INTERVIEW: Neil Finn
, January 28th, 2014 09:41
We talk to the Crowded House frontman about his forthcoming solo album Dizzy Heights, his first in over a decade
In the early-to-mid nineties, with Britpop soaring, 'Crowded House' inexplicably became a byword for bland. To many, the band were an insipid example of neutral MOR, along with maybe Simply Red or the Lighthouse Family, mainly on the back of those slickly produced singles of the time, including 'Weather With You' and 'Fall At Your Feet', as well as, of course, 'Don't Dream It's Over'. When I interviewed Neil Finn earlier this year on the 20th anniversary of the Together Alone album, he said with some feeling, "We were always on a contrary path from a critical point of view. For a while, in England, when we started getting good reviews people would always preface it by saying, 'I know I'm not supposed to like Crowded House but…'"
The insanity of that is stark today. So many of Finn's musical turns since Crowded House's heyday have been more obscure and experimental than he is given credit for – not least his 2012 album in collaboration with his wife Sharon as Pajama Club. In 1995, he and brother Tim released their first album together as a duo, a breathtaking, loose, more fervently percussive album than many were used to from Finn. His first solo album, 1998's Try Whistling This, produced by Marius de Vries, embraced unlikely terrain inspired by artists like Massive Attack, while the chart-friendly smoothness of those early Crowded House singles is unrecognisable in the chaos of, for example, 'Hole In The Ice', a standout from 2001's One Nil. And that's without looking at his time in Split Enz (even if the band's artiest days were arguably behind them when he joined in 1977).
The forthcoming solo album, Dizzy Heights, is more proof that Finn, as well as being one of the most extraordinary purveyors of melody since rock's birth, is indeed an adventurer. Dizzy Heights is unexpectedly frenetic and even aggressive at times. First single 'Divebomber' sounds quite unlike anything he has done before, with its sustained falsetto vocal and odd, disarming lyrics. 'Pony Ride' is more familiar with its solid chorus and fast pace, while 'Recluse' is along the lines of the two Crowded House albums since their reformation in 2007 (as well as featuring a reference to Game Of Thrones).
With production from David Fridmann and input from Connan Mockasin and Sean Donnelly, this may not appeal to those who were thrilled with 'Weather With You' when it appeared on Now That's What I Call Music! 21 in 1992.
It's been 12 years since your last solo album, so to what degree do you see Dizzy Heights picking up where One Nil left off?
Neil Finn: I don't really see it as picking up where I left off. I'm sure there are significant things about embarking on a record under your own name, but the distinctions are blurred for me by the feeling that it's all a part of a continuum. When I get involved in making a record I'm as engrossed in every stage of it no matter what it's called. The songwriting process to a large extent is very similar no matter what I'm doing in terms of circling and discovering, and then destroying and reassembling.
It's in the performance that it varies, but then again on all of my solo albums I've had different collaborators, so for me they are as distinct from each other as they from albums under different names.
Crowded House's 2007 comeback album Time On Earth was originally going to be a solo album before morphing into a band project. In the years since has there been in niggling desire in you to make another solo album?
NF: It hasn't been a pressing concern to me particularly. When I came to look at the next record we actually did a bit of recording with Crowded House and in fact there are a few songs in the can that have got a lot of promise. But I just felt it didn't feel like the right time for some reason, and I started making some other songs. There were a couple that came along that I thought didn't sound like Crowded House songs, and I wanted to explore them in a freer context. It just felt different, that's as much as I can explain.
What about David Fridmann made him suitable as producer?
NF: I like to work with people who have a strong angle in what they do. I think in general the people that I've worked with are exactly that rather than faithful recordists who are a neutral presence. I like somebody with opinions to judge my own against, and I also like when people take my ideas and in a slightly irreverent manner are not afraid to push and prod and pick up on things that I might not. And also to some extent not take seriously the things that I agonise about. I think it's a really healthy thing to have someone in the room whose opinions you respect, but not always agree with.
You've said that he "added odd touches" to the album. Is that something you embrace more on solo albums than with Crowded House?
NF: I think I embrace it in all contexts. It may be coincidental that some people regard the solo albums as having a more experimental twist to them. I'm not sure why that isn't the case with Crowded House in some people's minds. Certainly with the Together Alone album we were looking to bend ourselves out of shape a little and I think we succeeded to some extent.
I love pop music and I love it when pop music becomes skewed with things you don't quite understand, like flourishes that are mysterious or wilful, or studio creations. That's something I enjoy, rather than becoming more tasteful and natural as I get older – I could do that, get a really hot band, be very tasteful and record live, and the songs would live quite well like that, but I just like it when things get bent out of shape.
Did the Pajama Club experience have any bearing on how you approached Dizzy Heights?
NF: It certainly did. Apart from anything else I discovered that I enjoyed playing with my wife Sharon on bass. Although I am a big fan of the more busy, melodic style of bass playing of the McCartney school, and certainly Nick [Seymour, Crowded House bassist] falls into that category, I found it really refreshing to have somebody for whom bass was a rhythm instrument that would help you dance – that was Sharon's approach.
After making a lot of records you look for new angles on what you do, and there was something about that that put a different emphasis in the music - that definitely came from the Pajama Club experience. Writing from jams was something that happened on this record too, there are two or three songs that came that way, which happened in Pajama Club.
You worked with Connan Mockasin on the album - what did he add and what was he like to work with?
NF: The song that I'd say was the main collaboration is actually not on the album, but it will be emerging in the next few months. I needed to do another mix of it and it deserves to have a proper rendition.
Connan is good friends with Liam and Elroy [Finn's sons] and I've gotten to know him well too, he's a good man and there's a close connection there now. We all had a very memorable jam in Auckland one night, and this song called 'Sweet Gentle Day' will emerge at some point, which I think is a really fabulous song, and came from that jam session. Connan was making up the melody on the spot with nonsense sounds and I went through later, because I was pretty entranced with this particular piece, and translated the nonsense into the words I imagined he was singing. It turned into quite a clear narrative about a woman who lived on the street who was wandering and ranting, looking for who had killed this other street guy called Dave. I'm looking forward to that one getting exposed. We've done plenty of things together and he's a very talented young man.
Dizzy Heights is out on February 10 via Lester Records Ltd; stay tuned to the Quietus for a Baker's Dozen with Finn later this week