Neil Finn is home, getting the most from his Auckland studio and putting his international supergroup back together for a good cause. He talks to Russell Baillie
Tonight, Neil Finn has invited a few friends over to his place for a sing-song.
It's just a small gathering really. Just Finn, some musical mates ... oh and an invited audience of 40 or so, a small team of sound and radio people, and four bands - the Motts, Dictaphone Blues, Dr Colossus and Naked and Famous.
It's five bands if you count Finn's own all-star pick-up group - which he's dubbed "Loose Unit" - which includes Don McGlashan, Sean "SJD" Donnelly, and Bic Runga.
They're first up in the main room at Finn's Roundhead Studios, whipping through early Split Enz' Spellbound and a tag-team vocal take on Sharon O'Neill's classic Maxine.
"It's quite odd singing it as a man," he laughs later about the O'Neill track, "it definitely changes the song a little bit. But I think Don really nailed it. There's a black woman lurking deep in that Celtic body of his."
That's just the start of a night which has the invitees skipping from Roundhead's A and B studio to catch the next act, with a brief pause between floors where Finn and McGlashan play the latter's Andy, enhanced by the stairwell's natural reverb.
But it's really the young bands' night, especially the extravagant gypsy-rock of Dr Colossus, a group which Finn singles out when talking about the talented young Auckland acts beating a path to Roundhead's doors.
"I think there's a genetic spike - I am very impressed by our young people at the moment. It's exciting to see young musicians - for instance that Dr Colossus Band and that guy Leon [Radojkovic] is 22 years old and he's doing those arrangements which are just madly sophisticated, nutty and exciting."
But there are ulterior reasons for the gathering. The main one is that this a try-out for a possible "Live at Roundhead" show for Radio New Zealand National which he has presented as an idea and hopes will be taken up by the station.
"I love public radio. I always have. I am well known for advocating for a youth network and that's been very disappointing for me obviously. But on the other hand Radio New Zealand are great and they do a great job at what they are good at. And the idea of having live uninterrupted music going across the whole country is very much the public radio thing that I love - getting out to Motueka and Gore with the same music that people don't really get a chance to listen to."
Finn says now that he's based back in Auckland and is involved in the studio he's finding himself part of a musical community, something he hasn't always had in his past career. The young acts playing tonight say he's been generous with Roundhead's facilities. His musical son Liam has also helped him make some musical connections.
"I think that I, probably in the last year, have become much more aware of a community of musicians that I can feel part of than I did for 10 years living here previous to that. For a variety of reasons I felt a little isolated from what was going on but through having the studio and through reaching out a little I have got a lot back from my output and I have got a facility here where I can afford to be generous with certain people if I take an interest.
"I was in Split Enz - not to get too psycho-analytical about it- but I was in a very self-contained outfit. We were very insular.We had a few friends but we basically kept to ourselves. Liam was much more connected both here and in London to a wide community of musicians and I have got to know them through him and it's exciting."
Finn's next big project also has a communal feel. He's reprising the 7 Worlds Collide concert series which made for a season of memorable nights at the St James in 2001 as Finn fronted a supergroup which included members of Radiohead, the Smiths and Pearl Jam among other guests.
This time the plan is for three nights at the Powerstation. But the band - which includes four members of Wilco including frontman Jeff Tweedy, Radiohead returnees Ed O'Brien and Phil Selway, Smiths and now Modest Mouse guitarist Johnny Marr, Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall, as well as Runga and McGlashan - will also be recording an album at Roundhead to benefit Oxfam International.
"It will be a little less formal than last time - not that that was formal but we had rehearsed for the live show. But this time it will be more of a revue and every night should be quite substantially different."
The participants from last time - which also include Americans bassist Sebastian Steinberg, and singer-songwriter Lisa Germano - were keen on reprising the idea. Finn approached Wilco after coming away absolutely besotted when he saw them on tour in New Zealand earlier this year.
"So I just shot an email off to them saying 'this is what we're doing, I know it's Christmas ...' but we got an immediate response saying 'Yeah we're in'. Bang. I was surprised but delighted."
KT Tunstall, who played in New Zealand at the same Whitianga festival as Wilco, was suggested by the band's drummer Glen Kotche. Turns out she was going to be here anyway at the time - on a month's honeymoon.
So far as the good cause behind the album, Finn has worked with Oxfam before.
"I think at the moment, particularly with the economic crisis, one would assume that the people who will be forgotten, who won't be getting the $700 billion bailout, will be the people in Africa and other parts of the world who need it."
There's another upside to the benefit album - it dispenses with inter-record company politics that might have made a commercial album fraught with difficulties. Still, it won't be some summer musical lark.
"It will be really intense. We have got to pull off making an album in less than three weeks and that is a really big ask for anybody.
"Last time it was an idea that we had all been really enchanted by and then there was a day of almost blind terror where everybody went 'oh my God, we actually have to be good as well'. You don't want to be left looking a bit limp - there is nothing worse than a supergroup that doesn't seem that super."
"It will hang on the songs, if we can gather really good songs together there are a lot of great interpreters in the room and we will do good work. It's a challenge for sure. It's not going to be easy - it's not just hanging out."
Finn also has a new Crowded House album in the works, with a likely release date of mid-2009.
But when he's not hatching plans for his studio, he and wife Sharon are just happy to be back in Auckland after a year or so living in England
"We are just loving life at the moment. Sharon and I are empty nesters and there is no manual for that stage of our life and our response to it is to do a bit more smoking and drinking and having a laugh - in the great words of Father Ted." And occasionally having some mates over for a bit of a singalong.
Who: Neil Finn
What: 7 Worlds Collide show and album featuring Johnny Marr, Phil Selway & Ed O'Brien (Radiohead), Sebastian Steinberg, Lisa Germano, Liam Finn; Jeff Tweedy, John Stirrat, Glen Kotche and Pat Sansone (Wilco), KT Tunstall, Don McGlashan, Bic Runga.
When and where: Powerstaton, Auckland Monday 5, Tuesday 6 and Wednesday 7 January
Tickets: On sale November 24 Ticketmaster