Neil and Liam Finn: “We needed to get to the end with the family relationship intact - music is a highly charged thing to do”

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(Image: © Russ Flatt)

It’s hard to rebel against your parents’ music tastes when, in the case of Liam Finn, your Dad is Crowded House man Neil Finn - an international star and one of his generation’s most admired songwriters. 

Liam has never let that get in the way of his own musical endeavours, though, which have their own distinctive Finn flavour - hooky, yet wild and hallucinogenic. Liam’s 2014 record The Nihilist cannily tackled assumptions about escaping a famous parent’s shadow with the chaotic Wrestle With Dad, which was accompanied by a (now, sadly, unavailable) video of the two Finns - elder and younger - wrestling in their underwear. 

We Know What It Means... Dad wrote that pretty straight-forwardly about the way we grew up. The uniqueness of growing up on the road

Liam Finn

The two have since toured together extensively, playing each other’s music, an experience that - alongside the auspicious timing of Liam’s wedding in 2015 and the subsequent birth of his son - has led to their first collaborative record, the (genuinely) excellent Lightsleeper. The record also features Connan Mockasin and Mick Fleetwood and, as Neil tells us, led directly to his appointment alongside Mike Campbell in the new-look Fleetwood Mac.

We spoke to Liam and Neil Finn about the unique dynamic of being a family band, how they see each other as musicians and Neil’s new gig with the returning ‘Mac.

This record looks at your relationship and broader family against the backdrop of your marriage and birth of your first child, Liam. Did you always plan to address that theme?

Liam: “When we entered into this record, we didn’t have any conscious plan of how honest it was going to be, or how autobiographical it was going to be. We just wanted to see what it sounded like jamming and creating atmospheres and that was involving my mum Sharon on bass and my brother Elroy, who play with us live. We kind of wanted to see what we sound like as a family band - and songs came out of that. Like Meet Me In The Air, that was pretty much the moment of conception of that song. That’s what we really sound like just jamming. 

“Song-wise, the first song that was pretty much properly written with words very early on in the process was We Know What It Means and, I guess, sort of un-self-consciously, Dad wrote that pretty straight-forwardly about the way we grew up. The uniqueness of growing up on the road. Dad was very inclusive and we were very lucky to be able to stick together as a family through all those years of touring. We weren’t always there, but a large part of my childhood was a tourbus or backstage at shows. I think it was a huge part of what fuelled my passion and obsession with music. 

“It was quite obvious after that song - which was written almost in one go, even all the words - that there was something genuine there and it didn’t feel too corny to be singing about stuff like that. It actually felt really right and exciting and beautiful in its own way.”

(Image: © Russ Flatt)

Tension and harmony

Were there any conflicts between you given you were writing together for the first time?

Neil: “I think we were very sensitive to not letting any tense, difficult moments - and every musical process has them - develop into anything that made us feel weird about the fact that we were working together. We needed to get to the end with the family relationship intact - that much we knew - so we stepped back, possibly, from the odd flashpoint here and there. Music is a highly charged thing to do and some days it just doesn’t feel right or go right and you don’t agree with the way somebody’s worked on something that’s dear to you, but we’re well-used to that, anyway. We were just real tolerant, I think, of each other. 

We had cleared the decks with the Wrestle With Dad video. We really did go quite hard in that. Harder than a father should really go with his son...

Neil Finn

“We had cleared the decks a little bit, I think, with the Wrestle With Dad video because that was like, inadvertently, we really did go quite hard in that. Harder than a father should really go with his son, because I didn’t want to appear weak on screen. And also, I was wearing such a ridiculous pair of underpants that I came back a little harder and more aggressively because of that! So I think we sorted quite a lot out. It was therapeutic that particular experience.”

You mentioned the tension. Obviously you need some tension to aid the dynamic and the feel of the record. Was it tempting to pull your punches, given it’s your family?

Liam: “You need the tension, but then you need the release of harmony. That’s what’s good about tension. It’s the same in film and comedy and stuff like that. It’s all an ebb and a flow. I think that we found that quite naturally without trying too hard, because we both care a lot.

“We both wanted to make the record great, we both wanted the same outcome, so it was a really delicate balance of being blunt and not precious about things but also really pushing each other to get the best performance. That was what was a really great discovery for both of us is that we’re actually really good collaborators in the sense that we know each other’s music so well and each other’s talents. We were able to guide each other to get the best out of each other. So I think, in a way, it was a really positive and healthy tension and intensity that we had created.”

Neil: “Yeah, and it was probably timely that we learnt how you can still achieve a good friction and a few good creative collisions without needing to be over-dramatic or over-emphatic, or dogmatic. All the ‘atics’! I’ve been probably guilty of that in my relationships with other musicians in the past. I think we realised that, by taking a breath, you can still summon up that energy and that emotional heat and spread it out over a couple of hours, instead of 20 seconds.”

Going through phrases

There’s been a lot written about the Finn family’s music gene, but what distinguishes you as musicians in each other’s minds?

Liam: “I’ve grown up hearing Dad’s music since I was a kid and it’s been a huge influence on me. In a large part, the way he uses harmonies and melody is the real iconic thing of Dad’s songwriting. That was something that I was really excited about - getting to do that together.

“Harmonies are not always as simple as singing a third or fifth above the main vocal. Sometimes you don’t realise that someone hears something completely different and comes in from a completely different angle. And also just the craft of it. Working on a song really hard, but to the point that it sounds like it wasn’t hard at all and it sounds right. That’s something that Dad’s always done really well.”

The way he uses harmonies and melody is the real iconic thing of Dad’s songwriting. I was excited about getting to do that together

Liam Finn

Neil: “I would say that one of Liam’s qualities as a musician is to explore the blurry margins of arrangement for a more interesting musical response. That could be a [full] arrangement, but also just the way he phrases a vocal. A less obvious phrasing sometimes means it is more intimate.

“I tend to be very attracted to very clockwork, precision phrasing. I’m happy to be that guy, but I also think it’s good to look at melodic phrasing from a different angle and I think Liam’s got that really nice way of slightly blurring the edges so you’ve got a more intriguing mix. A good example of that is the idea he came up for Meet Me In The Air. The idea he came up with had a way of moving around the chords that wouldn’t have occurred to me. We got into the nuances of what we do. I think we’ve taken away a little bit, both of us from this experience, a little bit of assurance about the things we do that are enduring and maybe jettisoning a few things that are more habits that you fall into.”

Outside of the immediate family you’ve got Mick Fleetwood and Connan Mockasin, two musicians from opposite ends of the spectrum. Why those two, outside of the immediate family?

Liam: “Connan’s been a really good friend of ours for a long time now. I got to know him when I lived in London. We became very close and we’ve made a lot of music over the years. Towards the end, we realised that there were just a few songs that kind of had holes. Connan’s got such a unique way of filling in those holes with his woozy, very particular-to-him guitar playing. It really gave it a unique bent on some of the songs, like Meet Me In The Air, Any Other Way and stuff like that, so we were really happy to get him on there. He’s almost an honorary member of the family. Mick, on the other hand, was a completely different way…”

I rather flippantly asked Mick Fleetwood if he wanted to come and play some drums on this record and, surprisingly but wonderfully, he said, ‘Yeah, sure!

Neil Finn

Neil: “Yeah, I met Mick years ago and we just connected in a very short conversation and then we saw each other like 15 years later or something. Again, we went out to dinner and really connected, so I rather flippantly asked him if he wanted to come and play some drums on this record Liam and I were going to make and, surprisingly but wonderfully, he said, ‘Yeah, sure! I’ll come down…’

“He loves New Zealand so he was here for a week when we were recording some of these things, so he played some beautiful drums on three of the songs and told some great stories - and raised the general sartorial level a lot! New Zealanders are sometimes naturally a little shy about asking someone to do something, but the few times I have, it’s surprising how if you ask the question at the right time and it seems like a genuinely good, fun idea, they say yes!”

Return of the 'Mac

On the flip side, Mick asked you to join Fleetwood Mac recently, Neil. Was the time you spent together on this record key to that invitation?

Neil: “It led to it, for sure. It certainly led to it I think, because that experience was fresh in his mind. I never saw it coming in a million years. We’d got to know him and we were friends and friends of the family. Liam had stayed with him in Hawaii for a few days and it was just a really nice relationship there anyway and I think that possibly gave him the confidence to make the call. He was obviously thought that it was in my sphere and I was flattered by that. 

I think [Mike Campbell and I will] play well together. It’s early days and we’ve not started rehearsing properly yet, but something is happening

Neil Finn

“They’re an amazing band. He and John McVie are one of the best rhythm sections ever and then there’s Christine and Stevie’s voices. So when he asked me, I was completely shocked, really, but with a bit of encouragement from Liam and Elroy and Sharon, I thought, ‘Well, you’re gonna have to go and have a crack at it and see what it sounds like’. And it sounded great and felt great.”

What’s it been like developing that playing relationship with Mike Campbell for that role? Liam, you’ve been watching that close-up as well…

Liam: “Yeah, well it was all new to me as well. Obviously, Dad went over and had a jam with them and then accepted the role and we were all very excited about it but it still felt like something that we were about to all wake up from and go ‘That was an intense dream!’  

Neil: “Yeah!”

Liam: “Then finally seeing them all together for that press conference and then, a day or two after that, we did a show in LA and that’s when Mike came down and we all got to play. That’s where I guess Dad and Mike made their first public appearance together and I guess it just made it seem all the more real in a really positive sense. Mike seemed like such a relatable guitar player, rather than a virtuoso. Yeah, he’s just really got a feel for it.”

Neil: “He’s got some grease.”

Liam: “It’s flowing through him, rather than being the technical thing, you know.”

Neil: “I think we’ll play well together. I’ve got that feeling from the couple of jams we’ve had. It’s early days and we’ve not started rehearsing properly yet, but something is happening. When you’re in a room playing with somebody, you find out pretty quickly whether there’s an empathy there and I think there is.”

Memories

What will be your enduring memory of the sessions?

Liam: “I think there were a lot of moments that were really memorable. Obviously, getting to play with Mick was a huge thing and a real buzz for me. I’m a big Fleetwood Mac fan. But I think it was probably towards the end of the session when I got to record the strings and hear them play these beautiful arrangements, it was the first time I’d ever heard live strings being recorded on one of my songs. Also, it was on one of the songs I wrote as a lullaby to my child and he was there…”

Neil: “Yeah, it was pretty special. But then, of course, he took that same string arrangement down to the tunnel down the road from his house and put a little speaker out there and re-recorded it with the sound of the traffic! It’s sort of a distressed version of these beautiful strings and that’s what you hear on Hold Her Close.”

Liam: “It sounded too nice, to be honest - I wanted it to sound like you were half-asleep and had cars driving past!”

Lightsleeper is out on 24 August via Inertia Music and [PIAS].