Liam Finn will follow up his critically acclaimed 2011 album FOMO this April with The Nihilist, and will perform the the songs from the forthcoming record for the first time, across New Zealand over the next week or so, starting in Auckland this Friday. The album was a collaborative effort between Finn, his brother Elroy, longtime collaborator E.J Barnes and Joel Mulholland after the troupe re-located to New York; the album is thematically concerned with the surreal nature of living in the 'city that never sleeps'. UnderTheRadar caught up with Finn to discuss the forthcoming record, how his experiences over the past couple of years have affected his songwriting and why he still finds writing solo records a hella torturous process.
Hey Liam, how are you? What are you up to?
Iím just rehearing my band and getting it ready for this tour weíre about to head out on. It's all of my regulars and Iíve had to haul James Milne in to play bass, which is pretty exciting because itís always awesome to get to play with him. So Iím basically waiting for the new record to come out, and all of the stuff that goes with that.
Yeah totally, exciting. I want to start at the beginning of the process for this record. We havenít spoken to you since FOMO, so tell us a little bit about what you have been up to for the past couple of years?
After FOMO I put together a band with Elroy and Joel Mulholland and E.J whoís been playing with me for ages and we toured it for about a year and then eventually decided that we were going to stay in the States. We moved into an apartment in New York together and started writing songs together, and we started making something that was supposed to be a new band, but it turned into another solo record of intense labouring. I spent a whole year doing it. I found a really cool studio space in Greenpoint and put it together myself with the guys and gals and god, I donno, it just went by really quickly.
Weíve been mainly setting up a new life and Iíve been doing a residency thing for the last couple of years which has been really awesome: playing every Monday for a month at a venue and building up my own way of doing things again, because after all the touring I realised itís quite hard to sustain that life particularly once you have a bigger band. So we hunkered down in the one city and the residency shows are always pretty wild; making it up as we go along and having friends get up and stuff like that. It made me realise that thatís what I really enjoy about music - letting it be off the cuff. There are so many bands out there doing their thing and taking it super seriously and, you know, I take it seriously too, but I realised that there was a point of difference, over in the States at least, to get up and make it fun and make it involving with the audience, and a residency seemed like a perfect way to do it.
How are you finding living in the States and being part of the music industry and the scene over there?
I actually love it. Itís quite an encouraging and communal place. In London I found it was quite dog-eat-dog and quite hard, whereas here I feel like everyone you meet wants to help or has a friend they want you to meet, and things can move more quickly, or be incredibly hard because itís an intense environment. But I think thatís what we all responded too, and we realised we were going to make something more interesting if we were completely out of our comfort zone. Every record you make seems to be shaped by where you are and I guess, as a classic New Zealander, I was self conscious about making the album about moving to new York. But New Yorkís an inspiring place and it feels like youíre living in a movie all the time, and thatís what shaped the angle of the record and the idea of writing stuff that could be completely fantastical; the idea of living out your inner and deepest thoughts through writing songs and imagining existing in a different dimension. Because living in New York is like living in another dimension and you look over at Manhattan and itís this huge bubbling metropolis and it opened up my mind to the stories that were happening over there, because everything you could think of is probably playing out.
Tell me a little bit about those stories; is there anything literal on the album or is it more metaphorical than that?
It feels like the most honest and the hardest Iíve ever worked on a record because over the years your standards just keep going up and up, and youíre always trying to reach new heights. With this one I thought it would be important to involve my band for the first time, so I took the songs early on to them and worked them up and I think especially in the early stages it was a really collaborative process. But when I got about half way through recording I realised that it was starting to lose a bit of the original sound that I could imagine in my head, and thatís where all the labour came in; I had to keep pushing it until it sounded like I imagined it, which was existing in this weird, dusk and midnight world.
So how did you go about creating that sound of that alternate reality?
I guess firstly I wanted there to be a very human aspect to it and all of the songs were at least tracked as live things or started as little jams Iíd had with E.J or Elroy. Then I turned them into pop music, really. Itís an intense record but I didnít want it to be so difficult to listen to or so dense that it was off-putting. All of the records Iíve made have definitely had different areas that theyíve explored but this ones seems to exist in this story-like way; itís almost chronological in how it has been written, but also how the story in each song develops.
Itís called The Nihilist and this protagonist who is a nihilist comes into play, and heís not necessarily me or what I think but once you open up to the idea that everything you have come to believe is not necessarily true - particularly in regards to society and politics and the control or lack thereof that we have over it - you can't go back. I felt that was really fascinating.
I was going to ask; the subject matter seems pretty heavy and focussed on society and politics. Is that a fair statement?
I guess so, yeah. But it's more about the effect that it has on the individual; the idea that you are trapped in between your own conscious and sub-conscious and which ones affects the other is a chicken and egg situation. Sometimes your subconscious affects your decisions without you even knowing it and sometimes the decisions you make with you conscious affect your subconscious for no reason and make you happy or depressed or whatever. I guess itís more the effect it has on the individual than a take on society.
And how did bringing the band in affect the sound and the overall vibe of the record?
It has a joyous effect I think, in that it sounds like a group of people making a record rather than me, just playing everything myself. I donít know, a lot of the songs are now co-writes with Joel and Elroy and E.J and I think thatís just a really refreshing way for me to experience new things again, because someone would try out a melody I hadn't thought of and that immediately gave me new ideas and more energy for the process. They definitely played a huge role in this record and itís more exciting because itís something fun you all made rather than this torturous thing.
And I guess when youíve got collaborative people they can take things in directions that you wouldnít necessarily think of?
Yeah totally itís made it more fun to make but it made the possibilities endless but we somehow, between the four of us, made it work.
It seems to me, from listening to your solo records over past years that making solo records is a torturous, yet cathartic, process for you, and that you really focus Ė and struggle Ė to get to the root idea of something that you are interested in. Is that a fair statement?
Yeah I think you hit the nail on the head. I wish it was an easier or more enjoyable experience but my standards keep going up for myself with what I want to achieve. Thereís always the pressure of trying to be true to yourself, but also making it unique and something that has never been heard before. But at the end of the day I realised you are just trying to relate to people and put across a thought in a way that someone hasnít thought of, but when they hear it they know exactly that feeling or that experience. Thatís the past thatís tortuous; finding the right balance of straightforward and honest and being fantastical and fun at the same time.
Tell me a little bit more about the residencies and live scene youíve been exploring in Brooklyn?
Itís really nice to play once a week. I love touring because I love performing and I think that becomes quite an addictive thing Ė getting up on stage every night and having that adrenalin rush and meeting new people. Not having that because youíre living in one place made me get a bit down really, and I definitely am a bit of a victim of over-thinking, so having a residency in which you had to have something prepared to do every week was refreshing. But I also realised quickly that the audiences in New York were refreshed to see something that looked fun. I think a lot of bands play over there and think ďitís my big New York show, Iíve got to get it rightĒ and it comes across somewhat strained or nervous, and that is really something that I didnít want to do. Doing the one man band thing for a long time was the first thing that made me realise that doing stuff on the edge, live, was exciting. Doing that stuff with a band means you have to be really in-tune and all on the same wave length so Iíve been really lucky to have people around me who are kind of family, and who can take the live show wherever you want it to go at the drop of a hat.
And I guess the next step is to take The Nihilist out on the road, yeah? What have you got planned?
Weíre going to do another residency in April and that will kind of be the first official tour for the album. This New Zealand one was a little bit off the cuff because it just seemed silly that I was down here and wasnít going to play any shows. So this will be the first outing for a lot of this new material, but originally I thought it was going to be at this residency. Some of them are pretty mammoth to attempt and Iím currently just exploring ways of getting the songs to sound like they do on the record without having to rely on backing tracks or samples; seeing how a band can recreate it. So I guess I wanted to put together the right people to do tat and James is perfect because Iíve played with him a lot and he knows the old stuff but he knows how to interpret things and knows what itís like to play with me on stage. But for the residency I have to find a new bass player which is kind of exciting.
It must be an absolutely mission making these appropriate to play live because thereís so much going on in themÖ
Yeah like I said before I tried to make it not complicated but thatís just what comes out when you tune into yourself and thereís certainly a lot going on in that city which I think is what shows. Naturally I think theyíll find their way live and then theyíll probably become better they ever were because you get to know them so well and they find their pocket.