Crowded House Interviewed: “I definitely take responsibility for making some quite poor decisions in the band’s career.”

Blasphemy, busking, meat raffles and tragedy, Crowded House’s Neil Finn and Nick Seymour look back at the antipodean songsmiths’ highs and lows.

Crowded House 2021

by MOJO |
Updated on

With their effortless songs and onstage larks, Crowded House made a good show of flying above the fray. But splits and sackings, and their drummer’s shocking suicide, told another story. As Neil Finn and Nick Seymour – the “angsty songwriter” and the “smart arse” – regrouped to go again in 2021, they relived the blasphemy and meat raffles, the good times and bad with MOJO's Andy Fyfe...

In the mid-’80s, ambassadors from South Pacific nations were invited to bring their national dish to a pot luck diplomatic dinner. When the New Zealand and Australian guests both turned up with a pavlova it caused a rancorous regional spat about the meringue-based dessert’s origin that ran in local media for, well, days.

Likewise, ownership of the region’s second-biggest musical export (after AC/DC) is also disputed, although Crowded House’s classic line-up – Neil Finn OBE (from Te Awamutu, NZ, pop 13,100), Nick Seymour and Paul Hester (both from Victoria, Australia) – splits 2:1 for the Aussies. “At the rehearsal for one US chat show,” recalls Nick Seymour today, “the host introduced us with, ‘Throw another shrimp on the barbie, here’s Crowded House from Australia’. Neil walked over and said, ‘Well, I’m from New Zealand actually.’ So we ended up deciding to be ‘Antipodean’, which is just so earnest.”

Frontman Finn’s string of classic guitar-pop songs for Crowded House – Don’t Dream It’s Over, Four Seasons In One Day, Weather With You, Fall At Your Feet, Distant Sun, the list goes on – have earned him precedence. It’s Finn who calls the group into existence and orders its dissolution, as he did, for the first time, in 1996, on the verge of a next-level breakthrough.

“I was all ready for it,” rues Seymour. “Then Neil rings up to say he’s leaving the band. That took a long time to get over.”

Finn’s reasons, like his deceptively deep songs of self-doubt, Catholic guilt and romantic redemption, and like the man, were complicated. “I was, and am, ambitious,” he tells MOJO today. “I wanted and want to be noticed, I wanted the music to be heard. But I definitely take responsibility for making some quite poor decisions in the band’s career.”

Thirty-five years since the release of their debut album, Crowded House are once again a going concern. Finn (63) and Seymour (62) have released their seventh album, Dreamers Are Waiting, and just finished an actual tour of New Zealand. Any hatchets, it is presumed, are long buried. Yet across the cheeky chappies who once set the question for a Saturday morning kids TV competition as, “Which member of the band isn’t circumcised?”, lies the shadow of a four-decade history of bust-ups, lost friendships, and drug dalliances, plus the much longer one cast by the mental health struggles of Paul Hester and his shocking 2005 suicide.

No wonder Neil Finn fitted right in when he joined Fleetwood Mac.

Neil Finn was just 19 when he was drafted into older brother Tim’s art rock group Split Enz, 21 when his first solo songwriting contribution, 1980’s I Got You, gave Split Enz their only UK Top 20 hit. Two years later, they were poised for a follow-up with Six Months In A Leaky Boat, written by Tim about his nervous breakdown. Unfortunately, the Falklands War broke out and it fell foul of a BBC blacklist banning songs with naval connotations.

When Split Enz disbanded in 1984 no founding members remained, leaving Neil fronting what he still considered to be his brother’s band. Crucially, however, a new drummer had arrived: Melbourne-born Paul Hester. Even as Split Enz conducted their farewell tour of Australia the pair were inventing their next band and, at the final after show party, bassist Nick Seymour ‘introduced’ himself.

“The story that I approached Neil at a party makes it sound like I drunkenly accosted him, but it was a totally calculated move,” says Seymour today. “I admired Neil, thought he’d written some great songs, and by hook or by crook I was going to work with this guy.”

Finn, meanwhile, was vaguely aware of Seymour. “He was on the fringes of the Melbourne scene, a very gregarious, outgoing fellow – still is. Also a bit of a smart arse.”

With the core trio complete, Finn and Hester trod the globe in search of a record deal, eventually signing to Capitol in America. With another guitarist, Craig Hooper, in tow, they piled into a car and set out on an Australian tour as The Mullanes, after Finn’s middle name. For Finn, it was seat-of-the-pants touring that he’d never really experienced with Split Enz.

“At one gig, a big yacht club in Belmont, the car park was full and we thought, ‘Finally, an audience!’” says Finn. “But there were three people in our room while downstairs was packed for the biggest meat raffle in the Hunter Valley.”

Australia had never been the prize, however, and when the trio, now minus Hooper, flew to Los Angeles to record their debut album they were convinced this was the big time. Hester and Seymour surfed cardboard boxes down the stairs of the band’s two-bed rented apartment at 1902 N Sycamore Avenue – the titular ‘crowded house’ – and invited the neighbourhood back to party, while Finn worked up songs with Mitchell Froom, a young Canadian producer living in Los Feliz. Strumming acoustic guitar in Froom’s back bedroom while the producer played synth bass and B3 organ, Finn glimpsed soulful paths for his songs to explore. But the early weeks in the studio were filled with wrong turns, and Finn was starting to have a mini crisis.

“I was overthinking in my own angsty songwriter way,” he explains. “Some of my very first songs became successful with Split Enz, and your personality can freeze when you become successful, you can stop maturing and become self-absorbed.”

The self-titled album’s first three singles tanked in the US and Capitol’s interest waned. The band fell between stools: too pop for alternative success and, it seemed, too quirky for the mainstream. Attempting to fashion their own destiny, the band hit the road, busking in restaurants, small radio stations, record company offices, wherever they could stir some local interest. Eventually, the larger stations took notice, as did Capitol’s bigwigs.

“Those busking shows are where we really learned how to be a band,” says Finn, “how to let it all hang out and gather it back up again.”

In the meantime, Don’t Dream It’s Over was released as a single, a last roll of the dice. Everyone liked it, but it didn’t seem the kind of song to break a new act. Too downbeat. Back in Australia for a New Year’s Eve gig supporting OMD, they got a call from their manager: Don’t Dream It’s Over was Number 36 in the Billboard singles chart.

Don’t Dream It’s Over changed everything. Number 1 in Canada and New Zealand, it eventually hit Number 2 in the US and Top 30 in the UK. After three months gigging just to spark some interest, they now had a smash hit and would spend much of the next 18 months on the road around the world.

“One night, just before going on stage, the record company asked us to phone every chart return store in America to thank them for getting us to Number 3,” Finn recalls with a disbelieving chuckle. “I was too frazzled and refused, but hey, we didn’t get to Number 1, so maybe I was wrong.”

Crowded House were about to learn how fleeting a pop moment can be. Their more melancholy second album, Temple Of Low Men, performed more poorly than expected, and when an early version of third album Woodface was rejected by Capitol, a rethink was in order. Finn’s somewhat random solution was to sack Seymour. As the bassist remembers it, there was no sugar coating: “He just told me he didn’t want to be in a band with me anymore.”

A month later Seymour rang Finn and declared, “You know this is stupid?” Finn agreed, and the bass player was reinstated. Looking back, Finn admits the fault.

“Nick’s a really quirky player,” he says. “When he’s working out a bassline he sometimes doesn’t play the same thing twice for two weeks and I allowed that to become the focus of my own writing angst. It’s not like we made any progress while he was gone.”

Meanwhile, Finn had been writing with his elder brother again, penning an album’s worth of songs in just a few days. When Neil asked if some of their co-writes might be used on Woodface, Tim, self-admittedly envious of the success of Don’t Dream It’s Over, had a half-joking proviso: yes, but only if he joined the band.

I definitely take responsibility for making some quite poor decisions in the band’s career.

Neil Finn

It was a bad idea. Over six years Crowded House had become a unique live act that embraced chaos. The trio’s banter between songs verged on improvisational comedy, the audience encouraged to throw notes on stage that, if they took the band’s fancy, might completely change the set list or open a discussion on modernist art. “We had an understanding, through years of busking and rocking up anonymously at open mike nights, that if I did this, then Paul would do that and Neil would do this,” Seymour says. It was a tight, slick piece of musical farce that didn’t include Tim.

“Tim was a frontman,” Seymour continues, “and yet here he was at the side playing keyboards during old songs he had no connection with.”

Eventually, as they waited to go onstage at King Tut’s in Glasgow, Neil suggested his older brother might be happier if he left. Rumours suggested a dust-up high on the Gallagher Scale of brotherly spats, but Neil recalls nothing like that.

“There was, um, conversation and agreement, um, all actually very polite,” he says haltingly, “and, you know, if two people started talking at the same time it was all, ‘No, after you’...”

Ironically, Weather With You – one of the Finn/Finn co-writes that saved Woodface – became a hit in February 1992, three months after Tim left. Likewise, Crowded House’s bookings in the UK went from two nights at London’s tiny Borderline in June ‘91, to Wembley Arena exactly 12 months later. Once again, Tim had missed sharing his brother’s success.

Woodface flipped Crowded House’s career entirely. America wasn’t listening anymore, but the band was now firmly established in Britain and Europe. Having migrated to Capitol’s UK sister label Parlophone, Finn wanted to make a grown-up, statement album. The unlikely producer would be ex-Killing Joke bassist Martin Glover, aka Youth, fresh from work with The Orb on ambient house trailblazer Little Fluffy Clouds. The band, says Seymour, bonded with him over “a big spliff and his record collection”.

“We were aware of his connections with KLF and The Orb,” explains Finn, “things that were right outside our sphere but had an integrity we admired. We didn’t want to make a record like The Orb, but Youth was very singer-songwriter oriented as well. He liked Cat Stevens as much as he liked hardcore trance.”

Decamping to the black sand beaches that line the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island, they built a studio in a friend’s house at Karekare, the main location for Jane Campion’s 1993 period drama The Piano. A place of Māori myth, tribal genocide, emerald bush and sublime yet treacherous surf, it’s also crisscrossed with ley lines. Youth’s esoteric interests were piqued.

“I was experimenting heavily with psychedelics and really into crystals at the time,” says the producer today, “and this place was just brimming with magical energy.”

But the mix of London hippy raver and guitar pop band wasn’t an easy one. Time was lost while Youth searched for a crystal he’d buried near a waterfall, while Finn complains of “negative energy” and admits to dabbling with acid. He calls it a “vocational rather than recreational” choice. Youth, however, claims it was something the band and crew embraced.

“There was a night, pitch black, where we went for a barefoot walk down the track to the sea. I was in front, the others in a line with their hands on the one in front’s shoulder, and as we went I started going faster and faster until we were all running through the dark forest, unable to see a thing, laughing our heads off. Amazing no one hit anything.”

Seymour – whose marriage collapsed around the same time – was unimpressed by some of Youth’s actual production work. He recalls Finn struggling with a difficult vocal take, and asking for feedback. The response: a light but unmistakable snoring coming from a couch in the control room. “I asked why he was sleeping and he just said, ‘I was tired, man’.”

More surprising is Seymour’s grudge against Richard Thompson, a friend of Froom’s who had contributed the Django Reinhardt-style guitar solo on Temple Of Low Men’s Sister Madly. As with every Crowded House album, Seymour had painted the sleeve artwork for what was to be called Together Alone. This one was a triptych of Christ, Buddha and Mohammad in a car. When Thompson, a Muslim since 1974, saw it, he objected in the strongest terms.

“We argued about religious censorship but he was completely correct,” Seymour concedes. “Bearing in mind what happened at Charlie Hebdo, good thing too. But saying he found me ‘personally offensive’ was a bit much.” Seymour repainted the cover with a curtain drawn across Mohammad’s window.

Together Alone catapulted Crowded House to another level of success, but it came at a cost. Hester had been struggling with depression for years, although his bandmates were only now beginning to see how deep the problem ran. He’d been increasingly unhappy during the recording of Together Alone, keeping a distance that eventually influenced the album title. Halfway through their 1994 North American tour, just before a show in Atlanta, the drummer quit.

“Everybody finds their breaking point,” Finn says today, “and Paul had got into a spiral of too many days in strange Midwest towns. We didn’t really understand what was happening with him, but in some ways we were relieved that at least something had happened.”

“Paul was expecting his first child,” adds Seymour, “and he was possibly in the early stages of becoming agoraphobic. He talked about not even wanting to leave the page of the [Melbourne street atlas] Melways he lived on. His mood swings and vulnerability were obviously enslaved to the band’s schedule of every day having to look at Neil and me, and then act like nothing was wrong.”

The remaining pair finished the tour with Wally Ingram deputising for Hester, borrowed from support act Sheryl Crow. But for Finn something fundamental shifted when his best friend left, and when he and Seymour reconvened to work up new songs something didn’t gel for the songwriter. If it was going to be different, it had to be completely different.

Seymour, meanwhile, believed that with just one more album they could be the biggest band in the world. “We’d just got out of our contract with Capitol, I assumed we were going to sign to another big label and we’d suddenly be quite financially independent, recording a flagship album. Then Neil leaves. I waited a few weeks thinking he’d change his mind.”

Finn’s course was set, however. “It was definitely pulling the plug on something, but I’m quite reactionary and restless by nature and I thought it best to stop while there was something left in the tank.”

On November 24, 1996 Crowded House’s valedictory Farewell To The World tour ended with a free concert on the steps of the Sydney Opera House in front of 250,000 people. Rejoined by Hester for a final performance, the experience was bittersweet: their biggest moment was also their last.

“The after show for that wasn’t great,” says Finn ruefully. “There was a big club hired and we all turned up, but no one was in the mood to celebrate.”

Worse was to come.

My life changed after knowing Paul so closely. I had to work out a lot about the human condition.

Nick Seymour

On March 26, 2005, Paul Hester was found hanged from a tree in Elsternwick Park, near his Melbourne home, just 46. It was a decade since he’d left Crowded House, but it still felt like losing a bandmate.

“When he left the group it was hard not to be aware that he was in the middle of something very big,” says Finn. “We hadn’t seen much of Paul but it was good when we did. He’d been my best friend and it was deeply distressing.”

“My life has really changed after knowing Paul so closely and dealing with the aftermath for his family and those that loved him,” Seymour confides. “I had to try and work out a lot about the human condition and what ‘fragile’ means, but I never saw anything in him as being that morbid, never thought that it was threatening in regard of life and death.”

Hester’s death did, however, bring Finn and Seymour back together. Already in the middle of recording a solo album, Finn suggested Seymour come and play some bass. The songs had been largely written before Hester’s death but the album, Time On Earth, resonated in such a way it became a memorial to their fallen Crowded Housemate.

“Paul dying remains a deeply troubling time,” Finn says. “Although there’d been a full stop put on Crowded House we thought there was something more to be had or given to the band as a soulful experience, something to commemorate. It may be a strange reaction but it seemed right at the time.”

Since then there has been another Crowded House album – the seldom-spotted Intriguer in 2010 – solo Neil and Finn Brothers projects, the Pajama Club record with his wife Sharon, a charity album as 7 Worlds Collide, featuring Johnny Marr, Eddie Vedder and Radiohead’s Phil Selway and Ed O’Brien, and 2018’s Lightsleeper, recorded with son Liam.

Then, two years ago, Finn was asked to replace Lindsay Buckingham in Fleetwood Mac. Watching Mac fans respond to the band’s old songs, he started to think that maybe there was not only worth in re-engaging with his own past, but maybe creating a new present, too. Reconvening Crowded House in LA just before lockdown, the now five-piece (featuring Seymour, Finn’s sons Liam on guitar and drummer Elroy, and Mitchell Froom on keyboards) recorded Dreamers Are Waiting, a lush and sure-footed album that nonetheless sparkles with a joy and energy that recalls the band’s debut.

“I don’t know where it fits in the canon as such, that will take time to figure out,” Finn says, “but this iteration of the band is very exciting.”

Even though his sons have backed him through various solo permutations, Finn thought they might scoff at the idea of joining Crowded House. Not for the first time in the story of the group, he was wrong.

“I didn’t understand why he waited so long to ask,” says Liam. “Who other than Dad, Nick and Mitchell knows more about the band than us? Maybe when he gives up we’ll just carry on as a family franchise.”

“Ha!” barks Finn Sr at the idea. “Who knows, though? The Finn Family Singers. Why the fuck not?”

This article originally appeared in MOJO 333. Crowded House’s new album, Gravity Stairs is out now, read MOJO’s review in full HERE


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