Neil Finn and Mitchell Froom of Crowded House in conversation with SDE

“Songs of ours on this record have found another level in Atmos”

SDE in conversation with Neil Finn and Mitchell Froom of Crowded House

Crowded House’s eighth studio album, Gravity Stairs, was released yesterday. This is the second album with the ‘new’ line-up of consisting of Neil Finn, Nick Seymour, Mitchell Froom and Neil’s two sons Liam and Elroy. In some ways, it feels unfamiliar, but in other ways not, given that three of those five men played on Crowded House, Temple of Low Men and Woodface. Also, one time CH member Tim Finn also makes an appearance on the new album. SDE recently caught up with Neil and Mitchell (at the same time, over Zoom) and discussed the new album, songwriting, collaboration and mixing their music in Dolby Atmos…

SDE: There’s a wonderful dreamy quality to much of Gravity Stairs. A cohesiveness to the record. Did you approach it with that idea, or that aim?

Neil Finn: Largely, albums just emerge. But it’s always nice when there’s a cohesivness to it. It’s a voyage of discovery and a lot of exploration. We put a lot of work into that. Once we’ve done a new mix of a song, you’ll have another look at the early mix and perhaps make an adjustment and then it’s important to get sequencing right. But, really just the songs themselves dictate the terms and the bands developing quite a lot as well, you know, Mitchell adds his stamp to certain songs, and Liam and Elroy, similarly. My version of events would be slightly different, so it’s always a delight that things surprise me, you know?

I’m always interested in the production and sound of finished albums and how much control the artists actually have over how things end up sounding. Obviously, you can bring in producers to help with that. Mitchell, you produced the first few records; what’s your take on that and how different is your role today to maybe how it was back in the early days? Because you did play on those early albums as well as produce them, didn’t you?

Mitchell Froom: My history with Crowded House gives me, at best, a long understanding of the music and how it’s developed. But the role is completely different. The one thing I was happy about was that we did have a co-producer [Steven Schram]. But he was the primary engineer and I think if there’s a cohesion, it’s the fact that he recorded pretty much everything and mixed everything, with Neil. I always believe in that, I don’t like it when you get a record sounding the way you’d like it, and then you send it off [to a third party mixer] and it comes back completely different.  You can gain something, but there’s always to me something that’s lost. And I don’t produce – Neil’s way beyond that. I think the best thing someone can someone at Neil’s point in his career, is enthusiasm. If people are enthusiastic about what he’s doing, that goes many more miles than almost anything else. They know what they’re doing and they have their own process.

Neil, do you feel like you don’t really need a producer’ anymore, because of where you are in your career and all the experience you’ve had?

Neil: I don’t need the wrong producer. There are moments where using a producer has been extremely valuable, and certainly with the first album we made with Mitchell, it was a really important thing to have Mitchell come in and suggest colours and moves on the songs and helped me build more interesting songs. I really I learned a lot from that experience. He had a gentle hand in what he would suggest, but he was bold enough to suggest a song that might have an R&B feel rather than a British pop kind of thing going on. And I hadn’t heard anybody suggest those things to me before. So that was very valuable. I think I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that a producer could come in, even now, with me, if it’s the right person. They may be rare and special, but the right person might come in, and similarly give me another way of looking at the music. And I would welcome that, but I haven’t found that person. And in the meantime, I’d rather make my own mistakes.  [to Neil] You already suggest to yourself so many versions of every song, so you’re at a different point in the way you work on music, that is very dedicated to get it to where you like it. And so things can be a distraction; even a very good suggestion at the wrong time can just throw you someone off… It’s interesting to work with other people for sure and I’ve worked with some really fantastic people. Production is a very broad, nebulous term, because it can mean anything from somebody who’s a great engineer, and just really excites you via the way that your music’s coming back through the speakers, because of the way it’s mixed; or can be somebody with very specific musical ideas and anything in between. Or somebody who just turns up once a day and says, “Yeah, sounds good” and put’s their name on the record at the end.

The new single is ‘The Howl’

How’s the experience of recording this new record been different to the previous one? Obviously, this is album number two with this iteration of Crowded House. Is everyone now bedded in a bit more? It’s a very much a family vibe with the band…

Neil: I think the result of quite a bit of touring has made the band more solid, more expressive and more creative and more willing to take risks. The trust level has gone up.

And Neil, what’s it like for you, with both of your sons in the band, because the idea of working with their family every day wouldn’t necessarily be first on some people’s list. But you seem to have a great relationship

Neil: Yeah, I feel really blessed to be able to work with my sons and have it feel, almost always positive. And when everybody is in the room together, it’s a very sort of creative feeling. It doesn’t feel like I have my children in there and that they are having to…  I mean, I’m always fairly forthright in my, the way that I feel things should be but I don’t think, they feel any more set upon than Mitchell or Nick [laughs].  And I really value their presence as musicians because they’ve become such fine musicians. It overrides any feeling that, you know, they’re just kids along for the ride – that doesn’t enter my head that that’s the reason they’re there. Mitchell might have a more interesting take on this?

Mitchell, from the outside looking in, it must be very interesting seeing the band morph into this, familial unit?

Mitchell: It is one of the things that made me most excited about joining the band after we played together. Because to me, it has nothing to do with anything other than how well people can play and how distinctively they can play. In the case of both Elroy and Liam, they have a deep understanding of the music, but also, rhythmically, it’s not simple, the way this band plays, you could put in a drummer who’s technically much better, or another guitar player, whatever, but it wouldn’t sound nearly as good. It’s a joy playing with these guys, because the feeling and the grooves are so beautiful, because of that level of understanding. I listen as much as I play, and it’s just a joy; it’s why I’m doing it.  If it was just a bunch of anonymous musician that wouldn’t be nearly as interested in it. I mean, I love hanging around with everyone, because it’s a great family feeling, but when it comes down to it, just actual playing, that’s the thing.

Why did you want to join the band? Are you still actively producing other acts, or have you wound down from doing that, and were just looking for something different to do?

Mitchell: I wasn’t so much that I was looking for something different to do, it just sounded like a lot of fun. When I started,  it was like, “oh, I’ll just do this one gig”, and then pretty quickly, I just got hooked into it.  I still work with certain artists, but I’m really happy to be out of that game [producing] – it just doesn’t feel very good anymore. I only really want to work on a record if I think it’s going to be either by a very good friend or I think it could be something that’s great.

Neil, you’ve been writing and recording for a very long time. Does it get harder, as you go along? You’ve written all these great songs, all these great albums. Does all that weigh heavy on you as the years and the the albums pass?

Neil: That’s a good question, because I would say, actually, it is probably getting harder. But I’m getting more resolute with it, and also, I have the slight reassurance that I don’t think it will ever desert me [laughs]. Sure I’ve had to some writer’s block, and some days, I don’t feel like I’ve got a musical bone in my body, but if you keep coming back to it, you keep turning up, good things come. I think my observational skills have been improved; I think of any of the the attributes I’ve had as a songwriter, that’s the one I think that’s improved the most is the observational ability to be able to get inside a piece of music, and it’s sometimes just takes me a while. And I’ll, I’ll throw it up in the air and disassemble it, and then assemble it again quite a few times. And in order to get to something that I see as the core of the idea or something that brings the idea forward. So it’s sometimes intricacies and convoluted processes that can seem mysterious, even to me. You know, going to bed at night, sometimes I think “What am I doing? I’ve just looked at the song so many ways now” but at some point they’ll be a revelation and that’s a really good feeling when when you do bust through that barrier of something’s not right. And you actually solve it. It’s like, you know, the pieces of the machinery, click into gear and suddenly starts whirring… you know, it’s a lovely feeling.

Has your process changed much over the years, in terms of songwriting?

Neil: I’ve honed my environment and that’s made a big difference. And what I mean by that is that I’m actually just in a small room; I realised that the best place for me is to be in a small room with a piano, a couple of desks, a computer with Pro Tools running, just a little audio interface, one or two microphones, and a guitar. And I can sit in the same seat and swivel around and play the piano – it’s a kind of an ergonomic sort of mechanical thing that I feel has improved my process. I used to have a much more elaborate setup in a bigger room, lots of things plugged in, and some days it just defeated me because I’d find one thing not plugged in right, or whatever. So this is a very simple setup and somehow it seems to make a big difference in keeping me interested in what I’m working on. I don’t have to think about it too much.

‘Life’s Imitation’ aka ‘Teenage Summer’. This video is included, in HD, on the SDE-exclusive blu-ray

I remember reading an interview with Paul McCartney, when he was promoting, ‘My Brave Face’ in the late 80s, and he said to the interviewer, something like “Oh, I know, it’s not as good as ‘Let It Be’, but I still think it’s a good song…”. He was acknowledging that there’s no point trying to worry about the past, you’ve just got to do the best you can do at the time. Can you relate to that feeling, Neil? Not that I’m saying your songs today aren’t as good as they were in the past, but you know what I mean

Neil: Oh, yes, you are! [laughs] But I mean, that’s very honest of Paul to take that on. Was that the album you worked on, Mitchell?

Mitchell: Yes, I worked on that song. I kind of don’t agree, because if you look at an old song, if you look at ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’, for example, it’s a great song. First time I heard it, I loved it. But people didn’t even really notice it that much until it became this big, single. I mean, it wasn’t like we turned the record in and everybody went crazy. But when you have something that’s a hit, and then you have nostalgia behind it – and then it means more – you can’t ever, with your new music, you can’t ever overcome it. The question is, [referring to Neil] is your new music vital? Are you taking it seriously? Have you developed yourself? And the answers to all those questions is ‘yes’. And so I would say there’s any number of new songs that Neil would write that, in a vacuum, if someone heard that and another [older] one, they’d say, “Oh, I like this one” [meaning the newer one].  It’s just, you can’t judge it because of the nostalgia tied to things.

Neil: You’re right. I remember somebody coming in studio one time and saying “That’s a number one record”… It wasn’t! A manager came in and said that about ‘Better Be Home Soon’. The other thing to say about that is that in order to finish it, there’s a certain point on any song, where I have to feel like it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, almost. I never think about it in those terms specifically, but you have to really get carried away with it, when it’s just you and the song and it’s just emerged out of nowhere and you hit a little golden moment. It’s feels just as good every time, you know. They don’t all turn out to be the best songs I’ve written, but every one of them’s a little victory in my own mind  [laughs].

The world around us has changed and, unfortunately, you no longer get the validation of having a top 10 hit single or top 20 hit single a top 30 hit single because of the way radio and the charts and streaming and all that stuff works. Do you miss watching singles climb up the charts, physical product, B-sides, all the stuff that has disappeared, to a certain extent?

Neil: I don’t suppose I pine for anything like that, because I’m actually thinking it might be…. I know the fact of the matter is that it’s a lot harder for music like ours to become successful, in that in a modern chart sense, because it’s dominated by a different kind of music, to my mind, and things that I can relate to in the chart are few and far between. So I know the odds are stacked against us, but I still think a song can actually travel a long way, and that I’m ambitious for them. We’ve had certain songs rise – not seemingly in a chart sense – but they rise in people’s consciousness to the point where they become live favourites and they end up feeling like the hits, you know? So I think the process can still unfold in slightly slower and more mysterious way.

How do the logistics of recording the album work? Do you make a point of trying to get together in one room? Or do you end up sending things around the world?

Mitchell: One thing that is very important to this man [Neil] is that we play the initial track together, we tried to find a good feeling and backup the vocal, even if things change later. So we don’t usually use any kind of click track or anything, we look for the feeling. And then because everyone lives all over the world, and the fact that Neil is prone to radically change things at different points, we took breaks, and then people would start working on things at their own. But then we get back together. [To Neil] So how many times do we get together? Three times? We had three sessions where we were tracking, like a band does on the floor, you know..

Three? That doesn’t sound like very many

Neil: It wasn’t just three days! We had a little bit more than a week in Byron Bay in Australia before a tour, in an old studio up there – that’s where we found our producer/engineer, Steven [Schram]. And then we did a week in LA, in and around the tour as well, we did another few tracks there, and then we came back to my studio in New Zealand for about another week. So there was probably three weeks of tracking.

‘Magic Piano’ is the opening track from Gravity Stairs.

Was it easy to decide when the album was finished? Because obviously, one of the classic things is that artists fiddle around for ages and it drags on and on. Are you good at knowing when to draw the line?

Neil: No, I’m not very good at that.

Mitchell: It’s still not finished! [laughs]

Neil: I even changed a song title after the first pressing…

You’re referring to ‘Life’s Imitation’ becoming ‘Teenage Summer’?

Neil: ‘Teenage Summer’, yeah. And that was because my grandson thought that’s what it was called. He he really liked it, so it was like ‘the kids have spoken’ – I’ll have to respond! But no, I am pretty notorious for reworking things right up to the final mix. I think it’s a little unsettling at times for others. There were times where he Mitchell had to disengage a little bit, because he’d think that we’d decided something, and then something would change. He’s right, because I need him and the others to sometimes tell me “Look, you’ve gone too far. You know, it was better before”. So thank God. Thanks, Mitchell.

Mitchell: That was very seldom, but and there’s this period towards the end, where there was about two or three months where you and Steven [Schram, mixer & co-producer], were toning things down, and it just kept getting better and better and better. And then there’s one or two that went too far. But what bothered me the most was when I would get something and so much had been changed, but I wouldn’t know what was changed or why it was really changed. So I couldn’t even listen to it.

Neil: But you know, what was interesting about that, though, was towards the end, despite all of those uncertainties and vagaries happening, I think we got very specific responses from everybody about the last few passes of the mixes and we honoured those. Steven was really determined to honour every query or request that was made and he would go on endlessly. Some of them went to ‘mix 19’ but nobody lost interest in the process to the extent that they didn’t weigh in at the end and say something like, “I prefer mix 18 because you can hear the keyboard louder at the end”.

Steven Schram did the Dolby Atmos mix, didn’t he, and I wanted to ask you about that because of the blu-ray that we’ve been working on. Is Atmos something you’ve got an interest in?

Neil: I had no interest whatsoever, to start with, because I didn’t really know what it was. But Steven had been doing Atmos Mixes already, he devised a very simple, ‘backyard’ kind of approach to making them which was very effective and successful, but didn’t require the huge injection of equipment and technology. Recently, Steven’s been working out of Roundhead Studios since he moved to New Zealand, and he helped us put in a whole Atmos rig into the man a studio which is really, really nice. It’s a very well designed Atmos rig so we now can have a very enjoyable experience listening to Atmos and he was able to do a more detailed job on the Atmos mixes as well.

‘Oh Hi’ from Gravity Stairs. This video is included, in HD, on the SDE-exclusive blu-ray

Would you be open to revisiting some of your past albums and getting them remixed in Dolby Atmos

Neil: I think we probably should, because Apple will be asking for them anyway and at the record company will really be happy about it and Steven’s very good at it. So yeah, it’s something we probably should do… No one really wants to pay a lot of money for Atmos mixes at the moment, but I got interested in Atmos when I sat down, initially, to listen to Bob Marley’s Legend record, I think it was. That one absolutely blew me away; I thought that was an incredible experience. That band are just outrageously groovy and good and all the arrangements just fit together like an absolute glove. In Atmos it was a delight. So when I heard that I thought, “Okay, yeah, this would be cool” and songs of ours on this record, like ‘Black Water White Circle’ really have found another level in Atmos, I think, so I’m excited about it now.

I wanted to ask you about your lyrics, Neil, because, you’re a brilliant lyricist. But you’ve got a great way of not making it too obvious what the songs are about; phrases that work perfectly but, as I say, without it being obvious what you are singing about. I imagine that’s intentional and that you like playing with with words and images, evoking moods but not necessarily having to tell a narrative story?

Neil: Yeah, I just developed a way of doing it that seems to work for me. It’s the hard part of songwriting for me because above all, I want the song lyrics to sound like they always belong and they’re as natural as the melody and as natural as the chords and everything else. I don’t personally like songs that tell stories because I don’t want to have to concentrate on listening for a narrative. You know, the ballad of this, that or the other… it’s just not the way I want to listen to music. When I think back even to the songs I loved when I was a teenager, I probably didn’t know what most of them were about. I didn’t know that the Led Zeppelin song Ramble On was based on Tolkien themes until about a year ago [laughs]. But I just get like the words to take you somewhere and open up doorways and I certainly put a lot of work into trying to give them cohesion… To me, the successful lyric makes you feel like you’re in a moment, in a day, with a character and that you can feel the presence of that character, and you can feel the day that it’s in. Not all songs behave like that, but I love it when that’s the end result.

Mitchell, you’ve known Neil for a very long time. How has your relationship changed over the years?

Mitchell: Well, one of the nicest things for me is I think we’ve become better friends. [Before], we would we’d rarely see each other. Once in a while, I’d come to town and it was always friendly, but you know, I’ve been welcomed into his extended family, and it has just been an unexpected, really nice thing. Are you enjoying the touring aspect as well, playing live? I like the playing. I’m not a performer… When I play, I have to wear ‘in ears’ to hear the music, and so I just get immersed in the music and try to play well, and half the time, I’m just listening to what other people are doing. But I really enjoy that. The other things are fine, and the band travels well and I like seeing everybody and feeling like part of this family.

Neil, the family thing is obviously so strong. And Liam and Elroy both get compositional credits on this record and your brother, Tim, has co-written ‘Some Greater Plan’. I know you’ve written loads of songs with Tim before but do you enjoy the collaborative process?

Neil: I’m a devotee of the band concept. You know, I’ve spent time away doing my own thing and I can enjoy being on my own with stuff as well. But being in a band lets light into the process, and it gets you there, for my mind, in a more interesting way, because it gives the whole process more texture and more dimension. When you work on your own all the time, I think you can form something that’s almost too… An artifice is there where you fill every crack that wouldn’t appeal to you, and by doing that, in a way, it makes it more impenetrable. That’s just the way I feel about it. And I love the friendship and the collaboration and also the sharing it, whether it’s good or bad, you get to share it with your bandmates. We are lucky enough to all really get on well, and as Mitchell said, our friendship has strengthened, which is a great feeling. And we get the benefit of Mitchell’s brain firing on all cylinders in a spontaneous manner a lot of the time because we are jamming band now, we’re becoming more of a jamming band. And Mitchell’s always got some quite beautiful textural elements to add and melodic elements to add that get locked into record sometimes, but it’s really nice to hear him free flowing. I mean, I’m probably sounding too ‘happy clappy’, but we have our moments of tension…

I was gonna say that, because bands fall out, they fall apart because of creative differences or just because people don’t like each other anymore. Is a band made up of family members more or less likely to self destruct?

Neil: We shall see! [laughs]. No, I can’t imagine that. It feels pretty invulnerable at the moment. Not that it’ll necessarily go on forever. There might just come a time where I get dragged into another thing, even for a couple of years, you know, maybe another project will come up…

Over the decades there has been periods of Crowded House activity and periods where you go away and do something else.  Is the next thing likely to be something different, or are you just going to try and keep the momentum going with Crowded House?

Neil: I very much feel like making another record with Crowded House and I think we’ve talked about a little bit. If and when we do, and it’s hopefully not too long away, I’d like to do it with all of us in the room for a good six to eight weeks. More like we used to, so that we can solve, examine and reimagine songs all together. It’s very time consuming when we’re sending files from one side of the world to the other and it’s very convoluted. Some songs you need to record and then you come back to a couple of days later and go, you know, “we are still missing something”. It’s good to be able to do that in a continuous thread, rather than having to communicate by email, or zooms. It’s just unwieldy. I got tired of that by the end of it, because it just seems to take so long.

In a couple of years time the first the first Crowded House album is going to be 40 years old. Any plans? Would you like to see that celebrated?

Neil: I haven’t given it much thought, to be honest. But if we’re all alive and well, I think that’s pretty good thing to aim for. We might honour it in some fashion. I guess we could learn it all, although there’s probably a couple songs, I don’t really care if I’d never play again… as there is on most records!

Maybe that would be a good time to do a Dolby Atmos mix?

Neil: I think that might get done before that. We’ve got we’ve got the setup back home at the studio now, and it’s something I know Steven would enjoy doing… It’s probably finding somebody to pay for it. Do you want to pay for it? [laughs]

I don’t mind getting involved! This is my thing. People, SDE readers, are willing to pay for a physical product. Unlike streaming, where it just goes out there, and no one really pays for it, it just kind of sits there.

Neil: Yeah, it’s a music enthusiast’s delight to have to have a nice rig. The good thing about Atmos is that it’s seemingly designed to work in quite a number of environments, unlike 5.1, so it seems to have some legs…

I think that’s why the music industry are actually supporting it. Because you can have a pair of headphones and it’ll still work. You don’t have to spend £1000+ on a big set-up. The first Crowded House album was done in 5.1., way back. I don’t know if you remember that?

Neil: Yeah, I do remember that. I don’t know if I haven’t listened to it in 5.1. No, I’m enthusiastic about getting our records redone in Atmos. But it’s a funny thing, though, because I think we’ve got something like 10 speakers in the studio at the moment, and a sub, I suppose, and it’s a delightful experience, but it’s a very solitary experience, in a way, because while you can certainly get a good sound in an off-centre position but really it’s designed for you to be sitting right at the centre, isn’t it? So in our world where we’re craving connection and togetherness… [laughs]

Thanks to Neil Finn and Mitchell Froom who were talking to Paul Sinclair for SDE. Crowded House’s new album Gravity Stairs was released yesterday and is available to buy in Dolby Atmos via the SDE-exclusive blu-ray audio.

The blu-ray is available exclusively via the SDE shop. Order using this link or the button below.


Gravity Stairs Crowded House / SDE-exclusive blu-ray

    • Gravity Stairs is featured on the blu-ray in the following audio streams: Dolby Atmos, 5.1 Mix (DTS-HD Master Audio 48/24), PCM stereo (48/24), Instrumental Mix (PCM Stereo 48/24)
      1. Magic Piano
      2. Life’s Imitation
      3. The Howl
      4. All That I Can Ever Own
      5. Oh Hi
      6. Some Greater Plan (for Claire)
      7. Black Water, White Circle
      8. Blurry Grass
      9. I Can’t Keep Up With You
      10. Thirsty
      11. Night Song
      HD Promo Videos
      1. Oh Hi
      2. Life’s Imitation

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