The Ties That Bind

Q (UK) - - The Ties That Bind - Pho­tog­ra­phy: Rachael Wright

As a found­ing mem­ber of Split Enz and Crowded House, Kiwi mu­si­cal leg­end Neil Finn has al­ways made mu­sic with fam­ily mem­bers. So it was only a mat­ter of time be­fore he recorded an al­bum with his son, the singer-song­writer Liam, rop­ing in other mem­bers of the Finn clan along the way. Eve Bar­low sat fa­ther and son down at Liam’s din­ing ta­ble in LA to hear about the dy­namic. “We’re a kick-arse fam­ily band,” they de­clare.

Some of Neil Finn’s best lines came out of his son Liam’s mouth when he was a kid, deliri­ous with fever. The lyric, “here comes Mrs Hairy Legs” from the 1991 Crowded House hit Choco­late Cake was one. Pineap­ple Head, an­other suc­cess for the Kiwi in­die-pop out­fit, was an­other. “That was a bit more po­etic,” says Liam, sat round the din­ing ta­ble in­side his LA home, his fa­ther next to him. “Yeah, he came up with four or five lines on that,” con­cedes Neil. “He was say­ing all this weird stuff in his sleep so I went down­stairs… It’s an on­go­ing copy­right bat­tle but it paid for his ed­u­ca­tion, and a few pairs of pants.” The song­writ­ing splits are not as com­pli­cated on Light­sleeper, the New Zealand duo’s first ever col­lab­o­ra­tive al­bum. Neil, 60, has turned most im­me­di­ate fa­mil­ial re­la­tion­ships into mu­sic-mak­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties. It be­gan with new wave band Split Enz, orig­i­nally founded by Neil’s big brother Tim Finn. Neil joined in 1977 un­til the band broke up in ’ 85, af­ter which he and drum­mer Paul Hester formed Crowded House. Tim soon joined too and, via hits like Weather With You and Don’t Dream It’s Over, they en­joyed huge in­ter­na­tional suc­cess be­fore call­ing it a day in 1996. Since then, Neil’s con­cen­trated on solo ma­te­rial. He’s also made two al­bums with Tim as The Finn Broth­ers and em­barked on a side-project with wife Sharon called Pa­jama Party, a project de­signed to ward off empty nest syn­drome. Liam, 34, in­her­ited the mu­si­cal gene. He dropped out of school early. Un­like Neil, his ca­reer placed him out of his home coun­try; he moved to Lon­don with alt-rock band Betchadupa in his early 20s. When they im­ploded, Liam be­gan his solo work, mak­ing three al­bums of melodic singer-song­writer in­die-rock, start­ing with 2007’ s I’ll Be Light­ning. He’s opened for Ed­die Ved­der and played for The Black Keys. Grow­ing up on the road gave him a head start. “I grew up with a bunch of big kids,” he says. “There were all kinds of weird char­ac­ters in my child­hood.” One such char­ac­ter, the “won­der­fully nutty” Pink, used to date Split Enz bassist Nigel Griggs. Pink was en­trusted as the cel­e­brant for Liam and wife Jan­ina Per­ci­val’s pa­gan wed­ding in Greece in 2015. On the is­land of Paxos, they let their imag­i­na­tions run riot, con­ceiv­ing of a fan­tas­ti­cal cer­e­mony fea­tur­ing El­roy Finn – Liam’s big brother, also mu­si­cal – as a shirt­less Po­sei­don. “Pink was com­pletely un­qual­i­fied,” ex­plains Neil. As per her in­struc­tions, guests leapt into the wa­ter and chanted non­sense. Liam’s mother gave him away and Jan­ina’s brother lifted Liam into the air (“prof­fer­ing me to the Gods”) as “Po­sei­don” rose out of the lake with a tri­dent. “It was more of a fork re­ally,” laughs Neil. The night ended early for Liam, who dis­lo­cated his thumb. “The tav­erna owner gave dad and a friend a shot of hal­lu­cino­genic liqueur. My friend went into a frenzy.” Said friend picked him up in an awk­ward fash­ion. “I landed on my head and was knocked out.” When he came to, peo­ple were stand­ing over him. “My thumb was stick­ing out there,” says Liam, demon­strat­ing an un­sightly an­gle. “I smacked it back into place in­stinc­tively. Which is luck­ily the right thing to do.” Luck­ily, Pink had also told Neil to write a mu­si­cal ac­com­pa­ni­ment to sound­track a mo­ment of free ex­pres­sive dance. That track – Is­land Of Peace – was in­spired by the ar­rhyth­mic sounds of ci­cadas out­side his ho­tel room. It was the seed for fa­ther and son’s col­lab­o­ra­tion and three sum­mers later it forms the cer­e­mo­nial opener to the Balearic, jam-driven LP. “Work­ing to­gether was al­ways on the cards,” says Liam. “The stars aligned. It was the right time. We’ve al­ways been close but in the last few years we’ve been en­joy­ing the im­por­tance of fam­ily.”

When his kids were lit­tle, Neil had an open door pol­icy. “Every­one could be any­where when I was work­ing,” he says. “The up­shot is that we can now play mu­sic re­ally well to­gether. We’re a kick-arse fam­ily band.” In this morn­ing’s light, Neil and Liam are un­mis­take­able rel­a­tives, Neil’s blue eyes slightly duller than Liam’s. De­spite the age gap their rev­er­ence is as mu­tual as that of peers, not kin. Of­fer­ing dad a cup of cof­fee, Liam adds, “I have goat’s milk, it’s good.” Neil con­tem­plates it. “I’ll take your word for it,” he re­sponds. Neil and Liam learned to trust each other’s in­stinct while mak­ing the record. Most of their ideas came to fruition back in Auck­land in De­cem­ber 2015. Re­united at Christ­mas, they got to work, riff­ing in the clan’s stu­dio (“the Finn com­pound”) be­low the house. Liam stayed through the spring. “The room we wrote in holds a lot of his­tory for us,” says Liam. With mum, dad, and El­roy in tow, the Finns turned their con­ver­sa­tions into songs while muck­ing around with synths and drum ma­chines. “We had no pre­con­cep­tion of what we would sound like,” says Liam. We call our genre ‘sul­try lounge’ mu­sic.” The duo wanted the whole LP to feel in­dul­gent and long-form; Meet Me In The Air is a dream­like wooze, Where’s My Room is a spa­cious opus with strings, Hid­ing Place con­tains or­ches­tral swathes and talk of UFOs. That’s Liam’s do­ing. Once back in LA, he was drunk dur­ing the wee hours in his stu­dio. “It was stream-of-con­scious­ness,” he says. “Half of it made sense, half didn’t.” The line, “A woman from Ice­land/Hand­some by ac­cent” was gib­ber­ish to him, but not to Neil. “When I was at school I sat be­hind a girl from Ice­land,” he says. “She had the most ex­tra­or­di­nary calf mus­cles. I had to look at them all day.” These con­ver­sa­tions echo the al­bum’s mak­ing, one they came to as equals. It took some tol­er­ance but as two worldly men, there was a re­spect for each other that helped them out­ma­noeu­vre any kinks. Mu­sic is their uni­fier. “It’s nat­u­ral as hell for us,” gasps Neil. What did they nur­ture in each other? “Well, we’re both pedan­tic and ob­ses­sive,” he says. “I have a fas­ci­na­tion with songs fit­ting to­gether like clock­work. Liam has a fas­ci­na­tion with things be­ing blurry. We held a mir­ror up to each other’s com­pul­sions. I was able to point out to Liam where I re­ally liked his voice.” He turns to his son. “You’ve got a strong falsetto. It made me re­alise that I’m not thrilled with my falsetto.” Liam shakes his head. “That’s your own thing,” says Liam. “No,” barks Neil. “I’m be­ing ob­jec­tive about that.” Neil’s ob­jec­tive­ness is tan­ta­mount and ob­ses­sive. He doesn’t like to get sen­ti­men­tal. Q of­fers that one of the most gor­geous lines on the al­bum is in We Know What It Means: “more than any­one alive, you know that I’m alive”. “That was an ac­ci­dent,” says Neil. “Dad was chuck­ing words. He wanted to change it,” adds Liam. Neil pauses. “When you quote that back to me, I’m proud of it. You shouldn’t in­tel­lec­tu­alise the gifts you get. Stick with them.” You could say Neil is more of a purist; stricter, stud­ied, sur­vival­ist. There were no mu­si­cians in his house grow­ing up, but mu­sic be­came a mem­ber of the fam­ily. Gath­er­ings al­ways in­volved a sing-song. “Karaoke feels like it’s ex­er­cis­ing that same nerve in mod­ern times,” he sug­gests. Liam’s youth in­volved be­ing on tour with his dad, raised see­ing mu­sic as a marker of suc­cess. Why would he do karaoke? “Maybe it’s the New Zealan­der in me,” he says, re­coil­ing at the thought. When­ever he gets asked to en­ter­tain friends at a house party with a gui­tar he grows shy. “But then you do it and it’s sheer joy,” he ex­claims. “I’ve made a point of know­ing more cov­ers now. It’s good if you can pull out To­tal Eclipse Of The Heart.” Neil in­ter­jects. “Ashes To Ashes is a real rip­per. No­body ex­pects to hear that.” Nei­ther re­act well

“We’re both pedan­tic and ob­ses­sive. I have a fas­ci­na­tion with songs fit­ting to­gether like clock­work. Liam has a fas­ci­na­tion with things be­ing blurry.” Neil Finn

to the idea of in­ter­pret­ing a Drake song the Finn way. “I’d have to know one first!” cries Neil. “Drake’s ob­vi­ously miss­ing some­thing. He hasn’t got us as an au­di­ence.”

Fa­ther and son are ret­i­cent for the fa­ther-son thing to de­fine them. “It’s cring­ing,” says Liam, who’d rather spend 10 min­utes ex­plain­ing how he ac­quired a field record­ing down in a tun­nel late one night with his pal Con­nan Mock­asin. But that bond is hard to ig­nore, par­tic­u­larly given the fact that while they made it, Liam be­came a dad him­self. Buddy – his son – is al­most two. Child-sized gui­tars dec­o­rate the liv­ing room. He loves Queen. “He hasn’t re­sponded to The Bea­tles but he con­stantly sings We Will Rock You be­cause he thinks it’s about him,” laughs Liam, singing back the in­tro. Fa­ther­hood has meant lit­tle kip for both men, hence the ti­tle Light­sleeper. It’s not all navel-gaz­ing though. There’s a cul­tural rest­less­ness they wanted to coun­ter­act too. “The whole world feels like it’s un­able to sleep at the mo­ment,” says Neil. “There’s this hard-edged dread. We just need to chill the fuck out.” The pair share views on most mat­ters, in­clud­ing their roles as mu­si­cians. “The only pos­i­tive ef­fect we have is when we play shows to­gether,” says Liam. “We’re not be­ing blasé about what’s go­ing on, we’re of­fer­ing respite.” Neil feels that mu­sic is in­cred­i­bly valu­able still. “It’s so pow­er­ful as a pos­i­tive in­flu­ence in shap­ing peo­ple’s thoughts. It lays a foun­da­tion for a shift in con­scious­ness. We need that,” he says. Last year, when Ari­ana Grande or­gan­ised the One Love Manch­ester con­cert at Old Traf­ford in the wake of the Manch­ester Arena ter­ror­ist at­tacks, she in­vited Miley Cyrus on­stage to per­form Don’t Dream It’s Over. “It’s a mys­tery the way songs travel,” says Neil, re­minded of the en­dur­ing res­o­nance of that tune’s op­ti­mism. “Peo­ple have the strangest uses for songs. They’ll use the same song at a wed­ding as they’ll use at a fu­neral. Ari­ana] did a re­ally good job. They nailed it.” Neil is in LA for three months, here for re­hearsals with “the other band I’m in.” In May this year, Neil be­came a mem­ber of Fleet­wood Mac, re­plac­ing the out­go­ing Lind­sey Buck­ing­ham. “I don’t know what it’s like to be in Fleet­wood Mac,” he says. “So far I’ve done enough to know that it’s not a dream.” The con­nec­tion came via drum­mer Mick Fleet­wood, who is fea­tured on Light­sleeper, along­side the rest of the Finns, Mock­asin and a cou­ple of Greeks from the Paxos tav­erna. Neil and Fleet­wood met some years ago. “He’s elo­quent and good com­pany. He likes peo­ple.” Neil asked Fleet­wood to drum on the al­bum on a whim. “I didn’t ex­pect him to say yes. Peo­ple say yes to things!” he laughs. De­camp­ing to the Finn com­pound too, Fleet­wood stayed for 10 days and drums on four tracks. They got along so well that Liam and Jan­ina went to stay with Fleet­wood in Hawaii af­ter Buddy was born. It’s all strangely kismet, though the fact hasn’t oc­curred to ei­ther man till now. When Liam first met Jan­ina they drove across New Zealand to see Fleet­wood Mac play. Liam wasn’t much of a fan, but be­came diehard in­stan­ta­neously. “It’s funny,” says Neil. “Fleet­wood Mac were the back­ground to you two fall­ing in love.” Now with Buddy in the pic­ture, there seems to be no end to the Finn’s un­fold­ing cat­a­logue. “Liam will be rip­ping him off the way I ripped off Liam,” laughs Neil. “He’s doomed.” There are worse traits to in­herit.

“There were all kinds of weird char­ac­ters in my child­hood.” Liam Finn

“Wel­come to the fam­ily firm, son!”: (left) Liam and Neil Finn in 1995.

They come from the land Down Un­der: fa­ther and son in the stu­dio, Auck­land, New Zealand, 2018.

It’s all rel­a­tive: the Finns’ Light­sleeper.

Slightly crowded house: Neil and Liam Finn, LA, 2018.

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