Crowded House's Woodface album won widespread acclaim for the sheer quality of its songs. Paul Tingen quizes main man Neil Finn on perfecting the three-minute pop song.
Number one on many people's lists of favourite albums of 1991 was Crowded House's Woodface, a collection of fine songs, exquisitely sung, craftily performed and tastefully produced. The songs, compact three or four minute wonders with the emphasis on catchy, elegant melodies and good lyrics, rather than virtuoso playing, and vocal harmonies that are reminiscent of Lennon and McCartney, can't help but recall The Beatles.
"Our records are subtle," observes lead singer, guitarist and main song writer Neil Finn. "People are now used to productions being big and whacking them over the head, but our records aren't like that. We don't fit in with the way the music industry is at the moment, where everything is aimed at instant gratification. People tell us that our music grows on them over a period of time and that they enjoy it much longer."
In a time when good songwriters appear to be an endangered species, it's appropriate to subject one of the remaining exponents to closer scrutiny. Obviously, in Neil Finn's case writing songs does not involve playing with the computer, devising grooves over which one improvises some melodic contents. Finn does it the old-fashioned, romantic way, doodling on the guitar or the piano.
"I'm just looking for a moment when I'm free of distractions and able to concentrate. After that it's relying on accidents. I play guitar in a dreamy state of mind and throw a couple of chords together and all of a sudden that might suggest a melody and a rhythm. With the rhythm a phrasing idea comes, and some words will pop in my head, like 'the cat wears white pyjamas'. That's maybe an absurd example, but it usually doesn't make a lot of sense to me at that stage. Once I get a few lines I'll start seeing a thread for a song. I'll develop the idea a bit more and that's the moment I switch on my 4-track and make a very rough demo of it.
"I've also got a Tascam 8-track reel to reel — I was the last person in the world to buy one. It's a 1/4" with mixing facilities, like a glorified portastudio. It's a great unit. I've also got an SPX90 which I use for reverbs and that's it." Actually, the Melbourne-resident New Zealander doesn't need much more, because he goes out of his way to explain that making "primitive demos" is really what the next step of his song writing process about.
"What I go for is an atmosphere. There will be a lot of rough ends and the structure of the song will be wrong and there are bits where I don't even know what the hell the chord is, but it's the atmosphere which makes the song live and keeps me interested. But I do often get very specific bass ideas, certain notes that the bass has to state and I'll do an approximate rhythm, hitting a matchbox on a table or something. There will be several wild passes of keyboards on tape, guitar, vocals — I often find that your very first arrangement ideas are the best ones — and I'll make a rough mix where things are moving in and out all the time." Matchboxes on the table. Doesn't he even have a drum machine? "Oh, yes, but I couldn't tell you the model number. I'm a real untechnical person. Not because I'm against technology, but it's just that I find that when I'm writing and playing, technology or gear is that last thing on my mind. I'm really only interested in the germ of an idea and when that sits in stone in your brain, you know you're on to a good one."
The next step in the Finn songwriting process is to get together with producer Mitchell Froom. Together they work on the structure: "We'll sit together, him playing keyboards, me the guitar, with a ghetto blaster, and just perform the song until it sounds right. Then we take it to the band and together we establish the definitive form and structure.
"I think it's good to leave things rough for a long time; it keeps that spark of inspiration intact, although sometimes I do wonder whether it's just laziness. But inevitably when you start working on a song there is a period when it will lose interest to you. You have to quantify the song and put restrictions on it, and only once you've learnt the new structure by heart will the hard work start to pay off, and will you feel that you have something. But you have to go through that process. The function of a good structure is not to lose your listener. The song has to build steadily throughout and create interest at moments where people would start to get tired, so you throw in a bridge or a solo. The formula of the three minute pop song is still endlessly adaptable."
After two weeks of intensive songwriting with brother Tim, in the latter's Periscope studios in Melbourne, both band and Mitchell Froom were called in to get the songs down to tape. Working in Periscope had its limitations: although they had an Otari MTR90 24-track, the desk was an obscure '60s Wheatstone, which really didn't sound up to scratch. So, they supplemented it with four high-quality Massenburg EQ/pre-amps, which were used to lay parts down on tape. The studio also had one Urei compressor, and a bunch of hired mikes.
"It was all very skeletal. We could only put four tracks down at the same time via the Massenburgs, although we did record some things via the Wheatstone. But limitations are good. It's often easy to waste a lot of time in studios because there are so many options available. Sometimes when you have a limited pallet you can actually get down to the music a lot sooner. There are times that I think that it would be easier to just have two tracks and have to play everything live. That never hurt The Beatles."
An additional five tracks had previously been recorded, before Tim Finn joined, in A&M's studios in Los Angeles. The difference between the attitude in the sessions is probably exemplified by the fact that the vocals at Periscope were recorded in a single day.
However, it's striking that the LA and Periscope sessions blend so well together on the CD. "That's right. The only difference I can perceive is that in some of the LA tracks the bottom is a bit larger. I think the unified sound is very much due to Bob Clearmountain, who mixed the whole album." Though Clearmountain is known for a big sound in his production of Springsteen and Bryan Adams, Woodface has a notably dry, intimate feel. "When I mix I don't go in with a preconceived idea of what the music should sound like," he says. "I listen to the music and the lyrics and that guides me. Bryan Adams is a large personality with big music, so I'll mix his music large. The Crowded House songs have a very intimate and acoustic character, so I mixed them imagining the band playing in a small club or even in a front room. On a couple of tracks, 'It's Only Natural' and 'Fall At Your Feet' the vocals are totally dry; they have no reverb at all.
"The thing about Crowded House is that their songs are so good. Mixing their music is for me just like being in heaven. It's easy because the arrangements are very spacious and very musical; and although it sounds deceptively simple, there was a lot of interesting material for me to play with on the multitrack, so I could be very creative."
The "interesting and musical material" to which Clearmountain refers consists of layers of acoustic and electric guitars, a rhythm section who manage to play somewhere between smooth and jerky, if such a thing is possible, and Froom's and Tim Finn's subtle keyboards. But the album is also spiced up with a number of quirky sound effects, such as a mooing cow in 'Chocolate Cake' and something which sounds like someone burping over a supermarket till at the beginning of 'It's Only Natural'. Samples of some sort?
"No, no. Well... actually, kind of. Mitchell Froom has a big collection of antique synths, and those sounds come from a Chamberlain. It's a pre-synth which uses tapes, a little like a Mellotron. It has fantastic wobbly, scratchy sounds in it which sound more real to me than a lot of digital samples. It also has a whole range of animal effects. The cow on Chocolate Cake was really just a freak because somebody was doing a wild track of keyboards and happened to push the cow button right there. At first we laughed at it, but after a while we started to get very fond of it. Somehow it was incongruous enough to work."
Apart from the Chamberlain and an Emulator 2, other keyboards featured on Woodface include a Mellotron, a Baldwin Electronic harpsichord, an old Cox organ, a Hammond, a Prophet 5, and a Piano Optigan, "a very trashy organ brought out in the '60s which reads a kind of optical disk. It sounds very low-fi but is very atmospheric. There are what you could call 'samples' on them of things like brass bands playing. It's pretty wild."
It turns out that Neil Finn's collection of guitars is just as eccentric as the keyboard line-up. "I have three main guitars — a 1966 Gibson Les Paul gold top, a mid-60s Strat and a Telecaster — but for Woodface I used a lot of obscure, trashy old guitars. They're real junk guitars which were marketed through department stores and mail order companies in the '60s. They're worth getting, because they don't cost much to buy, but have a lot of character."
Intonation and tuning problems not-withstanding, Finn used the cheapo guitars all over Woodface. "What sounds like a sitar on 'How Will You Go' is actually the Silvertone through its own amp which is built-in in the case. It has amazing distortion."
Ah, technology rears its head at last! But seriously, why does Neil Finn shy away from using it? Does he feel that he writes better songs not using it? Or is he simply a luddite? "No, not at all. Actually, to tell you the truth, it's because I'm lazy. It takes some effort to get into. And also, I've always had this idea that you only need six strings and an idea to create a song.
"At the end of the day, what it all comes down to is having an idea. Friends of mine who're into computers and technology get completely fascinated by it, but their ideas are no better than when they weren't using it. I also think that technology is a very underused medium — it's like TV, which is a brilliant medium, but 95% of the time it falls dramatically short of its potential. It's the same with computers I think, because it's easy to get something that sounds good, and people don't push themselves. If they did, I think technology would be a really exciting tool. You can hear that in the way DeLaSoul, Public Enemy, KLF or earlier Kraftwerk were writing music. They weren't using using machines because it was easy — they have a concept behind what they're doing. Also, there's some dance music that's really wild and where people have a lot of fun being very irreverent with the gear. I like that, but a lot of what's on Top Of The Pops is like advertising jingles to me."
Interview by Paul Tingen
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!