The Tim Finn interview

22:10, Sep 20 2009

I spoke to Tim Finn last week. This was a big deal for me - his music looms large in my life. I'm sure it does over yours too - well, at least for many of you. As he talked about wrapping up Split Enz (the Enz with a Bang Tour), I thought back to my parents attending the Napier show. I wanted to go but was not allowed. I was eight. And Finn's music has meant something to me - in so many shapes and forms - since then. It was almost surreal being able to tell him that.

And of course his music looms large in his own life. For close to 40 years Finn has been doing it, writing songs, putting them out there. Today sees the release of North, South, East, West...Anthology, a double-CD that tells a story in song. I tell Tim that while speaking to him, looking at the album cover and tracklisting is a bit like being shown someone's photo album.

"Yeah, well, it's quite a journey," he says with some initial hesitation in his voice. Finn talks me through the project's origins. The capturing of certain moments from his body of work was never his idea. "It was really the then head of EMI in Australia, John O'Donnell. It was his baby. He likes my work and it was his suggestion that we create an anthology. I liked the idea that it would take from all parts, starting with Split Enz and I only realised after the title was chosen that there are four parts to my career: the Enz work and Crowded House, the Finn Brothers material and of course my solo work. So that's kind of neat, yeah, the musical north, south, east and west."

Some of the old favourites have been re-recorded, updated. The version of Weather with You that opens disc two features Tim, Neil and Liam Finn. "It was," says Tim, "one of those rare opportunities these days where we were all in the same place at the same time. It's happened before of course, but less and less these days, so we just took the opportunity." The version of It's Only Natural is a duet between Tim and Bic Runga and it features Tim's son, Harper, doing some backing vocals and handclaps. "Well that was a little happy accident, I guess. It was really Bic's idea; she has a great sensibility for such things and she produced that track. But yeah, it was definitely neat to have that captured."

Neil and Tim Finn sit at the top of the Finn family - a musical dynasty that dominates in New Zealand, it permeates and resonates. Some would argue that Neil is the head, it could be suggested that Tim, being older, is at the head of it. He was the first to take a punt with music, or as he puts it, "to blaze the trail back in 1972 in an Auckland flat, sure, yeah I can see that. I guess," he says with a wry chuckle, "I was the first Finn to cross the territory." So what's it like now seeing the next generation coming up? Having children, encouraging them towards music? Watching a nephew run ahead with his own career?

I spoke to Tim Finn last week. This was a big deal for me - his music looms large in my life. I'm sure it does over yours too - well, at least for many of you. As he talked about wrapping up Split Enz (the Enz with a Bang Tour), I thought back to my parents attending the Napier show. I wanted to go but was not allowed. I was eight. And Finn's music has meant something to me - in so many shapes and forms - since then. It was almost surreal being able to tell him that.

And of course his music looms large in his own life. For close to 40 years Finn has been doing it, writing songs, putting them out there. Today sees the release of North, South, East, West...Anthology, a double-CD that tells a story in song. I tell Tim that while speaking to him, looking at the album cover and tracklisting is a bit like being shown someone's photo album.

"Yeah, well, it's quite a journey," he says with some initial hesitation in his voice. Finn talks me through the project's origins. The capturing of certain moments from his body of work was never his idea. "It was really the then head of EMI in Australia, John O'Donnell. It was his baby. He likes my work and it was his suggestion that we create an anthology. I liked the idea that it would take from all parts, starting with Split Enz and I only realised after the title was chosen that there are four parts to my career: the Enz work and Crowded House, the Finn Brothers material and of course my solo work. So that's kind of neat, yeah, the musical north, south, east and west."

Some of the old favourites have been re-recorded, updated. The version of Weather with You that opens disc two features Tim, Neil and Liam Finn. "It was," says Tim, "one of those rare opportunities these days where we were all in the same place at the same time. It's happened before of course, but less and less these days, so we just took the opportunity." The version of It's Only Natural is a duet between Tim and Bic Runga and it features Tim's son, Harper, doing some backing vocals and handclaps. "Well that was a little happy accident, I guess. It was really Bic's idea; she has a great sensibility for such things and she produced that track. But yeah, it was definitely neat to have that captured."

Neil and Tim Finn sit at the top of the Finn family - a musical dynasty that dominates in New Zealand, it permeates and resonates. Some would argue that Neil is the head, it could be suggested that Tim, being older, is at the head of it. He was the first to take a punt with music, or as he puts it, "to blaze the trail back in 1972 in an Auckland flat, sure, yeah I can see that. I guess," he says with a wry chuckle, "I was the first Finn to cross the territory." So what's it like now seeing the next generation coming up? Having children, encouraging them towards music? Watching a nephew run ahead with his own career?

Advertisement

"Sure it's pretty great to see this achievement and to hear that it has had impact on the lives of others. At the same time it can be a bit of a burden. But for me it has been about the songwriting and a project like this anthology gets you back on track to thinking about the songs. My children are a way off with music but Harper is keen and obviously Neil's sons are both involved with music. I don't think I would force music on my children any more than any parent who wants to see their children develop and find hobbies. I guess I might be able to offer some help and if the time comes that help would be needed then, sure, I love to think that I'm in a position to open some doors, to hand out some advice. But at the same time it's very hard for the offspring of musicians to be taken seriously in their own right. A few have managed, but not many."

Tim describes his songwriting relationship with Neil as being something that can only happen sporadically. "We intersect every few years. And we love it when we do but it can be pretty gnarly at times too," he pauses to laugh; "You know it doesn't always flow. Some days the mood is not right between us so we don't get it but when it's on I think it's great. It just clicks and it really is just natural." He says the Finn Brothers' Everyone Is Here album is "the first time we really channelled the theme of family, of us being brothers, and used it through the album. I was keen to push that idea and it came from me. We'd written the Woodface material and it was certainly written to suit our harmonies, but it wasn't until the last Finn album that we, lyrically, looked at being brothers."

But these brothers have to have time apart. They have to head for the hills. "We intersect and then we dip away and head off to explore in other areas." I suggest that Tim has been doing that for most of his musical career, after the decade dedicated to Split Enz. "Yeah, I guess so. Well you see, that first solo album [Escapade] was really like having an affair. It was exciting and sneaky and I just went off and did it - and it was a little bit naughty as well. But then I got caught! It became more successful than I thought it would and there was pressure to follow it up."

This leads to a discussion of Split Enz winding down for the first time. Finn says "bands have a start and an end time; you don't necessarily know at the time. But I think the timing was right for Split Enz to wrap up. I was getting unhappy and I was searching elsewhere and then there was really only that final album and tour and it was good to sign it off and to look elsewhere full time."

The Split Enz songs on Tim's new anthology are signature Tim Finn songs; tunes like I See Red, Dirty Creature, Poor Boy and I Hope I Never. Songs that people expect Tim to perform - whether it's a Split Enz reunion show or a Tim Finn solo gig. "Yeah, they're definitely performance songs - a chance for me to get a little crazy and do a dance, do my thing, be a little theatrical. I found that when I was young I wrote a lot of high songs that have become harder to sing now," but when I tell Tim that last year's Split Enz shows had him in very good voice, better than the last decade's solo work, I have won him over. For a bit.

And then I mention Phil Judd.

Before there was ever the Finn/Finn songwriting team there was the Judd/Finn songwriting team. It was the heart and soul of Split Enz. There is one Judd/Finn song on Tim's new anthology. The song is Maybe from Mental Notes.

"I didn't feel we needed to go there and have too many other songs from the early Enz again; they're all available on The Beginning of the Enz compilation and the original records."

Tim and Phil are not (really) on speaking terms. "It's been a while," Tim confirms. "It's not likely we would ever work together again. We've tried over the years. He played on Big Canoe and I did some things in the 1990s, various soundtrack songs with him for movies and TV but it's not there. No. It's not something that'll happen again." He tells me he is aware that Phil Judd is still making music but he hasn't listened to his recent albums.

Back to Split Enz and the reunions that happen sporadically...

"There are definitely some ideas floating around. I'm interested in seeing if we can get the band to travel a bit further, maybe later into 2010 - head over to America and England and do some shows. Take the Split Enz sound to the world, something we haven't done in many years. And then of course do our regular stints around Australia and New Zealand on the way back home. That would be fun, I think."

Another thing that Finn thinks would be fun is the now familiar practice of a reunion act performing one classic album in its entirety. "Off the top of my head, if we were to do one I don't know what we would do...I think I would like to do two. And they would probably be Dizrythmia and Time and Tide; I think they would go well together." What about Mental Notes?

"Mental Notes? Yeah - that would be pretty special, sure..." Would he be keen on getting the original lineup back together for that?

"Ah, yeah...well, I really don't think Phil would be up for it. I don't think he'd be capable..."

Another rumour that seems to be doing the rounds is that of a full Finn Family Album. Tim says there are no plans currently but he is not opposed to it. "That's a chance, down the road, for some more intersecting...sure. It is definitely tantalising." And he points to Neil's wife, Sharon, with her first recorded song appearing on the recent 7 Worlds Collide album as well as "Liam and Elroy obviously. And our children are still a way off but it is something that I think might be fun."

But Tim has plenty to occupy him with this new compilation of old songs out on the market. Each disc features a new song which he says "points to the future somewhat" and following on from last year's album, The Conversation, he is already writing for a new project. "There'll be a new record next year. I've always got an eye out on other projects." He's keen too for the musical that he worked on with Matt Cameron, Poor Boy, to come to New Zealand ("we're trying to get that here, definitely") and he is interested in working on another stage musical idea ("ideally something with a  New Zealand writer, something to feature old songs and some new songs written for the project").

And there are the live gigs.

This Friday Finn will perform to mark the launch of iTunes gift cards in New Zealand. It doubles as an album launch and will be at Parnell's historic Windsor Castle, at 4pm.

He is excited about the band - "joining my regular drummer and bass player we'll have Dianne Swann and Brett Adams [from the band The Bads] and Eddie Rayner [Split Enz keyboardist] is on board, which is fantastic. Great to have Ed back with us."

"We'll head to Australia November/December to tour and then a full New Zealand tour over January/February where people can hear all the hits."

I have very kindly been given FIVE copies of the new Tim Finn anthology North, South, East West to give away. If you want to win one please write in below and tell me why you should win. You also need to list five solo Tim Finn songs that you like and tell me what your favourite solo Tim Finn album is. I'll pick five winners from what I read below.

Follow NZStuffBlogs on Twitter and get fast updates on all Stuff's blogs.