History Repeats: Split Enz Live In 2006
Reunion tours can often be about ‘no shame’, ‘no money’ or both… thankfully, not this one. The recent Split Enz tour became more than a reunion of musos, but engineers and techs as well.
Text: Mark O’Connor
News that yet another ’70s or ’80s band has reformed to hit the road again may, depending on the band, be greeted with anything from high anticipation, through yawning indifference, to a collective groan of dismay from the music-loving public. The worst case scenario might see one or two surviving members lumbering onstage, backed by some musically competent but, for the most part, uncharismatic ring-ins, to re-inflate the repertoire with lacklustre renditions of songs that haven’t really stood the test of time – the whole enterprise sadly lacking any authenticity, bereft of even a spark of what it was that made that band so vital and original in its day.
Best-case scenario? Split Enz’s recent History Repeats tour! A seven-date June dash round Australia’s capital cities that leaves entertainment centres reverberating with the sound of sellout crowds singing along to a repertoire of hits that just keeps coming, performed with a gusto and vitality and musicianship that make the 20-odd years since the band’s last tour seem as nothing.
When the Enz hit the stage at Sydney’s Entertainment Centre to the manic intensity of Shark Attack, the frenzied opener from their smash 1979 album True Colours, it’s with the classic True Colours line-up of Tim and Neil Finn, Eddie Rayner, Noel Crombie, Nigel Griggs, and Malcolm Green. What’s more, they turn in a show that delivers a knockout punch to most of the bling-merchants, imposters and pretenders that clog today’s charts. Indeed, I find myself running a mental home movie of a vividly remembered Split Enz concert from Brisbane’s Cloudland Ballroom, circa 1981, where this very same lineup whipped a heaving capacity crowd into a frenzy.
Tonight it’s as though nothing has changed. There’s that same (albeit slightly toned down) theatricality of presentation. Same sartorial eloquence courtesy of percussionist/drummer and style guru Noel Crombie (also responsible for the giant backdrop behind the stage). Same unmistakable Finn brothers vocals wrapped around mostly timeless songs. Eddie Rayner’s shimmering keyboard arpeggios and quirky, cartoon flourishes that sound like someone dropped a box of marbles down the stairs.
It just so happens that some of the crew on the tour are veterans of that original Enz era too, and so I wonder whether those same behind-the-scenes ingredients make for a similar sense of déjà vu backstage. I eventually locate just such a perspective from monitor engineer Paul Jeffrey.
PAUL JEFFERY – MONITOR ENGINEER
Paul Jeffery is a Split Enz alumnus of long standing, having first worked with the band in 1982. “I actually started doing monitors for them around the time they did Waiata, which in Australia was called Corroboree.” Paul’s talents extend beyond the monitor console: for a start he also happens to be one of the founding principals of Oceania, New Zealand’s largest concert sound and lighting hire company, which supplied production for the Enz in NZ and Australia up until their 1984 demise – and to the band’s various offshoots thereafter. “Oceania has always done Crowded House whenever they played NZ, and I actually did a Canadian/American tour with them in 1989. But being one of the principals of this company I wasn’t really interested in spending a lot of time sashaying around the world touring with musicians – much as I would have liked to. But I always worked with them when they came to NZ.”
And Paul is also himself a musician (one time member of notorious New Zealand band Schtung – “sort of arty farty crossover electrical pop”), a skill that found him juggling additional onstage duties.
“In 1996 I toured with Neil and Tim for the first Finn brothers album in NZ and Australia, and also played piano onstage for a few songs. Then when Neil did the Seven Worlds Collide project in 2001 [a series of concerts at St James Theatre in Auckland for which Neil assembled a band of friends that included Eddie Vedder, Johnny Marr, Lisa Germano, Sebastian Steinberg, Ed O’Brien and Phil Selway from Radiohead, and brother Tim], I ended up playing keyboards on stage as well on quite a few of those songs. It was quite a lot of fun actually. That tour went all over the place, not with that lineup but with various incarnations, picking people up along the way – Johnny Marr just happened to be in LA, Eddie Vedder came and played, Wendy Melvoin joined us. It was great fun! We were playing club shows in America and we often had appalling equipment. I was doing monitors as well as some playing onstage. There was one place we played in Portland where I was up in a sort of eagle’s nest, like a bunkhouse, and I had to climb down a ladder to come and play and then climb back up the ladder to the mixing console. And a similar situation in Boston which involved walking down a long corridor and then climbing up a ladder… So they were fantastic tours, especially for me to be playing as well as mixing. The crews at the festivals were always very impressed that the monitor guy would rush out and play. Neil would often finish off the show with Don’t Dream It’s Over just on acoustic guitar and I’d come out and play the organ solo, quite a nice intimate musical moment. So that’s my claim to fame.
“So when they put the Split Enz tour together for Australia it was kind of fitting that we tried to get as many of the ‘old farts’ together for the crew as we could. All of us have worked on many projects with the Finns over the years – Crowded House, the Finn Bros. I had also mixed the very first Enz concerts. Giles, the FOH engineer has done a lot of work with Neil and Tim in the Finn Bros for the last couple of years. So it was very nice that we could all do this. Of all the people there, I would have gone back the longest.
MO’C: So how was it to step back into that world after what must be almost 20 years since the last Split Enz gig?
PJ: Twenty-two years actually, save for a couple of brief reunions in New Zealand. Look, we had three days of rehearsal in Melbourne and it was kind of like nothing had changed. I mean, they’d obviously boned up on all the old recordings and spent a lot of time revisiting all those songs, and bits and pieces of keyboard sounds. But as they first played through each song together they were almost at a concert performance level. With the second play through they perfected them a bit and tidied up all the loose ends, remembered guitar solos etc. Third play they ran the risk of getting a bit bored by it all, and started jamming and improvising. It was quite amazing. All the way through the tour soundchecks became more of a walk down memory lane, as they dug out songs that had never been recorded – a lot of them had actually only ever been jammed on or played live, many of them before Neil had even joined the band, but he knew them all because he’d had such a keen interest in his older brother’s music. So that was quite amazing.
MO’C: Were there any particular onstage challenges or was it quite straightforward?
PJ: As a monitors engineer your greatest worry – once you’ve got everyone happy onstage with what they’re hearing – is feedback. But there were no technical catastrophes to speak of. They were all very evenly balanced, timbre-wise. In fact it was all quite uncannily smooth, the whole tour. I mean, we were probably all slightly deafer than we were 22 years ago – an occupational hazard – but otherwise it was unbelievably smooth and comfortable. And looking back on it I would probably even venture to say that it was kind of a joyful experience.
MO’C: Yes, it felt that way in the audience.
PJ: In my experience, having worked with various incarnations of those bands, the Crowdies and the Finns and Split Enz, I think that was always the way the music tended to affect people too. You never got violent crowds storming out of the venues or anything; there was always a pretty nice vibe at shows. And it’s still there, which is good.
MO’C: Given the fact that there were only seven concert dates and three rehearsal days, that’s not long, is it, to pull everything together?
PJ: It’s a real testimony to the fact that they actually are splendid musicians. Very competent. Eddie’s keyboard playing has always been quite staggeringly good. He seems to effortlessly waltz through very complicated things.
MO’C: He strikes me as something of a human arpeggiator, with such a remarkable degree of virtuosity while at the same time so quirky. I often used to wonder when listening to Enz material whether a lot of the keyboards I was hearing were sequenced.
PJ: No, not at all.
MO’C: Keyboard tech Marc Bennet took me up to have a look at Eddie’s rig after the show and it was spartan, almost low tech. It was apparent that he had played everything in real time.
PJ: His rig consisted for the most part of a Yamaha Motif keyboard. He also had a Nord Lead, which had a lot of little funny sounds he’d pull up for Dirty Creature and that sort of thing. Then he had this old 8-bit [E-mu] Emax sampler with a floppy disk drive where he has all the Shark Attack sounds and all that stuff. He spent a few weeks fiddling around because he couldn’t work out how to get the samples from the Emax into the Motif, so he ended up redesigning all the sounds on the Motif just from listening to the old ones. The only thing that he gets assistance on is in Poor Boy, where there’s a little keyboard line and he just has an echo on it which gives it a little double – he used to play it syncopated between the left and right hand. That delay and a few other Nord effects were just from a guitar pedal that he borrowed off John Walsh, the guitar tech. The rest is all flourish. And he’s got quite stumpy little fingers, and they move all round the place. He’s got great left/right control. His left hand can independently do anything he wants, while he’s playing a different rhythm with his right hand. It’s quite extraordinary to watch. And he’s self-taught!
MO’C: Yet the keyboard sound out front, which sounds so lush and hi-tech, suggests a far more sophisticated setup.
PJ: He’s always been like that. I mean, in the early days they had Mellotrons and all sorts of fabulous old analogue keyboards doing all that stuff, so he used to carry a lot more kit with him. The technology forced you to.
MO’C: In terms of onstage monitoring, did you use in-ears?
PJ: I tried to force Eddie into using in-ears because in the past it’s been… not difficult, but it gets pretty loud up there and he often had a lot of trouble hearing the detail of his sounds. So I gave him some in-ears to practice with for a month or so before the tour but he decided to run with the monitors. As it was, the stage level was pretty comfortable so he was very happy with his wedges. The only person who had in-ears was Tim – actually, he just wears one. And basically what we do is just adjust the right ear so it balances with what he hears from the wedges with his left ear. And he’s very comfortable with that. The rest of it was wedges, and we had a little bit of side-fill to add some more body because we were playing some big rooms. The drummers just had a couple of wedges each with a single 18-inch subwoofer. Noel had a couple of wedges on percussion. And that was it.
MO’C: No different mixes for different songs or for people moving around the stage?
PJ: No, only if somebody moved from the piano to the front, or if someone else came to play the piano I’d pull the piano out of Tim’s ears – but no, bugger-all really. Because, you know, they’re sort of old-style musicians. Once they feel comfortable… there’s a strong element of trust built up because I’ve worked with them so much. But they also tend to play to the particular environment that they’re in – even in the old days, when they played in those boomy old rooms, they would just adapt to that space rather than spend the whole night wanting this turned up or down or brighter. They’ve always been very good to work with. And having been a musician myself, you tend to know what they want before they ask for it.
MO’C: A high point of the evening for me was Noel Crombie’s spoon solo performed to Eddie Rayner’s fantastic solo piano piece. In fact, Noel’s percussion was crystal clear in the mix all night, which for some reason to me was a measure of the overall clarity out front-of-house.
PJ: I think that’s Giles. It’s hard for me to say whether he’s brilliant or not, because I rarely get out there to hear him. But all reports I hear are that he does a splendid job. But you also need to bear in mind that you’ve got a great product in the first place – he’s getting delivered quite well arranged music. You know, they don’t overplay at all, so Giles has got a great product to start with, with lots of space in it.
GILES WOODHEAD – FOH ENGINEER
Englishman, Giles Woodhead, doesn’t have quite the same history with the Enz, instead having become acquainted with their material while mixing the Finn Brothers’ Everyone Is Here tour over the last couple of years.
MO’C: Were you familiar with the Split Enz material prior to this tour?
GW: Yeah, Neil and Tim played quite a few of the hits in their show, usually in the encore. The Finn brothers had this thing whereby if you shouted out a song, any song from the back catalogue, and it just happened to sort of fit the mood in the set at that time, then they’d play it. So there were quite a few of the old Split Enz songs that had been played at some point or other during those two years. But the arrangements were completely different, because there’s no Eddie Rayner.
MO’C: Eddie being something of a vital ingredient in the mix?
Giles: Yeah, I think so. He adds all that quirkiness to the Split Enz sound. Without Eddie it’s more a drums/bass/guitar type setup. All those odd sounds make it interesting and kind of fun.
MO’C: So did you refer to the original recordings to bone up on the arrangements of the songs when you were preparing for this tour?
Giles: Yeah, absolutely. I also went to Melbourne for band rehearsals, sat in and made notes.
MO’C: And the live versions were reasonably faithful to the recordings?
Giles: Yeah, pretty much. Again, Eddie Rayner did a good job of programming those old keyboard sounds, which makes it a lot easier. Instead of having tons of old keyboards to make all those sounds, they all come out of one modern device.
MO’C: Was it quite a simple setup to mix?
Giles: Probably the most complicated aspect of mixing the show was having two drumkits and percussion all side by side, which meant I had a lot of channels.
MO’C: Did you have to ride those a lot or could you eventually arrive at a stage of set and forget?
Giles: When both drummers were playing at once I had to ride it quite carefully. If things start to flam you’ve gotta make a pretty quick decision as to which part of the flam you want to bring down to keep the timing clear.
MO’C: There was great clarity to the percussion, all those nuances and subtleties really came through and added to the whole sound without getting lost in the mix. How did you mic them?
GW: Mainly Shure SM98 clip-ons. But I guess with the percussion everything comes downw everything! (laughs) The woodblocks come down the bongo mics, and the bongos down the woodblock mics. I think it’s just mainly about trying to get an even coverage over the whole area. Noel never stands in one place, never plays the same thing in the same song at the same time twice in a row.
MO’C: And the vocals?
GW: I use Audix OM6s to mic the Finns’ vocals, which is a choice that was pretty much a legacy from the Finn Bros tour. They’ve got a great clear midrange.
MO’C: You used a Midas XL4 console, is that your weapon of choice?
GW: I just think they’re a good-sounding desk. If you have good inputs, a good sound source on stage, good microphones plugged into a good desk and then plug that into a good PA, it just sounds good. You make it really easy for yourself. Some of the digital boards have got a lot of fancy processing in them but I don’t think they make your life much easier. In fact, they can end up making your life more complicated. I think for an act like Split Enz, where it’s largely all analogue, you might as well have an analogue board.