If there‘s one unifying thing that comes across about the spirit of the Finn family, it’s their particular brand of dry-as-powdered-bone humour. Back in 2018 when STACK met Neil and son Liam in a Sydney JB Hi-Fi as the two were releasing their joint album Lightsleeper, their gentle jabs at one another were so blankly-delivered we weren‘t sure where the absurdist fiction stopped and the genuine sentiment began.
Their camaraderie in mirth was on display when Crowded House livestreamed a media invite play-through of their 11th studio album, Dreamers Are Waiting, several weeks ago from New Zealand. The band‘s new lineup was dotted around the room amongst 15 or so journalists – Neil and bassist Nick Seymour up the front, keys player Mitchell Froom mid-left, and Liam and drummer Elroy Finn (Neil and wife Sharon‘s youngest son) tucked up the back. At one point during conversation, Liam addressed his father in a ponderous tone, “We’ve been friends longer than you and Nick and Mitchell,” to which Neil responded, “I haven’t performed some of the same services for them that I have for you, though.”
Between songs, Froom uttered a sentence which Neil, in conversation over the phone, says resonated with him very much: “No one could play Crowded House better than we can play it; even though people may [play] better than us, they can’t play it like we do. It has that imprint that goes deeper.”
“That’s what a band should be, isn‘t it?” Neil tells us. “I totally get what he was saying, and it’s totally appropriate for this line-up. Though we never really had a strategy or a grand plan in terms of how to do anything, we just followed our noses… you could call it ‘stumbling along.’”
Tracing the early days of Crowded House‘s existence in the mid-to-late-‘80s, Neil credits “trust, instinct and intuition” with turning that ‘stumbling along’ into the achievements the original collective amassed within their first 10 years, admitting they “went entirely mad” in the process. Touching on the band’s “second incarnation” after the heartbreaking death of Paul Hester – drummer for Neil’s previous band Split Enz and co-founder of Crowded House, who took his own life in 2005 – Neil says this third wave of the band appeared to him as an exceptional chance.
“Something about the experiences of the last few years, [joining] Fleetwood Mac, combined with having done a record with Liam, having done gigs with Elroy and Nick playing together as a rhythm section – just a few shows in Australia that felt particularly good – and having Mitchell re-emerge [from producer-dom to keys player] for a couple of shows in LA, this idea formed about what would be next,” he says. “I thought we could actually make a really essential line-up of Crowded House, where everyone has something to bring to the mix – something creative, something personality-wise – and everyone is deeply ingrained in the ethos of Crowded House. That seemed like a unique opportunity.”
It‘s true that the songs on Dreamers Are Waiting have the Crowded House feel but, as destiny works, couldn‘t have been created without the new assemblage of players the band now boasts. Atmospheric details, surreal mystery, and mischievous warmth pervade tracks like the funky ‘60s bop Sweet Tooth, the dreamy, sweeping air of Show Me The Way with its little glints of guitar and dissonant harmonies, and Playing With Fire, which features an ethereal, building section at the end in which we can hear Elroy’s drums, ever so faintly, as if from another world.
It‘s the same beat he picks up in the next track, To The Island. “I like the fact that you’re really zoning in on various details,” says Neil. “There is an echo of Elroy’s drums. In fact, we muted his drums from the beginning of To The Island, in order to have an atmospheric opening. But some of the sounds that you’re hearing in that transition, segue, whatever you want to call it, were [part of the] live element. They‘re coming through the guitar amp, and the mics.”
Even if it wasn‘t intentional symbolism, it bodes the arrival of single To The Island – an enigmatic little jaunt with backing vocals that slide downwards in pitch in curious steps, in which Neil entreats the listener to “Come to the island… The world is beyond us/ It‘s too enormous/ But the island is just right/ It’s the perfect size” – splendidly. The clip, directed by Neil himself and veteran NZ director Simon Mark-Brown, depicts each bandmember finding their way to a secret venue named The Island via various odd journeys; Liam dances maniacally off the walls of an old-fashioned iron-grilled elevator; Elroy leaps through forest tree-tops; Nick, in a white tuxedo, shimmies his way across black cliffs; and Mitchell steps through thick tropical leaves carrying an ancient treasure chest.
Neil, in a rather hairy scene, rows his way into an ocean inlet and through a small, dark opening in a boulder cave. “That was in Piha, off the West Coast [of New Zealand’s north island, near the Waitakere Ranges],” he explains. “They call it ‘the keyhole.’” (The Maori name for this island – Taitomo – means ‘a cave through a rock.’) “I capsized,” he says simply. “The boat was of an old-fashioned design that’s not very stable… so that’s real action! I didn’t get injured, luckily, but I got very wet.”
To The Island‘s marriage of sound and vision encapsulates the humour, magic, and playfulness that comprises the brand new iteration of Crowded House. “It was about bringing some credible experience to bear, and fresh energy,” Neil says. “It was just an idea whose time had come.”
DUCK TALES AT MR. CHOW’S
During the album‘s media livestream, Neil explained one of the lyrics in stand-out track Sweet Tooth, which goes: “There were 6 of us, and now there‘s 17”.
“That relates to my experiences of school, when someone gets hot chips,” he said. “The smell would draw the whole school!”
But there‘s another more cryptic lyric in the song – “It‘s been a wait at Mr. Chow’s for peking duck” – which Neil explained to STACK.
The story revolves around a virulent bout of food poisoning; Neil was in London with a group headed to the city‘s “poshest Chinese restaurant,” Mr. Chow. “I started feeling a bit weird when we first got there,” he says. “And it was getting worse and worse. Just as they brought out the peking duck – which is a huge deal in that restaurant; they have a train of waiters about five or six long, silver platters, they unveil it… it‘s their signature dish – I just couldn‘t handle it, and jumped up from my seat and ran outside! We were in this private room, we were getting looked after. And the maÎtre d‘ followed me, so distressed – ‘Please! What’s wrong! What about the peking duck!’ – but I couldn‘t face it. I jumped in a cab, and made it back to the room just in time. So there you go. It was a funny night, at Mr Chow‘s.”
Dreamers Are Waiting by Crowded House is out June 4 via EMI.
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