Together with Eddie Rayner, Tim Finn has been poring over Split Enz material in search of new inspiration. The result is the spectacular debut record from Forenzics, Shades and Echoes.
With origins in the early 1970s, Split Enz remains one of New Zealand’s most celebrated musical exports. The melodies of the band haven’t just left an indelible imprint on fans though — their creators, namely Tim Finn and Eddie Rayner, have carried them in the back corners of their minds for decades.
This rich material formed the basis of Forenzics — an innovative project which involves Finn and Rayner unearthing melodies and song snippets from the Split Enz catalogue, reimagining them, and presenting them in a new context. Two singles, Chances Are and Premiere Fois have already emerged, with Shades and Echoes, the full-length debut album, slated to arrive in February.
We caught up with Tim Finn at his Auckland base, chatting about the project’s connection to Brian Eno, the intimacy and immediacy of recording alone, and the reunion of a formidable songwriting team.
HAPPY: You’ve leaned quite heavily on the 1975 album Mental Notes — the first album from Split Enz — for your forensic investigations. Is there something about the material on that album in particular that you found particularly inspiring?
TIM: I think there was, for me, though it’s very hard to put my finger on it. I do acknowledge that the song Walking Down a Road was right at the back of my mind for 47 years — I would obviously forget it for months or years at a time — but it would always creep back in. I have a memory of Brian Eno walking into the studio that day and commenting on that one section — it’s funny how those things stick.
He’s a very inspirational and influential figure in music and has combined with a lot of great acts to bring out extraordinary work. Obviously David Bowie, U2, Coldplay, and numerous other things that we don’t hear so much about. He seems to be able to merge with the zeitgeist without ever losing his idiosyncrasies and there’s no one else in music I can think of that’s quite like that. So it was probably his comment that stuck in my head, so I said to Eddie: “let’s try to write a song over that section.”
Eddie put together a musical bed — it sounded like the structure of a song, though it was fairly abstract. But it was really inspiring to me. I worked with the original lyrics that were mainly Phil Judd’s and cut them up and reorganised them. And that’s how we got our first song, Walking.
From there on, we were flying. We were sending files back and forth — we both live in Auckland, but we didn’t meet up much. We just did it online, which is the way so many people are working these days. It was a very inspirational time and it came very quickly. There was a clarity there somehow and that track, Walking, released it in both of us.
HAPPY: I think the forensic concept behind Shades and Echoes is an intriguing one. And interestingly, when you hear melodies on this record, it invites you to make your own connections with older Split Enz material and reminds you how little melodies often live like ghosts in your mind. There’s a motif in Abandoned, for example, that reminds me of Message to My Girl — not an exact copy, but a strange mirror image. You actually start remixing it in your mind. Did you ever have that experience, where you can’t stop hearing the melodies super-imposed on other tracks?
TIM: It’s a very interesting area that you’ve opened up there. There are only 12 notes in a scale, but there are different ways of combining them — thousands, millions of ways. Then there’s rhythm and changing how long you hold the notes for. In Split Enz, we not only had the tune of the song, but we often had countermelodies happening. Eddie would be coming up with an intro or an outro, or a middle section, or even just underneath the singing there would be something else going on that was more than just playing chords. Neil (Finn) was also like that on guitar. And then you’d have Noel (Crombie) playing things that were almost melodic — whether it be agogo bells or something else in the melodic area. You’ve only got to think of a song like Poor Boy and its bass line in the verses is a beautiful tune in its own right.
Eddie and I like fairly complex harmonies but contained within a relatively simple song structure. You can go too far and things end up sounding too complicated and you have to try to find a way to work with less. Though we weren’t really good at that in the early days. There were a lot of ideas buzzing around and when I listen back to the old Split Enz rehearsal tapes — it’s almost bordering on complete madness. So when David Tickle got hold of us and we did True Colours, he was really helpful in stripping right back. It was a sound that we were groping for, but we didn’t quite know how to find it on our own.
A great thing about working remotely and sending files to each other is that there is a real egolessness about it. As much as it’s wonderful to sit in the room with musicians who you love and admire, it can also be quite restraining. You can be on your guard a bit when you don’t want to be. So being invisible to each other and doing it when you want to is really productive.
HAPPY: And just on that, you talk about an “unforced intimacy” in your vocal performances on the record. Can you elaborate on that?
TIM: All the songs on Forenzics were sung right after they were written. When you’ve nailed the lyric and you’ve done your edits and you’re ready to sing, it’s a great time: there’s no second-guessing and you’re really confident. Those first few takes are always really special, in fact, sometimes, it’s the very first time you sing it. You’re exploring it as well, you’re really allowing yourself to go into the song and into the words and you don’t have any outside voice listening to what you’re doing and judging you. It’s like opening the door into a new space — you’re so busy checking it out and wandering around that you’re not using your rational brain very much. It’s very sensory. That was a big part of it, for me.
Eddie will say that with me in the studio, you’ll get it within the first one or two takes. Sometimes great singers work a lot harder than that, doing it line-by-line. But for me, it’s better to get it early and that’s definitely what was happening here
HAPPY: Megan Washington delivers a couple of brilliant cameos, especially on Unlikely Friend. What was it like to work on the vocals together yet remotely?
TIM: Well, it’s a tribute to her, because she came in fairly late in the process and we knew the kind of harmony that we were going for. I’d worked with Megan before — we’d written a song together on my album The View is Worth the Climb, and she’s toured with me as well. We just get on really well. She’s really funny and really talented.
So we reached out to her and she was 100% onboard. She loved the album, so she just sat at home and crafted the harmony and Eddie mixed it into the track. She’s a great singer. She’s got a smooth, velvety tone and she just blended in so beautifully.
HAPPY: There’s quite a spacious and psychedelic atmosphere throughout the record: big reverbs, phasing and flanging, and expansive panning, it’s quite a sensual feast. System Overload is a track that has a quite adventurous production in particular. Were there any albums or bands that you and Eddie were listening to that seeped into the sound of Shades and Echoes?
TIM: I think it’s more of just the memories and impressions that we’ve already gathered over the years. I know that Eddie probably spends about eight hours a day chained to his computer. He’s constantly working. I think over the last 10 or 15 years in particular, his production techniques and abilities have really come on in leaps and bounds. He trusts himself and backs himself and uses his instincts, so I think he’s a very gifted producer.
I have to say I handed all of that over to Eddie in this project. My role was performance, writing the tunes, and lyrics. I recorded them very spontaneously and handed them over so Eddie could create the Forenzics sound. Props to him!
HAPPY: Did you and Eddie team up in the years after Split Enz on other projects, or is Forenzics a reunion of sorts?
TIM: It is a reunion. We briefly came together on the ENZSO (a collaboration between Split Enz and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra) project and we did some touring with the orchestra. But come to think of it, Eddie played a very significant role on my album The Conversation — he played piano on that album and helped produce it.
But the real breakthrough reunion moment came with the writing. When Phil Judd left Split Enz after the 1976 American tour, Eddie and I repaired to an Uncle of mine’s house in Baltimore and started writing because he happened to have a piano there. We needed somewhere to crash and regroup — it was such a shattering moment for the band to lose Phil. We wrote My Mistake and a few other songs, but it amazes me to this day that we really didn’t do that again. My Mistake worked so well and it was the first semi “hit” that Split Enz ever had. So it’s really weird that we didn’t do it more, but we’re making up for it.
HAPPY: Obviously, the sky’s the limit in a project like this – there’s such a wealth of material to draw from for inspiration. Have you and Eddie thought about where it could go next?
TIM: Well, we could see that there’s potential for Forenzics Two. There are a few tracks left over, perhaps around seven or eight actually. It’s addictive really, this idea of writing a new song over an old piece. It’s a double win: the chance to write a new song together, as well as the emotion and poignancy of returning to an old song. It brings something else to the table, like a third person working on the song. I definitely think we’ll be doing some more.
Shades and Echoes is out on February 4 via Warner Music.
Interview by Dan Shaw.