“We’re not going to sit here like dorks,” Neil Finn recently declared to media who’d assembled virtually and in-person in Auckland’s Roundhead studios to hear Crowded House’s first album in over a decade. The band, Finn said, would not adopt what he called “the Nick Hornby model with sad old wankers staring at the floor”.
“We will play along – it’s a good rehearsal for us, really,” he assured the media coterie.
A man ran to the corner of the room to drop the needle on a vinyl copy of ‘Dreamers Are Waiting’, and Crowded House crackled into life. Gone was the orchestral grandiosity of 2010’s ‘Intriguer’ – replaced by the sound of a band simply “playing in a room”, as Finn put it. That’s no doubt in part due to how Crowded House’s new members aren’t all that new, after all: Finn’s two sons Liam and Elroy have joined on guitar and drums, respectively, as well as Mitchell Froom – the producer of the band’s first three albums – on keyboards.
More rehearsal couldn’t have hurt, either, since it was a day before the start of Crowded House’s 12-date New Zealand To The Island tour, their first live shows since 2016’s ‘Encore’ Sydney Opera House concerts – a greatest hits victory lap marking 20 years since they broke up in 1996. The band went on an “indefinite hiatus” after that, and it almost looked like Crowded House would be consigned to history when Finn accepted an offer to replace Lindsay Buckingham in Fleetwood Mac in 2018.
But as it turns out, working the glitzy global tour circuit with Stevie Nicks actually prompted Finn to return to his band from the Land of the Long White Cloud. “I started thinking differently about what classic bands could be: they could be vital and not nostalgia,” he explained.
Vitality is the elemental force behind ‘Dreamers Are Waiting’, easily Crowded House’s most experimental record since ‘Woodface’ in 1993. When the ever-affable Finn calls NME from a “bright-ish” Auckland two months later, the 63-year-old is practically effervescent after their nationwide tour previewing the new material.
“We found out on the tour… that the five of us sound really, really good,” he laughs down a hissing phone line. “There will be a live special that we recorded and filmed, which we’re just mixing now, and it’s blowing me away a little bit to hear it.”
That special is Live From The Island, an upcoming Crowded House livestream of a New Zealand concert they filmed in March. Taking place June 12, it’ll be the first opportunity for most of the world to see the newest iteration for Crowded House – sans former drummer Matt Sherrod and keyboard-guitarist Mark Hart.
Sherrod, who’d played with Crowded House since 2007, and Hart, who’d been a member since 1993, were dismissed without much public explanation. “That was a tough call,” Finn muses. “Mark is a good friend, a great player, and was obviously a big part of Crowded House for a number of years. Probably to some of the fans, that was a great mystery.”
Finn reveals that after the 2016 Opera House shows, the band tried working on some new music “and it just went around in circles a bit. And to be honest, it didn’t feel like we had a new direction. And I don’t mean that to sound harsh about any of the people in the band, but I just wasn’t feeling it… I think there wouldn’t have been another Crowded House record at this point [with the old line-up].”
“There’s some really lovely things that happen only when a band plays all at once”
‘Dreamers Are Waiting’ came about through the collision of traditional record-making with the warped circumstances of 2020. Sessions began in the classical fashion at the ageing Valentine Recording Studios in Los Angeles.
“It looks like a timepiece, it’s got lime green carpet on the walls,” Finn recalls. “It isn’t an easy place to get a great sound. But once you get the room working and everybody set up in the right positions, it really came down to using some old skills about balancing in the room.”
Those old skills, as it turns out, refer to shunning headphones and click tracks in favour of the ad hoc magic of a band counting in and playing live.
“There’s some really lovely things that happen only when a band plays all at once. That just doesn’t seem to happen in another context,” Finn says, with a quick caveat lest he be perceived as a grouchy rockist: “Not to say that modern record-making has anything wrong with it.”
But when the pandemic hit, liveness had to be substituted for strangeness. Finn lived in LA with Liam and Elroy throughout the first wave of lockdowns, and worked out of a single room in their home, interrupted only by hummingbirds fluttering outside his window. The band agreed to push the album’s release past 2020 so Crowded House could return to the stage to introduce it – giving them time to make “radical changes” to the material.
Finn embraced his tinkering spirit during this period – something he says comes through particularly on ‘Show Me The Way’. “I actually had quite a strong inclination to destroy the work I’d been doing for the last few days, in the thrill of watching it float to the ground, grabbing the best bits and making something new out of it,” he explains.
In the March listening session, Finn tried to underline the joy ‘Dreamers Are Waiting’ offers amid global sadness – but contemporary paranoia still eats away at its songs. “Let’s all be quiet / The next generation’s talking / We’re behind the wheel / We’re driving straight to the wall,” he cries on ‘Playing With Fire’.
“We’ve got the celebratory feeling about having the band back together. But, you know, I’m one of those people… when things are going really well, there’s just a hint of worry about impending doom” Finn admits. “At the moment, I think we’ve all got that feeling a little bit. We’re emerging, possibly, from this pandemic, and a little bit of hope is starting to creep back – but then there’s this sense that there are bigger problems ahead.”
He halts mid-explanation. “Anyway, I don’t want to dwell on that as a message for the song.”
“I’m fully aware of my own limitations and I’ve decided at some point to make the most of it”
But again, it leaks out. In ‘Whatever You Want’, Finn rails against the “cult of yes men”, from the music industry to demagogues in the age of misinformation. The singer is never didactic, however, in large part because he can’t affect narrative songwriting, instead exploring big ideas and feelings with free association.
“I’m fully aware of my own limitations and I’ve decided at some point to make the most of it,” he says. “If I allow myself to be a bit free, and not pinned down by having to be linear, then I can come up with some great lines.”
A vivid example is in ‘Sweet Tooth’ – “There were six of us / Somehow / Now there’s 17” is a vignette of bringing a bag of chips to school, and seeing more and more “friends” asking you to share. It’s a comforting callback to the non-sequiturs that riddle some of the band’s old hits (think ‘Chocolate Cake’). Evidently, the chaos of modernity and a personnel shake-up aren’t enough to erase the wry Crowded House DNA.
But will the band fall into another indefinite hiatus? Not if Finn can help it. Unprompted, Finn says another album from the renewed group might be possible next year, declaring they will “move through the next phase much quicker”.
“I think we’ll make some great gains from having done this touring. It really feels like we’re poised with this great energy and a sense of purpose. We are reborn.”
Crowded House’s ‘Dreamers Are Waiting’ is out now. On June 12, the band will stage Live From The Island. Get tickets here