My 2002 interview with Neil Finn

In the summer of 2002, Acoustic Guitar magazine gave me the opportunity to talk with Neil about his second solo record, One All, as he was launching his U.S. tour with a show at Slim’s in San Francisco that featured a band including Wendy Melvoin (of Wendy & Lisa) and Lisa Germano.

The interview became a featured profile, but due to space restrictions, a lot of great quotes and material had to be edited out. I’ve been meaning to post some unpublished excerpts from the interview, and now that I have the blog rolling, this seemed like a fine time. So here it is: my interview with the incomparable Neil Finn of Crowded House, Split Enz and The Finn Brothers.

Me: There’s a sense of inclusiveness in your songs and in the way that you interact with your audience, inviting them onstage to sing with you, or in the case of Band of Strangers having them become your backup band. Was there a point when you decided it was more important to connect than to entertain?

Neil Finn: Some of it you don’t think about, really. I just found that the most exciting shows… it was really with Crowded House that it started to unfold, that whole mentality, the idea that out there in the audience, there were people who could contribute to the show. And that you would remember the show a lot better if something happened that wasn’t scheduled, and some hero was made or villain was discovered or a good heckler. Any amount of participation would mean that in a month’s time, numbed by the tour, somebody would say “Oh I saw you in San Francisco and that guy got up and took his clothes off.” And you remember the show because you were aware of the audience.

We just couldn’t conceive of doing a show that was the same as the night before exactly. I just try to explore that theory more and more as time goes on because I think, at the heart of it, when you go out playing at parties, which I did, in a family sense and also as a teenager, you just get really addicted to that idea that everybody in the room is a participant. And people might be talented, you know… some drunk guy’s gonna jump up and do an item. And it can be really great. It doesn’t matter if it sounds like shit or not. If you got the right spirit for it, it’s really great. And the room lifts a bit higher, you know?

Me: How did the shows go with the Band of Strangers?

NF: Oh, fantastic. They were all different. Of course, as you’d expect. And that was the other weird thing about it: at the end of the night, no matter how tense or good it had been, you were going “well, there’s nothing to learn from that show now. Tomorrow’s going to be completely different.” Apart from the way to structure it in the afternoon to make people relax.

It was actually a phenomenal experience because the music wasn’t half bad and in some cases, was really good, because a lot of people that went through the process of sending in a tape and learning a few songs, knew the songs really well. And even though the band itself had never played before… like the drummer didn’t know the bass player, didn’t know the guitar player… everybody knew the songs really well, and played them with huge heart, you know, like massive commitment and passion and everything. So the sound was actually remarkably good.

I remember walking into Liverpool and we were stuck on the motorway in a traffic jam for four hours. And John, my crew guy, had to retain(?) everybody and basically get them organized into bands. I normally would have been there for that process. Sort them into bands and decide what songs they’d play and get them into lineups. On the day of the show! “You go with them, and you’re gonna play this song and you’re gonna play this song. Let’s try it now.”

You get to play everything once, basically. And if it really didn’t work… you’d try everyone out first individually to get an idea of what they were like, what sort of feels they had down and you try to work it into places where they were either used to their maximum advantage if they were good or could do as little damage as possible if they weren’t.

And some people didn’t fit the band mold at all and just clammed up or whatever, and I would usually would find… we had 12 people a day basically that turned up at sound check. And people who really had trouble, had some sort of weird individual thing that didn’t fit into a band, I would say, “Well, let’s you and I sing a song together, just the two of us.” And in the middle of the show, you’d get them out and they would do what they could do, and I would sort of steer them and help them along. But one on one it was a lot easier and it would work a lot better.

Me: That strikes me as being really brave and really generous with your stage time. You’re not up there with the mission of “I’ve got to sell this record.” You’re saying, “I want to make this sort of an event for everybody in the room.”

NF:Well, brave and foolhardy are sort of similar characteristics. And there’s a little bit of both in there possibly. But more than anything else, I just like the feeling of not know what’s going to happen on stage. And so, as hard work as it was… and in the afternoon, it was a really exhausting process… it was like making two bands happen in two hours.

Me: So did you have the Band of Strangers play a set in the middle of your regular show?

NF: I started on my own for seven or eight new songs, all the new songs, and no one knew them at that point because the album wasn’t even out yet. And then about ten to twelve songs with different lineups, mostly well-known songs, but occasionally someone would turn up and say they knew the piano to Not the Girl You Think You Are or some obscure thing like that. And then someone would put their hand up and say “Oh, I know the drums to that one.” And I say, “Alright, let’s try that out.”

I had to be kind of blunt with people at times, you know and say, “Look, that’s not working… why don’t you stick to this other song. And pull another drummer up. We’d do this at soundcheck, then go lie down for about an hour and a half just to recover from the intensity of it. And the shows themselves were really exciting and I really enjoyed them.

Me: Any plans to do that in America?

NF: Well, I haven’t yet, but what I realized is that you can’t do that all the time. I can do it for a stretch of maybe four or five shows, and then you have to just do some regular shows. Because it is quite exhausting. But yeah, I’d like to do some here. We’re still planning the next run, in July, I think it’ll be… Or maybe June actually. And in the context of that, it’s possible I might throw a few of those in. But I’m sure people would be up for it here. Lots of people into the idea.

As you said before, the music business is generally about creating a distance between audience and performer because that’s the basis of “star making.” That’s the part of it I like the least, I think. That’s probably why I’m not a star!

Me: And yet, known and admired by Eddie Vedder and the guys from Radiohead.

NF: Well, I just got to know these people over the years, and yeah there’s a bit of mutual admiration and respect there in terms of songwriting and all that stuff. It’s always really nice to know. I used to be quite shy about things like that when I was younger. Probably small town mentality, coming from New Zealand. I’d always think… looking at people that were doing other kinds of music from me, I can’t imagine they’d be into what I do. And you get constantly surprised, you meet people and they go “I really love that album,” one of the obscure things you’ve done, and you go, “Wow, you know that record?” So I don’t want to sound falsely humble because there’s no musician on earth that can actual be truly humble. I think you have to be slightly egotistical to actually do it in the first place.

But I didn’t have high expectations of how the music had spread. It’s only in recent years I’ve been really gratified to find out that a lot of people have been checking it out. There’s a whole layer underneath the charts, and underneath the music industry where music spreads and does its job, and deep connections are made with it. And that’s the most gratifying area in the end, you know.

The flashes into the charts are great fun… hopefully great fun, although they’re often deeply traumatic for people. Just enjoy them.

Me: Did it seem traumatic in 1987 or 88 when you were suddenly everywhere?

NF: Certain aspects were traumatic. But I enjoyed a lot of that time. We had a great run and the band, we were really getting on very well and entertaining each other really well. And I think when you become successful with a band it’s a lot easier, if you get on well. Cause you have each other as a kind of buffer zone, and normalcy within the band. I feel concern for young solo artists that become successful, because unless they’re lucky to have some really smart people around them, they could easily lose themselves.

Because the star machine is pretty wacky and unreal, more so now, but even when we were successful. And I think if you’re just constantly remembering that it is ridiculous then you’re fine. But if you suddenly get swept up into it, it’s not a good place to be.

Me: How do you choose your collaborators? Is the songwriting process the same whether you’re writing with Tim, Jim or Wendy or does it depend on the combination of personalities?

NF: I think the process is kind of the same because it’s a matter of drifting off with somebody and letting something come out in a very un-self-conscious way. Letting the barriers down.

What each person brings is completely different. For instance, Wendy… the first time we jammed together or wrote a song together, it was “Secret God.” It had an atmosphere which was completely new for me. A sort of Latin American… I say that loosely because neither her nor I are remotely Latin American, but… it had a bit of a Brazilian feel about it. And that would never have happened with anyone else. So that was exciting. That’s what’s great about collaboration: it draws you into areas you never would have thought of yourself.

And it also makes you perform for somebody. That’s the other great thing about it. If you’re on your own writing a song, it can be great fun, but for me, it’s almost inevitable that it’ll be introspective in its nature. And when you’re with somebody else, you’re sort of reaching out to them. So it’s more outgoing, and you’re sort of performing for them, you know? You hear something they do that’s great and you want to match it.

It’s becoming more and more exciting as time goes on, collaborating in the songwriting department.

Me: It seems unlike a lot of solo artists, who, when they break up a band sort of take more control, you’ve done the opposite and opened up the doors to more people.

NF: Well, recently. On the first record, I descended into my basement for quite some time and tried to do everything on my own. And a lot of it was good, but I felt really hemmed in by it. And the last part of the record was to go to New York and bring people in to help me out.

So I worked with a lot of people in the context of that. But this time I really thought… the effective thing about a band is the sum of the parts. And there’s no reason why solo artists can’t have that.

And the people who have done it well… whether it was Bowie when he was enjoying that amazing run of great records in the 80s… was because he was working with great people on every record. Really great musicians, good producers, great collaborators who were really bringing a lot to the party. But he was just (exploding? couldn’t make out what he was saying there) out of the scenario. I’m not wanting to put people in lists or categories or whatever… but people that think they can do it all themselves generally end up going into really boring territory, I think. I think Prince is a good example of somebody who’s… well he has a band and everything, but he’s a egomaniac. And it gets less interesting. You realize that the great records that he made were because there were other things that were being put into the mix. And Wendy and Lisa, I’ve got to say… and it’s not just because of Wendy being a friend… but I think what they brought to his music was quite profound in a way. A pop sensability that was coming from somewhere else.

I don’t think anyone’s as good on their own. I have respect for good producers, too, now. I think a great producer is somebody who can take the burden away from an artist…. the burden of having to make decisions about everything. To be able to perform and judge at the same time is virtually impossible, I think.

Me: On songs like The Climber, Take A Walk, Kare Kare and Four Seasons in One Day, you seem to get a lot of inspiration from nature and the environment. When I hear those songs, they make me think of the end of the video of “Don’t Dream it’s Over” when you’re walking out the door from the claustrophobic little kitchen into a field. Do you get some of your lyrical or musical ideas when you’re outdoors?

NF: It just a big relief to be amongst it. And I grew up in a country that’s really wide open spaces. Not many people and lots of beautiful… so it’s deeply ingrained. But I wouldn’t… A lot of inspiration comes from that and I do write about it, I suppose there’s lots of natural imagery in there… But I don’t think many songs are about the place.

On this record, actually “Into the Sunset” is probably most specifically about a place and how you feel bound to it, and wanting to stay there and put your roots into it, as opposed to the compulsion to wanting to get out and wander and travel and be stimulated.

That’s always been a factor in my life. With the huge distances involved in getting anywhere. I possibly think about and talk about it too much. There was a review of my album in England that said, “This guy should settle down for a while. He’s spending too much time on planes cause that’s all he seems to think about… is being away from home. To some extent that’s true. “The tyranny of distance” is a term that’s been coined a few times. That’s very true.

I think Tim read that expression in a book about Captain Cook or something. But he definitely coined it in a modern sense. And all New Zealanders relate to that. On the one hand, our culture, where we grew up, was English based, and we relate very much to that whole worldview. But it doesn’t make a lot of sense geographically. To the extent that… Christmas is on the beach in the sunlight… with strawberries and summer fruit. And we still have Santa Claus dressed in the heavy red suit. It’s mad really.

And it’s a young country, so we’re still defining ourselves. But we look on, from a distance, at the American culture and the English culture and we want to engage in a way with the world, but it’s very difficult from that far away. Just time zones alone. If I’m trying to talk to New York, for instance, I’ve got to get up early or stay up really late.

Me: How often are you in New Zealand these days (2002)?

NF: Oh, quite a bit. When I work, I work really intensely, but I’m home a lot more than I used to be.

Me: Is your son Liam on this tour (the summer 2002 tour of the U.S.)?

NF: No. He’s got his own band now. They’ve been touring Australia and they made a record that’s about to come out. So it’s all on for him. He’s a very good musician and he writes really good songs. So I’ve got complete faith that he’ll get somewhere.

Me: Do you co-write with him at all?

NF: We haven’t yet, but I would think that at some point it’s quite likely, yeah. But the father/son thing… I think it would be awkward at the moment because he’s establishing his own… we’ve done stuff together and he’s toured with me. He has contributed a couple things which he never lets me forget. He’s come up with a couple of lines for Crowded House songs that I stole from him. “Pineapple Head”… and “Here comes Mrs. Hairy Legs” from “Chocolate Cake” was his line. I’ve never acknowledged it or paid him money for it. So he’s a bit bitter about that.

Me: Do you ever work in the song “Throw your arms around me” from way, way back?

NF: Yeah, I’ll do it sometimes. There’s only really a live version of it… I mean, we never recorded it. We always threatened… we always thought we should. It’s a great song. It’s sort of an Australian classic, really. But it’s never been a hit for anybody. That’s the weird thing about it. I think that song’s a hit waiting for somebody to have it. But I don’t know who’s going to get around to it first.

Me: What makes you inspired you to start a song now? After 20 years of writing and performing, do you begin in different ways now than you did back when you hadn’t done a lot of songs with a certain chord progression or certain lyrical theme? Is it harder to surprise yourself?

NF: It’s probably about the same as it’s always been. It’s always been hard “thinking” about writing a song, and then on the days when things click, it seems really easy. But getting to that zone or into that spot is sometimes infuriatingly hard. And actually, I’ve never really figured a process or a formula for how I have to be or how things have to be for me to able to write. A lot of it is just believing that you ARE writing, I think. Sometimes you can be doodling around on a guitar or a piano, as they all start, and you start a little thing and maybe write a couple of lines down… go… (Bah? Bullocks? Some strange Kiwi expression of frustration there that I cannot decipher…) Then move on and “Oh that sucks, too.” Then on another day, that same idea, exactly the same idea, you might go “That’s got something… Let’s just work it up for a little bit more. Then you’ll change the phrasing of one word or something will fall in differently … “Oh that’s good now… oh and that lines good, you know.”

Sometimes it’s just to do with believing that you’re writing, I think it’s really convincing yourself that it’s worth persevering. And then occasionally something pops out that’s just screamingly obviously good straight away. But sometimes some of the best things have not always been that obvious straightaway.

Me: What are some of the ones that you can remember were like… “Ah. I’ve got something?”

NF: Well, generally speaking the ones that come are the best songs. There are exceptions, but… I mean “Don’t Dream It’s Over” was a pretty immediate song. “Better Be Home Soon” was recorded in like 10 minutes. Although that’s not necessarily one of my favorite songs, it’s certainly one of the most accessible ones. “Hole in the River” I wrote in about ten minutes. “Not the girl you think you are.” There’s been quite a few over the years that came very quickly and easily. It’s great when all the lyrics come at once. That’s really handy.

Me: In your home studio, are you working with Pro Tools and doing cutting and pasting after you get a basic sense of where the song’s going. Do you experiment with the new technology or does it get written on acoustic guitar or piano?

NF: I will in the next few months, be getting involved in the Pro Tools a bit more. I’ve generally had someone operating for me. But can kind of do the basic functions now. So I am looking forward to getting to that as a writing tool because I haven’t done it up until now. What I’ve worked on mostly is this eight-track reel-to-reel. I got used to working that a few years ago.

I almost always make a little demo as I’m writing, really, get a notion, get some chords that I like and a melody that’s working somehow and then construct maybe two or three versions of that straightaway. It’s really instantly, a really rough version where I’ll just play the basic idea with “umming” and “ahhing” and “la la larring”… and you know, just kind of a rough idea really, but I’ll string it together for two minutes and then bang a few things onto it like another guitar track or a harmony or whatever and then just abandon it.

But there’ll be somewhere in it where it’ll suddenly all gel. It’ll be like a little half a verse or something where it’s sounding really good… you’re discovering little phrasing things. So then I’ll make another little demo based on that half a verse and say “Ok that’s now the verse of a song and that hint of a chorus in the first one, I’ll develop that a bit.” And that’ll come next. And then I’ll make another little demo really quickly, in about 20 minutes. Do the same thing… bang a few things on that. And then sometimes that might turn out to be when I leave it and I know the songs intact. But often, I’ll again look at it and go “Well, that’s really at its best there. I’ll just use that and pick that up.

So even that third time through, it won’t be set in stone. It’ll only be maybe two minutes and it’ll fall off at the end… it won’t get to the… there’ll be a big fuck up somewhere. But I’ll just listen to it over and over again at the end of the night. I’ll just put it on about 20 times and go “Ahh! This is good.” And I’ll know at that point it’s something substantial and I’ll luxuriate in it for a moment.

You usually have some lyrics. Sometimes all of them, but at least a verse and a chorus or something, and then it’ll be nonsense… but then what I generally do… that’ll encourage me to… it’s sort of like tricking myself to finish as much as I can. Because in the context of that demo, I’ll get to the point where I go, “Now I’ve got to write something I can sing at least so that I’ll know what the harmony is. Otherwise it’s just too many sounds. So I’ll scribble things that will fit the phrasing down, and without thinking at all about what they mean, or if they’re any good or anything. And out of those generally speaking, I’ll get quite a few good lines if they are behaving themselves, in terms of the song… working phrasing-wise.

And the random thoughts often really good.

Me: I read someplace that you said it seems like an “act of will.” And the way you’re describing it there, it’a almost like a combination of following and steering.

NF: I suppose I go a long way relying on not having to intellectualize the process. I try to get as much as I can that’s just falling randomly onto the page. Which sometimes means there’s an element of bluff in every song. You know, you’re kind of bluffing your way through, and even at the end, I’ll look at what I’ve been given, which is maybe, with luck, 3/4 of the lyric. Then I have to fill in the gaps and kind of then go “Well, it’s weak there. That’s a good line but it really doesn’t fit with the rest of it, so I’ll get rid of that. And I’ve got to write a line now which is going to tie that together with that. Not literally, but just to bridge the gap. And those are the really hard lines to get.

Trying to introduce a little bit of thought and planning so that when you read it through it has a kind of a thread, even if it’s not a narrative or linear thing. It’s got a thread you can follow. I mean, sometimes there’s always a couple lines that I go “That’s a crap line but I have to let it go because it sounds right.”

Me: What are some of your favorite records of (2001)? Who are you listening to these days?

NF: To be honest, most of the records I’ve gotten into the past year are because my son’s been playing them in his bedroom. Like bands from overseas. The good crop of bands at the moment, from the Strokes to the Hives to the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club to the new Fugazi album that Liam’s been playing every day for the last three weeks.

And he’s got pretty good ears for what’s good out there. Most of the time when I listen to stuff, I listen to Polynesian favorites and Miles Davis. I just like listening to music that’s not pop music because then I don’t think about it so much. I can’t help myself when I’m listening to pop music, from thinking… “Oh yeah, that’s interesting what they’ve done there. Or I wouldn’t have done that.” I always like it when I can listen to it and it just sets a mood. But then I’ll still put on the old faves, you know, the Neil Young records and stuff that seems perennial.



  1. Great interview and well thought out questions, Drew. Perhaps you can do a new one about the reunion.


  1. […] when I was a contributing writer for Acoustic Guitar magazine, I was assigned to write an article on house concerts. Hearing the hosts tell their stories […]

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