It might only be a temporary home, yet Neil Finn is so glad to be living in the USA. His house is crowded again.
Well, actually, at the moment, just days before the start of Crowded House's North American tour, he's chatting from a hotel room in New York. Finn and his wife Sharon were planning to share a rented apartment with longtime bandmate Nick Seymour, whose family had just arrived from their home in Dublin, Ireland. But the building at 240 East Houston Street on the Lower East Side caught fire July 8, less than 24 hours before he made this phone call.
No injuries were reported, but water from the fire hoses caused enough damage to send the Crowded House-guests packing. This isn't exactly the burning desire Finn was expecting from America.
Just another day in the life of a traveling rock star. No worries, goes the expression that spread from Down Under into our everyday pop culture lexicon. On Finn's immediate agenda was a July 12 show in Toronto, kicking off a nine-week road trip that includes a two-week break in August. The day after that first show came the U.S. release of studio album No. 6 from the formidable band Finn fronts. Intriguer (Fantasy Records), Crowded House's first record in three years, includes 10 splendid power pop concoctions, all penned by Finn, who co-produced with Jim Scott (Wilco).
Not interested in going out in a blaze of glory, a relieved and relaxed Finn makes light of this dramatic experience in New York's hellish kitchen. In a wry, dry manner for which he is now known, he deadpans, "Yeah, first a heat wave, then a fire. There'll be a plague next."
Such a near-disastrous disturbance hardly seems to faze Finn, though, even for a New York minute. "We feel quite lucky, really," he says about his summer-in-the-city adventure. But he might as well have been discussing his career, one that began for him back home in New Zealand in 1977, then took various twists and turns when he broke out as a member of the quirky but brilliant Split Enz.
Graduating to superstar status in 1985, Finn and original band members Seymour (bass) and Paul Hester (drums), both from Australia, became Crowded House-hold names and MTV darlings. With innovative videos and chart-topping, hook-laden pop-rock gems like "Don't Dream It's Over" and "Better Be Home Soon," they drew inevitable comparisons to the Beatles, the Kinks and any other British Invasion band of brothers that combined perfectly meshed harmonies and tight-knit instrumentation with neatly crafted but timeless messages of love and angst, along with the occasional oddball ode.
"I remember Nick wanted us to be the biggest band in the world and was convinced that it was right there and we should take it. He was probably right but I didn't really like the attention that much and so I pulled away from it," Finn recollects on his website. He decided in 1995 to break up the band.
Looking back at that decision now, Finn is asked if he ever second-guesses himself. "It's pointless having regrets," he says. "I enjoyed the 10 years I had between incarnations and the music I made and the people I worked with. It wouldn't have been that way if Crowded House hadn't broken up. I think I learned a lot. No, I don't regret it. You could argue maybe that there were career things that we missed out on, on that basis, but I certainly don't dwell on that either."
If they fell short of achieving worldwide success, for whatever reasons, so be it. "It's a double-edged sword, what you're achieving, at the time anyway," Finn continues. "The more success you get, make sure that's part of your makeup or your overall ambition is to be famous or successful, because it doesn't suit everybody. And I found out that, really, that certain aspects didn't really suit me and certainly didn't suit Paul Hester."
Making it clear that today, he's "not complaining" and is "quite content," Finn blamed the machine built up around the band, stating, "at the level where things get really big, you just got to have a resilient personality. Some people do, some people don't. And a lot of people don't, actually." He went on to say that Hester "became very unhappy at that time, near the end of the band, and he left the band (in 1994) as a result. He just wanted to go home and watch TV."
Finn spent some productive years as a solo artist and was involved in several other projects, including the first of two high-profile charitable missions called 7 Worlds Collide in 2002, but regrouped with Crowded House not long after the tragic death of Hester on March 26, 2005.
"It affects me to this day and it always will," Finn says of losing his "closest friend" for many years, the seemingly happy-go-lucky Hester, who reportedly had a history of depression and hanged himself from a tree near his home in Elwood, a suburb of Melbourne, Australia. "You can't explain it when people take their own life. It's a troubling thing."
At this point in the conversation, Finn understandably turns solemn, choosing his words carefully. Hester's death wasn't directly responsible for the band -- which also added American keyboardist/guitarist Mark Hart to the trio in 1989 -- getting back together, but he admits it was a catalyst.
"Well, I started seeing quite a lot more of Nick at that time. ... I wouldn't say that we (re)started Crowded House because we missed Paul or whether we wanted to ... somehow ... I can't really say more than that except for that, on a personal level, Nick and I reconnected and we started playing music." The result was their first studio album in 14 years.
Writing and recording again at his Roundhouse Studios in Auckland, first by himself, Finn then brought the band back, hiring another American, former Beck drummer Matt Sherrod, to complete their comeback album, Time On Earth, in 2007. He says that separation gave "the album a slightly schizophrenic nature," and is certain Intriguer offers a better representation of Crowded House's whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-all-its-parts nature.
"This time I think it's pretty integrated," he contends. "And yet there's some new twists and new flourishes. Things that Matt could do that maybe Paul couldn't. And also just some of the influences that I've absorbed over the years that lead us to a few different places. As time goes on, you have to kind of work harder and harder to break new ground and not repeat yourself."
While Finn was quoted in PR material as saying, "It may just be the best thing we've done -- until the next one," you could almost see his smirk at work.
"I guess that was a slightly offhand comment, but you attach yourself to each record you make," he reveals. "You have to, at key times, believe it's the best thing you've ever done. And it's the same thing with writing a song as it is with arranging a song in rehearsal as it is with recording a song and then onstage, you walk onstage thinking this could be one of our greatest shows. And there's times where you actually feel like it can't get better than this. You never want ordinariness to settle into any of the process."
Among the twists are the inclusion of his wife, who shares lead vocals with Finn (for the first time on a record, he points out) during "Isolation," a lovely, hypnotic piece that explodes in a psychedelic flourish with his son Liam taking listeners along on an electric guitar excursion.
This proud pop, at 52 still retaining his boyish looks despite a mustache that's receiving mixed reviews, doesn't hesitate to pass the torch, er, ax to Liam, who has made his mark recording and touring recently with E-J Barnes. Having them in the studio is "a joy to behold," Finn says, describing Liam as a musician who's "quite adventurous and wild and he just totally applies himself." In comparing their guitar playing, the ultimate compliment from a man of many instruments follows: "He's better than me already."
Familiar acquaintances such as Lisa Germano (violin on "Archer's Arrows," "Even If") and Jon Brion (mashed-up guitar, sampled voices on "Twice If You're Lucky" ) add to the mix. It's obviously important for Finn to remain connected to friends and family through music.
His older brother Tim, Split Enz's founding father who joined Crowded House for one album (1991's Woodface) and other Finn Brothers productions, isn't involved in this project. Yet, long after those avant-garde days of experimentation, Finn looks forward to another family reunion soon.
"It's a great thing to have people to play with that .... it's kind of an instinctive phrasing or instinctive melodic twists that you don't have to explain to somebody," Finn explains. "It's a joy, and when we sing together, we make a sound that only brothers could."
Which brings us back to Split Enz, and the joy of performing. Reminded of one strange-but-true Halloween night 30 years ago, when the zany band performed at the now-defunct Rainbow Music Hall in Denver, Colorado, Finn remembers the audience was "completely dressed to the nines," and how he enjoyed "seeing them totally tarted up," much like his kooky colleagues.
That colorful group has made sporadic returns to the stage and he looks back fondly on those years. As for bringing Split Enz to the U.S. for a major tour again, Finn leaves the door open, saying, "It's a little economically harder to do that in somewhere like the U.S. because we weren't at the same level here. But it is a possibility at some point. ... My only question is how much to push the nostalgia button."
For now, count on at least one of their songs making it into the set, along with several of Crowded House's top 10 hits from the '80s and a half-dozen or so of Intriguer's catchy numbers, including his favorite at the moment, "Either Side of the World," a stylish and moody exploration of the soul highlighted by Hart's piano interlude and Sherrod's samba rhythms.
If he had his way, Finn says, "I'd love the idea at some point of doing a tour with everything ... Split Enz, Crowded House," selections from his vast solo songbook and the various Finn Brothers collaborations, basically the whole shebang. There's a glimmer of hope that he's serious, until he completes his thought. ...
"But it would be a long night, wouldn't it?"
Here's a look at the "Making of Intriguer" video from Crowded House ...
... and the New York City fire at Houston Street and Avenue A on July 8, 2010: