"Disembodied Voices" from the Finn Brothers' new album, Everyone Is Here (Nettwerk America), begins, "Talking with my brother / when the lights went out / down the hallway forty years ago. / What became much harder was so easy then." Those brothers, Tim and Neil Finn, grew up to become the leaders of Split Enz and Crowded House, respectively, and since 1977 when the younger Neil joined Split Enz, the two have been drifting in and out of each others' musical orbits. Tim joined Crowded House for 1991's Woodface album, and they recorded Finn Brothers in 1996.
Not surprisingly (considering the New Zealanders' musical pedigrees), the songs on the album are characterized by beautiful melodies and harmonies. Both brothers are now middle-aged, so there's also a mature, steady quality to the songs. Family is a central theme on the album, particularly the family as a refuge from the big, dark world.
"We had decided early on that we were quite happy to address things that are common to both of us, and, obviously, family is at the heart of that," Neil Finn says by phone from a hotel room in Chicago. "As you get older, you find your immediate environment the most fascinating and mysterious of all. In a family situation, there's a full gamut of life experience."
In the great tradition of rock 'n' roll brothers, the Finns' relationship has been characterized by ups and downs. Their individual successes have given each the sense of the rightness of their methods, even though they don't share them. "We're quite different in the ways we approach record making," Neil says. "As with songwriting, Tim's direct. In the recording, he wants to get the take and move on. I tend to want to circle things a little more. On a bad day, it becomes double-guessing, overcomplicating things. On a good day, little windows of opportunity open up when suddenly you see a song from a different angle and make a breakthrough, and it can end up twice as good as it was."
Everyone Is Here was three or four years in the planning as the brothers worked to clear their professional and personal schedules to the point that they could sit down together and write, but that didn't mean the experience was easy. "We sit down in a room together first off," Neil says. "It may well be staring at each other and la-la-ing around in a circular and slightly awkward state. Through the day, you end up hitting on something, eventually, that fires both of our imaginations. On the best of days, things come out of our mouths together and seem like they're very solid."
In the case of "A Life Between Us," the song emerged spontaneously out of a jam. "It was nothing, then 10 minutes later there was the song, in essence exactly as it is on the record with maybe a bit of finessing here and there, and some lyrics added at the end," Finn recalls. "It's an exciting thing, and when it happens with two people in the room, it can seem totally wondrous."
In fact, the album began with the two having different visions for the project. "Tim had got to a point with a young family where he loved the idea of doing a Finn record, but he wasn't really super ambitious for it in terms of what it might end up doing or how much we should work it," Neil says. Neil, though, was excited by the growing, knowledgeable audience he was seeing at shows in America and was anxious to return. The fact that they're touring indicates how that discussion ended.
So far, the experience has been sufficiently harmonious that Tim and Neil aren't ruling out continuing as the Finn Brothers. "If we get to the end of this whole thing in another six to nine months and we're feeling as good about it as we are now, I wouldn't be surprised if we go straight back in and do something else," Neil says. "It wouldn't mean we'll be at loggerheads if we don't. There's a nice freedom in the way we can move, and neither of us have unreasonable expectations of what the other might want to do."
This harmony, however, doesn't mean their relationship has become simpler. "Stupid things spark off fights which relate to very old, buried things," Neil says. "Little offenses, little betrayals, little resentments. It's the same as any relationships, I guess. It's often to do with music because, as I said, maybe our different approaches to record-making mean I might be trying another idea on something because it doesn't seem quite right but I can't express myself properly, and Tim's going, What are you doing? Move on with it.' Neither of us in the passage of time can claim that we were right. We're just different, and that leads to fireworks."
- Songwriting "is an exciting thing, and when it happens with two people in the room, it can seem totally wondrous," Neil Finn (left) says of writing with his brother Tim.