Following on from a successful tour in the US, the Don-aided Crowded House tour hit Europe for a run of shows which included a handful in forests across the UK. Spence and Dave caught up with Don after a particularly excellent show in the Sherwood Pines Forest in Nottingham. Don had opened the evening with a short set featuring 'While You Sleep', 'A Thing Well Made', 'Andy' and 'Anchor Me' (the latter two with Neil Finn), and then later in the evening joined Crowded House on stage adding a variety of instrumentation to much of the set.
What's it been like touring with Crowded House?
It's been wonderful actually. It's happened in a really organic way. I was really busy at the start of the year working on two film scores at once; at this stage in your career you're supposed to be able to wind down a little bit, become a person of leisure, enjoy fine wines and long unhurried conversations with your friends and that sort of stuff, and something's conspired against me!
I got these big gigs at the beginning of the year in the middle of these two film scores, a fantastic tour with my band all around the North Island with a wonderful band called The Little Bushmen, who are kind of like the reincarnation of Hendrix. And in the middle of that, Neil asked me to come and do some playing on the new Crowded House album. We did some gigs together, but then I headed off into my work. Then Neil and I were at WOMAD in New Zealand - he was doing a solo spot and I sang a few songs with him. I was a director of the end of show gala and he just asked me as we were going on stage would I like to come on the US tour. I thought 'I can't, I'd love to do it but I just can't because I've got too much else on'. So I talked to people around me, my family and my manager, and my wife said 'Do it - take your laptop and you'll be able to keep writing the film score while you're away, and actually you'll be less distracted as you won't have kids hassling you to pick them up from school or take them to gigs'. And so I did that. It was an insane amount of work, but it was good because I didn't have time to get nervous; I didn't have time to think at any stage 'I'm about to sing 'Fall At Your Feet', a song that's always made me cry - I'm about to go on stage and actually try and remember the chords for it!' So that was a perfect initiation into the whole thing and they're such a lovely civilised bunch of people to tour with.
The gigs they did in the States were in beautiful old venues like the Fillmore in San Francisco and the Irving Plaza in New York, 1500-seaters in beautiful old rooms, 2- and 3-tiered theatres rather like the Olympia in Dublin we just did; amazing venues, places where a really extraordinary musical event would take place. It was lovely to be part of.
You add a whole other layer to the Crowded House live experience; I'm thinking particularly the wonderful melancholy euphonium on 'Don't Dream It's Over', for example.
We worked that out about an hour before Neil went onstage at WOMAD. He said 'Come and play with me, I don't know what songs you want to play'; we knew we could do 'English Trees' because I'd played it on the album, and he said 'Why don't you play the organ line in 'Don't Dream It's Over” so I scribbled it out really fast.
How far do you go back with Neil? Blam Blam Blam and Split Enz?
We were supporting Enz in about '81 and Neil hadn't been in Enz that long at that point. We toured around NZ together and then when Crowded House started, I think the first decent-sized Mutton Birds gig was a Crowded House support down the line somewhere in Hamilton or somewhere like that. I think we were still a three-piece in those days, before Alan joined. That's roughly what happened. But in between, when Neil was living in Melbourne, the Front Lawn would come to the Melbourne Comedy Festival and Neil would come along to shows and we'd hang out with him and go out to dinner. He's always been a real supporter.
How's your new album coming along?
I've got about 8 or 9 songs in the can and I'm going to use my spare time on this tour to write the last two or three, and then we've got some studio time booked when I get back. This new band, when we work there's not a lot left to add - when we all sit together and play in a room it's pretty much the way I want to hear it.
So has it mostly been recorded live in the studio then?
Pretty much. Not as pointillistic as the first album, which was made over quite a long time. The first one was made in layers; we had 5 days in a house at Bethell's Beach in West Auckland in 2004 and that's when we played quite a few of the basic tracks for Warm Hand. The rhythm track and vocal for 'Toy Factory Fire' was pretty much all done in one take, and then the stuff we layered on top of it took a little while but basically the song was finished after however long it is, 7 minutes. But other songs, like 'Miracle Sun', took a lot of layering and building before it was finished. I think this album's going to be a lot quicker. The first album was me seeing whether I could make an album again, or whether I wanted to make any more albums. I enjoyed it so much and people like it - several New Zealanders bought it, several families, a whole street bought it!
What happened to 'Claire', or 'Claire & Stan…' what was the full title?
'Claire & Stan and the White Whale'. I think we might cut the title down a little bit…
Is it going to be on the new album?
It's currently on there, but it might fall off the bottom.
On a radio session last year, you also played Face In The Paper.
Face In The Paper is an Envy Of Angels outtake, and I think we do a good job of it. It's probably going to be on this new album.
What made you go back to that? I'm guessing it wasn't a case of lacking new material, rather remembering or wanting to revisit some old ideas?
There was a little area of songs in the Mutton Birds where we didn't play them very much; I'm not sure we ever played Face live. I always thought the version we did for Envy Of Angels which never made it onto the record was too sensitive and precious and actually the song had a bit more blood in it than that. I thought it would be good to try it with the new band, and it was one of the ones where as soon as everybody knew the chords it just played itself. The Seven Sisters are so effortless as a band, a wonderful group of musicians - not taking anything away from the Mutton Birds - there's really something special about this and there are songs I play once to the band, and while I'm halfway through it's already sounding exactly the way I want it to sound. We know how each other think.
There isn't that much in the way of outtakes from Mutton Birds albums - I'm amazed you're able to squeeze together the rarities and outtakes you have.
'You've Got The Eyes' is an interesting one we got our hands on.
We demoed it at Rockfield around the same time as 'April' and 'Face In The Paper' but it didn't make it onto the album. We also did B-side sessions, recording specifically for B-sides…
Like 'Inbetween Man'?
No, 'Inbetween Man' was supposed to go on the album, I think it went on one version of it. This was stuff like the acoustic version of 'When The Wind Comes Round'.
Whose decision was it to leave certain songs off the album?
I don't know - I was losing it at that stage. I was pretty miserable around that time. Hugh Jones and the band didn't want to put 'While You Sleep' on the album, and I managed to get that on in the end.
The Rarities project also unearthed a version of that with extra backing vocals.
I remember working out the backing vocals... one of the second engineers at Rockfield must've [done a mix of it] - no one else would have a DAT of it.
Well, the promo CD it featured on was found by a fan in Camden Market, but he would only give us the rare stuff on tape. We were hoping at the time to get a better copy from you, only to find out *you* didn't have it and needed a copy from *us*…
There was a day at Rockfield where I worked away at a whole bunch of backing vocals thinking it'd be great to have really lush backing vocals in there, and as soon as I showed them to everybody they said 'It's crap, it's total crap!'
So how do you view Envy Of Angels now?
I really like it. I'm distant enough from it that it doesn't immediately take me back to that time which is important because it'd be good not to go back to that time.
Because it was hard to make, or due to inter-band issues? Was there talk of the producer insisting on multiple retakes?
The band was kind of breaking up, there wasn't much cohesion there. It wasn't a fun band to be around and there was a tremendous burden - there was a sense we were making the record that Virgin were paying a lot of money for and maybe, in my mind, this was as good as it's ever going to get in terms of resources to make a really fantastic piece of work. A residential studio in Wales, people making dinner and breakfast for us… but in spite of that it wasn't a happy group. But when you hear the record, there's plenty of good stuff there. I think Hugh Jones did a really good job - he was really meticulous, he challenged us - "Is that really what you mean, is that really the note you mean to play?" and everything was gone through with a fine tooth comb, which is one style of producing, and we responded to that by making what I think is a really great record. A more inspirational 'go crazy' production style might have backfired at that time for us because we weren't of a mind to go into the studio and go crazy.
So was Rain, Steam & Speed easier to record?
Much easier. We got Sam Gibson, an NZ engineer, to come and mix it with us and he was doing all the tracking, so it was a bit more like a family. It was a lot of fun, that record.
Is there a wider release plan for your next record?
I'm talking to a label in London. It's weird nowadays as you don't necessarily have different record labels for different territories because digital sales are so big. A lot of people buy my record in America from NZ - it's not that hard. I'm not sure in this climate what a northern hemisphere record label would do for us.
With the likes of iTunes it's obviously easier to get stuff out, with less overheads…
It's easier to distribute, but you still have to have visibility, you still have to get gigs and you've still got to get a vibe happening and presumably that's what record companies do now - they don't do the tangible stuff, bits of plastic slotting into other bits of plastic and being trucked around.
Their job is to get it to those who haven't heard of you, beyond the existing fanbase.
I'm the wrong person to ask - I just write the songs and make the records. It's really interesting, it's like developing a community of people. There's obviously a strong community of people who still follow the Mutton Birds and if there was a community of the same relative size per head of population in America, I wouldn't need to do anything else. I could just keep writing songs and wouldn't need to do other jobs - not that I don't like doing other jobs - I wouldn't change anything about my life at the moment. I have a really good time and I get invited away to do this sort of thing.
Certainly there's a lot of good feeling - the Myspace page is regularly receiving positive feedback, which I'm sure your manager keeps you up to date with…
Roger doesn't forward them on; he doesn't want me getting a big head! He keeps anything nice close to his chest...!
Coming back to Warm Hand, were you involved in the video concepts for the three single clips?
Somewhat, yes. The first one was 'Let's pretty much go to the environment and see what happens', it was very loose. The second one, my wife thought it'd be interesting to have something to do with suspension, and she'd seen a beautiful film by Shona McCullagh, a choreographer turned film director, where there's a woman walking along the road and suddenly she lifts up into the air. We thought all that sort of weightlessness stuff worked really well with 'I Will Not Let You Down'. With 'Harbour Bridge' I liked the idea of an animated clip; I liked the idea of something quite architectural that really used the structure of the bridge, with a car driving over the bridge and which had a lot of perspective shifts - the sort of stuff you can do with animation. We found a marvellous animator in Wellington who'd done another clip for somebody else which had that lovely naive kind of animation, and just really liked his ideas.
(At this point, we're interrupted by the beeping of a JCB from outside the marquee)
My god, that's our wardrobe - it's actually not very heavy, but it's being picked up by a forklift!
This is how the other half live isn't it!
Usually a couple of roadies sleep in there.
The Warm Hand videos have certainly had a lot of views on YouTube.
Yeah, that's mainly me though!
The Unofficial B-Sides & Rarities CDs from a few years ago are still getting good feedback, and we've recently been looking at doing a similar project for video footage, some of which you may have seen online.
I've had a look at some of the things on YouTube. The bit I chose to look at was 'Too Close To The Sun' on some Belgian show, and I can't remember it! It was really lovely to see - I was really thrilled that somebody had kept it. I've got a vague memory of doing that song and having that weird set, with nets hanging up, in Belgium. I don't think we played that song on TV in England... I could be wrong about that. Dave Long might remember.
We got it from a guy in NZ who sent a VHS tape with random footage on it, including some Front Lawn material.
There's very little Front Lawn stuff because we were superstitious about recording performances. We'd do promo stuff on TV, and that would have little curtailed bits of the shows, and we did quite a bit of TV in the UK as well, none of which has survived, advertising stuff at the Edinburgh Festival. We'd do little sketches in the street in Soho and Covent Garden.
Did you retain the rights to things like that?
We weren't that organised. Normally if you get paid to go on a radio show, they own that performance. Generally if you're charging around doing as much promo as you can, your last thought is retaining it. Your main thought is it's going to lead to something, it's going to increase the audience. It's only lately that I've realised some of those out-of-the-way live radio things that we did in Wales or Reading or somewhere like that might be quite interesting to have.
There's some footage of TV sessions Tony Fisher and yourself did around the release of Rain, Steam & Speed which is pretty good.
We did 'Ray' on a sports show - I was sitting next to a New Zealand rugby player who's mainly famous for eye-gouging. In any other sport or in any other country he would be in prison, but in New Zealand...
That's his thing!
What a competitor!
You go to see him to do that - if he doesn't do it he's let the crowd down.
He retired - obviously his eye-gouging fingers got a bit strained or something like that, he couldn't work any more.
And now he's on speaking tours - I don't know whether he's an author yet, but he probably will be soon.
Sounds like he'd make a good motivational speaker on health and safety…
Is there anything you miss about living in the UK?
I miss the seasons. I'm cold now - it's ludicrous to call this summer, but I do miss the change. In North Finchley where we used to live in London, there was one tree I used to take photographs of every few weeks, and there was enough interest in just that one tree and the sky around it and land around it to always make it arresting. I'd go for a run through the park and there would be this one tree sitting alone in the kids' playground. That sort of thing. There's a sense in the Antipodes that nature just keeps rolling along, it doesn't really take a breather, and there's something really good here about how as a human you can regroup during the winter and be reborn again and all your relationships come flowing back in because it's warm enough to get out and see people - I like that.
It's in my genes. People who look freckly like me have only been in my part of the world for a small number of generations so I'd have a subconscious memory of living in a place like this, and also everything's so familiar because so much of NZ is from when the Scots and English first came. They destroyed all the local vegetation and planted it all out to remind them of home, so there was a nostalgic subtext right from the word go. So that means when somebody like me comes to England it's strangely familiar - dry stone walls and hedgerows and poplars and things like that - they remind me of Southland in NZ, because Southland was remade 150-200 years ago by nostalgic Britons.
It was a hard time for me because the band kind of broke up, the record company dropped us - basic industry things which in the grand scheme of things don't actually matter that much to me, but at the time… The paradox of this industry is that a big part of it is making things that will last, like any other form of art - making things which will still be around after you've gone - and so it's a process you're in, you're always looking for the new idea, getting enthused about it and trying to enthuse other people about it. That's a kind of continuum, but against that there's a much more narrow state of affairs which is the industry and how you're measuring up, and whether you're on the cover of this publication this week or not, or who's said something nice about you this week, which is incredibly ephemeral. The two things don't have anything to do with each other actually.
Do you wonder about what if 'Come Around' had been the breakout hit it should've been in the UK?
We couldn't have followed it up with anything. I don't write songs like that, so I wouldn't have been able to follow it up. You can do your head in doing what-ifs. If I hadn't gone back to NZ my children wouldn't speak with an NZ accent and be the people they are, and all manner of things wouldn't have happened, so I've got no complaints at all. My life is very good! I exist in the industry exactly where I want to be at the moment.
So is Arch Hill quite a small label? It's hard to gauge that kind of thing from over here.
I could spin you a line but... it is a really small label, run by one or two people, but with a really good catalogue and really good attitude. We have to have a talk when I get back about what they want to do in terms of northern hemisphere stuff - I think they've probably got their work cut out for them just selling what I do in NZ and Australia but I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.
I did a showcase in New York for The Big Takeover, and these gigs supporting Crowded House have been really good. We're planning some Western Seaboard stuff to follow up on that, just me solo and then I'll come back with the band. The idea would be to build a community of people that want to tune into my wavelength in the States.
Was there ever a plan to play your own UK dates between Crowded House shows?
Early on we thought about bringing the band over here and slot in gigs between the Crowded House dates, but once we saw their tour schedule we realised that would be impossible as there's actually no days off apart from one day in Spain, so my band would've been sitting around doing nothing. We've built up the money to get us over here and do a tour - we just have to make it as effective as we can. It'll happen when the new album comes out later this year or early next year.