Liam Finn: ‘I Could’ve Made A Hip-Hop Record’
From his temporary London digs, nomadic Kiwi Liam Finn talks to MATT SHEA about his tricky second album ‘FOMO’, working with producer Burke Reid and getting the band back together for his upcoming Australian tour.
It’s hard to believe an artist like Liam Finn could ever struggle to write and record music. There’s the pedigree, of course – he’s the son of Neil, the nephew of Tim – but there’s also an intimidating recording career of his own, which winds its way through his early years with Betchadupa, an exceptional debut solo record (2008’s I’ll Be Lightning), the Champagne in Seashells collaboration with Eliza-Jane Barnes in 2009, and then his work with Kiwi “supergroup” BARB just last year.
Still, Finn hemmed and hawed on his new record, FOMO. He was in the studio on his own, trying new things using old tricks, and by the middle of last year had driven himself into a sonic corner. Enter Burke Reid, formerly of Gerling, to help produce the record. In just four years, Reid has established himself as one of Australia’s most prominent producers, working behind the boards with The Mess Hall, Jack Ladder and Gareth Liddiard and The Drones. Together, Finn and Reid put their heads down and hammered out FOMO over the summer.
Talking to Finn, you can understand how he got himself into a bit of a pickle with FOMO. The guy is a thinker and he talks at a furious pace, tangents coming mid-sentence without warning.
Where are you talking to me from?
I’m in London. I’m just in my slippers and my nice big cardigan, leaning on my bed head and, yeah, with crust in my eyes. It’s 9.20 in the morning. It’s not even that early. [Laughs] It feels early; I’m in a late cycle.
You idle musicians.
Yeah! It’s like that.
Whereabouts is home for you at the moment?
Well, I guess actually London at the moment, but I’m not really living anywhere. I actually finished the record the day before I left New Zealand. I packed up my house and moved, supposedly to New York but we’ve just been touring, and now we’re in London – we’ve been here for a couple of weeks and I’m actually staying in my old house that I used to live in a few years ago, so it kind of feels like home.
So you’ve sold the place at Piha [Beach, west of Auckland]?
Yeah, yeah. I moved my stuff out and, yeah, it was sad to say goodbye, but I sort of forgot, actually, what a huge part of me got so used to touring and not really living anywhere. Once I left again there was this sense of freedom and I relaxed and it was like, “Oh right. Maybe this is my natural state.” Being a nomad: it’s kind of nice to be away again.
I think it’s a natural state for a lot of New Zealanders. They’re a pretty nomadic sort of people.
Definitely, yeah. I think it’s a rite of passage in growing up in such a small, isolated country: you need to figure out who you are outside of the country and it makes you appreciate it all the more when you go back.
FOMO: It’s a really different record to I’ll Be Lightning. You spoke to M+N a couple years ago of always wanting to make “first” records – records without any preconceptions. Is that the approach you tried to take with FOMO?
Definitely, yeah. I think every project you do, you’ve got to find some element or some point of difference. I think it’s a bad trap to get into – especially for artists who become successful – they kind of feel that they’ve got to recreate what made them so successful. But what made them so successful, and the thing that made them make an inspired record, was probably the lack of expectation and not having any sort of expectations ... So yeah, I definitely wanted to go into it with that same freedom I had on I’ll Be Lightning.
Was the final product something close to what you envisioned at the start of the recording process, or did it turned out quite differently?
I think it turned out really differently, to be honest. I don’t know what I expected it to be, but I know what I was doing mid-year, last year: I was trying to still do it on my own and I was taking, in a way, a relatively similar approach as I did for I’ll Be Lightning. That was what freaked me out and I was left a bit disillusioned really, kind of going, “What the hell? I’m just using my same old tricks.” I was kind of falling into that trap that we were just talking about, so finding a producer [Reid] and finding someone who was going to come at it from a completely different angle aesthetically that was a huge part of making this record ... All of a sudden, it was really a collaborative thing and you didn’t really know where it was going to end up because there was someone else’s mind steering the ship every once in a while.
That’s one thing I find interesting about the stuff that you’ve done. Since your first solo record you’ve been pretty busy, but this is only your second time, really, making a solo record. In that sense, is it something you still find intimidating – to get into the studio and do a solo record?
Yeah, it is. I think it’s very different to having a band. When you have a band there’s a beauty in the fact that it’s everybody’s baby, so you feel as passionate about it as you do a solo record, but you don’t feel as personally about it – how people judge and what their expectation is. You feel a lot more safety in numbers, and you’ve got your mates to go, “Fuck them if they don’t like it.” ... Writing a solo record, I definitely write from a much more personal perspective and that feels a lot more fragile, and you’re a lot more sensitive to what your friends and family are going to think.
It’s not even the public or reviews or anything like that. It actually comes down to you playing it for your friends for the first time and thinking, “What are they going to think of that song?! What are they gonna think it means when I sing, ‘Fuck you, my best friend. You’re a dickhead!’” [Laughs] But you do get a different sense of satisfaction and, also, you have so many possibilities as a solo artist. You can make anything, and I think that’s an important thing to remember. I could have probably made a hip-hop record if I wanted to – it might not have been a very good idea. [Laughs] But I knew I needed to find someone who was going to have a take on what I did and an idea in mind of what the end result might be, so I could just relax and care about the songwriting and the performance and not have to think about the big picture. Burke was definitely that guy, and kept a handle on things.
What was it in particular about Burke that made you settle on him to produce the record?
I think his use of analogies. [Laughs] He’s a man of sometimes brilliant and sometimes classic, simple analogies: “It’s like a pizza, you know. You’re tempted to put a whole lot of stuff on, but really, the simple pepperoni pizza wins the day.” [Laughs] He’s full of them, actually, and that’s something that cracked me up – I liked his use of analogies. But also, he’s had a really interesting musical background and obviously he’s written stuff and made albums, but what I didn’t know in the last five years – because I met him years ago when he was in Gerling, and Betchadupa and Gerling were both on Flying Nun and we had a few dinners together but never became mates – he told me how he’d, after Gerling, decided to be an engineer and producer. I really appreciated how he’d just gone and started making coffee in a studio to start out, and learned about mics and pre-amps, and just slowly worked his way up until he was making some really great records.
I liked that he was somebody who hadn’t gone to [audio education institute] SAE and learnt really generic recording techniques … Burke’s totally up for experimenting and doing crazy things. And it almost went the other way sometimes where he’d be doing such crazy things with the mics that I’d be ready to record about two hours ago, and he’d still be gaffer-taping a mic up to the corner of the ceiling. [Laughs] It was really awesome and it felt more like an art piece. It felt more like making something completely new and different that couldn’t have been made with anyone else. So that was exactly what I wanted, you know, and someone who treats it as passionately as I do.
You talk in the bio for FOMO about finding working with Burke a little confrontational at first. Was there a point early on where you thought you’d maybe made a mistake in getting Burke involved?
I had my moments, but that happens with any kind of collaboration, especially creatively. It was confronting in the sense that you don’t really have many people that you work with that are completely blunt and upfront. But I’m kind of like that in a way myself so I really appreciated it. It was confronting in a way, but also comforting knowing that he was going to be that honest. It was more so, I think, just getting used to throwing your pride out the door, because I had a few things that I’d taken a long time to write and I’d really agonised over. Maybe that was actually their downfall, and maybe that’s why Burke didn’t respond to them and kind of like them, and liked the more carefree, meandering melody lines. And when I actually look at it in hindsight I go, “I know exactly what you mean, and if I was producing I probably would have said the exact same thing.” When you’re in the moment and you have someone go, “Yeaaaah, I don’t like that one. Let’s work on this one sound.” That was kind of the thing that I had to get used to.
But it never caused friction as friends and at the end of the day he’s a sensitive chap too, and we’d always be very careful not to say something really harsh. It’s good to have someone to challenge you and I don’t think there are many producers in New Zealand who would be like that.
Tell me a little bit about the track ‘Jump Your Bones’. On a very different album, it’s the most marked departure from your previous solo work.
Well that’s almost my favourite, maybe. I’m not sure if it’s because it’s really different, but in some ways that song kind of summed up the whole recording process for me. It was one of the first ones I started working on. I got the opening beat from doing some jamming with Glenn Kotche of Wilco, who’s just really awesome – he’s my favourite drummer in the world, really. He’s got such an interesting take on things and yet he knows how to play to a song. And I just did some mucking around up in my parents’ house, with the same gear with which I made I’ll Be Lightning. I mic-ed up his kit with these contact mic things, and actually gave him these weird briefs like, “Play like a Beyoncé song.” [Laughs] That was where my hip-hop record started from! I wanted to get different feels – things that I wouldn’t play myself, because I couldn’t play – or try and write from a different beat, because beats are a huge thing. That’s the first thing you hear a lot of the time in songs, and that definitely makes you write words in different phrasing.
“I think every project you do, you’ve got to find some element or some point of difference.”
I wanted to get a whole bunch of different stuff and that one just came together. I just started chucking stuff onto one of the things he [Kotche] did and immediately had an atmosphere – and an atmosphere was really the driving force behind the record … If a song has an immediate feel to it, that’s what I was trying to get and that song immediately had that excitement for me. I recorded it two or three times: the first time it sounded like a demo and I did that on my own; and then the second time I involved a couple of friends to try and get a real live take over the top of Glenn’s drums, and that didn’t really work. It went down a weird road and we’d ended up with this new part to it that was really quite jarring. Eventually, it was the last two days of recording that we tackled that one, and I knew it had the atmosphere and I knew what I wanted to do with it. I just launched into it knowing it was the last song on the record and finally feeling the excitement of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and just knocked it out in a day, rewriting all the words and all the melodies and stuff like that. It just became, in a way, kind of like what the whole experience had been like, you know. Not worrying about it and just doing it, compared to worrying about it, then just doing it. [Laughs]
It certainly had that immediacy to it. Talking of Glenn Kotche and Wilco, though: the album cover – does it remind you a bit of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot?
Oh right! I’d never actually thought of that, but now that you say it that really makes sense: even the perspective of it, the angle that the buildings are on – it’s quite similar in a slightly warped way.
You’ve had a band for some pre-release live shows in the States. Will that be the plan for Splendour and then your Australian gigs [in August]?
Yeah, yeah. Like trying to mix it up and keeping it a challenge to make records, the live thing was definitely something that I needed to keep fresh as well. Obviously, with the last few years just doing the one man show – well, me and [collaborator] EJ [Barnes] – which was kind of built out of trying to be spontaneous and trying to be dangerous, I suppose, and having every night being completely different and on the edge of falling apart. That’s what made that show interesting and made it inspiring. And I think at the end of all the touring we did, it still was and always had that element, but I think we got quite used to it and got quite comfortable. So I needed to find a way to make it uncomfortable and dangerous again. Involving more musicians that are untameable – I can’t control them! – it puts it back out there. It’s really exciting to have a band again, because in a way it’s given the I’ll Be Lightning songs a whole new lease on life and made them a bit different again.
Did the whole BARB experience have an impact on your the decision to reimmerse yourself in band life?
Yeah, definitely. Being more of a collaborative thing, I think that record made me realise you get a different result having different minds working on it. In some ways it does take a bit of pressure off, because you’ve got people to bounce off and you come to conclusions a lot quicker. But it’s great having friends up onstage; the camaraderie of performing with people like that is really special. In some ways that’s what you want to see: when you see a band you don’t want to see a singer-songwriter and then a session musician band. When I see a band I want to see a gang, and half of it is you sort of wish you got to hang out with them and get drunk with them [laughs] … That was quite an important thing for creating the band: I didn’t want to resort to getting the top guitarist dude in New Zealand and the top this or that. I was more excited about using my brother [Elroy] on drums and I’ve got a really good friend, Joel [Mulholland], on bass. He engineered the BARB record and helped me finish I’ll Be lightning in the studio, so he’s played a big part and he’s just a great musician. It’s a good band.
You seem to be constantly touring. The digital age probably complicates it a bit, but do you feel the focus has shifted for you a bit over the years, from recording to touring, or vice versa even?
The experience of touring the last few years has definitely made me realise that that keeps growing and no matter what you do, if you’re a good performer and you give people a good time at shows, that’s something that’s very real and you can’t fake it. For me that’s the most important thing: to put in these hard yards over the next few years to solidify my place as a live performer. Hopefully, that just means you can keep doing it forever and it becomes financially easier each time, because more people want to come and see you. But recording’s just another element, which is like making a painting. It’s got more of that time spent to it and it’s got this completely different craft. It seems like I just want to try and figure out how to evenly exhaust each aspect of the musical process.
What are the plans for the rest of 2011, looking beyond August?
I want to get started on another record, to be honest. In the midst of all this touring and now having a band: every time we jam at soundcheck we start writing stuff and that’s really exciting. So I think making use of the new band is going to be the point of difference on the next record and that will be the collaborative aspect – having Elroy and Joel’s input and seeing what that turns into.
‘FOMO’ is out June 17 via Liberation Music.
LIAM FINN LAUNCHES ‘FOMO’:
Fri, Aug 19 – Corner Hotel, Melbourne, VIC
Sat, Aug 20 – Jive Bar, Adelaide, SA
Wed, Aug 24 – Cambridge Hotel, Newcastle, NSW
Thurs, Aug 25 – ANU Bar, Canberra, ACT
Fri, Aug 26 – Oxford Art Factory, Sydney, NSW
Sat, Aug 27 – The Zoo, Brisbane, QLD