LAist Interview: Tim Finn
The years have been kind to Tim Finn. The 56-year-old former lead singer of New Zealand art-pop group Split Enz is revered in his home land as a musical icon while still enjoying relative peace. Finn, who also worked with his brother Neil Finn for a period of time as a guitarist in the 1980's pop group Crowded House, is set to release a new album soon with his Split Enz bandmates but original material. But before the album is released in the States, Finn is getting a head start on touring this month with stops in Seattle, the Midwest and Los Angeles, on Sept. 11 at the El Rey.
I spoke with Finn from his New Zealand home as he prepared to embark on the tour about his personal battle with anxiety, hip-hop in New Zealand and the reformation of once broken up bands, which is where we started our conversation.
Last year, Crowded House played Coachella. You didn't join them, but I'm wondering what you think of bands, such as the Pixies and Smashing Pumpkins and, to a certain extent, Crowded House, getting back together after being broken up.
I think it's up to people if they want to do that. I know with Split Enz the issue of reforming was never an issue, but we have played. We played an Australian tour two years ago and a New Zealand tour earlier this year, because we haven't done it for about 15 years. It was a huge amount of fun and a great thing to do. But in terms of reforming, once you've actually officially broken up I don't know. Once you've actually broken up, something is broken. For it to be truly creative and exciting internally just for the band, that would probably be the hardest thing. I think the fans are going to love it, no question and they do. It is a recent phenomenon, particular in the states now where there's a whole touring circuit. But in terms of how it feels to the guys in the band, I would be skeptical that it feels as exciting as it once did.
What, then, in your opinion, do you think the motivation is in reforming or at least touring again?
That's a good question, because it is all about motivation, but I don't know. There is no easy answer because it would be slightly different for everyone.
This is a question I've been dying to ask for years now: Some say the lyrics for the Crowded House song “Chocolate Cake” is a sort of bitter portrayal of, if not Americans then certainly the first-world over-eating mentality. Is that the case?
Yeah, I mean we're all Americans in that sense. We received a lot of your culture and media and lifestyles and things like that. No one in the western world, in the first-world, is really that different anymore. When we wrote that song, I was relaying an anecdote to Neil. I had been sitting in a coffee shop in New York or a restaurant and a woman had just pronounced loudly to the rest of the room, “I don't know, you think I should have another piece of chocolate cake?” And I kind of liked the words chocolate cake, how they sounded and I wrote it down. I talked to Neil about it and he ran with it, coming up with a lot of lines. So, it was kind of coming out of his imagination, but it was fun to do. It's a sort of song you can have fun with and change around; there's always little things you can change as you go. I like doing the Andy Warhol stuff because it was amazing how prescient he was about the 15 minutes of fame thing. It's not particularly beating up on America, it's the whole lot of us.
When you play your older songs, what is the feeling you get when you're playing in front of a crowd who may be younger and hearing your songs for perhaps the first time?
It's very enjoyable. The Split Enz tour that we did in Australia and New Zealand, there were lots of people, thousands of people who had never seen us before. It was something we felt wonderful about. The majority of the crowd were fans, but they brought their kids or their kids found out about us. That still happens and it's great, it's quite refreshing.
You recently released an album of rarities, but the new one is all new songs, right?
Yeah, it will be released in the States next year. It's a brand new album called "The Conversation" with a full band. It's an acoustic album, kind of like chamber pop. We have a player on there named Miles Golding who use to be in Split Enz. He played on the very first live album with Split Enz in 1973 then went to play classical music in England. He never made a pop record, so this was a chance to work with him and reconnect with Eddie Rayner who used to play keyboard on Split Enz and Brett Adams, my guitar player. So it's a four piece acoustic album which is an album I've been wanting to make for a long time.
How did that collaboration come about? Did you call them and say, let's make an album without drums?
Yeah, I called them and said, let's do a chamber kind of thing. I read this quote from Schumann, who was considered one of the great chamber composers, who said, “Good chamber music should be like a conversation with everyone contributing equally.” I thought, that sounds good. I'll call the album “The Conversation” and the four of us can sit around and play music together and see what happens. It's a quiet record, but it's got its dynamics and was very inspirational to make.
How was the process of song writing for you changed over time?
I'm better at self editing, especially with the lyrics. It's subtle, but there's nothing I can point to. It would be quite easy for me to cull the songs from my past that I thought worked and songs that didn't work. After a few decades of [song writing], that seems to sharpen things up a bit. I hope I don't get to a point where I put a song out there and it doesn't work. So I'm more thorough and a better editor of my own work now, otherwise the process is exactly the same as it always was. I still sit down at the piano, I still sit down on the acoustic guitar and basically strum away and hit away until something comes.
Are there older songs of yours that you listen to that strike a chord with you as something you might not have written today?
Yeah, definitely there were some there that I could have only written at a certain time in my life. The subject matter and lyrics, you do sort of see that changing and unfolding. “Dirty Creature” for instance is a song I wrote with Split Enz when I suffered from these really terrible panic attacks. I didn't know what they were and a terrible anxiety feeling would come about every night. I didn't know anything about this condition, this clinical condition. At first, you just get mad and don't think you're ever gonna get back and then you gradually learn what it is and how you control it. Now, I can control it. So, I probably would not plum the depths like that [now]. That song was basically me defending myself against this thing.
Did “Dirty Creature” help alleviate the onslaught of panic attacks by bringing the issue to light?
Yeah, as soon as I had the song written, I much more control over it. I had a lot of response over the years from people who thought it was about depression. But it actually wasn't. It was about anxiety attacks. But people with depression said it helped them. There are very few songs in your life you'll write that have actually helped people and that's an amazing thing.
You guys were instrumental in helping put New Zealand rock on the map. Recently, we've seen some other bands coming out of there, notably Flight of the Conchords. What do you think of the state of New Zealand music now?
It's healthy. There are a lot of new bands around; people writing songs, making music videos. There is plenty going on.
Do you think it's changed over time or is it pretty similar to when you guys were coming up?
The big change was reggae and hip-hop, which came along after Split Enz had started. When Bob Marley first visited New Zealand, he lit a fuse that is still burning very brightly. The Maori people particularly honor reggae music in a very big way. So there is a strong reggae scene and a strong hip-hop scene, especially among Samoans. There's still plenty of quirky stuff around. No one expects to make much money here, so it definitely does encourage an underground sense.
Do you mostly live in New Zealand?
Yeah, I do nowadays. I live out of New Zealand for 25 years, mostly London and Sydney, in Australia and Melbourne too. But I've been back here for about 8 years.
How are you received these days?
You know, it's funny. They throw these names out there like “Legend” and “Icon” that are meant in complimentary ways, but you sort of balk at because you're still a day-to-day kind of song writer. You're still struggling with music and trying to write a new song. People tend to think we're living in rarefied atmosphere a little bit. And yet I could be playing a New Zealand tour and play for 30 people in a tiny provincial town, so it's not like I could necessarily go out there and play for a huge crowd. Split Enz can, but as a solo [artist], I've really varied. I've had a very diverse career which, in a way, is good because I keep a very interesting narrative there. I keep it real.
Your upcoming tour in America features mostly medium sized venues, like the El Rey in Los Angeles. Was the size of venues something you considered for this tour?
Well, I never really built up much of a touring presence in America. I played the big crowds with Neil as the Finn brothers. And with Crowded House we played for very large crowds. But on my own, I've done very little work out there, so this is where I fit in I guess. If I can play for 100 people I'm happy.
Do you have any expectations for the crowds over here?
Well, I think they're great. I've said it before, but American audiences are amongst the most generous I've ever played to. They really let you know that you're welcome. A lot of them come along and know the catalogue for the past 35 years, almost better than I do. So you start asking people, Is there anything you want to hear? Some of them [the requests] are so obscure. Those are the ones you love. It's a well educated crowd and they're very enthusiastic. I always really enjoy playing in the States.
Are you planing on keeping the set list pretty open for those recommendations?
Yeah, I usually throw it open at some point during the night. It keeps it really fresh for us.
You lived for a time in Los Angeles when you were with Crowded House, right?
When we made “Woodface,” we lived a bit in L.A. for a couple months at a time finishing that album.
Where did you guys live?
For a while we lived in a place we called the Pink Palace. It was a place Rick Rubin ended up buying on Miller Drive, above Sunset [Boulevard].
And what are your thoughts on Los Angeles?
I always really like being in L.A. It's always a place I like to go. The West Hollywood pool is a place I like to swim in.
Do you have any favorite clubs you like to play in?
You know, I like the classic ones like the Roxy or the Whiskey or the Troubadour. Those are the ones I have played a lot. Now I'm playing the El Rey. I've never played that one, but I'm really looking forward to it.
What about other places in the States?
I like Pittsburgh. I know people roll their eyes a lot, but I really like that city. New York's always great and I like the south, I like New Orleans.
Tim Finn, thanks very much, it was a pleasure.