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