For his cinematic third album, The Nihilist, an in-depth conversation with Liam Finn.
The rust-brown wild man beard from the I’ll Be Lightning era has been trimmed. Building on his brilliant debut and FOMO, The Nihilist is NYC high. Liam Finn is a giving, profane interviewee when we first meet in Brooklyn’s Polish ghetto Greenpoint, and again back home in Wellington. We discuss turbulence, unexpected inspirations, Ruban Nielson, battling philistinism, and the importance of creativity as a response to mediocrity and apathy. As on stage at Wellington dive bar Puppies during two February gigs, he’s lively and entertaining. “Music has to be visceral!” he exclaims. That’s an incisive description of songs in the vein of ‘Second Chance’, ‘Don’t Even Know Your Name’, and now ‘Burn Up the Road’. “I’m scared of myself as I burn up the road,” he yelps on the disruptive album’s primal centrepiece. Photography by Daniel Rose.
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ALEXANDER BISLEY: “Holy shit, this is completely mental, those chords are really fucked and that tune and that song, that’s really warped, I guess I found that really inspiring,” you once said in reference to FOMO and Beyoncé. Any unexpected influences on The Nihilist?
LIAM FINN: There is definitely a, for lack of better term, urban influence on this record. I don’t mean it in the sense of hip-hop or R&B, yet that is kind of what it creates. Living in a city like New York, and the pace and the tempo of what that entails. The music that you get woken up to blaring out your window is a lot of it is R&B and hip-hop. I can’t say that I have anything particular that influenced what I was trying to do, but I feel like indie music is incredibly boring. Indie rock, there’s not much of it that I get into. There a few things, like I really love listening to Mac Demarco.
AB: Like me, you rate Kanye West’s Yeezus?
LF: I feel like those are the gnarliest sounds I’ve heard in pop music in years-
AB: Very sonically disruptive-
LF: I love how industrial it is. Some of those synths, there’s not even beats on songs, it’s just a bass line. I totally admire that; if anything it’s made me go, “fuck, I’ve got too many sounds on this record,” because there’s nothing better than a bare but gnarly sound. Because you really hear the overall tone of it and I think people—even quite mainstream people—don’t realise how we all are affected by distortion. And distortion’s a brilliant thing. It doesn’t always mean that it’s unaccessible if it’s distorted. It actually means it’s evocative of a feeling. Does it feel good to listen to? It does.
AB: New York’s intense variety inspired The Nihilist?
LF: I felt it was like inhabiting characters that felt slightly fictitious or felt like different realities that I could have potentially been living. But as it turns out, they’re kind of almost like little bits of subconscious trying to get out. You can in hindsight go, “Oh God, that’s so blatantly obvious that this was about that,” even though at the time I thought I was being all cryptic and tricky, but it’s obvious.
AB: Some initial [and enduring] highlights from The Nihilist include: ‘Helena Bonham Carter’, ‘Burn Up The Road’, ‘Four Track Stomper’, ‘Wild Animal’.
LF: I have no idea what it’s like to listen to this record for the first time because I’ve lost all objectivity, but I don’t imagine it’s an easy first listen. But it will keep on giving. I’m sure of that. I’m sure that will develop over the listens. You know, that’s to me what a record should be. There’s so much mediocrity out there.
AB: Anything here with a similar personal intensity to ‘Gather To The Chapel’? A lovely tribute to the late Paul Hester. (Like The Verlaines ‘Slow Sad Love Song’, it’s one of the great songs about suicide.)
LF: Almost every one of them. Like with ‘Gather To The Chapel’—especially when it first came out—I never really was comfortable with talking about what it was about, because it didn’t feel applicable to anyone but me. And yet I knew that people would take their own meaning from it and that’s the beauty of music. That it does affect people and people do take comfort and solace from somebody else’s experience and they’ve worded it in a way that they relate to.
AB: Art is subjective. As you told me, some people have got married to ‘Gather To the Chapel’, interpreted it for that context.
LF: That’s why I guess I’m still at the point now where I’m only just processing the experience of making this record [The Nihilist] by talking about it for the first time to journalists. I’m only just figuring out what that story is for myself and going “oh, wow.” To be honest, it would feel like a bit of a betrayal to be too honest about what some of the songs are about, because I felt like I guarded them so much and fought so hard to get these lyrics right and not hurt anyone’s feelings. Once they’re out there, they’re open to interpretation. I’m not going to go print the lyrics so people can try and pick apart what happened in my life. I want them to apply it to their lives and I want them to be mystified by it. I want them to wonder what the fuck was going on. I don’t want them to know.
AB: ‘Wild Animal’ is bracing (“The harder that you try, the ruthless I become.”)
LF: Cool. I nearly left that off the record, only because it felt like in some ways most similar to certain areas of my past and almost a bit obvious.
AB: Neil once said: “Fans tend to think of artists as stepping into some pure divine state and occasionally there is transcendence involved, but almost every artist is a mass of neurosis and self-doubt, petty concerns, strange competitive urges, and feelings of dissatisfaction. I’m a flawed human being. You want to be brave and confident, but if people only knew.”
LF: That’s a huge question: goes along with the whole emotionally fucking up your life to make good art, making good music that will in turn help people through hard times and create all kinds of joy for people… Is that worth it?
AB: How did you enjoy performing ‘Habit’ with Pearl Jam at Auckland’s Big Day Out 2014?
LF: With all the joy in the world. I’m kind of stoked that that’s become the song I do with them now. That originally happened because I did the Pearl Jam 20th Birthday Festival that they had.
With that old band with Joel and with EJ, I would open the sets by doing an improvised jam and then they would come out and join me and we would go into the first song. I did ‘Habit’ because it’s always been my favourite Pearl Jam song. Eddie heard that, and was like, “Oh man, we never ever play that” and I was like, “I know, I’ve seen you guys ten times and you’ve never played it live.” It kind of blows his voice out and it’s hard to fit in a set where he’s got to sing for two and a half hours.
I became this Pearl Jam fan hero getting them to do ‘Habit’. And I got a lot of lovely remarks from Pearl Jam fans about that. And so now, them coming to New Zealand and it was “you’ve got to do ‘Habit’” and I was like, “fuck yeah.” But it’s always scary getting up in your hometown.
AB: A big audience, so much expectation at/on the Big Day Out?
LF: More so because New Zealanders are cunts [laughs]. Maybe it’s my own insecurity creating it—but you just know that someone’s going to say “Oh God, what’s Liam Finn doing up there?”
AB: People are reflexively looking for an opportunity to knock you down?
LF: That’s part of what makes us hugely humble as well, but how did you say no to Eddie? You don’t. You do it. And also, why would I say “no”? Why would I worry about getting up to sing of one of my favourite songs by one of my favourite bands just because I think a few dickheads who probably don’t even like me anyway are going to not like me for it? Anyway, that’s what made me shirk any kind of self-consciousness about it and knew that I just had to scream the shit out of it. It was awesome. It was really fucking good fun. I came off stage and felt sick for about an hour because the adrenalin was so intense.
AB: The best kind of high. Eddie’s still got it on stage.
LF: His voice has gotten better, really.
AB: What makes him special as a person?
LF: He’s just the real deal. I think the fact that he didn’t join the band that got successful until he was 27 or something meant that he was a music fan all the time, and probably made those decisions early that if he was ever successful he would treat the fans with the utmost respect.
AB: Recently, improvising with Mikael Jorgensen from Wilco, you did an improv called ‘How Hot is Michael Fassbender?’
LF: I love Michael Fassbender, obviously. Hot. Hot man. Weird thing is, EJ [Barnes] lived in his apartment for a while. Before Michael Fassbender was Michael Fassbender. He was Michael Fassbender, but he wasn’t the big hunk. When I was living in England, he was going out with an Australian friend of ours. And when EJ was looking for somewhere to live, she was like “Oh, my boyfriend’s about to go away to South Africa on a film shoot and needs someone to look after his apartment. Do you want to sublet his place?” And EJ did and we met him and had dinner with him and he was this lovely Irish guy.
AB: That was probably when he was shooting The Devil’s Whore? Shame, set in New York, is great, unsettling.
LF: I just watched that. I mean that movie made me feel weird, but I guess that’s the sign of a good film. I think he’s a great actor. I like him more than Ryan Gosling, let’s just say that.
AB: So, going back to the new album, The Nihilist. What’s the idea you’re hoping people take away?
LF: I think a lot of people will hear the title and think, “well, that’s dark.” The older generation have probably believed nihilism to just be this incredibly dark vortex of nothingness, immoral behaviour. I guess that’s what a facet of existential nihilism is. I don’t know what reality we’re living in anymore. It’s really hard to grasp what’s really going on out there in society and politics.
I don’t think we have a fucking clue, not even beginning to understand what really is happening. And the more we learn about that, the more we realise we don’t know and what little effect we have over it, which unfortunately creates an element of apathy. Because why do anything if you can’t change it? Why even acknowledge it? And I think that’s a shame that we’re not taking some responsibility for it.
Also, people are living their lives, almost half of their life, online. There are completely different personalities for people, whether they’re musicians or not. It probably gives some people the confidence to be more true to themselves, but also gives people the ability to fake and lie and be someone they think they should be or want to be, play out this non-reality and exist inside it. I don’t see it as a negative or a positive. I just think it’s really fascinating.
AB: I’m into music (and other art forms) because I think that creativity is important as a response to mediocrity and apathy.
LF: You hit the nail right on the head. Protest music has got a bad rap these days because everyone thinks of “the answer my friend is blowing in the wind” or some shit. And that bores the shit out of me as well. I don’t want to listen to protest music if it’s going to be whingey and hippy and whatever, but why are people not addressing things anymore? Even if it’s not directly as in “this is a song about the Occupy Movement” or “this is a song about how the government is fucked.” But why are we not addressing the fact that there are different ways to take responsibility for this world that we’ve created? That’s what I think is important: opening up conversations and considering different ways or different realities or different decisions we could have been making.
AB: Any genre of music can be boring, especially indie music.
LF: Exactly. Like I said earlier, I find indie rock as a style of music incredibly closed-minded and restrictive. I naturally write and make guitar music but there’s not much guitar music that turns me on. So it’s finding ways of making sounds and melodies and concepts in songs, and ideas in songs that they still have to have an element of the tradition, because that’s what we relate to, that’s emotive.
I saw Ruban Neilson tweet something about people pretending to revere originality, “Why do we pretend to revere originality?” He’s an incredibly cynical guy and I think sometimes he has really great thoughts, sometimes he has random thoughts that I’m like “Woah, what’s he on?” He’s got a different online personality from what I expected. But I appreciate it because it’s a character, it’s a role, he’s inhabiting the theatrics of it as well. Him writing something like that, I thought that was really interesting because it makes you go “What made him feel the need to say that? What just happened to him?” Or, “What did he just read?”
AB: Did you respond?
LF: No. Not directly. I didn’t even ‘favourite it’. To be honest, I don’t really feel that comfortable with Twitter yet. My Dad’s really good at it, he’s a great tweeter. I enjoy his but it’s not my cup of tea. I still look at it and use it for promotion, because if I don’t, I get fucking emails from my label going “why are you not?” But I think everyone finds their little voice in this social networking world and for me it’s not Twitter. For Dad it is, and for Ruban it is. I’ve got so much respect for Ruban and I think he is a genius, effortlessly so, and just a brilliant songwriter.
Lorde’s getting really big: fucking brilliant. It doesn’t mean anything for the rest of us, but fuck it’s nice to see someone cut through because it’s so rare. But I’m intrigued as to why Ruban would be frustrated. It’s very unique to them [Lorde and Joel Little], their sound, and they’re doing really well. I don’t know why we’re still talking about this. What happened to make him think that people are faking revering originality? He must be feeling a bit underappreciated in some area, I don’t know.
But it made me think, that’s true. I spend my fucking life trying to be original and then you realise that counts against you. If you make something that makes someone go “Fuck, I don’t know where to place this” or “I don’t know how he has one song that has a guitar riff and one song that doesn’t even have guitars in it next to each other, oooh!”
It’s funny that even your cynical music fans who think they love just the coolest stuff, the most authentic, real this or that, are still just fucking fake themselves because people just get dished up. It’s so much more to do with perception and timing; someone could make a deeply original amazing record and it went out and Kanye tweeted about and everyone is like “Yeah of course I love that, it’s brilliant.” But Kanye doesn’t tweet about it and people will go “I don’t know how to handle that, I can’t pigeonhole it.”
AB: Many people are like lemmings with cool trends: The Datsuns, Shihad, Fat Freddy’s Drop.
LF: God, you feel for those people: this job is rife with self-doubt anyway, but to have the attention of the world for a minute and then not. You’ve got to constantly redefine why you’re doing it. You’ve got to constantly got to be doing it for yourself and the right reasons and also be following your own muse, because you can’t please everyone. And it’s completely out of our control. That’s why I didn’t finish this record when I got told I should’ve. Because I was just like “I’m not going to put all this work into it, not feel like I realised my vision, and then it not do anything.” I would rather it realise my vision, and it not do anything and me not give a shit because I got how I wanted it.
AB: What about dealing with labels and paying your rent?
LF: It’s shit. I lost two record deals on this record because they didn’t believe in what I did as an artist. They didn’t think they would make money on it. And they had lost enough money on me that they didn’t see it as possible to stick with me through making something that was my vision and they didn’t have anything to do with. So as much as you go good riddance, you’re also like “Hang on, am I deluded here? I think what I’m doing is the best thing I’ve ever done.” And to have people that once loved what you did makes you realise that everyone is just looking out for themselves, and it’s a business, and the only people who care about it as much as you do are the people doing it themselves. So no one’s ever going to care about your career as much as you do, it’s obvious. So therefore don’t listen to them. Do what seems right for you and your gut. You can’t start forming your choices on the idea of getting successful.
AB: Any further advice on negotiating with labels?
LF: Just be really thankful when someone is supportive. There’s going to be dickheads left, right, and centre along the way, but when you have the support of a record company, even if it’s just that moment in time, just be really thankful that anyone at all wants to give you attention. I couldn’t get Betchadupa released in the States. We got flown around by labels and all these quite exciting times where it was bidding wars and then not one of them signed us. So it was all kind of because the other label was going to and when the other label didn’t, the one that was the most keen went “Hang on, if they’re not going to do it, oh, actually, no” and dropped off.
So when I made I’ll Be Lightning and I met Yep Roc, they were the most genuine fans of what I was doing and actually had a realistic little idea of what we could do. Then what it did completely surpassed any expectation. That was brilliant. It was exciting for me and it was exciting for them and I think that’s why they’ve been so supportive. And I think the same goes for Liberation New Zealand. They’re excited about the new record, and in it for the long haul as a career thing. Every label says, “Oh we’re not going for the quick success thing, we want to build up a career,” which is complete bullshit [chuckles]. If they don’t make their money back, they’re probably going to drop you.
AB: You appreciate Lorde shares firm views, she doesn’t want to fit into some bland pop role?
LF: It’s subjective, but being unapologetic is really important. Back yourself. Everyone fucks up. You’re going to say some stupid stuff, but just be unapologetic.
AB: You had a manic phase making The Nihilist?
LF: Like I said, I had my main people paying for my record pull out and I had no money. (The money I did have I’d spent on making this record and then had a label pull out on me.) To be honest, that didn’t have anything to do with how the record turned out at all but it does shake you up and make you. It’s probably a nihilist point of view as well. There’s no wrong emotion and there’s no right emotion—there is just emotion, and there is obviously a good and bad in every one of them, and there’s something to learn out of each one of them.
I hate things like “every cloud has its silver lining” and I think that that just cheapens the actual philosophy of it, which is the fact that shit’s just going to happen. Through nihilism, the one positive thing I grasped from this: it’s not the losing all hope and the negativity of not believing anything. It’s the man or woman’s journey to redefining what they believe again. And that’s what this record was.
AB: So was that the second label dumping you that led to the manic phase?
LF: No, to be honest, I was already pretty fucking manic. I felt like at least I was getting something that I believed in again. And then to have people go, “oh we don’t believe it” makes you more like a wild fucking [man]—I’ve got no spite in me for those labels because I understand that it’s nothing personal. It’s got nothing to do with even the music. It’s just a business decision. I guess it’s just a roll-with-the-punches situation in life. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
It makes me more clear about what I want to do, which is not just making my own music, but just being part of making music and helping other people realise their vision for music. I feel lucky to have such a strong vision of what I want to do. A lot of songwriters write great songs but they don’t know how to make it sound like they thought, or they don’t even know what they want it to sound like. That’s something that I’m getting more into now since I’ve become a much better engineer. To be able to capture sounds—I’ve gotten far more into the science of it. It’s just being creative. It is being an artist, and that can be anything. I like making little short films and I like making art in all forms. Music is the most conversational one for me, [the one] that I feel comfortable with. So I will be doing it until the day I die. If I’m on the bones of my ass, I’m on the bones of my ass, but I don’t want to let some business like a record company make me lose faith in myself for the wrong reasons.
AB: There are similarities being a writer.
LF: Well the struggle’s good, isn’t it?
AB: It keeps you on your fucking game, otherwise you can’t survive, that’s for sure.
LF: Apart from someone like Beyoncé—she has people writing her songs, obviously, some of the richer songwriters in the world. I feel like you can’t really care about music that was made out of being really comfortable. It is different for Kanye and people like that, but then he seems like he’s constantly suffering just from his own madness. I feel like if you get successful and it gets a bit easy for you, it’s just a drone, no worth. It’s just mediocre.
AB: You and Neil sang a nice cover of ‘Not Given Lightly’ at the Pearl Jam 20th anniversary celebrations. Has Chris Knox influenced you as a performer?
LF: I can’t say that I really listened that much to Tall Dwarfs or Chris Knox. I mean, I know ‘Not Given Lightly’, I know a good handful of his songs, and I’ve always really liked them. I totally admire the guy and obviously he’s battled some intense times to still be up there performing. I think as a performer, yeah, fuck, he’s amazing. Anybody like Neil Young, that non-compromising, has their way of doing things, and he’s another one of those unafraid and unapologetic guys. That’s an inspiration.
AB: How do you feel about people bringing up your Dad?
LF: If people make the assumption that I’ve had an easy life, well they’re half right, because I’ve had a fucking lucky upbringing and I’m definitely fortunate in my life to have such an awesome family that I’m incredibly close with. But if that taints the way they look at my music, I don’t really need them as fans anyway. I’ve been doing this since I was fifteen, releasing records. I was never affected by it or really cared about people mentioning Dad. I thought I was quite a mature kid and knew I’d have to deal with it.
Some people who I’m hoping are going to like my music form their opinion through going “so he’s someone’s son?” So that just immediately taints the way they listen to it. It pisses off my actual fans when they read it. I get things from fans going “why are they still?” It’s becoming far more touchy than it ever was.
AB: You played Baton Rouge, Louisiana the night Obama was re-elected and you said that apathy thing, people didn’t seem to really care.
LF: I feel like it’s the middle left that have become the most apathetic. You can almost relate more to the fucking Conservatives these days.
AB: Your song ‘Lucid Dream’ is very effective in Kiwi classic Rain. Are you interested in composing more songs for films?
LF: Fuck yeah.
AB: The Nihilist is cinematic.
LF: I originally had this plan to make this whole movie along to the record and let it be streamed for the first time, but then I realised that you can’t do everything [laughs]. I’ve now realised that delegating is as good as doing everything yourself as a control freak.
AB: Just as long as you delegate to the right people.
LF: And that’s hard.
Getting to know Kirin J Callinan, and making music with him and making music videos with him, it’s been really inspiring. Now that I don’t live in the same cities as James Milne and Connan Mockasin, I was missing that in my life, someone who really inspired me and made me trust my own visions a bit more. Meeting Kirin was at a really good time in this record where I was getting a little bogged down. He came along and made me realise that it can be fun to be creative, again.
AB: Your 2012 Puppies gig—a sideshow to the Finns’ performance of Neil’s Hobbit song at the premiere—was invigorating, really got the audience swinging their hips. A drunken bozo kept yelling asinine comments like, “Family band!” After about the fifth time, you responded wittily: “Is John Key in the audience?” Has your performance philosophy changed at all recently?
LF: No, but this [Auckland] show we did the other night was a completely new chapter in performing for me. Not that I expected it, but it felt like—mature would be a horrible word to use—I wasn’t just going out there and giving into my primal urge to just scream and make loud noises and hit drums like I was for a long time. It’s more like there’s a lot of power and potential energy and that’s still in there if you’re not getting it out. It still comes out, but some of the songs really need me to be a bit more grounded. Like ‘Ocean Emmanuelle’, the first track; I have to really tell myself to chill the fuck out before I play that one otherwise it won’t sound right. You’ve got to sing that with the subtlety that it has on the record. So it feels like a new era. But I think it’s got potential for being more theatrical than ever.