Mental Pop & Beyoncé Beats: An Interview with Liam Finn
Crusty walls of distortion co-exist with pop hooks in the second and latest solo album from Liam Finn. Here the songwriter talks about taking a break from life on the road to write FOMO in far-off New Zealand, working with producer Burke Reed and percussionist Glenn Kotche to seriously tinker with his sound and taking inspiration from, of all people, Beyoncé.
"As a sonic thing, I really loved the way that bands like the Latin Playboys had made records that mixed that lo-fi thing with the high-fi stuff in a really beautiful way," says Liam Finn. "They showed how you could make your sound as interesting and crusty and wild as possible, but if you've got one element like a vocal, one thing that's recorded beautifully, it's an otherworldly element."
Liam Finn has a feel for catchy pop, which is, perhaps, partly genetic (his father, after all, is Neil Finn of Split Enz and "Don't Dream It's Over" fame). Yet on this, his second solo album, Liam isn't content to craft hooks and let them fly. Instead with the help of producer Burke Reed, he threads melodies through murky, noisy, static-y atmospheres, obscuring them so that, paradoxically, they turn all the more memorable. This is pop you have to work at.
Finn has been making music since his teen years, first with punk aggressive Betchadupa, and since 2007, on his own account. His first solo album I'll Be Lightning employed pedals and loops to fill out an essentially solitary sound, written, performed and recorded by Finn alone. His second, FOMO, took shape in the aftermath of prolonged touring, at first mostly alone, and later, with the help of a producer, Canadian-born, Australia-based Burke Reed.
"I'd gotten quite used to touring over the last three or four years," he said, "so, when I came back and isolated myself in a beach town in New Zealand, I don't know ... I started freaking out that I was missing things. It was kind of pathetic really, because I was in a really beautiful place, one of my favorite places in the world and where I'm from, and I think I just ... I was always seeing something I'd seen about the U.S. or the U.K. and all my friends and my family were still overseas, and I'd talk to them on Skype and just sort of feeling that you wish you were with people for birthdays and things like that. I wasn't indulging in feeling sorry for myself but I was definitely feeling it."
The album, then, was called FOMO, short for "Fear of Missing Out," and it was a nervous endeavor right from the start. Finn noticed right away that it was an entirely different project from the first album. "For I'll Be Lightning, I had just broken up my band that I'd had for a long time, and you know, anything was possible all the sudden, and that's a really liberating thing," he said. "There were no preconceptions, no time limit. But for a second record, I knew that it was going to be kind daunting to make a statement about where I'm at now. I'd spent a few years on the road and playing live lots, and I'd gotten a lot more confident and a bit more in your face sonically. I'd gotten to a different area of my life, a lot happier, but at the same time, probably more freaked out and scared. That's why I had a producer. I felt like I needed a friend, someone to share the load."
Finn demo'd a bunch of songs before Reed arrived and found, unexpectedly, that his new producer was drawn to his least finished, most open-ended jams. "He responded more to little snitches of ideas rather than the fully realized songs," says Finn. "We started building songs on top of a noise or an atmosphere, rather than writing a song and then coloring it in after the fact."
Atmosphere, rather than hook or riff, became a touchstone as the two started working together, as Finn began pulling background noise further into the foreground. "We used a delay pedal on almost the entire record. We put everything through it. It had a nice way of making things murkier, of pushing things back in the mix and giving sounds that atmosphere that we were trying to create."
"It became a philosophy of mine, of trying to capture the music in the same way you might record a demo," he said, explaining, "When you start to write a song and you record it on a little four-track, quite often, you catch an atmosphere and those weird sonic things that make it very hard to recreate in a studio. But those sounds -- that's where it becomes unique." He added, "You can write a really nice little pop song, but it's the way that you color it in and, I guess, subvert it that makes it unique to you. I think what makes people latch onto it in a different way."
Finn was, at the same time, becoming fascinated with certain kinds of mainstream pop. "Sometimes you'll hear a Beyoncé song and you'll be like, 'Holy shit, that's completely mental!' Those chords are really fucked. And that tune in the song, it's really warped," he says. "I guess I found that really inspiring."
A girlfriend introduced him to Beyoncé, but Finn says that great pop artists have always been prone to oddball touches. "You didn't notice when the Beatles threw in a real curve ball that changed the timing of the song. It sounded right. It sounded like it was always supposed to be like that," he said. "That's the cool thing about pop music. It pushes the boundaries without your average person realizing how mental it is."
Finn says that he had two real breakthroughs on the album, one at the beginning, the other on the very final day of recording. The first, which resulted in early single "The Struggle", came early, when Finn was still working alone and trying to get a grip on what, exactly, his second album would be.
"I was feeling pretty misguided, not knowing what I was doing, and my girlfriend kept saying, 'Stop trying to make your album and go and do something for fun,'" Finn remembers. "So I went and I sort of made the most industrial, distorted-sounding Tom Waits-y thing I could. I was putting every microphone I had through every pedal I had, and that made it sound really crusty and ended up with this gnarly track that was the first thing that made me feel like I could make an album."
It came, as many artistic breakthroughs do, out of a fairly disturbing dream. "I had a lot of very, very strange dreams while living back in New Zealand. One of them was that I'd sold my soul to the devil on my birthday and had to have sex with Julian Assange. That's the theme for the song. So I ended up just ranting about that, and kind of very quickly had this shout-y song that felt a lot more related to what was going on in my head than anything I'd set down and tried to write."
He added, "I guess, in perspective, it's the struggle of creativity and the madness that you put yourself through to get something that you believe in again."
The second breakthrough came through collaboration, this time with Glenn Kotche, the drummer for Wilco, whom Finn met while recording the charity project 7 Worlds Collide in 2008 and 2009. Wilco came back to New Zealand to record Wilco (The Album), and later asked Finn to open for them. On tour, Finn struck up a friendship with Kotche. "The more we hung out, the more we identified on how we liked to experiment with sounds and sort of make things unrecognizable, but you know, still relatable," he says. Later, in New Zealand, Kotche offered to make some beats for Finn's upcoming album. "I told him, give me like a Beyoncé beat," Finn remembers.
Kotche spent time in the studio, hooking contact mics to various percussion instruments and running their sounds through amps and reverb pedals. "It ended up producing this weird glitch-y kind of signals ... very different from the usual acoustic drum sound," says Finn.
Finn worked with the beat for a long time, but couldn't get a song he was satisfied with. Finally, on the last day of recording, everything fell into place. "In a way, after exploring so many different ideas, I ended up just doing one take based on everything I'd learned about this rhythm and what I was trying to write," he says. "It was just this one take thing. That day was really exciting and probably my fondest day in the studio." The song ended up as his favorite on the album, the closer "Jump Your Bones".
Finn's brother plays drums in his band. His father and mother, both musicians, are acknowledged influences. He doesn't chafe at talking about his musical family, and Finn says he's never felt the need to escape his father's shadow. "He's my dad and I love him and I love his music. So I guess, it's something that it's natural for me to have similar influences to him. He introduced me to a lot of stuff growing up and you know, I did hear his songs a lot. I'm sure it rubbed off on me," Finn says. "But I've definitely done a lot of stuff that is a lot more noisy." He adds that his father and mother's band, Pajama Band, is probably the most experimental thing anyone in the family has tried yet. "That's probably dad trying to get out of his own shadow."
As we speak, Finn has just finished another tour, one that started the day after FOMO was finished and lasted more than six months. He's now contemplating a third solo record, this time backed by his touring band, as well as some more personal, truly solo project that he might have to think of a new name for. But whatever he tries next will undoubtedly be different from FOMO and I'll Be Lightning and anything else you've seen him do in the past.
"The best solo artists are the ones that keep you guessing, you know the Bowies and the Becks and the Neil Youngs," he says. "They always keep mixing things up. It makes it more mysterious and more interesting."