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December/January 2017

by Trevor Reekie

Jeremy Ansell: Sifting Through Neil Finn’s Private Universe

by Trevor Reekie

Jeremy Ansell: Sifting Through Neil Finn’s Private Universe

Crowded House fans had a September to remember with the announcement that the seven albums the band produced between 1986 and 2010 would soon be re-issued in deluxe editions. Each album has been expanded to include rare and previously unreleased recordings plus a booklet with photos, essays and interviews with frontman Neil Finn and bassist Nick Seymour. Somebody had to do the actual work of unearthing, cleaning, curating, compiling and clearing the demo tracks – and that person was Aucklander Jeremy Ansell. It took him years, literally. Trevor Reekie spoke to Ansell about the passion and process involved in compiling the finished album packages, which make for a wonderful insight into Neil Finn’s creative private universe.

For many year’s Jeremy Ansell has been quietly and methodically researching and cataloguing Neil Finn’s archive of previously unreleased Crowded House live material, home demos and musical curiosities. It’s a project that has required unlimited patience, technical skill and a degree of diplomacy in collaborating with Neil, band members and the label in various territories.

jeremy ansell and crowded house silke hartung

From left to right: Jeremy Ansell, Neil Finn, Matt Sherrod, Nick Seymour and Mark Hart. Photo: Silke Hartung

After being shelved a couple of times the final product has now been released, deluxe re-issues of all seven of the band’s albums (including ‘Afterglow’, which was a compilation of B sides and obscurities released in 1999), plus accompanying bonus discs of Ansell’s choice of extra material.

Ansell (that’s him at left above) is currently the Auckland Operations Team Leader at Radio NZ, a role that involves looking after the operators and recording engineers. He’s a hugely experienced audio engineer himself, having worked at RNZ for almost three decades. Home recording has been his hobby ever since he was a child. He claims that he’s been passionate about vinyl records since he was about two years old…

“I’ve always been a music nerd. I used to love hearing stories about the process that musicians went through writing and recording songs and doing home demos.

“Pete Townshend brought out an album in about 1983 called ‘Scoop’ which is one of my favourite things he ever did. It’s a mish mash of 2-track recordings from the ’60s, 8-track recordings from the ’70s and he even had a 24-track in the end at home, along with things he did in the studio. I always thought, ‘Wow, wouldn’t it be amazing one day to put together something like that for an artist?”

Ansell is quick to acknowledge that Neil Finn handed him a gift. A dream job to sift through the archives of an artist he’s always admired.  Not only to listen to them, but do his best to transcribe many of the tapes, mix some of them, then edit and compile them into a set of seven albums.

“I’m thrilled that somebody like Neil with so much mana, prestige and talent has placed their trust in me.”

The background to this rather huge project goes back to the late 1990s when Radio NZ started organising a comprehensive Split Enz radio documentary. Ansell was brought in to produce and engineer the series and got to meet Neil Finn. In 1999 Neil passed him a pile of cassettes of Split Enz demos and live recordings to sift through.

The Split Enz project went to air as Enzology in 2005 and Neil evidently liked what Jeremy had done with the tracks he had chosen. He rang to tell Ansell that Capitol was putting together a 20th anniversary box set of Crowded House and asked if he would like to go through his own Crowded House recordings and help select some tracks to include in that.

Despite some initial reservations about the potential workload Ansell agreed. In early 2006 he started going through cassettes, tapes and files in a room at Neil Finn’s Roundhead Studios – while the place was being built and the Crowdies were recording their ‘Time On Earth’ album.

He would make CD-R reference copies of the tracks he thought were possibilities and Neil would listen to them in his car and make decisions. Ansell was also working in consultation with Kevin Flaherty, the original producer of the box set at Capitol Records in LA.

Like most prolific artists, he observes that Neil is more concerned with moving forward, so looking back inevitably took a lower priority, though he maintains Neil was always keen to see the release of the deluxe editions – as long as they were done well. Neil delegated the task of approving the ‘live’ tracks that had been chosen to Nick Seymour.

Ansell laughs about the difficulties that led to, but long story short they missed the deadline for the 20th anniversary. Parlophone in the UK released a live CD and DVD edition of the Sydney Opera House gigs, Flaherty left Capitol, Crowded House reformed and the project was shelved for a number of years.

Fast forward to 2012, Michael Bradshaw (ex-MD of BMG and Sony Music NZ) resigned from his job and began co-managing Neil Finn. Bradshaw suggested Jeremy Ansell become the content manager for the Neil Finn official website. That role escalated into managing the Crowded House and Neil Finn Facebook pages.

Ansell has built up neilfinn.com so that all the albums are streaming on that site as well as a compilation of ‘oddities’, including some demos and B sides (mostly) approved by Neil.

The demos were on all manner of formats, including cassette and 1/4″ reels, but hadn’t been notated, so the process began with notation and cleaning them up.

Neil and drummer Paul Hester shopped the Crowded House debut album demos around themselves (pre-management) to score a recording deal. They were recorded primarily in Australia (with a couple in London) when the band was still calling themselves The Mullanes. Some of these tracks were recorded as audition material when they were looking for a bass player. Eventually it came down to Nick Seymour and Bones Hillman (ex-Swingers – who ended up in Midnight Oil) both contributing bass parts. Bit of history there.

1993’s ‘Together Alone’ album, recorded at Karekare Beach is one of Ansell’s all-time favourite records. By that stage Neil was using an 8-track ¼” reel to reel for his home demo work. Two of the best demos were the composition Blue Smoke (not the old Ruru Karaitiana composition sung by Pixie Williams in 1949) and the demo for Private Universe, which originally had a swing feel and reggae-style guitar. The demo is jaunty and feel good – by the time Youth had worked on it the song became one of the darkest the band had recorded to date.

Crowded House had selected Youth to produce the album because he was so different from anyone they had worked with previously and would challenge them. Neil and Nick both say it was a difficult album to make but remains an album they regard very highly. The stars were definitely in alignment for that album and it’s highly evocative of the very NZ west coast landscape it was recorded in.

Talking about producers, Neil Finn apparently once joked, “Is it just my songs that get twisted beyond all recognition or does it happen to other songwriters?” But Nick Seymour concurs that Neil places the song first and is very open to re-working a song.

Illustrating the point Ansell says the home demo for Don’t Dream It’s Over sounds complete. Mitchell Froom, the already acclaimed producer of that eponymous first album, added the Hammond organ solo – something not heard much in 1986 – and took the song not only to a new level but to #2 on the Billboard charts. It’s the song that paid for Roundhead Studios.

Likewise with Something So Strong from the same album. The home demo has a completely different chorus which Froom worked on a lot with Neil during pre-production.

The cassette that contained this material was humorously labelled ‘Holy Fostex Tape’ by somebody who considered it gold. For Ansell the interesting thing about that was that Neil recorded four tracks to make it an instrumental, dubbed them onto a stereo cassette, bounced it back onto the 4-track and then recorded vocals on the other two tracks and mixed that onto another cassette. (Very Beatles-esque).

In re-synching the six basic tracks Jeremy discovered that the instrumental had been accidently twisted and folded over, so he had to nervously take the cassette apart, untwist the tape and put it back

“The whole time I was thinking, ‘If I muck this up there’s a bit of history lost.’”

He describes Finn as a craftsman who will tinker a lot with a song and if it’s not right will save it for later, sometimes putting it into another song. Left Hand appears about three times in the deluxe sets, each version quite different. There’s a rehearsal take of the song Fall At Your Feet on the ‘Woodface’ deluxe edition with the same chorus, but the verse ended up on Left Hand.

Line up changes and guest contributions are audible in much of the newly released home demos. On the ‘Afterglow’ bonus disc you can hear some of the tracks the band were working on before what would have been the follow up album, ‘Together Alone’.

Demos recorded at York Street in 1995 include a song called Taste Of Something Divine that they worked on with electronic musician Paddy Free. A dark, almost sinister song, it uses samples and was a very different direction for the band.

Some tracks that never got released despite being mixed and completed have been included. Convent Girls is a song that fans know because there were a couple of live versions released on fan club live CDs, and it nearly made the ‘Afterglow’ compilaton in 1999.

“It’s so often been nearly released that Neil thought it actually had been released,” Ansell chuckles.

It’s finally out on the ‘Together Alone’ set, despite Neil’s concerns that the title might be lyrically inappropriate for a middle aged man to be singing and could be interpreted as being a bit creepy. The context provided by the Jeremy Ansell-written liner notes clarifies and justifies the song’s inclusion.

Fingers of Love was written while Neil was holidaying in Jamaica, and unsurprisingly involved some local weed. The three versions of that song included on the deluxe set include a version demoed in Jamaica which includes a bit of audio verite with local wildlife in the background. Another includes Youth on the talk-back giving them instructions on arrangement ideas. It’s a sneak peak into how a Neil Finn song develops.

One of the more interesting creative process developments occurred when Tim Finn joined Crowded House for the ‘Woodface’ album. Ansell found many 8-track tapes of them both writing and recording songs that were initially destined for a Finn brothers’ release in 1989. The tapes start off with both literally writing line by line, trying things out. Remarkably the brothers had previously only ever collaborated on a couple of Split Enz songs.

There were so many good tracks that most were included on the ‘Woodface’ deluxe edition. The lovely thing about those demos is that they were recorded with the late Paul Hester on brushes.

Asked if he has a favourite that he considers should have been more than what it ever was Ansell points to a track called Anthem. Recorded at York Street Studios in 1995 it’s included on the ‘Afterglow’ edition.

Jeremy Ansell has done an extraordinary job on what surely was a massive task. It’s taken years. He has curated seven CDs of bonus material, sourced from a variety of technology and cleaned them up, had them approved not only by Neil and the band but also the labels involved, and researched and written comprehensive liner notes. Some invaluable assistance was provided by Peter Green (who runs the fan club and kept a lot of the Crowded House archives) .

Aside from needing to please his employer, Ansell says he kept a close eye on the fan forum, seeing what people were expecting and wanting, and on the whole has given it to them.

“I really appreciate the trust that everybody has had in me and the incredible enthusiasm that a lot of the fans have had.

“Now I think it’s time I gave a bit more time to my family. I’ve learned that I can get very wrapped up in these sorts of things and I always want to do the best job possible.

“I’ve also learned to have patience, because it has been a long process. There are many boxes that have to be ticked but I’ve been left alone just to do my thing for so long.”