Catching Up With Liam Finn

Music Features Liam Finn
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A decade or so ago Liam Finn put out his first recordings with Betchadupa, an energetic rock act that ran for a few years before splitting. Since then Finn’s done some collaborative work, but he’s stood out as a solo performer, even touring as a one-man act. For his last solo release, I’ll be Lightning, Finn relied heavily on himself, writing, playing, engineering and producing nearly everything himself. His upcoming album FOMO might have involved the same sort of isolation, but a precipitous union with producer Burke Reid helped Finn find his way toward something entirely new in his discography, in this case a thicker sort of pop album than he’d previously done.

The titular acronym stands for “Fear Of Missing Out”, and it’s clear Finn missed nothing in the studio, recording the album as precisely as it is musically varied. The album grows naturally, and Finn never loses his strong melodic sensibility, even when songs like “The Struggle” move to a more pounding, aggressive place than we might expect. Paste tracked him down recently to talk about the challenges of recording albums with new sounds (a continual goal), the inevitability of talking about his family (father Neil Finn and uncle Tim Finn), and the chances of new music from Betchadupa.

Paste: Do you think of this fear of missing out more in a cultural or a personal sense?
Liam Finn: A bit of a combination really. At first it was a term tossed around by my family and friends as a tongue-in-cheek way. I was quite often living at the beach, quite isolated and trying to write my record, and I’d have friends call up say “We’re all off at at dinner—you should come join us” and I really couldn’t. You get that pang of anxiety: “Damn it. They’re having fun.I want to be with my mates!” It became a term to say, “Hearten up, bro. Stop being a fomo.” Or saying, “I’m being a bit fomo—I’m missing out on that family occasion.” It was just a colloquialism at first that got kind of addictive.

Then again, it’s also quite relevant to recording the record, because I spent so many years touring my last record and immersing myself in the rest of the world and the international music scene. To go back to New Zealand and feel really isolated again, I had moments of worry that it was a mistake.

It’s also culturally a headspace the world has taken on with social networking. It’s the instant gratification of putting your photos on Facebook or writing stuff on Twitter. It seems like everyone’s entering a state of perpetual fomo.

Paste: Do you think it’s a situation that’s more inherent to a musician’s life.
Finn: I don’t think necessarily. I think everyone experiences it. In the past it was probably addressed as the grass is always greener, but it’s not even about that. It’s more that because you’re more aware of what’s going on and what other people are up to, it’s easy to feel like you’re missing out on something. It’s hard to sometimes appreciate the moment, and that’s something that’s really important, just living right there in that second and that moment in time.

Paste: What was Burke Reid’s importance to this album.
Finn: He came along at a pretty pivotal time for me. I’d been writing for quite a while, trying to demo and record stuff. I wasn’t finding my groove. I was falling back on old tricks and making things sound too familiar and too comfortable. I needed to find a collaborator that was going to challenge me and take it to a new place and occasionally steer the ship when needed. I’d met him years ago when I was in Betchadupa and he was in a band called Gerling and we were on the same label. We were acquaintances but never kept in touch. When we got back together, we hit it off instantly. It was almost like a first date, warm fuzzy feelings and nervous conversation of what we had in common. I liked his vision for music and the way he tackled it. It was similar to mine in a way, but aesthetically he’d come from a very different place. I wanted to make a relatively direct album that was as interesting as possible, but also make sure a song was simple and easy to get your head around, create an atmosphere with it. Put someone in a place when they hear the song.

Paste: How was it to go into the studio with less finished songs?
Finn: It was sort of like when you go into demo songs. Quite often that initial demo, because it’s so fresh and you half write it as you go, there’s something really magical that happens and something that’s really hard to attain further on down the track when you re-record it. Working with Burke was really great: Those initial fresh ideas you have, we were capturing and able to use for the finished songs. That was the challenge I was looking for, not someone that was going to be a yes-man and take the songs that I handed him and go, “Here’s how we’re going to do it.” He gravitated towards the more sketches of things and just even a little melody that I had. He liked that that was going to be potentially more inspiring to turn into a song. The stuff that I’d completed was maybe over-thought and more similar to what I done in the past. I was quite welcoming of that confrontation and that challenge.

Paste: Was there friction in the process?
Finn: There was definitely friction. That’s always at the core of a good creative collaboration. You don’t always agree and you don’t always see eye-to-eye, but that’s how you come to the best conclusion. As much as I am making my music for me to hear back and get enjoyment out of, I also really want people to like it and I want to make something that people can related to. Having someone else’s barometer is really handy. It had its tense moments, but we’re both very honest people but we’re sensitive to other people’s feelings so it never got mean.

Paste: What’s the significance of ending the album with “Jump Your Bones,” which has a different feel?
Finn: It sounds and feels like either an opening or a closing. It some ways it represented the recording as well. I started that song quite early on, and I did some work with Glenn Kotche, and recorded these contact-mic beats and got him to give me a whole lot of rhythms I’d have never cracked myself, just because I wanted to write from a different place and get some new element out of my songwriting. When I started putting things on it, it instantly had that atmosphere that I was hoping to create. Although it was very different from songs like “Neurotic World,” it still carried that atmosphere that I was hoping to attain throughout the record. I was set on making that song complete, and getting it to the point that I was imagining in my head, but it took ages and I tried so many different things on it. I even had a few friends come in and play on top of it and involve them in the writing and that threw it off course for a while. It got to the point where Burke was like, “We’ll leave that one to finish last because I’m not sure it’s going to cut it.” In my heart, I was really fond of it and still had this vision of what it could eventually be. The last day recording, we tackled it, and I started from scratch over Glenn’s beats and some drums that I’d done and kind of treated it like my live performances, where I let it be mostly improvised and let rip and went wild on top of it and it somehow all fell into place like it was meant to be. I finally heard it back through the speakers like I was imagining it. It was a nice full stop and a nice positive way to end.

Paste: Starting off with the album title, to end with that sound and energy is a nice progression.
Finn: When making the tracklisting, I quickly realized the way I’d naturally laid it out was starting a bit broody and melancohlic and anxious, and ending with the last three being joyous and positive and upbeat.

Paste: Do you typically think in terms of an album arc? Is it more assembling the best songs that cohere?
Finn: I’m a big fan of the art of putting together a record, but this one very much so piece by piece, and each song was treated as its own beast. I didn’t get to hear it as a whole until I got the mastering back. In putting the tracklisting together I was somewhat guessing. I was already on the road touring. I literally finished the record the day before I left to go to the States to do a tour. The deadline was the deadline. I was putting the tracklist together in the van and I couldn’t really concentrate on like I would if I was at home in a studio, but I think that was quite good. When I finally got the mastering back, I heard it as a whole and it made so much more sense to me all of the sudden. It was good to hear it song after song and realize how concise everything was. It was hard to see the overall picture when I was so far inside it back in New Zealand.

Paste: You seem more comfortable talking about your musical family than many artists might be.
Finn: I feel like I’ve been doing this for a while. It’s been about 10 years of releasing records, and in some ways that means 10 years of talking about my father and my uncle. It’s nothing I’ve ever shied away from talking about or being involved with. I think that’s because I’ve got a great relationship with my dad and my uncle. I love what they do, and it’s been really awesome being involved with it, and I’ll continue to be involved with. You learn about preconceptions that people have because people hear about that before they’ve heard about the music. The only way to overcome that is to be real and be genuine and be true to your music and your art. It’s really in my blood, and it’s my passion, and I’m going to do it no matter what. Hopefully that’s what shows.

Paste: Do you think people are past that ? I didn’t want to ask it, but it felt requisite.
Finn: I’m not sure, because I’m still widely unknown as a musician, and unless I have some worldwide #1 album or something, that’s probably going to be one of the first things people will hear about me. After saying that, I think there are probably a lot of kids out there that haven’t heard my dad’s music or my uncle’s music, and to them, it’s kind of irrelevant information. It’s something I do expect to be asked about. It’s part of my story and it’s part of who I am.

Paste: You’ve toured as a one-man show, but you’ll tour this as a band. Do you think you’ll go back to a band format, either with your touring band or with Betchadupa?
Finn: I’m already sort of looking forward to making my next solo record because the next way to make it feel like a first record again is to involve the band. I’m playing with my little brother [Elroy] on drums and my friend [Joylon Mulholland] on bass. They’re people that I feel really close to and excited about making music with. The point of difference in the next album will be working with a band and involving them in the writing.

As for Betchadupa, I have days when I miss those guys and I miss playing with them, because it was a whole other thing in itself. It’s good fun to make heavy, wild music and we were a good band. I like the idea of getting to make another record with them at some point. We had a whole lot of songs just waiting to go and things fell apart around it. Some of the best songs we ever wrote are just sitting there unheard and unreleased. It would be a shame not to revisit it at some point, but it would have to be for the right reasons and everyone would have to be as excited as it as we once were.