It’s been a few years since we’ve heard from Liam Finn, the main reason being that the New Zealand musician (and son of pop icon Neil) relocated to New York three years ago, which is all over his new record, The Nihilist.
But his life in a bustling city doesn’t necessarily come through in his lyrics, but rather the music itself. The Nihilist has a jittery quality to it, but it’s also soothing at the same time. And while there are moments of pop bliss, especially on the record’s first single “Snug As Fuck,” the real ear candy lies in the textures and sounds that, as Finn put it, “sounded like they were not made on this planet.” Mission accomplished.
Finn, who recently played on his pops’ latest album Dizzying Heights, recently talked to Paste about New York, capturing the new record live and wrestling with dad.
Paste: I know you’ve always dabbled in electronic music, but you really go for it on the new record. What was the influence? What led you there?
Liam Finn: I guess just feeling uninhibited. It was quite a liberating thing redefining what it was I did, and making something that felt exciting. I think when I started making this record I reached a bit of a tipping point of frustrations, but also moving to a new city and feeling quite out of my comfort zone. It was a big upheaval of everything I knew. I think when I started writing I realized I was getting excited about making sounds that sounded like they were not made on this planet. Not that I wanted it to be futuristic-sounding or retro-sounding. I wanted to make music where you didn’t know if something was organic or synthetic. Living in the States in general, and living in New York, there’s a pace and sound of the city, and the fact you hear more hip-hop and R&B and pop music just blaring out of cars—I don’t love it all, but there’s definitely an element to it, an atmosphere, and a mood to it that I kind of like. So I think that rubbed off in some sort of way.
Paste: You’ve been in New York two, three years?
Finn: Yeah, I think three years now.
Paste: How’s the experience been for you? You’re in Greenpoint, right?
Finn: I love it. It definitely has its moments of being quite hard. We’ve had a few moments of, “What are we doing here?” New Zealand is such a charming and easy place; but I think while I was living in New Zealand briefly a few years ago I was probably less relaxed and calm than I feel over here. There’s something about this place that suits me as a quite speedy and intense person. I feel like I get a lot done here. It’s not like it’s competing, but because there’s so much music and art, to sort of make something good, it’s gotta be really good.
Paste: Do you feel like if you were in New Zealand there’d be more expectations as to what kind of music you should be making?
Finn: I just feel more comfortable to be myself here. New Zealand is a very creative place, and I would never hold this against it, but it definitely makes you a little more self-conscious because it’s so small. It’s like living in a small town where everyone knows each other or there’s one degree of separation, you’re just a little more self-conscious about what someone might think if you hang it out on the line. You’re not encouraged to be incredibly confident; that’s seen as arrogance in our country.
Paste: I assume you recorded this album all yourself.
Finn: Actually, it was quite a long process because I demoed pretty much the entire record myself and reached an atmosphere that I really loved. And I still had this traditional idea of I’ve gotta go track in a proper studio with my band. And I wanted it to be really live, with the human element, and not pieced together or cut up or computer-y. So we recorded in a studio and got really good stuff that pretty much is the basis for what the record turned into, but it lost the otherworldly thing I was talking about. It lost the atmosphere. The majority of the time was me taking these performances and trying to sort of carve them back into what I originally had in my head. It was kind of maddening at times, but when I finally heard the sound I was trying to reach it was pretty exciting.
Paste: That said, how do you think these songs will translate live? Or have you already played them live?
Finn: We did a show just about a week ago where we played the whole record from start to finish. I mean, when I finished the record I was quite intimidated by the prospect of trying to figure out how the hell I was going to do it. But it strangely became easier…what I realize is that you just do it. I’m lucky that everyone in my band sings, and everyone is quite valuable. I don’t have anyone in the band that’s sort of technically trained or really accomplished, but everyone works really hard to become good at the parts they do in the songs. It actually strangely came together quite quickly.
Paste: I saw you in Portland a few years ago and you were jumping between instruments. Are you still doing that, or just sticking to one?
Finn: At the moment I’m sort of sticking to one. On the last album touring I wanted to have a band, but still wanted to play drums and play everything, so we were traveling with two drum kits and two bass amps, and it was just ridiculous [laughs]. So without making it a conscious decision, I just sort of gravitated to try and perform. The vocals on this record…I didn’t play as much guitar and a lot of the stuff is vocal-driven. I like the idea of being able to really perform this record because it gives it a bit more of an intensity.
Paste: I have to ask you about some of the song titles on this record. I like that you released “Snug As Fuck” as the first single. It makes a statement?
Finn: I guess it does. I’d sort of forgotten that it was even called that. A lot of the songs on this record were working titles. That was one of the first lyrics to come out of writing that song. It actually seems quite New Zealand to me; we kind of make anything “as.”
Paste: I have a friend from New Zealand, who I lived with for a year, so I know all about the “as.”
Finn: Exactly! [laughs]
Paste: And what about the song “Wrestle With Dad”? I’m assuming it means what it says?
Finn: [Laughs] I can’t figure out if it’s metaphorical, or if it’s just about having a good wrestle with your dad. To me there’s nothing quite like getting into the sweaty holds that you get in while wrestling your dad.
Paste: [laughing] I’m picturing that, and it’s cracking me up.
Finn: Well, I’m hoping we can make a video for it at some point—it’d be silly not to.