25 October 2010

Taking Woodface to the World, 1991

A cover story from the New Zealand
Listener in 1991, at the beginning of the worldwide campaign to publicise Woodface. At the time, the recruitment of Tim Finn was causing debate. Interesting to see there is no mention of 'Weather With You'.

Neil Finn: A New Lease for Crowded House

By Chris Bourke – NZ Listener, 21 October 1991

IT IS MONDAY morning, and Crowded House are in Auckland. Tonight there’s a one-off concert in a small club, and tickets are at a premium. Fans who weren’t quick enough to buy tickets before they were snapped up by the radio stations are ringing all their connections looking for spares.

By the end of the week Crowded House will be in Canada. A concert on Friday in Vancouver is the band’s return to the big-time, or so they hope. The North American tour is four months of concerts five nights a week. The goal is to regain the status they achieved in the heady days of 1987, when ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ and ‘Something So Strong’ slowly became hits and the band, to their surprise, became international pop stars and scenemakers. On this side of the world the reviews for Crowded House’s new album, Woodface, have been ecstatic, but they always are. The critics have been a little more restrained in Britain and America. Neil Finn reads all the reviews, and remembers them.

But he has nothing to worry about with Woodface – it’s the mot consistent Crowded House album yet, a strong collection of pop songs, most written in collaboration with his brother Tim. It’s a pop album in the old tradition, full of melodies and lovingly put together. The arrangements are sophisticated but the band’s characteristic exuberance is still there. Once again, the reviews are full of Beatle references – so is the album – and it’s with a similar combination of charm and irresistible tunes that Crowded House won over the Americans in 1987.

For drummer Paul Hester the impending American campaign is “the Foreign Legion thing”; for Neil Finn it’s “the descent into Hell”. This Auckland stopover is a warmup: a day’s round of interviews and then the concert for family, friends and fans. It’s also the local unveiling of the band’s new lineup. The recruitment of Tim Finn has received a mixed response among the band’s followers here. Some are pleased to see the elder Finn back in the limelight; others mutter that the three-piece is getting mighty crowded, and wonder how the world will resond.

In the foyer of Auckland’s new Hotel Centra, the Finn brothers just miss each other. Tim wanders off to an interview just before Neil comes by, warning, that he’s a little weary. “We had a family night last night, then I couldn’t get to sleep.” He sits back in his armchair, friendly as always, but also with his usual determined look. There is no need to coax him into talking: an interview with Neil Finn is like eavesdropping on an analysis session. For an hour there is no let-up; the problem isn’t finding answers but space for questions. The words flow out at over 100 per minute, in a trans-Tasman accent. But, for all his articulateness, Finn gives little away that he doesn’t want to. He has been giving interviews since 1977 when, at the age of 18, he was recruited by Tim for Split Enz.

‘It’s Only Natural’ is a song off Woodface, and one of the bounciest, with spirited fraternal harmonies. That’s just how Finn sees the latest development in his band: natural. He recalls this childhood in Te Awamutu, standing with Tim in the hall, practising the harmonies of ‘Jamaican Farewell’ before performing for their parents’ guests. ‘Against our will most of the time, but you always enjoy those things afterwards. You bask in everybody’s appreciation of it ... Yeah, we’d sing a lot. And I’d roll along to Tim’s rehearsals in the early days of Split Enz, and even before that, in school. So there was always an active involvement together. Never more than there is now, though.”

During the heyday of Split Enz, an awkward but regular part of the stage act was the brotherly banter between the Finns. Tim would patronise his younger brother, who by that time was writing many of the band’s hits, and attracting most of the teenage fans. “It was kind of uncomfortable for me, too,” says Neil. “People would come back after the show and ask, ‘Are things all right between you and your brother?’ Because there was this ongoing slight teasing. It may not have been very natural, but it was only intended as being something humorous. People sometimes misunderstood it, or saw some darker interpretations.”

In those days, the pair never wrote together, and there was little in the music to reflect the years they’d spent trying to out-sing each other as they belted out Beatles and Bee Gees songs. After the success of his first solo album, with its hit ‘Fraction Too Much Friction’, Tim left the band he’d founded. For the next few years, he lived in London and travelled the world. He put out two more solo albums that were less-than-successful commercially. Many of the songs were excellent, but their mood was downbeat and brooding. After his relationship with Greta Scacchi came to an end, he returned to Melbourne. “Tim coming home was like a renewal of connection with his roots,” says Neil. “He probably had the most difficult transition out of Split Enz of any of us, because he’d completely severed ties, though we were talking on the phone. Returning to Melbourne was important for him. It was the first time he felt he had a community of people that he could rely on.”

With the Finn brothers living near to each other, the pair got together to collaborate on a duet album. From the very first day things clicked. “It was bizarre. We were ripe for it. We’d just start singing, anything, and someone would find a harmony, and then a melody would appear, and we’d seize that. Because there were two of us, we wouldn’t give up and go and have a cup of tea. We’d say, ‘That was good, let’s finish it now.’”

But it was time to record the third Crowded House album, which was crucial to regain the band’s momentum in America. It didn’t’ go so well. Recording came to a halt when the band weren’t happy with the last few tracks. So Finn had two unfinished projects at hand: one he was excited about, the other stalled. “They kind of intersected. One problem became the other’s solution.”

The obvious answer was for Tim to join Crowded House. The only thing in their way was “people’s perceptions of us, that they wouldn’t accept it. Once we’d put that aside as an objection, it seemed very natural. But with a public profile, it’s hard to make unselfconscious decisions about the band.”

The same day Tim and Neil discussed the idea, they went around to talk with the others: Paul Hester and bassist Nick Seymour. “We said, we think Tim should join the band because these songs would be great Crowded House songs. It would be a good time for Crowded House to redefine itself.

“They initially were quite ... nervous about it. They’re nervous about me coming to them with massive ideas that they haven’t been privy to. I do tend to drop bombshells on them a little bit. And this was another one. They were probably slightly nervous about there being a Finn brothers’ power bloc, that it might affect the chemistry of the band, that it might seem like Split Enz revisited, which no one wanted. After a day or so, when we listened to the songs we’d started, they got excited as well ...”

Without pausing for breath, Finn outlines the positive aspects of the change; it’s ground he must have turned over in his mind many times in the past few months. “It diffuses the tension between the three of us. As an outsider Tim can see certain situations and explain my frustrations to them – and vice versa. Anybody else joining would have been much more difficult. I was in a similar situation when I joined Split Enz. I understood the aesthetic, and I think he understands the aesthetic very well. Timm is very mindful of absorbing himself into the Crowded House style of performance. He realises that’s the only way it’s really going to work.”

Crowded House has worked hard at its light-hearted, approachable image, whereas in performance Tim Finn has a theatrical, though rather aloof, manner. Neil says he finds his brother “compelling” to watch on stage. “He’s incredibly intense, almost W C Fields-ish, whereas we’re very intimate and conversational with the audience.” But Tim is developing the Crowded House style, loosening up. “We didn’t want to be a schizophrenic band. If something’s working, don’t fix it. To Tim’s eternal credit he’s totally aware of what Nick and Paul bring to the band, and of not affecting the chemistry to the detriment of the band. We’re a fragile enough unit anyway, we always have been ... delicate, you might say.”

With his characteristic sardonic humour, Paul Hester told an American interviewer that accepting Tim was hard at first, “because it meant the end of ‘Curly, Larry and Moe’. But once we started working together, it all seemed perfectly normal. Besides – now we have someone to blame if the record stiffs.”

THERE IS a lot hanging on the success of Woodface, and not just financially – although some in the record industry have estimated that the slowly gestating album, with its slick production and lavish videos, might have cost around $US 1 million. Compared to the success of their debut album Crowded House, the follow-up, Temple of Low Men, was almost a “stiff”. The record eventually “went gold” (sold 500,000 copies) in America, but the band lost hteir career momentum. The reasons had little to do with music – many critics and musicians now regard the album as one of the best of the 80s – and a lot to do with the business.

The record’s first single ‘Better Be Home Soon’ never took off on American radio. After the jaunty pop of ‘Now We’re Getting Somewhere’ and ‘Something So Strong’, the programmers were bemused by the darker themes of the Temple songs. “They thought ‘Better Be Home Soon’ was country, so they wouldn’t touch it,” says the band’s straight-talking Australasian manager, Grant Thomas. “Radio there is so format-bound. Hell it pissed me off.”

And after nearly two years of touring to support the first album – it was a slow starter, and when it took off, the band had to stay on the road to take advantage of its success – Neil Finn was worn out. He decided not to tour the United States to publicise Temple.

“That probably didn’t help matters, but largely speaking the record company lost that album in America through their own bungling,” says Finn. “But because we were such a big part of the first album’s success by going out and charming the Americans, when we didn’t do so much for the second album, that was perceived as the reason it didn’t happen. But that’s only ever part of it. ‘Better Be Home Soon’ was No 1 in Canada and New Zealand, and No 2 in Australia. There’s no way that people are that different that it wasn’t a hit. But when it ran into trouble they just panicked. And we weren’t there to buoy their confidence. But there is a lot involved. The number of good songs that fail in America is staggering. There are no givens.”

This time, however, the band’s strategy seems to be right. Their relationship with their record company, Capitol, has “never been better”. The head of the US company is a relative of their American manager. “And luckily, after years in the doldrums, the company is really happening at the moment. Largely through MC Hammer, Bonnie Raitt, Poison – a whole bunch of people who are making them a lot of money. And we are their ‘number one priority internationally’ this year.”

Many people were surprised when the song ‘Chocolate Cake’, with its critical images of American indulgence, was chosen as the first single. But that was the record company’s idea, after receiving a positive response to it from the influential university radio stations. “They said it was edgy, a little confrontational, and if anybody didn’t like it, great. We got far more controversy about the song in Australia than in America. People were having phone discussions on the radio about it: was it anti-American? Was it all right that we should be saying these things? In America they just ... laughed! It was far more important that we were talking about American icons than what we were saying.

“The proof was in the pudding. It got to No 1 on alternative radio, and was really thrashed on stations like KROQ in Los Angeles.”

Now the alternative stations have ‘It’s Only Natural’ high on their playlists – a fact the band’s management is downplaying here, in case it takes airplay away from the second single, ‘Fall at Your Fee’. “That’s more traditional for us. I think it’ll break through. Overall I’m extremely confident with the record, and we’ve got the energy to go out and stand behind it. We’re in it for the long haul.”

Finn says the band has never had a game plan for their success. “That sounds ridiculous because we have been ambitious, we have gone about things deliberately. But we’ve never had a master plan of where we were heading, it’s been more alike stumbling along.”

After Temple Finn took some time out as his wife Sharon was having their second child. It gave him a chance to reflect on the band. “The whole experience of being the globe-trottin, high-profile, fun-loving outfit from Down Under was starting to wear a bit thin. I felt like we were becoming a bit of a parody of ourselves.

It also provided the opportunity to “sort out a lot of things that were ... inherently problematical in the lineup of the band”. Like what? “I don’t want to get into it; it’s like discussing your marriage. Just personality things that were occurring, patterns we needed to break out of, which we did. And I had the time to think, ‘Does this really mean enough to me to launch into it again, and give it my best?’ I figured out it does.”

At the time of Temple Finn talked about the marketing getting in the way of the music. “It is a distraction, it gives you far less time to write. If I worked in the traditional role of a songwriter, as it was 40 years ago, I would have four times more songs written by now.

“But to moan about it seems a little petty. Frank Sinatra had a go at George Michael recently for whinging about being successful. I don’t think Frank Sinatra has much to speak of in terms of values, but he’s right on that score. I wouldn’t want to be seen to be whinging about our position. To continue to make records, you’ve got to have your face in front of the public, and I’m quite happy to do that. I think I understand where to draw the line a bit better now.”

THERE IS nothing like the return home of local boys who have made good. The air of excitement at the concert that night has been rivalled this year only by the opening of La Boheme [with the return to the New Zealand stage of Kiri Te Kanawa]. Before the doors opened, hundreds of people were lined up outside the Power Station venue, being bombarded by the sound systems of two rival stations as they waited. Inside, the band was going through the musician’s equivalent of politicians kissing babies. There was family to greet and the media to meet. Those odd bedfellows, the music and radio industries, were schmoozing as if they never have any differences. “I’m deeply flattered,” said Tim Finn of the “radio wars” outside. “Fifteen years ago we were told, ‘We don’t play that sort of stuff.’”

The evening was always going to be an event and the band rose to the occasion. The charm of the old Crowded House remained – the low-key acoustic numbers, the rapport with the audience, the singalong melodies – but, for this local gig at least, the balance had shifted with the addition of Tim Finn to the trio. As Neil says, his older brother does indeed have an intense aura about him. The band didn’t come across like an Everlys-style duo, as on the record’s best moments, or as the old three-piece with a new supporting player. Instead the limelight was firmly on Tim whenever he stepped forward, while Neil moved back to his former sidekick role in the Enz. Neil has become the stronger singer, but a special moment was Tim Finn’s still-fresh ‘Six Months in a Leaky Boat’, with its inspirational rallying call: “The tyranny of distance/never stopped the pioneers. Why should it stop me?”

Earlier in the day, while getting his photo taken in a bright green suit made from billiard table cloth, Neil Finn had talked of the two-edged attitude New Zealanders have towards those achieving success overseas. Back home, we want them to take on the world and win, but still the same. He mentioned something similar on TV’s Nightline. When you’ve succeeded, the proper response is to act like an All Black from the golden era: after scoring, put your head down and walk back, impassive.

During the photo shoot, the talk was of other prominent New Zealanders, and the love/hate relationship we have with them. [All Black fullback] Grant Fox mentioned it in the Herald this morning , said Finn. “The attitude seems to be, ‘Sure, we’ll give you hero status, mate – just don’t stuff up.’”