Feature: Liam Finn - 'He'll Be Lightning'
Author: Richard Thorne
Liam has been beardedly conspicuous on stage at a number of the Crowdies' come back outings including the very first in Palm Springs, USA and for influential TV appearances like Australia's Rove.
But don't imagine he was looking for a hand up. Timing, as they say, is everything, and the time just seems impeccably right for Neil Finn's first son to assert his prodigious individual talent.
The morning after his first brilliant solo performance at Auckland's Kings Arms, I ask Liam if there was any sense of destiny in the recording and release of 'I'll Be Lightning', the album he wrote, performed and recorded all but single-handed. He hesitates before agreeing.
"Yes, I guess so. It wasn't s'posed to be as solitary as it turned out, but I had a clear vision in my head and everything seemed to fall in place to do it. When I look at it now everything has gone quite swimmingly since I made the decision to do it, so there must be some kind of destiny thing... yeah."
And now he's loving the challenge of re-inventing the album tracks each time he performs his solo shows. Despite the potential for all-out disaster he says it is really good fun and that's certainly how it looks. His creative enthusiasm is infectious to audiences.
"It's comfortable because it has to be. The more nervous you are the more you don't get it right, so you have a couple of whiskies and go out there. Know at the end of the day you are playing songs and as long as the songs come across that's all that matters - it's a bonus if it works."
The performance is extraordinary. A man and his guitar(s), a small nest of carefully selected effects pedals, a Theremin, autoharp, and a few drums. No backing tracks, no rhythm section, no need. Liam Finn has become a globe trotting one man band, though he maintains he hadn't really been hankering to perform alone.
"I never intended on doing the one man band thing but it just kind of happened that way because I found it can be quite effective. I found it way easier to sing without having to sing over a band. A completely different buzz really and it was really exciting. "
Since his school days Liam's musical energy has been channeled through his band betchadupa. By the time they turned 20 they had gone as far as they felt the NZ market would allow them, and relocated to Melbourne in 2004. It seemed a brave move then, and while Australia showed them a good time it was going to take a long time for betchadupa to rise through the ranks. Time Liam wasn't keen to devote to working another small market, so although they hadn't by any means conquered Oz, a year or so later the band shuffled off to London.
He says they definitely found something new over in England too, a different angle.
"That's when we started writing new stuff and we actually have a whole batch of songs that are really exciting, the best things we've ever done, but I guess we have put them on hold now."
Liam confirms that any reports of the band's demise are greatly exaggerated, though they haven't yet "... got around to discussing" if there are any future plans. They still all hang out together, but found living in London pretty tough and, he says, needed a bit of time to not be just one entity.
Besides which, the songs he had been writing for the band, songs which have since formed the bulk of 'I'll Be Lightning', were turning out to be very personal.
"It wasn't a conscious effort when writing to make them autobiographical, but without realising it, that's what happened and I think I felt a bit self conscious about taking them to the band. Half because I didn't want the compromise of turning them into a four-piece rock song - sounds I had made with my loop pedal and different atmospheres that you get when you are doing bedroom demos - so I guess that's what I wanted to do."
London provided the incentive and inspiration for the album but Auckland offered two major advantages for the recording - a Kiwi summer and his dad's recording studio. Actually, the new Roundhead was still in construction at the beginning of the year, so Liam based himself upstairs, using all the studio gear he needed before it was properly installed.
"I pretty much got left on my own. Neil Baldock set me up, helped me mic up a kit which was straight behind me with the desk in front, a remote in between and my guitar pedals at one side, so I could spin around and do everything! I had a couple of 57s and used different gear that was around.
"At the start I wondered if I might be in way over my head. Neil showed me how to wind the tape (Ampex 16-track) on, then took off to Ohakune or somewhere! So I had to do it. I started a bit tentatively but quite a bit of stuff that came out good was stuff I was just trying out. It was trial and error really. Hours would go by, I'd forget to eat and suddenly it would be midnight! I got to fulfill any musical whim I had, so it was indulgent, but I don't think it is too unlistenable for that."
He's being candid but has no need to be so humble. 'I'll Be Lightning' debuted in our Top 10 album chart and has an international future.