Since his teenage Betchadupa days, the NZ music public has now known Liam Finn for half his 30-year old life. His two previous solo albums have proven him unafraid to forge a own unique, bearded career-path, and sure to that form he chose to once again self-produce his provocatively-titled third. In Wellington to play a couple of small shows, Liam tells Martyn Pepperell that while he may have temporarily lost objectivity about it, with ‘The Nihilist’ he is back to trusting his gut – and the universe.
After finishing off the international touring of his second album, 2011’s ‘FOMO’, Liam Finn, the bearded son of Neil, and highly-regarded songwriter and entertainer in his own right, moved into a New York apartment with his partner and his band.
“We decided it would be romantic to live, work and play together – like The Ramones or something,” Liam smiles. “Once we were settled in, I went on a mad hunt for somewhere to write songs, as that was the main point of being there. I’ve always found New York a really inspiring place, and I’ve always wanted to live there, and be creative there.
“I spent about a month looking at places everyday. Most of them were essentially damp and drippy padded cells with metal bands practising really loud on either side of you. I put it out there to the universe, ‘Can I just find somewhere I would actually want to go to everyday? And if I’m really lucky, a view of Manhattan would be cool.’”
The very next day, Liam called a real estate company as a last punt, asking if they had any warehouses or condemned buildings on file that he could use as a studio. The real estate agent laughed in reply, before giving him the number of a group of musicians he had just leased a building to. As it turned out, they were close by, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and had converted the building into a studio/live performance space. When Liam got there to talk to them, you guessed it, there they were, windows overlooking the Manhattan skyline.
“They had this really huge room they could use as an arts or performance space,” he recalls with a grin. “I think at that point they were having an event there every fortnight. They gave me a resident spot on weekdays where I could set up my gear and go for it. I was supposed to pack up everyday, but after I got to know them, they gave me my own corner. I started writing in this really big room, and they even had a PA system for shows, so I was pretty much writing on a PA, which was awesome.”
Having spent the last 15 years playing in bands, releasing music, touring and living overseas, and making a pretty decent impact in the process, when it came to getting his shot at being creative in the Big Apple, Liam had a pretty clear plan in his head. He’s toured opening for Wilco, Eddie Vedder, Pearl Jam and The Black Keys, appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman etc., and well knew what was possible if he applied himself.
“I’ve moved to Australia. I’ve moved to England. I’ve moved back to NZ,” he points out. “I’d lived in several countries before I moved to New York. I’ve done this enough times to know there was a certain way I was going to do it – and that was immerse myself in it, and not be afraid to go out and meet new people.”
Offsetting his writing and recording sessions with a live performance residency at a local venue (“I was trying to keep my equilibrium right, because I live off shows to be honest, and when I don’t have that energy in my life it’s easy to lapse into self-doubt”), he also took part in some songwriting camps, in the process discovering a very communal side to Brooklyn, which greatly encouraged him.
Energised by the geography and atmosphere of the city, he made use of 67 instruments and between writing solo, or with his now established band members, Eliza Jane Barnes (vocals), Elroy Finn (drums) and Jol Mulholland (bass), got on with crafting his third solo record. When it came to lyrical content he looked inwards.
“If there is something out there that is greater than what we understand, maybe it’s not out there, but in here,” he suggests, pointing to his head. “I didn’t want this record to be about New York. I didn’t want it to be the guy who comes home and says, ‘I live in New York’. I couldn’t write another break-up record – you can only do one of those. So I started developing this fully-fledged fictional, almost philosophical story. Then I realised how dry and humourless it was. That was how I got into exploring the concept of nihilism. I wasn’t looking to fall into a vortex of nothing, I was more exploring the relativity of reality. Who is to say that this world we live in, and all these ideas we have been brought up to believe, won’t be laughed at in a couple of hundred years?”
Liam says he initially wanted to capture, as he puts it, “…the spontaneity of playing live and the human element of a proper performance.” However, once that was achieved, what had been recorded and what he was imagining in his head didn’t match up.
“I lost a bit of atmosphere, and realised I needed to back myself even more and get better at recording, mixing and production, so that I could make the sounds I wanted to hear,” he admits.
The next seven months were spent obsessing over the recorded files in a small rented studio room. While hoping that the songs have taken on the sonics and atmospherics he hoped for, but haven’t lost the performance aspect, Liam admits he’s lost all objectivity with ‘The Nihilist’.
“I have no idea what any of it sounds like anymore,” he laughs.
He needn’t worry though, throughout the album’s dozen tracks, Liam constructs a labyrinth of interesting guitar and voice lead melodic and rhythmic ideas, in the process presenting a soundworld as vibrant, chaotic and beautiful as the bustling streets of New York. And much like those NYC streets, you’ll find something new with every listen. Unfortunately, only two of the record labels he dealt with during the promotion of ‘FOMO’ felt the same way.
“Liberation Music and my American label [Yep Roc Records] were the only ones that were like, ‘We believe in you, and we want you to do this without us having too much input into it’, he explains in a tone that strikes a measure between happiness and sadness.
“I didn’t make ‘I’ll Be Lightning’ [his 2007 album debut] with anyone’s input, and I made ‘FOMO’ with a producer, so I wanted to get back to how it all started. I guess it was one of the hardest things to deal with, because as much as I was like, ‘Good riddance assholes’, I had to check myself. I was excited by these songs and where they were going, but they seemed to turn certain people off. I guess it wasn’t what they expected I would do?
“The songs that really make an impact don’t do so just because they have a catchy chorus,” he muses. ‘It’s because they actually make people feel a certain way. They sound like something, a real happening, and this is something no one can divine or predict. Second Chance [‘I’ll Be Lightning’] was probably the biggest success I’ve had with a song, and that was nobody’s first choice for a single. It was the atmosphere that captured people, not the structure or working to a formula.
“I think a key to success, if there is a key to success, is the overall energy that is created by being confident enough to not give a fuck what people think, combined with not having expectations or pressures on your work. As soon as desperation enters the equation it gets so unattractive. I think a lot of labels are desperate. If you let them, they will desperately put out what they think is their best shot at a hit single. Instead you should put out what you think is your best song.”
Outside of record label boardrooms at least, his logic is hard to argue with, and early in the year he put it to the test with the release of Snug As Fuck as the new album’s first single. A silky smooth duet with Eliza Jane Barnes, Snug As Fuck finds Liam accessing a luxuriously psychedelic interzone. Weird yet accessible, it’s a brazenly confident yet relaxed entry into the new album.
“Snug As Fuck felt very representative of who I am, where I’ve been, and what I have done,” he enthuses. “It’s understated in a way that I expect will leave people with a good feeling. There isn’t one bit in the song that sticks out as the thing, but overall, I found it very easy to sit there while people listened to it and not cringe.
“I’ve got a very high importance in my life for what I am singing. In some ways I think that is what plagues me more than anything. People are going to be listening to this. I don’t want to just be saying nothing. I want to keep singing these songs with the same intensity for the rest of my life.”
In a lot of ways, Liam Finn’s mindset leading into this release echoes where he was at in the flurry surrounding the launch of his first (and so far most successful), solo album seven years ago.
“With ‘I’ll Be Lighting’ I realised more of an emotive thing than I had ever done in the past with any of my records,” he recalls. “I didn’t give a fuck. Also at that point I had broken up with my band, and had made the record purely for myself. It made me more confident in trusting my gut, following through, and doing things the way I wanted to. I’m back to just following my guts, and trusting my instincts.