While he may proclaim to be a "loud one finger typer", Neil Finn, the frontman of Crowded House, was diving into the world of livestreaming long before your mate decided to 'go live' on the bus into town.
Around a decade ago, Finn was pulling deals with local internet companies and loading his studio with road cases of servers to stream music to a maximum of 300 people. If one more person dialled in everything would burst.
Now, in 2017, Finn has just livestreamed and recorded his new album Out Of Silence in four hours on a Friday night (25 August). Three live sessions preceded this, where Neil and his band teased fans by flitting between incomplete new songs and old classics. The terms 'live session' and 'shoddy acoustic version' have become inseparable over the years - thanks Spotify Sessions and BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge - but Neil, not a man who does things by halves, stayed well away from this pitfall and decided to make the most sophisticated album he’s ever made. His new album was released just seven days after that final stream - in the intervening period Neil and a team of three mixers have been harrying around mixing with a deadline looming over their head bigger than ever before.
Neil explains the "unexpectedly" intense process of making this record, his fascination with live streaming and why he still feels he doesn’t make use of the internet enough to support his prestigious music career in our chat below.
BEST FIT: What made you first experiment with livestreaming?
Neil Finn: As soon as I found out there was a way of doing music via the Internet it just struck me immediately as an exciting pathway to the audience that was completely controllable from the source rather than it being passed through some sort of TV or radio show. I loved that immediacy of things. I had a studio at home and a guy at the time working on a website I had called 'neilfunn'; it was a purely experimental website where you could experience musical games, flights of fancy, and whimsical notions.
What came from that project?
Neil: I just was really interested in the possibilities of what might happen on the internet and we launched into it. We had a little space to do it, invited a few friends around. We had to bring road cases of servers and do deals with local internet companies. It actually took quite a lot of effort though we could only reach 300 people at a time or everything would burst. I remember the very first time I did it I invited people to send emails to me if they were watching and if they wanted to make a request.
Do you remember any of the requests?
Neil: One of them particularly struck me, it was from a guy in Sweden who said 'I'm up, it's 3 O'clock in the morning, it's snowing as I'm watching you play, and it's sounding amazing.' It was such a romantic idea that I was in New Zealand where it was a sunny summer afternoon and for someone on the other side of the world it was snowing and that they were listening and it was sounding good. How good is that? That fuelled my interest from there.
How formed were the new songs when you went into the live streams?
Neil: There's been a lot of preparation to do this; I've had to do everything in reverse. I've had to do lyrics before I record which is rare for me... I'm usually doing it until the last days of mixing. I've had to do my album cover, my credits, and get all that work done beforehand. I've also had to get all the arrangements worked out. I've got a small orchestra coming in and 12 singers, there all friends of mine, they’re like a choir, a kickass campfire singing group.
So it's quite complex in places then?
Neil: I just had this notion that if we were going to do the album in one night we shouldn’t just do a stripped up acoustic album, which you might expect, but that I would do possibly the most sophisticated album I've ever made and do it one go. There was something immensely appealing about that idea.
You released your last solo record in 2014. Has the traditional method of making records, which you used then, got to a stage where it bores you?
Neil: There is an element of that, for the past 15 years I've ended up in front of computers fiddling with waveforms and I was getting a little weary of that. I hankered for being in a room and rehearsing with people before recording, which it used to be like. Even back to Frank Sinatra sessions, the orchestra would be in and prepared and then Frank would come in and it'd just be one, two, three, four, go. So in a way it's a very old fashioned concept but making use of the modern age and letting it be in full view. If you're prepared, why not let people in on the whole process? It's been a pretty fascinating process, kind of intense, and I was surprised by how much intense work it would be but yeah I'm surviving.
Can you give an example of how intense it's been?
Neil: There was a particularly intense night two years ago were I played piano for six hours straight. I don't know what I was on but I ended up having this really massive jam on the piano and the next morning I went through it and found a lot of what I thought were pretty good ideas and immediately tried to write the melodies. Six of the album songs came from that single night but they all seem to suggest being done in a non-pop format with vocal arrangements and strings, so that set me on a course really. That was the convergence of the idea and I'd been thinking I'd wanted to do something in one and have it out by the next day. It turns out the quickest you can get something out into the digital world is a week later.
On the preceding three streams, why did you want people to feedback? Are you not already letting people in enough?
Neil: The reason for that goes back to my original reasons for doing webcasting in the first place, which is because you have a direct connection to the audience which isn’t being regulated or controlled by gatekeepers. Skype actually worked well, but originally I wanted to have something more akin to Chat Roulette; it was a bit prone to people masturbating but I’ve always thought it would be good, with a livestream, to have people dial in and to be able to push it through to the next one. Anyway, it worked with Skype and I guess it’s just the feeling that people like the guy in Sweden are watching but now I can see him. It’s just a feeling of connectedness that engenders a reminder of what we’re doing.
Have their been any comments that you’ve found particularly interesting?
Neil: There’s always a couple of trainspotters who get really nuanced about their comments, you know? Like 'ah that A flat you threw in on the second take was magic going into the second chorus', and actually it was a mistake. I mean god bless them all, but it is funny that some people have a level of detail that’s quite astounding really.
Are you generally positive about the effects that the Internet has had on music?
Neil: Yeah I can see a lot of great things about it; I can't confess to understanding it very well in the way that music is reaching people now and the sort of pathways that young people seem to have an affinity, patience, and energy for exploring. I kind of think I’d get exhausted if I tried to do my social media to the level that a lot of young people are doing. I love playing music and I love the opportunities that the Internet has but I don’t feel I understand it very well, so I’m probably not getting the best out of it. I don’t know. You know, I’m a really loud one finger typer, but I certainly wouldn’t say that things were better in my day. They’re just different now.