Crowded House's Neil Finn: The most debauched we got was water fights

By Mark Savage
BBC music reporter

Published
image copyrightGetty Images
image captionCrowded House are one of the few bands to have gone on tour this year

Three years ago, Crowded House frontman Neil Finn was asked to join Fleetwood Mac after their core songwriter and guitarist Lindsey Buckingham was unceremoniously fired.

The phone call came as he was getting ready for a series of solo shows in his native New Zealand. Stunned, he walked into the rehearsal studio and asked his band what he should do.

"We had to encourage him to go over and have a jam, to be honest," his son Liam later recalled, "because I think it was quite an overwhelming prospect."

A few days later, Finn got on a plane to Hawaii and started two months of rehearsals with one of rock's most storied and successful bands.

"It was immediately obvious that it was going to be a riotously good time," he tells the BBC.

Nonetheless, he wasn't sure what to expect when he walked on stage with Stevie Nicks and Mick Fleetwood for the first time in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in October 2018.

"I had no idea whether I was going to have a half a dozen Lindsey fans poking their tongues out. But that didn't happen, luckily.

"Only once did I have someone in the front row with a Lindsey T-shirt on, pointing at it in front of me - but by halfway through the show they were jigging around like everyone else."

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionFinn played Landslide with Stevie Nicks on every date of the Fleetwood Mac tour

But Finn wasn't drafted in to the band as a mere stand-in.

As well as singing Rumours-era classics like The Chain and Second Hand News, he duetted with Nicks every night on a stripped-back, acoustic version of Crowded House's Don't Dream It's Over. And every night, an enraptured Nicks would tell the crowd "songs like that only come along once in a lifetime".

"She actually started off saying once in a million years," laughs Finn. "I had to remind her that would include Mozart and the Beatles and Boyz II Men - but no, she was extremely generous with her praise for that song and I was very grateful."

'An absence of truth'

As the tour ran on, Finn found himself thinking more and more about Crowded House, the band he formed from the ashes of New Zealand institution Split Enz in 1985.

It had been almost a decade since their last record, while Finn concentrated on his solo career. But playing Fleetwood Mac's exuberant shows gave him a new "appreciation for what classic bands can mean, and how they can be re-imagined and freshened up".

Invigorated, he came off the 13-month tour and headed straight for a rehearsal room to start work on a new album, Dreamers Are Waiting, with his old band.

The record is full of upbeat songs that meditate on love, kinship and holding onto hope, but also injects a sense of anxiety into the classic Crowded House sound.

The shimmering Show Me The Way, for example, takes lyrics about "handguns under pillows" and "burning crosses" and bathes them in beautiful Beach Boys harmonies.

Whatever You Want, written in the midst of Donald Trump's presidency, is even more explicit. "This man is a fake," Finn cries, "But they will follow him down to the edge of the cliff / And if he tells them to jump / They will jump right in".

Figure captionWarning: Third party content may contain adverts

"At the moment, there are particularly alarming groups of people gathered around power," he says. "And they will say anything they need to say to stay in the the inner circle."

But Finn stresses that Trump isn't his only target.

"There have been yes men throughout history," he says. "Even in the music industry, a lot of the big stars are surrounded by people who are just there to say, 'Oh, of course it's fantastic, darling. You look great. That music sounds amazing'. And they're not really serving the truth, they are serving their job."

For the new Crowded House record, Finn sidestepped that problem by absorbing his two sons, Liam and Elroy, into the band alongside founding bass player Nick Seymour and their original producer Mitchell Froom.

"We all gather as equals," he says. "I mean, if it's my song I'll always get the last say, but the hierarchy isn't as apparent as you might imagine, given the family dynamic. So I think we're blessed in that regard."

The band convened in Los Angeles in late 2019, laying down the album's basic tracks at the historic Valentine Studios - where everyone from Bing Crosby and the Beach Boys to Lana Del Rey and Haim have cut records.

"This is a place that had shag pile carpet on the walls, you know? It was a throwback to the 60s. We had to work hard to get a good sound, and the first day we're all scratching our heads going, 'Wow, how do you sound good in the driest, deadest space, known to man?' And the trick is to actually play well."

image copyrightCrowded House / Neil Finn
image captionThe record was captured live in the studio - until the pandemic struck

Like many of Finn's recent records, it was initially recorded on tape - not just for its aesthetic qualities, but because of the way it changes people's behaviour in the studio.

"The process of not working with the screen is really lovely," he says. "Winding the tape back gives you a bit of time to consider between takes. Because you're not staring at a screen all day, you're looking at the space and dreaming away, as you should be."

A family affair

Eventually, however, the sessions were interrupted by Covid-19 and the band scattered to their respective homes. Finn digitised the files and took them back to New Zealand, where he completed the album in isolation, with his bandmates sending contributions from abroad.

And with New Zealand relatively untouched by the pandemic, the musicians were eventually able to reconvene for a 12-date tour earlier this year.

"That was a rare privilege and a huge pleasure," says Finn. "We didn't let a moment go to waste.

"You know, if something went wrong technically on a normal tour it might spoil the night - but this time, we just got on with it. The crowds were wide-eyed and full of wonder, and we felt the same way."

While some people might recoil at the idea of going on tour with their sons (or vice versa), Finn notes that Crowded House has always been a family affair. Liam, Elroy and his wife Sharon were regulars on the band's tour bus in the 1990s.

"Liam used to go and help the crew help set up and pass guitars out on stage. And if he banged into something during the show and was about to cry, one of the bawdier crew members would go up and say, 'Crew don't cry, Liam', and he'd pull himself together. I don't know if that passes muster these days but yeah... it's a good code, the code of the road."

image copyrightCrowded House
image captionThe band's current line-up is missing guitarist Mark Hart, and founding member Paul Hester, who died in 2005

Was there ever a danger that the kids would encounter some "earthy" behaviour on the road?

"Not at all. I'm proud of the fact this band never behaved in rock 'n' roll stereotypes in terms of drink and drugs and degradation," says Finn. "We're certainly not teetotallers and we're certainly not Puritans - but there was an environment that was safe for a child."

However, he admits to staging some extremely "creative water fights" in their hotel rooms over the years.

"They would sometimes turn quite extreme," he recalls. "There was an incident with a fire hose that was pretty impressive, stuck down underneath my brother's door.

"We only witnessed the aftermath but apparently the room was sprayed with an incredible torrent of water from top to bottom, far more than we even imagined was possible. We had to change rooms after that. Everything was ruined, and there were a few bills - but water is a good weapon. It's always going to dry out, it's not going to hurt anybody. There have definitely been some memorable battles."

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Throughout it all, Don't Dream It's Over - Stevie Nicks' song of the megaannum - has remained a permanent fixture of the Crowded House set list alongside Weather With You and Fall At Your Feet.

Finn says he's blessed never to have grown tired of the song... even if he can't quite understand why people love it so much.

"I think it's a universal sentiment, and the melody's easy to remember - but it doesn't even make sense!" he laughs.

"So the success is just a great mystery - but it's a wonderful thing to see."

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