For the first time ever, Gary Steel vs. Neil Finn in the infamous 2007 interview, unexpurgated and unmixed.
In 2007, Neil Finn took exception to a report that Gary Steel wrote about a listening session for the then-imminent Crowded House reunion album. The result was a superbly uncomfortable exchange. In 2014, Steel tried to get an interview with Finn to ask him about his new solo album, Time On Earth, but was spurned. To compensate, here for the first time, Witchdoctor publishes both the full transcription of that infamous interview, and the piece that provoked it. Do not adjust your vision goggles.
Neil Finn: To see some people twice in a week is pretty unusual.
Gary Steel: Maybe they should have combined them.
NF: I read your little piece actually.
GS: On Metro Live?
GS: A bit too facetious for you?
NF: It made me curious, I was going to ask you why you bothered coming, to be honest, because if it was like Chinese water torture, why would you put yourself through it?
GS: I didn’t know the audio was going to be as bad as it was on the night.
NF: It was loud, but you could have moved.
GS: I tried the control room, and it was a bit better, but from an audio perspective, and I don’t know if Lauren passed on my email to you… Well afterwards I emailed Lauren and said can you pass this on to Neil. It was a question about the audio thing because to me… I got the album yesterday and it sounds absolutely fine on my stereo, so the question’s answered for me now. But what interested me was that I thought I’d be coming along and hearing it in the perfect environment given that it was a studio monitor situation. But to me, apart from the fact that it was incredibly loud, it sounds very different to what it sounds like on my stereo. It was almost like a remix; the drums were incredibly loud.
NF: It’s the same record, just loud. But you could have come out here. Why would you put yourself through it, if it’s like Chinese water torture.
GS: I was reporting on it.
NF: It was a listening session. You said a listening session was like Chinese water torture, so I just wondered why you bothered.
GS: You don’t know what something’s going to be like until you go through it. I came to listen to it, and I listened to it.
NF: You miss my point. If the idea of a listening session is like Chinese water torture, why would you put yourself through it?
GS: Oh, the idea is tortuous.
NF: That’s what you said, yeah.
GS: This scenario wasn’t as bad as some of the ones I’ve had in the past. You know the situation where you might find it comfortable playing your new record to friends and whatnot, but I’ve had situations before where musician friends have sat me down in their kitchens and played me their songs for the first time and it’s so private and personal it can be quite uncomfortable.
NF: But all I’m saying is IF the idea of a listening session is tortuous then why would you come along?
GS: Because they asked me. I’m a working journalist, I’m paid to do a job. I need the money.
NF: So you were paid to come.
GS: Everyone needs to earn a buck. Before you walk in a room, you don’t know exactly what the situation’s going to be.
NF: But all I’m saying is you could have come out here in the other room.
GS: I did.
NF: It was loud, and maybe you’re not used to listening to music loud, and I guess I am, but the quality was fine really, no one else complained.
GS: That interests me.
NF: We’ll leave it at that. It was a snide reaction I thought.
GS: Did you think so?
NF: Yes it was I thought.
GS: I said all sorts of nice things in there that you haven’t pointed out.
NF: I know I know and I took all those things in good grace but I just I just wanted to ask you why you did come, because obviously you don’t like the idea of them.
GS: Look, I don’t like interviewing either but it’s what I do, it’s my job. The idea of transcribing a tape isn’t exactly fun. There are lots of things about one’s work that aren’t exactly ideal.
NF: That’s alright, I don’t often get the chance to read something, which I actually stumbled across by accident. I was looking for a report on the party we had on Friday night and I was looking for whether anybody had written anything about that. And I don’t often get the chance to see someone a couple of days afterwards and ask them about it.
GS: Well, where do we go from there? [laughs]… Well, we’ve talked about the studio and the monitors and so forth so let’s start there. Why did you decide to invest in a studio in NZ and is there a philosophy behind it in the sense that you look for particular kinds of acts to record here? There are lots of other studios around so presumably you had an idea.
NF: Part of it was just a fortuitous thing that I found a building. In the back of my head I thought there might be a building somewhere round town, and I had this kind of building in my head, because it’s an era of buildings I like, because there are always big windows and good dimensions. This was pointed out to me about three years ago, I walked into it and it felt like the perfect building to make music in. It just had an ambience about it, even as a raw building. I managed to secure it, and at that point I wasn’t thinking necessarily of building proper studios; I was thinking I’ll set up rehearsal studios. And as I started to inhabit the place I started to think of how I could lay things out. Some of my best experiences have been in studios where there are at least two studios so you bump into people in the hallway and catch a glimpse of something else going on and it just ups the ante, makes you feel more like playing music. It just grew and out of the design. I was able to put everything I had observed over the years that was good and useful about studios. And really in a way that was all I was thinking at the time although I wanted it to be a resource for everybody. I wanted it to be the ultimate space, and the most well conceived design, and it’s taken two years to get to this point.
GS: You’ve not envisaged it as something specifically that local bands might use? Could it be for people who want to come from overseas too?
NF: Hopefully both. You’d be mad if you built a studio with the idea that it was going to be a big money earner anyway because they’re pretty much just about all struggling these days. At least from Australia it would be a good option for people. I thought it should be an option for local artists who even have small budgets at least to get a really good space. And already Pluto were in here and Goldenhorse abused it. So it is primarily going to be a studio for New Zealand music. I could see myself taking some interest in some of the recording, and seeing it through. That would be an ambition for it as well.
GS: In the wake of the Helen kafuffle, what are your political inclinations these days?
NF: I only got a 3 percent approval rating according to the Herald Online, so I’ve got a ways to go yet. I was quite amused by that whole thing actually, when you stick your head up above the ramparts. All you can hope for is that it’s a bit entertaining, and I think it was. Mildly entertaining for a little while. And it sparked some conversation, so that’s a good thing. At the same time in a small country you don’t want to be the guy that’s just rabbiting on about stuff all the time either. I had a few things to say about public radio for young people and that turned out not to be a goer; the government didn’t take it up. So I don’t want to bang on about that, I’ve said enough about that. And I’ve probably said enough about this as well. But on the other hand I’ve already spoken about it many times so it’s probably going to go on.
GS: It seems strange that you’re kind of an innocuous guy – you’re not Marilyn Manson or anything – and yet just having an opinion can create such a stink.
NF: Yeah! I’m thinking about it a lot. I’ve been back now for 12 years and I kept my head down for quite a long time really, apart from that public radio thing because it did frustrate me that it went nowhere in the end. But I thought I’d attach myself to one idea and try not to get too involved in anything else. But I’ve observed in New Zealanders… there’s a prickly discontent here and a lack of people actually speaking up and going ‘this is fucked’ and actually having a go. There’s more of a tendency to pick and carp and make little snarky observations and then other people to go and bash them for it. I dunno, there’s just a prickliness which came to the surface a little bit when the first comments came out, which were devoid of context but a lot of different people with different axes to grind suddenly jumped up and had things to say, ranging from that they didn’t like my music, which is fine but hardly the point, to National supporters barracking for me because they thought I was having a crack at Helen. In either case I don’t think that people quite got it right.
GS: The snarky thing is often people killing their own kind: fish in a small pond getting frustrated and turning on their own, rather than looking at the bigger issues.
NF: Yeah. And the bigger issue was slightly obscured by… there are bigger issues anyway, and as a couple of people pointed out, what are we even thinking about this shit for, because New Zealand music, whether or not it’s taking over the world, is so unimportant when compared to some of New Zealand’s true social issues and injustices and things. On the other hand it’s what we do, so we talk about it.
GS: The new Crowded House, does it still feel like Crowded House to you?
NF: It feels like my band, and that’s what it’s all about really. And on stage in particular it has a feel about it. We did some gigs after Paul left anyway, which were good, we had some really good shows. The personality of the band is I think stronger and deeper than any one of us, but it feels good and it feels like it has a future. I think the reason we embarked on looking for a drummer so rigorously hinged on finding somebody that was his own man, and took us forward. The idea of finding somebody that was like Paul was a far more dangerous concept; a miss was as good as a mile really, in that regard.
GS: Were you lonely as a solo artist? Is it in some ways a practical situation having this consistent foil to what you’re doing?
NF: Um… yeah! There are certain aspects of that that are good. Being able to completely dictate your own terms. I was probably craving that when the band broke up. I was probably craving some independence and autonomy. And there was a neurosis involved in always being with the same people all the time, and always being with each other; it’s a neurotic state of mind and I was wanting to escape that. But in the passage of time and contemplating it from another angle, it’s not a lot of fun, apart from anything else. You end up giving each other comfort, humour, confidence. You can take the slings and arrows so much better. You don’t take it as personally, or think it as important. And you’re not as earnest. And the one thing I’m aware of after all these years is that everybody has their little tendencies that they become aware of and my tendency is to be overly earnest, and that’s both in my music and the way I talk about things. I’m a lot less so with the band, and I was back in the day as well. We had some elements of polish… I look back and wish we hadn’t been quite so polished in our record making. But I know that as a live entity we weren’t earnest, we were willing to subvert whatever we were doing, and I think that comes from being in a band and having humour at the heart of it. And true friendship. I probably wouldn’t have given you a hard time at the beginning of this interview if I had have been with Nick. Because we would have found a way of having a laugh about it. So there’s a case in point.
GS: Looking at your work and approach over a long period of time – and the same pertains to Tim’s work as well – going back to the Enz days what seems to have happened is a shaving off of quirk. Is it a sense of getting down to the core? For me there was a certain levity and humour in that quirkiness. Whereas the new Crowded House does sound quite earnest to me.
NF: Split Enz was a quirky band, no doubt. I don’t know that Crowded House was a quirky band musically. I think that we were quirky in our presentation, but I think we presented songs in a pretty straight-ahead manner. I think the character of the record might be different because 10 years has gone by, and maybe because it started out as a solo album there are certain things that are more reflective, more solemn moments. But I think that onstage the willingness to step off the script will be there. With Split Enz there was a lot of quirk, and there was a lot of quirky personality, when you think about it. And a lot of people were pushing ideas… there were more ideas per square inch. And that probably led to quirk, and a more maverick arrangement sensibility.
GS: It intrigues me because that era, especially the ‘70s, was full of quirk.
NF: I don’t know if you’ve heard Liam’s record yet. He made it upstairs on his own, recorded, engineered, mixed himself. I think it’s an amazing piece of work, and it’s quirky. So maybe there’s something about young people that’s attracted to… As time goes on I’m more interested in a song that… the hugest part of it all is getting to a point where you write a song that somebody might be able to sing, devoid of any knowledge of you, or the arrangement, or anything. They might just be able to sing it in their room. That for me is the endless fascination of it. So presenting things in a fairly classic setting enhances the chance of that happening. It’s a dangerous game, because if you get it wrong, you can miss because it’s not one of those songs, and it also sounds ordinary or something. Having said that in every case on a record I’ve made, there’s always an attraction to an element, whether it’s in the arrangement or chord sequence or something, where things take a turn. I think they can stand up to a certain amount of scrutiny as songs, I don’t think they’re completely paint-by-numbers.
GS: Yeah, there are quite a few things about the new record that are very different in terms of arrangements.
NF: Yeah, I can’t be objective, obviously. I fully accept that now it’s going to be judged and critiqued, and in about six months time I’ll probably have a fairly good idea of where it sits beside past work and will have also completely redefined it onstage. Certain songs which maybe aren’t the strongest on record may evolve to be the strongest on stage.
GS: Have you got that rock and roll, raring-to-go thing?
NF: I have. We’ve been teased into it, because we’ve only done five shows and the line-up’s been together for three months. I’m itching to go. Come Sunday we’ll be off on a fast camel as my mother used to say.
GS: Do you guys do the rock and roll on-the-road thing at all? Do you drink and party too much, or are you very well balanced with good protein food.
NF: I think we’re living a good balanced life and there’s a good element of fun and indulgence thrown in with the reality of being 49 years old and not wanting to fall off the edge. Just to do it physically and do good shows you can’t be stupid like you can in your 20s. We have a good time, we enjoy our bottles of wine and there’s a good sense of bonhomie within the band. We’re not in any strict regimes.
NF: Thanks Gary.
Crowded House Time On Earth ‘Listening Session’,
Roundhead Studios, May 23, 2007
Neil Finn clearly had bigger fish to fry than the New Zealand PM at last night’s ‘exclusive listening session’ of the new Crowded House album: he had a roomful of semi-inebriated record store lackies, music TV flunkies, and jaded music hacks to entertain.
First, the small assemblage is plied with very nice booze, then pizzas, then ushered into the main room of his new studio complex. Situated at the busy top-end of Newton Rd in a nondescript building, the Roundhead interior is very woody and very nice. We’re played the first video clip, ‘Don’t Stop Now’,
which ends to a palpable awkwardness. Clapping is deployed to deplete the panic.
Listening sessions, eh? Who would credit it? The modern equivalent of Chinese water torture, the volunteer victims then have to decide on their tactic for the next hour: Stare vacantly into space, feigning great concentration? Sceam at other victims over the din? Drink with great enthusiasm? Be seen to be taking copious, possibly derogatory notes?
The first Crowded House album in well over a decade sounds like, um, pretty much like a Crowded House album, really. Except it’s a bit hard to hear clearly, really, because someone’s cranked it up to ear-splitting, heavy metal levels. The first half has a lot of very loud, repetitive drumming, and that’s different, for Crowded House. The second half gets quite maudlin and I like that. I especially liked ‘Silent House’, which kind of feels like a song tailor-made for the Desert Rd with its dirty country feel and a lyric that says: “It’s true/I’m missing you.”
After its 14 songs, Neil Finn bounds in all smiles with “How’s your ears?” The lubricated listeners are quick with questions, and Finn is generous and wry and frequently funny in his replies.
The new drummer, Matt Sherrod, was chosen from over 1000 applicants and 50 auditioned, but missed most of the recording dates. A bunch of tracks were “recorded upstairs as the studio was being built, with pneumatic drills in the background.”
When someone asks about his writing, Finn admits that “there are days when I sit around with a blank page feeling useless and thinking ‘I have no function on this earth’.”
And the experience of performing at the huge Californian alternative music festival Coachella last month “was deliciously different. It was like being in the belly of the beast, with 30 rows of Rage Against The Machine Fans in front of us. I was only hit by one bottle, and it’s a brilliant shot. It’s on YouTube. The guy was way back. It got the microphone. I could still hear my voice, and I realised that Liam had stepped forward and was singing my lines. Something only a son would know to do!”
And speaking of his son, Finn the elder sounds positively jealous of his talent in one department: “Liam’s got a really good beard… a beard I could only dream of!” GARY STEEL