Neil Finn Interview: Right up until he joined Fleetwood Mac in 2018, Neil Finn felt it was very likely that Crowded House would never make another record. The band’s lineup had shifted several times over the years, founding drummer Paul Hester was dead, and an attempt to record a follow-up to 2010’s Intriguer a few years prior to that was such a fiasco that Finn decided to shelve the entire project.
“I felt like there needed to be a sense of occasion to bring Crowded House back,” the singer-guitarist says on the phone from his native New Zealand. “That’s because I have such respect for what we’ve done.”
But then he found himself in the very unlikely position of joining Fleetwood Mac to help fill the hole that Lindsey Buckingham left behind. “That band has gone through so many changes and so much upheaval over the years, and yet manages to retain their integrity and a true connection to the fans,” he says. “I was witness to it. And I’ve got my own unique, one-of-a-kind band. It became very interesting to me again, especially in light of being able to reinvent it.”
The result of this epiphany is Dreamers Are Waiting, released earlier this month. It’s the first Crowded House record since Finn brought on his sons Liam and Elroy as official members. It’s also their first record since the group’s producer and close friend Mitchell Froom —whose history with the band dates all the way back to their debut LP in 1986 — finally joined as a full-time member. (Bassist Nick Seymour has been in the group from Day One.)
We spoke to Finn about creating Dreamers Are Waiting during the lockdown, bringing the band back on the road, the possibility of another Split Enz reunion, his stint in Fleetwood Mac, and why he’ll be happy to step away from that band should they manage to make peace with Lindsey Buckingham.
On this record, I can hear the the signature sounds of Crowded House, but it’s also very modern. Finding that balance must be very tricky.
Yeah. It is, for sure. Music is mysterious enough anyway. We were a pretty joyous, buoyant pop band when we first arrived, at a time when that sort of music just wasn’t prevalent. We were slightly outside the times. Looking back, for me, it defines some sort of part of the Eighties.
But we don’t want to be that same band now. I like to think the songs can be equally as good. Some people will find them not as immediately catchy or classic-sounding, but it’s worth remembering that when we handed our first record into Capitol, nobody was saying it was going to go straight onto the radio. They were like, “I don’t know if you have the singles.” Sometimes hits and popular songs aren’t obvious until they happen.
How did Covid complicate the recording process for this album?
We were very lucky that we were able to be in the studio just before the lockdown happened. When we put the rhythm tracks together, we were sitting on the floor, all of us, initially without headphones, just playing the room. We were at Valentine Studios in the Valley in L.A. Shag carpeting was on the wall. We got some really spirited rhythm tracks. The songs that came out of that session seemed to suggest the whole character of the record.
And then when lockdown suddenly happened, we decided to take more time. It became really valuable, in a way. I was able to reassemble things, throw them up in the air, and in a few cases where they seemed to not quite click, I actually enjoyed the process of destroying and rebuilding. I can work on something for three days to get something to work, and when I find it doesn’t work, I quite enjoy abandoning it. Sometimes you find the kernel of it, the thing you most love about it, is the only thing worth saving, and you can build something far better around it. A bit of that happened on this record.
I want to talk about some of the songs. On “Playing With Fire,” you sing “My wife is wild in quarantine/The chairman’s got it in for me/And my brain is getting closer to the edge.” That’s clearly taken from the pandemic, right?
Well, certainly the lyrics, yeah. It was a jam that started on the floor, and the lyric developed when I was in isolation. I was having moments … everyone had a different experience in isolation and I’m not the only one to say that there were moments that were … It was an opportunity, and I say that guardedly since there were a lot of people that had no opportunity to get away from a really bad situation. I don’t want to be glib about it, but we were living just down the road from our kids; I could walk up the road to the park at Griffith Park Observatory every day; there was more wildlife to be seen. I was having a pretty good time.
There was that weird contradiction. And it occurred to me that my whole life was a contradiction. At the time, Black Lives Matter was on the street, and I was considering my white privilege. And that song has a celebratory air, but there’s something not quite right as well. There’s an underlying sense of urgency. The drum meltdown in the middle slightly summarizes the song for me.
When I heard “Whatever You Want,” I thought about Donald Trump. It’s possible I’m being too America-centric with my thinking, though.
No. I was watching CNN reluctantly … you get glued to it. You get appalled at the number of people on there defending falsehoods, yes-men that were protecting their own positions of power and riding the coattails of some pretty bad behavior all the way to the bank.
I was reminded that history is full of these yes-men. There are examples in every sphere, even in the music business or entertainment industry. There are people who will never be told the truth because they surround themselves with sycophants. And some of the people are actually involved with conversations with themselves. They tell themselves everything is alright when clearly it’s not.
I take it that “To the Island” is a tribute to New Zealand?
It became so more because we called our tour To the Island. The lyric of that chorus was written far before the pandemic, but it seems to have taken on more meaning in the context of people taking refuge and looking for sanctuary. I allowed that to become a theme in the song.
As much as we were referring to pandemic times, I didn’t think it was really possible to write an album based around such a strange experience that we were actually in the middle of. The references, I hope, will last long enough to be applied to other things.
I always think my lyrics are successful when people get the meaning wrong. I think, “Yep, great. I’ve done it again. I’ve confused people.” It just means the doors are open. I’ve had songs that people have gotten married to, and two weeks later, someone tells me they buried their father and used that same song. A lot of songwriters have had those experiences where people read songs in very personal ways. I hope that is happening with this record, too.
You’ve had your sons in the touring band for a long time. Can you talk about bringing them in as full members?
Yeah. It just made so much sense when it dropped into my mind. It was a very inspiring and amazing thing to be asked, out of the blue, to join a band like Fleetwood Mac, and to observe, at incredibly close quarters, how human that band is, how one-of-a-kind it is. That combination of talents is just extraordinary. The ability of that band to reinvent itself and survive lineup changes is now legendary.
I looked around me and thought, “I’ve playing music for the last five years with Liam and Elroy. We’ve developed incredibly good intuition together.” They are two of the musicians I admire the most, even if they weren’t family. We sing really well together.
And Mitchell Froom and I have had a long association, obviously. He was involved with the beginning of the band and he defined some of the sound of Crowded House. It just all dropped into my head in the same day. I went, “There is this absolutely fantastic potential in Crowded House with these five people that are incredibly connected to the ethos and the soul of the band.”
I spoke to Nick first about it and his eyes light lit up. He went, “Yeah, it’s so obvious.” And everyone had the same reaction, it turns out. I didn’t know whether Liam or Elroy would think that was a grand idea or just weird. But they immediately saw it as well.
They are loving the idea that we can develop Crowded House into something new, but they also feel a deep connection and a real emotional weight behind the work that we’ve done. It’s really nice to have.
Tell me Mitchell’s reaction to being asked to join the band. He was obviously a very key part of the band’s early days, but that was a long time ago.
He just got it straight away as well. We asked him to join way back when we did the first album and were going on the road. We were like, “Why don’t you come with us?” And he wanted to stay in the studio. He saw himself developing his production credentials. He’d only just begun at that point. And I totally got it. I mentioned it every now and then to him; I’d ask him put on the cape.
We did some shows in L.A. a couple of times and he came onstage and just jammed with us all night. That’s something he doesn’t do that often. And he loved it and we remembered what an amazing keyboard player he is beyond his production skills. He’s a very intuitive, gifted keyboard player. It’s not because he’s fancy, but he chooses the right mixes. He just came along at the right time and he immediately responded with a big “yes.” All we had to do was re-train him not to think like a producer, but to be a musician and just bond.
Tell me about your bond with Nick Seymour. There have been so many lineup changes in Crowded House over the years, but the two of you are the sole constants.
He’s a really, really close friend, and he has remained so. We’ve known each other for 40-odd years. We went through a lot together with Crowded House. There’s obviously a deep bond there. We live on opposite ends of the Earth. He’s in Ireland. But the humor has remained intact, and the whole band is now connected by humor as well.
I think the sound of Nick’s bass playing is a very big part of Crowded House’s sound. Liam was the one who reminded me of that when this conversation began. The music just sounds different when Nick plays on it. And his spirit and his energy is incredible. Mitchell calls him “the most interested man in the world.” And it’s true.
He’s interested in everybody and everything that he encounters. He’ll have dinner at a restaurant and he’ll ask the waiter about the way they cook the brussels sprouts, right down to the last detail. [Laughs] That’s probably not a good example, but he’s just one of those guys. He’ll meet the people at the next table and agree to meet up with them at a club. Maybe not now that he’s a little bit older, but on the first Crowded House tour of America, he’d go out every single night with some of the people we met at the gig. And he’d turn up at the bus the following morning as we were leaving, having been up all night, hugging and saying goodbye to all these people.
The next tour, he didn’t have quite as much energy. It started to catch up with him at some point. But he’s just generally interested in life. We would send him into a room full of people if we were having an after-show party and he’d walk around to every person, take the energy in the room down, so we could walk in and everyone would be really relaxed. He just puts people at ease, somehow. That’s my impression of Nick.
Do you think about Paul Hester a lot onstage when you’re playing music that you recorded with him?
Yeah. I do think about Paul a lot. I find it incredible sometimes that he’s not here. There’s obviously sadness attached to that, but also a big appreciation of having spent a real pivotal period of my life in his good company. I laughed more than anyone would dare to hope in his presence, and the goodwill that he spread was still there.
The band was founded with the three of us. He brought a joy and an energy, and a subversion as well. He brought incredible humor. I think we had something — and I believe we still have it — and that is a perspective on what it is to engage with the music industry. We have respect for the traditions of promotion and putting yourself on show and dressing up for the occasion, but there’s a sly undercurrent of degradation and the awareness of the absurdity of the whole thing. I think Paul taught us that.
To switch gears, do you think another Split Enz reunion is possible at some point down the line?
It could happen. It’s really hard to answer. There’s all the will in the world, really. I’d love to do it. And probably, individually, everyone in the band would love to do it. But things get harder. Mountains get harder to move as time goes on, getting everyone on the same page on the same day.
It’s funny. Fleetwood Mac is in the same boat. There was a huge will when we left it to do more things. Not a full tour. We had the idea of going into the studio with the band. Everyone was like, “It could be great!” But there’s a big journey from “it could be great” to actually going in the studio.
I wouldn’t rule anything out. What I’ve learned from life is you can’t expect anything to go any certain way. You can always be surprised.
How shocked were you a few years ago when you got called by Mick Fleetwood to join Fleetwood Mac? I’m sure that wasn’t a call you were expecting.
I was pretty shocked. We got to know Mick in the period before that, a couple of years, quite well. We hung out quite a bit. And when he called, he took around 20 minutes to get around asking me. It was a very unexpected development. It was an honor to be asked.
I thought I’d had a very mixed and varied musical life, being in two bands and lots of other projects. I thought I knew what it was all about. And all of a sudden, this happened. I wasn’t sure at first it was necessarily right. But my kids and [my wife] Sharon looked at me and said, “You’re going to stand in a room with Mick and John [McVie] and Christine [McVie] and see what it feels like.”
That’s all it was. We had to play together to know it was going to work. I went over and did so, and it sounded really good. But yeah, it was a bolt out of nowhere.
How did you feel when you’re singing “Second Hand News” and “Go Your Own Way”? These are songs about a very specific romantic situation from decades ago. Did that ever feel weird to be the one delivering them?
It wasn’t as strange as you might think. You just get deep into the song. Whether you consider the lyrics you’re singing onstage is an interesting point. I asked Jeff Tweedy about this once. I said, “When you’re singing a sing, do you think about what you’re singing? Do you think about the lyric and what they mean?” He said, “No.”
Maybe every once in a while something happens that pertains to it and you think about the song. But not often. You can really deliver a song and really put your heart and soul into it without being connected to its origins. It must have been almost impossible for Stevie and Lindsey to do that night after night if they were thinking about the deeper significance of the lyrics.
I think Stevie had a few moments where the lyrics didn’t work for her. I’ve seen her go on record as saying so. But you just do it. You’ve just got to produce the alchemy onstage and get people to connect with the music. You just give it your all and let them have their own experience with it. But there were some funny lines to sing, that’s for sure. [Laughs.]
You sang “Don’t Dream It’s Over” at every Fleetwood Mac show. When you toured America, there was probably a decent chunk of the audience that just knows music from Top 40 and classic-rock radio. To them, it’s the only song of yours they’d likely recognize. Is that a weird thought considering all the success you’ve had over the years?
There’s two ways of looking at that. Obviously, there’s some a frustration since I know I’ve produced a lot of what I think of as really good quality work over the years. When there’s all this interest on one song, sometimes I want to go, “Hey, look over here.” But it wasn’t just one song. “Something So Strong” was a Top 10 hit at the same time, but it was slightly overshadowed since “Don’t Dream” was a bigger song.
But I don’t dwell on that. I’m actually grateful that that song has done what it has. It seems special. Stevie was giving it such a huge buildup every night. It was hard to come out and know what to say after it. I was so grateful.
I just think to have a song that has traveled so far is a wonderful thing. The other thing I’m really grateful for is that I actually like the song still. I think there’s some people that are in the unfortunate position of having a novelty song that they wrote become their most famous song. I feel a bit concerned for people in that sense. At least I feel proud of that song.
Did you see the cover of it by Miley Cyrus and Ariana Grande?
I did, yeah. They did it in animal costumes, which I really enjoyed. And I think they sang it very well. And then it was done again at Ariana Grande’s Manchester benefit. I was really happy to be present, in some ways, at that moment. I thought it was quite a soulful show that she put on in that aftermath of that shocking event.
I enjoyed that, and I’ve enjoyed a lot of the other covers. I like them all in a way. The song goes wherever it likes. You can’t control who your kids sleep with.
You haven’t sang many of the new Crowded House songs in concert yet. Are you going to do a lot of them on the next tour?
Yeah. Now that the album is out, we’ll be doing six or seven songs a night. That’s a good measure of songs to add a night. Bear in mind, we have a big catalog to get through as well. We just did some shows in New Zealand and we did about three of them. Nobody had heard the record yet, so we didn’t want to impose too much on the audience. Having said that, we made a record deliberately that was outgoing and one that we wanted to sound good live. The songs we did play went really well. People were pretty into it, I think.
You played arenas in New Zealand back in March. No other country on earth was doing that back then. What did New Zealand get so right about Covid that made those shows possible?
Well, they acted fast and they went hard early on. They were helped by geography. New Zealand was a couple of weeks behind the world in terms of the spread because we are isolated anyway. There’s only three or four points of entry from the air. To close those down wasn’t as big of a deal.
And New Zealand is, by and large, pretty complaint. If someone talks sense, and the government did talk sense … and we had really good people on TV representing the issue. People were like, “Fair enough. We’ll stay home for a few weeks. We’ll put masks on. We’ll use contact tracing.”
Also, we weren’t getting bullshitted to. [Prime Minister] Jacinda Ardern and the government were pretty straight about the situation and people could sense that. They respected that.
Are you hoping to bring Crowded House to America at some point soon?
We really want to come as soon as we can. There was some talk about September, but I don’t know we can pull it off that soon, even though I know there are tours being booked at the moment. There’s a lot of buoyancy in the air in America because things are improving. As soon as we can get there sensibly … and don’t forget we’re based in another country. If we were based in L.A. it would be a little easier to plan these things and not commit thousands of dollars to something that might need to get shifted or altered. We have to be a little more careful. But as soon as we can, we’ll be there. I can’t wait.
I spoke with Mick Fleetwood a few months ago. He said he’s on speaking terms again with Lindsey Buckingham and wouldn’t be opposed to him rejoining the band. If that happens, as a fan, will you be happy? Will you gladly step aside to make room for it?
I would be delighted for them if they reconcile. I would gladly step aside to allow that to happen. I’m not entering the arena in terms of whether that is possible. But I’m really happy that Mick has crossed some bridges with Lindsey. I know that had to happen at some point. I know it’s not as simple as that. But look, if it served Fleetwood Mac and its best interests, I would be delighted for them. I wouldn’t lay any claim or put any obstacles in front of them.
I loved your rendition of “Man of the World” on that tour. It was maybe my favorite part of the show.
I love that song too and I was delighted to be asked to sing it. We didn’t do it at all the shows. It’s less known in America than it was in England and in New Zealand and Australia. But what an honor to sing it. And I sang it at the Peter Green tribute show that Mick put on. I was seriously honored.
To wrap up here, are you working on any new songs? What are your future writing and recording plans?
Well, there’s an opportunity right now since we aren’t able to be out touring immediately. And I am starting to turn towards … we feel a tremendous potential in the band. We’ve done these shows and we’ve grown. It’s filled us with wonder about the whole thing. We’d like to get together and have another album next year, hopefully.