From Fleetwood Mac back to Crowded House, Neil Finn weighs in on the band's open-hearted new album

"Nostalgia has a different feeling these days," Finn says about making a "Dreamers Are Waiting" with his sons

By Annie Zaleski
Published June 4, 2021 5:03PM (EDT)
Crowded House for "To the Island" (BMG Rights Management)
Crowded House for "To the Island" (BMG Rights Management)

Neil Finn's recording career dates back to the 1970s, and spans multiple seminal bands — New Zealand new wave iconoclasts Split Enz and pop-rock shapeshifters Crowded House — as well as projects with various family members and even solo work. In recent years, Finn also toured with Fleetwood Mac, which introduced him to people who perhaps weren't familiar with his extensive catalog.

With the release of a new Crowded House album, "Dreamers Are Waiting" (June 4), Finn is starting yet another fresh musical chapter. That's partly due to the band's lineup: Finn and co-founding bassist Nick Seymour are joined by keyboardist Mitchell Froom — who contributed the iconic, solemn parts on the band's enduring 1987 hit, "Don't Dream It's Over" — and Finn's multi-instrumentalist sons, Elroy and Liam. 

At heart, "Dreamers Are Waiting" preserves what's always made Crowded House so beloved — Finn's open-hearted vocals and lyrics, both of which are paired with timeless, gorgeous melodies — while adding a contemporary sheen. The album runs the sonic gamut from urgent surges (the string-laden social critique "Whatever You Want") and cracked psych-rock ("Sweet Tooth," which nods to the weirder corners of the Beatles' White Album) to gorgeous, '70s-pop-inspired ballads ("Real Life Woman"). 

The album-closing highlight "Deeper Down," meanwhile, exhibits Finn's usual vulnerability and tenderness: "When you think it's getting rough/On the surface high above/I'm always reaching out for love/A little deeper down." And "Dreamers Are Waiting" is especially notable for its beautiful harmonies, courtesy of the Finn family; "Show Me The Way" in particular piles on frothy, dreamy vocal layers.

"The way that we sing together has got that familial ease," Neil says. "And I have the same thing with my brother, Tim. It's a joy to sing with your family. There's just some intuitive thing about the way you round notes off, and the way you push and pull."   

On June 12, this interplay will be on display as the band streams "Crowded House: Live From The Island," a concert filmed in Auckland, New Zealand, back in March. "The band was playing extremely well, and it was joyous," Finn says. "You can sort of tell we're having a good time. We're going to be playing proper shows in the U.S., we hope, very soon. But in the meantime, it'll give you an idea of where we're at and what the show looks like."

Salon caught up with Finn via Zoom on a recent weekday, around 10:30 a.m. his time. "I've been up for a few hours now," he says. "But there's still things to be done. Things to achieve in the day." He touched on the process making "Dreamers Are Waiting," how playing with Fleetwood Mac influenced the album, and how Elroy and Liam shaped Crowded House's sound.

Crowded House went in to rehearse at Valentine Studio in Los Angeles and ended up tracking nearly half of the album. What was your cue that the music from those rehearsals was right for the record?

We had already rehearsed a little bit. We already knew there was a bunch of songs that we were playing really well. There's a really strange timepiece of a studio that had been shut down for about 20 years. It's got shag pile carpets on the wall, and not set up for modern digital recording at all; there's an old tape machine. So we suspected that if we were playing well on the floor, that it would be worth recording everything. And there's something about not having red light anxiety. We were just playing in a really unselfconscious way, and being recorded very well by David Boucher, our fantastic engineer.

We were surprised after a week or two in there that things were actually sounding much better than we could have hoped for. And we went into another studio, still a really nice old studio, but some of the stuff we tried to rerecord in there, we realized that actually what we did at Valentine has just got something; it's got a spark. It feels like a real bonus when you get rhythm tracks you didn't know you were getting. [Laughs.]

It's the instinct — and if you can't recreate it, then don't force it. This is the first track; that's when you're at your most raw and it's instinctual. 

We were discovering what the band sounded like. It was a discovery, because it was a new lineup. We'd all played together, obviously, and we had an idea in our heads of that it was going to be good. But the first time you hear a playback of the band just playing naturally, and it's really thrilling, there's some energy about that that's hard to deny — even if some of the details are less than perfect. It's not as arranged as you might make it if you were really studying. 

And then we had the chance to go and actually scrub it up in a really good way. We got locked down and we were in our little pods, and so we were able to look at it individually. Each person was looking at them and trying ideas out. Nick would send a tape over with a harp part or a timpani part, you know. He has no business belonging in those areas, but because he was on his own, he would try. And some of them were brilliant. A few of them didn't make the grade. But it was a good opportunity, because we were separated and we had a bit more time, for people to be unabashed.

How did your lyrics for the record come together? Did you have some before the lockdown? Did they evolve during lockdown?

I had a few before lockdown. Some of them were written during the lockdown. My process has probably always been the same, really. I rely on things that arrive with the idea, and in many cases aren't immediately apparent in terms of a clear narrative or anything. They have a sense of atmosphere, and I follow that as much as I can. They put you in a space, and they hopefully have a character. Each song has somebody that you can identify with, with feelings you can relate to. But beyond that, I am content to leave a lot of open doors.

Some of the lyrics are suggestive of the time we went through. But I was determined not to write a melancholy or maudlin record about isolation. I guess we had a pretty good situation going despite the time, so that would have been pretty inappropriate, actually, to write depressing songs. I wanted to make relatively up songs. But some of the songs are quite abstract. They're impressionistic, I would say, if I was being kind. Occasionally nonsensical. But [they're a] work in progress from beginning to end. I'm always changing the odd line right near the end. It's always been the way. 

In the rhythm tracks, some of the lyrics weren't finished — I was channeling something, but albeit sort of slightly nonsensical. So in some cases, I spent weeks rewriting those lyrics to make them more formed and more clear. And then the last week, with a couple of songs in particular, I went back to the vocal I put down on the rhythm track, half of which was not making any sense, but it just sounds right. So who am I to argue, you know? This is like speaking in tongues or something. 

It's that instinct again. You're like, "My first take was right — or my early take was the right one." 

Yeah. And it's vulnerable, because you know there's some skullduggery involved, and a little bit of wishful thinking about what the lyrics might be suggesting. But somehow, they just seem to suggest more when you leave them alone. They have more feeling attached, even if they don't link from line to line.

As a writer, I find that when you labor over something, and then you step away, it was there all along; it was like right in front of you.

I think the craft, it's the difference between the child and the adult. The child plays for the hell of it, and doesn't think too much about where to place things on a page, if he's drawing, or what metaphors to use or whether they're appropriate or whatever. And then, luckily, as an adult, you do get a chance to edit those things. But you can never lose sight of the fact that the first outpouring has got something intrinsic about it you can't lose, you can't let go.

I like the idea that Liam and Elroy had time to develop their own sounds and approaches before they stepped into Crowded House; I found that very poignant. I saw an early Liam tour, and he was doing his one-man-band thing. He was just a force. How did the fact that they had their own influences shape the sound? 

Well, it gave them the confidence in the rehearsal zone to bring ideas forward to speak up when something seemed corny. You need that process within a band; everyone needs to be able to speak freely. That's what sets bands apart. 

And also bring ideas that weren't immediately obvious to me as a writer. Initially, sometimes there's a rub. But that's what lets light in to the idea. You construct something yourself, often you polish it to the point where it's got no cracks in it. But I think it doesn't let people in as easily. It's like an edifice that you can admire from a distance. I think when other people put their touch into things. It allows other people to see into the heart of it somehow.

I feel like with Liam's experience — and Elroy's too; he's been less visible as a performer, but he's put a lot of years into writing and arranging. He's very skilled and very creative. They came and brought a lot. 

But they were also respectful and reverent towards the idea of Crowded House, because they grew up with it. They want it to be as excellent as they thought it was at our best. They saw us at our best. They want this band to be as good as they saw. So they were very much supportive of the process, but with the confidence of some experience now able to inform the process.

That's such an interesting dynamic; that's such a tightrope almost. That can be really intimidating them stepping in to the band, and especially if they did grow up with it.

Yeah, but I think we've made music in different contexts now quite a lot. So we've sorted some of that s**t out, as it were, and awkwardness of presenting an idea, or the awkwardness of saying you don't like somebody's idea. 

I haven't written with many people — my brother [Tim]; Liam; and now we've all written together in the context of this band. I take my hat off to people who walk into a room full of strangers and are able to think about writing a song. I find that really an intimidating thing in its own. But we've made music together, and we've crossed some of those bridges now. We've had the difficult days where you feel somebody is not getting it, you know. But there's a great deal of love and appreciation for each other's work. And, ultimately, that's what counts. 

There's less of a father-son dynamic in rehearsals than some people might imagine. It's more a shared thing. And Nick is fantastic; he knows them really well. He's like an uncle, but he's also like a really good friend. The humor hasn't changed. I think within every band, that's a really important thing that doesn't get talked about that much. But the humor within a band, it really informs the music. 

It's not to say the music's funny. But a little bit of pizzazz that comes from the cheeky side of people's personalities, that they're able to indulge with each other, really improves a band. I mean, the Beatles were the obvious example of a band that had humor to the forefront. Not that you heard all the time or often in the music, but it always had an underpinning.

It can defuse things, too, when you have that little element.

I think it would be a really awful thing to be in a group of people who didn't get on and had to tour the world together. We've always had a good time in and around touring. Not all the time. But if we hadn't, I don't think we would have survived some of the tours we were on. You're able to subvert whatever situation you find yourself in, because your humor gets you through.

I've never understood when there are bands where the people hate each other. I'm like, "How do you even do that?" It never made sense to me.

All that time spent together — it must be really hard. Yeah. I mean, it was mind-boggling to think of the years that Fleetwood Mac spent not happy with being together. And to that extent, though, you've got to really admire and hand it to them for their endurance and their willingness to see the prize, you know, the band and the songs and all that stuff. I've got a lot of respect for that. But I also find it mind-boggling that they were able to keep it together.

I saw Fleetwood Mac a couple times before I saw them with you. And there was an exuberance, and a real lightness on stage, at this show. I think part of it is because the band is so popular in America now with younger generations. It blows my mind that kids are snapping up copies of "Rumours." But, yeah, I really enjoyed the show with you. It was a different experience. 

I'm really happy that the band all had a really fun time on tour. There was a joy there that, for whatever reason, with the lineup and the crew and everything, there was a really good sense of community. I'm really happy and proud to be part of that. 

The magic and chemistry of the band prior to my arrival is undeniable, so it's nothing's ever going to ever going to take the place of that. But I'm just happy that we added a chapter to the history that was, for the participants and the audience, really joyous.

That's exactly it. People talk about lineup changes — geez, Mick Fleetwood started the band, but they've had so many lineup changes over the years. It's not out of the ordinary. 

It's not out of the ordinary at all. It's just par for the course with that band. To see John [McVie] cavorting out of his spot on a few occasions, and over to the BVs, doing a little dance and stuff, that doesn't happen that often. It's such a good feeling to know that you are part of some peak experience for a guy that's been around doing this for a long time now.

And Mick still has that joy too. It's so undeniable.

He's the torch bearer, the flag bearer. I'm sure everyone really does know how important Mick is to the whole Fleetwood Mac story. But, really, without Mick — I don't know if they would have got to "Rumours." Without Mick's energy and enthusiasm, that band could have ended up on the heap at some point. He's extraordinary, and his energy for it, even now, it's just mind-boggling.

You went right from Fleetwood Mac into Crowded House rehearsals. As a musician, what differences did you sense? What changes and influences did you bring?

It was a great thing to do. Because often when I come off the road, whatever thing we're doing, for about a week, when you get home, you've taken a lot of information in, so it's a really creative time, but often you don't have the opportunity to turn it into anything. You wander the house, kind of going out of your mind, you know. [Laughs.]

So it was really great to go straight into rehearsal. I had this buzzy energy from that and [was] able to work on new music. The one thing we hadn't been doing was working on anything new for the last two years. So [there was] a lot of energy and a lot of motivation there. And I don't know directly whether I was thinking along the lines of this song or that song that I'd enjoy playing in the other band. It was more to do with serving the song and working to bring ideas forward that seem to be outgoing. 

I think I wanted the music to be outgoing and not introspective. Fleetwood Mac have done plenty of introspective music, but the stuff that gets played on stage is all the outgoing stuff. And I really enjoyed that, having a set that's just bangers, really, one after the other. And I'm not saying that this record has turned into an album of pop bangers in any obvious way. But it's more outgoing than it might have been, and certainly than some of our recent records were.

Liam and Elroy bring such interesting and different perspectives too. Modern indie rock to my ears always sounds like it has a '70s influence, weirdly enough. I don't know if that's actually true. But when you hear a song, you're like, "Oh, that's a modern song." And I hear that a lot in their voices. They have good dynamic control, in a sense.

Both within and without the family, they've grown up and we've in many cases gravitated towards the same kind of music. There are some variances, but some of the same things resonate from generation to generation, as we were talking about before with Fleetwood Mac. 

Songs and atmospheres — some of them remain timeless. Some of them are locked into a certain time, which is interesting, isn't it? In some cases it's production styles that lock songs into certain times. But you're always very grateful 30 years on to find that a song gets played maybe in a modern miniseries or like over the end titles of a film or something in it, and it just totally resonates as if it was written yesterday. 

Even though modern record-making is seemingly, in a way, out of my sphere – I can't really relate to the way that modern records are made — there's still songs that are played on piano and voice that hit the same markets, hit the same young people in the same ways. I'm just grateful there's a few things that I can still relate to out there that mean something. [Laughs]

And it means nostalgia has a different feeling these days. I don't feel like you're treading dangerous water as much embracing — what do they call it? What's the word — heritage? The idea of your heritage being a sort of slightly down vibe thing, where you're just touring off . . . I mean, it can be sometimes, touring off the back of pure nostalgia. 

But especially because we've got new music coming through and we've reinvigorated the lineup, I think, [this] added creative possibilities. It feels like all of the legacy of what we have is just really here and now and really helping us. It's remaining contemporary somehow.


Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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