‘FOMO’, the title of Liam Finn’s new album, stands for ‘fear of missing out’ – a common enough sensibility, but not something you’d perhaps expect to trouble one of NZ’s most internationally successful musicians – one who gets to travel the world, hang with other celebrated musicians and perform to thousands of fans. Yet it’s a sentiment that Finn admits to experiencing with not being able to share in the daily lives of friends and family while on yet another tour, or having to prioritise recording over summertime fun with mates. Don’t misunderstand, the life of touring and recording is one he’s exceptionally happy with and grateful for, but we’re all allowed a FOMO moment from time to time. Liam spoke to Lydia Jenkin about overcoming that by forming a band, recording in a more collaborative manner, and how the thrill of performing live still makes it all worthwhile.
When I speak to Liam Finn in early May, he has not long been in London, having just spent six weeks on the road in the US and Canada, reconnecting with fans and breaking in his new songs and band. After spending 10 months intently working on his sophomore album ‘FOMO’ in Auckland, being back on tour has proven a welcome change of pace.
“It’s awesome, I think I’d forgotten how much it was a part of who I am basically, because as soon as I started doing shows again, I felt myself. I dunno, there’s something about the adrenalin that is very addictive I think. It’s also refreshing to have new songs to play. I think the reason why I was so desperate to get back in the studio and so desperate to live in NZ again was because I’d had so much of the touring side that I’d almost forgotten what the creative side was like. I really craved it, so it was good to come back and exhaust that, and then want to tour again.”
Following a series of low-key gigs in Auckland, Liam, his drummer brother Elroy, Jol Mulholland (guitars and keys) and Jeremy Toy (bass) flew to the US to shake down both the band and the album, with a tour that began with four shows at SXSW in Austin, Texas. Toy subsequently left the tour party and headed to Europe to spend some time travelling at the beginning of May.
“It was purely just to get our chops up as a band and to figure things out, and I’m glad that was the tour that Jeremy decided to leave, not in the middle of an album tour when there’s a lot riding on it. I wanted to make sure we got to know each other as a band, and see what worked and see what didn’t work. I spent so long in betchadupa, becoming a good band, that it was quite an unfathomable idea to become a good band during three weeks of rehearsals. I knew that one show was probably worth 10 rehearsals and getting to do a 16-date tour of the States was a really good way to cut our teeth.”
Having recorded two albums with his schoolmate band in the early 2000s, Liam’s debut solo album ‘I’ll Be Lightning’ was released in 2008 to genuine international acclaim. Critics and fans alike were captivated by the raw honesty, poignant melodies and fiery energy of songs that Liam had initially written without any intention of releasing them to the public.
The album was promoted with months of touring as a solo act, the intimate magic of those gigs centred around live-built loops, manic drumming, chiming guitars and Liam’s open-hearted vocals. Friend EJ Barnes later came on board to add extra vocals, percussion and the occasional turn on auto-harp. There were performances on David Letterman and Jools Holland shows, support tours with bands like The Black Keys, Wilco and Pearl Jam, and the album found dedicated fan bases in Australia, America and Europe. Sales for ‘I’ll Be Lightning’ stand at around 50,000 albums worldwide, released through Liberation in Australia and NZ, Yep Rock Records in the US and Transgressive in the UK. It was success won through relentless touring and hard work.
Liam was thus quite ready to again turn hermit-like when he arrived back home to record a second solo album last year, but says he was also in a more collaborative headspace than he had been ahead of ‘I’ll Be Lightning’. Rather than going it fully alone, he chose to team up with Australian producer Burke Reid.
“I met him actually about eight or nine years ago when his old band Gerling were signed to Flying Nun and betchadupa were too. I remember him being quite wild, but when I met him again seven or eight years later he was the most sweet, polite and wonderful man, and seemed to have taken on a whole different life since he’d stopped making music, and started producing and engineering and stuff.
“My manager had met him a few times and thought that he’d get along with me, and also knew that I was looking for someone to collaborate with, so he put us in touch. Burke came over to NZ for a couple of weekends to make some music and I think I just got that gut feeling. It was the first time I’d had a gut feeling in a long time, and it was something that was knitted to that year of disillusionment, that loss of the gut feeling that made me so wayward, and meeting Burke gave me that feeling again so I followed it.”
Liam says Reid challenged him, pushing him beyond simply being satisfied with an idea and shaking his vision up a little, even affecting song choice.
“Ultimately we had the same goal in mind but our ways of going about it were quite different. He definitely gravitated towards the slightly more obscure, and weirder, unrefined songs that I had lurking in the shadows. The songs that I thought were well written or really spoke my mind, he’d be like, ‘Yeah that’s cool, but I feel like that’s been said before and you know…’ He was brutally honest, and it’s like someone saying your child is ugly, you get a little bit like, ‘Awww, what do you mean? He’s beautiful’. But at the same time I appreciate people being straight up. You’ve got to get a record done at the end of the day, and he had that in mind. It was nice to let someone else take the reins at points, and not have to feel the burden of every decision.”
Being his sophomore solo outing, Liam naturally felt a certain amount of pressure to come up with an album equal to, if not better than his highly regarded first, but says he was wary of making it ‘I’ll Be Lightning Mark II’.
“I think everyone around me, between management and the record company, were very understanding and kind’a like, ‘Oh no pressure, no pressure’. But my self-imposed pressure was overwhelming… I’m not really interested in replicating what I’ve already done. There was probably a perversity in me that wanted to make something that fought against everything that I’d done.
“I guess also I wanted to find a way to capture that live persona, because that’s something that’s really hard to get in the studio. I still don’t know if I got it, or how to get it, but I think it was something that I was far more aware of. Because the live adrenalin really does something to me, and I love it, it makes me feel great.”
It seems he did figure out how to walk that line between the manic energy of his live shows and the more gentle refined aspect of his lyricism and melodic lines, with the new album nicely combining the two approaches. First single The Struggle is an ad-libbed rant about a dream where Liam sold his soul and had to have sex with Julian Assange on his birthday (which he later realised was probably drawing on his own struggle to make the album). Reckless is about how attractive danger and self-destructiveness can be, and includes an “… awesomely ’90s guitar solo”, and Jump Your Bones sees Liam in full blown celebratory mode, with all three tracks showcasing the gutsy, more experimental live sound he has developed. Even the more nostalgic ’60s-sounding Cold Feet, or the lilting Little Words have an edge, and the more precarious sense of Liam’s solo live performances, like he’s only just hanging on, but somehow pulling it together.
There are also tracks (Neurotic World and Real Late) that seem to confront the theme of how crazy and confused the world is, and figuring out your place within it.
“Whether it was a conscious or sub-conscious thing I’m not sure, because I didn’t go into writing the songs with those ideas, but I think that they naturally reflect where your heart is and where your mind is.
“It was quite an amazing time to be travelling a lot in different countries. I was in the States for the whole American election, with Obama getting into power, and even the pre-election stuff was really full on. It felt like there was so much strange energy, people learning and also realising how much they didn’t know, and that kind of affected me.”
Results of a few days spent working on some unusual drum recording techniques with Glenn Kotche, the renowned drummer of Wilco, can also be heard on Real Late and Jump Your Bones.
“They were some of the coolest days of my life I think. It was just after the Wilco tour and Glenn had planned a holiday in NZ and he came and stayed at my parents’ place, so I went and had dinner with him one night and sort’a said to him, ‘Hey if you’ve got a day when you feel like playing some drums I’d love to have a jam’.
“He’s so up for jamming, he loves it when he gets to play with new people, and a lot of his background is improvised stuff and quite experimental music and that was something that I’d really been a fan of in terms of what he did. He kind of knew that, and probably saw it as quite a fun way to get to do some of those things, something that’s maybe a little bit different from Wilco as well.
“So it was really exciting and we kind’a just mucked around for a couple of days in the studio, not at Roundhead per se, but just in mum and dad’s house which is up in the top floor. I kind’a just asked him to do a bunch of stuff, like we did a few songs but then I just asked him to do a bunch of recording with these contact mics and gave him a pretty abstract brief of what I was looking for beat-wise and he just did these wild, and yet relatively groovy and classic beats to my description. I used two or three of them on the record.”
Having barely finished the album it might seem a little odd for Liam to gather new bandmates and head off touring before releasing the album – generally you’d do that to coincide with the release, or after. But as mentioned previously, there was a different intention behind the four shows they played in Auckland back in March (intimate affairs at the 100-person max Tabac) and the ensuing road-trip across the US and Canada. Touring was the best way to gel, experiment with the new material, and find their feet as a band.
It seems like a risky business to ‘practice’ on tour, but part of the excitement for Liam Finn audiences is in seeing him trying things out on stage and pushing boundaries, and his fellow Kiwi band mates are well equal to the challenge. Jol Mulholland has become ubiquitous round the traps in Auckland, engineering, producing and playing on albums from a wide range of NZ’s alt-best, while also writing for his own releases as The Mots/Mulholland.
“Jol is someone that I’ve always really admired as a musician and he really is untameable. What he thinks goes straight to his fingers and it’s beautiful in its own way and I’m very turned on by his ability. It’s different every night, just like the old show was, but he’s also just such a great musician that when it really works it’s amazing and even when it doesn’t work it’s still fine because he finds a way to bend it into shape.
“And Jeremy is the same, he’s very accomplished, and done some great stuff and there was just a little pocket that he had where he was between projects and he wasn’t doing stuff with Opensouls any more. But he’s got his own record coming out, so it kind of didn’t work for him to come and be in my band for the next year or so.”
Liam’s younger brother Elroy has spent the past few years playing drums with Cut Off Your Hands, Connan Mockasin and others. His genetic connection with Liam makes their pairing natural as well as inevitable.
“He has a feel that I can relate to, that’s similar to mine, so it feels really natural to play with him, and we’ve been doing some double drum stuff as well… I guess that was something I really didn’t want to lose was that unique aspect of what my show has become over the last few years. Having the drum kit out there and getting to thrash away, and kind of doing whatever I wanted.”
The plan for the moment is to stay as a trio and they have even already managed to snatch some studio time together.
“Each instrument becomes much more important when there’s less there, and I’ve always been a big fan of three-pieces. We’re kind of a grunge band almost, which is very exciting. I definitely want to make the next record with these guys. We did some recording when we got to London for some bonus tracks and it was kind of obvious that we are bubbling to make new music really. As soon as we started jamming stuff, multiple songs started being written and it made me get really excited about what was to come. Jol is such a great songwriter and I’ve always really loved his songs, so it’s nice to think about what that might make for a new record.”
The next six months however is mainly going to be spent touring and promoting the album, which means they will be based in New York (though they will return to NZ in August for some shows). The theory of extensive touring has been key to increasing fan bases, and has changed the kind of touring Liam is able to undertake now, as opposed to three years ago, in the shape of bigger audiences, bigger venues, more shows, and presumably greater income which makes touring with a band viable.
“It’s definitely progressed a lot, what I’ve learnt over those few years. The reason why I keep on doing it was because every time I’d come back to a place there would be twice the amount of people. You’d see the same people that you saw last time in terms of your audience, but also the promoter and the sound guy and the venue owner, and you’d get to know these people. You create a relationship with a different country and I think that’s far more real than you know, getting your song on radio or selling lots of records.
“These days, with things in decline, it seems that live is the place where you can really gauge whether you’re progressing and really getting anywhere… There’s still a long way to go, because we’re still talking 300-400 capacity rooms, but it’s gotten a lot easier to get taken seriously.”
He says he has no false idea of where he stands in the music world, but likes the challenge of trying to get to the next step.
“I’ve always got big ambitions for what I want to do, but I just really love performing, and if I can watch it grow and keep doing it for the rest of my life I’m happy. The record industry is such an elusive thing. To have a hit record doesn’t necessarily mean you sell lots, it means your music got out there, and you’ve got an audience, and they’re willing to go whatever direction you take them in. And that’s the exciting part. So if this record just means that I make new fans as much as I lose old fans, then I guess that’s a good thing.”