Lumpy Gravy

In nearly 30 years of spending my time on the most useless endeavour known to mankind - writing about music - I've been lucky enough to meet and interview many of my heroes. My general interview archives are elsewhere. 'Lumpy Gravy' is reserved for the lumpiest, and most exquisite, artists.

Monday, July 19, 2004

Tim Finn

Same new shoes

Tim Finn prepares for the great inevitable. BY GARY STEEL

It’s taken thirty years to get with the programme. Tim Finn, erstwhile Split Enz wailer, brief Crowded House flatmate and sometime solo strummer, has finally put his foot down.
Heads turn in the prissy surrounds of the Ascot Metropolis bar, set in the hollowed-out remains of Auckland’s old Courthouse.
"I used to never know quite what shoes to wear," says Finn, "and every year I’d try something else. Now I just have two brands of shoes that I like. That’s it, for life. I will never change! It’s a great feeling when you get it down like that."
Fair enough. Many a Kiwi bloke would happily shuffle around in the same pair of cack-stained runners for eternity, but for the social obligation to do otherwise. But I think Mr Finn is hinting at the metaphorical resonance imbued by the same shoe situation.
"That’s it. Shoes are a metaphor."
What the hell for?
"Eclecticism. It’s over for me. I’m more interested in the currents now. It’s classicism versus romanticism – a romanticist is into the chaos and the profusion of things, and a classicist is finding what you really like and sticking to it. And that’s valid. I always used to think you had to change all the time. I’ve realised the folly of that now. For me, anyway. There’s so much to explore. It’s not about repetition, it’s not about nostalgia, but it is about the currents… there is a subtle difference."
This is a bit of a shock, really. Tim Finn, from the first wonky utterance of Split Enz (and through their myriad struggles and eventual triumphant success) and on to his faltering yet sporadically successful solo career and side projects, has always reeked of eclecticism. Early Enz were a veritable musical variety act, while Finn’s other work has veered from synth-pop to Celtic-infused to the American-style rootsiness of his last two albums.
But perhaps this eclecticism was founded in Finn’s personal dilemmas, and a complex, dark and defiantly more serious psyche than that of his more cuddly Crowded House brother, Neil. While Neil’s life and career took a comparatively easy, straightforward trajectory (Neil’s group, Crowded House, were phenomenally successful, while his songs in latterday Split Enz often overshadowed Tim’s fine contributions… and Neil has been happily married for twenty years), Tim’s was a complicated and sometimes tortuous mess.
Living abroad for most of his adult life, Tim Finn always seemed the restless, troubled and often melancholic, or even angry, foil to his brother’s endearingly normal persona. A disastrous marriage (lasting only seven months) in 1981 and later, a tumultuous relationship with actor Greta Scaachi, had a parallel reflection in the waxing and waning fortunes of Finn’s music career. Fifteen years in London were followed by wilderness years in Melbourne and Sydney. Album deals came and went, and before Finn moved back to New Zealand, married and had a child, there hadn’t been an album for seven years.

The alarmingly well-preserved 49-year-old I’m encountering on a strangely-lit Autumn Auckland morning bears scant resemblance to the Split Enz prankster of yore. He’s obviously happy, reflective, in a calm place, and getting off on being home after half a lifetime in other climes.
I squint my eyes and try to connect this distinguished middle-aged chap to the Tim Finn I remember on stage at Hamilton’s Founders Theatre in 1975. I remember Finn’s painted face and shocking quiff and the jokester persona and the way he moved around the stage like a proper spastic and sang like an angel. And I remember the catcalls and the loutish ‘POOF!’ and at that moment, Tim Finn became an idol to me.
No-one can quite recapture the shock of Split Enz in mid-70s New Zealand. The way their relentlessly entertaining – and often moving – set would take the piss out of a way of life that we all wanted to escape from. A boring conservative suburban mindset, an insulated society that existed a light dream away from anything remotely ‘happening’. When Finn sang about the clockwork boredom of watching the 6pm news, kids across New Zealand knew what these guys were on about.
Split Enz back then were an astonishing, brave and perhaps partly subconscious reaction to staid life in New Zealand, but they were to music what Sam Neill described as a ‘cinema of unease’ in our movies: Enz were an extremely filmic account of the frustration and alienation we all felt back then before the internet and cheap fares, when prohibitive customs tariffs on items of popular culture (records, stereos) did their best to stop us participating in a way of life we felt we had a right to.
While it’s fair to say that Phil Judd (later of the Swingers) was the early genius of the group (a kind of NZ Syd Barrett character), Tim Finn’s prodigious musicality projected elements of both Lennon and McCartney in a perfectly sweet-sour way.
His stage persona was that of both court jester - with elements of an old-fashioned character like Biggles - and a broad jawed rugby-playing schoolboy bully putting on girly makeup just to piss everyone off.
Although some aspects of early Enz may sound risibly burlesque to today’s cynics, there’s an emotional complexity to those early records (none of which came near to capturing the severity of the live show) that repays attention, and it’s worth pondering on the way that, as NZ society has changed, other artists have fulfilled a similar function in looking at our culture: in the 80s, Don McGlashan and Harry Sinclair formed the Front Lawn, which was very much like a light, comedic take on the kind of concerns Enz had before it became internationalised. In the 90s, we had Peter Jackson’s ‘Meet The Feebles’ and ‘Brain Damage’, which neatly encapsulted similar themes. And contemporaneously, we have daredevil stunt team, Back Of The Y.
Unsurprisingly, Tim Finn is a huge fan of the Back Of The Y boys, and employed them to make two outrageous videos which feature on the cd-rom content of his new cd, Feeding The Gods.

YEP, Back Of The Y, and the deeply philosophical subject of failure.
"The Back Of The Y guys are in their 20s, and they’re not so worried about going overseas, or defining themselves by what’s going on overseas," says Finn. "They’re interested in New Zealand, exploring it, cutting through all the layers, and that’s part of why I’m glad I’m back, I want to go deeper. By playing in Wanganui and Kaikohe and places like that, I can go much further into New Zealand than I’ve ever been.
"One of the reasons Back Of The Y makes me laugh is that they’re complex and gifted artists in their own right, and they’re quite easily misunderstood. Randy Campbell’s ‘That’s when it all went horribly wrong’ became such a catchphrase. Part of what appeals to me is the doomed heroic enterprise.We love the idea that its bound to fail, and keep torturing ourselves with the idea of winning and losing. And what we love is to do something HUGE and then if it falls flat on its face we all laugh and love it. We recognise ourselves in that, and it’s not that we love failure, we love the pathos and bathos of that. And I think New Zealanders are really good at that, and that’s what we should be celebrating.
"When we’re most unhappy is when we’re worried about how the Allblacks are going. I don’t read the newspapers much, but I read this editorial in the Herald, and it said something like ‘Unless we become more like Australians or Americans, we’re losers.’ I thought what a sad thing for New Zealand that our biggest newspaper would say something like that, it’s just outrageous. I’m all for confusion and vulnerability. That’s when we’re the most alive and human. We shouldn’t be afraid of that.
"For an artist of any kind failure is essential, because you fail again and again and again. And the worst moments are when you’re feeling most successful and confident, then your art’s going to fail for sure. It’s better to feel doubt, fear and even disappointment as you’re waiting for that inspiration. When it comes, you follow it and it’s the best feeling in the world. A songwriter, or any kind of artist, knows what a failure is: when the work just doesn’t speak, it’s not alive, it doesn’t have anything in it, and I’ve done PLENTY of that. You just wait, wait for inspiration, and it’s always going to come. Clear the way for it, really. It’s going to be there, it’s all around you, all the time. You just get in the way of it."
Death is the ultimate, inevitable failure, and perhaps for Finn, learning to swim with the currents is the equally inevitable outcome of the humanising, humbling experience of childbirth (he has a four-year-old son, Harper, with wife Marie) and the loss last year of his mother.
In a touching gesture, ‘Feeding The Gods’ (a kind of concept album about the process of finding one’s muse) is dedicated to his mum, Mary, and it’s clear that, if Tim Finn hasn’t exactly come back around in a precise circle, then at least he’s expunged the demons to find the qualities unique to familial love.
"Watching Mum die, and die so well and bravely, I asked her ‘Are you afraid?’ and she said ‘No, no I’m not’, and I said does your faith help, knowing of course that it did, but wanting her to tell me. She said ‘Yes, it does’. It was very understated, but so powerful that for that moment of your life, something could actually help you. How powerful must that be? Somebody once said that one of the great wonders of the world is that we can all live our lives as if we’re not going to die, and that doesn’t mean you have to be obsessed with your death, but it’s there on your shoulder the whole time.
" The failure of the flesh. You best be prepared if you can. There are some people who can ignore it until they’re actually going through it. I don’t want to be one of those. Ultimately, it’s at the bottom of everything. Extinction is a vast conundrum. But it’s not being morbid. In fact it actually enhances the pleasures of life to allow that thought into your mind."
Tied up in Finn’s fight for life has been his lifelong tussle with Catholicism, but now he’s finding that falling away. Being raised a Catholic has had huge ramifications.
"Catholicism with its problems with the dogma and the sin and the guilt. The guilt especially is a big problem, because it really is an excuse for not changing your life. If you wallow in guilt, and you’re taught to do that, then that’s a good copout. You don’t have to change anything. It’s a big psychological problem to get over.
"There are many paths, and I think they’re all as good as each other. If you feel the need, you can explore any path and find a good way of living. I suppose I was given the tools at an early age, and I sort of cast it all aside, a massive rejection.
A flirtation with Buddhism allowed Finn to look at Christianity in a different way.
"There is some Catholicism left in me, but reading about Buddhism enabled me to understand the idea of craving and aversion; that you fear things and therefore you suffer."

TIM Finn has one of those typically elusive Kiwi personalities. Inscrutable. Somewhere between poetry and the playing field, there’s been in the past a slight awkwardness in his presentation that belies a tendency to go inward and think about stuff. In conversation these days, he’s more relaxed, and allows himself the odd use of the Kiwi ‘sort of’. But its still hard to pinpoint – beyond character traits like the tendency to plough ahead and say what’s on his mind regardless of whether it’s on the agenda – the real Tim Finn. Maybe, after the eclecticism of his expatriate life and lives, there’s now simply a normal Kiwi bloke with simple, normal Kiwi pulse and desires, looking to get into that current and swim with it.
Perhaps a key to one of the key Kiwi icons is Tim’s bliss. These last days, what really turns Tim Finn on are the simple pleasures:
Quality time with Marie. Games with Harper. Swimming, always swimming. Reading, lots of reading. The odd sneaky, mindless piece of pulp tele. Staring at the sunset in his West-facing garden. The occasional hit of Super 12 rugby. Catching up with old, old friends. And performing.
"Certainly one of the peak moments for me is when I’m playing, the times I’ve felt most lost have been when I haven’t been doing much performing. London in the mid-80s, when I wasn’t doing any gigs.
"Like the other night, Dad’s 80th birthday party, which we had up here in Auckland. It was a surprise party, brought all his old friends up from Cambridge in a bus. And there was a band there playing his kind of music, swing music. Neil and I got up, sang a few. And as soon as we started playing music, there are people we know who are just mental. Bliss! The connection of that, I love. We’re all connected up. I might be the guy singing, but it doesn’t make any difference, we’re all the same at that moment, sharing that.
"But swimming pools are my temples. I’ve been to every swimming pool in the country on my tours in the last six months. It’s amazing. Every town has a swimming pool: I didn’t know that! So I go off and I find my pool and I swim my laps, and the whole experience of being inside that place, as much as it reeks of chlorine sometimes, and there’s a few bandaids lying on the bottom… it still to me is a GREAT period of my day, and I watch that black line and swim along, and sometimes I have fantasies that there’s an earthquake and I’m just watching the pool kind of breakup. And sometimes I’ll notice that there’s a really old person next to me and I’ll watch the way their skin sags and hangs and just start thinking and dreaming about age and life."
The secret, Finn reckons, is the ability to feel small.
"I met this amazing man once, David Lewis, who’s a celestial navigator. He must be in his late 70s now. But he’s sailed singlehandedly around the world by the stars a few times. He’s a medical doctor, but at a certain age, he just knew that this was what he wanted to do. You sit and talk with him and he’s got this look in his eyes, it’s an empty look, but it’s full of compassion. He’s really seen the other side, and he’s been out there alone in the midst of all this immensity. He talked to me about how small he felt and how ludicrous it seems to him when people feel themselves to be big and important. So he’s actually seen that and experienced that. You can hear about that and know it intellectually, but to really experience it…"
Finn stares at me with an empty-eyed look. Yet one full of compassion.

Back in New Zealand, Tim Finn can bask in the glory of being an elder statesman of Kiwi pop. He can raise a child in a country that is still comparatively safe and easy to negotiate. He can enjoy Enz reunions and embark on ridiculously successful tours like the Finn/Runga/Dobbyn spectacular that played to full houses wherever it stopped off. There’s all that, but it’s easy to forget that Finn’s career lacks the comfort factor of guaranteed international distribution and touring support that would seem a given for an artist of his standing.
Like many of the new breed, Tim Finn these days is an independent artist. His latest album, Feeding The Gods, has distribution in Australasia and North America, but there’s no financial backing from a major record label, so any touring must be self-funding.
Bravely, Finn claims that what many artists would find an impediment gives him a new way of working that has re-connected him to the artistic grid.
Dealing with the details of life, and living each moment in the present, has given Finn a new lease of life.
"Ten or fifteen years back, I could do a whole tour and not even know the names of some of the people on the tour, I was still in my own head about everything, thinking about the big picture all the time. Now I get much more into the nuts and bolts, the here and now. It’s liberating, because there are no gatekeepers, it’s just you and the crowd, it’s very pure."
Part of this acceptance must have come from the necessarily detailed involvement in bringing up bubba. Like any good Dad, Tim Finn has found parenthood to be hugely enriching, and has an interesting rationale on the subject:
"Half the time you’re really just trying to get them to be quiet so you can do what you’re trying to do, think what you’re trying to think, or have a daydream about. In 30 years of being a musician, any time I wanted to have a daydream I could, but you try having a daydream around a 2 year old. And you find yourself disciplining them, and you think it’s for their own good, and then you check yourself and realise you’re really doing it for yourself. You’re trying to fight for your own survival. But when you enter into the child’s space totally and give yourself to it, that’s where you really get joy, and it really starts to connect. I’m a big believer that any activity is as good as any other. If I sit down and write a song, that’s essentially no better than reading a book to my son. Both things can have equal amounts of joy, or not, in them."

It’s obvious that mid-life is a time for contemplation for our most thoughtful pop figure. Whether dipping into books by Paul Bowles or late Kiwi playwright Bruce Mason, hiking around the hills of Piha, or catching a game of rugby, Tim Finn finds meaning in every eddy, every gesture, every gust of wind. And poetry in sport:
"When I was at school I was into sport, and I wasn’t a nationally gifted player but I was in the Sacred Heart first fifteen. I played halfback. My memories of that whole thing was not winning or losing or being in the first fifteen or anything, it was just having kicks. At twilight, that magic hour when you’re standing there with another boy, kicking a ball and getting those big spiralling punts going. There’s something infinite and amazing and poetic, which remains with me to this day. So, as much as I revelled in it and exulted in it because of the camaraderie of the connection, in the whole winning and losing, the winning and losing part of it lost its allure for me after awhile. I remember the poetic moments: I think that’s in our psyche here, and I think the reason there’s a lot of depression is that the more symbolic and abstract side of our – the abstract emotion – we’re all very good at personal emotion, at being excited at specific things, but the more abstract emotions, that are harder to qualify and lead to art and poetry and whatever, we’re not good at those. We don’t acknowledge them so much. Just those days when you wake up and you’re feeling happy for no particular reason. That’s very important. That’s inspiration. But we tend to want to know ‘what am I going to get excited about today? How am I going to define myself today?’ There’s a push and pull going on which can lead to great unhappiness. Happiness is when you feel on the beam. You feel the pull of life. That Don MaGlashan song, Pulled Along By Love. That feeling of being pulled along is really happiness, and New Zealanders fight that."
And how does Tim Finn see himself in the performing universe?
"If you sort of allowed the metaphor of rock’n’roll being like an abbatoir or a freeezing works, you’re sort of herded in there and if you’re unlucky you’re going to end up right at the end of that entire process as a can of spam. And I feel like the beast that found a loose board down the back of the building somewhere and headbutted its way through and actually escaped, and found his way back to the fields, far away from the observation and the torture of it all. And I’m just enjoying being back in the fields."

* This piece originally appeared in a savagely subbed version in the NZ Listener, 2002. This is the complete and unexpurgated version for the first time.


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