Liam Finn is one of many musical talents making a guest appearance in this year's Basement Theatre Christmas fundraiser, Nov19-Dec19, an annual institution of anarchic yuletide entertainment. Liam is also about to release a new album, then tour New Zealand in March as a member of Crowded House.
I grew up surrounded by a very youthful group of adults. Everyone was pretty child-like in spirit. There is something about being in a band, and making music that keeps your sense of fun alive, so it was as if I grew up around loads of big kids - between Split Enz and Crowded House, they're a funny bunch.
From the moment I was born there was never a closed door. That was really important to Mum and Dad. They wanted to create an environment that was always welcoming to their kids, and that's something we continue to do with our kids. We don't say: 'sorry this is our domain you have to stay out of the studio'. And it worked quite well for me and my brother. We became good at hanging out with adults, to know when it was time for craziness, and when it was time to be mellow.
We were taken out of school a fair bit, but we never fell behind. There was never much time in each place but we went to amazing art galleries, and museums, and Mum and Dad made sure we were always reading books, that our brains were always expanding. We also learnt how to learn, and we wanted to learn, and that's really important.
In fourth form, I went on tour with Dad, playing in the band for the first time. What started out as playing on a few songs at rehearsal quickly became learning the whole set. I had to get good quick. In fifth form I did my School C at Selwyn College and started Betchadupa [Finn's first band] with some good friends. Everything seemed possible, and I was obsessed.
At 17 I was probably at my most prolific, making music and writing songs daily. There is something creatively magical at that age, having a youthful self-belief before being knocked back. There's also the catharsis of writing songs and I definitely romanticised what it was to go on stage every night, to see the effect music has on people, to spread positivity and happiness.
I never formally studied music. As a kid, I took piano lessons with an old Polish man whose house smelled like cabbage, which I'm sorry to say put me off. I regret that now as I wish I played better. I only did one guitar lesson. The teacher taught me how to play power chords. Dad had showed me bits and pieces, but these power chords, once I'd figured out how to play these simple shapes, I could play any song I wanted as those chords were the basis of every grunge song I loved back then.
Three of us from Betchadupa left school to pursue music full-time while our bass player finished sixth form. After completing our second record, we moved to Melbourne and not long after that we moved again, to London, in 2004. The struggle of being a young unknown band was really good for us. We were trying to get a record contract, and build a fanbase, always teetering on success but never really getting there. And with all the craziness, being young in a big dirty city like London, we fell apart a little bit. When I realised I was writing songs that didn't suit the band, I started doing small solo shows in little venues around East London, experimenting with looping my guitar, then maniacally thrashing away on drums. The crowds stepped forward, and I knew I was onto something exciting.
At that time I also went through a break-up and, with the band and the relationship not working out, I reached an emotional low, a kind of breaking point. I think it was a relief when we started to do other things - maybe I was oblivious to the others for a while, as I was so besotted with my new stuff. It did take time to get over the breakups, but once I had bored my friends to death talking constantly about it, I snapped out of it.
I came home in summer 2006 and made my first solo record on an old analogue tape machine. It felt like the beginning of a new area. The stars aligned and that record took me around the world doing all the things I'd hoped Betchadupa would do. I was sad I didn't get to do those things with my old friends, but I knew I had to make the most of it and enjoy it.
As far as inner turmoil goes, making music is hard. You have sweet times, but there are also moments when you feel you're chasing something you can't quite grasp. And every record process has a huge hole where you feel nobody cares, but you work through it. There are so many rabbit holes of self-doubt to fall down but half of this job is perseverance.
One thing Dad taught me is that it's not supposed to be easy, and sometimes you will agonise, but at the end of the day it's just music. And the best thing about music is that it unites people, it helps people relate to each other, and helps us through situations, to process things and maintain perspective.
After every record, I always ask myself: do I want to keep doing this? Especially now I'm in a really great relationship and we've got kids. Because I know I put myself through anxious times to try to draw good art out, but that feels irresponsible when you have kids, and somebody you love has to deal with you. After making a few solo records, I definitely crave collaboration again, to not carry the weight on my shoulders.
Working with Dad has been an amazing experience. The realisation that we wanted to make a record together coincided with my wife getting pregnant. That felt auspicious, and after 15 years of doing my own thing, Dad and I both felt it was the right time. It's not always harmonious, there are tense moments, we're both strong-willed and opinionated, but we've learnt to navigate the tensions, and we value each other's vision and opinions. He's also wiped my bum, there's got to be some alchemy in that.
Being good to the people you work with is so important. I've witnessed a lot of people in the music industry who are out for themselves, but the people you meet on the ascent, you'll see them again on the descent. Creating goodwill, forming strong relationships, good networks, and clear ideals, that contributes to the good fortune of being able to make music for life.
My wife and I have lived in the US for nine years. We love it. We had two children there, they're American citizens, but this has been a crazy year for everyone, how each thing has mounted up. With Trump and Covid. At first it looked as if California was dealing with Covid pretty well, then Black Lives Matter felt like a monumental time to be in LA, but it also felt like the edge of chaos. Then came the fires, and one night we had a decent 4.7 earthquake, and everything, combined with the looming election, it felt like we were in a haunted house that was saying "GET OUT!" It would've been silly not to listen and come home.
My whole life has had a "play it by ear" quality, which is probably why this current situation doesn't feel as intimidating as it could. We don't know what's happening in American politics, combined with the pandemic, it's impossible to know what the next six months holds, so for now we'll make the most of being here, and we definitely won't be taking anything for granted.
• To book tickets go to: www.basementtheatre.co.nz
• To see more of Liam go to: www.instagram.com/liamfinn