X-press Magazine (Perth, Australia)
14 June 2001
Music Feature - Neil Finn: Nil by Mouth

Next Saturday, June 23, will be the first chance that the majority of West Australian’s will have to hear the new work of Neil Finn performed live. Unless of course you found yourself in Auckland at the beginning of April. Finn tells CHELSEA HUNTER about his recent experiences in Auckland before making his way to Metropolis, Northbridge.

At the end of March this year news started filtering out from New Zealand about some form of supergroup converging on the steps of the St James, and old theatre found smack dab in the centre of Auckland. Then, as April slowly drew near, the rumours started to take shape. Neil Finn, arguably New Zealand’s greatest contribution to the world of music, had made a few calls to a few pals and had organised a run of dates to coincide with the recent release of his second solo album One Nil.

Previously the former frontman of Crowded House had been wandering around New Zealand playing a few low key gigs here and there with bands of local amateur musicians where they each went through the hits of Finn, which covered solo, Enz and Crowdies territory. To end the tour Finn chose to form a short term band of his own featuring the likes of Eddie Vedder, Johnnie Marr of the Smiths fame and Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien and Phil Sedway.

“It was a whimsical notion that I had around Christmas time really,” Finn explains, calling from Sydney the day after his 43rd birthday. “The year was shaping up to be a really mixed bag of things. I was going out to do a tour with a band of strangers every night in New Zealand and I thought it would be good in Auckland as a special event where I invite special guests and make the band up, to do something in Auckland that Auckland would never normally get.”

When fiction eventually turned out to be fact and the rumours of the supergroup were confirmed, fans the world over check their diaries to find some spare days between April 2 and 6, while simultaneously checking their frequent flyer points. Like Crowded House’s final gig on the steps of the Opera House, it was something no-one really wanted to miss.


For the originator of the idea it was something of a novelty that came together with a relative degree of ease.

“Oh, it took a few phone calls,” he says, “but on the spot we rehearsed for about three or four days. It was a pretty amazing thing actually. Not everybody that I rang was available, but the list of people that were available were very compatible, I think. The right ones for the line up, so it worked out really well. It was a great event, I’m sure some people made it. I think there were quite a few who travelled over, Im not quite sure how many, but there were a few people. It’ll be available at some point. It’s all filmed and recorded so you’ll get a chance to see it.”

Each of the five nights featured support from Liam Finn, the eldest of Finn’s two sons, and his band Betchadupa playing songs from Split Enz and Crowded House and even featured Eddie Vedder on vocals on the odd occasion. The main attraction also played songs from that era but focussed primarily on the solo songs with a few special songs added along the way, like The Smith’s There’s A Light with both Marr and Finn on vocals. Each night, according to Finn, was pretty memorable in their own right.

“We got better as we went on in some ways,” he says, “but the nights didn’t get better consecutively. I think, for me anyway, Tuesday and Thursday were the best nights. But they were all good in some way, they all had their moments. Some nights are better than others. It’s just the way it works, I’m not sure why really because if you listen to the tapes the stuff from Friday was really good… all the nights were good.”

Mentioning that it would be slightly impractical to take this band on tour around Australia, Europe and the UK with him, Finn has pulled together another band for his run around Australia.

Joining him on stage will be Lisa Germano who also added her own touches to One Nil, Sebastian Steinberg from Soul Coughing and Shon Sullivan and Scott McCuse, who both recently toured with Elliott Smith.

“It seems like I’m throwing bands together at the drop of a hat now,” Finn muses. “I’m getting to play with lots of different people and I’m liking that because it means that anytime you go out there is a different angle on it. It doesn’t get comfortable that’s for sure. At the moment I am embracing the whole thing of being solo and trying to paly with a lot of different, good musicians so I think it will rub off in a good way on me and I think there will be a time when I will want to consolidate and have the regularity of the same band.”


Finn says that he regards these times as opportunities to learn from the musicians he is playing with, after all, you’re never to old to learn something new.

In a way I think it is a much more complex thing when you are a solo act. There are a lot more choices and I think it is good to get around to experience a lot of them to figure out what it is that you are aiming for,” he says.

Being on the road of course is no stranger to Finn who accepts that the global touring is simply part of this package labelled ‘internationally adored musician’. The longest tour he has ever been on was with Crowded House, after the release of Woodface where the band, which included brother Tim Finn, spent 14 months in hotel rooms and tour vans. He says he wouldn’t want to do that again.

“It sort of depends really. You end up touring a lot longer because the record is becoming successful so you have got a good reasong to do it but I think that’s probably a bit long for me. It gets tricky at times but it’s easy when your family is with you.”

Finn’s last major tour in support of his first solo album, Try Whistling This, occurred in 1998 and featured son Liam as part of the line up and wife Sharon as the lighting designer. Finn’s other son Elroy designed the cover of the album. It was also the subject matter of the book Once Removed which featured work by photographer Mark Smith, who also doubled as Elroy’s tutor, and words by Finn, exloring the mindset of those on tour.

“I did it in bursts over a period of about three months,” he explains. “I knew that I wanted to try and evoke the feeling of what it is like to be on tour and there were a lot of things that I could have written that I thought of since that would have been good to write about too. I think it feels reasonably intimate so I’m pleased about that. Hopefully it demystifies (touring), but hopefully there is something quite magical about it, about playing live…I’m so drawn to it.”

In the book Finn says that he continues to tour for that magical hour and a half on stage where he gets to give all his energy to the music. It is, he says, a passion that doesn’t fade.

“I mean it ebbs and flows in terms of how much other stuff you’re doing. Sometimes all the other stuff can get in the way of the enjoyment of music, but I have always had a very deep compulsion to do it. I don’t think that has faded at all over the years.

“For a live gig obviously the connection with the audience is the key thing, but just being able to lose yourself in it. I guess the applause is nice but I can do that at home as well.”

What, push the applause button?

“No, no. Just lose myself in the music.”

Photograph: Neil standing in front of some caravans in a grassy field.

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