The Finn Brothers: Fellowship of the Finns

Back with a new album, the Finn Brothers tell Gavin Martin about global success with Crowded House, brotherly love and loathing, and Lord of the Rings figurines
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The Finn Brothers are back for a short visit to London, the city where their fitful professional career began in earnest, 27 years ago. At first, there's just Neil Finn, myself and an expensive bowl of fruit in the hotel room in Baker Street. After cheerily inspecting the produce, Neil explains his brother's absence. "Tim must have been delayed - he has a six-year-old son obsessed with Lord of the Rings. He's never seen it but he wants all the toys. It gives his dad something to do between interviews."

The Finn Brothers are back for a short visit to London, the city where their fitful professional career began in earnest, 27 years ago. At first, there's just Neil Finn, myself and an expensive bowl of fruit in the hotel room in Baker Street. After cheerily inspecting the produce, Neil explains his brother's absence. "Tim must have been delayed - he has a six-year-old son obsessed with Lord of the Rings. He's never seen it but he wants all the toys. It gives his dad something to do between interviews."

Presently, Finn the elder arrives mouthing fulsome apologies, looking har-assed - and empty-handed. "I now have it from an expert: the one figure my son wants has been deliberately made rare. They do it so you have to go on a quest. It's driving me insane, to be honest."

Neil notes the irony that they've come all the way to London to find a souvenir of their homeland's most famous recent export. But by now the Finns are used both to ironic twists of fate and the sometimes vexing nature of their twin musical quest.

Neil was 18 when he left his native town of Te Awamutu just outside Auckland on New Zealand's north island in 1977, responding to a call from Tim, six years his senior, to join his art pop band, Split Enz. In his youth, Neil had been in awe of his brother, avidly devouring The Little Red Schoolbook, the rebel handbook Tim had sent him as a gift to deal with the disciplinary rigours of the Christian Brothers boarding school they both attended. And Neil had watched wide-eyed as Tim's band blazed a trail on the Auckland circuit and beyond.

To British commentators in the age of punk, Split Enz may have seemed an antipodean anomaly, but the young Finn was thrilled to be invited on board. "I definitely felt like the younger brother. It was an apprenticeship, a crash course in being in a band," he recalls.

"It was weird because I'd rejected the idea at first," Tim adds. "I'd played it out in my head a bit and thought what we really needed was a guitar player. I knew Neil could play but it wasn't his primary talent. It was eventually his writing that made me see I'd made the right decision."

Tim's initial reservations are hardly surprising. A cursory glance through the pages of pop history from the Gallaghers to the Everlys underlines how troubled fraternal musical relationships often are. Played out in the spotlight of publicity, the siblings' careers are governed by wilful battles, where acrimony and resentment are often the inevitable outcome.

The Finns have not been immune to the peculiar ties - and strains - of brotherhood. In the years after Neil became the creative powerhouse of Split Enz, the duo at times swung together, at others split apart. When Neil experienced international fame with Crowded House in the early 1990s for a short but troubled period, he invited Tim along. They had never written together before; the final Split Enz album was pointedly titled Conflicting Emotions and consisted of separately composed tunes. Woodface was the first time their writing talents combined and at least two of the co-compositions - "Weather With You" and "Four Seasons in One Day" - were extraordinary: joyous but strange, Beatle-inflected melodies with reflective lyrical insights rooted in the southern hemisphere heat haze of the brothers' youth.

Tim's arrival in Crowded House also, however, exposed tensions from which the group never fully recovered. "It was threatening for Paul [Hester, former Split Enz drummer] and Nick Seymour [the group's party animal, and a sharp contrast to the homely Finns], " he concedes. "They were gracious but it must have seemed like a power block of Finns was taking over the band. It didn't feel like that to us but it was a stretch to fit in."

Neil concurs: "It was an unnatural situation with Tim playing keyboards, when really he's a front man. I don't know what we were thinking. You look back at what sometimes seemed like good judgement and realise you were being really naive. Like when we released "Chocolate Cake" as a single in America - that was total stupidity. It may have been done with a sense of humour but they don't take kindly to being made fun of." (The lyrics dealt in part with the lowest-common-denominator nature of American culture, and meant that the album from which the single was taken, Woodface, suffered poor sales in the States.)

It was while touring Woodface that the brothers had their only physical confrontation, at least the only one they will admit to nowadays. "Ironically enough, it was in Byron Bay, the hippie capital of Australia," Neil recalls. "It was pretty half-hearted," Tim interjects. "We were pulled apart by our compassionate road crew," says Neil, "who stopped it going any further."

"I don't think it would have gone much further," says Tim, sounding irritated. "It was a well-documented period. The writing and singing together had been great. Then suddenly it was on-stage and I was a sideman. It wasn't a natural role for me."

Since Crowded House disbanded in 1996, the Finns have followed similar but separate solo careers. Tim's standing fell to the point where he was dropped by Parlophone, but he's been sustained by late-flowering fatherhood and the challenge of going independent.

"My last album wasn't released in Europe but I was very happy with it. It was the best work of my solo career. Prior to that I was suffering, gnashing my teeth. When I was dropped, I sacked my manager and felt much better. I just felt my writing was better, I was loving it more - I embraced the spirit rather than feeling hard done by. I learned a lot about the music business and did a tour of America without any roadies or a tour manager. It was incredibly hard but every gig was great, because it had to be. I'd never do it again - it nearly killed me - but I felt really proud at the end of it."

Seated together, the two Finns are a study in contrasts. Tim - his face careworn, with the grey straggly locks of an ageing beach bum - takes the lion's share of questions, and is more voluble, serious-minded and analytical than his brother. The bright-eyed Neil - preppy, relaxed, light-hearted and sipping a creamy latte - insists that they now meet on a level playing field, unencumbered by competitive barriers or age difference. This is true, up to a point. Certainly their new album, Everyone Is Here, is a calm, reflective and conciliatory work. A New York Times review noted the earnestly autobiographical nature of the new songs, but for anyone entranced by the Finns' best work, new songs such as "A Life Between Us", "Won't Give In" and "Part of Me, Part of You" are fascinating, autumnal odes that defy the brothers-in-pop stereotype.

The new record was, however, five years in the making. It must have been odd for Tim to find the younger brother who had once held him in awe becoming an internationally feted star while he played sidekick. "It was a strange time for me," he admits today. "I never had problems when Neil wrote songs in Split Enz and they turned out to be our best tunes. It was all for the good of Split Enz. But when he went on with Crowded House, I could see it was his destiny. It must have been hard for him to individualise himself and come out of the shadow of his elder sibling.

"I never really talked to Neil about it but I willed him on. When they had a big American hit and I was struggling, it really set me back. It was certainly a difficult time, a period of adjustment, of letting go of the older/younger roles."

Did he seek outside help to cope? He wouldn't be the first member of pop's fraternal brotherhood to have had therapy. "I have thought about stuff a bit, I did go to a guy once who uses a German technique to work with the body - just one hit and it worked amazingly well. He gave me a couple of exercises to release my emotions. I just laughed for about 20 minutes. I know I can sound analytical but actually I'm really an emotional person. I do try to calm the brain down or the emotions get clouded out."

Recording and promotional jaunts aside - as well as the occasional forays to London's children's emporiums - the Finns' wandering days are now behind them. Five years ago, Tim made the move back to Auckland, where Neil has long been ensconced with his wife and family. Significantly, his move back home was precipitated by two family crises. Tim: "The watershed moment was when our little boy was injured in a hotel in Auckland, burned in a room-service situation. We were only meant to be there for a day, but that turned into weeks as he was treated. Around the same time, our mother had been ill with cancer. Then she got better for a while, but I would have hated to be on the phone from Sydney, wondering if I should get back on the plane. When things like that happen, they're upsetting and horrifying but they make you realise what is important."

Although Neil says their mother, Mary, is "an all-pervasive but not explicit" presence on Everyone Is Here, she died before the fruits of her sons' labours were complete. Neil: "On the first Finn album ( Finn, 1995), it was a grabbed opportunity between other things. We just went in, did it and whipped it out. That wasn't how we wanted to make this record."

Tim: "There was a lovely rambling, organic feel to the writing phase. It reminded me of doing a first album - you don't have a deal and there was no one to impose a structure or a deadline. We just took as long as necessary to get an album's worth of songs, where we believed in every single song and we could both inhabit every song."

The beach on the "wild west" coast north of Auckland where they both have second homes provided a location where they could explore the core strengths and nature of their blood ties. "New Zealand gives you isolation," says Tim. "It's very easy to turn your back on the world, especially on the beach we go to. That feeling where everything drops away and you feel really small is achieved easily. It sounds vague but that's a prescription for how I'd like people to hear the music, as if they were standing on a beach."

He admits that there were points during the writing and record when the process was anything but easy-going.

"There were times we got pretty gnarly and had to back away. We were determined to get into the real stuff and when you're with a brother - or sister - you often tend to slip into old habits, fostered through only being together twice a year. Writing with someone, you want to get beyond that and be truthful."

So amid all the singing in harmony and unison soul-bearing, there were a few Gallagher-style face-offs? Neil: "I never trust the stories I hear about Noel and Liam. I think it's caused by the media focus and the way they've worked it a bit. We have flare-ups every now and again, but keep them private. Especially now we don't have to confront everything all the time, we can be easier on each other. If something comes up that we have to have out in a major way, it might be so intense that we get a couple of songs out of it."

Other brothers in pop seem to have taken Cain and Abel as their role models - why haven't the Finns? "A lot of those guys were together their whole career," says Neil. "If they had had solo careers earlier, they might have had more harmonious relationships. If we'd worked together constantly, our relationship might have been shot by now."

"Yes," smiles Tim. "We've had two shots at this in 12 years. We aren't exactly pushing it."

'Everyone Is Here' is released on Monday on Parlophone

Comments