A few years ago Neil Finn called up a few of his famous friends to record a charity album for Oxfam called 7 Worlds Collide. He did this for several reasons, but mainly because the New Zealand songwriter has long had a charitable bent and clear eye for the difference between Third World problems and First World problems. Finn is beloved (widely in Europe, cultishly in America) for the effortlessly perfect melodies he’s been writing for four decades, from his beginnings with early punks Split Enz to New Wave chart toppers Crowded House to his various solo projects, and he didn’t seem falsely modest in the slightest when he mentioned over lunch at a New York sushi joint that he still gets surprised when the occasional American waiter freaks out on him. (“It’s reached farther than I thought.”)
It’s a good life, being a power-pop legend. But he’s had his share of First World problems during the past few years, not the least of which was a wicked case of empty nest syndrome, as Finn and his wife Sharon’s two sons have gone in`to the family business. Their eldest son Liam, 27, has released two scruffy folk-rock albums and become a dynamite live act, and their youngest son Elroy, 21, has started backing him on drums. Neil, 53, and Sharon (“I must be loyal,” demurs Neil about the subject) could not be prouder, and he points out that his brother Tim, also a songwriter and member of The Finn Brothers, has a seven-year old daughter who’s already showing talent, so “the extended Finn family band is a looming possibility.” Which is great and everything, except the usual options for parents of grown children didn’t appeal to Mr. and Mrs. Finn at all.
“I could have joined the golf club and she could have joined the bridge club,” he says. “But really, we’re too young. We wanted to misbehave a little.”
As usual, the first step was wine. “We just had a few one night and we were actually, literally in our pajamas,” Neil says, “and we said ‘let’s go and have a jam.’” Neil played drums and Sharon played bass in their music room, and neither had much experience on either instrument. “And it just was an abandoned, mad thing. To start off with she played three notes on any given jam, and I would just play the same feel over and over again or I’d lose it, and it felt good.”
Sharon didn’t have much music experience besides occasional backing vocals and the ability to play “Stairway To Heaven” on acoustic guitar. But her husband points out that, unlike him, she “has always been a lovely dancer. She plays bass like she dances. It’s all rhythm.” (“No one in my mind is a terrible dancer,” Sharon later explains by e-mail. “I just love it when someone just goes off into a frenzy of movement, coordinated or not, when they lose themselves in music. It’s even better when it’s funny…not thinking of anyone in particular.”)
The pair enjoyed playing together, and the jams kept coming for weeks on end. Neil would tape these jams—Finn tapes everything—and liked what he heard in playback. The raw, playful grooves were unlike any of the music he had made before, and reminded him of early ’80s Bronx dance-punk pioneers ESG, whose records the pair used to love to dance to. (“It had that kind of simple thing,” he says, “but I’m flattering us by making that comparison.”)
“They weren’t songs, but we entertained ourselves with them.” Finn took the recordings with him while on tour with Crowded House, and during off hours in his hotel room “I started to bang a few chords and vocal ideas from them, and suddenly we realized there were some songs to be had. It came out of nowhere.
“It was like having rhythm tracks for a record where you don’t know what the rest of it sounded like,” he adds. “It was quite liberating in a way, but the restrictions of it were great as well. It was like an architecture, a framework had been built and we could slap on anything we wanted.”
Finn relished the freedom. For decades he’s had accolades like “master pop craftsman” used to describe him. And while it might be another First World problem, his well-regarded reputation was beginning to chafe. “With all respect in the world and all the good will in the world, people still want to have you figured out. ‘Oh yeah, he’s that singer/songwriter guy, probably writes a lot of ballads,’ and it’s very hard to fight that as an artist,” he says. “But I get restless. I’ve had many entities in my career, because I’m looking for another angle.”
Sharon agreed. “Even before they were proper songs, we thought we had a sound already and should go for broke,” she says. The Finns started working on a record with their producer friend Sean Donnelly, who added electronic loops and textures to the recordings while still protecting the tracks’ essential rawness. Those original drum and bass recordings were cut up and rearranged but never re-recorded, and Sharon was always weary of adding too much to the original foundation. That rawness and start-with-the-beat approach helped Neil put aside his usual meticulous style. “There’s something about that super solid, but uncomplicated, unflowery rhythm section that has given me a lot of freedom to play guitar in a more expressive manner than I’ve been able to in years in Crowded House.”
They named their new album and band (Neil stressed it’s neither a project or side-thing) Pajama Club after those early jam sessions. The result mixes Finn’s usual sharp hooks with a clattering funk that often recalls early Beck. The group, augmented by a touring drummer, hit the road at the start of the summer, and even though Sharon has been joining her husband on tour for a while now, she’s had to get used to her new role.
“It’s put a new whole complexion on our relationship, mostly positive,” he says. “We didn’t expect this to happen, and suddenly we’re in a band together. And I have to drill Sharon in rehearsal, and she’s having to bite her lip from telling me to fuck off. But I can’t do it any other way, because there’s no room for charm or tact in a rehearsal room.”
It gets stressful, but these two should be fine. They know how to communicate. The two first met in Auckland when they were 19. “Our first date was going into the studio to see a friend of mine’s band perform, and she was incredibly bored,” he says. “Then we went to a punk party, and Sharon had a hippy dress on at the time. The punks gave her a really hard time. The first date was a little…it’s a wonder she wanted to go out with me after that. It wasn’t entirely a success.
“Sharon’s mom warned her off having a relationship with a musician, so combined with the first date we just sat in front of fires and had good chats. But we kept in touch over the next year while I was away by letters, and over the year …we became a couple almost by mail. And then we broke up a couple of times by mail. Then I came back to Sydney, where she was living, and from there on we were together. I recommend it! Mail is a good way to sort a lot of stuff out. We’ve been together for 34 years.”
Neil sounds a bit misty-eyed when describing the back-and-forth letters and long waits of his courtship, but it’s seemingly the only nostalgia he’ll allow himself. The members of Crowded House reignited their friendship and eventually the band five years ago after the death of their original drummer. After two albums and two tours, he’s hoped they’ve played out the “nostalgia card” of people showing up just for the old songs, and was happy that no one at the New York Pajama Club debut requested any of his old songs. These days, he’s feeling too young to lay back and enjoy being a legend.
“This records seems like it could be exposed to a different audience and find some favor,” he says. “After all this time, it’s an exciting prospect—you want to push the boundaries of people’s perception of you and for your own sake. That’s why it’s fun to have a fresh thing again. We’re playing little rooms, and we’re a little band, and come what may I’m going to enjoy that.”