Reflections: Crowded House

Larson Sutton on May 13, 2024
Reflections: Crowded House

The mid-March, Monday morning sunlight brightens in the window, casting a renewing glow behind Neil Finn. The New Zealand singer-songwriter and musician is at his home in Auckland, sitting in the tastefully appointed room where he wrote many of the songs that grace Gravity Stairs, the upcoming album from his iconic pop-rock group, Crowded House. Slated to drop in May, the record’s release will coincide with Finn’s 66th birthday, marking the eighth album since the band officially formed four decades ago.

Finn sports black-rimmed spectacles and a perfectly unruly shock of graying hair, somehow embodying, at once, youthful rocker and erudite gentleman. The album’s cryptic title nods to an actual stone staircase he climbed on holiday; he deploys the image in a lyric on the lead track, “Magic Piano,” narrating the literal and figurative ascent of the man in pursuit of the music. “When you got some stories to tell,” Finn sings, “Let the melody reign, oh yeah.”

Crowded House’s melodic reign began in Australia in 1985, when Finn teamed with a pair of Aussies—bassist Nick Seymour and drummer Paul Hester. The band’s 1986 self-titled debut spawned the now-classic hits “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and “Something So Strong.” Over the next 10 years, the group sustained through various lineups, including with Finn’s brother, Tim, while issuing three more chart-topping albums. Then, in 1996, Finn announced the disbandment of Crowded House, with the group famously performing the concert captured for Farewell to the World on the steps of the Sydney Opera House for an estimated crowd of 200,000.

Finn shifted focus to a solo career, plus collaborations with Tim and their intermittently active group, Split Enz. Tragically, in March of 2005, Hester committed suicide. Losing a trusted friend and bandmate was a jarring blow for Finn. He initially decided to channel his emotions into another solo album, inviting Seymour to join him. Instead, the project became a fifth Crowded House album, Time on Earth, which was released in June of 2007.

“When we said goodbye the first time, and did our last show, I was intent that it was our last show. Everybody was accepting of it. We went away without any regrets. There may have been regrets, but they weren’t to do with breaking up. It felt right,” Finn says. “Getting back together that first time was in the shadow of losing Paul. We were trying to set up a ritual in our lives to mourn his loss and to find some way of putting something good into the world that was coming from within Crowded House.”

After a world tour in support of 2010’s Intriguer, the band commenced work on a follow-up release. Yet, Finn struggled to find a way to thread the material into a cohesive set. He left the project unfinished and pivoted to a solo record. It would be close to a decade before Crowded House reformed, with a new lineup, and delivered another album, 2021’s Dreamers Are Waiting.

Finn’s notion to restore Crowded House came, in part, from his tenure as a touring member of Fleetwood Mac, after that fabled group parted ways with Lindsey Buckingham in 2018. “Coming off the back of the Fleetwood Mac tour, which was such a bolt out of nowhere, I thought, ‘That’s a classic band that has reinvented itself again and left a whole lot of people happy, with a different lineup that some might have said couldn’t work,’” Finn says. “Maybe the idea of a classic band is so powerful that you can actually reimagine it a few times.”

In the early days, Crowded House tours were family affairs, with Finn bringing his wife and their two young sons, Liam and Elroy, along for the ride. “We’d keep them in school to keep t hem educated,” Finn says. “Then, we took them on the road and educated them properly.”

Both Liam and Elroy developed into multi-instrumentalists and singer-songwriters with solo albums to their credit. Neil and Liam also collaborated as a duo on 2018’s Lightsleeper, a record that included additional contributions from Elroy.

Then, a few years ago, Finn rang up Seymour with an intriguing thought: What better way for Crowded House to have another life than by bringing his two sons into the fold. “It seemed romantic and full of potential,” Finn says. “I knew what depth they had as musicians and how enjoyable it was to play with them.” Seymour said that it was the best idea he’d heard in ages.

Finn’s next call was to producer/keyboardist Mitchell Froom. Froom sat at the helm for Crowded House’s first three albums, displaying a penchant for playing the traditional and ethereal keyboard passages that have decorated much of the band’s catalog. Finn had offered Froom a spot in the group before, but the keyboardist always chose the studio over the stage. As a producer, Froom racked up multiple Grammy nominations and, in partnership with Tchad Blake, compiled a who’s who list of clients, including Paul McCartney, Pearl Jam, Los Lobos and Sheryl Crow. This time, however, Froom accepted Finn’s invitation.

“He’s interested in the expansiveness that keyboards can do,” Finn says of Froom. “Enhancing moods, finding unusual textures that tweak the brain, a shooting star here, a little wave breaking over there—he’s very melodic. When he needs to be spare, he’s spare. And when he wants to pour it on, he bangs it out—really strong and aggressive.”

With Froom, Seymour and the trio of Finns, Crowded House was resurrected—just in time for the ambush of COVID-19. The pandemic pushed the release of Dreamers Are Waiting to September 2021, and the supporting tour ended up being riddled with delays and postponements. Eventually, though, the band got back to circling the globe, growing into a tighter unit with every performance.

“We became a much better band, live,” Finn says. “We learned to jam more and trust each other onstage. We came to the end of the touring cycle, just last year, feeling like there’s some real power in this band. It seemed obvious that we needed to go and make another recording to capture some of that.”

The logistics for gathering the new lineup in the studio were a bit more complicated. With members living on different sides of the planet, the house was more empty nest than crowded. Sessions for the album stretched across 12 months and several continents.

However, Finn had a stack of potential songs, having compiled home demos earmarked as complete, fairly complete or fragments to bring to the band. Just ahead of an Australian tour leg, the band quarantined at Music Farm Studios in Byron Bay for rehearsals and decided to test out some of the nascent material. Blake recommended a local producer, Steven Schram, to track the sessions.

“We went in with not great expectations that we would necessarily get anything. We just thought we would rehearse, do some demos and, at worst, get some new songs out of it,” Finn says. “It turned into a fruitful session. We probably got four of the songs on the record recorded right there.”

For the remaining seven of Gravity Stairs’ 11 tracks, the band coalesced, properly or informally, for sessions in France, Los Angeles (including Elroy’s apartment) and at Finn’s Roundhead Studios in Auckland, with Schram co-producing. In France, at Studio LaFabrique, the ensemble cut the album’s lead single, “Oh Hi.” The number draws inspiration from the unprivileged children of Kenya and Tanzania who attend schools constructed with the help of So They Can, a nonprofit Finn has supported for years. With the organization’s aid, over 40,000 children have received an opportunity for education.

“I absolutely feel so much better having a song come out that’s got another purpose as well,” Finn says. “The way the world is at the moment, the only thing I can rely on, and I’m so grateful to have it, is music. I don’t know the solutions to the huge problems that exist out there, but I know music has a power.”

It’s a power U2 tapped into during its own high-profile series of Las Vegas appearances. Finn heard that the legendary band had been covering “Don’t Dream It’s Over” during its recent extended residency at the newly christened Sphere. So he dug out an unreleased, updated solo rendition of the song and sent it to the group, suggesting they could, perhaps, record a virtual duet.

Instead, on the final night of the residency, U2 played live to Finn’s recording—piped into the PA—and encouraged the sold-out venue to sing along. They dedicated the performance to Yulia Navalny, widow of the recently deceased Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny. Finn contends it’s a moment that could be a movement.

“That’s where I’m headed— to try and hook every song that comes out, from now on, to some specific achievable aim or purpose—at least quietly, not necessarily publicly,” Finn says. “Once I’ve got this concept fully developed, I’ll throw out a challenge to every successful musician to attach their music to some achievable aim. Let’s try and save the world, you fellas and you ladies.”

At the very least, music has once again reunited Finn and Seymour. Seymour’s presence is an intrinsic part of Crowded House, connecting to the band’s origin 40 years ago. His distinctive bass playing is also an essential element of the group’s sonic signature. In addition, he’s been the resident artist for the cover of every Crowded House album.

“If you line up all [the album covers], they look like a body of work, like a continuum,” Finn says. “And, he’s got an infectious hilarity about him which people enjoy and I enjoy. We are very good friends.”

Though the group previewed some of their new songs live during the U.S. leg of the Dreamers tour, Finn is anxious to bring the album’s full repertoire to the stage. “There’s an understanding and soulfulness that comes out when we play together,” Finn says.

It’s a gift, too, having his sons in the fold, as they relate to the band and its story in ways more than simply the familial. Guitarist Liam and drummer Elroy bring a freshening diversity of influences to the mix, yet remain respectful and studious of their link to both Crowded House’s history and sound. In particular, Finn hears Elroy’s approach to playing brushes as inherited directly from Hester’s style. “It’s a beautiful lineage,” Finn says.

Still, it was only just before he asked them to join that Finn really considered the idea. “I don’t know if it could’ve happened sooner,” Finn says. “I think Liam and Elroy wanted to go off and have their own experiences first. Now, they’ve got the confidence of knowing their instruments so well.”

Finn has been especially pleased with his sons’ evolving songwriting chops. He anticipates a future where the tracks on a Crowded House album are divided among the three of them. There’s a caveat to their membership, though, Finn suggests with a sly smile. “They’re making their own music, still, at the moment. As soon as I can train them off that, then I can bring all their best stuff to Crowded House. I want all their best stuff.”

In 2024, Gravity Stairs is an achievement that seems as inevitable and unpredictable as Crowded House itself. Finn’s historically notable successes with and without the band have engendered a global audience now spanning generations. Yet, he’s deftly steered his work, and the group, away from chasing fads or the mercy of sticky, formulaic nostalgia. Instead, Crowded House is a consciously balanced ensemble of both youth and experience, eager for the weight of a new climb.

“I have no doubt that music is magic. Of course, it is. It’s alchemy. It’s rearranging molecules in your brain. It’s doing things that no one can explain. It’s giving comfort. It’s inspiring. It’s energizing. And it’s sometimes hard to define,” Finn says. “An end comes because you can’t imagine the way forward. Then, sometimes a little door opens up, and you can imagine a beginning again.”