Liam Finn out of the shadow
A woolly, diminutive figure wanders into a downtown cafe with an old duffel bag slung over his shoulder. As the rather lovely, supremely intense Liam Finn offers a hearty handshake, his very hairy face breaks into a warm smile.
The 30-year-old is feeling pleased with life right now. Taking a short break from New York, where he lives, Finn is back in New Zealand to peddle his third solo album, due for release next month, and play at a handful of sold-out gigs.
He should be considered an old pro in the industry now, though he remains somewhere on the periphery of the mainstream. We all know he comes from good musical stock. He was playing along with his father, Neil Finn, from single digit years.
Australian-born but raised in New Zealand, Finn developed his musical prowess at Auckland high school Selwyn College. It was there that he, at the age of 14, and three other schoolmates – Matt Eccles, Chris Garland and Joe Bramley – formed Kiwi indie rock band Betchadupa.
Together they made their mark on the New Zealand music scene before moving to Australia and later London. They made music, put out a couple of albums and toured for nine years before finally ending up and breaking up in London in 2006.
"My self-given title is a veteran up-and-comer," Finn says self-deprecatingly.
But he's being modest.
Finn's 2007 debut solo album, I'll Be Lightning, recorded at his father's Roundhead Studios in Auckland, earned him "Artist to Watch" accolades from The Wall Street Journal and Rolling Stone and a guest slot on the Late Show with David Letterman.
In 2011, he released his follow-up album, FOMO (short for "Fear of Missing Out"), to further critical acclaim.
He has toured the world with Crowded House and shared stages with the likes of Eddie Vedder, The Black Keys, Ben Harper and Wilco. Now all that, Finn says, hands held up as if surrendering, started out because of great contacts.
"That's definitely because of the good fortune I had growing up in the family I did. They were my favourite bands and they turned out to be fans of Dad's. I don't have any false idea of why these things have come about, but it's definitely one of the awesome aspects of what Dad has created through being incredibly adventurous and bringing musicians together.
"But I don't think they would have given me a gig unless they knew I could pull it off," he adds as something of a footnote.
After being a one-man-band for some years post-Betchadupa, Finn assembled a gaggle of musicians – Eliza-Jane Barnes (daughter of Australian rock singer-songwriter Jimmy Barnes), Joel Mulholland and Liam's little brother Elroy – and together they have been busy touring the United States.
He started writing the songs for his new album The Nihilist at Greenpoint Studios in Brooklyn, New York, with them some two years back. "I felt we were sounding like an actual band. I wanted to harness that into a record because the last two records I did were very insular."
But his obsession (his own word) for perfection and control saw him revert back to solo status.
"I thought this would be a band record not a solo record, but it became quite evident that ... while I can let go, the songs became very personal very quickly, and as much as I benefited from the others helping to write and at least start the songs, I kind of get obsessive and find that I work better on my own till the wee hours of the morning.
"Self-consciousness is what ruins impulsive performance and as much as you can be comfortable with others, having someone else waiting for you to get it right can be all it takes to get frustrated at yourself whereas, if you are on your own, you can indulge your whims."
Former Betchadupa drummer Matt Eccles says Finn is driven, always has been. The Betchadupa years were perhaps more of a group effort, but still always driven by Finn, says Eccles, who is touring the US with psychedelic pop musician Connan Mockasin.
"Liam's the most musically driven person I've ever known, and most of our 15 years of knowing each other has been playing music together, listening to music, discovering bands and talking about our various projects – music and our friendship are very much intertwined.
"When he's working, he's very focused ... He knows exactly what he wants, he hears it all in his head – how it should be – so, in a lot of ways, he is a perfectionist."
About a year ago The Nihilist was all but made. But when Finn returned to New Zealand in the Christmas of 2012 he gave it a listen and decided it just didn't sound right. It had lost that unself-conscious first-take beauty, he says. He went back to New York and Greenpoint Studios to rework it.
"I spent eight months trying to get that atmosphere I was looking for back.
"I look at my dad getting obsessive like that. I used to think 'Why are you still trying to do stuff to that song that seems finished?' Then, when it all comes together, you think 'Oh, I get it. I'm sorry I ever doubted you.' "
The album was recorded between sunset and sunrise. Not for any particular rock'n'roll reason, rather because during the day there were too many trucks in the surrounding industrial area beeping in reverse mode, which seemed to make its way onto his tracks.
He took on a rather nocturnal life for about six or seven months. New York is a good city for that, he says – and Finn doesn't need much sleep.
He luxuriated in the time and space he had given himself to make this record. He'd spend days at a time working on a single drum sound.
His mind did some wandering.
Geography plays a huge part in Finn's new album and his outlook on life in general, it seems.
"A lot of music that was made in New York makes more sense to me now more than it ever did. I listen to Talking Heads, Television, stuff out of the Tom Tom Club and I can hear the pace of the city and the kind of atmosphere that is created through the amount of stories that are happening here simultaneously.
"I was exploring these ideas of playing out different lives by imagining what was happening out there in the city. I was imagining it was my own subconscious ... Any fantasy or fear you have in your own mind is probably playing out in reality in Manhattan at any one time."
Listening to Finn, you get the feeling New York has seeped into his blood. He first came to the Big Apple as a 14-year-old with his family when Neil was making Try Whistling This, his first solo record.
"I was at an age where I was just discovering my independence. I was allowed to go off by myself. I was discovering art and how that affected me. It was a hugely formative experience for me. I thought, 'One day, I'll come and live here.' It took a bit longer than I thought, but I'm here now."
He grew up in the 80s and 90s believing America was a utopia, that it was the most exciting place, where everything was happening.
"I was always fascinated with the culture there and every time me and EJ [Eliza-Jane Barnes] visited, we always felt the most excited, the most inspired.
"But New York does create a certain amount of mania. When you visit that city, it's so exciting. It's like this ocean that is knocking you left, right and centre. You can't put your feet on the ground, so you just go with it.
"When you live there it's just impossible to stand. You get knocked around and you're desperately trying to get your feet down. It's a really strange existence."
These days, he's made himself quite at home in NYC. Loves it, he says.
He has his musical feet firmly under the table there with residencies at The Rock Shop and Knitting Factory in Brooklyn, fringe venues that suit him just fine. His last residency show at Knitting Factory summed up what live gigs are all about. "I had some mates in town – [actress] Madeleine Sami and [musician] Pip Brown [aka Ladyhawke] – who came up on stage and sang Michael Jackson's Man in the Mirror with us.
"It was this epic night, with the regular crowd there. I love those nights when you come off stage and everyone's eyes are vibrating. Everyone in that room all got on the same buzz and that's why I do it.
"I forget how much performing means to me. I think I would become a far more depressive person if I didn't have that. A show like that is enough to give you two weeks of energy. "
Finn's troupe are all great mates. His musical partnership with multi-instrumentalist and singer Eliza-Jane Barnes was almost written in the stars.
The pair, who are like brother and sister, go way back to when their dads were on the same music circuit. Years later, Eliza-Jane was in the band Lawrence Arabia in London when they reconnected. One night, Finn heard her sing and decided to poach her for his own band.
"As I was playing on stage on my own, she asked a sound guy to hook up a mike and she started harmonising. I thought it was in my head for a moment, because that sort of happens sometimes, but then I looked over and saw her lying back on a couch off stage with a glass of whisky in her hand and I thought that's it. I'm going to steal her."
Elroy, 24, has been helping out on the road with big brother Liam since he left high school. Before long he was playing drums for a couple of songs at the end of the night. It was the logical next step to have him drum when Finn got the band together.
"He was the obvious choice because it's hard to find a really great drummer who has the feel that you're looking for, and he's been conditioned to have that feel from playing with Dad and me over the years."
He expects that, one day, Elroy will have to go off and do his own thing. He expects he will face his own hurdles.
"I don't envy his position. Not only has he got the musician father and uncle but now a brother musician. He makes music, but he doesn't know if he has the drive to be a singer-songwriter, but some day he's going to have to figure out what he wants to do. I am very lucky to have him right now."
Collaborating with Elroy comes as no surprise in a family like theirs. The Finns seem to have invented the concept.
Brothers Neil and Tim began with Split Enz, both Liam and Elroy have played with dad Neil and now Elroy plays drums with brother Liam.
Family Finn, including mum Sharon, have just collaborated on Neil's new album Dizzy Heights.
"We were literally a family band that made Dad's new record – that was awesome. That's been his dream for a long time. Ultimately he'd like this to be it, for us to tour and play together. I would love to do that, but I have put the last 15 years of my life into making my career happen and I'm still like a new artist.
"Dad wants us to be involved in his work, and I think we will continue doing stuff together, but if I'm releasing a record at the same time as him, I can't be putting his career first, even though it's tempting."
Finn is upfront about the gap between his own commercial success and that of his father's.
"I realise now I'm not necessarily going to be a commercially huge act the way Crowded House was back in those days. Luckily, in the States and the rest of the world, there is this huge market for making these creative records and slightly more challenging things.
"If I can keep my life going, maybe generate a little bit more money, keep my studio in New York, keep my residencies and tour, then that's awesome."
There is no doubt, though, that Finn has been inspired and encouraged by his dad over the years.
Watching Neil, Finn learned that making music is never going to get any easier, no matter how successful you are. "I learned from him that it's going to be that hard forever. I am going to be agonising over this for the rest of my life, trying to perfect [my music]. I have witnessed him never find it any easier to make a record or think he can just spin out another record. He is always trying to reach some new height.
"He's had a lot of luck and success, more than many will ever have and that I may never have – and I'm fully accepting of that – but watching him always try and do his best work and be unique and still relatable, that's the biggest inspiration he's given me."
He is a bit more comfortable in his own skin these days compared with the teenage years in Betchadupa. Getting older has made him realise he doesn't need to try to be anything other than himself. But making music remains a battle, it seems, even if it is his raison d'etre. "Every time I make a record I have moments when I think do I really want to do this? It's such a huge mountain to climb and at the top of every mountain you look across and see there's another big mountain. There's a bit of downhill then it's back up again.
"But I have learnt to enjoy it. I realise you gotta have those moments of complete insecurity and doubt and -loathing to reach the heights that fuel you to go on and make you realise it's all worth it."
There probably has to be a little bit of delusion attached to this job.
"Sometimes I really envy Kanye West because he's just fully deluded and that's what drives him. Actually, there's a lot of delusion in genius, I believe."
The Dominion Post