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Neil Finn: Home improvement 

Besha Rodell interviews Crowded House leader

When CL Food and Drink Editor Besha Rodell heard Crowded House was stopping in Atlanta on its U.S. reunion tour, she jumped at the chance to interview the group she admittedly calls her "teenage obsession." With more than a decade passed since Crowded House's farewell concert, she had plenty to talk with leader Neil Finn about, including the group's new album, Time On Earth. During their 30-minute telephone conversation, Rodell was surprised to discover how open and honest Finn was, especially regarding the 2005 suicide of former band member Paul Hester.

Besha Rodell: So how's the tour going?

Neil Finn: The tour has been fantastic. We're right in the middle of it right now, and when you're on tour playing show after show on night after night you just get better. It's kind of a delightful thing to feel within the band – there's these little instinctive things happening that only come from playing a lot. We're taking lateral turns more and more, we're trusting each other. Our new drummer Matt's been spectacular.

BR: I was looking at your tour dates and you're playing all these cool old funky halls everywhere in the U.S. and then once you get to Australia it's these huge arenas. It must be such a different experience. Do you enjoy doing the smaller stuff in the U.S. and Europe to kind of warm up?

NF: Well, I think it's organized very well in the sense that these smaller venues have a more intimate feel obviously, and they're a great place for us to work out our stuff and feel like we've got the looseness and the connection to the audience to be able to take any turn we want. I think by the time we get into the arenas we're hoping that the same thing happens. I think it is part of our manifesto to make any show, no matter how big or how small, feel intimate, and to get people involved, to get them to sing. We did the big Live Earth show in Sydney a few weeks ago, and what we were delighted about with that show was the fact that the whole audience was singing at the tops of their voices, and when that happens it does seem to really make the size and the scale of it melt away a little bit. From a purely musicianly point, the smaller halls are fun; they're probably the ultimate size, but we want to take the arenas on, and make them as good as we can as well.

BR: So that Live Earth show was the only thing you've really done in Australia?

NF: Yeah, we did a small fan-club show in Melbourne, at the Corner Hotel, just so we could put our hands up in Melbourne, being that that was where the band started, but so far that is the only show we've done in Australia.

BR: I've been listening to your solo albums over the years, but this album really sounds different from the solo stuff. It sounds like Crowded House. I wonder if you think that it's a question of chemistry between you and Nick [Seymour], or do you think that as a songwriter you switch modes?

NF: I think that there's a chemistry between Nick and I. There was a strong feeling for the band in the making of it, so some of it is probably subtext and undercurrents. There was a point late in the album project when Nick and I felt good about being Crowded House again and we wanted to do that. And we knew we had to look for a great drummer. We said, "We can't have finished the record yet; we have to really put the band together and then go and make our final statement on the record." And I think those last four songs really help to balance the record. I think it was a good record before but it helped to make it feel like a band record.

We're very excited about making another record. We have become a way better band in the last three months. We'd like to be thinking of a great step forward on the next record.

BR: Obviously the chemistry has changed a bit with Paul being gone, but in some ways for this album so much of the material alludes to him, that in some ways he was a really big part of the process of this album.

NF: That's very true to say in terms of the feeling we had for him and the loss that we felt and the inspiration it gave us to do good things. It's not like we're saying in any way that something good could come from this, because nothing can. But we know all we can do is try and pursue some kind of positive direction and put some life and some heart into what we do as a band. In some ways we are giving the band its due respect and giving him due respect in seeking the best possible drummer.

BR: I love the idea of the album being a step forward and not feeling like his death was the full stop. After the band broke up and ended in such a beautiful, positive way – at least for me as a fan, it was a very sad ending to something I loved. It's really lovely to see something positive come out of all this.

NF: I'm really glad to hear you say that because in my mind, too, [Paul's death] was just the sound of a big low piano note going BANG, that's it. I had thought during our time as a band, and certainly Paul was responsible for this as well, we had put a lot of good will and a lot of good feelings out there. I didn't want it to end like that, either.

BR: Can you tell me a little bit about the folks who collaborated with you on this, like Johnny Marr? How did that come about?

NF: I have known Johnny for quite a few years now, and we have enjoyed Johnny's company on tour a few times. He happened to be in New Zealand at the tail end of the Modest Mouse tour, and we went to the beach together. We just sat around and wrote a song, as you might expect. And he was around again when we were in London to record that song, and so he was able to come down for a couple of days and play on that song, "Even a Child," and also on the single "Don't Stop Now."

BR: You know, I've always claimed that Crowded House and Split Enz were, at least for me, the beginnings of indie rock. And people look at me like I'm crazy. But I feel a little bit vindicated with the collaborators that you have and with the new drummer.

NF: Well, that would be a big call for me to make. But you can make it if you want. In both cases, to some extent, it's true to say that we were outside the times. We weren't part of a movement at the time, but some of the people who went on to form good bands were listening to some of the early Split Enz stuff and Crowded House, too. You know, we really were out of step. Grunge came and went while we were making pop music and in a way we were sidelined a little by grunge, but on the other hand a lot of people who came out of that movement have turned up later and said they really loved Crowded House. In the late '80s, in the time we came out, it was a bit of a desert out there. I'm just happy that songs get out and have a mysterious little path that you can't predict. And people draw comfort from them and inspiration at times. It's a glorious thing.

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