Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Neil Finn's global supergroup

Talk about a fun assignment: I recently spent a half day in a recording studio interviewing Neil Finn for FILTER magazine (download a PDF version here and visit page 10).

Finn, one of my longtime music heroes, was in town promoting an album by the world's greatest supergroup, "7 Worlds Collide" project. Last December, the songwriter took a break from writing the new Crowded House album to invite the likes of Ed O'Brien and Phil Selway from Radiohead, Johnny Marr, Wilco, Lisa Germano, KT Tunstall, Liam Finn, and Soul Coughing's Sebastian Steinberg to spend three weeks in New Zealand collaborating on an album of new songs.

The resulting album, "7 Worlds Collide -- The Sun Came Out," is tremendous. As Pitchfork and others have noted, the album might have benefited from some editing but a good many of the 24 tracks are splendid. (My personal favorite is "Learn to Crawl." O’Brien and Marr worked with Finn and his eldest son, Liam on the song, whose ecosystem of finger-picked acoustic guitars gives way to what sounds like a man crying for help from the bottom of a mental well.)

During a break from recording a few songs for radio sessions in the very studio where Fleetwood Mac recorded “Tusk” (no remnants of white powder remain in the beautiful teak room), I chatted with Neil for about a half hour. Our conversation ranged from New Zealand's recent rugby losses, to Neil's current playlist (Phoenix Foundation and Fleet Foxes), to how the ill-advised release of a 1991 single called "Chocolate Cake" led to a decline in fortunes for Crowded House in America even as their classic third record, "Woodface," broke them in the UK and elsewhere.

Here's a few interview excerpts that I didn't include in the piece.

When I asked the songwriter about the delightful song, "Little By Little," that he cowrote with his wife, Sharon, he responded:

“We just started having these jams. We did last year because the boys went away from home and we had all this time on our hands. I’m playing drums, she’s playing bass and we’re about as good as each other. This was the first one that came to fruition. There’s something about the
way that we approach it that brings out a totally different song somehow.” “It is kind of romantic. It’s also just getting down and having a bit of fun. When your kids leave home, you’re not prepared for that. It takes a little getting used to. Even though they don’t take a lot of looking after when they’re home, you get the dynamic that builds up around the whole family being there. All of a sudden you have to relearn how to coexist and how to have fun with each other. It was a fun discovery that we could play these jams.”

“I remember standing in front of Glenn Kotche for ‘Little by Little’ with Sharon and her on the bass. That was such a thrill to have her playing and directing him how to play, because he’d never heard the song before. He did a fantastic rhythm track without even hearing the song.”

Neil also talked about how Johnny Marr collaborated with his eldest son, Liam:

“Johnny went and played some guitar on Liam’s track, ‘Red Win Bottle,’ before he really had the vocal melody worked out. His guitar idea in the chorus helped Liam spark the eventual melody.”

“Liam now is 25 years old and he’s been making albums for years. He’s got his own wisdom and experience. But we’re certainly interested in what each other is doing.”

I asked Neil if his youngest son, Elroy (who has a great song called "The Cobbler" on the record) is likely to follow the career path of his dad and older brother.

“This is a great experience for him. Everything we’re doing at the moment is a first for him. He’s learning about the nuts and bolts of performing. As my mother said, he’s probably doomed. He may go off and be a musician but he might do something different. He hasn’t completely decided. He has many talents.”

Finn also mentioned that the next Crowded House album will be out early next year:

“It’s a more cohesive record. More band-oriented record. It has quite a good energy to it. I think it’s quite a strong bunch of material. We worked it out live.”

I asked him if he ever tires of playing the band's two most popular songs, "Don’t Dream It’s Over" and "Weather of You":

“I certainly don’t tire of ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over.’ ‘Weather of You’ I played a hell of lot when we were in England. I’m very grateful for the fact that these songs become part of the fabric of the time and people have a strong attachment to them. It’s a bit odd to resent a song which created so much goodwill for you. The least you can do is try and play it with feeling and passion every time.”

My final question: If Flight of the Conchords are New Zealand’s fourth most popular folk group, where does Crowded House rank?

“I don’t know that we’re regarded as a folk novelty act, though there’s been times…”

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