Interview: Neil & Liam Finn
Though the Finns—father Neil and son Liam—have performed together before, notably in Neil’s band Crowded House, their new joint LP Lightsleeper marks the first time that they’ve truly collaborated for an entire album. The record is stocked with Finn trademarks: rich, evocative melodies, complex, yet accessible arrangements, lush strings and detailed instrumentation. It also features Mick Fleetwood on a few tracks, a guest appearance that led directly to Neil’s new post as Fleetwood Mac’s guitarist and singer.
While at Neil’s home in New Zealand, the Finns took some time away from their myriad of projects to discuss the record’s conceptual premise, geographically challenging collaborative process and their “memories of cabbage.”
Making an album can be contentious in the best of circumstances. And sometimes that contention, in fact, brings out the best work. As a father and son working together, did you set any ground rules before you started?
LIAM: There’s never been a spoken rule, but we’ve played together since I was very small. I first played in dad’s band when I was about 14 and learned very quickly of the unspoken code that when you’re rehearsing, things can get very blunt and direct. There’s no time for niceties. You’ve got to achieve what you want, especially when you’re telling someone how to play something or how you want it to sound. But writing together and making a record together was a lot bigger than that.
We went quite a long time before we ever wrote songs together. It took an amount of time for us to come at it from where there was a lot of mutual respect and awareness—and self-awareness—on how to deal with it. Like you said, there’s worthwhile drama in making music. We didn’t want it to be really easy and smooth, and it wasn’t. It was a good learning experience, but it still had its trials and tribulations.
NEIL: Because we’re working together, in a way, we encouraged each other to be more indulgent. A song like [the expansive] “Where’s My Room” was allowed to grow. We got giddy about how much further it could go. We wanted to give the album room to become something magnificent.
When you were writing, was there an intention to find ways to spin into each other’s musical orbits?
LIAM: We went into it with no preconception of what we would sound like. We wanted that to come out naturally through jamming and mucking around. Some of it was with my brother, Elroy, and mum, Sharon. Songs like “Meet Me in the Air” were spawned from seeing what we would sound like as a family band. Those moments were really exciting and kind of the glue of the record. Other times, there were certain things dad does— styles, types of songs he’s written—that I really love. I was totally encouraging him and vice versa.
If we are considering orbits, there are corners of the orbits that seemed like a good place to have a holiday. I’d go into dad’s and say, “Let’s hang out here for a while.” He’d come into mine and say, “I’ve always liked this part of your orbit.” In a way, it was like producing each other.
NEIL: There was such along process involved because we weren’t in the same city for large chunks of time. We’d come together in patches and then we’d go away and work separately on it. What was the most common thing on songs we wrote together, anyway, was that we would jam. We ended up with tracks that were very atmospheric. We found a sort of sultry, loungey, dreamy soundscape that we kept enjoying.
Liam would go in on an evening, when everyone had gone to bed, and try a vocal idea over that. I’d go in the morning and try some vocal ideas over the same song, or maybe another jam. We would compare notes at the end of the day. Sometimes independently, occasionally together, we were keeping the song in a dreamy state of exploration as long as we possibly could, so the ideas that emerged were instinctive. We didn’t intellectualize it until afterward when we were examining how to structure it or finish it.
How was finishing it different from creating it?
LIAM: Finishing things is always, for me, the hardest part of the process—how to hand it off to [be mixed] was something we learned about in stages. The first time we started getting mixes back, we quickly realized how maybe we weren’t quite ready for them to be mixed. We wanted to make sure what we were handing off was what we heard it in our heads.
NEIL: Sometimes it feels like a maddening process. You can go crazy. It can seem obsessive and tinged with the possibility of disaster because you can lose perspective. I’m devoted to that mentality and I think Liam is as well. We had Tchad [Blake] mixing in Wales. Liam was in LA. I was in Auckland. Sometimes, two days went by between a mix coming back and us being able to respond.
How did your geographic limitations impact your overall recording approach?
NEIL: If we had been in a room for three months together every day, then that could’ve been great as well. It is what it is—Liam going into a tunnel in Los Angeles with the expensive strings we’d recorded for “Hold Her Close,” playing them through a blaster box and recording them in a distressed manner with traffic noise. That happened because he had time to devise that plan on his own and follow through. I probably wouldn’t have done that myself.
There is a seemingly intentional, aerated, silky tone within the songs and across the entire album.
NEIL: We put a lot of thought into how to create that cohesion, that feeling of unification. Obviously, there were some songs that were independent of any concept. In the construction of the album, the sequencing, what songs to actually leave on, we were aware of trying to create a listening experience that didn’t jar you out of your feeling of revelry or dreaminess. In many cases, we are trying to evoke the feeling that you have when you are halfway between sleep and wakefulness. Obviously, the title relates to that. The music had an airiness, an ethereal quality. Not entirely, but as a listening experience, we wanted to keep people in that zone.
Would you say that this approach was, in effect, the concept of the album?
NEIL: There are some simpler songs, too: Liam’s “Anger Plays a Part.” Liam brought it as a finished song. It’s a very simple, beautiful, elegant song. It seemed to fit the mood of the record and it was also a first take. Mick Fleetwood was there at the time and recorded that. Almost all the vocals are live. So, [the album] wasn’t all pure cinematic indulgence.
What connection, if any, is there between Mick Fleetwood performing on the album and you joining Fleetwood Mac?
NEIL: I met Mick many, many years ago at a Linda McCartney benefit at [London’s Royal] Albert Hall. We had a short but memorable conversation. We clicked, somehow. I think he’s genuinely taken notice of the music I’ve made over the years. I’m a fan of Fleetwood Mac. Liam, in recent years, directed my attention to how great they are.
We got [Mick] into the studio and he contributed some great drums to three or four songs. We enjoyed each other’s company and our families got close. It did have something to do with imagining that I might fit into his world. When he rang up to say, “Do you want to come and have a play?” it was a total shock for me. I was stunned. Certainly being friends with Mick was a huge part of me thinking it was a good idea.
Liam, you were born into Crowded House mania in the mid-1980s. What effect did that have on your decision to become a musician?
LIAM: It’s hard to say. Kids are naturally drawn to music in those early years; playing drums and making noise is a pretty exciting, fun thing to do. I was very lucky to have a lot of instruments around and to have big kids around who were encouraging me to make noise and sing at the top of my lungs. I also got to see what dad was doing at the shows. Crowded House was a fun live band. They looked like they were having a lot of fun, and the joy they brought to people was a tangible energy. Why wouldn’t I want to do that? At a young age, you don’t see as much of the hard work and inner turmoil that can come with writing music, releasing records or being judged for things. I was smart enough, growing up, to know that my career wouldn’t always go the same way dad’s would. As much as I ever tried to rebel—in the ‘90s I was into grunge and punk and more experimental stuff—I still had a sense of melody and harmony, whether it was through nurture or genetics. I had the same appreciation for Beatles-esque harmonies and Neil Young-esque guitar.
Neil, how did it feel when it became apparent Liam was entering the family business?
NEIL: Like most parents, you try and foster and encourage things that seem to make your kids happy, and they’re good at. There was clearly both applied to Liam. He was writing little songs when he was very young that already had a special quality to them. So, I never had any doubt that he had the talent. I knew that he was passionate about it. We didn’t push. We did take him to a Russian piano teacher once to try and encourage him to learn piano, but his house smelled of cabbage too much, and Liam didn’t want to go. I should’ve pushed him to keep going, even with the cabbage.
We would’ve liked to have had a doctor in the family, but that’s alright. We can always go pay to see one. If Liam said he wanted to be an artist I’d be more worried. You’ve got to be in a room on your own. Or an actor—even worse. With music, you get a chance to have an audience. When we get onstage together, there is a great energy. I’m glad it worked out the way it has, that we waited this long to collaborate, because we have already amassed a lot of experience individually that we’ve been able learn from each other.
This article originally appears in the September 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.