Crowded House’s Neil Finn on How a Stint With Fleetwood Mac Led to Revitalizing His Own Band: ‘I Realized That We Had a Flag That You Can Follow’

The void that Crowded House left in the periods of time that the group disbanded a couple of times over the years didn’t exactly get filled in by a lot of other bands with equal facilities for melody, mystery and tightness. Frontman Neil Finn didn’t give up his gift for those things when he was making solo or duo projects in the band’s dormant periods, but something about the Crowded House banner — as well as the constituency of the band itself — lends a focus that leads fans to expect, and get, something so strong. That strength is renewed in “Gravity Stairs,” which is only the eighth album Crowded House has released in the 38 years since their self-titled debut set a benchmark for ruminative 1980s rock.

The new album is the second Finn has made with a lineup that includes original bassist Nick Seymour (the other founding member of the classic lineup, Paul Hester, died in 2005), plus Neil’s sons Liam and Elroy on guitar and drums, respectively, and Crowded House’s original producer, Mitchell Froom, finally drafted as a permanent member. The band was rehearsing for an upcoming European tour in L.A. when Variety caught up with Finn to talk about the group’s different epochs, what he learned about himself and Crowded House through a sting in Fleetwood Mac, the melodies and themes on the new album, and a publishing deal that will promote the use of classics like “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and “It’s Only Natural.”

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(Friday night, the band performs one U.S. show before heading overseas, at New York’s Bowery Ballroom and can also be seen on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” performing the new single “Teenage Summer.”)

You said something recently that was intriguing, about how being in Fleetwood Mac for a couple of years gave you a different perspective on Crowded House — something to the effect of, “Hey, I’ve got my own classic band, actually.” It sounds like maybe you had some kind of epiphany about embracing the band’s legacy and what it represents in the world.

Yeah, there’s some unknowable kind of X-factor about a band that isn’t easily measurable. You know, Fleetwood Mac are a classic example of a band who’ve redefined themselves many times, and obviously had a commercial peak with the lineup with Lindsey (Buckingham), post- the first band… although there was more than one “first band” as well. But somehow the individuals remain really interesting and the combination of those quirky personalities has made something quite grand, and you can add and take away bits and it’s still capable of being a great sum of parts.

I realized that I had my own band that has kind of a mana, as they say in New Zealand [a Maori word that is understood to mean “prestige”]… some kind of gravitas or something that carries it along … a flag that you follow somehow. And I was also really hungry to be fully engaged. I wouldn’t want to be churlish at all about my time in Fleetwood Mac. It was magnificent. But I wasn’t fully engaged the whole night, which was really unusual for me. And so I was really looking forward to the feeling of being right there at the front and center of something. So all of those factors were part of the decision to get the band back together, for sure.

You did something a bit humbling in being part of that group, but the driver’s seat is where you feel, “This is where I’m meant to be”?

Or just being able to be a part of every note… You know, you’re hearing the spaces between the notes, and you’re not just waiting till your parts come up. I guess I’m used to that in my musical life, so really, I relish that. It’s being in some kind of altered state of consciousness, and if you’re right in the midst of it, you can keep that feeling going and it can become transcendent.

Almost strangely, when we look at the lineup of Crowded House on stage now, it feels like everyone in in it is either formally or informally family at this point. You have your two sons; you have Nick Seymour, an original member going back to the mid-‘80s; and Mitchell Froom, your original producer, on keyboards. It was not unfamiliar to see Mitchell sitting in on keys when you would do L.A. shows over the decades, but he is on board for tours and all.

Yeah, Mitchell is a fully functioning band member now. You know, he keeps trying to organize things like a producer all the time, and I say, “No, just jam!” And he’s enjoying that. I mean, he’s still very meticulous about getting his parts working for the songs, but I think he’s really enjoying being part of an ensemble. It’s a really lovely change of dynamic for him, and of course, his deep attachment and knowledge of the band makes him a very soulful addition. And as you know, my two boys who grew up with the band, it’s in their DNA, and they’ve become two of my favorite musicians on the planet. And with Nick obviously there from the start, I feel like everyone’s deeply connected, which is a really nice feeling. I think bands can redefine themselves, but to do so with such an intimate group of people makes it feel all more special. So it feels like it’s a very cohesive and soulful lineup.

It’s been said that this band is like Crowded House 3.0.  There were some big gaps there, where things kind of fell apart and there would be no Crowded House for a number of years, and then you would bring it back. But maybe this version has a different feel to it for you? When there are no ringers, so to speak, and when everybody in it is someone who’s either been with you for 40 years or for their whole lives.

Yeah. It feels like it’s got a lot of future built into it. We’re expanding our shades and the areas we can go to with the addition of two really good writers. Liam and Elroy are both very, very good writer, and with Mitchell’s arrangement skills, it feels like we’re expanding our universe, if that’s possible — expanding our dimensions, anyway — and that’s exciting.

In the past, it has gotten to a point a couple of times, for version one and version two, where I couldn’t see the way ahead. I couldn’t imagine it, and it wasn’t manifesting in rehearsals, so I sort of stepped away from it. The first time [in the mid-1990s], we thought it was necessary to make a grand statement and say, “No, that’s it:we’re breaking up.” The second time [in the mid-2010s], it was like, “Well, let’s just not do it for a while, and not make such a big deal out of it.” This time I see it as an ongoing thing. I think I’ll be doing the odd project off to the side, maybe something with my brother (Tim Finn), or other projects, possibly. But Crowded House feels like it will continue now for a long time, and we can continue to expand it and get better.

Crowded House
Crowded House

Was there ever a time at which you thought that that being under the banner Crowded House was like a limitation, where it felt like it glued you to a signature sound? It feels like you have found this kind of happy balance where everyone can say, “Yes, of course that feels like Crowded House,” but nobody’s gonna mistake it for an attempt to precisely recreate “Woodface” or something.

Yeah, I mean, all the records have their own distinct qualities. Even in our first incarnation, we changed over the different records. You know, the first record was kind of rollicking, and the second record [“Temple of Low Men”] was more reflective. The third, “Woodface,” is a little combination there. And, you know, “Together Alone,” was quite different again. I hope we’ll keep changing from album to album, song to song. Certain things become more sophisticated because you’ve been doing it for longer, and so your observational skills come to the fore. And you can pick subtlety as an asset, once you become better at observing how music works — and hopefully won’t lose the essence of a pop sensibility, which I always have and feels good to me.

When a song you’re expected to play comes up, whether it’s one of the ones you were doing in the Fleetwood Mac shows or the ones that obviously everybody wants to hear on tour now, does your relationship to those change over time, or cyclically? Do you ever think you’l go mad if you have to play a hit one more time, and then you come back around to embracing it, or does that stay the same over the years?

I can find enjoyment in any of the well-known songs, because I still like them. And I’m lucky in a sense that none of them were kind of one-off novelty songs; that sometimes happens for bands, where a throwaway becomes the biggest hit. So I’m really relieved that I spent a lot of time poring over the songs that are well-known. I pulled my heart and soul into them so I can feel good about them, and I’m quite happy to play them for anybody, really.

I mean, there’s a couple of ’em that probably are less interesting to play, possibly sometimes because I’m playing acoustic guitar, and that’s the bit that’s not as fun. But the ones that I play electric guitar on, you can find new notes every night and you can influence the sound more. So that’s probably more what it comes down to, rather than the song itself. Actually, having said that, I play acoustic guitar half the night, and I’m quite happy to. But I do love it when I can get the old electric out and me and Liam can go wailing together.

The single, as we understand it, went through a title change. It was originally called “Life’s Imitation” and it took a young family member to change it to “Teenage Summer”?

It took my grandson to point it out, actually. Because he was singing it one day when I was on FaceTime with him, and, and he said, “I really liked that song, papa… ‘Teenage Summer.’” And I went, dang … this seemed entirely obvious, that suddenly that he’d picked out the key moment of the song, and the children might have to be heard. So I made a late call to change the title. I might’ve been subtly afraid in the early stages that it was a bit too Katy Perry or something to call a song “Teenage Summer.” But, you know, why should young people have all the fun? … I think there’s other hooks in the song, so I didn’t really figure out that that was the one, but that’s the moment that he really related to. And he is only 5 years old, so I figured, does he know what a teenage summer is? But there’s something about that that resonates for people, and certainly a lot of people have said to me since that it sparks some kind of nostalgic yearning, which is cool. You know, I’ll take anything if it makes you feel it.

There are a few songs on the album, like “All That I Can Ever Own,” that seem to refer to a child or a grandchild maybe just the sense of childhood. And there seems to be a real sense of kind of generationality in some of these songs. When you sing, “Every child is a mystic having visions of a new dawn”…

Well, I am particularly interested in the way that children think, and trying to keep up within myself a childlike view. Certainly with making music, being childlike in the way you approach it, to start with, is always a good idea. And then to be able to apply the reason of an adult to the editing of those ideas, that’s where the sweet spot is, if you get it right.

“Oh Hi” in particular came about lyrically through my involvement with So They Can, a charity that has been building some schools in Kenya and Tanzania, very successfully, and it’s become a really amazing thing where 40,000 kids have been gone through these schools now. I’m gonna go and meet them in July. Well, not all of them, but I’m gonna go to the schools and (perform) songs to highlight my attachment to them and my fascination with them and how amazing they are, what potential is there.

So, yeah, there is a focus on children. And certainly “All I Can Ever Own” is set, in my mind, in the car on the way home from the hospital with this new human being that you are about to really draw into yourself and get to know. And then, the inevitable process of letting it go, as well — that’s a fascinating theme, to my mind.

The new record starts with “Magic Piano,” and the album title, “Gravity Stairs,” takes its name from one of the lyrics. It feels like a slightly tricky song, in a way — tricky, but catchy, which is sort of your way.

Yeah — through life. I think it’s representative of a certain mentality that we have always had, and just with this record, of having some twists and turns and freedom in the way that the instruments are expressing themselves. I think the way Nick and Liam were playing together was like a really melodic little dance. The bass is particularly melodic in that song. They’re unusual chords, and the shifts from minor to major allow some really unusual atmospheres to emerge. It had an unusual structure that took us a while to figure out… I don’t know if I’ve told you too much or not enough!

It’s in the tradition of your unusual chord changes that feel sort of inevitable and sort of surprising at the same time. That feels like a particular gift you have.

I’m with you. I like that too. … The title “Magic Piano” comes from a children’s radio show — I don’t know if you knew that — but it’s just a title. There’s a really great little kids’ story about a kid who hates practicing piano, and his piano starts to talk to him, and then he becomes able to play incredible things on his piano because the piano is sort of doing it all. And so some of the theme was sparked by that. But then, it is a genuinely a genuine love song to my piano. It’s also got other things to it, about music in general — just the effort to achieve lightness and elevation, and how magical that the whole thing is. I suppose I’m also stating my absolute devotion to melody as the lead — how it takes the lead part in my own relationship with music.

A common characteristic of many of your songs is the dance between the light and the dark. They can be bright and cheerful and then there is this undercurrent of doubt that might just become prevalent in the bridge or something, like in “Something So Strong.” So in a new song like “All That I Can Ever Own,” it’s upbeat and positive in a way, but suddenly we get “I might push her away if I’m not careful.” That feels so Neil Finn, in a way, to have that little turn where it doesn’t totally subvert the song, but there’s this sense of how things could go wrong.

Well, I’m interested in that little space in-between. You know, we all obviously need to be able to assert some positivity in order to interact with the world, but there isn’t a human being who…  Well, it may be that there are a few people who’ve got an excess of serotonin in their brain that can sail through life with not a care in the world. But most of us have got doubts lurking. And the whole thing about life and falling in love with people and loving people and attaching yourself is ultimately knowing that that’s not gonna last forever. You know, that is something quintessential in our experience of life. So, to be able to mine that or conjure that up in a song is pretty powerful, I think. And I don’t always achieve it, but… that’s what I’m going for, anyway.

To go from the sublime to the business-like… you were in headlines recently with making a deal with Primary Wave for your publishing, which is the kind of deal so many songwriters of a certain stature and catalog are making. Is there like a level of security in that it sort of allows you to really follow your arrow wherever it leads, without having to worry about being as commercial at every moment?

Security’s not quite the right word for me. Simplicity is definitely part of it, and the idea that people really do care about my songs. I wouldn’t have ventured forth if I didn’t sense a genuine desire for them to really make the songs work on a broad basis. The idea they’re out there working for them is gonna be a benefit to me, to the band, and hopefully the songs themselves. And I have no obligations to manage the business of them, which in a way is the burdensome part. You know, as much as people say, “Ah, you’ve got to own your songs” and all that sort of stuff, it actually just means you’re hiring accountants and getting daily correspondence about how songs should be used, how splits should be administered, commissions paid, all that sort of stuff. I’m giving you a fairly comprehensive description of my thinking. But there’s something really lovely and simple about having somebody else taking care of it, and I’m confident they’re taking care of it in a really good way. So I’ll just get on and sing them and, you know, they’re out there in the world anyway. They belong to everybody, in a way. But somebody’s taking care of it.

I’ve got big aspirations for what I might do with the money that they’ve given me as well. I want to do really good things with that, so it gives me an opportunity to reach a little bit further than I could do. I’ve done well and it’s not that I feel like I’m gonna run out of money — that was not my motivation. But I think I can do good things with that money, while I’m got the energy to make good things happen, you know?

Crowded House’s Gravity Stairs Tour North American Dates:

August 29             Saint Augustine, FL       The Saint Augustine Amphitheatre
August 30             Atlanta, GA                    Cadence Bank Amphitheatre at Chastain Park
August 31             Cary, NC                        Koka Booth Amphitheatre
September 3         Vienna, VA                    Wolf Trap
September 4         New York, NY                The Rooftop at Pier 17
September 7         Atlantic City, NJ             Ocean Casino Resort
September 8         Niagara Falls, ON          Fallsview Casino
September 10       Huber Heights, OH        Rose Music Center at the Heights
September 11       Highland Park, IL           Ravinia Festival
September 13       Omaha, NE                    The Astro Amphitheater
September 14       Waite Park, MN              The Ledge Amphitheater
September 17       Vail, CO                           Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater
September 18        Salt Lake City, UT          Red Butte Garden
September 21        Woodinville, WA             Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery
September 22        Bend, OR                       Hayden Homes Amphitheater
September 24        Santa Rosa, CA             Luther Burbank Center for the Arts
September 25        Saratoga, CA                 The Mountain Winery
September 27        Dana Point, CA              Ohana Festival
September 28        Paso Robles, CA            Vina Robles Amphitheatre

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