As Crowded House release their first new album in over a decade, Neil Finn discusses how the iconic band's latest era came to be.
For more than 35 years, Crowded House have served as unofficial ambassadors of the Australian music scene, helping to put the country’s talent on the global stage, and becoming a beloved group of musicians in the process. First forming in 1985 with New Zealand-born Neil Finn, Nick Seymour, and Paul Hester serving as the core of the group, it didn’t take much time at all for Crowded House to receive critical and commercial acclaim.
With their first two albums – 1986’s self-titled effort and 1988’s Temple of Low Men – topping the Australian charts, so too did international acclaim follow, with “Don’t Dream It’s Over” peaking at #2 in the US (beaten only by Aretha Franklin & George Michael’s “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)”.) While 1991’s Woodface and 1993’s Together Alone scored silver on the Aussie charts, they also spelled the end of the Crowded House’s initial run, with their Farewell to the World concert at the Sydney Opera House seemingly putting an end to the band’s enduring legacy.
Though Hester would sadly pass away in 2005, Crowded House once again found themselves active during the latter part of the decade, with two more chart-topping albums arriving before another split. In 2016, a brief run of shows served as another reunion of sorts, with hopes for more material and shows seemingly put on hold in 2018 when Finn was recruited into Fleetwood Mac alongside Mike Campbell following the departure of Lindsey Buckingham.
About 18 months ago though, new seeds of hope were sewn, with Finn revealing that he had constructed a new lineup of the band – now comprising Seymour, sons Liam and Elroy Finn, and Crowded House producer Mitchell Froom – to embark upon “another chapter of Crowded House”. Unfortunately, 2020 soon showed its teeth, with recording plans somewhat upset, and a live return as part of Bluesfest being cancelled, therefore seeing the group make their public return by way of a livestreamed performance for Music from The Home Front.
The positivity soon ramped up once again, with Crowded House not only revealing their first new single in a decade by way of “Whatever You Want”, but by also announcing the release of Dreamers Are Waiting, their first album since 2010’s Intriguer.
Now, with 2020 behind us and Crowded House set to make their full-scale return to the world with their new album and live shows, Neil Finn spoke to Rolling Stone to discuss the group’s long-awaited reformation, the creation of their new record, and their return to live shows.
First of all, congratulations are in order for the new record, it’s quite an amazing piece of work.
Thank you, that’s nice to hear. We’re very proud of it, and it’s obviously been quite a big part of keeping our sanity last year. It’s got a good spirit to it, and it’s good cohesion to it as well.
That also leads into the question I feel we should start things with – how did you manage to deal with 2020? Did you get through everything safely?
Yeah, we had the good fortune to be in the studio just before the lockdown in LA. We had rehearsed and written up new songs, and we were in the studio and got rhythm tracks as a band live on the floor, and then we were interrupted in the last week that we were supposed to be in there with lockdown like everybody else at the time. So we were able to withdraw into our own spaces and have these tracks to work on in our own little pods.
[We’d] send files to each other, and I don’t mean to say that work was our only consideration at the time, but we felt very blessed to be able to have a network that was supportive, music to work on, and that we were in safe circumstances in Los Angeles in a good house. It’s the delivery capital of the world in LA, so you could have anything you wanted delivered to your door. We had the family down the road, the grandkids. So I don’t want to be quite glib about it, because there were a lot of people having a real tough time, but our circumstances were good. We can’t complain.
It definitely could have been far worse.
We came back to New Zealand in October at a point when the picture in LA got a bit grimmer. So we were able to enjoy summer in New Zealand as well. Obviously that was the golden ticket at the time because of– and I would say Australia has had a reasonably similar trajectory; Melbourne wasn’t so fortunate. But we were very fortunate in this part of the world not to have the worst of it.
Most people likely wouldn’t have expected 2021 to bring with it a new Crowded House album. However, it was something you first alluded to back in late 2019. At that point in time, what were you and the band up to? What was the plan as it stood?
Well coming off the back of the Fleetwood Mac tour, I just had the various scenarios floating in my head of what might be next and a fresh memory of being in a classic band most unexpectedly and seeing the vitality that existed within that band… Y’know, that band has gone through so many twists and turns. It gave me some good heart for the idea of a band first and foremost, and realising that I had my own experience – albeit not on the same level as Fleetwood Mac – of a classic band and that it could be redefined and renewed and revitalised. Because I had felt that there was more to be done with it, and as it stood we actually had tried to do some new music a while ago and it hadn’t really lead anywhere conclusive.
But the idea formed in my head that the addition of Liam, who I had just done a record with – Lightsleeper – and Elroy, who is probably my favourite drummer in the world (and my son), and we had a gig with Mitchell not that long before that. [He] shares a great appreciation for the aesthetic and the vibe of [the band], and his presence was a big part of what got Crowded House going to start off with.
That formed as kind of a cool idea and I though, “I wonder if anybody else would think that’s a good idea?’, and as it turned out, everybody kind of… eyes lit up at the mention of the idea, including Nick’s, who was the first person I spoke to. And yeah, there was a kind of ‘rightness’ about it. So that was the kind of origin of the idea, and then pretty soon it got down to playing music together: rehearsing, and figuring out what songs sounded like Crowded House in this new form.
You mentioned before there was a period of time when the band had attempted new music. When did that happen? The only real period of activity Crowded House had over the last decade were the 2016 Sydney Opera House shows, so I assume it was around then?
It was just before that. We had gone into the studio and jammed quite a bit and tried to work up some new songs, and it just didn’t lead anywhere. I ended up making Out of Silence off the back of that – a completely different enterprise, maybe that was the mood I was in at the time. But it seemed like all the material that came out of that time, I just found it hard to work on. That lineup was playing as well as it ever did at the Opera House shows. It felt like a really good event, but it didn’t – in my heart – lead to anything new.
The first taste that folks received of the latest era of Crowded House was back on the Music from The Home Front series last year. Now, Bluesfest was set to be the official return, but what was it like to be involved in not only an event like Music from The Home Front, but to sort of welcome the band back with it as well?
Well it was really nice, and part of what we were doing with swapping files for the record and working on the record on our own was that we were Zoom calling like everybody else, and that was the impetus for us to do something like that. We tried to put a bit of quality into that, the Zoom format, and everybody filmed themselves individually and I ended up at home and did the music. The music had been created almost live, we couldn’t quite do it all together at the same time, but it had the effect of being the sound of the band. It was a great opportunity, and when it came along obviously the organisers and all the people taking part in the Home Front were… It was a great cast and really notable idea; timely, well received.
We did “Don’t Dream It’s Over” which I don’t want to pull out too many times, but it seemed to go really well for the day. I really liked the version of “Better Be Home Soon” that DMA’S did. I thought they did a real nice job. So it was nice to have a presence in the whole thing, and it’s one of the great mysteries about songs is that they become appropriate in their own time and mysterious ways. It’s always a blessing.
I would assume the ideas of livestreams would have felt like such a strange experience around the time that was recorded, though it became quite standard rather quickly.
Yeah, and we did a bunch of stuff where I was putting together [material from] each individual member who sent me their footage. I had a good little work room in my house in LA and a home studio just down the road. We ended up doing a lot of Fangradio stuff which just became a spontaneous thing one day when I opened the lid of my laptop, and it just became a daily thing for two or three months where I played for 25 minutes or so every day. It was just a way of keeping connected with the world and each other.
That was also the first time folks got to see the new lineup of the band – which is less of a ‘new’ lineup and more of an ‘expanded inner circle’, in a sense. But how does the band feel to you now that you’ve got Mitchell as an official member at long last, along with Liam and Elroy? I would assume it would feel a lot more home-like in a way.
It is, it feels incredibly natural for obvious reasons, and there’s not three other people on the planet who have more depth of connection to Crowded House than Liam, Elroy, and Mitchell. I’ve got video that I was looking at recently of being in the tour bus in the early days of Crowded House, and there’s Liam sitting on Nick’s lap in the front seat of the tour bus, and there’s Elroy mimicking Nick’s moves from the side of stage – kind of gently mocking his pirouettes at the age of three. These things feel quite resonant now, and what a beautiful thing it is for me to look over.
And they’ve got a great reverence for the arrangements, so Elroy has made the point of learning one particular fill of Paul’s that he was always fond of on the record that, to be honest, we probably abandoned through years of getting it a little wrong. And Liam, similarly, his little details that he’s really bothered to learn – not that I’ve insisted – they’re kind of key little emotional remnants on the record. So in a way, the band sounds closer to its origins than it probably did for many years.
It feels like a perfect situation for yourself, especially considering you’ve not got anyone in the band who hasn’t lived with the band for most of their life.
I think it is, and they get the humour and the underlying aspects. We got on very well, and it’s very personable. I mean, everyone really feels it very deeply when there’s trouble brewing with songs and arrangements and everything. There’s intensity, it’s not like holiday camp, but there’s a great respect and abiding love between members of the band, there really is. And the humour is definitely to the fore. It might be a corny thing to say, but I kind of know that Paul would love the idea of it as well.
Moving back a bit to the creation of the new record, at what point after the announcement of new music back in 2019 did things first begin to take shape?
Well we went into the studio in February, and lockdown, when it happened in March, we’d had a three or four week period in the studio. So we were talking about the band doing new music in October the year before, and then sending a few demos around, and then we got together in January for the first time, I think, and rehearsed. We started to see what it looked like, and then into the studio in February to record. So it wasn’t long, the process.
When that happened, what was the general mindset? Were you thinking of ways to keep the recording going, or had you been thinking it might need to be shelved until some normalcy returned?
Well we had a bunch of tracks record, and they were really lively tracks recorded to tape, live in the room. So we wanted to keep working. Initially, we thought we might finish it quite quickly and get it out quite quickly, and it just soon started to become obvious that we wouldn’t be able to tour for probably a year, and putting an album out without a tour was less appealing.
And we could take the opportunity to sort of throw the album up in the air a little bit, disassemble it, and maybe reassemble it in some fashion. Not all the songs, some of the songs stayed pretty true to how we recorded them in the studio. But some of them were completely reimagined. I’ve always quite enjoyed that idea of working quite hard on something for weeks on end and then actually destroying it and finding the bits you really like floating to the ground again, and starting again. There’s something liberating about that. A couple of times we did that and it enabled us to be a bit more exploratory and experimental.
The notion of wrapping up a record from a distance would’ve been a bit of a learning curve as well, because that’s not something you would’ve done too much previously, would you?
Not really, and god, if we didn’t have the internet during this period, I don’t know what would’ve happened in terms of people’s relationships and feeling connected, but it’s been a blessing in that regard. I’ve been sending files around the world quite a few times to get people to play on things, and y’know, it wasn’t a completely [new experience]. I was in upstate New York, and I was recording an album with Dave Fridmann, and we had a string session while it was the middle of winter, it was snowing outside in upstate New York, and we had a string section in the middle of Auckland. They came in during the day and they were all wearing shorts and jandals.
So that was very memorable, and getting that live, coming through the speakers at night in the snow, the idea of music travelling across the ether is not entirely new, but this is the first time we’ve constructed music and sent files to each other. It was really enjoyable, and mixing like that was really enjoyable too. We were all getting together on Zoom to talk about the mixes, but we had the mixes coming through on a pretty good [sound system]. Everyone’s hearing it simultaneously and everyone’s making comments, it’s getting adjusted as we speak. It felt better than being in the studio where the clock’s ticking, you’re loathe to bring up small details that need to be addressed… I don’t know, it just felt more free somehow.
There had been a quote from yourself about the record which noted you were “afraid of just repeating the same formulas” when it came to Crowded House. What was it that sort of helped you realise, “We’re breaking new ground here. We’re onto something that could be a ‘new chapter’ of the Crowded House story”?
Well the combined sound of Crowded House was different, the sum of its parts. And that’s what a band is and always should be. Everyone brings something to it. Liam and Elroy both are accomplished players, writers, arrangers, and Mitchell, we asked him to take off his producer’s hat and become a keyboard player, which he did, but he can’t stay in one spot, so he’s always got ideas for the arrangements. But everyone’s character was influencing the way that the record was, so it had a freshness to it.
I was pretty determined to make the record sound fairly outgoing. I didn’t want to make a slow, sad record in lockdown. It’s not like it’s a rock’n’roll… it’s not a punk record or anything, but there’s an outgoing quality to it, which I’m happy about. We all had that as the undercurrent that we were trying to tread, so there’s a lot of personality in the tracks that’s new, and it does remain sounding like Crowded House somehow.
That’s the thing about this album: it feels so familiar and yet so new at the same time. It sounds exactly like what you’d expect a Crowded House album to sound like, but it doesn’t sound derivative or tired. Which I guess would be as a result of having these new personalities at play as well.
Yeah, I think so, but it’s also that they’re not all coming from a completely different place as well. They get the aesthetic and they’re reminded of, and wanting to remind people of, some of the things that make Crowded House. The way Mitchell approaches keyboards is so cinematic in a way, he’s always thinking of something that’s going to colour or change the tonal spectrum of the song in just the right way. It’s a joy to hear what he comes up with.
The first taste that folks got of the new record was “Whatever You Want” back in October. What was the reaction from fans like at the time?
I’m not sure really what the reaction was, actually. The people that I knew really liked it. I don’t think it commercially had much impact, but it’s hard to judge that these days because it’s almost more Spotify plays and radio seems quite remote these days when it comes to a possibility [laughs] – when I see what’s on it. So we were delighted with the fact that song really up, it seemed appropriate for the time,, it had the great groove that Elroy’s drumming on there which I’m particularly fond off, and it seemed to show off the band in a live and upbeat way.
It felt like a great way to reintroduce the band to Crowded House, especially given how – again – it feels so new yet so familiar.
Yeah, it does show off the band pretty well, I think. Just the colour that everyone brings to it. I never have really known on any record what the best calling cards for records are, so we’ve always been following our nose and so far there seems to be a lot of good will for the record, and I can’t wait for people to see it live, because we’ve just finished a tour of New Zealand and the songs are really fun to play live.
You also had MacDeMarco in the film clip for “Whatever You Want”. How did you get involved with him?
We know Mac, have done for quite a while – Liam and Elroy are good mates, really. But it wasn’t really through us, actually. The director we worked with [Nina Ljeti], she’s friends with as well, and it was her connections that [made it happen]. She was looking for either a Hollywood actor, or someone that could act a role basically, and have this person who was on the back end of a really big night out. Some successful guy who’s suffering the next day and trying to work his way back. She suggested Mac, and it just seemed perfect. He was immediately into it, but it was something a bit different for him. But he’s a natural, and he’s got a great face and a good presence, and I think he did a good job.
He felt like an absolutely perfect fit for the role, really.
I think he could relate to the sentiment, and I think he enjoyed doing it. I wouldn’t be surprised if he does some acting at some point. I think he’d be good at it. This is just his little introduction.
We also received the Tame Impala remix of “To the Island”, which was a collaboration many wouldn’t have expected. How did this come about, or was it something Kevin Parker was focusing on more independently?
Because we had a bit more time to put onto these things, and we making our own video remotely – our own video for it which I kind of edited myself – and everyone sent their own bits from remotely around the world. So we were thinking about the song a lot and I think it was Liam who said, “Maybe we should send it out to some people seeing that we’ve got a bit of time, and see what a couple of remixes would do.” We looked out at people, and we had some contact with Kevin a little bit, and also Ruban Nielson from the UMO [Unknown Mortal Orchestra].
They’re both amazing record makers and have a foot in the traditional song making as well, so we just sent the songs to them to see what they thought, and they both came back really positive saying, “We’d really love to have a crack at it.” We’d expected something very different, and we got it. [The UMO one] is a very different sort of pumping glam-stomp. It’s very different to the Tame Impala remix, but both of them we were delighted to get, because the song still comes through but in a completely new set of clothes. It’s just a delight, and it seems that in these modern times when nothing is quite in its place, everything’s a bit topsy-turvy, let’s reimagine.
You mentioned the New Zealand tour just before, and while that must have been a relieving experience to be back on stage, it must have felt even more fitting doing so in New Zealand?
We were just excited to play anywhere, and New Zealand was the first cab off the rank since they managed to get their elimination working. But even then, there was a lot of risk attached. We booked the dates, and we had to put them off by a week because there was a return to level three [restrictions]. So it was touch and go, and we’d put a lot stake in it. We got Nick out from Ireland, Mitchell from LA, and then had gone through quarantine which we’d done the whole process of. So there was a lot riding on it, and it could well have fallen in a heap, but thankfully, it all held and we were able to do the tour a week late. And it was just a joyous thing, it was quite a profound feeling to be on stage that first day. We were well aware of how lucky we were, and we were also well aware of how lucky we all are, so there was a lot of celebration, a lot of joy.
It definitely seemed as though the shows got an amazing response.
Well we knew that the band was pretty hot, ’cause we’d rehearsed and that, but when we got on stage it just felt like this really beautiful machine, and the songs were very vibrant and restored and powerful. And with a five-piece lineup, we were able to do things which I hadn’t been able to do before with the vocals; the family vocals. Everything just made us so excited about the ability to be able to play, also in Australia and elsewhere.
On that note, are there any plans for an Australian tour at this stage, or is it still a bit up in the air?
It’s very close to being settled, and yes, there are definitely plans later in the year. I can assure the good folk of Australia we will be there and playing extensively around Australia before the year’s end.
Crowded House’s Dreamers Are Waiting, is out now via EMI, with pre-orders available now.