Liam Finn - Interview
Interview with Liam Finn June 2014
With the release of his third studio album 'The Nihilist' via Yep Roc Records, Liam Finn remains as exciting as ever as he explains it is his 'most genuine record [he's] ever made'. The songs have quite a different tone to his previous material and that might be partly brought on by the fact that Finn played an impressive 67 instruments on the new album. Having gone solo in 2007 after being the frontman of Betchadupa, Finn quickly caught people's attention with two well-received albums, 'I'll Be Lightning' and 'FOMO'. Liam took some time to chat with us about the album, as well as life in Brooklyn, performing with Pearl Jam and how having a musician father affected his musicianship.
CM: Hello Liam, you have a new album out, 'The Nihilist'. Tell us a bit about that.
Liam: It's just come out which is very exciting. I finished it at the end of last year, so I've had that nervous excitement to have it released out into the world and it not being my baby anymore. I feel it's quite a different record for me. There's still connections to things I've done in the past, but it still feels like the most real and genuine thing I've ever made. I followed through on a lot of gut instincts, even in the disheartening moments of labels deciding they didn't like the way it was going. It almost shook my confidence, but actually just made me more determined to go through with it and make it the best thing I've ever done.
CM: What made you want to choose 'Snug As Fu**' as a single from the album?
Liam: I think it felt like a good stepping stone from what I've done in the past to what this record is. Also, I found that whenever I was playing the new stuff to friends and family, that was the first one I went to so I had a gut instinct. The fact it's called 'Snug As Fu**', by the time I'd finished it, I'd sort of forgotten it had a crude title. We name anything in New Zealand 'as fu**'. We put 'as.' at the end of anything to signify an extremity. It was just always one of my favourites on the record as well.
CM: Did the internet censorship of the song title bother you at all?
Liam: I didn't really notice. These days it seems every teenage pop sensation is using the word 'bi**h' and stuff. It doesn't really bother me. There's worse things going on in the industry than censoring the F-word.
CM: The video to accompany the song is pretty weird. What inspired it?
Liam: Basically, I had a bunch of different directors submit treatment and I've also been doing a lot of video making myself. I'd already started making one but it was kind of coming out a bit much on the DIY side, so when I saw the treatment from these two guys in Brooklyn, they picked up on the right amount of absurdity and had the right sense of humour for what I feel like, what I'm into and where it feels like humour is going; it's fantastical and slightly absurd but not silly, it's unnerving which I feel like the song had an element of, and unhinged as well.
CM: You recorded the album in Brooklyn and 'Burn Up The Road' was inspired by late night bike rides in the city. Do you feel that your surroundings are intrinsic to your inspiration?
Liam: Definitely, that's why it's important for me to keep changing things and finding new comfort zones. I don't think music is taken to its potential unless you're struggling in some way or having something to fight against and moving countries has always been a tricky thing. I've done it a few times now but moving to New York is something I've dreamed of since being a kid and I've always found the place very inspiring. When I've been on tour I always want to end up there, so it seemed like the natural place to try and live for a while. And as soon as I arrived, I found a spot to start writing and it was immediately noticeable that there was an effect from the mystery of that city and the kind of intrigue that it creates especially because I'm just looking out at Manhattan and that wonder you have of what's going on. There's always so much going I feel there's a lot of stories, a lot of characters to draw upon.
CM: Do you use various methods for recording? I noticed you used a four-track tape recorder for '4 Track Stomper' - was this a recording method you used for many of the tracks?
Liam: Sort of, in the past, I've always been strictly kind of an analogue Nazi. I went through a big phase of completely scoffing at pro tools and being able to make people who can't play instruments sound like they can, then sure enough you fight against everything you learn and I made my last record, my second solo record, on pro tools and sort of enjoyed that. In fact, I was working with a producer who knew what he was doing and this time I found that I wanted to take it all back into my own hands. I really loved the idea of using what I'd learnt in the analogue realm and taking that into pro tools and messing with it digitally because the current state of music is that people are either making really organic lo-fi or high-fi/lo-fi analogue or super digital pop music. There's elements of both that I really love and I think one way to actually be living in the now is finding a nice combination of both. It's a way of making something unique as well and I'm really fascinated by actually exploring that. Technology advancements made a lot of things easier, but they can't recreate the atmosphere and the restrictions that analogue produces.
CM: You played 67 instruments on the album. Which was the last instrument that you learnt to play?
Liam: Well, I can't say I've really ever learnt how to play any of them. When you know what sort of sounds you want to be making or you're open to making some weird sounds on an instrument it's open to interpretation. I enjoy anything, but the last one was the Dàn b?u which is a Vietnamese instrument; it's just harmonics you create with a piece of string, like a guitar string. That was something that took a while to get the correct sound from, but it's a fascinating thing. Basically, putting any instrument through an array of guitar effects can make it sound like a complete other worldly instrument that's never been heard before.
CM: Do you have a particular favourite instrument?
Liam: I love the drums, to be honest. It's the most cathartic thing to do and I don't get to do it as much live as I used to. I'm trying to figure out how I can maybe start a new project where I either just get to be the drummer or keep doing the one man band thing I used to do. But, yeah, drums are my favourite.
CM: Are there any that you find especially hard to play?
Liam: I don't know because, when something's hard to play, you just play it with incredible intensity and it makes it fun and seem easy and sound horribly great. I find that the piano is something that I've always really loved writing songs on and still feel like a complete novice on it. I think that's because, in some ways, it's harder and I'm not traditionally trained on it. I find that really liberating because it makes chord sequences that you may have used a hundred times on guitar or whatever sound completely new and open up new atmospheres and possibilities.
CM: Growing up in a household with a musician father, did that affect your musicianship? [Liam's father is Neil Finn]
Liam: Obviously, there were a lot of instruments around while growing up and I guess I had it pretty lucky learning how to record things, it was something I took a lot of interest in. It sort of made me realise that you can do everything yourself and you get a much more unique result when you approach things cold, just experimenting until you find something. I don't know any other life, it just seems like a normal family to me. But it's great that I get to share advice and make some pretty interesting dinner conversations at times [laughs] just about the state of the industry, what we're trying to make next, what excites us and I think I get a lot of inspiration out of what Dad's doing. He's the hardest working man I've ever met so that's definitely rubbed off in a good way.
CM: Was music something that you always wanted to do or was it something that came on in later life?
Liam: I think it's something I always have done; you hit pots and pans as a child but I don't know if I ever made a conscious decision for that to be my career choice - it just sort of seemed natural. There was a long time in my early teens when I was obsessed with basketball and I was pretty convinced that I was going to make it to the NBA. I bet my best friend at the time 50 bucks that I'd make it to the NBA in my twenties and, sure enough, that time has passed and I had to pay up [laughs].
CM: The Brooklyn music scene is very prolific. Is there an artist of that scene that sticks out for you?
Liam: I think recently the thing I've connected to most or gotten most excited about is probably Mac DeMarco who's a Brooklyn resident and I love that he's done it in his own way. It's a very unique and distinctive sound he's made and it's quite different from what I do, but I really appreciate his DIY ethic and his song writing. He's awesome.
CM: You played with Pearl Jam at Big Day Out Festival earlier this year to perform 'Habit'. How did that feel?
Liam: It was incredibly terrifying at first, but the endorphins I felt afterwards were amazing. Going on cold, I was watching the show from the side of the stage where you couldn't even see the audience. So when I went out, that was the first time I saw the crowd and, all of a sudden, we just launched into one of their most energetic songs and I had to go from singing along to some of the songs beforehand to going out cold and to scream. It was full on. I completely destroyed my shoe somehow. My toes were hanging out the front of my shoes and I was like, 'Oh that's a good sign!' It must've been good.
CM: How did that collaboration come about?
Liam: They asked me to! They had a 20th birthday party two years ago, which was a big festival in America and I played at that festival. I opened up doing my one man band thing which was sort of an improvised thing at the start of each show, and for those shows I did my own rendition of 'Habit' because it was always my favourite Pearl Jam song. They saw it and on the second day, they said, 'Why don't you get up?' They never play that song live; I've never seen them play it, I think because it rips Eddie's [Vedder, Pearl Jam vocalist] voice to shreds and it's hard to do if you've got an hour of singing to do afterwards, so they said 'Do you want to get up and sing it?' and I was like 'Of course!' That was pretty surreal. Then when they came to New Zealand, all it took was Eddie just saying 'Habit?' and I was like 'Oh yeeaah!' I'm pretty stoked that that's the song I get to do with them because all the hardcore Pearl Jam fans know that it's a song they don't play very often, so I've made quite a lot of new fans out of being the guy that got Pearl Jam to play 'Habit'.
CM: Who else would you love to perform with?
Liam: Oh God, I don't know. There's tons of heroes out there. I mean Neil Young's got to be my biggest hero and getting to play at his Bridge School benefit [Neil Young's annual benefit concert for Bridge School] or something like that would be a pretty amazing experience, I'm sure. He gets up and plays with people quite often so if that ever happened, I think my head would explode.
CM: If you could learn one skill that you haven't already got, what would it be?
Liam: I'd like to be able to do acrobatics. I'd love to be able to just do a backflip out of nowhere. If you're in an awkward and lull conversation, I've always thought that'd be a really good ice breaker, to just do a backflip.
CM: What's next for you?
Liam: Hopefully, a bit of touring. It looks like we're coming to the UK. It hasn't been announced yet, so I'm waiting for that to be confirmed. I'm trying to do things a bit differently this time because it feels like the traditional way of promoting a record has almost become impossible. It's become so hard, there's a lot less money out there for even touring and records are almost becoming free. So I'm sort of really getting into making videos and just the visual accompaniments to music and I'm really excited about the idea of trying to make what I do into an all-around piece of art. So this year I'm getting better at editing and film making. I want to explore different areas of art.
CM: Thanks for your time.
Liam: It's cool.
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