The reinvention of Tim Finn

Tim Finn. Photo: Stephen Ward

Tim Finn. Photo: Stephen Ward

When Tim Finn turned 64 in June last year, his children learnt The Beatles’ When I’m Sixty-Four and played it to him. “It was so good,” Tim says. They’re into The Beatles? “Oh, obsessed.” His son Harper, 18, is a guitarist, and daughter Elliott, 13, is a guitarist and drummer. Elliott is obsessed with the ’60s generally, Tim says.

“She took me into her room the other night and played me A Day in the Life,” he says. “I thought I knew it intimately and backwards … The lights were flickering and I was listening to it with her and I went into this whole other place with that song. Children can do that.

“They’re both very talented. Mum would have said they’re doomed [for a life of music]. In her Irish way – ‘Doomed’.”

Giving himself over to music for 40 years has been, for Tim, more salvation than doom. Since bursting on to the scene in the early 1970s in the luridly costumed Split Enz, Tim has been part of a generation’s musical DNA, responsible for enduring classics in the Enz, in Crowded House with his brother Neil and as a solo artist.

Tim’s most recent work has been in musical theatre, which is why I’m sitting with him at a launch for the musical Ladies in Black, the story of the coming-of-age of a young girl in the women’s section of a department store in the late 1950s.

Tim has written the lyrics and score to the show, which is based on the book by the late Madeleine St John. The show touches on themes around “the frocks and mirrors and lights” of the store. “It can be seen as a place of magic,” Tim says, “almost like an Aladdin’s cave.”

Tim is softly spoken, his grey hair swept back, happy to talk about any aspect of his storied career with the Enz, his love of Australia and return to New Zealand and his time in Crowded House – which he joined for the Woodface album in 1992.

We meet just days after Crowded House’s four sold-out “anniversary” gigs at the Sydney Opera House, the last of which was broadcast live on the ABC to ecstatic acclaim across the country.

“It’s a natural state of being because we’ve done it since we were little boys,” he says of being on stage with Neil. “It’s emotional and it’s strong and it heals us. Any little difficulties or niggles, because we’re brothers – and all brothers have their little moments – it all goes away and you just feel really good. Time is suspended on stage.”

Standing in front of a sea of people singing along to their songs at the Sydney Opera House, Tim and Neil reflected on their journey. “In sound check Neil and I were having a chat. There was a lot of poignancy and some sadness because Paul [Hester] wasn’t with us. Paul’s two daughters (Sunday and Olive) were there, and it was wonderful to talk with them and share it with them.”

L-R: Phil Judd, Malcolm Green, Tim Finn, Mike Chunn, Robert Gillies, Eddie Rayner and Noel Crombie of Split Enz pose for a group portrait in 1976 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Photo: Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

L-R: Phil Judd, Malcolm Green, Tim Finn, Mike Chunn, Robert Gillies, Eddie Rayner and Noel Crombie of Split Enz pose for a group portrait in 1976 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Photo: Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

Drummer Paul Hester joined the final incarnation of Split Enz in the mid-1980s before being recruited by Neil Finn in 1985 to form Crowded House. “We’ll always be sad about it,” Tim says of Paul’s death in 2005. “We were very close. Paul was in the last line-up of Split Enz. He was exactly what we needed because we were all getting a bit … You could feel it was almost time to say, ‘That’s it guys’. But we didn’t want to call it. No one wanted to say it.

“Paul made everyone laugh. He and I bonded really well … We were straight away quite intimate with each other. Just somehow we clicked. He lived in my house in Caulfield. He really was the best lodger in the world, super tidy, really good in the kitchen. The most hilarious person I think I’ve ever met. It took its toll, clearly. He had his ups and downs, but we didn’t realise how serious those peaks and troughs were, really.”

As a teenager, Tim wanted to be a songwriter but not everyone supported it. “I remember a friend of my dad’s, who knew I was forming this band called Split Enz, asking ‘When are you going to get a real job?’.

“Mum and dad, God bless them, they never really railed against it but it must have been deeply shocking for them when I dropped out of university and said, ‘l’m going to form a band’. Especially how we looked. We wore a lot of makeup, very extreme haircuts and very strange suits.

“Dad was fined at Rotary. We did this TV variety show and they must have gone ‘Oh, my God’. But they could see how serious I was,” he says.

“We started in 1972 and for a long time we were, at best, a cult band. It was 1980, with [the album] True Colours, that we crossed into the mainstream. Everyone became aware of us at that point and we became really popular. That was a delirious feeling, but it was a long struggle before that.

“The first show we did in Melbourne was Festival Hall. Us, Skyhooks and AC/DC, both of whom were pretty big. Festival Hall was packed. We were booed and they wanted us off and they were flicking cigarette butts at us. Magda Szubanski told us years later that she was with all her sharpie mates and they all absolutely loathed us but she secretly liked us.

“We were too extreme, the songs were very disjointed, we messed around with song structure quite a lot. Sometimes there was no discernable thread … We were really interested in doing that because The Beatles had done that [with songs such as] A Day in the Life. We thought we were following a perfectly logical succession.”

There are many “strong and rich and wonderful memories” from that time. “There were difficulties as well, things were never said, we’d hold back from confrontation so things were never resolved and still haven’t been.”

The tradition for Split Enz, he says, was “a cup of tea back at the hotel, a few joints and some paper darts. That’s what we used to do. And Neil carried that into the Crowded House world. I can remember, towards the end of Split Enz, a hotel bedroom with about 30 people in it, fans, friends, people who’d rolled up for a party, and everyone was making paper darts.”

Tim lived in Melbourne for nine years, in St Kilda and then in Caulfield, where he had a home studio. After some time in Sydney, he moved back to New Zealand 16 years ago with his wife Marie and their two children. Part of it was the desire to be near family and friends in Auckland.

“It snuck up on me,” he says of the decision to return to his homeland. “Harper was a little child and he was burnt in a hotel room we stayed in. He grabbed hold of a hot kettle of water and pulled it down over himself. I thought he was going to die. We were new parents. I didn’t know what that kind of burn would do. It was the worst moment of my life. Burned across his face and neck.”

Tim Finn. Photo: Supplied

Tim Finn. Photo: Supplied

Tim says he had struggled in Sydney for a while before moving back to New Zealand, but everything went well afterwards.

“You hit your 40s in this business and just about everyone drops away and you can see why. Musicians, artists of any kind, stop doing it or find a job teaching. It’s very brutal. I had already had a lot of success but I wasn’t sure what was left. It wasn’t about success, it was about inspiration, about not feeling the burden of the years.

“Going back to New Zealand and having a young family, all of that disappeared and I started again, really. Since then I’ve made five solo albums, all of which I think are my best, and if I never make another one I’m fine.”

He loves fatherhood. “It’s challenging sometimes and hard work, but it’s the best thing ever. They’re both very musical, as Neil’s sons are … it just seems to pass through to the children.”

I mention one of my favourite of the brothers’ collaborations, Disembodied Voices from the Finn brothers’ 2004 album Everyone is Here. The song is a powerful evocation of young brothers chatting at night in their shared bedroom (“Talking with my brother when the lights went out/Down the hallway 40 years ago/And what became much harder was so easy then …”) At night, in the dark, Tim says, “we’d be lying in bed, we would talk, and I’d tell him stuff from my world. Six years older is another world”.

Tim is not new to musical theatre. His show White Cloud, performed in Melbourne in January, was a one-man observation of his heritage and culture. The Fiery Maze, based on a collaboration with the late poet Dorothy Porter, and an opera production Star Navigator, about James Cook and the Tahitian navigator Tupaia, will be performed in Australia this year.

He says there is more music to be made with Neil. “We’d like that. We are working on some new songs, have been for the past couple of years. We have some material.

“People ask me ‘Will Split Enz ever do that again?’. And it’s always on the cards but there is nothing [to say] now,” he says.

Would it be new material? “I’ve got so much going on with musical theatre projects and working with Neil, I don’t think there are enough hours in the day. But to do another run and have some fun would be great.

“I’d like to do a pub tour with no costumes, stripped down, very simple suits or whatever, and no rehearsals. I’m sure it would be all right. It would be a bit lumpy here and there. We used to do a lot of jamming and I’m nostalgic for that. Our best, most shining moments were in a rehearsal room, and I think that’s the sign of a great band when you love rehearsal.”

It’s been a while since Tim lived a rock’n’roll lifestyle. Fatherhood and being a bit older changed that. At 64, he has said he is “on that last stretch of open plain, before the low hills that guard the sea. There are no more mountains to climb”.

But there are laps to swim – for Tim a daily solace. “Going to a nice swimming pool is like going to a temple. I love the water, I love the laps, I love what it does to mind and body connections. I like the Harold Holt pool. I do a 1500 [metres] in the outdoor pool. I’m pretty fit aerobically. I’m not somebody who works out, but heart and lungs are pretty good.”

I tell him his work is deeply loved by a generation, or probably two. “It’s overwhelming,” he says. “At the Opera House show, the volume of singing that came back. Four Seasons, Weather With You. It’s extraordinary.”

 

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