Schnell Fenster: Tying Up Loose Enz

Rolling Stone, September 1988

The quirky guys from Split Enz start a band, but still keeping it in the family - by Clinton Walker

Split Enz were an unlucky band in so many ways. Sure, they were about as big as a band could be in the late Seventies/early Eighties, and they were always a class act, but they could-should have been something more than a merely local phenomenon.

There were at least two distinct phases in the Split Enz career: the first, and most fondly remembered by some fans, was between their formation in New Zealand, in 1972, and the departure, in April 1977, of founder-member/songwriter/imagist/all-round eccentric Phil Judd. After that, Neil Finn joined brother Tim behind the band's steering wheel, and it was then that the Enz found their greatest success, with a soaring pop sound without the quirks. The records which followed became Australian classics and almost went all the way up the British and U.S. charts. However Split Enz were a little too early for an Australian Invasion. Split Enz broke up in 1983, by which time the elusive Phil Judd too had made a return to the music scene - having a Number One single for the Swingers with "Counting the Beat" - and then promptly disappearing again.

Now, ironically, the ghost of Split Enz is claiming all the 'revenge' it could want, as the band's alumni have begun to assert itself all over the international stage.

The success of Crowded House is pretty much history nowadays. Tim Finn has had considerable success as a soloist and is currently finishing his third solo album in Los Angeles for Capitol. But it's an irony that's fully completed by Schnell Fenster. The combo marks the return not only of Phil Judd (again) but also fellow-founding Enzman, now-drummer Noel Crombie and erstwhile bassist Nigel Griggs, and the Fensters too are signed to none other than Capitol Records.

The family is, well, under the same roof again.

This month, EMI in Australia releases the debut album by Schnell Fenster, The Sound Of Trees, which follows the single "Whispering".

The band, whose name translates from the German as 'quick window', have actually been together for a couple of years, behind closed doors, writing, rehearsing and recording. The band grew directly out of the Split Enz split, which although more thanamicable, according to Noel Crombie, left him feeling like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders.

"Yeah, I think everyone felt that way," he said over the phone from Melbourne. "Neil and Tim were already going off in their own directions anyway. The Mullanes were already going. It was like any band with big commitments, you live in each other's pockets, it's like marriage, and we enjoyed it, but we didn't want to end up down a dead-end. We're all still friends, we see each other, sometimes we work together. But yeah, it is ironic, all of us being on the same label, so we might work together again.

"At the end of the Enz, Eddie and Nigel and I knew we wanted to work together, and so we started jamming. It was very much just an enthusiasm thing. Then Eddie went over to work with PaulMcCartney and then he went off to join Crowded House on the road, and we'd got together with Phil, who'd been playing on Tim's album and we all had a good time, so he became involved. We were just jamming."

They recruited guitarist Michael den Elzen, who'd been in Tim Finn's road band. It wasn't, however, out of any particular anathema that the fledgling Schnell Fenster avoided playing live.

"We'd just come off a long period of touring, with Split Enz, and we thought it would be ridiculous to go out playing pubs just to prove we were a band," said Crombie. "We just wanted to write, and record.

"It was the opposite of Split Enz, where one of the songwriters would come along and bash out some chords on an acoustic guitar and you'd have to put something to it. We were just jamming, so everyone was involved on an equal basis. Phil wrote the lyrics, and that's his personal area, but most of the songs came together with real band feels. We were just finding our way, finding out what we were."

It was no small fortuity for the band to have accrued management in the form of Chris Gough, who also runs Melbourne's Platinum Studios where they could work at will. A demo tape got EMI in Sydney interested, who in turn found Capitol in London so interested that they signed the band to a world-wide deal.

Of course, Schnell Fenster's background had made things easier for them, but as Noel Crombie said, "There's nothing easy about it when it actually comes to doing it."

Along the way, under the aegis of Noel's Cowards, most of the Fensters worked on the songs for the film soundtrack, Rikki And Pete. That this material was tailored to a country-flavour is only indicative of the band's scope.

Produced by the band itself, although with three tracks the work of Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley of Madness and Elvis Costello fame, The Sound Of The Trees defines Schnell Fenster's own sound - one of a very hard rhythm section, a dual-guitar attack equally capable of delicacy or a power-drive, and Phil Judd's melodic but twisted vocals. There are no harmonies as such, but Judd is often multi-tracked, so it has that layered, Beatlesque effect.

"We don't really consider things... we're not trying to make something marketable," explains Judd. "We've just been finding our feet, so the songs really formed themselves, found the mood themselves, we didn't contrive anything. Things just seemed to fall into place."

The songs typically betray Judd's idiosyncratic, surreal bent.

"Most often they're more really impressionistic," he said. "The atmosphere is more important to me than depth, or meaning."

So, with a show boasting the "extra dimension" that comes of not "rejecting the importance of presentation," the band will hit the road in Australia in August, in anticipation of leaving for overseas first thing next year.

"It just feels fresh and exciting, so I'm looking forward to everything," says Noel Crombie. "People could draw parallels, just due to Phil's voice, becuase he was in Split Enz twleve years ago, but to me, it's very different, much more straightforward.

"Ultimately, we just wanted to make a good record, first of all, so we were prepared to take the time to do that, and not worry about rushing out. Thinking about it on a world-scale, well, you can do Australia, but that can only take you so far. It's all just seemed quite natural to me."

thanks to Kelly Wood for typing this out

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