How Fleetwood Mac, carnivals, and Mr. Chow inspired the first Crowded House album in 11 years
"There was just a sudden, 'Hang on a minute! There's a wonderful, soulful way to bring Crowded House back into the fold.'"
The Musical Moodboard is a recurring EW feature where artists reveal the inspirations behind a new album.
"I wasn't meant to capsize," says Neil Finn, his spiky gray hair giving him the look of a bedhead version of David Lynch. The New Zealand singer is talking about making the music video for his band's new single "To the Island" — and how in one scene, the canoe Finn is traveling in tips over, tossing him into the sea. "That was a wave that caught me unawares, and [it was] not a very stable boat. I was supposed to be rowing a canoe to shore to try to find some mythical place where [the band] could all meet."
Mythical, metaphorical, sometimes melancholic, Neil Finn's songs have always shimmered. He delivers that magic once again on Dreamers Are Waiting (out June 4), the first album in 11 years from his band Crowded House. Keeping with Finn's own mien, the record's 12 songs are delightful, quirky, cool, and occasionally dark. That should come as a relief to Crowded House fans, who have long waited for the "Don't Dream It's Over" rockers to return to the fold.
Finn is joined on the new record by founding member Nick Seymour on bass, the band's longtime producer Mitchell Froom, and Finn's two sons, guitarist and singer Liam and drummer Elroy. The elder Finn recently spoke with EW over Zoom from his home to discuss the myriad influences that figured into the making of Dreamers — from carnivals to beached whales to his time playing with Fleetwood Mac.
1. Fleetwood Mac
After guitarist Lindsey Buckingham was kicked to the curb, Mick Fleetwood and Stevie Nicks recruited Finn to tour with the Mac for the group's 2018 tour. He called the unexpected turn of events "a delightful surprise"; it also got him thinking about the longevity of classic bands. "[Fleetwood Mac] has redefined itself several times, and yet there's a presence and soulfulness every time it goes out," he says. The experience led Finn to reflect on his own career trajectory — and later sparked an idea for a new project: "There was just a sudden 'Hang on a minute! There's a wonderful, soulful way to bring Crowded House back into the fold. So let's just do it.'"
Having to sing Lindsey Buckingham's songs every night also meant Finn was using the top of his vocal range, so it wasn't a surprise when that approach seeped into the new Crowded House sound. "I was going into this record thinking, 'I would like to gravitate the band toward songs that would be great to play onstage and where I'm stretching my voice and that are upbeat,'" Finn says. The final result? "It made the album a little less melancholy and ballad-oriented, as some of my records have sometimes tended to be."
2. Books and beached whales
While urban legend holds that the band's name came from an overfilled pad they used to crash in, Finn says otherwise. "I went down to the library off Sunset [Blvd] and found a book of Eastern European folk tales, and it was called Crowded House. I hadn't seen it again until somebody turned up at a gig and handed it to me from the front row."
Dreamers Are Waiting, too, is bookish: In 2020, Finn and his wife took a chance on the estate sale of a secondhand shop and purchased hundreds of old books, sight unseen. "Our biggest delivery was about 30 boxes," he says. Aided by pandemic free time, they went through every volume, dusting each one and discarding anything historically suspect. "I got a few lines for some songs" from the books, he says, including one about "beached whales" for the track "Deeper Down."
Credit longtime Crowded House producer and new full-time member Mitchell Froom for the mysterious Beach Boys–meets–circus midsection of "To the Island." There's a strange carnival gene flowing through Mitchell," says Finn. "On the tour, he'd be warming up with Elroy, and they'd be playing some kind of carnivalesque music with a bit of a funk undertone."
4. Tromp l'oeil painting
Bassist Nick Seymour created the illusory bunny-featuring trompe l'oeil album cover during lockdown. Finn notes that it looks like the art "you see outside Italian restaurants in Little Italy in New York." But he sees something else going on under the surface. "I imagine a reclusive person taking refuge in a cave and looking out at what could be a dystopian vision or a historic vision. There's some decay…but there's the bright future as well, out the cave door."
5. Mr. Chow in London
Back in the halcyon days of the record business, big fancy dinners were the norm. During one such affair — at the storied Mr. Chow, which Finn references in the song" Sweet Tooth" — the musician was struck with food poisoning from an earlier meal. "It only really came on when the maître d' and six of his best waiters brought in the Duck into the room we were in. I was overwhelmed and had to leave immediately," says Finn. "I was hailing a cab as quickly as I could. The maître d' followed me out and was absolutely pleading with me to come in: 'The duck, we've just brought it out!' "
In true Crowded House style, though, other parts of "Sweet Tooth" are unrelated yet equally specific, like the oddball lyric "there was six of us and now there's 17." "It's a really obscure reference point, but in my mind, what I'm referring to is when you used to go to school and somebody at lunchtime would get to go down and buy fish and chips," he says. "And the whole school would suddenly be filled with the smell of fish and chips. A kid would be eating out of a paper bag, and he would be surrounded by people going, 'Can I have a chip? Can I have a chip? Please just one chip!' And it would just drive kids crazy."
6. Elroy & Liam Finn
The unique instrumentation on Dreamers, like the percussion pattern on "Love Isn't Hard at All," stems partly from Finn's sons, Elroy and Liam. Notes Finn, "Elroy's got a lot of songs he's working on, and I said, 'Have you got anything real upbeat? Because that would be kind of handy for the record and help us get into it.' "Elroy sent a couple musical ideas, including one simply tiled "Upbeat for Dad," which remained the song's name until the record was nearly complete. "I sort of got involved and helped him with a couple of the parts, but it's very much Elroy's music, and the rhythm, obviously, it's his drumbeat. It's really lively, and it kind of has a giddy feeling to it, which I love."
More music stories: