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Taken from The Sydney Morning Herald (May 28, 2021)

'Let's be Crowded House for a while': Neil Finn gets the band back together

by Russell Brown

The new Crowded House. Credit: Kerry Brown
The new Crowded House line up on a New Zealand beach in March. From left, Nick Seymour, Elroy Finn, Mitchell Froom, Neil Finn, Liam Finn. Credit: Kerry Brown

Up the stairs, in the old, green-painted masonry building on Auckland's central city fringe that houses Neil Finn's Roundhead Studios, there is a bronze plaque that pays tribute to its original owner - the Fountain of Friendship Lodge - which erected it in 1928.

Downstairs, the members of a reconstituted Crowded House are taking their last draughts from the fountain for a while. They're fresh from a 12-date New Zealand tour - the most extensive that any version of the group has done in the past 30 years or so - and they're really, really enjoying being in a band.

Today's order of business is a listening party streamed for overseas press from Roundhead's big, comfortable main room. Unusually for a recording studio the room enjoys natural light, and the late sun flows through the original windows and a fortifying second layer of acoustic glass.

The vinyl of the new Crowded House album, Dreamers Are Waiting, has just arrived, and in what Neil describes as "a slight enhancement of reality", the band will present the album by quietly playing along with it. It's also, he observes, a chance to learn to play the songs live. They weren't about to foist a whole lot of new songs on audiences who wanted to hear Weather with You and feel like they weren't at home.

But there's a problem. Neil's son Liam, who plays guitar in the new Crowded House alongside his younger brother Elroy, on drums, is the appointed DJ - and after trying to play along they've realised that the turntable is playing at the wrong speed. A better-behaved one is located and they begin; Neil and his old friend Nick Seymour sit together to play, facing the two brothers, with Mitchell Froom - producer of the first three Crowded House albums and keyboardist in this version of the band - a gentle, genial presence behind the in-house piano.

In a couple of days, Nick and Mitchell will head back out into an uncertain world, the former to his home and studio in Ireland, the latter to California.

"We arrived in this spot", Neil muses at one point, "just before the world changed".

In the way that songs sometimes foreshadow reality, it would be easy to think that Dreamers Are Waiting is an artefact of the pandemic: in particular its second single, To the Island, is a song about refuge, evoking the shelter of a place that's "just the right size" while "the world is beyond us". But it's really about the sanctuary of a long, loving relationship - and its jaunty step speaks to its origin in an abandoned stage musical that Neil tried to write with his older brother Tim. It might have been would-be Gilbert and Sullivan, but it ended up in a rock group.

The album and the new band's conception truly emerged from Neil's sojourn on guitar with Fleetwood Mac. Coming off touring with the Mac in 2019, he says, "I was reminded of the whole concept of a classic band, how it can be revitalised and renewed. I'd watch young people down the front seeing Fleetwood Mac for the first time and it was vital and it was real and those people were having a really good experience. And I thought, well, it'd be exciting to be the band again".

Stevie Nicks and Neil Finn performing in Fleetwood Mac at Rod Laver Arena, September 2019. Credit: Rick Clifford

All the members have played together before in one way or another during the past few years and they all swiftly agreed to Neil's proposition that it would not be "just a little random notion of let's do a quick go-round and be Crowded House for a while for fun. We could actually make this into a really good band".

The brothers were already living in Los Angeles and it was decided that that would be where the band would convene to record the first Crowded House album since 2010's Intriguer. They settled on Valentine Recording Studio, a tiny place that opened in 1963 and was shuttered (along with all of its gear) in the 1970s when its founder went into classic car restoration. Since it reopened in 2015, Lana Del Rey and Gotye have been among those who have visited in search of some old-fashioned magic.

Valentine was supposed to be the demo studio only, where the new band could work up Neil's ideas into songs, but many of the tracks laid down there made it through to the final album.

"We tricked ourselves into not realising we were doing the album", Liam quips. "But we had the engineer running the tape machine all the time and more than half the album is us playing those first few times. That's a big thing for me, being a bedroom artist of sorts; those demos that you can never recapture because often the first few times you ever do anything are the most inspired and least self-conscious".

Nick Seymour and Neil Finn. Credit: Russell Brown
Nick Seymour and Neil Finn play along to the new Crowded House album in Finn's Auckland studio last month. Credit: Russell Brown

The result is a warm, organic album with, to the extent that the images in Neil's lyrics can be reliably deciphered, more than a few meditations on love.

No click-tracks (the meter that modern musicians often have in their headphones to help them keep strict time) were used and the band members seem as familiar with - and keen to banter about - the creation of each other's parts as their own.

"What's great about working with a band", Neil says, "is that you can take a half-formed idea and take it into a rehearsal room with a band and find out whether it's got some value, because you hear people playing it and they attach themselves to it, which gives you courage to finish it. But also, you have things pointed out about it that you would never have noticed on your own. You can make a formidable piece of work on your own that's got no cracks, it's like a veneer - but it doesn't let any light through, somehow".

Crowded House touring. Credit: Kerry Brown
The band toured New Zealand while most of the world was locked down by COVID-19. Credit: Kerry Brown

"A lot of times I think if you write something, you don't spot the thing that's the real engaging thing", Mitchell agrees.

"You can make a formidable piece of work on your own that's got no cracks, it's like a veneer - but it doesn't let any light through".

Neil Finn on recording as a group

Then there are the harmonies on tracks such as the radiant Start of Something, which got its maiden live performance in the last show of the tour. Apart from Mitchell, everyone in the band sings live and on the record.

"Harmony kind of went out of fashion in the '90s", Mitchell says. "But to me, it was always the most seamless and powerful production technique you could do. You could have a song that's really simple, just a single harmony comes in and it's like the sky opens. And this band, with the singing - to me that's the big feature".

The warmth of spirit spilled over into the new lineup's debut tour. The night before the interview in Auckland I bumped into Earl Robertson, drummer for Reb Fountain, who played support on part of the March tour and he enthused about how much fun the experience had been. In an interview for a local website, Jonathan Pearce, guitarist for the other tour support, the Beths, vibed with Neil about - that theme again - the particular joy of being in a band. Both groups learnt To the Island so they could come on stage to sing along with Crowded House. It does feel like everyone involved with this venture has derived genuine joy from it.

"If we don't have that, we don't have anything", Mitchell says. "Just playing music together, it's the whole thing".

Crowded House, 1993. Credit: Capitol Records
A 1993 publicity shot of Crowded House, from left, Paul Hester,Mark Hart, Neil Finn and Nick Seymour. Credit: Capitol Records

"But we would be fools if we thought the whole process was going to be joyful", Neil adds quickly. "It takes a lot of work to get together".

The truth is that Neil Finn, who is eminently capable of being stern or severe, has both a love and a talent for drawing the people around him into a musical celebration. The recording of his 2017 solo album Out of Silence, live-streamed so fans around the world could watch a community of local musicians packed into Roundhead to do it, was a marvel.

Coming home from LA, where, Neil acknowledges, "we had pretty good lives", was bundled up with a similar desire to connect, to do something good. But touring meant getting permission for Nick and Mitchell to enter New Zealand as "essential workers" - and then, when Auckland went into two short COVID-19 lockdowns and limits on the size of gatherings were reinstated for the rest of the country, it appeared the tour might not happen at all. The outbreak was controlled, the dates were rescheduled and the tour went ahead.

"We knew we were the luckiest band in the world in this moment in time, to be able to safely play to this many people".

Liam Finn

"You'd be an idiot to not enjoy every moment of it", Liam says. "Because we knew we were the luckiest band in the world in this moment in time; to be able to safely play to this many people. It felt like we had to make the most of every minute".

The tour was captured on video, and Liam and Elroy will sit down soon to mix the audio. Neil got his turn at video with the mad clip for To the Island, his debut as a director.

"Even if you fail", he observes, "it's better to fail yourself than have some other bastard that the record company found you that fails for you".

The hope is they'll be able to regroup in November to play an Australian tour, but in the interim, Nick and Elroy will be working long distance on Elroy's second album; Liam professes a feeling of creative inspiration; and Neil will be spending some quality time in his writing room upstairs.

"You take a lot of stuff in when you're travelling and doing shows, and it can be a very inspiring time", he says. "You've got lots of stimulation - sights, sounds, smells - and it can really pour out sometimes. So I'm looking forward to that".

But for now, with this lovingly refurbished old band?

"There's not five people in the world that have a deeper connection to Crowded House than these five people", he says. "With the exception, of course, of our absent spiritual mentor Paul [Hester] - who would be just as intimately connected to and emotionally involved with all these people and would, I'm sure, be completely delighted by this development".

Crowded House's new album, Dreamers Are Waiting, is out on Friday, June 4 (EMI Music). Crowded House Live From The Island Global Stream event, June 12. Tickets from www.emusiclive.com




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