Q&A: Crowded House's Nick Seymour Talks Inspiration, Visual Art, David Byrne, Mustaches and Bicycling With Our In-House Superfan
On the far left, Neil Finn and his mustache. Next to him? Nick Seymour.
On a hot summer day last month, I played the "international calling game" with Crowded House's bassist Nick Seymour. I harassed operators and PR reps to no avail: The number I was dialing was not in service.
I wondered what in the hell I was mis-dialing or if I got the time wrong and the connection was somehow terminated. But an hour after our scheduled interview--with me thinking I was the screw-up--I made a last-ditch dial and Seymour answered and...apologized to me.
Turns out, when you're in New York on public transit, sometimes the ol' Irish cell phone doesn't connect.
He was a wide-open interview--which is rare--and eager to chime in on just about any subject. We spoke less of the song inspirations for Crowded House's new album, Intriguer, or how the band's sometimes sleepy songs explode into serious loud sounds and buried hooks--because, well, those pieces are all over the net.
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And I'll admit it, I'm a longtime fan who wanted to hear about other shit more than why they have a song about elephants, or how clearly Team Tweedy and Team Finn borrowed a bit of technique (and a producer) from one another.
There's an old Kids In the Hall sketch in which they poke fun at how "nobody knows the bass player" of any band. The bass player never hangs out, never has fun, never gets referenced by name. It's a great skit and barely appropriate--except that, in reviews of the new album, you'll most certainly find Neil Finn and newbie Matt Sherrod's names, and occasionally multi-instrumentalist Mark Hart's. But there's rarely a mention of the heartbeat: the bass player.
Here I had Nick Seymour, Crowded House's other renaissance man, on the line. And I wanted to find out about him. So, we discussed the creative process after a 14-year hiatus, the late Paul Hester and Seymour's response to the band's super-superfans. But we also discussed his incredible artwork, David Byrne and bicycle culture. Like a Crowded House concert, there's something for everyone. See the fruits of our conversation after the jump.
With Intriguer, do you still feel giddy or excited about the music when you have this final, whole product that you're putting out there? Or does it feel more like an occupation now?
That's an interesting, um, that's a good question, you know. I know from being involved in the making of so many albums along the way that there is--when there is--a task at hand, I know what has to be done to complete that record. And I also know the amount of songs that we need to record. And I also know the kind of headspace that you have to be in with each recording when you're actually in the studio proper and you're recording the bass and drums--and hopefully the vocals--in one take, it is now a focus of my expression as an adult artist. And, you know, as a 51-year-old man, I know how to engage that. And that is a practice. It's like the practice that anybody does--like the commitment of all your cognitive skills and trying to reach out and grab the talent that you actually believe you have with confidence. I'm only absolutely delighted that that is, in fact, a job. I can't believe that that's a job description. And I really do give thanks about it, but I do, as well, get really neurotic about getting it right and making sure that it's as good as it can be for the age that I'm now at. Whenever I'm recording--whether it be with Crowded House or if I'm doing something in the studio in Dublin, overseeing in the role of producer or playing on somebody else's record--I recognize the commitment that you have to have to get it right. And you know that is the same as when we, when I first started out playing with Neil and Paul back in the day. Although in those days, I had the enthusiasm of not knowing what the job at hand was. And again, that could possibly affect the vulnerability of the sound or the little decisions that you do make when you're recording a bass part. But, look, I'm not going to double-guess that now because I'd just drive myself crazy. If I got even more neurotic about whether, you know, I need to completely unlearn everything I know. [Laughs.]
It's both by rote in terms of the way you handle the process and--for you guys--it seems that each album is a bit of an exploration, so I would expect that each one would present a new experience and yet, like you say, you know how to go to that place. It's an interesting juxtaposition of feelings.
It is! Because if you're on the one hand instinctively trying to find that chemistry or that equation with the other members of the band and you think you're just repeating yourself, that can be the one thing that drives you to say "We need to re-cut this track" or "We need to re-assess this song or reinvent it in another way." It's so instinctive. And as I said before, we are really, really lucky to be in that situation. I mean, so many musicians are so hamstrung because of lifestyle decisions or financial commitments that they have or where they live. I don't know--I live in a really cheap part of the world, I think. When I come to New York, I suddenly realize how expensive, how difficult it is for artists who live in New York to actually be able to find the muse because just the actual day-to-day living is such an incredible engagement. I mean, just the average conversation in New York is like a sparring match.
In terms of that--the chemistry--how do you feel Intriguer reflects where you are as a band or how you've come up?
Well, it...uh...[Laughs]. It's an intuitive, instinctive thing--abstract thing--that we've ended up plotting out together, but I think that it is a really much stronger example of the chemistry between the four of us, than say, Time On Earth, which was a record that was conceived as me guesting on a Neil Finn record, it seems, when we started out. And then it became more of a collaborative exercise and we extended it into getting Mark Hart to come in and play with us and then we thought well, let's reform the band and look for a drummer and we found Matt Sherrod. It was a more convoluted exercise. This record, we had a lot of songs that we'd been playing on the road, working up verses and choruses or just ideas--song ideas that Neil had--and we went into the studio and recorded them proper, as a band. But we had to find a lot of them previously with Matt playing drums. You know, I think that it's a much stronger example of this line-up, this current line-up that is enduring really well. I mean, we really like each other, we like hanging out and I think the tour that we're doing at the moment is we're at the top of our game so far. Every song is a joy to play. When I look at the set list, as we're going along--and we change the set list every night--with each new song I'm just sort of remembering something that I did the night before or a couple of nights prior to that and I'm looking forward to trying that again with Matt. It's a real pleasure.
I had seen you with Time On Earth, at a festival performance. And first of all, my sympathies to you all on the passing of Paul. For anyone who is a fan like me, we were saddened, and I know that that's not even a fraction of what you guys felt. But, I wonder if that chemistry change on-stage now feels less jovial or positively more stable, because he was--well, I've seen you live--he was a cut-up.
I wonder if you ever saw him when he wasn't on the up side of his...well...
During a meltdown?
Did you see a gig where he ever lost it?
Only recordings. And you can see that sort of manic emotion that lends itself to well... on a good night, he was incredible.
No question. It's hard to know whether you would say... I mean, as we go we pick up fans and we lose fans. One of the biggest criticisms of Crowded House along the way was that we were too jokey and then other times it would be people that would absolutely love coming to see the band because it was a very comical between-song adventure. And Paul would never really repeat himself. I mean, he had a few gags that he'd do that used to frustrate him as well because he often thought that he wasn't taken seriously because he just couldn't stop himself from being that irrepressible show pony for a laugh. And that used to frustrate him a lot, you know. But... I think there's possibly people out there that think that we're not as funny as we used to be. It truly seems really funny to be thinking of that in the music genre, but all I can say is the chemistry has changed in the sense that we don't play with Paul, we don't have Paul around to play with and enjoy but we weren't really replacing Paul when we were looking for Matt. We were lucky to find Matt who had a depth of character that seemed to have a lot of the same experience--musical experience--that Neil and I had, even that Mark had shared, and the traditions we'd grown up with.
Well, it did seem even-keeled and natural when I saw you play in Austin. And as a fan--of you and just of live music--that sort of on-stage chemistry is exciting.
Good! Hopefully, we're aging gracefully!
Absolutely! Although, did you know there is a whole Facebook campaign against Neil Finn's mustache? I was a little shocked someone made that effort.
His mustache?! That's so strange! Sometimes I think to myself, "What happened in those 10 years that I wasn't working with Neil" and I do meet fans out there. They bring us cakes and they bring us books, you know, and I'm really grateful that stuff turns up before shows. A beautiful pear tarte tatin! Or a cherry pie or cookies. And you can taste the love in them. But then sometimes I think, "You know, this is stuff I don't know that I want to encourage or not. I mean, I think it would be a mistake for me to go to that MySpace page. Cause I just don't understand how a man can't grow a mustache, you know, or feel that his aesthetic is his own. He has to be judged by these people that think that he belongs to them somehow.
I agree. I found it by way of watching your performance of "Amsterdam" on Later with Jools Holland on YouTube. And someone had linked to the page in the comments. But, you know, while we're talking about fans, I noticed on your website, fans can request a song for whatever city the tour is coming to. Is that a legitimate thing? How do you pick that?
No, it's totally legitimate. I mean, Neil actually takes notice of that. I mean, it blows my mind. I just don't have the time, personally to invest. I'm so--on the one hand, I see the Internet as being a great tool to actually to look up certain subject matter as a resource or communicate with people, via email. But I don't go to sites and make, I just don't like the obsessive side. But Neil seems to--you know, during the sets--it's usually in the encore, he actually says, "Now we've had X amount of requests for this song." So we might try at sound check a rehearsal of a song we haven't played in many years, you know, or a more obscure song. And of course, you know, the boffins that get on the Internet are the ones that seem to know these obscure songs and are trying to out-obscure each other to make requests for it under different names and it'll come up and then they'll be able to sort of tell everybody around them in the room that that was their request and they're the man. But Neil does do it! He comes out with these songs and I'm like, "Oh, really, there's that many requests for that song?" And, you know, look it's fun to play. I mean, sometimes pulling these obscure songs out, it's a real challenge for me to actually try to remember what I did.
Now I've never seen you play "That's What I Call Love," but--
OK, that's very true.
But my noticing that makes me wonder if the fans you're speaking of go for songs on an album, a normal album, that just weren't singles--like that song? Or do they go for the strange imports or B-sides releases?
Often it'll be B-sides and obscure follow-up releases, that they'll be going for other than album tracks.
And you must be thinking, "That was just a live one-off! What are you doing?!"
Yeah, it can be annoying. [Laughs.]
I know you guys are well aware of it, that here in the states, your music hasn't received as much attention as it probably should have. Has that seemed to change with this album from radio, media or even just fans?
I think I kinda stopped worrying about it in a lot of respects. I kept feeling that there feels like a great privilege and a real dignity that is with my membership--my card-carrying membership with Crowded House. Where ever I go I'm surprised that some of--like the other night David Byrne got up and played with us at the Bowery and we played "Once In a Lifetime" and "Road to Nowhere" with David Byrne and I'm standing there looking and I was having one of those moments--those pivotal moment moments--looking over and saying "Here's a hero of mine that is actually collaborating with me in this very vulnerable moment." He's got this incredible reputation, this incredible legacy, that goes with him and he's actually willing to take the time to share it with me. That seems like an incredible blessing to be able to have an assessment of credibility for a split second. Like, I had an art school training and all of those credibility factors are sort of part of the academic teaching of how you become an artist when you go through art school and, you know, David Byrne is the epitome of one of those arts-musician kind of guys. I mean he's one of my all-time heroes and it was just a delight. So, I just really give thanks of the privilege and it doesn't concern me whether one of those kind of career journalists at Rolling Stone think we're cool or not. I'm beyond it.
You've surprisingly brought me right to my last question, which concerns your artwork. You've done--correct me if I'm wrong--every album cover and it seems that with each one, worked in a different medium.
Yeah, that's very true actually. That's great. Nice observation! This one [Intriguer] was completely assembled virtually.
That's what I was about to ask you!
OK, like the scratches are the scrawling of the word "intriguer" into the teddy head that's on plywood--that seems to be a sort of a poster on plywood. That was actually scratched into a piece of cardboard and then photographed, so I did actually put scribe to card, let's say, and then I took it out into my backyard and photographed it with the right sunlight angle on the cutting to make it appear--knowing that I'd have tools in Photoshop--that it was going to be having the same shadow as the teddy's head that was pealing off the plywood. So, due consideration of surface is there but none of it actually took place with, say, paint on board or pen to paper as such. It was a total virtual exercise.
That's ironic since you don't tend to subscribe to the lures of the Internet.
I know! Isn't that curious? But, you know, having said that, all of the mediums that I work in now are of the digital age. Crowded House was a band that were recording in the crossover between analog and digital. We were recording on tape back in the '80s, in the late '80s. And then when the digital epoch happened in recording, we went over into the digital realm and now in my studio in Dublin, that's all I use. I don't use any analog except perhaps a few amplifiers and outboard bits of gear, but I record on a system. And now I'm doing artwork that needs to be sent all round the world, I'm actually fine at doing share file sites and all of that sort of [cut out] resource you know, photographs that I've take or any documentation. So I'm really quite literate with it all, but I just don't buy into the empowerment that it gives. The projecting of neurosis. I can't come at that.
I'm using an actual tape instead of a digital recorder now.
You know, I'm holding an iPhone in my hand right now and I'm thinking to myself, "She could actually be recording this on the iPhone in that--the little application that you can download--recording it as we actually speak without having anything external." I'm kind of now imagining you holding the phone up to the tape recorder. [Laughs.]
How much are you creating art--as far as physical art--away from your studio work?
I wish I was doing more but I've always taken journals with me on the road. I've always had little handbooks where I've had a series of pictures that are a distraction from the humdrum of waiting around at sound checks or in airports or checking into hotels if the rooms aren't ready or whatever. I'll have a little sketchbook where I document the space and then add a few words to describe the sentiment and I still do that when I'm traveling. It's like a hand journal and I wish I was doing it more, because when I go online and look at the work of other artists...some of the journals are just absolutely fantastic. Also, you know that a lot of the songwriting ideas are contained in these kind of scrawlings, like impressions. Neil's really good at gathering his impressions but he doesn't keep a little book. He does it secretly--I don't know where or when he does it. I think he just commits it to memory and he's able to have these little internal conversations that he's able to recount at a break of a month. We have four weeks off somewhere and he can actually put these ideas into little songs and little anecdotes. I'm terrible. My short-term memory--I have to keep journals.
I wish more musicians would publish artwork like that, because too often people make a big deal or are shocked when an artist in one genre has an outlet in another.
That's what I find really interesting about an artist like David Byrne or Brian Eno. They are, actually, on the art circuit, you know? They do installations. David Byrne particularly. In the brief encounter I had the other night with him, I wanted to pick his brains about so many things that I've been up to speed with including his Bicycle Diaries.
I just got that! And I've read Brian Eno's A Year With Swollen Appendices. Amazing book.
Very, very creative people, colorful people, that somehow found each other.
And literally, just a few days ago, I got the David Byrne. And you know, we do have a wonderful, growing bike community here in Dallas, no doubt inspired, in part, by his work.
Oh, brilliant! Well I have a really beautiful cycle on the road with me. Like a really super light carbon fiber road bike. It breaks down into a case that's a little bit bigger than a suitcase and it weighs less than a normal suitcase so I can check it when I go to airports or whatever and it's really secure and it's lightweight. I right at about seven kilos--it's extremely light. And I was really looking forward to doing the ride that David describes in Detroit, to see the town-planning observations that he's made about the beleaguered existence that Detroit now has since so much of the industry that created it in the boon times is gone to other parts of the world. Have you gotten to that chapter yet, where he describes the cycle out of Detroit downtown into the suburbs?
No, but I have a friend who told me that chapter was what inspired him the most and then recommended I read it. I know a member of the bike planning force here who I believe was also inspired by his city planning commentary.
Wonderful! Your friend should contact David for tips on town-planning issues! Because David has been riding a bike through Europe for so long as an actual practical cyclist. He has all these things, all these observations that'd be really great for somebody doing that town planning to be able to lobby. And Dallas, look, you can ride all year round, can't ya?
Yes. As long as you're prepared for the heat, you can.
Well, great, I'll check it out. I've got my little sat-nav to find myself. I've got this great little sat-nav that sits on the gooseneck of my bike and I'm able to ride through any city with complete confidence that I'll always be able to return to where I started. I do a little bit of a reccy before I get to cities where I know I can cycle. I usually do a little reccy and plan it out. Matt's really good at it as well. He usually investigates before we get to a city to work out a bike path. So, look, I'm sure we'll be seeing you out on the street... Billy hats on.
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