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Nihilist: Liam Finn interview

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Liam Finn kind of misses being in a band. Like his friends James Milne – AKA Lawrence Arabia – and Connan Mockasin, Finn has followed a solo path since Betchadupa called it a day in 2006, preferring instead with a loose collective of regular collaborators. 

Nevertheless, he still finds the idea of just being part of a band very appealing. “I would love to be in a band,” he tells us over a pint on a sunny afternoon in Kingsland. “But it is really hard to keep a dynamic of a band going, especially if you are the main writer. To realise your vision, it’s easier to take it in your own hands.”

And his latest album The Nihilist is a prime example of why the solo approach works best for Finn. While it is his most collaborative album yet, played and co-written mainly with the band – Eliza-Jane Barrett, brother Elroy and multi-instrumentalist Jol Mulholland – he had toured with over the last few years, he admits that once it was recorded he spent a long time refining the final sound.

“Sonically, it’s a pretty complex record,” he explains. “I wanted to make a performance-based ‘band’ record because I had been touring with EJ, Elroy and Jol, and I wanted to make the most of the fact that we were playing really well together.

“We went and recorded at least nine or ten of the 12 tracks as a band and as a performance – all instruments at once – which has always been an important thing for me. [But] what I realized from the demos there is something you lose when you are in a studio. It wasn’t the performance that was lacking, it was the sound of it. So that was when this meticulous obsession came in.”

Finn ended up spending more than six months playing around with the tracks, manipulating the sounds until they sounded right in his own head. However, he was determined not to destroy the live element of the album and is full of praise for what his band mates brought to the table.

 People are living their lives on online – Facebook is half of their social life and it’s not real.

“Jol played a huge part in making this record,” he says. “And Elroy and EJ have been a huge part of what I have been doing live, so it was really important for me to have their input and try and work up the songs with them.

“Even ‘Burn Up The Road’ and ‘Ocean Emmanuelle’, which I had had the riffs for a very long time, it wasn’t until I took them to Jol that they got played back to me in a new way and gave me more ideas. So I am very grateful they were around because it wouldn’t be the same without them.”

The sound of The Nihilist also reflects that fact that it was written in New York, a long way from the laidback vibes that informed his second solo album FOMO. It’s certainly a lot less ‘pop’ than his previous two albums, pulsing with twisted melodies, soundscapes and rhythms. So what’s his favourite track?

“I think ‘Miracle Glance’, that’s the one I feel most proud of,” Finn replies. “It started from me and EJ mucking around – the majority of that track was pretty much improvised. I think it’s an emotional highpoint for the record and also one of the most intense sonically. Now that we are playing live, I think ‘4 Track Stomper’ has become my new favourite: it is going down really well. I only get to play guitar a couple of times during the song, but then get a big solo at the end!”

Despite the title, The Nihilist is not as downbeat as it might appear; rather, Finn describes it as a snapshot of living in New York or any big metropolis.

“I realized I was opening a can of worms when I called it The Nihilist,” he admits. “I am not referring to myself as a nihilist, especially not an existential one, and I totally understand it has a lot of negative connotations. But I am more fascinated by the idea of a political nihilism or a sort of an extreme skepticism.

“We are presented with so many different possibilities now, the internet being this huge ocean of supposed truths. But even the good websites are still biased. I don’t know what reality is true. People are living their lives on online, Facebook is half of their social life and it’s not real. So I kind of got more into the idea that this reality we are presented with is just not real. Each song is an insight into my sub-consciousness, what things are floating around inside: some of them are dark, some of them are beautiful.”

Finn is now back in New York and is looking forward to debuting the album at his now regular residency he has at a local club. He is also looking at taking the album out on the road but he is wary of getting locked into a lengthy touring schedule.

As well his own work, he would also like to reconvene the side-project BARB – a sort of Kiwi indie supergroup consisting of himself, Barrett, Mockasin and Milne, plus Seamus Ebbs – who put out a well-received self-titled album in 2010.

“We still talk about it all the time,” Finn says. “We decided each member of BARB had to take an album each and make it happen. I instigated the first one, Connan wants to do the next one. It will happen at some point but everyone is just so busy at the moment.”

“There is a lot of pressure in being a solo artist,” he continues. “Sometimes you weather the storms a bit harder because it is just you. We didn’t care with the BARB record whether anyone liked it because we made it and we liked it. With a solo record you agonise over it so much: if someone doesn’t like it you think ‘but that’s mean!’.”

This article first appeared in the April 2014 edition of Stack Magazine

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