Thursday, March 29, 2012

An EXCLUSIVE interview with NEIL FINN!

Here Comes The Sun:

An EXCLUSIVE interview

By Stephen SPAZ Schnee
     In 2001, singer/songwriter Neil Finn (Split Enz/Crowded House) managed a feat that seemed almost unheard of in modern music: he brought together some of the biggest names in music to perform a few concerts in his native New Zealand. Apart from his brother Tim Finn (Split Enz) and his son Liam (and his band Betchadupa), there were also two members of Radiohead (Ed O’Brien and Phil Selway), Pearl Jam vocalist Eddie Vedder, Soul Coughing’s Sebastian Steinberg, solo artist and session musician Lisa Germano and guitar maestro (and former Smiths member) Johnny Marr. The resulting video and live album was entitled 7 Worlds Collide and credited to Neil Finn & Friends.

     Seven years later, Finn upped the ante and not only invited the same folks back over to New Zealand for a few more live shows, he also booked three weeks of studio time with the idea of pooling their talents and recording a studio album for charity (Oxfam). While Vedder was not able to partake in the new venture, Jeff Tweedy and his Wilco mates gladly made the trek along with singer/songwriter KT Tunstall and New Zealand legends Bic Runga and Don McGlashan (The Mutton Birds). Even Neil’s wife Sharon and younger son Elroy proved to be integral pieces of the project.

     Each of the musicians brought their families on this working vacation, creating a warm environment that inspired them to create some of the best music of their careers. The resulting album, The Sun Came Out, was an album filled with great songs and wonderful performances from all involved. Produced by Jim Scott and Neil, the album was an amazing labor of love. The fact that the album didn’t top the charts all over the world remains a mystery and a travesty.

     But what was it like recording the album with so many great musicians giving their all for a worthy cause? How cool was it to have members of Wilco, Radiohead, The Smiths and Split Enz all pushing each other to create timeless tunes that would reach out and touch so many listeners? Where did Wilco’s Glenn Kotche put his wingnuts? Why on earth did Jeff Tweedy give Johnny Marr an autographed cucumber? Thankfully, all of those questions are answered on The Sun Came Out, a documentary on the making of the album available on DVD courtesy of Cinema Libre Studios. For fans of all the musicians involved, this is a must-have. For anyone interested in the magic of music-making, this documentary is filled with so many great moments, it’d be difficult to list them all here. This is an amazing fly-on-the-wall experience that is not to be missed.

     Stephen SPAZ Schnee was able to catch up with Neil Finn at his Roundhead Studios, where the album was recorded. While an in-depth interview about his entire music career would have taken a few days out of his schedule, Neil was gracious enough to spend time talking about The Sun Came Out project….

SPAZ: The album, The Sun Came Out, was released in 2009. Was the documentary previously available?
NEIL FINN: No, it played at a couple of festivals at the time. It got limited exposure. It was always the intention to get it out in some form for people to take home. It just takes a little while for these things to come together. We had the help of some friends who were basically working for free. It just took a little while to unfold. My friend Mark Simon Brown, who directed The Sun Came Out, has done it all as a labor of love. Once the immediacy of the project had gone, it wasn’t really a case of when is the ideal time. I think the ideal situation is to get it looking as good as possible and to make it a good package.

SPAZ: In this day and age, it seems unlikely that a group of talented, well-known musicians from different parts of the world would form such a strong camaraderie. How did you manage to bring these amazing people together and feel confident that something special was bound to happen? Instinct or wonderful accident?
NEIL: We had done one earlier on, which were just concerts, on a whim really. You become friends with people and there’s always a parting comment, “Let’s do something together some day”, and it normally never happens. So, we decided we’d try to make something happen in the spirit of adventure and I guess a busman’s holiday for us all. The Sun Came Out was a far more ambitious undertaking in a lot of ways. It was all based on hunches and instincts that people would get on. Having met the Wilco guys at a concert briefly backstage, I got the feeling from them that they were very much on the same wavelength as a lot of the people that had taken part the first time around. We sent an exploratory e-mail invitation and they just jumped at it. A willingness to step outside the norm and to come to an exotic destination seems to do the trick to get people motivated. Once you’re on the ground, you rely on people’s determination to do good work. We’re all just as mad for it, really, as each other. I don’t think anyone’s just going to glide through it. Everyone wants to do good work. I was amazed by all the hours and intensity that we all put in.

SPAZ: Did you work off a bigger list of friends and associates? Were there artists who were eager to get involved with The Sun Came Out but were not able to make it?
NEIL: There’s a certain amount of randomness, chance and design. I asked a few people both times that weren’t able to do it but there was just a really nice collection of people that said yes. At a certain point, you have to kind of NOT cast the net any further because there is a limit on how much you can achieve. I think there was a lot of good luck in terms of the way the whole thing unfolded and the way everybody related to each other, the groups of people that gathered to make specific songs…. It was just an amazing time, it really was.

SPAZ: Normally, writing songs is a very personal experience, yet so many of these folks bonded so well, creatively and their collaborations came out extremely well. Did it seem natural for you to break out of your comfort zone and allow other people’s ideas to dictate the direction of the songs?
NEIL: To some extent, some people more than others, everyone wanted to do their own thing but everybody allowed others to listen at early stages and to have input. I think it’s fascinating to see the way that people make music because you don’t often get a chance to step outside of your own environment. To be able to watch the main body of Wilco putting together songs, and then go on to record some rhythm tracks for the record that followed… it was pretty fascinating to watch a band at close quarters, to watch other songwriters and the way the process is. It’s reassuring in some ways because everyone’s struggling with some of the same basic dilemmas, needing a little a bit of push at times. I think that was the fascination of the whole thing for me: that I got to see the many varying ways that songs can emerge. There are no rules and a lot of it is just endurance and stamina.

SPAZ: You only had three weeks to essentially write and record the album. While you were a bit concerned about it beforehand, how long did it take you to realize that the project was coming together as you had hoped?
NEIL: I think within about three days, we knew that there was good energy in the building and everyone was pretty united in terms of what we could do. Within a week we had some really outstanding music recorded and that, in itself, was really reassuring. We were also really enjoying each other’s company. There was a lot of good humor involved in the whole thing, some of which comes through in the doco really well. By the time we got to the end and did the shows, there was a really big camaraderie and the shows reflected that. I started to think that this had been a pretty special experience. In the aftermath, I had quite a bit of finishing to do. I was left scratching my head at times, “We just had that experience but now I have to finish this!”. But you do. Nothing good without a bit of pain. There’s always a struggle involved.

SPAZ: Was recording with this motley group of musicians a completely different experience than working within the framework of a band like Split Enz or Crowded House?
NEIL: Yeah. With a band, you’re very insular anyway and you’re rehearsing and everyone’s got a long-term involvement with the songs. In a sense, we were all really having to arrive together… Actually, the business of getting things done, performances, being in the room with a bunch of musicians and you’re giving it your all, that’s no different at all.
SPAZ: While many folks are familiar with Radiohead, Wilco and The Smiths, did you realize that a project like this would bring attention to the artists who aren’t as well known, such as Big Runga and Don McGlashan?
NEIL: Well, I wasn’t really thinking in terms of that. I’d worked with Bic and Don before we put this project together and I knew they were both really good songwriters and very capable of holding their heads up in any company. I thought it would be good to have some New Zealand input. If it has drawn some attention, then I think that’s good. It’s probably fair to say that the experience of doing the project was the most intense and wonderful part of it. I think the record deserved more attention than it got.

SPAZ: I think Johnny Marr’s track, “Too Blue”, is one of the greatest Pop songs of the last 10 years.
NEIL: I appreciate your kind words. It didn’t make it on to many playlists, so the jury’s out for the commercial world, but I agree with you.
SPAZ: While you talk about its Spector-esque production in the film, I feel that it’s a perfect cross between something off of the first Crowded House album and The Smiths’ “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”.
NEIL: That’s a nice comparison. Johnny was on a mission with that one and he really pulled it together. It was a very enjoyable song to actually do the rhythm track for with two drummers and a huge band in the room.

SPAZ: As a musician and music fan, do you think that a documentary like this might take away the mystique of the musician and the magic of music making? Or do you prefer to focus on the more human side of being a musician?
NEIL: There’s always a trade off in a way. Some people would choose not to reveal any part of the process and preserve the mystique. That’s when the process is really tedious and uninteresting anyway. The moments of inspiration and exploration come every now and again in the process, but there’s a lot of just sticking at it and not particularly interesting to watch. But I think in this case, there was so much extraordinary activity going on in a short period of time that it was an interesting process and it’s worthy to show people what went down. It’s also good to explain what it is because it’s hard for people to understand, I think.

SPAZ: While you have worked in front of the cameras before throughout your career, was it daunting to have them around during the actual creative process?
NEIL: You get used to it. There’s an art to the cameraman being invisible, virtually. There were moments where people chose not to have cameras going and they got annoyed by them here and there, but very little. Actually, if you are having a difficult moment trying to solve a problem, you don’t necessarily want a camera stuck in your face. There’s an art to it and most of the time they got it right. The cameramen found good angles, stayed out of the way and we got used to them and stopped worrying about it.

SPAZ: The album has a warm and comforting feel to it. Do you think it would have been a completely different album if the musicians didn’t bring their families to live with them during this experience?
NEIL: I don’t really know. It’s unanswerable, isn’t it? I think we would have come up with a great record still, but I don’t know if it would have been the same. It was just a really nice opportunity for people to be able to be really pull themselves into something without feeling like they were conflicted.

SPAZ: When the project came to a close and everyone had gone home, what emotion was more overwhelming: the relief that it had come together so successfully or the sadness that it was over?
NEIL: I’d say it was a bit of both. I think that that period of time was a good and I needed to take a break at that point. It was still summer for me so I was able to go to the beach and debrief. Getting back into finishing the record off and get the loose ends caught up was initially a bit burdensome because it was such an intensely good time with everybody contributing and for it to be left to me… but I totally rolled up my sleeves and got into it after awhile.

SPAZ: Are you planning to do something similar in the future?
NEIL: I think it’s likely that something else will happen but there’s no actual plan for it. It seems these things take time to gestate. With the last one, we had a seven or eight year gap between them. It might be the same… or something might come up. There was a great feeling in everybody for this kind of thing and I think that if the call went out, most people would answer again.
SPAZ: Even if you didn’t call me, I’d answer and just show up for three weeks and watch.
NEIL: Great. Well, I’ll let you know. (laughs)

SPAZ: How did you get involved with Oxfam?
NEIL: We wanted to find a charity that everybody liked. Wilco had done some work for Oxfam. Ed and Phil, being Oxford boys, are very familiar with the organization and had done stuff for them as well. It seemed to be a generally supported charity, doing good stuff all around the world.

SPAZ: What’s next for Neil Finn?
NEIL: I’m currently trying to write as many great songs as I can so I can make the best record I’ve ever made. Had a ball doing Pajama Club with my wife and we’ll probably do a bit more of that at some point.

SPAZ: What is currently playing on your CD, DVD and record players?
NEIL: The last record that got spun on the record player was one of those Atlantic Records Rhythm & Blues compilations, which has some incredibly good stuff on it. That was on my turntable last night that we were listening to. DVD-wise, we watched a really rubbish film with Ryan Gosling the other night called Drive. (laughs) I’ve never seen somebody who does so little acting get so much credit!

Thanks to Neil Finn
Special thanks to Rick Rieger, Lauren Watt, Kimberly McCoy and Julia Connolly

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