Although he has just released his eighth solo album, Rarities/Demos/Live Performances Vol. 1, Tim Finn is best known for his collaborations: as a founder of Split Enz, member of Crowded House and one-half of the Finn Brothers. But teamwork hasn't always been easy. When New Zealand's tragicomic clown-costumed Split Enz reunited two years ago for a tour down under, co-founder Phil Judd was conspicuously absent. It was the latest repercussion in a mercurial relationship that had led to Judd's departure from the band in the late 1970s.
"Phil was the first guy I ever met who was confidently proclaiming himself to the world as an artist," says Finn of his one-time mentor. "There weren't any artists in our family as far back as we can trace, which is the 1600s. A few smugglers was about as exciting as it got. But Phil could paint as well as write songs, and I guess I looked up to him a lot and measured myself against him for a long while."
In fact, early Split Enz songs sound as if the two were competing against each other to see who could write the most depressing song.
"Not consciously," says Finn, "although we used to make each other pretty miserable a lot of the time. We were kind of each other's muse in that sense."
Judd, it turns out, was the inspiration for Finn's "Charlie," a morbid morning-after song that includes the refrain: "Sunlight halo, you look wonderful / Darling Charlie, pale and deathly still / For heaven's sake, wake up Charlie."
"I wrote that after Phil and I had a physical battle on our first American tour in 1976," says Finn. "We had a fist-fight one night after a show, everything melted down, I went back to England [where the group was living at the time] and Phil left the band. It was kind of a mourning song for our relationship and for the band, really, that dream, you know? So yeah, it's a death-of-friendship kind of song."
Split Enz's fortunes subsequently rose when Tim's brother Neil stepped in to replace Judd and went on to write the hits "One Step Ahead" and "I Got You." Neil later returned the favor by inviting Tim to join Crowded House, and the brothers have since recorded two albums as a duo.
"When it works, it's sublime, and when it doesn't work, we just back away from it pretty fast," says Finn of the fraternal collaborations. "It never gets ugly it's just either on or off."
On Tim's new Rarities record, which spans songs from throughout his career, Neil can be heard singing background vocals on a cover of Hunters & Collectors' "Throw Your Arms Around Me." There's also a revved-up version of Split Enz's "I See Red" and a live rendition of "Salt to the Sea," an achingly beautiful ballad from Finn's last solo album.
While Finn knows better than to rule out future collaborations, he feels his last three albums comprise his best solo work to date.
"They coincide with a time in my life when I've started a family and just had a better life in general," says the artist, who's matured since those early years of garish makeup and pompadours. "There is something to be said for misery, but there's also something to be said for having that bedrock, which has worked for me."