Leaving the storm clouds behind
Songwriter Tim Finn talks to Ed Power about his turbulent time in Crowded House, his Irish mother and swimming at the 40 foot with Liam Ó Maonlaí
Published 15/07/2015 | 02:30
Tim Finn is soft-rock royalty. Together with younger brother Neil, he wrote one of the 90s most sublime radio hits, Crowded House's effervescent Weather With You. But success did not sit easily with the angsty New Zealander - halfway through what ought to have been a triumphant 1992 world tour by Crowded House, he abruptly left the band. A victory lap turned into a lonely flight back to Auckland.
"We've had our moments," says Tim, reflecting on the sibling tensions that precipitated his departure from the group.
"It is difficult sometimes when you do exactly the same job as your brother. Look at the Gallaghers [Noel and Liam]. One is just the singer, really, and the other the songwriter. You would think that, with the clarity of those roles, there would be no problems. Look at Ray Davies [of the Kinks] - he and his brother [singer Dave] have had their differences. It comes with the territory."
If, as Morrissey once sang, we hate when our friends become successful, how are we to feel when eclipsed by a close family member?
That was the existential muddle with which Finn wrestled from 1985 onwards as his kid brother's scrappy outfit became New Zealand's biggest musical export.
One moment Tim was his country's foremost songwriting talent - the next second banana to Crowded House. When Neil asked Tim to join as auxiliary guitarist and songwriter, it was as if he was doing his elder sibling a favour.
This wasn't how it was supposed to be. Growing up in a remote corner of New Zealand's North Island Neil had worshipped Tim, six years his senior ("I was in total awe," Neil later said).
However, the brotherly dynamic was permanently altered as Tim's band, Splitz Enz, found themselves in urgent need of a guitarist and turned to 19-year-old Neil. It was a fateful decision, with the newcomer quickly reshaping the project in his image.
Going on to establish Crowded House, Neil confirmed his stardom with Don't Dream It's Over, a 1986 smash in America and the UK.
But Tim was in danger of ending up a footnote in his own life story. In Crowded House, he and Neil raised passive aggression to an art-form. The problem was that, in performance, Tim simply didn't have much to do.
He and Neil had co-authored several songs for a collaborative LP. The material was so good it was decided to take it to Crowded House instead. On tour, Tim would perform on his tracks, then retreat to the shadows. To play second fiddle was surely excruciating.
Backstage in Glasgow one night he decided he couldn't continue. Crowded House went on a man down, Tim caught a taxi to the airport.
"It's possibly less interesting than a full-scale punch-up," Neil explained afterwards, "but the truth of the matter is that on stage, it just didn't feel right for us or him. We're very off-the-cuff and conversational, whereas Tim is into creating a spectacle."
"Me and Neil don't work together too often," Tim says today. "When we do come together, it's special. That's a nice way to have it."
Years after Tim's departure the Crowded House story took a turn for the tragic. The band faded away in the mid-90s. Then, in 2005, drummer, Paul Hester hanged himself. He had suffered depression and was prone to mood swings.
Stunned by the tragedy, Neil and the group's bassist Nick Seymour (today based in Dublin, where he runs a recording studio) rebooted Crowded House - their way of honouring a fallen comrade ("Crowded House did not get back together for normal reasons," Neil told me last year. "The truth of the matter is we wanted to give the story a happy ending".)
I was surprised by Tim. A journalist I respect had warned he could be grumpy, but I found him soft-spoken and thoughtful. Aged 59, he has the air of someone at peace with the hand they were dealt.
"I've certainly made a lot of mistakes," he shrugs. "I have been a less than admirable human being at times. Ultimately I've been very fortunate in that I still love what I do."
This week, Finn is in Ireland, bringing his music and spoken-word piece White Cloud to Galway Arts Festival. Finn will also give an acoustic performance at Whelan's, rearranging some of his best-loved tracks for piano. He is genuinely looking forward to the visit: Finn's mother is from Limerick and he has a long-standing affinity with the country.
"I first came to Dublin when I was 40. I don't know what took me so long. I'd been in London for years, suffering it, and all I needed was to get on a boat or a plane.
"I must have been saving it up in some unconscious way. As soon as I got here, I had a very strong feeling that I was among my people.
"I remember going to see the Wallabies [the Australian rugby team] play Ireland. The Irish were getting beaten but their loss had this lovely quality. They went down with dignity and grace and humour. There was a sense that there was more to life than winning a rugby game."
He began to spend a considerable amount of time here and soon struck up a friendship with Liam Ó Maonlaí of Hot House Flowers. In the mid-90s, he went so far as to record an album with Ó Maonlaí and Australia-based Irish troubadour Andy White. They styled themselves ALT ("Andy, Liam and Tim").
"That was a couple of years after I'd first come over. We were all sitting out in Dun Laoghaire - we'd had a wonderful summer and I went out and did a lot of carousing and wrote a lot of songs.
"Me and Liam used to challenge each other at the 40 Foot [a popular south Dublin bathing spot]. We'd go for a swim through the year and, as the weather got cooler and cooler, we'd act as if nothing was wrong. I remember going out in February once - I'm sure I could feel the beginnings of hypothermia."
Finn delves into his Irish heritage in White Cloud, giving a moving rumination on modern New Zealand identity.
"For all of us who have come to New Zealand from English or Irish or Scottish stock - we sit quite lightly on the land. It's only been a couple of hundred of years.
"Mum was born in Ireland - she was only two when she went out. Her father had gone a year earlier to work on a farm. When the family arrived he said to his wife 'oh, hello Norah', as if they'd only been gone a couple of days. It's that lovely understated quality that I admire.
"I remember considering whether I should write about this - then I heard a tinkle on the pavement. There was an Irish 20p coin on the ground - and no one around. I think somehow mum was telling me to get on with it."
Tim Finn performs at Galway Arts Festival on Wednesday July 15, Thursday July 16 and Whelan's Dublin, Saturday July 18.