18 October 2015

From Rolling Stone, #511, October 22, 1987. 

26 March 2015

Paul Hester, 1959-2005

It's 10 years today since we lost our friend. 

PAUL HESTER was known as “Hester the Jester,” the clown prince of Crowded House. He was the one who gave the band its personality on stage, his anarchic humour making sure they never got bogged down in earnestness. Sitting behind the drum kit, he could take control of a concert on a whim: a wisecrack could upset the flow just enough that the show took on its own spontaneous energy.

But if anyone epitomised the saying “tears of a clown”, it was Hester. When he was up, he was very up, and his buoyancy was contagious – for the band and its audience. When he was down, his gloom could be read on his face, and he would withdraw into his own black world. Towards the end of Crowded House, Neil Finn wrote a song called ‘Black and White Boy’ about someone who could charm a room full of people, then descend into “the depths of despair”. Hester was an open book, disarmingly honest. “People say ‘Black and White Boy’ is about me,” he said. “I’d be rapt if it was.”

Paul joined Split Enz in 1983 when the band was on its last legs, and he cheered them all up. He wrote an exuberant song about the thrill of joining his heroes: ‘This is Massive’. After the last Enz tour, he travelled the world with Neil Finn looking for a record deal, handing out a tape of raw songs that included one called ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’. A highlight of the trip was going to a New York disco, where he had his foot trodden on by Diana Ross and shook Andy Warhol’s “cold fish” hand. They got signed to a record label, and with bassist Nick Seymour lived in cramped quarters in Los Angeles to make their debut album, Crowded House.

He had been a drummer since the age of five; just like the Finn brothers he was dragged out at his parents’ parties to do an item. He described his mother Anne as “a jazzer, a drummer, a right-hander, a smoker,” and admired her skill: “Dad couldn’t hold a tune, but ol’ Anne could swing.” His own style came from skiffle, a shuffle was his favourite rhythm and his two idols were unpretentious masters: Ringo Starr and Charlie Watts. At those parties he played along to Creedence Clearwater Revival, then went back to bed. He always liked playing drums after a nap, and it often annoyed his band members when he wanted to stop recording in the middle of a song and insist on a cuppa and a joint. Cups of tea and, it must be said, pot, were his favourite indulgences but, unusually for a rock star, he was also obsessively tidy in the kitchen. With freshly laundered tea towels and the house vacuumed, he was in heaven: he could have a lie-down and take in more tea and lots of TV. He even had three small TV sets tattooed on his shoulder.

At the age of 10 he wrote in a school essay that his musical ambitions were “to become a leading drummer in the world and to have a successful pop group.” He also admitted, “I act stupid to try and impress my friends. I would rather be a quiet little kid who did a couple of funny things but not act stupid.”

In concert or in live interviews he could take things right to the edge and occasionally beyond. A couple of times he did a striptease on stage, and once on a children’s TV pop show, when asked to provide a question for a quiz, he suggested “Guess which member of Crowded House isn’t circumcised.” There was never a danger of Crowded House taking themselves seriously with Paul around, because he never took himself seriously – and he was usually the butt of his own jokes.

Two of his eccentric, catchy songs were included on Crowded House albums: ‘Italian Plastic’ and ‘Skin Feeling’. But by the time of the band’s fourth album Together Alone, the whole lifestyle had become a grind for Hester. He said he had “leaving phobia”, not wanting to go on tour. In 1994, after much reluctance, he agreed to promote the album with a world-wide tour – only to dramatically announce one night in Atlanta that this was his last show. His then-partner Mardi Summerfield was pregnant with the first of their two daughters, and they both caught the next plane home to Australia. The band struggled on, but never recreated the chemistry of which he had been a crucial element.

Hester had been seeking help for some time. “I recommend therapy to every man over 30,” he said. “By then you’ve got some emotional baggage, and you owe it to yourself to get rid of it. Your mates can’t help you.” Interviewing him, one just set the tape recorder and let him lie back, drink tea and unwind. There was a lot of pathos to all his stories, and in an inarticulate profession he was among the most quotable. He reminded me of Spike Milligan: all heart, outrageously funny, but with the saddest of eyes. At Crowded House’s farewell show, in front of the Sydney Opera House and 200,000 people, he leant over his kit during ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’, tears flowing onto his snare drum.

After Crowded House, he hoped to get a TV show off the ground that mixed music and humour; an entertainment icon in Melbourne, he was made to be an Ocker Jools Holland. A pilot series of Hessie’s Shed was screened (“Every man needs a shed,” he would say, preferably one with a teapot), and among its guests were Neil Finn, John Clarke and the Topp Twins. But this second career never took off, and neither did his post-”Crowdie” bands such as the Largest Living Things. He pottered in his shed recording other bands and made regular appearances on radio sports shows. Last Saturday Hester took his dogs for a walk in a Melbourne park and his body was found several hours later. Police confirmed the circumstances were not suspicious.

Originally published in the Sunday Star-Times (New Zealand), 3 April 2005

22 February 2015

Crowded House at Karekare

Seven worlds collide – November 1992

An edited excerpt from Something So Strong
© Chris Bourke, 1997

“In a long forgotten place / Who’ll be the first to run?” – ‘Kare Kare’

The band was eager to get started on the follow-up to Woodface. It was time to cut the umbilical cord with Mitchell Froom. When Woodface was released, Neil expressed disappointment that the band playing live were that much ‘wilder’ than they were on record, where all the concentration was on getting the arrangements and structures right. ‘One day we’ll get into the studio and get across some of the tangents,’ he promised.

Neil describes Froom as ‘very much the classic producer’: he was a musician, who worked well on arrangements, was conscientious and never short of an opinion. ‘That was great for me to encounter. I’d never struck somebody who was that fully rounded as a producer. But, after three records, we felt – and he did, too – that we needed to define ourselves outside his influence. We were looking for somebody completely different, whose personality would inspire us to be looser and experiment. We wanted to work with somebody wild, whatever that means.’

London-based Capitol A&R man David Field got to know both Finn brothers in 1992, developing a rapport with Tim during the protracted recording of Before & After. Then, while Crowded House was on its lengthy tour of Britain in the northern summer, he acted as the go-between in the search for a new producer. He introduced a variety of candidates for the job to Neil, and escorted them to the band’s gigs throughout the country. Among those considered were Steve Lillywhite, Gil Norton and John Leckie. They would hear the new songs the band included in their set, and afterwards would discuss their ideas with Neil.

Field says that towards the end of the tour, after seven or eight meetings, he had a clear idea of what Neil was looking for. ‘I had this Youth idea. I’d met him and knew he was a character. He hadn’t really done anything that was relevant, but I thought, this could be really interesting.’

Born Martin Glover, South London wide boy Youth first came to notice as the founding bass-player in the uncompromising art-punk band Killing Joke (whose leader, Jaz Coleman, had settled in New Zealand). After leaving the group in 1982, he won respect as a producer/re-mixer, working with techno, dance and pop acts such as Brilliant, PM Dawn, Blue Pearl and the Orb. At the time he was approached by Crowded House, he had recently received his second consecutive nomination for producer of the year in the British record industry awards.

Field took the band to meet Youth in Brixton, where he has a couple of small studios in his house. The night before, Youth had held a summer solstice rave, so the garden was all trampled. ‘Things were a little sombre in the studio that morning, a little delicate,’ says Paul Hester. ‘We met him in the front room, sat down, had a coffee and proceeded to talk. It’s early, and he’s rolling joints the whole time, so we were all quite impressed. I thought, he’s like Neil from The Young Ones. He just rambled on and it just sounded like fun: this guy’s into a whole different thing. Let’s do what he wants to do. We weren’t too sure what that really was.’

Field says Youth was his ‘usual cryptic self’, but whetted the band’s curiosity. Driving away, ‘the conversation in the car was along the lines of, ‘You’re fucking mad! The guy’s wacky. But interesting. Did you see the size of that spliff? What was he going on about?’

‘Youth had heard a few of the new songs on tape, liked the music, and his ideas fitted exactly into what Neil had been thinking. Youth said he didn’t want to think about it too much: ‘I want to explore’. It was all very vague, suggesting we concentrate on atmosphere and rhythm and texture.’

Although nothing Youth had done in music suggested it was a good idea, something clicked straight away, says Neil. ‘He’s got a pretty nutty approach and attitude to things, and a great record collection. And he said some good things about music and passion, the sort of intensity he likes in music. So we took a punt on him.’

Youth’s persona is very theatrical, says Field. Seeing him connecting with Neil Finn was like ‘the existentialist meets the sceptic. It was definitely two extremes, and the challenge was how they treated it, how they could bend each other in certain ways.’ Neil’s scepticism came out during a dinner, when Youth was waving a crystal above people’s hands. Neil saw Youth’s hand moving, not the crystal, and expressed his doubts. ‘What about Stonehenge?’ said Youth.

Club-hound Nick had most in common with Youth’s musical tastes, although he couldn’t stand Killing Joke. ‘But I didn’t associate him with the band. I thought of him as being a bass player, of about the same age, who was influenced by a lot of the same music in the late 70s and early 80s.’

Mark says they chose Youth because ‘he was the most outrageous. He was the one who fitted the bill the least. As far as being a competent nuts-and-bolts producer, he was up in the stars somewhere. And that appealed to them in many ways, because Mitchell is very much a tight-fisted, cracking-the-whip kind of guy. With Youth, it’s like ‘making a record should be like ... making a journey’. He had all these little sayings, plus a really cool record collection, and they really hit it off. They all smoke a prodigious amount of pot, and I think this all led to some kind of camaraderie.’

The other chance element in the experiment was the recording location. Neil wanted to avoid spending weeks in a sterile studio – be it in Los Angeles, London or anywhere – and realised that he had never done any serious recordings in New Zealand. During the April 1992 tour he sensed a positive mood in the country, then just emerging from a recession. He told BBC’s Radio One, ‘I just looked longingly at the country and thought, damn it – this is a really inspiring place, why don’t we record here?’

When they couldn’t find a studio in New Zealand that appealed to them, they decided to rent a house and set up their own. They headed for the secluded, windswept coast 45 minutes west of Auckland: Karekare Beach. Few people live at Karekare, even though Auckland city is a commutable distance away. Nestled in the side of a hill like a gun-metal grey bunker is the home of Nigel Horrocks, who designed and built it in the style of an open-plan studio suitable for performances. A floor-to-ceiling window slides back so the large living room is open to a southern view of the valley. A 10-minute walk along a bush track over the brow of the hill leads to a dramatic black-sand surf beach.

Horrocks – an enigmatic dilettante whom Nick Seymour describes as ‘a Himalayas-climbing, Nepalese-loving ethnocentric chap’ – was well disposed to the idea of renting his unique home for use as a recording studio. During the filming of The Piano, it had been the base of actor Harvey Keitel. Scattered inside the spacious living room is a variety of Pacific instruments that Horrocks has collected since childhood.

Crowded House took up residence in the Karekare valley. They rented a couple of houses for accomodation, and Horrocks’s forbidding home was set up for recording. Luckily, a new studio called Revolver was in the process of being built in Auckland. So with all their equipment in disarray, the studio didn’t take too much convincing to hire it out. The old Neve console and 24-track Ampex tape-recorder, plus crates of effects racks and vintage microphones and a baby grand piano were put on a truck and driven over the narrow, winding road to the west coast.

Horrocks’s house was across a creek and up a steep, treacherous gravel drive. In the recent winter the creek had flooded, swallowing the four-wheel drive Subaru of Horrocks’s mother. ‘So I thought it was time to stop being a romantic, and having a ford across the creek, and get started building a bridge,’ he says. The band chipped in, as a crane was needed to get the equipment into the house. ‘There wouldn’t be many albums that have had a bridge-building/roading component in the budget,’ says Grant Thomas. Horrocks’s neighbours built a movable wall for the large living room, to separate the control room from the recording space. The main bedroom was used as a tape store and editing suite, McAndrew slept in another bedroom so he could keep an eye on the equipment at night, and a small room became the vocal booth. ‘They had booths built all around the house,’ says Horrocks. ‘Out in the kitchen, in the bathroom, in the laundry. There was an incredible tangle of cables and equipment lying around.’

Arriving before Youth were his engineer Greg Hunter and programmer Matt Austin, who had flown from the congested grime of Brixton, South London. They were badly sunburnt from a brief stopover in Bali. Now, they found themselves in a tranquil, lush South Pacific valley. It was a bit of a shock. ‘They looked like Dickensian waifs, punks from London,’ says Hester. ‘Long, thin hair, pale skin, sunburn, no shoes or socks. They’d arrived at this little house in Karekare, and were going, ‘Where the fuck are we? What have we done?’

The band recorded six days a week for two months, quickly settling into a haphazard routine. The conscientious pair – Neil and Mark – would arrive at the studio at about 11am, then wait an hour or two for the others to arrive and start making tea. ‘It was maddening, but you had to fall into this schedule we’d carved out for ourselves,’ says Mark Hart.

Early on in the sessions, Mark wrote in his journal:

December 3, ’92 – Thursday. Neil asked me not to go on tour with Suzanne Vega today. He says I’m part of Crowded House now and that I shouldn’t have to do those kind of things. Nick’s doing bass overdubs on ‘Nails in Your Feet’. I took a walk up to the falls. It’s very beautiful. Did keyboard overdubs. Started about 5.30pm.

As the days went by, they would start later – and finish later, not getting to bed till four o’clock some mornings. ‘It got shifted to this weird zone where we were playing a lot at night,’ says Paul. The band’s recording method changed. They worked up songs from lengthy jam sessions, having more say over their own parts.

The band lived in a house owned by John and Stephanie Lindeman, about a quarter of a mile away, high on a ridge overlooking the sea. At about nine o’clock each evening everyone would take a break and return to the Lindeman’s, where a catered meal would be ready. The dining room has a panoramic view, and the band, crew and their entourage would watch the sun go down and the waves sweep in, surrounded by ancient art from Tibet. (Lindeman and Horrocks had run an adventure company in the Himalayas together.) The evening meals grew into social events, with guests usually invited for dinner. Youth would hold court, put on Cat Stevens’s Tea for the Tillerman, and expound on primeval belief systems, exotic cultures, mass hypnosis and the tribal nature of mankind – or just plain storytelling – while the red wine flowed and joints kept appearing. ‘It was very convincing,’ says Mark, ‘but sometimes you felt he was improvising a lot.’ Slowly the others would peel themselves away from the intense philosophical discussions, and make their way back to the studio.

The after-dinner walk was an exhilarating time of day, the band and crew feeling their way through native bush along a dirt track in the pitch dark. ‘We’d try and get back without using a torch,’ says Paul. ‘It was scary because we’d walk along the side of this hill, with a sheer drop beside the track. It was great.

‘One night we all got back to the studio and were all mooching around with cups of tea getting ready for the evening session and – there’s no Youth! No one had seen Youth. He’d been behind us on the track. So Youth had stumbled off on his own without a torch somewhere in the bush. We waited another half hour and then he finally showed up, covered head-to-tail in dirt and with a big stick in his hand. He’d gone over the side in the dark and grabbed this branch to stop his fall. He had used it to walk along the track and finally found his way back to the studio. He was totally shaken: ‘Oh man, I was lost in the darkness, this stick saved my life, man.’ For the rest of the album, he always had the stick with him – his sacred stick.’

Youth – the pagan/Celtic voyager – took to the area’s primal atmosphere immediately. He would walk around barefoot, encouraging everyone to ‘Take your shoes off, man – feel the path with your mind.’

Paul eventually got on well with Youth, after ‘the requisite early altercation,’ he says. ‘It was a domestic issue, which I had to raise, being the Mum of the house.’ (The argument – about ashtrays and housework – led to the lines ‘We left a little dust / On his Persian rug’ in ‘Kare Kare’.)

Paul liked Youth’s spirit, his intuitive way of working. ‘That’s what we wanted to do and he certainly provided a lot of that. Sometimes you wondered, ‘Is this complete shit?’ but you have to read between the lines with Youth. You don’t take it all literally. He’s also a mongrel for a joint and so am I.’

According to Mark, the main difference in the recording of Together Alone was ‘it was a real band effort. Everybody had their say. It’s the way bands should be.’ Youth’s contribution would be not so much arrangement in a literal sense, more an orchestration of the dynamics, conducting the spirit of the sessions with his enthusiasm. ‘He definitely steered things in a completely opposite direction,’ says Hester. ‘Black and White Boy’ is an example. When written, it had an almost bossa-nova groove, with a smooth soul melody. ‘Youth just took that one to another place: More buzz man, turn the guitar up. More fuzz, Neil – heavy. Yeah, heavy. Less notes, Nick – just that note, the whole way. All the way!

‘He was set up in the lounge room on a few pillows wrapped in his sari, with his ashtrays and his pot and his coffee and his books. He always had a novel on the go. So there would be this reading and rolling, then stopping to tell someone to turn their guitar up full. More of everything! And he would dance during takes, with headphones on. He would come up to you and conduct, just wave his arms at you and scream, Freak out, man, freak out! More! More!

‘It was like a happening. It was great, totally the reverse from Mitch and Tchad. We would freak out and they’d say, ‘That was pretty good. Maybe you should come in and listen to it.’ Instead we got, ‘Man, that was sublime ... a paradox of rock.’

Paul says Youth had a talent for setting up atmospheres in which the band could capture certain feels or work within. Then, he’d suggest other instruments to use. ‘But once we started playing and jamming, he just let us go. Because he’d been in a band, he understood there were times to let us get on with it. If he wanted to make a suggestion, he’d put his hand up.’ The band got used to Youth hippie-dancing in front of them as they recorded a take, headphones on, conducting. Meanwhile, Hunter would be headbanging behind the mixing desk, having fun turning up the volume and continually blowing speakers, creating ‘Zen mixes’ in which only four knobs on the desk could be turned up at any one time.

Youth could recognise the character of the band and play with it, says Paul, ‘introducing folklore and games to build up the band’s spirit. I think he was subconsciously into that.’ The mood created, the band was free to explore and run with it. Such an occasion brought about ... Nude Night.

The exhilaration created by Karekare inspired the cathartic disrobing in the sessions for ‘In My Command’. ‘We wanted to be immersed in it somehow,’ says Paul. The band had been playing a few takes that didn’t seem to be going anywhere. ‘It was like we needed to jump in a cold bath and get out and do one.’ On the way back from dinner, Paul suggested the answer was to shed their inhibitions with their clothes.

‘I thought we’d go nude, run around the house a couple of laps, then stand on the hill and howl and scream at the moon for a bit. Then we’d record a take. So that’s what we did. But I remember Mark Hart farting around ...’

‘... within a moment everybody was nude,’ says Mark. ‘I was taking my time.’
‘Me, Neil and Nick were nude within about a second, ready to go, and Mark was diligently taking off his trackshoes and socks, then putting his shoes back on – to run outside. He was being sensible, and we were going, Mark – we’re having a wild, abandoned moment here. Don’t get sensible. What are you doing? And he’s going, ‘I-I-I’m putting my shoes on.’ We almost lost the moment. Nude, you have to act on it. You can’t be dilly-dallying, and Mark had this doubt about his nudeness. Eventually we got him out there.’

‘So there we were,’ says Mark. ‘Neil playing keyboard, me playing guitar. Everything strategically placed. Of course, the real hippies – Youth and Greg – wouldn’t have anything to do with it, being British and modest. They couldn’t take their clothes off, even though they were adhering to this whole hippie philosophy. We played the song once, then all ran outside for some fresh air. It was like being stupid boys. Then we came back in, played it again a couple of times. But we didn’t use those tracks! There might have been a bit of self-consciousness that you could detect. We ended up keeping a track we cut before dinner. It was funny – but we tried.’
  They ended up listening to the takes – still nude – in front of the mixing console. ‘It was great,’ says Paul, ‘we were all smiling, and someone snapped a couple of photos from behind: the true arseholes of Crowded House.’

Youth’s experimental recording methods reflected his pagan spirituality. On ‘Pineapple Head’ he asked Mark to stand in a circle of volcanic stones while recording a guitar part. He obliged, stretching his leads 100 metres from the desk to the stone circle sited on the hill above the house, playing an ambient guitar part. Youth then gave Paul his instructions for recording the vocal.

It was at this point that Parlophone promotions manager Malcolm Hill, visiting from London, happened to call by to check out the exotic location. ‘When I got there, they were going along with everything Youth suggested,’ he says. ‘As I arrived, Paul was sitting in an upright flight case, holding in his arms lots of crystals, singing backing vocals. I said to him, what the hell are you doing? He whispered to me, ‘Well, Youth wants me to. He’s barking mad, but we’re getting some great results.’ There was a lot of wackiness going on, but it was very funny.’

With the A&R direction coming from David Field, who was based in London, executives at Capitol in Los Angeles were concerned about the anarchic sessions, possibly fanned by the scepticism of American manager Gary Stamler. Field was asked, were things out of control? ‘From day one everyone at the label in America was adamant that Youth was the wrong choice,’ says Field. ‘I was confident that things were fine. But it was a huge amount of pressure, a big responsibility for me, as I’d never worked with a band of that size before. It was a non-stop battle. So I felt I should go down to New Zealand and see how things were panning out. The responsibility for introducing Youth to the band was mine and my career would have suffered badly if things had gone terribly wrong.’

Field arrived at Karekare a day earlier than scheduled and found ‘all sorts of strange stuff going on’. Many of those present were in a psychedelic frame of mind. Mark, who remained straight (‘It’s easy for me to be giddy when I’m around a bunch of giddy people’) says Field seemed rather stunned by the scene. ‘I remember him not reacting very enthusiastically. He was taken aback. I don’t think he disliked it, but it was such a weird world to enter. Somehow we had developed this setting which we were very used to, but anyone coming into it from the outside world was surprised.’

But to Field, the music he heard coming out of the monitors was ‘very, very exciting. An absolute thrill. I knew it was a serious departure – I thought, ‘My god, what are people going to make of this?’ – but I felt it was exactly what they needed to be doing. It was adventurous, dynamic, so textured and atmospheric – much like Karekare itself, really. The place is very influential on the record.’

Mark says that occasionally he would get frustrated at the lack of progress being made – ‘We’d just be getting ready to do something and a thunderstorm would roll in’ – but then he realised, ‘We were under the influence of the project: we weren’t controlling it, it was controlling us.’ Although Neil had most of the central ideas before they started recording, they started to change in character. Songs that were particularly affected by the climate at Karekare include ‘Fingers of Love’, recorded on a rain swept, melancholy day; similarly ‘Distant Sun’, with Nick and Paul in separate rooms inside the house, while Neil and Mark played acoustic guitars on the porch shrouded by a cold mist; ‘Private Universe’ changed from a swing song to a panoramic guitar wash; and of course ‘Kare Kare’, credited to all the band because it emerged during a jam.

December 4, ’92 – Friday. Because of technical difficulties we didn’t really start playing until late afternoon, even though we got to the studio at noon. Some TV guys from Auckland came around and we did an impromptu interview. Started work on the ‘Newcastle Jam’ but gave up and went to  ’Black & White Boy’ which changed dramatically over the course of the day. It’s now two electric guitars.

Both the physical and emotional climate at Karekare were always extreme, says Paul. ‘Every day there was something going on, as people settled into the joint. They’d go off for walks and have these intense things happen. A lot of stuff has gone down in that area of New Zealand, and I think that rubbed off on us. The Maori folklore really made sense and we would dream about it at night.

‘I remember Neil coming back from a walk and saying, ‘I went up to the ridge, round to that mountain, there’s an amazing waterfall and this rock pool. I took all my clothes off and jumped in, screamed at the top of my voice.’ He was totally exhilarated with it, like he’d done an est course or something. Things like that were happening – it was very volatile.’

Nick describes recording Together Alone as a ‘humbling experience, being in an area of the world so geographically dynamic and so incredibly removed from popular culture’. For Paul, that meant the penance of having no television to watch; for the British visitors, all sorts of luxuries they took for granted in cosmopolitan Brixton. Guitar tech Dugald found himself inundated with requests if he was making the 20-minute trip to Henderson, the closest town. ‘Everybody would be aware he’d be going, and they’d say, ‘Oh good, he can get some supplies.’ This was very evident with the Poms, they were very separated from life,’ says Paul. ‘They’d be saying, ‘Oh, Dugald, can you get me some fags, can you get me some incense, can you get me a visa for India?’

‘Poor old Dugald, he had to do it all,’ says Mark. ‘He was our lifeline to the outside world. ‘Oh Dugald, are you going into town? Can you take this sample of, ah ... shit to the doctor?’

Neil had caught giardia from the local drinking water and, by the end of the sessions, weighed only 57 kilos. ‘It took a toll on Neil,’ says Paul. ‘He was the man on the spot. There were all sorts of things to deal with: who was going to live where, for example. Everyone wanted their own space.’

‘It was quite tough,’ agrees Neil. ‘It was a weird combination of people and there was quite a bit of stress around. But there were a lot of really good things about it too. There were very good days where we made some good music. But it was torturous to some degree.’

As the weeks dragged on in the intense environment, energy became drained and tempers frayed. ‘Towards the end, Youth wasn’t functioning particularly well, but then I’m pretty relentless,’ says Neil. He started to feel he was being taken advantage of by Youth (‘He was on a pretty good wicket, he got to go out to the other side of the world, smoke a massive amount of pot, was very well paid ... there was a cynical edge to it’), and by hangers-on outside of the band enjoying the lifestyle. ‘I regard the experience as a loss of innocence. It brought a lot of hostile things to the surface.’

Despite their differences, Neil describes Youth as ‘charming and intelligent’. Having Youth as producer meant they were less ‘pedantic about the details’ of what they were doing. ‘That’s what we wanted, and I wanted more of it. In the end, he was quite conservative with us. I was hoping he’d really challenge us, but he still made quite a ‘Crowded House-y’ record with us. I don’t think he really wanted to be the known as the guy who screwed up Crowded House.

‘The album sounds really good in hindsight, it turned out really well. So in a way you can’t knock Youth. Whatever he did, somehow it worked.’

A rough mix of 'Black and White Boy' is here. You can buy Something So Strong as an ebook via Amazon, or one of the few remaining print copies from the author here

01 September 2014

The Wisdom of Youth

An interview with Youth just appeared online. Most of the content is about the recording of Together Alone. Among the gems:

"At one point I encouraged the band to record naked which, to their eternal credit and respect, they fearlessly took up. But unfortunately Neil was playing a Telecaster which had those tiny springs on the back. He went for this big power chord and ripped half his pubes out and ended up collapsing on the floor in total agony. My theory is that making records has to be a heroic and fearless cavalry charge into the unknown."
More here.

30 April 2014

A review of Woodface written for the quarterly Music in New Zealand in 1991.  

19 December 2010

Reviewers all miss the boat on occasion, but reviewing Split Enz's classic True Colours album in Smash Hits of 7 August 1980, David Hepworth shows he has yet to identify the songwriting skills of Neil Finn. Later involved in startups such as Mojo, Empire and The Word, Hepworth would become of the music press's most astute (and sympathetic) reviewer of things Finn.

Split Enz, True Colours (A&M)
A monster hit in their native Australia after years of work, but it’s tempting to assume this has more to do with patriotism than taste. What we have here is a rather slight collection of high-tech pop which takes in a wide variety of post-punk styles and does boast the odd appealing melodic flourish. But it does lack substance in the songwriting department and tends to come across as a mite secondhand. (5 out of 10). David Hepworth

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.’”