Lydia Jenkin

Lydia Jenkin is an entertainment feature writer for the New Zealand Herald.

Liam Finn: A leap in the dark

Basing himself in New York has influenced the sound of Liam Finn's nocturnally-themed new album, he tells Lydia Jenkin.

When he released his last album, Liam Finn was thinking about FOMO - the fear of missing out. One could argue, that if you took the title of his next album at face value, he seems to have decided that there is actually nothing to worry about missing out on.

"I knew the title would stir things up" he laughs in Auckland a few days before returning to his base in New York. "It took me a long time to choose the title. I guess I was a little bit afraid of being labelled as a nihilist, because to a lot of people, nihilism seems like a pretty dark and scary thing.

"And it is, in an existential sense, I guess, but what made me come around to naming the record The Nihilist, was the idea that each song was painting a portrait of a different reality that I was exploring. And it was almost the opposite idea, in terms of thinking that maybe there's more than what we see and believe."

"I guess I'd kind of consider myself a political nihilist in a way. I don't believe that we know very much about what's really going on - even the sites you trust always have angles. I guess it's more of an extreme scepticism, but I like the fact that this title has sparked a bit of conversation."

Fear not, Finn has not become a conspiracy theorist, nor a depressed madman, he is still very much the jovial, energetic, beardy man with a knack for a turn of phrase or melody, that's made him popular worldwide.

And the album is not a political statement either, it's far more whimsical and atmospheric than that, steeped in a kind of late night headspin, which might have something to do with the fact that Finn did a lot of work during the witching hours, looking out of his little studio windows across New York.

"I kind of had this whole thing, that I was inhabiting these characters or stories, and imagining them playing out somewhere in the city. There was this window in my little studio, and when you look out at night, New York looks like some sort of futuristic post-apocalyptic metropolis," he says.

"You can almost see it breathing, and I liked the idea that as I physically sat there, maybe my subconscious was over there somewhere. The notion that every little 'what if' thought, was actually playing out across the city somewhere."

He wasn't trying to make a fictitious album as such, just tap into his subconscious more.

"The songs actually came out more personal than I intended. But I've realised that the only way I feel like I can sing with conviction, is to just see what comes out - and if you end up going 'oh shit, that's a bit revealing', then so be it."

He's been working on the songs for The Nihilist since he stopped touring FOMO in 2012, and found himself some new studio space in Green Point - a group of 30-something guys who were setting up a new studio let him rent the various uninhabited spaces they had, where Finn could write and demo with usual bandmates, Eliza-Jane Barnes and brother Elroy, and talented New Zealand friends like Andrew Keoghan and Jol Mulholland.

When it came to recording, he tracked pretty much the whole album in the finished studio, but quickly realised that some straightforward studio recordings weren't going to be enough.

"I realised I'd started losing some of that atmosphere that I created on my own, and yet again, that maybe my vision isn't necessarily to make hi-fi studio albums. So I took everything that I'd done in the proper studio away myself, and spent another seven months deconstructing it and reconstructing it. I think everyone around me thought I was being a bit crazy, but it didn't sound like it did in my head. I did ultimately use all of the performance aspects that we'd recorded - I wanted it to have a human element, and not be just me playing on it, like the last two records - but I wanted to work on the sound."

Through those seven months he essentially became nocturnal, heading into the studio as the sun went down, and coming out when it came up.

"It was probably the most maddening and obsessive part of it. It was really quite solitary, but really fun. I almost existed in this other reality that I was trying to imagine and create, which was kind of cool. I've never actually lived nocturnally like that before, but it was worth it."

Finn plays a total of 67 instruments on the album and a few different iPhone apps.

"To make a lot of the sounds, I added two or three instruments together to make one line sound like an instrument that no one has ever heard before. It's ridiculous, and I doubt I'll ever do it again, but for me, I wanted it to not sound like something from the 60s, or futuristic, I wanted it to sound like something that was happening right now with the things I had to use right now."

A lot of tracks started with creating a groove, whether that was jamming with Elroy on the drums, using looping pedals, or the apps to write beats that he could play along with.

"I was kind of buzzing myself out that I was making these urban type sounds" he laughs.

"You know, like 'Oooh, that sounds a bit like hip-hop!"' he explains with Graham-Norton-esque enthusiasm. "I think living in a city like New York, it becomes the soundtrack of where you are a bit more, and I liked that it was having an influence on me, because I've always loved the production on a lot of RnB and hip-hop and pop - I think it's far more fearless and risk taking than indie rock to be honest. I'm kind of bored shitless about indie rock at the moment, unless it's a really good song."

It seems, that rather than asserting that nothing is real, with The Nihilist, Finn has become interested in being as real to himself as possible. Not mincing words, revealing his inner thoughts, and letting the songs come out exactly as his brain directed - no questioning, or modification.

"When I made FOMO, I almost tried to make my songs simpler, because I knew that I was quite prone to making complicated things. But then I did, and I was really happy and really proud of the album, but what I realised was that me making the songs simpler didn't necessarily count for anything, it was just me forcing a new rule on myself to make it different.

"So this one, I let it be whatever my brain wanted it to be, instinctively, while also being conscious of keeping the emotive element in there, because it is a very emotional record to me.

" It's the hardest I've ever worked on anything. Not in a contrived emotional way, but in that I wanted to preserve what I was really feeling about these songs - and not just singing it so I got it in tune, but trying to inhabit them - so they felt right."

Who: Liam Finn
What: New album The Nihilist, out tomorrow

- TimeOut

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