While discussing the Woodface album at the Steve Hoffman forum I came across someone's name in the Woodface CD booklet I knew nothing about. I wondered who this Stuart Ellison is who is credited with "additional keyboards". I tracked him down online and found out he was happy to partake in an interview.
I realised that in his capacity as engineer at Tim's Melbourne Periscope Studio he had a significantly larger role in the creation of Woodface than previously known. So, as a fun pastime, during the holiday season I present you with the first part of my interview with Stuart Ellison. It was published online once before in the above mentioned forum.
Interview with Stuart Ellison (November 2019)
How did you meet the members of Crowded House?
Oddly enough, the first musician from another band I ever met while practising with my own band at the time was Paul Hester. This would've been about 1982. When my band Domino Theory was recording an album with Jim Barton he had been tracking See Ya Round, the last Split Enz album, right before us. I met Nick later, in 1989, at the music shop I was working in, in Greville Street, and we kind of hit it off. I also rubbed shoulders with the boys in studios along the way, at Platinum Studios and AAV Studios during the making of the soundtrack for The Crossing (Crowded House contributed a cover of “She’s Not There” ).
Crowded House and the Finn Brothers occasionally played at ID’s, a club in Greville Street, Prahran. ID’s was owned by Dror Erez, a wonderful keyboardist who would play on stage with the Crowdies. Dror would come into the music shop to hire gear and he must have heard tapes of my tracks at the shop. Dror was working with a female singer he wanted to make a demo for. The song was written by Tim Finn. Tim and I started working on the demo and when we got on famously, we kept on working together after that.
You worked on the initial Finn Brothers album, how did that come about?
I had been writing and recording songs and demos with Tim for a few months in 1990 over at my place. I had a home studio with a MIDI set up in the lounge of my East St. Kilda flat. After about two weeks, in March or April 1990, Neil came over. Tim and Neil played the songs they had on guitar and talked about how they wanted it to sound. After a while the plan to record demos at my studio got scrapped when construction of Tim’s home studio, Periscope, was stepped up work-wise. As soon as the studio was finished in June 1990 they started recording there and finished about 90% of the tracking for the album in late November.
I was there for the entire recording at Periscope, because I moved my MIDI studio to Periscope, where it was set up in Tim’s bedroom. Tim and I worked on his solo demos on the side, while Woodface was being tracked in the big multitrack studio.
What can you tell about the instruments used during tracking? You’re credited with “additional keyboards” in the albums credits too.
I ended up playing on only one track – “Weather with you”. I played a synth part on my Arp Odyssey Mark 2. I had input on most tracks though, because Neil was always asking what I thought about certain sounds and whether I had a different way to do it.
The bass, for example, which Neil tracked entirely on his own over about two weeks at Periscope. Nick’s Fender Precision bass was at the studio and Nigel Griggs had kindly brought a couple of his Spectre basses down as potential candidates. I used to get great results out of a Charvel 3B bass with active electronics. It looked like a heavy metal bass with its pointy headstock, but the thing recorded like a dream, and Neil ended up using it on every track apart from "It's Only Natural" which was recorded with all the guys playing together in L.A later on.
I had synths strewn around the house in different rooms for jamming. An OSCar synth was in one room, there was a room with a clunky piano and a clavinet in another room. I remember Mark Hart grabbing a couple of my keyboards for some tracking on Woodface. A Roland Super Jupiter module for one, which was basically the same synth Eddie Rayner had early on (Jupiter-8 but in a rack module format). I think the Odyssey and the Prophet 5 may have got a run there too.
The house was quite magical; studios, instruments and games all over the place. All sorts of musos dropped in for a chat, a game of pool and a listen to how tracking was going.
Which musicians worked on the Finn Brothers’ sessions at Periscope apart from Neil and Tim?
Ricky Fataar was around at the start of recording in June 1990 for about two weeks, then he went away to do some gig or other. He came back a couple of times for a week or so, and the Finns would always have a track lined up for him to have a crack at tracking. I'd say Ricky hung out and played for probably three to four weeks in all.
Mark Hart also worked at the studio, but he didn't arrive till much later, maybe September or so. Once he was there, he hung out until the band flew to L.A to put the finishing touches on the tracks. Mark is a great player and a top bloke, he tracked a stack of keyboard parts when he arrived. Mark was really all Neil needed in the studio to get all these atmospheric concepts down on tape in a polished way; a musical foil that could translate ideas into notes with interesting sounds.
There were other musicians that came over and tracked parts that didn't end up getting used on the album. Daddy Cool's guitarist Ross Hannaford, for one, I can remember. Also, Tim had someone lined up to write string parts too; Nim Kym. The most extraordinary piano player I ever heard. She hung out for a while, but I don't think they used what she was going to write.
Do you remember which songs were worked on?
“Four Seasons in One Day” was one of the first songs the Finns played me when Neil came to my house. It was tracked along with all the others for the first time at Periscope as far as I'm aware
[“Chocolate Cake”, “It’s Only Natural”, “Tall Trees”, “There Goes God”, “All I Ask”, “How Will You Go”, “In Love With it All”, “Strangeness and Charm”, The Sound of Truth" and “Prodigal Son” – ed.].
“Cemetery in the Rain” was one that was not included on the original Woodface release that was recorded along with all the others, same with “Catherine Wheels”.
Where Neil and Sharon lived -and Tim too, at the time- there was this little turret up the very top of a large house . If you went up to the top, in the turret, which of course was a music room, it overlooked a cemetery.
In, August 1990, when the decision was made to incorporate the Finn Brothers material into the next Crowded House record did Nick and Paul come back into the fold?
Paul wanted to have a crack at replacing Ricky's grooves, which I thought was fair enough, and for the most part he succeeded. There was no talk of Nick re-recording anything, but Paul felt pretty strongly about his role as the band’s drummer.
Ricky was super consistent as a time keeper. Paul was more balls-to-the-wall as a drummer, but he seemed as effortlessly talented as the Finns in many ways. Paul was like having another lead singer in the band, his energy and presence was huge. The only fights that ever broke out were between Neil and Paul. Both had strong beliefs, and neither was apt to roll over too easy, but it was maybe only twice during all those months recording.
There were a couple of problematic songs drum track-wise, as far as Paul’s performances were concerned. They weren’t bad per se, it was just that the rhythm section happened to be especially under scrutiny for groove factor, or swing. Because Tim and I had been pumping out grooves that were loop based, Neil was interested in pushing the boundaries beat-wise, and he was open to the concept of integrating samples. Ricky's unusual choice of playing a shaker instead of a hi-hat gave “Weather With You” the easy relaxed groove it needed.
[On “Weather With You”, “There Goes God” and “All I Ask” Ricky Fataar’s original drum tracks were used. “Chocolate Cake”, “Tall Trees” and “How Will You Go” feature Paul’s re-recorded drum parts. – ed.]
One of the problem tracks drum performance-wise was "It’s Only Natural". Neither drummer had cut a rhythm bed Neil and Tim were happy with. When the band went to L.A. after the sessions at Periscope, Paul nailed an effervescent performance befitting of the track.
Did the band return to material Crowded House recorded before the Periscope sessions?
“Italian Plastic” was one. It was tracked very easily drums-wise. Everybody knew the score with that track, it was Paul’s humour and everyone happily rolled with it. It was a very joyous recording and you can almost hear that. These guys all had a wicked sense of humour. Italian Plastic still makes me laugh when I hear it today.
The band finished 90% of the tracking for the album in about late November. The band went to L.A. and finished recording the last two tracks for the album – “Chocolate Cake” and “It's Only natural”
How about “Left Hand”?
I remember Neil banging out “Left Hand” one day in a high-volume jam with the band. I thought it was cool the minute I heard it. That wasn't tracked at all during the Woodface sessions. It was still raw and being kicked into shape from what I could tell, at that stage. They recorded so many songs for Woodface though, they were in the position where they could hold some back.
I'll never forget Neil explaining how he felt about the songs getting cut: "It's quite delicious to throw away such strong material", with a "I’m being a naughty boy”-look he would flash when he was being cheeky. Neil had what I would call a very polite ego. The guy was a freak, let's be honest, he had a right to thump his chest a little, but he never did... very cool cat. Some people are tapped into a creative source, and they have this energy around them, I've seen it with a few people for myself, close-up. Neil and Tim both had it. Paul Hester had a bit of it. Michael Hutchence was another guy that was also “tapped in” to that place where ideas come from.
You were involved in the Weather With You remix that was released as a single in 1992.
My buddy KJay and I remixed “Weather With You” for Capitol. I’m credited on the release as “Outlaw”. We actually called it the VANDAL remix, but the name must have got lost in translation over the passage of time between the execution and the release. We kept the vocals and Neil’s guitar. KJay and I pulled the beats together and I played the rest. We worked four days straight at our studio in Hawthorn, where the studio was relocated after the tracking at Periscope was done. Paul Kosky helped us record at Periscope Studio’s and we finished the final mix at Platinum Studio’s in Richmond. Paul Kosky was dying to contribute something to the mix, so he brought in a crash cymbal and played it in a couple of places.
At the time when we were tracking it at Periscope a Capitol representative was hanging around and he was touting the remix as a possible first single, but in the end it kind of got swept under the rug when it appeared as a limited release. I’m not sure why that release was so limited, Neil and the boys loved the remix, but maybe Neil fell out of love with it later or something. It got released in the German market only and Capitol never paid us.
KJay and I later released house tracks on the 8-ball label in New York as "Shades of Black." The main beat had everybody stumped, they were all trying to guess where it came from. We didn't let on, in true b-boy style. It’s a Charlie Watts beat. The most famous band in the world, and no one at Capitol or the band recognised it. KJay is still making records today on his Integrity Records label.
Did you work with Crowded House after Woodface?
I basically lost all contact with everyone about six months after Woodface was mixed. Tim actually called once, about seven years later, but I was just about to head out, and I had to cut him short. Tim and his mrs. had just had a baby girl.
Tim didn't last long in Crowded House. I hardly ever talked to Tim about what happened with him leaving the band, I remember him saying he "went on tour, and it was an absolute disaster", although I never quite understood how that could be possible [laughs]. The Finn Brothers did do an album at one stage... I reckon I've got the CD somewhere...