September 2011

Uncrowded House

For synthy, soulful new band Pajama Club, Neil and Sharon Finn find inspiration in—and diversion from—their now empty nest

LORRAINE
ALI

PHOTO: JASON DEMPSEY / CHRIS STAPP

After 29 years of marriage and raising two boys, Crowded House frontman Neil Finn and his wife, Sharon, thought they knew everything about each other. But after a glass—or was it four?—of wine late one night in their Auckland home, they learned that wasn't the case. Looking for something to fill their time with the kids out on their own, they stumbled into Neil's dark studio to play some funky music. The result was surprisingly sexy, rhythmic and even a little dangerous—and it spawned a new mom-and-pop band, the Pajama Club.

“I played the drums, and Sharon played bass—instruments we'd never really tried before,” says Neil, 53, of that wee-hours session a year ago. “It was quite a revelation that we could hold a groove down. I taped everything for fun, and it actually sounded good—at least in bursts.” So much so the Finns found themselves jigging around the living room to the melodies and decided to hit the studio to see if they could turn the tidbits into actual songs.

Their goal was a common one, Sharon says: “Serve the groove. That's what it's all about, especially for this record.” And now, the couple is taking that groove public.

Pajama Club's eponymous debut, which drops this month, finds the Finns experimenting with badass funk, soul-dipped dance numbers and quirky electronic effects, all set atop Neil's characteristically sound song structures. Vocals range from ethereal and spooky to raucous and beer swilling. “I know—who'd have thought?” Neil says. “It's rough around the edges. People who don't normally get what I do might like this, and those who usually like what I do might find it a bit mysterious. But I've kind of made a career out of confusing people with new entities, from Split Enz to Crowded House to the Finn Brothers to my solo records. A new, confusing entity has become the norm.”

Though Finn has taken risks with his music over his 30-plus-year career, he raises the stakes this time by throwing his marriage into the mix. Sharon, who has a business crafting jewelry and chandeliers out of found objects, often sang with Crowded House on tour, but as partners in the Pajama Club, the Finns now have to contend with the power struggles and clashing visions that have felled many bands—and marrieds. (Ike and Tina, anyone? Or Sonny & Cher, ABBA...?)

Neil has some experience when it comes to mixing family and music. He played with brother Tim in Split Enz and Crowded House and brought son Liam in to take Tim's place when the latter reunited. (Younger son Elroy has also played with the group.) A little humor helps as well. “Being directly involved,” Sharon jokes, “meant I got to be there to cast withering looks when Neil went down the wrong track or got too antsy and complicated.”

Not many new bands can claim boredom as a creative motivator. But with their home suddenly anything but a crowded house, Neil says,"We had to find something we could both do.” Their boys are still surprised, he adds, when they phone up and are asked to call back because “mum and dad are jamming.” The new family dynamic spawned “Golden Child,” one of the more moving songs on the otherwise upbeat CD. “The whole idea of letting go of your children is so painful, but it's a necessity. That's the duality of having children—you know you're setting yourself up for some loss.”

The Finns weren't alone on their journey into experimental funk with a Kiwi twist. They turned to friend and local indie producer Sean Donnelly to add what Neil calls “some weird bits” to the tracks they'd fleshed out. Guitarist buddy Johnny Marr (the Smiths) sits in for a song, and they've brought in Grates drummer Alana Skyring for a tour that has them in America this summer.

So, what will they wear for an audience given that the band came to fruition in jammies? Though she has an array of “stylish pajama hybrids” and he's quite comfy in the standard boxers and T-shirt, Neil says, “We've decided it's best to go onstage fully clothed—in outfits we don't wear to bed. We need to earn our stripes as a band, and playing in our underwear might prove a bit distracting. There's a limit to how far you can take your name.”

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