Featuring the single ‘Snug As Fuck’, Liam Finn’s third full-length album, The Nihilist, is out today. Matt Hutson had some time to speak to Liam during a recent trip back home and here’s what he had to say.
Is it good to be home? Do you still consider this home?
Oh yeah. I actually leave on Saturday so it’s kind of over a bit quickly. It’s been awesome but really hectic this time.
I’ve just been really really busy. Last time I only came back for three weeks but I had at least two weeks out at Piha to enjoy what it really is I like to come home to. This time though I came back and instantly did a bunch of shows with dad. Between rehearsing for that, rehearsing for my stuff and doing artwork for the record it’s all been a bit of a hectic time. Ultimately really fun though. I’m sad to go.
Tell me about your other home, your studio in Brooklyn. How did you find it? Why’d you settle there?
We toured my last record for about a year, and mid way through that we decided to base ourselves in New York, basically just because I’d always wanted to live there. So we got this apartment and when we finished touring I started looking for places to write in. Most places that are available there are padded cell, dark, dingy classic rehearsal spaces. I was just about to take one of them, because I’d gotten fed up with looking for what was my idea of ‘my New York studio’, when I rang a real estate agent asking if there was any old abandoned warehouses around. He just laughed at me and said no, but also told me he’d just found a space for some guys setting up a studio and that he’d put me in touch with them. They were these really nice musicians that had put some money together to start a studio. They had this whole room on one side that was like a big loft so I rented that out to set up my stuff and write and rehearse. It looked over what could have been a post apocalyptic wasteland.
After a while Dirty Projectors found out about the space I was using and offered good money to use it to rehearse their album so I had to move out. Eventually I came back and started tracking the record in their main studio and I got really close to the dudes there. They moved out of their office in the studio so I could have my own room. Originally the tracks were recorded with a live band but I took those tracks into my room and just obsessed over them until they started sounding more like I envisioned, like they were from another dimension or something.
From listening to the album, it sounds to me that the tracks are less of a ‘solo’ endeavour and more like a group of people have gotten together to work on them. Am I right in saying that?
I guess after the first touring I had done as a ‘solo artist’ with a band, I wanted to utilise the fact that we’d gotten really good at playing together. A lot of the songs had been written with Joel and Elroy and EJ so I wanted it to be collaborative, almost a band record. I found that after we’d tracked them as a band though, the sound wasn’t quite unique to the extent I was imagining. The spirit of it and very much the songs were formed out of a collaborative environment though.
It’s great when you play someone half a song you’ve got, then they play it back to you slightly different with the next idea or whatever. Jol Mulholland is a fantastic songwriter and musician, and I really wanted to collaborate with him. I’m bummed he had to move back to NZ because we won’t be able to play these songs together but he was a big part of what shaped the early stages of these songs and the angle we were going to take.
Was there a concept for the album?
Because it started off while I was doing my residency, I just wanted to make as much music as I possibly could. I was feeding off of the adrenaline and excitement of the shows. When I started picking out what exactly I was excited by, it wasn’t really the ones that seemed like the obvious songs at that point, it was more the atmospheric kind of things. The more I explored that, the more I got into the idea of atmosphere in music. From that the concept for the record started getting shaped out of the idea of exploring different lives and realities.
In this room that I had looking out over Manhattan I became fascinated with the idea that what I saw was my subconscious and that any kind of fantasy or fear or ‘what if’ idea I had was probably playing out somewhere in Manhattan. I used that almost as a shield to feel like I wasn’t being too personal. It meant that some of the things I was saying which I would’ve been otherwise uncomfortable saying came out more naturally.
It sounded to me like every song had a different character trying to push through it, almost as if you were creating an identity you could become in which to write the song. Am I right in saying that?
Totally. That’s exactly what it was.
I used to go to this really loud over the top American sports bar on the corner of the street where the studio was. The first few times I went there just to have some food or whatever and I’d forget my phone or any kind of thing to do. So I’d be sitting there not really that interested in the sport, and I started coming up with ideas for this really convoluted story, almost the concept for the record, about this idea of a subconscious dimension and somebody being trapped in this thing, and realising how much it was affecting their conscious day to day reality. I started realising it was getting more and more dry and lacking in humour and something that would’ve been incredibly painful to talk about, and a bit boring really. I kind of bored myself trying to write it down as a story.
Then I got into the idea of political nihilism and that opened up the idea for this nihilist character in the songs. It wasn’t supposed to be some big nothing or negative vortex of darkness, but more the idea of the reality that we all exist in. We all know we don’t know what’s going on in the world. Maybe through the concept of success or love or what it is to partake in these areas of life, you almost have to redefine what your reality is now, because it’s kind of not working the way we’ve been conditioned to believe.
Most people these days are living half their lives through online personalities and they’re completely not real. Everyone has friends who are one way in person then you see shit they write on the internet and you’re kind of left wondering where that came from.
I guess it comes down to how you want to present yourself. A lot of people may not be happy with their reality, so they create this online persona with which they choose to live.
And it works, but it also makes things really confusing. I got really fascinated by the idea of choosing your reality. The internet is rife with every little bit of information, but the more you realise that the news sites are biased, even the left wing ones, you start not knowing what you can believe. All you can do is read up as much as possible and form your own opinion. I guess it’s something that I kind of hoped would open up a nicely heated debate about what the idea of nihilism could be, rather than just talking about the torture and turmoil of trying to make a record.
Did you take much of the characters you created away with you?
I guess I kind of realised all those people make up who I am, and you shouldn’t be denying certain ways that you feel because of your idea of what is right and wrong in consciousness. It comes back to the idea of making decisions because of the effect it will have on other people and the effect it will have on your immediate life while not necessarily being true to who you are. It’s a huge part of what can make you unhappy or pent up. Exploring the ideas of who you might be or how you might have felt for five minutes and expressing that is quite liberating, and it makes you a lot clearer on how you really feel about stuff.
Listening to the new album, I couldn’t help but make certain comparisons to Connan Mockasin’s music. I know you’ve worked with him in the past, but is he someone you consciously draw from?
Maybe not consciously. He’s proven that you can do it anyway you want to if you manage to voice what it is you’re trying to put out there.
With I’ll Be Lightning I took it back into my own hands and made it how I wanted to do it and it was incredibly vindicating that it worked. It’s easy to lose that sight because of the weight of expectation, or the idea that you’re supposed to better your last thing or whatever. What I realise now is that by taking it back into your own hands you get something that is truly unique to you and that’s the only way to be different these days, to be true to yourself.
You can only do what makes you excited, and it’s easy to lose track of that. You have to follow your gut, and that instinct is something that’s really easy to lose touch with. You end up with so many other people saying “oh you sound like this”, or “you could’ve done this better” that plague you more than the positive opinions. You end up wondering if you should’ve done it differently, but then you realise that the only thing attractive in music is honesty. Well maybe not honesty, in some ways Connan’s music is completely a farce, but it’s true to what he wants to make.
So I guess you’ll be touring again very shortly. How do you find the touring lifestyle compared to studio life?
I love touring. They’re perfect opposites in a way, once you’ve toured for a couple of years you kind of get sick of it, so naturally writing and recording seems like a good counter balance. Then you spend a year making a record and after a year you just wanna say fuck this. It’s a lot more mentally draining to create a record, and it includes so much more self doubt and loathing and mental illness. Touring, on the other hand, is just so physically draining, but I love it. The more I play, the more adrenaline I have to feed off. I could live on it. I want to tour this album as much as I can, but I have no assumptions this time. Everything’s constantly changing and getting harder and harder, especially if you’ve got a band of five people like I do now.