If I were a rich man, deedle deedle deedle…
The schedule said that the members of Crowded House would be adding background vocals to a new tune called “Sister Madly,” but the activity inside Hollywood’s Sunset Sound Factory studios was something else altogether.
On a drizzly spring evening, drummer Paul Hester and bassist Nick Seymour ignored the business at hand and delayed the session with a nonstop barrage of imitations, wisecracks and frequently filthy jokes; finally, the irrepressible Hester broke into his version of the Fiddler on the Roof standard, complete with new lyrics that detailed exactly how he would wield his penis “if I were a wealthy man.”
In the control room, Crowded House singer, songwriter and guitarist Neil Finn rolled his eyes in mock exasperation, then joined everybody else in raucous laughter. Finally, though, Hester and Seymour got down to work.
After an hour or so of painstaking overdubs, they finished “Sister Madly” and moved to the ballad “Better Be Home Soon.” They’d been doing this song live for the past year, so the vocal arrangement had long since been worked out–but as Seymour sang his part, it became clear to Finn that what worked in concert didn’t necessarily cut it in the confines of a studio.
So Finn pressed the microphone button to pipe his voice into the studio. “Nick?” he said. “That part gets the general thumbs down in here.”
“Oh, that’s cruel,” snapped Hester with a grin. “I mean, he’s only done it twice.”
“No,” said Seymour. “I’ve done it 112 times in America and 47 times in Australia.”
“Yeah,” said Finn. “And the second time that you did it onstage, I made a mental note to myself to tell you, when we got in the recording studio, that it sucks.”
Sometime during the past two years, Neil Finn, Paul Hester and Nick Seymour have indeed become rich men, at least by the standards of the struggling musicians Hester and Seymour used to be. (Finn, who joined the influential New Zealand cult band Split Enz while still a teenager, had things easier.)
The riches didn’t roll in when they released their 1986 debut, Crowded House; although the album met with rave reviews, sales were slow. But after some eight months of steady work, lively concerts and giddy promotional appearances, Finn’s intelligent, Beatlesque pop songs began to catch on, and before long “Don’t Dream It’s Over” was a Top Five hit. Infectious on record and hilarious onstage, the members of Crowded House became pop music’s reigning court jesters–and maybe its crown princes as well.
When they gathered in Hollywood earlier this year, after two months of rehearsals and recording sessions in Melbourne, the trio’s current base, their job was to do it again. Mocking the toughness of their task, they quickly came up with a working album title: Mediocre Follow-Up. The band members were more assured and cohesive than when they made their first LP, but Finn had also written a batch of songs that were less bouncy and more atmospheric than the first album’s rousing, uptempo tunes “Now We’re Getting somewhere” and “Something So Strong.”
Not mediocre, certainly–but a tough sell all the same. In the studio, though, you couldn’t see much pressure. On the verge of turning 30, Neil Finn was clearly the dominant artistic presence, the one more inclined to soft-spoken one-liners than loud put-downs, and the only member in the studio every moment. Paul Hester, who had missed his first flight to America because he’d left his passport in a remote beach house he owns with his girlfriend’s father, was the nonstop jokester, dispensing wicked impersonations and general ribaldry. And Nick Seymour, a good-natured former art student who does the band’s album covers, fell somewhere in between.
For all their frivolity, the members of Crowded House want to be taken seriously. “The one thing we were left feeling kind of annoyed about at the end of last year is that we had played that part of those wacky, zany guys from down under so willingly to so many people,” says Finn. “It was a natural part of us, but we felt like we’d have to suffer that image forever. That is a pain in the ass, you know? And not only for us–eventually, it would become a pain in the ass for anybody who’s got a brain in their head.”
Besides, the image simply doesn’t provide an accurate picture of a band whose leader admits that he’s often moody and self-doubting–and who, according to Hester, went through a particularly troublesome phase (“the second-album, second-tour slump”) not long ago. The new songs reflect some of that, though most were written around the time of the recording sessions for the first album, when Finn–a New Zealander transplanted to Australia–was living in America and struggling to make a record.
“Some of the songs, like ‘Mansion in the Slums,’ I will always think of as being L.A. songs,” he says. “But most of them are more personal, and they don’t have a sense of place, particularly, because I’ve been uprooted from my home country for so long. People will find a lot of the songs pretty obscure, I think, but the album kind of deals with the low end of human experience.” The subject, Finn says, is close to home. “I’ve tended to be pretty dark about things for the last year or so. Maybe that’s a reaction to the fact that Paul and Nick are so up all the time–or that when they’re up they’re very up. And I tend to kind of withdraw these days because of it. You can’t compete, so why bother?”
But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t room for levity at Sunset Sound Factory as Finn fiddled with his guitar and searched for the right chords to overdub a few lines on “Better Be Home Soon.”
“It might be nice if you ended this part with an A-sharp major,” said Mitchell Froom, the band’s producer. Finn grinned sheepishly. “A-sharp major? What’s that?” Froom laughed. “It’s what you played before, when you were looking for a C-sharp minor.”
By now Neil Finn ought to be able to find an A-sharp major, because he’s been at this game since he was a child. At the age of eight or nine, Neil was already taking piano lessons, inspired in part by his older brother, Tim, who was already playing in rock bands.
“I think, deep down, there’s probably a part of me that’s still in total awe of him,” says Neil. “And back then, there was always competition, you know? When he started writing songs, I started writing songs, even though I was only 11 and they were probably really bad.” When he was 12, Neil made up his mind to become a musician “come hell or high water,” and when he was 19, Tim let him join Split Enz as an electric guitarist, even though he’d never played the instrument before.
At the time, Split Enz was an arty, eccentric, highly visual band; three years later Neil wrote the hit “I Got You,” and things changed. “Before that, we were pretty unanimous about where we were going–we were stumbling along, and nobody had a clue,” says Neil with a laugh. “Then all of a sudden we saw we had a side to us that was really commercial, and we went through a certain conflict within the band.”
Split Enz made three more albums, but by the mid-1980s Tim decided to leave for a solo career. Neil led the band through another album (never released outside of Australia) and a farewell tour, and along the way he and new Split Enz drummer Paul Hester decided to form their own band–”probably,” says Hester, “because we were the two younger ones in a group of very old gentlemen.”
They signed up Melbourne bassist Nick Seymour and recorded a demo tape, but it was rejected by nearly every record company in the United States. Finally, Capitol Records offered them a deal, and up-and-coming producer Mitchell Froom agreed to oversee the first record–after, Froom says, “every producer in town passed on ’em.”
In late 1985, the band members flew to Los Angeles and moved into a small house not far from the Capitol Tower. They didn’t really feel like a true band yet, but they made the record and tried to find a name. They liked Krakatoa Chorus and then settled on Largest Living Things, which the record company hated.
Finally, the band took its name from its living quarters, released the record and hit the road for aseries of informal acoustic shows in restaurants and small clubs. “That was probably our salvation, really,” says Finn. “Before that, we were a band in name only. We didn’t know if we had a sound or if we were just kidding ourselves. But with those shows we learned how to sing together, and we learned that we had a certain presence when we were together, and we learned to use that naturally.”
The short promotional tour turned into a longer tour, the chemistry grew stronger, and the record finally started to sell. “It was just too strange,” says Finn. “I felt really good about the first record before it actually became a hit. I rationalized it all; I thought, ‘Well, we got some good reviews, we got noticed by a few people, we’ll make another record.’ And all of a sudden it started to climb up the charts, and I was thinking, ‘Oh-oh, we’re becoming a successful band. This is so tacky.'”
“Don’t Dream It’s Over” hit the charts and stayed there. It crept up slowly, steadily; finally it made the Top Ten, then the Top Five, then the Top Two. The day the band was due to find out if its single would go to Number One, Neil Finn flew with his wife and young son to Santa Fe, New Mexico. “
We got on this plane that looked really dodgy,” he says with a chuckle. “It was a blackened, charred-looking wreck of a plane, and all the windows were gaffer-taped. We were pretty nervous about it, but we got in the air. We were eating our dinner, and my wife was sitting next to the window, and suddenly we heard this big bang. We looked over, and her window had cracked from one side to another. So we called the stewardess over, and she quickly evacuated all the people out of that area into seats in the back, and the plane dived to 10,000 feet….
“Anyway, we made it. And we got to the Albuquerque airport and got out of the plane and were walking off, and a minute later there were five big, burly guys gathered all around me with handcuffs and handguns and stuff, saying, ‘Show us your ID! Show us your ID!’ Really quite heavy. So I fished around and found my ID, and then they all loosened up. They were looking for an escaped convict who looked just like me or something.” He stops, shakes his head and laughs. “That’s when I knew we weren’t Number One. I thought, ‘After this, there’s no way we’re Number One.’ And I rang up our manager, Gary [Stamler], and he said no, we dropped to Number Three.
“I thought, ‘Yeah, that makes sense.'”
“I Think I like it,” Said Neil Finn hesitantly. “Look, Neil,” said Mitchell Froom, “if there’s anything that bothers you about this, we have time to redo it.”
“No, I don’t really know what else I’d do with it.”
“But are you happy with it the way it is?” asked Gary Stamler.
“Yeah, I guess.…”
“Look, Neil,” said Bob Clearmountain from behind the mixing board. “It’ll be easy to call up the song and do another mix.”
“No, it should be okay the way it is. I mean, something bothers me about it, but…–”
It was the day before Easter in New York City, the last day of mixing for the Crowded House album that had finally, officially, been titled Temple of Low Men. And inside a mixing room at the Hit Factory, Neil Finn was trying to let go–while everybody else did their best to make absolutely, completely sure that Finn was happy with the results.
“It’s hard on Neil,” said Froom after the session. “He’s tortured in the way that he goes back and forth, always thinking he could do better….So we have to feel that we haven’t left any stones unturned.”
Finally, Finn made his decision: the record was finished. He walked back to his midtown hotel room, sent his son, Liam, off with a nanny, ordered room-service tea–and in the hour or so before he was to meet his wife, Sharon, for some downtown shopping, he tried to gain some perspective on the album he’d been immersed in for months.
“Sometimes when I listen to the record I get a real rush and I think we’ve really done something pretty good,” he said with a shrug. “But you never know, and the last person you wanna fool this early on is yourself. I don’t want to rush into it thinking this is the greatest thing that’s ever been recorded and at some point go through the agony of realization that I was kidding myself. I’d rather have humbled expectations, and then be pleasantly surprised.”
Still, he admitted, he was expecting it to do well. “There’s enough on the record that’s easily as good as the last one to indicate that it should do at least as well as the last one, unless something badly goes wrong…. Though if that happened, I probably would be quite shattered.” He laughed. “I know I’d be surprised.”
It’s not yet time for finn to be shattered, but things haven’t gone entirely well for Temple of Low Men. Reviewers found the record darker and moodier than its predecessor and pointed out that while it takes longer to appreciate, in the long run it’s probably a deeper, more rewarding record.
But “Better Be Home Soon,” which many of those around the band reportedly thought was a sure-fire smash hit, had to struggle for Top Forty airplay and didn’t make much of a dent on the sales charts–”and when it wasn’t a hit,” says Mitchell Froom, “it definitely put the album in a very touchy situation.” Says Gary Stamler, “No one will ever convince me that ‘Better Be Home Soon’ isn’t a hit song. It’s very difficult to understand: The record company tried very hard, but Top Forty radio, after a point, didn’t play it as readily as we all thought they would. When radio programmers don’t want to play a song, they give you a bevy of excuses, but a lot of times they’ll never really lead you to any consensus answers as to why the record isn’t performing better.”
For his part, though, Neil Finn found himself disillusioned. “It pisses me off,’ he said after the single fell off the charts, “considering that everybody was so 100 percent convinced that it was the right song to put out because it was a dead-certain smash. It really wasn’t a clear-cut choice for me at all: I was quite wary about putting it out first, not because I don’t like the song but because I feel it’s not representative of the rest of the record.
“So that is slightly annoying, even though I don’t have my heart set on necessarily having hit singles. In fact, it’s further confirmation to me that the best thing I could be doing now is probably being at home writing songs instead of frantically tearing around the world trying to give the record company what they need in order to get a hit record.”
Of course, the plan is to try for more hit records to help push the album–which sold just under 500,000 copies in its first few months without a hit–toward the million copies that the band’s debut is on the verge of selling.
“I’m disappointed in how ‘Better Be Home Soon’ did, but by no means am I disheartened,” says Stamler. “And I’m optimistic that we will have hit singles by the end of the year, and that this album will prove to be as big if not a bigger record than the first one.”
The next single, though, is “Into Temptation,” a lush five-and-a-half-minute ballad that is one of the album’s best songs but seemingly one of its least likely candidates to make its way into the Top Forty. “Nobody perceives it to be an easy single,” says Stamler, “but we’ll kill ourselves trying, because we really believe in the quality of the song. ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ wasn’t an easy song for Top Forty radio, but once we got it played, it performed very well. And I’m confident that if we can get ‘Into Temptation’ played, it will perform.”
But that logic, which worked flawlessly last year with “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” failed this fall with “Better Be Home Soon.” I
n a way, the initial reaction to Temple of Low Men meant that Crowded House had to build its audience all over again–and Mitchell Froom, for one, has his doubts. “Basically,” he says, “as soon as you say, ‘It takes a while to get this album,’ nine times out of ten that means you have a big flop in America. ‘Cause nobody’s willing to give anything more than half a listen.”
Paul Hester has an earthier way of putting it. “People are out there buying the album and taking it home and tuning in, which is basically all we want to do,” he says. “We just want to connect with the soft, white underbelly of the American public and lock on like a dog fucking another dog. The idea is, you don’t fall off. You just hang on.”
Halfway through their Australian tour this August, the members of Crowded House left the world of big-time rock & roll and headed into the bush. They’d just done a show in Alice Springs, deep in the Australian outback–and after the concert, Finn and his wife and Hester and Seymour and their girlfriends piled into a couple of cars, drove into the desert until they spotted an inviting tree and built a campfire.
There, the band that took its name from cramped living quarters in the middle of a metropolitan sprawl looked out at the wide open spaces, drank traditional Australian bush tea and talked until about 4 a.m. “It was,” says Hester, “probably the best thing we’ve done together in a long time.” It was also a brief time away from life on the road, away from the lifestyle that success had created. “I grew up in the bush,” says Seymour, “and I can’t believe what my life has become in the past two years.”
Most of all, the band’s sojourn into the outback was a break from the pressures of that new life, from the incessant interviews and promotional chores that fall to–and sometimes overwhelm–an active pop band. Two weeks later Crowded House was back on the road, wrapping up its Australian tour with five shows in Sydney.
And Neil Finn was back on the promotional beat, albeit reluctantly. “As time goes on, more and more I feel the encroachment of career on songwriting,” he says. “We’ve been so busy for the last six or eight months that I haven’t written anything, and that bothers me in a big way. I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining, but I’ve seen so many people who have been successful and have gone for it and lost whatever it was that made them successful in the first place.”
So what would he like to do? “Really, in my heart of hearts, I’d like to stop everything tomorrow and write and record,” he says. “But there’s a sort of stubbornness in me that says this is a good record and I should go out and stand up for it and do it onstage.”
A week later Crowded House came to America for a few promotional duties–David Letterman, the MTV awards–and the band played bracing, marvelous club dates in New York and Los Angeles. But Finn also decided that maybe he really should opt out of an American tour–or at least scale it down considerably.
At press time he still hadn’t made up his mind. More certain is the band’s plan to take time off: a five-month break beginning in January, the first substantial hiatus for Crowded House since the release of its first album.
In the meantime, Neil Finn wonders what to do. His band made a fine first album, and it became a hit, albeit slowly. They made a better, richer but marginally moodier second album, and it turned out to be problematic. “The Americans have an expression, ‘the sophomore jinx,’ which I’d never heard before,” says Finn.
“It’s an awful expression, and I don’t really feel like we’re in that position at all. I just feel that now I’ve seen some of the conditions that put people in that position: pressures on your time created by having a successful first record and having less attention paid to the real guts of what you do. Inevitably, a lot of different outside things keep me away from what I love to do.”
He stops himself. “I really don’t want to give the impression that it’s all too much at the moment,” he says, “because at the end of the day, I feel that we’re really lucky. I mean, I go through extreme periods of anxiety about the whole thing, about whether this really is something significant and worthwhile. But when we play well together onstage or do something good in the studio, I know this thing is worth pursuing.”