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Progeny Among the Poppies: Liam Finn’s Progression

By Kyle MacKinnel; self-portraits by Liam Finn on March 9, 2011


Liam Finn is in his natural habitat. “I’m in the studio,” the shaggy-maned Kiwi tells me. “Check it out.” He picks up his laptop, facing its webcam across the room to display a soundboard with levels arranged in irregular waves, and a transparent pane that partitions the modest recording space. “Oh, it’s been hot,” he says, referring to New Zealand’s sub-tropical climate. “There’s so much water in the air you’ll sweat and get tired. But it’s been an awesome summer.” During the past few months, while much of the United States was pummeled by a parade of snowstorms, Finn rented a small place near his parents’ house in Piha, New Zealand, to work on new material. To better describe the area, he references the hazy black sand beaches from Jane Campion’s film The Piano

Finn is in Auckland today, recording the follow-up to his 2007 solo debut, I’ll Be Lightning, for which he spent the last three years touring the world. Prior to that, he lived in London for a spell. It’s been a heavy tick since Finn last spent a stretch of time back home. All the while, however, his roots have never strayed far from music.

In the late ’70s, Liam’s father, Neil, joined Neil’s older brother Tim’s band Split Enz before forming the seminal outfit Crowded House in 1985. Neil and Crowded House spent the following decade crafting pop rock gold, including “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” which hit Number Two on U.S. charts. When describing New Zealand’s sonic frontier to someone halfway around the world, Neil Finn would be a choice reference point with which to begin. In essence, the Finn lineage is the stuff of Kiwi rock royalty. 

“You kind of think it’s normal,” he says of growing up in the scene, “because that’s all you know.” Finn was still a lad when he and his mother joined Crowded House on tour. Young Liam would intermittently attend school in Auckland, and receive roadschooling from his parents and other crew members. This largely consisted of constant reading and, as he puts it, “life knowledge.”

“I didn’t really fall behind because I was being stimulated,” he says. “Every time we had a day off, we’d go to museums or art galleries.” The excursions were an inspiring and welcome form of education for Finn, but they ultimately couldn’t match up to the main event. 

“To then watch my father perform every night and see what effect that had on people—it looked like the best fun ever.” Liam was hooked, and from that point forward most of his attention would be focused on taking the stage himself. Fortunately, he wouldn’t have to wait very long. When Neil Finn embarked on a solo tour following the disbandment of Crowded House, he brought his budding son along as a guitarist. Liam was 14 at the time.

“All of a sudden I was a member of the band,” he says. “I don’t think I was that good at that stage, but there’s nothing like having to get good really quickly to make you practice.” Liam did just that, and his playing steadily improved as the tour wore on. But the greatest revelation of that period had less to do with Finn’s musical output than the input he was receiving onstage. “For the first few months, I was wearing earplugs. Mum and Dad were like, ‘You know, you’ve got to wear earplugs, because it’s loud,’” he says. “I enjoyed it, but I never realized how much fun you could have when you take out the earplugs. All of a sudden, it’s loud and you’re like, ‘This is why people turn [it] up!’ I felt like I played so much better, and it went from being slightly enjoyable but kind of a job, to: ‘This is the most fun thing; this is what I’d always hoped it would be.’ That was very formative for me.”

And just like that, he was off and running. A simple—if drastic—increase in volume also turned Finn’s ambition up to 11. He began writing songs with a friend, Matt Eccles, in his parents’ basement. Self-imposed benchmarks were set, including a tour of America within the year. “I was a very serious kid,” he concedes. The goals were ambitious indeed, but not entirely off base, as time would have it. Finn brought two other high school mates on board along with Eccles to form the bare bones of what would become Betchadupa. (The haphazard band name translates loosely from Polish to “bet your arse.”) One of these newfound bandmates stumbled upon a peculiar method of developing his skill set. 

“At first, the guitarist guy—my best friend Chris—was absolutely useless,” he explains. “I was trying to find what he could do well, even if he just made feedback or something. When we were 16, his mum moved away and put him into a flat to live.” Chris fell in with a set of ne’er-do-well flatmates who quickly introduced him to hard drugs, but the end result proved happily ironic. 

“He stayed up all night practicing his guitar and got really good, so it’s kind of a positive story,” Finn says, laughing. “He ended up writing heaps of the band’s stuff from then on.” Another anecdote from this era involved biker gang members inviting Betchadupa to play at their clubhouse after watching the band perform at a pub. The after-show ended up dragging beyond the point of comfort. 

“It very quickly became, ‘OK, we’re here to play for them and now we can’t stop ’til they say to stop,’ and that wasn’t for a long time,” he says. “It was an incredibly stupid decision to go and do that. I guess maybe at that age you feel invincible, and in some ways you kind of are.” The band survived, and before long Betchadupa had been signed by the prestigious Flying Nun Records of Christchurch, New Zealand. Skeptics pointed to nepotism as the basis for this development, but the band’s honed sound and plucky attitude begged to differ.

Finn’s stories surrounding this time are rife with vivid detail, but the nature of his band’s dissolution takes on a slightly different tone. Shortly after relocating to London in 2004, Betchadupa went on indefinite hiatus.

“I wasn’t really getting the support from the guys that I might have needed to keep the flame going,” he says. “I realized I was compromising a lot of what I wanted the songs to be to try and fit it with the band.” It was a rare moment of doubt for Finn. Funds were scarce and morale was even lower. “I felt so much better when I stopped that and did it exactly how I wanted to.” 

Unsure of how to move forward, Finn took refuge in his writing. As far as performing solo, he was hesitant to do “the whole singer-songwriter thing.” Finn points to one show in particular as the key to discovering his signature performance style. He began by laying down a “big, gnarly, fuzz-bass riff” on his Line 6 loop pedal before spontaneously extending his domain onto the headlining band’s gear.

“I had a huge riff going and it sounded awesome, so I put my guitar down and went to the drum kit that was set up for the next band,” he begins. “It was a bit cheeky, I suppose, because I didn’t ask them, but I just went in and started pounding the shit out of the drums. Immediately, the whole room took notice, took a few steps forward and got really into the show. I sort of realized at that point that I was on to something, so I went and bought a kid’s drum kit, and I broke that immediately the first show.” The broken kit was replaced, but this general method of looping and layering would stick with Finn for the next three years on tour. His only accompaniment would be his friend Eliza Jane “EJ” Barnes on backup vocals.

As for I’ll Be Lightning, Finn says he thought about meshing the sound of Elliott Smith with that of Fugazi. In fact, he mentions the latter band several times during our conversation as a significant source of inspiration. Recorded with vintage equipment and displaying experimental touches, the resulting songs strike a chord perhaps more reminiscent of British Invasion acts like The Beatles and The Kinks. Another marked influence is one that you may well have already guessed: Crowded House. Liam would likely concur.

There exists a certain Britishism called “tall poppy syndrome” that is commonly used by New Zealanders. The saying denotes a tendency to discredit those who have achieved success. Finn, for one, recognizes this attitude as fairly widespread among his countrymen.

“You might have had the best milk crop of the year, but you’re just Jim from the farm,” he explains. “We’re not a very arrogant country; it’s almost detrimentally humble sometimes. You can kind of see that in the Flight of the Conchords show. If Kanye West was from New Zealand, people would have a field day cutting him down. People cut him down anyway, but there’s no one here ever going, ‘I’m a fuckin’ rock star!’”

Despite their citizenship, the paternal/filial exchange between Neil Finn and his son has always been focused on raising up the poppies instead of scything them down. In addition to being former bandmates, the pair contributed a cover of McCartney’s “Two of Us” for 2002’s I Am Sam soundtrack. The elder Finn is a frequent guest at Liam’s shows, and the latter is quick to point out the heavy influence of his father’s music on his own songwriting.

“They’re songs that I’ve heard a million times, but I’ve only recently sat down and listened to what the words are, and gone, ‘Shit—that’s really good,’” he says. “I can’t compete with it, but hopefully I can add to the legacy. What I’ve discovered in the last few years is that we really push each other to do the best we can.” But the most glowing moment in our conversation occurs when Liam describes his father’s latest joint venture.

“My mum and my dad recently decided to discover who they were, so they just started getting drunk and jamming,” he says. “I call up from touring and being exhausted and wanting a bit of comfort, and Mum’ll be like, ‘Sorry, we’re just having a jam, can we call you back?’ They’ve made this record, and they call it The Pajama Party.”

As for their son, Liam anticipates a couple more weeks in the studio to finish his own new record. Furthermore, he has also recently discovered a new collaborator. Burke Reid, a Canadian expatriate from Australia whom Finn describes as a “kindred spirit,” contributed production to the new album as well as a fresh perspective. 

“[Burke] didn’t really respond to the fully realized songs; he kind of liked all the little snippets of ideas I had,” Liam says. “It was quite confronting at first, because you write these songs and they feel like children. I could have kicked up a fuss, but I actually wanted to have someone to trust and defer to.” He also tells me that his younger brother Elroy will play drums on his next tour. “Artistically, it’s an exciting time in my family,” he says. 

Liam Finn has quite a lot going for him. A true Kiwi contrarian, he is equally excited to talk about those close to him as he is about himself. He knows full well that wherever the future leads him, his roots will never be far behind. But, with a verified wealth of talent and his own songs to look after, he doesn’t sweat it. Sure, his father may be Neil Finn, but Liam would gladly be the first to admit that.     F