Interview: Neil and Liam Finn’s Family Tree

To say the Finns are a musical family is a monumental understatement.

Before Crowded House, Neil started out in Split Enz with his brother Tim which led to several collaborative projects including several albums as a duo. Neil’s wife Sharon has played with him on his successful Seven World’s Collide project as well as their marital side project Pajama Club and their sons Elroy and Liam both have their own careers as solo artists. If that isn’t enough to keep track of, there is yet another branch on their ever growing musical family tree.

While Neil and Liam have been recording and playing together for some time, their first ever full-length collaboration Lightsleeper is set for release on August 24. The album is full of spongy sounds, gauzy textures and dreamlike vocals; a stark departure from Neil’s melancholy pop and Liam’s more percussive nature. We recently had a chance to speak with both Neil and Liam as Neil entered rehearsals for his upcoming tour with Fleetwood Mac.

You did a secret KCRW show in Oakland a few weeks back. The whole family was onstage including Sharon and Elroy. That was kind of a random one-off appearance in Oakland. Usually you appear in Los Angeles at your legendary Largo shows. What brought you to the bay area?
Liam: Well, we are here on the West Coast getting ready for rehearsals and one of our producers from the Largo asked us to come up and do a show for KCRW for a new series they are doing. We were the inaugural guest which was recorded for a future airing. It was a pretty cool invitation.

That show seemed pretty tight for an album that isn’t even out yet. Was there a lot of rehearsal involved or was that just a natural result from the recording process and you remembered the songs?
Neil: Well we did start the year with a tour of New Zealand recently and played about 18 shows so we were pretty well rehearsed. We rehearsed for a couple of days before the Oakland show. Though our friend Brad (keyboards) did have to rehearse pretty hard to learn all the songs in two days [laughs].

Obviously you both have a lot going on between Fleetwood Mac, solo projects and Liam you’re currently raising a two year old but you apparently have plans to tour this album in between or after Fleetwood Mac dates?
Neil: Yeah we’ve got plans for January and then more towards next summer to play some songs. We’ll look for those odd dates, maybe similar to what we’ve played for the KCRW show but we’ll definitely be squeezing shows in for sure.

How did the album come about? Was it intentional or were you just jamming in the studio and stuff started sounding good enough to hit “record” or who came to whom and said “Hey let’s do an album.”
Liam: It came about pretty naturally. Obviously it was on the cards that we’d do something together at some point even though it was never specifically discussed. Our whole family is making music and dad and I have been making music together live at least for years and years. Whenever we have had jams, it’s always felt fun and fruitful but I think it just took this long to happen.

We’ve always been a close family but in the last four years or three years we’ve spent a lot more time together because of things like weddings and births etc. We all went on a family holiday to Greece and we held a pagan thing for a lot of our Northern Hemisphere friends who couldn’t come down to New Zealand and we were really enjoying each other’s company and playing a few shows and each others songs and for the first time in a way, sharing time as equals really.

I was doing my own thing and dad has been doing his own thing but we came together at a time where it felt like a bit of a generational shift in our family life.  My wife became pregnant not long after the wedding and all the time of writing and recording this record became an auspicious time of change  family stuff realizing its unique and special what we’ve got and that’s sort of what we captured.

At one point we thought maybe we’d just make a weird noise record with no singing that would be unrecognizable as a Finn project but then I think quite quickly we realized that what we were making naturally was this quite relaxed, cinematic  joyous escapism music.

It does stand apart from your catalog.  It’s not poppy but it isn’t downbeat either.  I’m not sure if ethereal is the right word but it is close. Where did those textures come from? Was that was that new to you is that experimental vibe in your comfort zone or was it a challenge? Was Tchad Blake instrumental in getting that out of you? How did that all come together.
Neil: It was the beginning of many of the songs, that creation of atmosphere, so in a way we established a mood which we both were excited by early on before we even really had songs and there was a particular song  “Meet Me in the Air” where the family had jammed. My wife was on bass, Elroy on drums, Liam playing guitar and me on keyboard  and somehow it had a dreamy otherworldly atmosphere that did become part of what we recognized as our mission. There’s a lot of variety within that on the record but I think the atmosphere and the textures were in many cases the beginnings of the song.

Liam: A lot of the recordings on this album were formed out of that moment of creation. A lot of these pieces of atmosphere and songs were written by just are playing with the hold mechanism on the synthesizer and letting tuneful melodic beats go as we played chords underneath them and creating sort of strange slightly woozy drum loops and then you know just mucking around until we found some chords. A lot of it was born was born out of this quiet hazy loosely defined texture, finding that one of us would gravitate towards it and go off and write some words and melody to it. We’d present these ideas to each other and maybe take over and add something to it.

It was all very natural but it was quite exciting but it’s a sort of uncharted territory but bringing both of our experience of how we write songs and I think in the last five years we’ve written more songs out of experimenting with noises than just sitting down with a guitar or piano.

It certainly doesn’t have a traditional vibe of someone coming into the studio with an already written song. It sounds very spontaneous.  Were there defined roles or a distinct ownership of songs? If you wrote the lyrics were you the one to sing it or was there some back and forth?
Neil: There was a couple of examples where we did swap. We weren’t bound to the way the songs emerged. Obviously if Liam had been up all night working on a melodic idea or potential vocal for one of the jams as in the case of “Any other Way” what he came up with was part of the song. It wouldn’t make any sense for me to take over.

There’s a song called “Hiding Place” that is just this sprawling piece of music which the piano and bass were just a late night jam that Liam and I had that we were completely faithful to and wrote around. We orchestrated it and I came up with a melodic idea that I sang and brought to Liam. It involved two characters. It was a slightly more abstract narrative than most things that I write. It was a third-person song and Liam really responded to the melody and the words but he reimagined it being sung in a lower register, more intimately and sent that back to me and it was clear that the way he approached it was more involving and felt more emotional so that was one where he directly stole my vocal [laughs].

Liam: The song “Where’s My Room?” was something that Dad had the main refrain and melody but he was also was kind of in search of a character to inhabit it and we eventually found that by getting our cousin Elliot who has an amazing voice. She was 13 or 14 years old. She’s Tim’s daughter and getting her to sing on it and I’m singing on it in sort of a different character and Dad’s singing low, the combination of those voices sort of fulfilled it’s destiny.

Neil: And a bit of Connor.

Liam: Oh yeah, there’s a bit of Connor on there too. Some songs didn’t take shape until we discovered those characters. On most songs we sort of sing like we normally sing but on some songs like the of vocal on “Ghost” is sort of a weird vagrant character singing the song and we’ve sort of appreciated having the freedom to not have to feel like we weren’t being true to ourselves or something like that.

Neil: I feel like Liam resembles Animal from The Muppets on that song.

The resemblance is a little uncanny. If I brought you a piece of Brian Eno music and said here make a song out of this as opposed to a Beatles song it’s obviously easier to sing to a traditional guitar and drums song. Was it hard to come up with lyrics and melodies to these more abstract pieces of music?
Neil: I find it really exciting because you’re forced to not come up with traditional pop refrain. The case of “Hiding Places” is a good example. After you listen to a piece of music that sounds unfamiliar or strange you start to get a little sybllances and melodic things that you didn’t notice at first and you can follow those threads and they lead to more interesting places. I mean after many years of writing traditional pop songs it is very appealing to find new angles. I’ve been working worked with orchestras a lot lately so I’ve been finding different possibilities for the way that melodies can move. Less repetition, arhythmic is appealing, less rhythm.

It is limiting. It does mean it’s harder for people to grasp on to. I accept that audiences might find it more challenging but you’ve got to pursue some kind of musical development you like or else it becomes stale and you become locked into spirals of repetition which is not appealing at all

This is very much an album as opposed to a few singles. It’s nice to hear an album of very cohesive music. It’s very much a journey from the first song to the last which is nice. Tchad Blake from The Latin Playboys worked on this. He’s produced everyone from Pearl Jam to Joseph Arthur and while you may see his name a lot, you don’t hear much about him or his process the way Rick Rubin or Brian Eno is often discussed. What is working with him like?  Why did you choose him as opposed to someone else?
Liam:  Well, he’s very connected to our family. We haven’t seen him much over the last 15 years but he made early Crowded House records with dad so I grew up with Tchad always being this pretty cool enigmatic character to me growing up.

He’s a very interesting guy who has a very interesting point of view on everything really especially musically. He’s always been a bit of a maverick in that world. He’s had a lot of very successful records but he’s also a self-proclaimed “career-destroyer” [laughs].

He’s not afraid and he’s very bold with his sounds and he always comes from a slightly left of center kind of place. I think that that’s what really appeals to us and why dad’s continued to work with him and why I’ve gone to him over the last ten years to mix things.

He always comes at it with a fresh perspective and he’s not afraid to take it somewhere and he doesn’t just present it back to you like it “should” sound or what is most commercially viable. He takes it as he is at the moment. I think that’s what appealed to us going into this project was that we wanted his spirit of approach and sound to capture what we were doing.

The way it actually worked out is that a lot of the stuff that we were demoing had the atmosphere and the texture and cinematic quality that we grew so fond of in the process that when he arrived we were actually kind of half presenting him things that we really wanted to retain the atmosphere of. His role in the end was adding hi-fi to lo-fi. That’s probably my favorite thing about Tchad. His band The Latin Playboys had that amazing combination of these really murky, crunchy sounds but on top had these beautifully recorded vocals that was really unique. That’s one of the ways to stand out, to sound like it couldn’t have happened any other way.

He did a great song with Joseph Arthur right after 9/11 called “Build Back Up” that has all these great guitar textures. Was he excited to see you guys go in this experimental direction?
Neil: As Liam said, we’ve been working together for a while. He lives in Wales but he’s been really attached to New Zealand. He’s come down for really pivotal moments of his life. So the idea of coming to New Zealand to work was very exciting and you know I think that we sensed also there was something good from almost a spiritual point of view of having Tchad who knows the family and has seen Liam grow up from a baby really, there’s something really right about him being part of the album. We wanted to give it a sense of ritual and a sense of occasion. We didn’t want to just be too casual or throwaway about it. We put it together very carefully meticulously almost over two years and Tchad stepped in and out of being involved in that process. Liam and I would take it on and mold and shape and reimagine and we got back together with Tchad at the end for the mixing.It took quite some figuring out because we were in different parts of the world. But we knew Tchad was never going to make what we did more bland he was only going to throw more shapes and colors at it.Thats what was appealing about it. He wasn’t going to try and smooth out our rough edges.

Liam:  He can really slap your face around if you want him to.  On something like “Where’s My Room?” that was really appropriate because it’s a really chilled out record so the moments that are energized, he can make that dynamic really impressive.

After two years of recording was there a lot of stuff that didn’t make it? Are there a lot of leftovers? Do you see your next project continuing down this path or will it be a fresh start?
Neil: There is some good stuff that we didn’t get to finish and some nearly finished things but we had to decide on a record that was coherent and made sense together so there’s a few things off to the side that I haven’t really listened to since. Some of them are quite cinematic sounding and they could re-emerge or they might just end up in the shadows. A lot of them were ten minute jams that we cut down and turned into the songs on these albums.

Liam: They have merit in staying like that. They could be B-sides.There is more stuff there that if we had the time we’d rediscover and be really into but its quite nice to have a break from it.

Neil: I think we’d start doing new stuff.

Liam: When we make another record we’d go into it with the freedom of not knowing what it would be.

Neil: I think we’ll make a guitar record. I’ve been making a lot of keyboard and piano records lately and playing the guitar is very appealing to me right now.

Obviously Neil you’ve been very prolific but just over the last few years both of you guys have been pretty busy. What does your archive look like? You must have hard drives everywhere. How hard is it to go back and find a riff you liked a few albums ago? Is that something you have instant recall for and remember the riff or do you just go oh well it’s lost to the digital hard drive gods?
Neil: It’s funny how those things do happen. Certain bits of music get lodged in your brain that don’t get resolved at the time but they are sitting there as kind of potential solutions to little dilemmas for songs in the future.You might need a little piece to bridge this gap and you think where is that melody I had so that does happen quite often. On the other hand, hundreds of pieces get lost in the sands of time. Every now and then you do come upon one and wonder why didn’t I finish that?

Liam: It’s quite exciting going through old hard drives sometimes.

Neil: Not as exciting as tapes to look at though [laughs]l but they do hold more.

One of the difficult things about having so much storage capacity nowadays is that you delay the moment of making decisions because you can do another take or come back to it later. Its like people’s home movies.  Most people render their home movies unwatchable because they never edit them. So you have to ask yourself in modern times, is it any wonder that people make bad decisions? We’re distracted and don’t know what the truth is because there not enough time to process or edit information. With tape you had to make a decision. It’s like constantly moving to a bigger house because you can’t decide what to throw out.

Peter Gabriel talked about technology bringing limitless freedom and that leads to missing deadlines because you find yourself with endless options. It becomes harder to buckle down and finish the work when you can push through deadlines and try out every option available to you. You have to force yourself to buckle down and get it done.  Neil, we know what you’re doing for the next year or so. Liam are you going to keep busy while your dad is on the road?
Liam: I’m enjoying being a stay at home dad. My wife works too so I’m home half the time but also working on some projects. I just finished a soundtrack for a documentary about Suzanne Buche who is a prominent figure in the New York nightlife scene. She has an amazing story but is kind of an unsung hero. She started one of the first AIDS fundraisers, the Love balls and still throws these crazy parties.

Next month I’m going to start writing and recording my new record. It’ll probably be a solo record but I don’t know what it’ll be yet. I haven’t defined what it is yet or what it will sound like. It’s hard to know when we’ll be out around the Fleetwood Mac dates but in the meantime I’ll keep busy.

Neil: There’s that science degree you were going to get [laughs].

Before we go, Neil, any chance of another Seven Worlds Collide project?
Neil: I do think about it a lot but the timing is tricky.

Well it’s not like you’re busy or anything [laughs]. Thank you both. We look forward to seeing you on the road in one of your many musical incarnations.

photo by: Russ Flat