It's great to see you're coming back to the northern hemisphere for some shows. Is this predominantly a promo push for Marvellous Year or did you just fancy a bit of blink-and-miss-it UK summer sunshine?
No, these short solo World Tours every year or so are part of a not-very-worked-out long-term strategy. It's an attempt to stay vaguely on the international map, until the time comes (in 3 to 5 years maybe) when family commitments have lightened up a bit, and I can hit the road for longer bursts.
Among other places, this tour is taking in London and New York, both places you've spent time in at different points in your career. Did you ever consider staying overseas indefinitely?
Well, yes. We were going to stay longer than 4 years in London, but my mother got sick and it seemed important to go home to NZ to be closer to her and my father, and also to move our kids when it would be least disruptive to them. Again, when the kids (15 and 18) have grown up and left home, we'll be a bit freer in terms of where we live.
You have a hugely respected catalogue of songs to pick from when you play shows. Do you think you could you ever get away with not playing stuff like Anchor Me or While You Sleep?
Yes, I can get away with it, and I sometimes do. As you say, I've got a lot of songs, and the hardest thing for me (especially when I'm playing solo) is cutting the set down to a reasonable length. However I generally do like to do those songs because I'm not sick of them. I play the first chords, and I just remember what I was feeling and thinking about when I wrote them, and the years just fall away.
Which songs do you most enjoy playing live?
Well, lately I've been continuing my experiments with looping pedals, layering the guitar and sometimes the horn too, so I'm really enjoying the songs that involve that sort of behaviour. Also I've been putting some of the big, dark, story songs - like Passenger 26 and Toy Factory Fire - into the set, and they're fun too.
Are there any you're sick of?
No. I'm not famous enough to be contractually obliged to play songs that I don't like.
How do you go about writing a song nowadays? Has your process changed over the years? What inspires you?
My process hasn't changed. I scribble ideas down all the time, let them settle, then come back to my journals to try to decipher them.
The next lot I write will probably be a bit different, because I'll be mainly thinking of performing them solo, rather than thinking of what a band might like to play. I'm thinking of a bunch of very simple, short ideas - but I'm also thinking of carrying on with a series of NZ history songs that I've had a go at from time to time ('Jackie's Song' from Rain, Steam & Speed, and '18th Day' from Marvellous Year). There seem to be a few more of them in there. We'll see what comes out.
You still regularly write soundtracks for film and TV, which presumably requires a completely different mindset and approach to writing a pop song. Do you prefer one medium over the other?
Writing songs is my calling - it's what I have to do or else I'd be a total pain to live with - but I'm lucky in that the other things I do are challenging and enjoyable too. Collaborating on film and TV scores can be a good antidote to the solitary nature of songwriting. After all that time in my own head, it's sometimes good to be part of somebody else's big idea.
Aside from your solo work, you've been keeping busy with other projects. The Bellbirds sounds interesting. How did that band come into being, and are there any plans for a record any time soon?
Yeah, the Bellbirds is really fun. It was Sean's (SJD's) idea, and he's driving it. He'd had a gutsfull of large band shows that cost a lot to tour, and rely on so much technological fire-power for their impact. He wanted to see what a really quiet, intimate, 4 voice group would be like. It's mainly a vehicle for Sean's songs - but I've written one or two songs for it, (as has Victoria Kelly, one of the other Bellbirds) and I like the way they're turning out. We'll be recording in a couple of weeks, and hope to release an album before the end of the year.
You took part in Neil Finn's 7 Worlds Collide charity project last year, and contributed a couple of fantastic new songs. Were they written specifically for that record, or did you hold them back from Marvellous Year?
Thank you. I'm proud of those songs, too. No, the idea for Seven Worlds Collide was that you either turned up with something you'd just written, or, as was more often the case, you wrote something during the three weeks we spent at Roundhead. I wrote Long Time Gone' the night before the project started (in a sort of “Dog Ate My Homework” panic), and then started 'Girl, Make Your Own Mind Up' while I was waiting around on, I think, the third day, and finished it that night when I got home. Working with those musicians (Bic Runga, Johnny Marr, Ed and Phil from Radiohead and the Wilco guys) was unbelievably cool. Certainly one of the musical highlights of my life.
The reformed Crowded House benefited from your contributions both to the Time On Earth record and subsequent world tour. Are you involved on their new album?
Yep. I'm on quite a few of the songs. I think I play mandolin, percussion, euphonium, acoustic guitar and backing vocals. Oh, and thrashy open-tuned electric on one called “Inside Out”. I haven't got my finished copy yet - but I think it'll be a good record. I really enjoyed playing those new songs live with the band on the 2008 tour we did.
On a side note, has Neil Finn's experimentation with moustaches spread more widely among the NZ music community?
I grew a beard (ginger and white!) for a theatre show I was in back in March - but that was because I was supposed to be the ghost of a 19th Century sailor. There's quite a bit of facial hair around the NZ music scene - The Phoenix Foundation, Lawrence Arabia, Liam Finn, but the Dali moustache doesn't seem to have caught on.
My girlfriend and I recently had to buy a new washing machine, which led, naturally, to thinking about the work of the Front Lawn. In this age of '80s acts reforming, what's the likelihood of Harry Sinclair and yourself teaming up again?
We've been working on and off on a film project, but that's been slow and difficult, given we live in different countries. Watch this space.
It's now been a decade or so since the Mutton Birds ceased to exist. Are you in touch with your fellow alumni? What are they up to nowadays?
Well the last Mutton Birds gig was 2002 I think - a big outdoor show in Auckland. 2012 will be 20 years since our first album came out.
Yes, I'm in touch with almost everyone. I'll be staying with Alan when I get to London, David joined me on stage for a solo show in Wellington a few months back (we played “Too Close To The Sun” and Nancy & Lee's “Some Velvet Morning” - lovely), I run into Ross often at gigs here in Auckland - he's still playing with Dave Dobbyn and a fine, rootsy outfit called The Windy City Strugglers. Tony Fisher's back in the UK after living in Japan for several years - we email each other about obscure academic issues (he's doing a Doctorate). Not sure where Chris Sheehan or Andrew Claridge are.
And finally, what can we look forward to in the next couple of years? Is another solo album on the horizon?
Yep. I think that's the next thing. As I said: maybe something more stripped down. But I have to write the songs first - and I hope to get some things started on this tour! I'll certainly be sitting on planes and trains a lot.