Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Crowded House interview

A version of my interview originally appeared in the North County Times and can be viewed at:

The band performs at Amoeba Music in Hollywood on Thursday, Club Nokia at LA Live on Friday and Sunday at Humphreys. Photo by Cybele Malinowski, courtesy Big Hassle Media.

Neil Finn once opined about the seductive power of music and how it should address deep thoughts lurking under the surface to forge a deep connection.

For the past 30 years - first as a teenage member of New Zealand art-rockers Split Enz, then as frontman for pop/rock band Crowded House (among Australia's most successful, acclaimed entertainment exports emerging from Down Under during the mid-1980s), the singer/songwriter/guitarist has done exactly that.

Crowded House made inroads Stateside with its 1986 self-titled platinum debut, which spawned the Top 10 singles "Don't Dream It's Over" and "Something So Strong." Sophomore disc "Temple of Low Men" went gold and notched a Top 20 mainstream rock radio hit in "Better Be Home Soon." Equally engaging albums "Woodface" and "Together Alone" were more popular abroad, but Crowded House retained a large cult following in America until calling it quits in 1996.

The intervening years saw Finn put out a pair of acclaimed solo discs and two with older brother/former Enz bandmate Tim. After Crowded House drummer Paul Hester died in 2005, Finn and bassist Nick Seymour were drawn back into a creative partnership. While working on Finn's next solo album, they decided to morph it into a resurrected Crowded House, invited latter-day member/multi-instrumentalist Mark Hart back into the fold and found timekeeper Matt Sherrod. The result was 2007's somber yet blissful reunion effort, "Time on Earth."

Now they're back with atmospheric rock album "Intriguer," highlighted by future melancholy classics "Twice if You're Lucky" and "Archer's Arrows." Neil Finn and Jim Scott (Wilco) handled production duties. Singer/guitarist son Liam, studio/music whiz Jon Brion and violinist Lisa Germano are among those making notable guest appearances. Neil Finn checked in this week from his home in Auckland.

What can fans headed to the SoCal shows look forward to?

We mix the set up and change it every night so it's not a set piece. We're reasonably responsive to the whims and fancies of the evening and deviations from the script.

Are you still playing fan requests via the band's website?

Yeah. I can't do them all because we're getting more songs than we have time for in a set. Some fans are dead set on the most obscure things they can think of, which are sometimes impossible for us to remember. But it's guiding my hand when I'm writing a set list. There's usually room for two or three obscure choices or special requests. A lot of the songs we do anyway.

Recall any particularly memorable gigs around the San Diego area over the years?

We've had some fantastic shows there; it's always been a great place for us. It's where we met Eddie Vedder for the first time - at a Crowded House show way before he was in Pearl Jam. Humphreys is a really good venue.

What inspired the album's "Intriguer" title?

There's a cartoon on our website done by my friend Michael Leunig. ... It's a character that he and I had been discussing for years. We attribute a lot of large twists, turns, mysteries and troublesome, but interesting events to the Intriguer. There's a mythological aspect to it. He makes life interesting.

Nick has said the new album it is a better example of the current lineup's chemistry together than "Time on Earth." Would you agree?

It is, in real terms, the first time we've began the process with this lineup from the beginning. So everybody was involved in rehearsing and finishing the songs. I think it's got a more cohesive presence. Although on the last album Nick and I were physically involved in most of the songs, the other guys didn't come in until near the end.

From a rhythmic standpoint, what has Matt added to the band's sound?

Matt has a very positive presence in every capacity - physically, mentally and spiritually. His drumming has become far more attuned in the last year because we've recorded more together than when we first started. I think he's got incredible buoyancy in the way he drums; it's really solid.

When you started recording the album, did you have any set goals on how you wanted to approach the sound?

I don't really strategize or conceptualize too much about what the sound should be.

Did it take any coaxing to get your wife, Sharon, to sing her lead vocal part during the dreamy "Isolation"?

Not much in the studio. She's been doing it live now and ... she's absolutely nailing it. There's a real musical integrity because she just delivers it so well.

There's a samba rhythm on "Either Side of the World." Isn't that a first for Crowded House?

Yeah, I don't think we've ever approached anything resembling a samba. The reason the new video we're (finishing up) is probably going to have a good life to it is because we were able to work on a good danceable groove.

That one would make a great club remix.

I think it could. We've been trying to work something out on that front. There's a couple irons in the fire.

You mention exotic locales on "Falling Dove" and "Amsterdam." Were those songs inspired by your travels during the "Time on Earth" world tour?

I was working on finishing those lyrics at the time, so it had an influence. We'd been to Amsterdam before, but Russia was a new place, so it had a certain romance to it. We took the midnight train from Moscow to St. Petersburg, and that was a really great experience. These things resonate (with you).

Mark uses a bow to play his electric guitar on "Falling Dove," while there's some electronic manipulation of your voice on "Saturday Sun." Does unusual instrumentation inspire you while recording?

Of course. Every time we cut a record together and tour, we look at ways to make it fresh. The synth (vocoder) for me was a big innovation. ... It's such an easy machine to use and so much fun that I enjoyed the change. I didn't even know Mark could play with a bow. The idea is to make sounds that work rather than being a technical exercise. It adds a lot of atmosphere.

Crowded House started to stretch the sonic boundaries on the first incarnation's last album, "Together Alone."

That's right. Certainly live now, there's a psychedelic aspect to some songs that we really enjoy. I think the audiences have been getting off on it as well. I think it adds a layer of excitement and interest to the show, not just performing songs at rote like a pop band. There's a little - dare I say it - jam band aspect that people are not particularly expecting.

Your website has a lot of interactive elements for the fans.

We want to create a good experience for people in whatever domain they try and look for us. We're aware that's a really important interaction. We want it to be soulful and meaningful rather than just something the record company puts together as a token thing. We're exploring the territory. That's why we invited people to send in videos of them dancing or doing vocals for a track. We're just as likely as anyone to find new ways to interact, and we're no wiser than anybody else in terms of it. I think reaching out to people and having them feel like there's a personal connection is important.

The charity album "The Sun Came Out," whose proceeds go to Oxfam International, found your entire family joined by members of Radiohead, Wilco, KT Tunstall and more. It's still getting college radio airplay here a year after its release. Why did you decide to do a sequel to the excellent 2001 live release "7 Worlds Collide"?

I had conversations with various people from the first "7 Worlds" (project) in the year leading up to it. There really seemed to be an enthusiasm for doing something else. We thought it was worth trying something different rather than a series of concerts ---- although that would've been enjoyable and perfectly acceptable. It was pretty ambitious and turned up being a double album.

You sure had plenty of people to bounce ideas off there.

It was fantastic from that point of view. We've got a studio here, and we had three rooms set up. People were moving from one to the other. It was my dream to fill the building up with music and have people involved with everybody else's work, That's exactly how it turned out. (Radiohead's) Phil Selway was writing songs on the stairs.

In Belinda Carlisle's recent biography, "Lips Unsealed," she mentions how the Go-Go's once partied with Split Enz in Hollywood. Could you guys hold your own in the partying department back then?

(Laughs) I think they were wilder than we were, to be honest, in terms of partying. We were strange New Zealanders. We stood awkwardly in the corner.

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