Neil Finn performs with Crowded House at Spark Arena on March 19. (Photo by Dave Simpson/WireImage)

Crowded House and the alchemy of the band: An interview with Neil Finn by Jonathan Pearce of the Beths

Midway through a major tour of the country, Neil Finn took time out to talk with Jonathan Pearce, guitarist for the Beths, who are opening for many of the Crowded House shows. They discuss the power of a band, the power of the Finn family, and the power of a water fight.


Listen to the conversation in podcast form here:


Crowded House are back on New Zealand’s touring circuit, and they asked my band, the Beths, to join them in support, playing the jewels in the crown of a tour like this: Gibbston Valley Winery in Central Otago, The TSB Bowl of Brooklands in Taranaki, and Church Road Winery in Hawkes Bay.

The Beths made our first recordings in a studio we rented off Neil Finn. Really it was just an old lean-to, half falling off, in the shadow of Neil’s glittering Roundhead Studios. The Mint Chicks had worked in there. The team that now produce Benee jammed and bonded in there. Neil noticed my tape recorders and invited me up into the big studio to see his American and Swiss made machines. He later bowled the place over for a carpark and basketball hoop for the family. 

I’m not sure he remembers me from then, but he remembered me from a once-in-a-lifetime gig where I backed him on keyboards for ‘I Got You’ and ‘History Never Repeats’. I really did not want to mess up, in fact I had been cautioned, only half-jokingly, against messing up, and I’m still proud of how hard I studied the original recordings, and prepared all my recreations of Eddie Rayner’s sounds. That night at The Golden Dawn he told me I “sounded just like Eddie”.

So Neil has been there for me with a cool uncle’s brand of non-committal encouragement, enabling me at the right moments, as I understand he does for many young musicians in New Zealand. The chance to open for his band is a highlight that wont likely be exceeded unless our humble band should ever return to these stages with our faces on the poster. I haven’t been terribly nervous for these shows, but I admit to what was hopefully a concealable tremble when I was asked to interview Neil for The Spinoff. We talked about Crowded House, about how the band has literally grown up on tour with each other, and about how the current incarnation feels just as special as any Crowded House band ever has. And Neil drops a few choice compliments for the Beths in there, which I will be taking straight to the bank.


See also: The Side Eye by Toby Morris – In the Studio with the Beths


Jonathan Pearce: You’re in sunny Nelson.

Neil Finn: Yeah, it is very sunny and living up to its name. We’re staying in a hotel, funnily enough, the Robertson hotel, which has been here for years and years and was the scene of a very memorable water fight from Crowded House’s band history.

Who were the winners, and who were the losers?

I don’t know if you can say winners or losers. There was a lot of water around the hotel, and it grew. In a state of exuberance, it grew from a few small skirmishes to people carrying buckets around the corridors. Nick [Seymour ] and I were laughing because we remembered Paul Hester had been determined not to be involved in it. He was a bit … almost a bit scornful of us. He would have on another day. He just wasn’t in the mood. So, he was sitting in his room, just ordering cups of tea from room service, and I went to visit him at some point. He let me in to his room, unwisely, probably. 

With water?

No, I had no water.

Oh, you were disarmed.

But I went in to see him, and his vibe was “I can’t, not in the mood. This is ridiculous.” And Eddie Rayner was on the road, in Crowded House at the time, and he was one of the arch instigators, and was frustrated about not being able to get Paul involved. So, Paul ordered room service, a cup of tea and some sandwiches, and as the room service guy turned up at the door and knocked, Paul looked through the keyhole and saw, “Oh yes, room service.” He opened the door, and Eddie popped up behind the room service guy with a bucket of water, and drenched, not only Paul and the room service guy, but Paul’s sandwiches, cup of tea, and Paul was so incensed that he ran out. Eddie’s room was next door, and Eddie had run for cover back to his room. Paul actually broke his door down.

Oh my gosh. And got him?

Forced his way in. And got him, really, yes. It was extreme. That was the end of it, and the hotel management was called, and, just another, well, not a typical day in Crowded House life, actually, but this hotel has really brought back all those memories.

Did you all have a very wet sleep? Did they force you to sleep in your wet, made beds?

I don’t think I got overly wet. I think I was one of those people that comes in around the side, and sneaks out again, a few guerrilla moves yes, it was a really fun night, actually. I don’t think we got charged for water damage.

What’s the closest thing that’s happened to that on this tour so far?

We’ve got Liam’s kids, our grandkids, on the road with us, so there’s been a few mini water fights from them, but not in the hotel rooms. They’re probably going to have to carry the torch for that sort of behaviour. At the moment they’re doing it in a spontaneous, uncontrollable way, but they’ll grow into great water fighters, I dare say. They’re showing signs already.

Crowded House at Spark Arena. (Photo by Dave Simpson/WireImage)

It’s great to hear that Liam’s kids are on the tour with you guys, as well. It’s really a multi-generational celebration of “Finnophelia” with this whole tour.

Well, yeah, we used to take Liam and Elroy on the road as much as we could, when they were the same age, really. And they were around on early Crowded House shows on the tour bus and traveling a lot with us. So it’s a natural part of their DNA. I think kids adapt to that lifestyle really well. There’s a kind of code of the road where, if they’re going to get to hang out at sound check or with the crew or whatever they gotta kind of rein in their extreme impulses. There can’t be tantrums anywhere like that. And in a way it’s quite good, it’s community living.

Is that something the family just takes care of as a unit? Or do you kind of have people to support you to take your kids along the way, even back in the days when it was Liam and Elroy who were the kids?

We initially took friends with us to help, it worked really well for us. I’m actually surprised. Maybe I’m not surprised, but it is unusual for bands to take families on the road. It almost never happens, with all the other bands that I ever talk to about it. I’m so grateful that we did it.

Am I right that Nick is on this phone call as well? 

No. If I could reach out and try and grab him for it.

Oh no, it’s OK. I just didn’t want to be rudely not acknowledging anyone else who was on the phone call.

You know, I would doubt that Nick wouldn’t speak up if he was on those calls, he’s not shy. Mitchell [Froom, keyboardist and producer of the first three Crowded House albums] has dubbed him the most interested man in the world. Like he’s very interested in everything, everybody, and it’s true. If he gets served a plate of oysters, as he was last night, he wants to examine the shell, each individual shell, and know what the source was and how they get them. He’s just immensely interested in everything.

From watching him and his interest in music, he has that kind of fascinated attention.

Yeah. He’s quite a child in that regard. He has got a child’s fascination with the way things work and if you eat a meal with him, he’s very demonstrative of something he’s enjoying, by a loud Oh! People in the restaurant turn their heads and he’s just enjoying it so much, he can’t help himself.

When you see him on stage, he appears to be trying things out while he’s up there and, and saying: Oh, what if I were to go over here and sort of address this part of the audience and how are they going to respond?

Yeah. He’s always on the move. He’s always got a little sashay in mind. Occasionally there’s a few errant notes that pop out on that account. But that’s also part of the Crowded House sound live. You probably only notice if you’re a bass player, but where he’ll drift a semitone off. Or as Jim Scott, our old producer used to say, “only missed by an inch, Nick.”

I feel like Crowded House has a knowing jokiness and a self acknowledging silliness about it in live performances, which is to say nothing of the very beautiful song craft and everything, but there’s this thread that’s running through it. And from talking to you now, I’m wondering if that is the influence of someone like Nick or whether that’s built into the band from the start.

What you say is true. We had the three of us, Nick, Paul, and I. Paul [who died in 2005] was the funniest person I’ve ever known and naturally subversive in his humor. And Nick, being ridiculously outgoing and sociable and able to be sent up quite easily and take it well, that meant that there was good banter on stage between the three of us. And we started off as a band really, before anybody was that interested in our record. We went on these promotional trips where we just played stand-up snare drum, acoustic guitar, and Nick played bass and we all learnt to sing together, but we ended up playing in people’s lounge rooms and restaurants, and that environment just meant we really went for it in terms of being loose and involving the people in the room, embracing hilarity, and probably entertaining ourselves, largely, with what was possible. And then we just ended up taking that sort of agenda on stage. I think there’s that feeling on a show where you break through that invisible wall of awkwardness which is delicious. You can suddenly feel that you have a new level of freedom in terms of even the way you can play. At that point anything’s possible, you can really feel free and have more courage.

Crowded House at the Sydney Opera House, 24 November 2006 (Photo: STR/AFP/Getty)

It seems like the Crowded House strategy is to be yourselves in that space, and respond in a genuine way to those moments so that you can break down those walls.

Yeah, I hope so. I mean, it’s always been like that. And that’s not to say we don’t have the odd awkward night where there’s no gel and things go wrong. And a couple of people have clammed up in the band because they’re having a tough time. All of those things happen. But one of the delicious things about this lineup is I think Liam and Elroy both, having grown up with the humour of Crowded House and the mentality, are taking it further in some cases. I told a really boring story in Wellington the other night about having watched the sailing and Elroy said, “yeah, cool story, Dad.” They shut me down, and shut me down really quickly. But it was really funny. And I had to just say fair enough.

I’m getting the sense that Crowded House has always been a family. When it was just the three of you, when you brought your families on the road, possibly even going back to touring days in previous bands where you were a bunch of Kiwis, a long way from home, and you kind of banded together with that family atmosphere. I think that’s when the music making is at its best, right? When you kind of feel like a family and that means you have this love for each other. I think that that means that you’ll carry each other and the mission of what you’re doing through difficult times. You carry it through disagreements with each other.

Yeah. You know exactly what I’m talking about, I’m sure. ‘Cause your band has now been through a range of experiences. And I don’t know, obviously the nuances of the Beths are going to be different to ours, but unless there is a regard and an affection for each other and a sense of brotherhood, sisterhood, whatever, I don’t think it’s a really good time. I’ve seen bands who are actually really successful who can’t stand each other. And I’ve heard stories about bands (I’ve been recently in) who have had some extraordinary moments of misery, on account of losing regard for each other. And I just can’t imagine how you could do that. I really can’t. To withstand the ups and downs of whatever the public or the media are saying about you, your tight little unit is such a powerful device for maintaining belief and reassurance. There’s a lot of things out there that are conspiring against you, especially with longevity as well. I suppose, once that initial gloss rubbed off your relationship, if you have a success and it’s going really well, and all of a sudden people are a little bit less interested in something that you’re doing, that’s when the band needs to find its heart and its soul.

Can you think of a time when you’ve really fallen back on that relationship?

It’s been so much. Such a long history. I think it comes in rehearsals. I remember rehearsals after being dropped by record companies, or management suddenly disappearing, or we found out that the manager’s been doing a terrible job and everything’s just back to the band again all of a sudden. You’ll turn up to rehearsal and somebody will have a new song. And you’ll kind of attach yourself to that new song with a particular fire because you’re stubborn and you go, “nah, fuck them. We’ll just be really excellent and show them.” And you don’t always get a chance, sometimes it takes longer than you wished to show them what you’re really made of. I’ve done solo stuff, I’ve been lucky enough to play with my wife in a band. I’ve been lucky enough to play individually with my sons and other great people. But when you’re out there on the road on your own, and doing your photo sessions on your own, and doing interviews on your own, it’s all down to you. It’s really not as much fun and it’s lonely. And if you get a bad review or something, you feel it a lot worse. So, yeah, bands are great. They’re hard to keep together.

They are. They’re a really special entity. I think when we were forming the Beths, this was something that Liz [the singer for the Beths] was very, very determined about our group, that we were going to be a band with a capital B. I had played in bands before and I had also backed solo artists before, and I had had relationships with solo artists where I felt like I was in the music making inner-sanctum of that project. But it was someone’s solo project. I think I was naive to the power of what being a band is, where Liz was completely prescient: this was the way she wanted to make music, this was the way she wanted to involve the people around her. So, she chose “band”. Did you choose “band” with Crowded House?

I’m an absolute believer in the power of a good band. When Split Enz broke up, I suppose in the end, Tim [Finn] had left, but I kind of decided I needed to start fresh. It was to form a band of my own. I didn’t need to be convinced of the value of a band, that had come through my experience with them. And Split Enz was a real band, like everyone had their role. We were mates. I didn’t get to know many other people in that time because we were so insular. And Nigel [Griggs], the bass player, would tape all the rehearsals, and he’d stay up all night, finding the best bits and playing it for the band the next day. All the things that bands do that are so valuable, so I was a devotee and I wanted to form my own band, have my own experience of it and it worked out great. I sense that in your band. I can tell that you’re well down the track in that feeling now, and it comes across. When you go and see a band, you’re interested in everyone in the band because you can see them interacting, you can see that relationship. So yeah. More power to you. Good on you. You’re two albums down, right?

Yeah.

You got a third one on the way?

Yeah, yeah.

Yeah. The best is yet to come for the Beths.

Thanks. It just takes a few of those really long punishing drives, perhaps, through the early hours of the morning. Or maybe through the snow, across Canada to reach Montreal in time for the show. And of course you arrive late, but everyone knows what needs to be done. And you’re on stage 10 minutes late, even though you arrived only 15 minutes before the onstage time might’ve been. And you build up a thick skin around the group of you, where you think “we can deal with anything” after that.

Yeah. Some of my best gigs that I remember were after really punishingly long, horrible days, and you go, “well, shit, I’m not going to have suffered that without getting the pay-off.” And you put that in the bank as part of your soulfulness in the end. It’s really worth it.

The Beths accept the Album of the Year award from Jesse Mulligan at the 2020 Aotearoa Music Awards. (Photo: Stijl Ltd)

Do you have this kind of relationship with Mitchell Froom, who’s joined you on keyboards for this tour? I’m wondering if Mitchell Froom’s kind of like a fifth Beatle within the band.

He’s a great musician. It’s been amazing to have him on stage with us, knowing of course that he’s deeply ingrained in the first three albums, as a player and a producer, but we never had him on the road. We asked him to join, but he wanted to be a producer. Fair enough. He didn’t see himself as a performer. He is having the time of his life right now. You make decisions making a record where you really put your best into getting these cool little ideas, sometimes worked on over a day or two. And then when you get out on the road, you kind of let some of the nuances go, because it’s “I don’t really know how we did that.” At the moment we’ve got this joy of hearing the exact part that we played, rendered really well on [keyboards…] B3s and Wurlitzers and stuff, and I’m just loving it. 

And it’s inspired Elroy and Liam to dig deep into those arrangements, to find little things that they’d never heard us do before. So, Elroy’s doing a couple of Hessie’s [Paul Hester’s] fills, that I think Paul probably just stopped doing, he probably forgot what they were. There’s a real joy in that. You don’t know if the audience is noticing, but I get a feeling that there’s a few little “hairs on the back of the neck” moments for people. And they don’t probably know what they’re hearing, they’re just getting something that’s really touching a nerve.

Are you playing some of the same instruments even that were used for recordings?

Yeah. I mean I’m playing my gold top [Gibson electric guitar] a lot more than I have for years because I used it a lot on some of those early records. So it just sounds right.

I love this pursuit of really delving into an album and really extending your ears to try and hear the details that were performed and conceived in those moments. And then I feel like in trying to recreate them, you’re doomed to failure. That this is just a fact of playing music and creating art that should just be completely embraced. You’re never going to sound like that person did in that moment. Even if you’re playing the identical notes, you can’t help but sound like yourself. 

The aim shouldn’t be to sound exactly like the record; it’s to sort of make that your muscle memory position, and then to try and forget everything. So you can get to the point where you don’t actually have to think about it any more. At that point, there is an opportunity to improve on any given night. Then you can actually mine a mistake. Quite often on the road you reach a point with the songs where you go, “shit, we should’ve recorded it now.” Cause we’re just really nailing it. And that’s probably inevitable, the band just gets sharper and better. I think you can really beat the record, but I love the process of being respectful, or reverent about, the records. 

Actually a good example of that is when I did the Fleetwood Mac tour: for years and years, they’ve done ‘Landslide’ with just Lindsey [Buckingham] and Stevie [Nicks], he played the acoustic guitar for her, and it was a great theatrical moment. There’s a lovely little bit of filigree [on the recorded version], the guitar solo is very sweet and it has an electric guitar on the record, but he would just do a sort of an approximation of it on the acoustic and it was fine. But when we toured it, Neale Heywood, who’s always been their backup guitarist, did the exact record solo, and I was playing the guitar for Stevie at the time, and you could see the audience, and the ones who’ve been to lots of shows, kind of give a little gasp, like they didn’t expect to hear that. So it made me realise that some of that stuff is worth being reverent towards. I mean, on the other hand, jeez, we got into the habit with Crowded House of being loose as hell.

And in the set that you’re playing at the moment you play ‘Pineapple Head’ and Liam plays the most incredible guitar solo, on an idiosyncratic vintage instrument that does not look like an easy horse to muster.

It’s not that easy to play, but yeah, that was a great solo, it’s a really tough song to solo on, so we actually spent time in rehearsal playing it over and over, just that part, to give him a chance to absorb it. Because it changes from major to minor all the time. And there’s so much potential for major spills.

I have another highlight of the show. You’re setting out to add a cover to a set that is already full of songs that will be classic for people, that will have a deep resonance. People will have that sense memory for these songs, of where they might’ve been when they heard them. You’re going to take a set like that, and you’re going to add a cover to it. What goes into the decision making there?

Well, obviously you’re referring to ‘Heroes’ and I think it’s already been mentioned in reviews, so I don’t think we’re letting any cat out of the bag. When we were in lockdown and we were in LA, I was doing like a daily Fangradio thing, I called it, and I just did a couple of covers and one of which was ‘Heroes’ and we filmed it at the time and I’d put it up online. It just got a really big response and a lot of people really liked it and I realised I could sing it. I love the song and it felt kind of appropriate for the time, as an exaltation, to everybody.

Yeah it’s a resonant song. Why is it such a resonant song right now? I feel like it’s the emotional pitch of it, it has like a determination and also a bit of a desperation.

Well, against the system. It has that underpinning of being by the wall and love conquering all, even for a moment. And so it does feel connected to the time. It’s just a fucking great song. And I knew we could play it well as well. So we tried it one day at rehearsal and it immediately felt like, “yeah, actually, we can really, we can put this across.” And I love doing it. So having just played ‘Chocolate Cake’ we want people to think, “Oh, do they know what they’re doing here?” And then obviously once the band kicks in, people realise “they know they’re doing”.

That’s such a powerful juxtaposition. I have one more slightly irreverent question that you’ll hopefully take respectfully. You really are sharing Crowded House with the next generation of the family. I feel like there will be people out there who will always want Crowded House and always need Crowded House, and I’m wondering if in your mind, it could ever be like one of the classic Motown bands that is still touring in 2021, even though the members of the touring band have perhaps “adjacent relationships” with the original recordings?

Like a franchise.

I wouldn’t have used that word, but …

Well, I think we should put three of them out on the road. Liam can take one, Elroy can have the other, we have Buddy and Manaia [Liam’s kids] on the way, you know, give them another 15 years, they could have one. Yeah. As long as there’s one Finn in each band, why not? Send four of them out.

That’s very generous.

It’s a really funny thought. I can’t see it beyond one band, but, if they can wheel me out for two songs a night, and I’m just coming out in my jammies, I’ll be right.

What do you want to be wheeled out for, if you have to be wrapped in cotton wool until those two songs?

It’d probably have to be ‘Four Seasons’, because it’s easy to sing, and maybe ‘Better Be Home Soon’ or something. Just ’cause it’s appropriate for an old folks home: Better get Dad home soon. I’d have to still get my hair right, though.




The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.