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Thursday, 4 August 2011

Feature - Pajama Club... the other side of Crowded House

CHRIS TWOMEY chats with Sharon and Neil Finn about doing it their own way.

It’s a couple of hours before Pajama Club’s gig at London’s new-ish XOYO club and Sharon Finn, the band’s bass player, is looking remarkably calm and composed considering. There aren’t many middle-aged mums-of-two I can think of who would be prepared to stand in front of a "seen-it-all-before" gathering of mainly young clubbers and pump away on a bass she taught herself to play barely two years ago.

When showtime comes, she’ll blast through a set of mostly original songs, sharing vocals with Pajama Clubs’ front guy, and go down a bloody storm before a near-capacity crowd that includes a smattering of EMI marketing and publicist types, who’ve been charged with bringing these New Zealand’s hopefuls to our attention.

This is the last night of a short UK tour, and Sharon can heave a huge sigh of relief at a job well done. She admits she feels as though she’s journeyed light years since the band’s debut gig in Byron Bay, Australia, on June 11th.

"It was totally traumatising initially, although every night it’s sounded better and better," says Sharon. "We’ve had a couple of hairy moments technically, but then I’ve never done this before. Playing bass and singing is a bit like this (she pats her head with one hand and makes a circular motion with the other) but it’s a really good challenge."

Cynics might suggest that because Pajama Club’s main creative force is Sharon’s husband Neil Finn – yes, he out of Crowded House – the band already has a captive audience, regardless of their worth. But that wouldn’t be fair. Firstly, this is just as much Sharon’s band as her hubby’s, and secondly, Pajama Club are a poke in the eye to anyone who’s sniffy about Crowded House – a group that, some would argue, are treading water these days and living on past glories.

Pajama Club sound nothing like them – apart from the nagging familiarity of Neil’s voice. They’re much groovier, more primal, much sexier and, ultimately, lots of fun…

"I’m always looking for a new angle on things – although people might not perceive that – and this is the most different I’ve sounded in a long time," admits Neil, just before soundchecking for the XOYO gig. "So I take it as a great success, no matter what happens."

Long admired as the sort of songwriter and musician that other musos can respect, Neil’s willingness to throw away the rule book and go back to basics is ironically what makes Pajama Club work. Their debut album, which is released on the Lester Records label on Sept 19th, has been constructed from the bottom up. It started as a drunken jam one night in the Finn’s Auckland living room – which often doubles as a family rehearsal space (the family including their musician sons Liam and Elroy) – after they’d both been knocking back the vino.

"We were in our pyjamas, literally, and we decided to have a jam on drums and bass because they were set up – we might just as easily have played cards, except I’m not into that as much as Sharon," says Neil. "I got behind the drum kit and there was no sophistication whatsoever. Both of us were pretty evenly matched because neither could really play our instruments. We locked on to these grooves, which I taped, and when we listened back the next day it sounded a lot better than I thought. You put some chords on it and all of a sudden it came to life, because the grooves were good."

From these humble beginnings the project slowly blossomed. Whereas Crowded House were famously influenced by The Beatles and the 'best of '60s Brit Pop’, Pajama Club take their inspiration from obscure New York club band ESG – a funky post-punk-and-disco outfit, featuring the Scroggins sisters from South Bronx, who were mainly active between 1978-85. When I confess that they completely passed me by, Neil isn’t surprised.

"A lot of people weren’t aware of them when they were around. They became quite well known in Manchester around the rave scene because Joy Division’s producer Martin Hannett did a record with them, which probably got played on the dance floor, but never on radio. If you listen to them, you’ll understand what inspired us because they were good players but they had these very simple grooves, and they’d just sing a few things on top like (adopting falsetto voice) ‘You’re no good, you’re no-go-hood.’ And that would be the whole song! We thought we could almost be as funky if we kept it as simple as they did."

Other influences on the forthcoming album might be harder to detect. The more observant might pick out the odd little reference to US soul-funk legend Shuggie Otis, who the Finns have lately discovered and fallen for big time. (Neil: "Check out his album Inspiration Information, it’s an amazing record.")

Growing up in unremarkable Te Awamutu, on New Zealand’s north island – a place described by one of my Kiwi friends as "a shit-kicking cow town"– it’s hardly surprising that Neil’s early exposure to rock and pop was limited and conservative. The local radio station played a predictably bland combo of easy-on-the-ear singer-songwriters and British and American MOR acts – anything that wouldn’t scare the local sheep farmers. But when older brother Tim went off to study at Auckland University, classically trained pianist Neil was suddenly exposed to more daring musical possibilities.

"People would whisper under their breath about having the new Iron Butterfly record – not that that was a personal favourite!" Neil laughs. "I did like Roxy Music at a certain point and singer-songwriters like Neil Young, James Taylor, Carole King and Cat Stevens, and David Bowie was a continuous obsession from the moment I heard Hunky Dory."

Like all sensible 53-year-olds, however, Neil has stopped lying about the past and come clean about his love of music which would once have caused him to be shunned and avoided.

"Pretty much everyone I knew hated disco in the '70s and I wasn’t a fan either," he reveals. "But now you listen to The Bee Gees and Saturday Night Fever and it’s full fucking respect. Some of those records are amazing. And Abba – I always really liked SOS and like every self-respecting, credible musician at the time, I was forever putting them down, which was completely unfair because you subsequently realised what amazing pop songs they were. The problem with Abba, though, was their awkward image…it was so euro and unattractive."

When the still-teenage Neil eventually travelled to Britain for the first time in the late '70s, having recently joined his older brother Tim’s band Split Enz (for whom he penned their only monster UK '80 hit, 'I Got You'), it was a though he’d at last been transported into the epicentre of pop culture. The thrill didn’t last long, though…

"The Holy Grail was to go to England, but then I realised I’d been seeing everything through rose coloured spectacles. I remember going to The Marquee on London’s Wardour Street for the first time. It had this legendary reputation and you knew of all these amazing gigs that had taken place there. But a really bad band was on, I got beer spilt on me, someone was vomiting in the corner and I’d never encountered a stickier carpet. It wasn’t quite what I expected! A few of my illusions were shattered."

"It was that sense that lines had been drawn and you suddenly couldn’t like us," Neil recalls. "There were people arguing outside gigs going, 'But they’re so fucking punk'” and others going, 'No, it’s too clever…' "

Split Enz was also Neil’s baptism of fire, of course. British audiences never really knew where to place this pioneering art-rock-turned-power-pop combo, and Neil was perplexed when the punkier half of their audience suddenly disappeared overnight, following a Melody Maker article stating that Split Enz, along with Liverpool-based Deaf School, were musically too complex to be considered "punk".

Over 30 years later, it’s been novice Sharon’s turn to face the unpredictable British audiences, who’ve often looked too fresh-faced to be original Crowded House fans. At the XOYO club, she and Neil are sharing the stage with keyboard player Sean Donnelly and drummer Alana Skyring (on the album Neil tackles all the drums and most of the guitars, with the exception of a couple of guest appearances by Johnny Marr), and are in full control right from the start.

The crowd are bopping with stupid grins on their faces to Pajama Club’s infectious beats and melodies. There’s even a laugh when they segue seamlessly from one of the new songs into a blistering version of Gary Numan’s 'Are Friends Electric'?

It may look like larking around, but Neil is keen to point out that this isn’t some frivolous side project. He sincerely hopes that Pajama Club will be judged on their own merits. ‘We suspect some new ears might pick up on it,’ he says. ‘It’s a new lease of life for my relationship with Sharon, as well as musically. The best thing is that no one’s yet yelled out for us to play a Crowded House song - not once.’

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