Tim & Neil Finn on the making of their 'lost' masterpiece FINN
Being in charge of a band — the guy who writes and sings the songs — is a bit like being captain of a ship. It’s your vessel and you’re theoretically free to go wherever you like. But in real life, you’re subject to more powerful forces. If you choose not to take the weather with you, the weather will take you with it. And when that happens, what are your options? You have to let nature take its course and direct you to the music.
In the wake of Crowded House’s second album, Temple Of Low Men (1988), Neil Finn hit something of an impasse. The songs stopped coming and it felt like the problem might be the vessel he had built for them. As Crowded House discharged their remaining obligations — just a few dates of a US tour left to complete — Neil spent an evening off in Los Angeles at The China Club on Sunset Boulevard. Also in town was his brother Tim, playing a showcase of songs from his self-titled third solo album. In his band were Mitchell Froom and British L.A. emigré Richard Thompson. Neil turned up to see his brother on sparkling form and even joined him for a handful of songs towards the end of the show. Froom had worked with both Tim and Neil, but independently of each other. Nothing had quite prepared him for the sensation of hearing their voices converge on the same stage at the same time. “It was magic, about all you could ask,” he told Chris Bourke, author of the official Crowded House story, Something So Strong, “It would be great if they could do things together. Simple stuff, just for the fun of it. The ideal way would be if they got a band together, and a bunch of songs, then recorded it live — have the whole thing done in a few weeks.”
Twelve years had elapsed since Tim and Neil had occasion to write a song together in the same room, but in October 1989, the opportunity finally presented itself. Neil and his wife Sharon had just bought a place on Murchison St in the Melbourne suburb of St. Kilda. The brothers set aside some time in this new space surrounded by unpacked boxes, letting their imaginations run wild as the afternoon sun streamed into the unfurnished rooms. “We just had an amazing burst,” recalled Neil. “We started playing on a few things, singing out loud and strumming the acoustics really hard on a couple of bits we already had around. I threw a new verse into a song of his and we went, ‘Oh that worked well.’ Then we found ourselves jamming with our voices. We were throwing things around in a very uninhibited fashion. Someone would find a harmony, and then a melody would appear, and then we’d seize that.”
“Because there were two of us, we wouldn’t give up and go and have a cup of tea. We’d say, ‘That was good, let’s finish it now.’ Then we’d go home and say, that was a great day — we’ve written two songs. Once we had a few days like that, we had the feeling every day we went in, well… we’re going to write another couple of songs today, wonder what they’ll be.”
The first fruit of this creative purple patch was Weather With You — a song which took shape from two lines that had been nagging away at Tim for some time: “Everywhere you go, you always take the weather with you”, and what would become the opening line of the song, “Walking round the room singing ‘Stormy Weather’. Within a fortnight, over a dozen more songs had joined it: among them, In Love With It All, There Goes God, How Will You Go, All I Ask and two more songs that wouldn’t see the light of day for quite some time more, Prodigal Son and Catherine Wheels.
With Sharon about to give birth to her and Neil’s second son Elroy, Tim and Neil set about demoing the songs with an underlying sense of urgency. Crowded House drummer Paul Hester turned up with his brushes to the makeshift studio Neil had set up in the new Finn abode and contributed spare rhythmic accompaniments to the new songs. Paul remembered that after the final recording was laid down, Neil was too exhausted to move. “Tim and I let ourselves out and he just stayed there.”
Neil remembered a “fantastic period”, but one that nevertheless spawned complications. “I started thinking, maybe we should steam ahead with this, and make the Finn brothers record. But I thought if we did that, it would be the end of Crowded House. Because we’d already waited a long time to record… I couldn’t decide what the fuck to do. The irony was that there was this great musical explosion, but it made life hell for quite a long time because it split my loyalty.”
For a while, it seemed as though the best idea was not to come to any sort of decision about the Murchison St songs. It made no sense to release such a strong album when it risked being commercially overshadowed by the next Crowded House album. At the same time, in Los Angeles, recording sessions for a new Crowded House album were struggling to gather momentum. With Tim permanently based in Los Angeles, a single answer to two problems presented itself. If Tim joined Crowded House for this next album, the best of the songs already written for the Crowded House album could augment the songs written by Tim and Neil the previous year. What had started life as a Finn Brothers record became the core of the album that would propel Crowded House to arenas all around Europe.
Commercial success has a way of smoothing out the rough edges of happenstance and making it look like divine destiny. Woodface was feted as Crowded House’s most cohesive, unforced set of songs. But then, sometimes it takes a huge amount of effort to make something sound effortless. In truth, Woodface had been a protracted merging of two separate projects.
Perhaps the biggest irony of Tim’s time in Crowded House was that it helped alleviate the jinx that had afflicted Neil in the wake of Temple Of Low Men. Even though Woodface wouldn’t yield an American hit to equal the stateside success of Don’t Dream It’s Over in 1987, the group’s stock around the rest of the world was now higher than ever, and the knock-on effect seemed to favour both brothers. In 1993, both Tim and Crowded House released universally acclaimed albums. Featured on Tim’s ‘Before & After’ were two songs which dated back to the Murchison St sessions, In Love With It Alland Strangeness & Charm — while Crowded House’s Together Alone featured one collaboration from that fortnight in 1989, Catherine Wheels.
Whatever the benefits of working with Crowded House, there was something about writing with Tim that seemed to satisfy a different part of Neil. “There’s enough empathy with us that something will happen. We have a chat for a while, talk about a book that one of us has read, and let ourselves drift off together.” Perhaps Neil was thinking about the Murchison St sessions when he told Chris Bourke that “we wanted to take the atmosphere of the writing to a recording stage.” Further to that, it must surely have been on both Tim and Neil’s minds that the co-opting of those songs into a Crowded House record left a sense that whatever had been started in Murchison St needed to be properly completed this time.
By 1995, it was time to do something about it and, as Neil put it, “the making of a record seemed a good way to repay good faith.” With some “fragments and titles” to build on, the pair set about using the studio as a writing tool. The third person in the room for these sessions was Tchad Blake, the Texan engineer who had applied his skills to the first three Crowded House albums. Neil recalls that “he encouraged us to allow the arrangements to revel in their eccentricities. Every problem that came up needed to be solved by us. To spend time with Tim and Neil’s first joint release, was to retreat to a somniferous psychedelic sanctuary that bore no discernible relation to any musical conversation taking place in the real world at that time. Not everyone was going to get it, but those who did, absolutely loved it. Reviewing the album for Mojo, long-time fan David Hepworth characterised Finn as a “warm and loose record” that hardcore fans would undoubtedly “adore”.
Other musicians who sang its praises included Johnny Marr and Radiohead’s Ed O’ Brien. In his liner notes for the newly released reissue, the latter described it as “the record I needed at the time I most needed to hear it.” Twenty-seven years later, it’s become acknowledged as something of a hidden gem in the Finns’ musical history.
Pete Paphides, Needle Mythology
TIM & NEIL IN CONVERSATION
Tim – I guess In a way, the story of this record begins late in the previous decade, when we started work on what became [Crowded House’s] Woodface. Mine and Neil’s section of that record had started as a Finn Brothers project.
Neil – Tim had joined Crowded House for a while, on the back of Woodface, which had actually started out as a Finn Brothers record. But by the time that had tour ended, Tim had left. Then by the end of the tour which followed [1993’s] Together Alone, [drummer] Paul Hester had also left. Amid all the uncertainty that came with that, the prospect of getting back together with Tim felt like an oasis in which I didn’t have to ponder whether or not I wanted the band to become bigger. It was nice to contemplate doing something on a fairly simple, pure basis that didn’t require a behemoth like Crowded House.
Tim – We were both in the same mood. That’s how I remember it. I had just started branching out and doing other projects. I’d gone back to Melbourne and made an album as with ALT (alongside Andy White and Liam Ó Maonlaí) and I had also done some writing with a poet called Dorothy Porter, so I was in a collaborative mode.”
Neil – Our family is close but it’s not without its complexities and conflict. The making of a record seemed a good way to repay good faith.”
Tim – Who instigated it? Well, I think we sort of both did. We were both up for it. There was no plan or strategy. Neil had cut loose and he was ready for anything.
Neil – I was back in Auckland and Tim was in town. I think the period around Woodface had led us to decide that at some future point we were going to collaborate in a pure indulgent Finn brothers kind of sense — that this was something we would set aside the time to do. That was the initial conversation which put the thing in our minds. Then a few months later, we got together to write the songs.
Tim – We had some ideas — fragments and titles, you know — and set about using the studio as a writing tool. Mill Street Studio was just down the road from Neil’s place. The first day we started writing, we got Only Talking Sense. I had the opening line, ‘There’s a wild thing in the woodshed…’ and a couple of chords. Neil had the chorus already. He’d been jamming that for about a year. So the initial impetus was me throwing that line in and Neil’s chorus, and gradually the thing took shape. The root of the song is really just the lurking awareness of something being wrong, perhaps in a relationship, and being afraid to do anything about it. We were thinking about somebody in particular who was in a marriage that’s very difficult. It keeps going up and down, and it’s on and it’s off. In some ways, it’s such a Neil song. I don’t think he’s ever quite topped the guitars on that. And with the off-time drum thing I was really just hanging on there…”
Neil – Tchad Blake was the only other person in the room, and he encouraged us to allow the arrangements to revel in their eccentricities. Every problem that came up needed to be solved by us. Tim was on drums. He’s good, but he’s not a conventional drummer.
Tim – I got to play drums for the first time. I’d wanted to play them ever since I was a kid. It was exciting! No click tracks. Tchad wasn’t judging my ability! He was making it sound so good. I mean, really, Tchad is is the great enabler. He’s an amazing guy when you’re in that sort of mood. He’s all about the moment and the creativity. He’s had some big successes but you never feel he’s about that. He’s an artist and we were together, the three of us, making this thing
Neil – Almost as soon as we started though, we had a problem we needed to address.
Tim – The Chamberlin?! Hah! The fixing of the Chamberlin! In Neil’s mind, this is central to the mythology of the album! And in retrospect, it does feel mythical.
Neil – I had an old Chamberlin keyboard shipped from L.A. The Chamberlin was a sort of precursor to the Mellotron. It had about 60 different sounds on it, which it deployed via a complex system of tape loops. But on the very first day of recording, the tapes got hopelessly tangled up and we were both quite desolate about that, so Tim and I spent at least two hours unravelling them and getting it back to working order, which is extraordinary because we’re the two least practical people on earth.
Tim – I don’t remember doing much to help there — I think I was probably watching as Neil fixed it.
Neil – We can barely change a lightbulb, but we managed to do fix this thing and it was glorious! We turned it on and it worked, albeit in a quirky-as-hell manner, because every night it would have a different characteristic. That keyboard is all over the record — and the best thing is that you were only able to dictate what part you would play according to which notes worked in which key. So therefore it was a strange path to the arrangements. What we’d like to have played wasn’t always possible. It was like having another musician you couldn’t train.
Another important instrument on that record is the tea chest bass. It’s the most remarkable instrument because you only need to hit one out of ten notes in tune and it sounds perfect. Mood Swinging Man is a real favourite of mine. Some of its nuances are very mysterious to me. The loop on that song came from the Chamberlin, so had we not fixed it, it wouldn’t be there.”
Tim – People often say I’m the moody one and Neil’s the happy go lucky one, but it’s patently not true. We do both go through mood swings but then who doesn’t? I’ve been quoted on this whole depression thing and I regret the fact that there’s a perception that I’ve suffered some sort of clinical disorder whereas actually I haven’t. I’ve had a normal amount of anxiety attacks for a man of my age. I’ve had a normal amount of melancholy and a normal amount of joy. I’ve only talked about depression from the point of view that sometimes when you’re down you end up getting ideas for songs.
Neil – We were both brought up to have good manners. In this business it’s served us well in some ways. We’ve been able to mix and fraternise with the industry, do the schtick. But I think that creates a backlog of slight resentment or something. There are people out there who are able to flaunt their moods very openly and feel very unselfconscious about being rude to people. But I think I bottle things up and sometimes that can create a mood where somebody might go, ‘Ooh he looks a bit dark today’ And I do, and I often have deep-seated distaste for the whole industry because I’ve often been prepared to go along with it. But with me, small-town politeness wins the day. Which is probably for the best.
Tim and I have complementary attributes when it comes to writing. He’s good at the title or idea for a song. I often rely on accidents. Bullets In My Hairdo was the one of the first songs we recorded for the album. We’d heard something about a woman in Sarajevo who went out every day to get groceries, risking sniper fire by doing so. She always made sure her hairdo was in perfect shape and she said, ‘I could end up with bullets in my hairdo’. That’s a phrase you can grow into a song — which is what happened. We start playing; I’m free-forming a few things; we both let our guard down and jam nonsense — and let our voices go where they want.
Tim – That initially originated in New York where I was doing a video and this hairdresser and make-up artist was talking to me about this photo she’d seen in the paper of a woman in Sarajevo who had painted all these fruit and veg on her kitchen wall because she couldn’t get them — she painted them for her children to look at, and she quoted something along the lines of, ‘I get home when I do my shopping and I get bullets in my hairdo.’ I thought it was a funny image of a beehive hairdo with bullets and shrapnel in it. If we made a video it would have been Neil and I going up and down Queen St in drag, dodging bullets.
Angels Heap was one of those unrepeatable moments. It was inspired by a painting in a hotel room. You can see the painting on the album sleeve — with us and Tchad’s binaural mic between us. We just played it a few times until we got the take. I’d had the chorus knocking around for a couple of years, and there were things that Neil had which were half done too. We brought these themes and fragments together and finished it in the studio.
Neil – I remember writing Suffer Never in an afternoon session. Someone gave us these capsules with magic mushrooms in them. And we just played until we were incapable of playing any longer. That’s what you can hear. There’s some slight adornment on my guitar, but apart from that, it’s complete. Only when we tried to re-record it later did we realise we’d captured something pretty special.
Tim – We’d never done anything like that before. I mainly remember mushrooms and a bit of Guinness. There’s an intensity about that performance that’s special and it ended up having a surreal psychedelic atmosphere. Tchad had suggested we do some slowed down acoustics on that, so we sped the track and tuned the guitars up and played it so that when it came back to regular speed, it just sounded so fat and amazing. That was Tchad’s idea.
Neil – We were really taken with Suffer Never, which is why we decided to put it out as a first single. It felt like a new mood for us, It was a little more hypnotic but it had a grand scale to it. The way the lyric came about was that Tim overhead me mumbling nonsense as I do when I’m jamming and he said it sounds like you’re singing ‘Suffer never’.
Tim – Most of the album was totally collaborative, but Last Day Of June was entirely Neil’s song.
Neil – I still think of it as a true collaboration in many ways because a lot of what’s on the record we wouldn’t have written individually at all.
Tim – That’s a good point. It’s like some other thing happens when we get together. It’s not just Neil plus Tim. Eyes Of The World is a good example of that. The “Englebert Humperdinck” reference in that song was also out of our shared memory bank. We had this incident in America some years previously that occurred at a record convention, — once of those ghastly functions we were lured into doing. I remember lifts of people going up to the party. And the party must be happening somewhere. You hear these gabbling chortling noises going up and down all night and there was this woman who had a plastic miner’s hat on and it was promotional give-away for some song and the light was flashing on and off. She was very drunk and she ended up passing out in the lift as it was going up and down. Somebody said at some stage, ‘That’s the women who broke Englebert Humperdinck’ — so we held onto that. It had some layers to it!”
Neil – I don’t think Where Is My Soul? is unusual in the context of the album, but a lot of people have said it’s the song that sounds most like a Crowded House song, perhaps because of the nature of the groove. The intimate minor-sounding verse and then the more open chorus. The Liberace swirls make it for me.”
Tim – Even [Split Enz’s keyboard player] Eddie Rayner was jealous about those piano glissandos! It’s so hard to talk about soul. Or to sing about soul. What is a soul? Do we have it? Is it worth talking about?! Should we just get on with it?! I like Neil’s line, ‘You fill my ashtray.
Neil – That line was in part related to people smoking pot or taking drugs generally to get some access to a need for spirituality.”
Tim – The image I have in my head for Paradise (Wherever You Are) is a white man lying in a hammock feeling tragic. Like, ‘Here I am in paradise and I feel miserable.’ The Polynesian element? Well, we’re not authentically trying to capture that. We’re open about the fact that we’re doing it in a somewhat kitsch way.
Neil – Kiss The Road of Rarotonga kind of wrote itself really. We did a gig shortly after Tim had been spilled off his bike and someone handed us the phrase — a nurse — “you kissed the road of Rarotonga.” We just found ourselves jamming on it in this club that night. We were in Rarotonga so it had a resonance for them So we stayed faithful to the spirit of that night and put it on the record in much the same form as we wrote it. I like it. Our dad didn’t like it.
Tim – At one point we were going to make Kiss The Road of Rarotonga the first song . Everyone said, “You can’t do that!” — and we said, “We’ll do what we like”, but then we thought, well, what is the point of alienating people?
Neil – One of my favourite songs on the record is Niwhai, and that’s almost certainly because of the person after whom it’s named.
Tim – Niwhai is a friend of ours, from a Polynesian art collective called Pacific Sisters. She’s been in a couple of videos and she always steals the show and she’s just fantastic. She was talking to me one night about the night that she’d seen five satellites, she had such a wistful look on her face. I could tell it was a magical evening for her. I was talking to Neil about it and…
Neil – I think we were both very excited about what we had once it was finished. It really didn’t take long. Some people referred to it as a ‘side-project’ but that’s not how I see it.
Tim – The thing about this album is that it was art for art’s sake.
Neil – The album from conception to execution was a month and another week to mix. Because Tim and I had decided we’d make the whole record ourselves without other musicians, what you have is quite a pure representation of how we are together.
Tim – In the moment, we didn’t care about what happened next. We toured it, just the two of us, and that was really necessary for us. It really fed us. It was the first time just the two of us toured together. We could have chosen to recreate the album but we went with our instincts. We just brought a little percussion and we had guitars and a piano. It was so free, and that was how it had to be if we were going to recreate the mood of the sessions every night. Sometimes, the less the people you have on stage, the bigger the feeling.
Neil – The label was very supportive when we handed the record to them. We promoted it. We got thrown off the Richard & Judy show [This Morning] We’d been holed up really early to get there. They were doing a thing about 50 dieting days till Christmas and it just went on and on. Meanwhile, we’re standing just off camera, waiting to do our song, and suddenly the show was ending. We saw the credits roll on the monitors, so we threw our microphones down on the ground and said, ‘Fuck this!’ It turned out to be our most successful bit of promo because it got in the papers!
Tim –Years later, I look back on this as one of our best works. It’s my wife’s favourite record of ours, and she has exquisite taste! That’s given me another way of seeing it and feeling it and I’m really proud of it.
Neil – For ten years, this was our lowest selling record, but it’s grown in stature as the years go on. Sometimes a record can rise again over time, thanks to the depth of feeling some people have for them. That’s definitely the case with this record. And in some ways, that’s even more gratifying than having a record that becomes successful straight away.
Get your FINN reissue here