Neil Finn on the return of Crowded House: ‘I am ultimately very optimistic about the world’

Neil Finn, Nueva Zelanda music’s jovial elder statesman, is remembering his best friend and bandmate Paul Hester.

He recalls the Crowded House drummer holding Finn’s baby son Liam up to the heavens, recreating a scene from the 70s TV show Roots; how Hester taught Liam’s younger brother, Elroy, to play the drums. But Hester’s gone now – he took his own life in 2005.

“Paul is a very constant presence in my life – I think about him all the time,” Finn says over Zoom from his home in Auckland, Nueva Zelanda. “A lot of the good memories and good associations with Paul resonate easily as much as the sadness of losing him.”

For Finn, Hester’s spirit lives on in Crowded House’s new lineup, which officially includes Liam and Elroy (now in their 30s, the brothers have played solo, together and with their father for years); founding bass player Nick Seymour; and long-time producer Mitchell Froom, who joined the band after decades of convincing. Together they’ve released Dreamers Are Waiting, the band’s first album in over a decade.

“I know Paul would be delighted,” Finn says. “It would have made perfect sense to him, because everyone in this [lineup] has got a really strong connection to the whole history of Crowded House, the whole ethos, the humour and the musicality. In some ways it’s a return, as much as it’s a new phase, to a spirit that existed from the very beginning.”

With just one international hit, 1986’s Don’t Dream It’s Over, international readers may not fathom the occasion of a new Crowded House album; how thoroughly the band’s 80s and 90s catalogue is entwined in the cultural fabric of Australia and New Zealand. En 1996 más que 100,000 bereft fans packed the Sydney Opera House’s forecourt steps to farewell the band’s original lineup of Finn, Seymour and Hester. (When told of this assignment, one colleague texted me: “I would crumble. He is a god to me.”)

For antipodeans, those early albums are akin to Graceland or Born in the USA, with the prolific Finn our version of Tom Petty. Since starting in his brother Tim’s beloved new wave band Split Enz (Tim played in Crowded House for a time too), Finn has released seven Crowded House records and at least a dozen others.

Two charity albums corralled lauded admirers including the Smiths’ Johnny Marr, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, Radiohead’s Phil Selway and Ed O’Brien, Wilco and KT Tunstall. And it was the attention of another famous and long-time fan, Mick Fleetwood, that spurred the creation of Dreamers Are Waiting. When Fleetwood Mac’s longstanding lead guitarist Lindsey Buckingham was ousted, Finn was unexpectedly called to its ranks for a tour of North America, Europa, New Zealand and Australia.

“It was just crazy really – although it’s amazing how things become normal,” says Finn. "[You’re] standing in rehearsal and singing with Stevie [Nicks] and Christine [McVie]; with John McVeigh and Mick Fleetwood, one of the greatest rhythm sections of all time. But within a week or two, you’re just making music with people. It was an unfamiliar role for me … being a part of the machine.”

Playing Fleetwood Mac’s propulsive songs kickstarted Finn’s desire to record an “outgoing”, rather than introspective, álbum; and a move to Los Angeles to facilitate his new gig aligned a nexus of collaborators. Liam was living in LA with his wife and young sons, and Elroy and Froom had moved there too – with Seymour travelling from his home in Ireland. Rehearsals commenced in mid-November 2019, the very day after the 13-month Evening With Fleetwood Mac tour finished.

“There is momentum when you come off the road … there’s a good energy for music. You’ve taken a lot in, absorbed a lot. Somehow there’s this willingness to express yourself and aspirations are set high, because you’re fresh from the sound of applause,” says Finn, poking fun at his profession’s desire for adulation.

Dreamers Are Waiting is a richly textured record about treasuring loved ones and securing their future, the myths we indulge to make it all seem OK. “Our generation being in control has really fucked things up,” Finn says. Recording it in the US, in the final year of the Trump presidency, has woven threads of anxiety and portent through it.

The gossamer Show Me the Way, por ejemplo, is filled with vivid imagery Finn says crept in subconsciously: handguns under pillows, red and blue, sugarcane plantations and burning crosses. The album is bombastic, absurd and hilarious at points too, with Finn playing the exasperated town crier, bewildered at society’s ambivalence to its impending doom. And on Whatever You Want (the video for which stars Mac DeMarco) he tears down charlatans and their enablers:

“‘This is not right; this man is a fake!" / But they will follow him down to the edge of the cliff / And if he tells them to jump / They will jump right in.”

“It’s not just the obvious big orange one in America,” Finn says. “It’s not new. People who achieve power through dubious means are usually surrounded by a coterie of arse lickers who love their little piece of the power structure, who hang on to it and do anything they can to be in that mix.

“I don’t normally venture into those areas [lyrically] because far better minds than me are able to express it … but I was compelled, and that song just found its way out.”

Nine-tenths of the rhythm tracks were recorded in those LA sessions, at Valentine Recording Studios – a treasure trove of analogue vintage equipment and perfectly preserved 70s interiors. Eventually though, surging Covid-19 cases forced the band to retreat to their corners of the world.

For Finn, that meant completing the album remotely in New Zealand, affording him “the time to ruminate and dream away with [the songs]", dismantle and reassemble them, before adding in contributions from the band ­– flourishes of lock down-induced tinkering – like French horn samples sent in by Seymour that Finn says may not have materialised under a recording studio’s time constraints.

Dreamers is not a “pandemic album”, but its songs have an uncanny relevance to today’s cataclysms, particularly in relation to New Zealand – a place its people (including Finn) once clamoured to leave for opportunities abroad, it’s now perceived as a progressive, Covid-free, island-sanctuary of Hobbit holes and billionaire apocalypse bunkers.

But like anywhere, New Zealand has its dualities. The Indigenous Māori culture is resurgent, but wildly overrepresented in prisons and poverty statistics; it has a low population and a crippling housing crisis; agriculture is poisoning its waterways; and Finn sees growing isolationism and a fear of immigration.

“Come to the island / Where we can save our souls / It’s just the right size / The world is beyond us / It’s too enormous / But oh the island is just right," sings Finn on To The Island, an uneasy reverie of shimmering fantasias.

“I’m not downplaying what is important in ordinary people’s lives, but some of the bigger picture items – you would expect New Zealand to be doing much better at. Like the environment, poverty and mental health, and acknowledging the incredibly important role of teachers and nurses,” Finn says.

“All the right noises are being made here now, but I think there’s a really big readjustment that needs to take place for New Zealanders to really feel proud, in a holistic sense, of where we are in our development.”

Which isn’t to say Finn doesn’t love the country, even if he rejects its conservatism and jingoistic flag waving.

“It’s my home, and I feel it when I’m in the presence of nature – there is something elemental and essential about it, that’s not imagined," él dice. And having grandchildren gives him resolve.

“The great thing about having these two beautiful boys to consider is that you have to be optimistic. You can’t just overindulge the morbid thoughts. I am ultimately very optimistic about the world, because I know so many amazing young people and there are just so many good brains out there.”

Finn’s in his 60s now and on Playing With Fire’s first verse you can hear the anxiety of living in a world that feels worse than the one he entered: “Lately I’ve been lying frozen in my bed / feeling like the end isn’t far away.” But by its end, it seems his capacity for hope hasn’t been entirely engulfed by flames:

“And some may say / We’ll turn it round / If you believe such a thing / I’ll believe such a thing.”

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