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.”
“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.