hits, and he has succeeded at that a few times. But he makes great music, and I’ll always remember Newman signing off the interview: “And hey – thanks a lot for the tip about Mitchell!”

You’d think they might have heard of each other on the tightly inter-connected LA musical grapevine. But then, Brian Wilson didn’t surf, either.

Update: in news just to hand ...

12 March 2008

House Guests 1

This is the man who signed Crowded House. His name is Tom Whalley, and in 1985 he was a junior A&R man with Capitol Records in Hollywood. Gary Stamler, manager of what became Crowded House, brought the demos to Whalley. At the time, Whalley had signed teenage bar-band the Del Fuegos to Slash, and put Neil Finn together with fledgling producer Mitchell Froom, thinking, "Well, if Froom can do such a good job with such unpromising material, what could he do with real songs?"

So the careers of Crowded House and Froom got a major boost. (To be fair, Froom had already produced Richard Thompson's Daring Adventures and went on to do better work with Thompson. And Dan Zanes of the Del Fuegos later put out one of my favourite records, Cool Down Time, also produced by Froom. It stiffed, but Zanes found a new career as a songwriter and performer of children's music. His Rocket Ship Beach is addictive, and so much smarter and less patronising than the Wiggles.)

Whalley went on to have a stellar career himself, at Capitol and then Interscope, signing all sorts of acts such as No Doubt, Nine Inch Nails and Tupac Shakur. When I was writing Something So Strong I played phone tag with his high-camp PA, but an interview never eventuated. I suspect it was one of those cases where they had no intention of doing an interview, but didn't want to be discourteous enough to actually say no. So you keep ringing.

Nevertheless, everything I've read or heard about Whalley makes me like the guy. He isn't the Type-A egomaniac that so often populates the backrooms of the music industry. Yet his career has eclipsed that of his Interscope colleague Jimmy Iovine, or David Tickle, wunderkind producer of 'I Got You'. Whalley is one of a vanishing breed: a music man in the music business. Recently another real music man crucial to the Crowded House story, EMI chief in the UK, Tony Wadsworth was "stepped down" by new EMI owner, investor Guy Hands. It was Wadsworth's support while he was head of Parlophone that helped make Woodface a hit in the UK after it flopped in the States.

These days Whalley is the chief executive of Warner Brothers Records. A rare interview with him just appeared in the
Financial Times. It describes him as looking "like a carefree surfer but is in fact a 54-year-old father of nine", and quotes him actually using the phrase "Holy mackerel!"

Whalley has some interesting points to make about the future of A&R (artist development) in his battered industry. Whereas new EMI owner Hands, with an eye on cashing up assets, sees A&R as irrelevant, Whalley argues that
"the discipline - always more art than science - is essential for music companies if they are to muddle through an unforgiving landscape. "It still comes down to A&R," he explained. "None of this works - mobile doesn't work, downloads don't work, CDs don't work - if A&R isn't good."
I recommend the
Financial Times story for a different take on the woes of the industry (and for good stories about dealing with the heavy metal band Dio, and signing Tupac Shakur in an airport lounge).

Whalley has changed his tune a little from his thoughts a year earlier, when the Los Angeles Times found him
"incredibly upbeat for two reasons. First, the amount of people who want music in their lives is greater than ever. For years, as an industry, we looked at, say, 15- to 25-year-olds as the target of what we do. Now the audience for music has dropped down, for various reasons including the Disney Radio, to where you have 5-year-olds who love popular music. At the same time, people in their 60s are still passionate about music. When you have that breadth of people, it's a very exciting time to me. Then, there's the artistry, which I feel is going through a period of remarkable creativity today."
Apologies for not posting for a while. The new book has been taking up my time, but I have some ideas for things to share in upcoming weeks. This weekend I'm off to Womad NZ to get down among the hackysackers, and a special bonus has just been announced. (Though I was also looking forward to Cesaria Evora, originally part of a strong bill that includes a great selection of New Zealand acts - Age Pryor, SJD, Don McGlashan, as well as visitors Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, and Mavis Staples.)

And regular transmission should be back on track soon with the Distractions website: as Paul Hester would say, do not adjust your set.

Meanwhile if you want a copy of Something So Strong, you can email me at: so-strong (AT) xtra.co.nz

09 February 2008

My Dog Has Fleas

Nearly 11 years after finishing Something So Strong I am following the Crowded House story only as an interested observer rather than as their Boswell. So I will post to this blog occasionally when I have something new to offer, maybe sharing that has come to me as part of the “long tail” of the book, a New Zealand perspective, or offering leads to other connections of interest to Crowded House fans.

In the next few blogs I will comment on topics such as the pros and cons of doing an updated version of Something So Strong, a “lost chapter” on the band’s Spinal Tap-like search for a keyboardist, or reviews of new material. It’s a lot easier for me to add new editorial to this blog than to the website which a friend is updating for me when he has a moment. This year I should do a course in HTML.

In the meantime, I thought overseas readers might enjoy this photo of the greyhounds that invaded the stage in a bizarre conclusion to their New Zealand shows three months ago. It turns out they live just a few kilometres from where I am house-sitting on the Kapiti Coast just north of Wellington, while writing my next book.

Photo of Jennie Scotcher with Mo, left, and Biggles by David Haxton of the Kapiti News.

Biggles and Mo, plus six other retired racing greyhounds, were the surprise guests who came on just before the encore. They belong to Jennie Scotcher, a member of the Greyhound as Pets trust founded to find homes for greyhounds that have retired from the track. By coincidence she is also a fan club member of the Crowded House club. (Just before Jenny and her husband Rob emigrated from England to New Zealand a couple of years ago, they had been in the front row at the Albert Hall in London for the Finn Brothers show the day after Paul Hester’s tragic death.)

The dogs spent most of their time at the concert “lying with their paws up in the air, asleep,” Jenny told the local Kapiti News. They woke up when it was time to don their vests and enter from stage left at about 11.00pm; their carrot was a sheepskin they had to chase. Biggles was a bit distracted by the audience, while Mo charged to the head of the pack to get to the sheepskin.

Jenny had dinner with the band, and Neil told her the idea for the greyhounds came from a vision he’d had of dogs “running madly on stage.”

What I’m wondering is: what did Lester think?

27 January 2008

Return to Wellington

On Wednesday 31 October I emerged from my rural retreat to see Crowded House at the Events Centre on Wellington’s waterfront. I remember Paul Hester explaining to me the American hierachies of venue: club, theatre, shed, arena, stadium.

The Events Centre is a shed that can fit about 3000 but in no way is it a music venue: high, tin ceiling, tin walls, no acoustic cladding within. It’s best suited to basketball. Still, on my third attempt (after 1998 and 2003) I finally saw a great Bob Dylan gig there in August: they got the mix right, and the rhythm section in particular were prominent. (Although the Dylan gig a couple of weeks later at Auckland’s last movie palace, the Civic, was more comfortable, I enjoyed Wellington just as much. And the John Fogerty gig I saw in this shed in late 2005 was one of the all-time great shows by a “dinosaur”, full of energy and every song a hit.)

Opening act Pluto was a non-event: it’s all about the singer and he struggled in a cavernous venue that was only slowly filling up, due to ridiculous hold-ups at the front door. The first thing I’d do is encourage the bassist to play some runs rather than just repeating the same note in demisemiquavers for a bar or three before changing to another note. Mate, get a copy of Rubber Soul and twiddle the balance knob.

Supergroove was a sensation, so energetic I wouldn’t have been surprised if they ended in a puff of smoke. Che Fu, of course, is the star singer, but Karl Stevens in particular provides a mad, angular, frenetic focal point, like something from the heyday of Two-Tone ska. And the bassist – couldn’t he have given the Pluto guy some tips? – flung his long hair about like a heavy metal poodle. And the crowd just roared, like a Mexican wave: these guys were massive stars when many in the audience were still teenagers.

So Crowded House had a hard act to follow. Their audience is now so across the board in New Zealand, and far bigger than it ever was before the band split up in 1996. It was 21 years ago that I saw them in their first New Zealand gig, playing at a party in an Auckland living room.

A year later they returned as pop stars, playing the Logan Campbell Centre after ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ made #2 in the US. But as far as New Zealand was concerned, that was it. The venues got smaller, and most people still saw them as a spin-off of Split Enz. Even after Something So Strong was published, people would still say to me, “Didn’t you write a book on Split Enz?” But for those who stayed interested, there were great gigs at the Power Station, Wellington’s Town Hall, double-billed with REM at Western Springs, at the intimate Founders Theatre in Hamilton and even outdoors at a racetrack in Palmerston North (where Neil encouraged a running race, and improvised a commentary from the stage, while the band played the theme from Bonanza).

Then the band broke up and after Recurring Dream was out, suddenly they were all over classic hits radio and on the muzak in every supermarket. It wasn’t just the idiot commercial radio programmers of the 1980s and 1990s, and an audience that took them for granted, partly it was the band’s fault. They were based in Melbourne, but were looking north to conquer the world. They came down here to tour with each album, but didn’t do much more. With our small population and a steady fanbase, who can blame them?

At the Events Centre, I needn’t have worried about the Supergroove effect. Apart from having a set list chock-full of hits, Crowded House were punchier live than I can remember. (Though Hester, besides his anarchic humour, had a touch of Keith Moon about his drumming, and I liked the steady R&B grooves that his replacement Peter Jones achieved; so did Nick Seymour.) It’s not just new drummer Matt Sherrod, they play as if asserting their relevance.

Time On Earth is a strong album, hampered by being too long and having too many songs at the same easy tempo. (Mitchell Froom always thought Woodface was too long, so people missed out on ‘She Goes On’ and ‘How Will You Go’; he wouldn’t have been the only one to have dropped ‘Chocolate Cake’ and made ‘It’s Only Natural’ the opener.) But the one I avoid playing is the brash Johnny Marr co-write ‘Even a Child’, which tries far to hard to be radio friendly and poptastic.

I think Neil Finn’s second solo album in particular was under-rated: having mostly been written out at Piha on Auckland’s wild West Coast, it is the great New Zealand beach album. It could have been called Barefoot and Pohutukawa Christmas, which would have really confused things in the States. Check out the coda to ‘Into the Sunset’ in particular: never has the soaring flight of a seagull been evoked so well in music.

Stand-outs in the long concert were a surprise ‘Whispers and Moans’ (always a favourite from Woodface), ‘Silent House’ (which works so much better on Time On Earth than on the Dixie Chicks album) and the first TOE single ‘Don’t Stop Now’, which is one of the great car radio songs of 2007. Oddly they didn’t do the second single ‘She Called Up’, which has such a great groove and Wurlitzer piano (though the chipmunks’ hook would be better with some uncharacteristic Crowdie touch, like a horn section). ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ came early in the set, and the best songs from TOE were highlights (‘Pour Le Monde’, ‘Heaven That I’m Making’) that earned their place alongside evergreens such as ‘Distant Sun’ and ‘Private Universe’.

Humour is just as essential to a Crowded House show as those songs, and jamming, though I could have done with a lot more of the former than the latter. Their musical references are always great fun – ‘You Sexy Thing’ and ‘Puppet On a String’ made an appearance – but pointless “wigging out” in outros seems to be a way of showing that the band is edgier than its small, perfectly formed, highly crafted and accessible songs may suggest.

It was getting close to midnight when Neil said it was bedtime with ‘Better Be Home Soon’. But no one could have gone home dissatisfied, or that Crowded House is genuinely revived as a band. I certainly needed the long drive back to the country to wind down.