Neil Finn's new supergroup

BY KIM KNIGHT
Last updated 05:00 02/08/2009
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Photo: Lawrence Smith
Upbeat: Neil Finn talks of the positive vibe that went into producing the double CD set 7 Worlds Collide.
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7 Worlds Collide, Sony Music, available from August 31, proceeds going to Oxfam.

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According to cliche, musicians drink, take drugs and have a girl in every city and small town in between.

Aspiring rock stars avert your eyes. Don McGlashan is about to blow that mythology out of the water.

It's 1980-something. He's touring with Blam Blam Blam, supporting Split Enz which, by then, was boasting both the brothers Finn. There they are, post-gig, back at the hotel. As McGlashan recalls it, he and his band mates were so shy, they couldn't speak.

"I can't remember if it was Neil or Tim, but to get us talking, somebody suggested playing a word game."

Three decades later and there is a small sigh. "That sounds like dad," says Liam Finn.

Dad smiles. And lays down his trump card. "The first time I met the Radiohead guys was at a festival in Europe and they were playing bridge."

The reporter falls through the sofa. Quite literally. Note to future interviewers: that couch at Neil Finn's Roundhead Studio in Newton, Auckland, is bloody, bloody dodgy.

And now, with (almost) all of the embarrassing stuff out of the way, let the story begin.

Last summer, Neil Finn invited a few friends home for Christmas.

Friends such as American band Wilco, Radiohead's Ed O'Brien and Phil Selway, The Smiths' Johnny Marr, Scottish singer KT Tunstall and the list goes on.

Some of them were here nearly eight years ago, when Finn pulled together the first 7 Worlds Collide the name he gave his musical supergroup "happening". This time, along with three gigs at Auckland's Powerstation, the 7-worlders were going to make a studio album. In three weeks.

"Come with a song," instructed Neil.

In the behind-the-scenes television documentary about the project, music producer Jim Scott summarises what happened next: "Sure. They were coming with songs. They just hadn't been written yet."

On the eve of the second album's release, some of the local legends who took part are pretty happy. McGlashan, Neil and Liam Finn and Bic Runga have come out on a rainy Auckland lunchtime to talk to the Sunday Star-Times about The Sun Came Out the double CD set from that summer holiday in the studio, with proceeds, minus expenses, to Oxfam International.

"All the people involved had been a hero [of mine] at some stage," says Runga. "I remember going to Radiohead's first New Zealand show in Christchurch, at Warner's Hotel, where there were probably 200 people. The Smiths was pretty much the first band I fell in love with, that wasn't my parents' music. It's hard to explain how that feels, but it's really something. I don't think about it too much because it does my head in."

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She turns to Neil Finn: "Do you get star-struck? Have you been star-struck?"

"What was nice about this project," says Finn senior, "is that by the time it was finished, all the barriers had come down. The Wilco guys... Jeff [Tweedy] was our house guest for a couple of weeks. He stayed in Liam's room. You can't maintain star-struckness after that."

Liam: "I moved out after a couple of nights. I can't handle snoring."

Neil: "Yeah, we thought it was a good gesture to give Jeff our first-born while he was here."

McGlashan: "He treated you gently..."

Liam: (Unprintable).

There's an ease in this room, born of three weeks over Christmas, when songwriters worked in the stairwells, when a musician from Manchester jogged on the beach at Piha, when a singer interrupted her honeymoon to join the group, when children, partners and dogs were welcome in the studio and everyone played on everyone else's songs.

"When I went home at night, the experiences of the day just circled around and around my head," says McGlashan. "Things which I normally would have been staggered by, I didn't have time to think about. You're playing, and you don't know who's going to drop into the control room and suddenly there's this Mancunian voice saying `it sounds wrong, it needs more tambourine'."

"The first couple of days were pretty hilarious," says Neil. "We all set up wishfully in the main room downstairs, as a big super session jamming thing, which probably had a minimal chance of working out."

Thirty-three musicians, partners and their children flew in from overseas for Christmas at Piha. They sprawled across 10 rental properties. Every house got a pine tree and decorations. Johnny Marr gave presents a songwriter's recording device. Meals were catered: vegetarians, pescatarians, carnivores. The mussel dim-sums, says Neil, were the strangest thing he's tasted.

Slowly, songs emerged.

Johnny Marr brought "Too Blue" back from a Christmas Eve jog on the beach. Tunstall and Runga co-wrote their murder ballad "Black Silk Ribbon" in the front window of Sharondelier, the chandelier shop Neil's wife operates next to Roundhead studio. Radiohead drummer Selway found his inner singer-songwriter, for the first time ever, recording "The Ties that Bind Us". Neil and Sharon Finn combined on the catchy "Little by Little". It's their first official musical collaboration.

"We have jams," says Neil. "Me on drums, Sharon on bass we're evenly matched on those instruments. We wrote a few things down..."

The conversation meanders. McGlashan informs the group that bass lessons are a euphemism. "You say, `I'm really interested in music, I'd love to learn an instrument'. He goes, `I could teach you bass'. In my experience, that never ends up as a bass lesson."

Liam screws up his face. "So, when you guys say you're having a `jam'..?"

Neil: "That's an horrific thing for Liam to have to contemplate, Don!"

The first 7 Worlds Collide was, says Neil, "a whimsical notion" that grew out of a conversation with Ed O'Brien. "We were just talking about the number of people we see in airports and hotel lobbies, and you swap an enthusiastic conversation and say `oh, it would be great to do something one day' and it never happens."

And then it did. A successful idea, says Neil, at the right time.

"It probably helped that it was in New Zealand, because people feel quite nicely isolated from any scrutiny in this part of the world."

Second time around, Neil thought it would be nice to invite people's families. And a few extras Wilco got the nod, because it's a band the entire Finn family likes. "I shot off a hopeful email and they instantly responded." (Wilco stayed on, after the project, recording much of their new album at Roundhead. It recently debuted at number four on the American Billboard charts.)

At the same time as Neil was sending emails, Oxfam approached him to ask if he'd consider a charity album. "It was synchronous. It kind of dropped into my lap. But the central thing was to create a happening in this space, with people you'd enjoy hanging with, and making music with, that just cut across everybody's careers."

And egos?

Musicians, says Neil, couldn't make work if they didn't have egos.

"At some point, you have to think `what I'm doing is really important'. Other days you wake up and think, `what I do matters not a jot'. But you have to believe it does, for a little while.

"Collaboration is at the heart of any good thing. I don't think anybody is more interesting on their own than they would be with the right other people in the room. I've made a couple of solo records, and they've worked out fine, but a lot of it's too introspective for my taste. You come up with the best when other people force good things out of you."

McGlashan says the project harked back to the days when musicians played in each other's bands, "when you suspend your sense of your own coolness enough to go and be part of somebody else's project and help somebody else's idea. It always feeds your own ideas when you go home".

Runga says the experience means she'll consider more collaborations. McGlashan is discussing the possibility of opening for Wilco, and has been working with Crowded House, who are scheduled to release a new album in January.

"The experience will inform whatever comes next," says Neil.

McGlashan: "It's a cliche to say music is a uniting link. But all these people came from wildly different backgrounds and wildly different lives, and they can still be there haggling over whether that bass line makes it build into the chorus in a good way. To see the way other people solve these problems was really good for me. Really inspiring. To see people working hard, and taking it really seriously. It was like, `this is what I do. This is my job too'."

There was a moment, says McGlashan, when various artists were debating the merits of various Los Angeles venues. "I sat there and thought, `I can't really contribute to this having just played the King's Arms and struggled to get 200 people'."

And yet: "That gets to the heart of why the project was so good. Nobody thought they were important because of the number of records they had sold. We didn't talk about the industry, it was about the music, the ideas."

Neil Finn made everyone paint a self-portrait, which will form part of the album's artwork. Runga's was excellent (the Finn family home at Piha has one of her works on the wall). McGlashan who produced a man squashed under a euphonium was told to try again.

"I'm usually resistant to group activities," says Neil. "But I did impose a slight regime on everyone."

Liam: "You should have had everyone doing group yoga."

Neil: "That would have been the end."

Some of them walked on the beach. Some of them sailed on yachts. The teenagers went op-shopping. KT Tunstall called the whole thing a "love explosion". Liam: "Do you want to tell us about that, dad?"

And then he gets serious. "There was a lot of love in the air." Nearly six months on, as the album comes to fruition, "I'm impressed by it. I knew when we were making it, it was fun and we were on to a good thing. But hearing it back the other day, I was really surprised by just how good a record it was".

There were, apparently, no major arguments.

"It wasn't really on to have fights," says Neil. "What's the point? We're all so blessed really."

Nobody behaved badly. "I plead guilty to enjoying wholesome experiences," says Neil.

Liam: "We play word games. We play word games, and then we OD..."

Neil: "And we make up really bad words."

Liam: "Really, really rude words."

"Oh God," says McGlashan. "I'm sorry."

7 Worlds Collide The Sun Came Out, released by Sony Music, will be available in music stores from August 31, with proceeds going to Oxfam.

- Sunday Star Times

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