September 19, 1988 12:00 PM

It started, suddenly and seductively, last summer. Soul was the music of choice, inspiring the party-time wise guys to show off their best—and worst—James Brown moves. Then, over the din, would drift an insinuatingly lovely song that had couples pairing off for slow dancing—the women murmuring the title chorus (“Don’t dream it’s over”), the men embarrassed to be moving to a number so downright pretty that their mothers knew the words. There hadn’t been such epic loss of cool since “Colour My World” was heating up rec rooms.

Blame it all on Crowded House, the Australian trio that made room for itself on the charts last year with such Beatles-esque pop nuggets as “Dream” and “Something So Strong,” which helped sell nearly a million copies of the group’s debut album. Now, guitarist Neil Finn, 30, bassist Nick Seymour, 29, and drummer Paul Hester, 29, are back with their new LP, Temple of Low Men.

But even the lightest airs can have a hidden edge. On Low Men, Finn, the trio’s principal songwriter, uses sweet strains and harmonies to couch pensive lyrics probing the ambiguities of love. Describing himself as an “ugly character, a sour old bastard,” he says, “I find it easier to write dark songs than the ‘baby, come to the disco and let’s have sex’ types.” Finn is concerned with affairs beyond the heart as well: He took the album’s title from a splash of graffiti he spotted on a Los Angeles church just before coming home to find Jimmy Swaggart noisily atoning on TV. “It’s sort of about slime-balls inhabiting sacred places,” Finn says of the LP.

Prior to building Crowded House, Finn’s closest brush with success came as a member of Split Enz, the Melbourne-based art-pop band formed by his older brother Tim. Neil joined the group at 19, after leaving his hometown of Te Awamutu, New Zealand (pop. 3,000), where he used to play Kinks and Neil Young numbers at the local mental hospital. Seven years later the band began to fall apart, and Finn branched off from the family tree. “I had been sharing with my brother all my life up till then,” he says, “and I needed to establish my own identity.” He recruited former Split Enz drummer Hester, then Seymour, after a chance meeting at a party. “I asked him if I could audition,” says Seymour, a former art student who considered music more of a hobby until then, “and Neil was drunk enough to say yes.”

Finn’s inebriation was unusual. Ordinarily sober and contemplative, he says, “I feel there is more to life than meets the eye, some mystery that has to be unlocked.” (Hester is Finn’s exuberant and irreverent counterweight, pondering such questions as “How do people go about putting all those rips in their jeans in the right places?”) On the road Finn mainly holes up with his muse (“My brain is just all music”) or spends quiet moments with Sharon, his wife of six years, and their son, Liam, 4. Hester and Seymour, both single, head off for cult films, art galleries and plays. “We are not a wild bunch of colonial boys,” says Seymour. Hester adds that living in Melbourne provides them all with a “buffer zone” from fame. “When you get to the top in Australia, you still have to be a bit of a bloke, an everyman,” explains Finn. “If you behaved the way stars are supposed to in America, you’d get laughed at.”

Nobody’s laughing now, as Crowded House prepares to cut a dreamy swath through the overplanted field of Aussie rockers with a two-month U.S. tour starting in November. This is, after all, a serious business, especially for a man as singly focused as Finn. “Other than when I’m with my family,” he says, “the only time I feel good is when I hit something onstage or in the studio. If it all ended tomorrow, Nick and Paul would be okay, but I’d be a jellied mess.”

—By Lisa Russell, with Jonathan Cooper in London

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