Liam Finn: No place like home

Monday, December 7th, 2009 | interviewZ, musiX

At a recent Portland performance Liam Finn was a man possessed, bouncing between guitar and drums while his own looped beats and guitars blasted alongside him. Musical partner Eliza-Jane Barnes provided sort of a calming elegance with her sweet harmonies and delicate percussion.

That chemistry and energy is difficult to catch on wax. And while Finn’s recorded output is tame in comparison, it does capture one thing—his knack for blending pop sensibilities with fearless noise experimentation. It’s good stuff, and his debut I’ll Be Lightning easily made TDoL’s 2008 Year-End List.

Of course, I was drawn in before hearing a single note due to my unrequited love for his father Neil Finn, whose bands Split Enz and Crowded House are embedded deep into the soundtrack of my youth. The 26-year-old Liam occasionally tours with Crowded House (which also includes his uncle, Tim Finn) and has worked with his father on the 7 Worlds Collide project, a collaboration with musicians including Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Cribs/Modest Mouse/Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr.

With his numerous projects and constant touring it’s amazing that Finn found the time to record Champagne In Seashells. The EP—his first with Barnes—continues with Finn’s ear for melody as well as an itchy finger for using the studio to its fullest, adding plenty of white noise and mutant electronica. As with his debut, Finn recorded the five songs at his father’s Roundhouse Studios in New Zealand, many of the songs reflecting life on the road (“Long Way To Go”). As Finn explains: “It’s been a crazy few years where we haven’t been anywhere for longer than a few days or a week here, a week there.”

The Days of Lore caught up with Finn during his recent U.S. jaunt, as he discussed new projects, his old man and what to expect in 2010.

TDoL: I wanted to ask you about this instrument you recently acquired called the Tafelberg.
Liam Finn: It’s quite funny, actually, I didn’t even know it was called the Tafelberg until someone asked about it in an interview recently and I didn’t know what they were talking about. We know it as the drum-guitar. Basically it’s this thing that this man called Yuri Landman made for me. I got introduced to him through a friend from a band called the Luyas, and she had this weird, experimental instrument called a Moodswinger made by him. She told me all about how he’s this crazy mad scientist kind of guy. He’s really into making weird atonal, sort of Sonic Youth-y noise instruments. So I got in touch with him and told him that I wanted an instrument that I could hit with drumsticks, and he had already been talking to the band the Dodos about making something similar. And he designed this thing for me and I ended up with this crazy 24-string drum-guitar … what the hell was it? [laughing] Tagernaffel? Tafelberg!

Live you’re pretty much a one-man band. Have you considered going out with a full band?
I think it’s definitely something that’s on the horizon. We’ve been doing this for a few years now, and as much as it still seems like it’s molding and changing, I really feel like hearing my songs in more of a band lineup I suppose. We actually just made a record down in New Zealand with some friends.

Is it the Having a Baby project?
Yeah, yeah, well that was kind of its working title. We’ve still yet to decide on a name. We’re affectionately referring to it as BARB, kind of a weird middle-aged woman’s name. It did start out of the fact that probably all of us—including Lawrence Arabia and Connan Mockasin—were doing things on our own for so long that we were kind of craving that band experience again. It was all a very collaborative record. It was quite refreshing. [Editor's Note: The new recording from BARB is due out in New Zealand in early 2010. No release-date has been set in the States.]

How much has your father’s songwriting influenced your own?
Melody-wise and harmony-wise I love what my dad does, and I think it’s actually rubbed off on me. Genetically it probably has as well—the way I hear music or the way I naturally make it. I don’t think I’ve ever tried to specifically make music that’s not like my father’s. So if it’s sounding like that, it’s not like I go “Oh god, I better fuck this up, put some noise on it.” That comes from my other influences, loving bands like Sonic Youth and more noisy kinds of things.

As a kid did you think your father’s music was dorky?
Not at all really. I’ve always loved it, being so immersed in it. It’s just different. It’s like when you grow up with you parents blasting music, and you just inherit the love for it like they do. I grew up with all that Beatles and Neil Young stuff, but also Crowded House. I was really, really interested in Split Enz especially—altered my life really.

Your first record I’ll Be Lightning was written about your time living in London …
Yeah, yeah, I spent about three years years over there, a couple of years before I wrote I’ll Be Lightning. I was confronting an intense time. Living in that country is intense enough with a band and a long-term girlfriend and stuff like that. And everything pretty much fell apart over there, so I think that it can be good for inspiration. I feel like I can speak about it, like it doesn’t bother me. It was quite a long time ago, actually.

Was there an underlying theme on Champagne In Seashells?
Again, it’s probably very—in hindsight—obvious to me that it’s kind of about whatever’s going on in my life. I suppose a lot of the songs have reference to traveling and being away from home and a certain nomadic life that EJ and I have taken on. And without sounding earnest about it, the effects it takes on relationships and normal life stuff you try to maintain while having this quite extraordinary life. It’s been amazing and incredibly stimulating, so once again—good for writing stuff.

I can imagine it’s an intense lifestyle, especially for any length of time …
Yeah, we only had three weeks to record that EP, and I had a few songs we had been writing backstage. But I wanted to write a few while I was back in New Zealand. It was just after the 7 Worlds Collide project, so I felt really invigorated by that whole experience.

What’s life looking like in 2010?
I’m really excited to have more time on my hands to make another record of my own and work on a few things, but ultimately the goal for the year is to make a followup to I’ll Be Lightning. [The EP] was a good way to keep things moving without feeling like you’re making your followup record. My ultimate goal is that every record sort of keeps changing with who you’re working with or how you’re doing it so that it feels like a first record every time.

“Long Way to Go” - Liam Finn + Eliza Jane

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