History repeats - Q&A: Tim Finn

Image: Karen Inderbitzen-Waller

History repeats - Q&A: Tim Finn

Tim Finn is taking the songs of Split Enz, Crowded House and his solo material back on the road. What’s Hot New Zealand talks to him ahead of his main-centre tour, The Lives and Times of Tim Finn, in September.

You’ve got a huge catalogue of songs to choose from – how was it coming up with a set list?

I had done a one-off show in Manly towards the end of last year. For the first time I played the songs in the order they had been written. It started in 1977 with ‘My Mistake’ but I only got as far as the early ‘90s before it seemed the right length. I’ve added in a few extras for this tour, but again, it’s chronological. It somehow suits my natural theatrical bent to play all these characters and go through the years with them again. It’s probably the closest I’ll get to re-living my life.

Are you looking forward to being back on the road after such a long break?

It's been more than a decade since I’ve toured. I’m excited to do shows with this band who play the old songs so inspiredly. They love engaging with the music of the Enz, Woodface Crowded House and my solo material. We are playing in beautiful rooms with sound and lights designed and controlled by equally creative spirits. Our daughter Elliot will be singing BVs. So much to look forward to.

No doubt the hotels are better than in the early days of Split Enz? What else is different?

When songs have been part of people’s lives for a few decades, they kind of belong to them as much as you. So to perform them live is to share something that evokes memories but also creates something in the here and now. There’s nothing to prove that hasn’t been proven, nothing to gain, nothing to lose, the thing that happens won’t be about a new album or trying to convince you of something. It has a kind of innocence and intimacy that would have been impossible for early Enz to achieve. We were a band that walked the fine line between extreme self-absorption and wanting to entertain the crowd. It was like we had had a revelatory experience of some kind and we were trying to convey it.

How is it playing songs you wrote in the 1970s? Any radically different arrangements this time?

I'm going to play with tempos with a couple of them. But we will do fairly faithful versions as the original arrangements are so strong. Split Enz in particular spent days and weeks working out the parts. If it aint broke!

That audience must be quite multi-generational now?

Yes, I noticed that in that Manly show. There were younger people there who had probably never seen me live, but when they recognised a song I could see it in the body language. I’ve been told that a couple of DJs in Auckland have been playing ‘Nobody Takes Me Seriously’ in the clubs so I’ve included that in the set. An older crowd member said to me through the fence as I was leaving the backstage area at a festival “You’ve still got it, Tim!”, which was gratifying as I could tell he must have seen some early Enz shows. Sometimes people tell me they remember a show from the ‘70s and you realise that an intense performance is not an ephemeral thing.

Are you tempted to break out any of the old Split Enz costumes for the tour?

I still like to wear a suit but not a Crombie-designed one. The thing about the Split Enz costumes, handmade as they were by Noel (Why hasn’t anyone done a podcast with Noel where he talks you through his process?), was that they worked all together. Once we were ready to go on, we had become this organic sculpture with 12 legs. It was the best feeling in the world to subsume your individual personality into this larger-than-life entity.

Tell us about your best/worst experience on tour.

I'm not saying best or worst but what came into my head was that in 1981, Split Enz played two shows in one night at the Whiskey in LA. As we went on for the first set I saw Bette Midler in the wings. Then after the second show, Donna Summer walked into our dressing room. It was surreal. Two divas in one night (to the tune of ‘4 Seasons in One Day’). 

What can you tell us about your band for this tour?

Apart from Elliot on BVs I have NZ musician Brett Adams on guitars and vocals. He played with The Mockers back in the day and is an outstanding singer and musician I’ve worked with for nearly 20 years now. Then I have bass, keys, drums, sax/clarinet/flute. All gifted players with whom I’ve had many a fine time playing festivals in Australia. 

Flip Grater is joining you on the New Zealand leg of the tour – how did that come about? 

Brett had told me about Flip a few years back. I think she might have toured with his band with Dianne Swann, The Bads. I really like her voice and songs and am hoping for some vegan vibes backstage! 

You are involved in all sorts of projects now. What have you been up to lately?

I’ve been making albums with friends such as ex Enz keyboardist and producer Eddie Rayner, Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera and Irish songwriter Andy White. I also collaborated on a new opera called Ihitai ‘Avei’a – Star Navigator, which was produced by New Zealand Opera. And I’ve been writing musicals, some of which have been produced in Australia. I’ve been busy but most of it happens at home, which is how I prefer it these days.

Who would be your dream collab? 

They’re already happening. Last year I had a new musical produced by Melbourne Theatre Company adapted from a short story by Kazuo Ishiguro, one of my top three living authors. When we sent him our script and song lyrics, he emailed us saying he was "blown away”. As someone who thinks of novelists as the Olympians of the arts, it doesn’t get any better than that!

What advice would you give to your younger self? 

Kick back, have fun, don’t take it too seriously … all the usual stuff.

Any of the current crop of Kiwi musicians you are impressed by?  

To be honest I’m so deep in the world of theatre these days and writing new songs that I don’t have my ear to the ground for the current crop out there. I wish them all well though. It’s a beautiful dream to make music and share it with people. 

What album/song do you have on high rotation at the moment?

I’ve fallen in love with Maria Callas and have been listening repeatedly to her singing Puccini's aria ‘Sola Perduta Abbandonata’.

Christchurch Town Hall, Wed 20 Sep
Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, Thu 21 Sep
Civic Theatre, Auckland, Sat 23 Sep



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