Rachel Lipsitz caught up with Liam Finn ahead of his 4 week Murmuration residency at The Lexington in London beginning 1 Sept. Thirty year-old Finn plays 67 (!!!) instruments on his recently released, third album, The Nihilist. His gentle voice belies the sheer fun and dynamism of his live shows. Often adding musician friends to the mix, and building into controlled chaos, he and his musical collaborator Eliza-Jane Barnes’ shows aren’t your usual affair. Finn effortlessly loops guitar lines, plays drums, commands a theremin like you haven’t seen since Jon Spencer, and sings–culminating in a uniquely ramshackle show that will leave you in awe (and more inclined to finally learned maybe ONE instrument). He, more than most musicians, should be seen live to be fully appreciated. In London, this month, that shouldn’t be a problem.
I can’t wait for your residency at The Lexington! Can you tell us a bit about what you have planned?
Cheers… I’m excited too. I have brought The Dream Team over from New York to play lots of songs off my new record The Nihilist, plus stuff from the last two. I have a bunch of friends who are in London currently so there will be guest appearances by them, collaborators old and new… Keeping it a secret though.
Basically by doing 4 shows in London I’ll get to make each show pretty unique, let spontaneity guide the night and hopefully transcend the usual tour like routine of a one off London show.
The Lexington residency (every Monday in September) is called Murmuration – what’s the idea behind this name?
When I first moved to NY and decided to start doing an annual residency I was watching a lot of footage of starlings doing mesmerising swoops in stunning formations as they migrate for winter. I thought it was an appropriate way to sum up what I was hoping to achieve with the shows; something wild and unpredictable that happens once a year … that people might re-watch on YouTube.
You mention that Jon Brion’s shows at Largo in Los Angeles had a big effect on you and you seem to welcome this type of loose show where friends turn up and play different nights–what’s the most unexpected thing that’s happened and the best thing that’s happened at the NY Murmurations?
At this year’s NY Murmuration I got to take Connan Mockasin on his first crowd surf ever… we did it holding hands. I think it sparked something in Conn as he opened many of his next shows in the US by crowd surfing before the first song had even started, ripping into Why Are You Crying while floating on fingertips solo-ing like a god.
The most unexpected thing that has ever happened is I managed to shatter the glasses at the bar when I reached a soaring high note with my theremin in the last show of the 2012 Murmuration. I didn’t think that kind of thing actually happened.
You play so many instruments, how do you narrow down what to work with and what kind of sound you want for new songs/albums?
It’s never really planned. Songs evolve and go through many stages. Most of the time I will find an aesthetic or a new instrument or two that I will get obsessive with and that will make its way into most of the recordings.
You’re known for your really dynamic and fun live shows, what kind of shows have you seen that really grabbed you too?
I have been enjoying seeing Mac Demarco play in the last few years. It’s refreshing to see a band of friends having fun on stage, not taking it too seriously and being completely unapologetic. There are too many bands these days that look miserable when they are playing and stick to the same routine and set list every night.
How was it filming in the video game style video for Burn Up The Road? Do you think acting is something you’d try?
It was really fun making that video. I worked with great NZ director called Simon Ward who does very DIY green screening in his old warehouse apartment. You are pretty much in their kitchen with a few walls covered in green material with a crew of old friends half making it up as they go along. It keeps it from feeling stressful and awkward as some videos can be. Also having my pal Kirin J Callinan involved always makes it a good laugh… he’s a great actor and I found working with him really inspiring. I have never been the most confident actor and haven’t really had much experience but it’s something I’d like to get better at as I enjoy making videos that are a bit more involved than just performing the song in front of some trippy visuals.
The new album’s title The Nihilist sounds heavy! What were you getting at with the title?
I didn’t intend on it being taken as an album about believing in nothing, or about amoral behavior. It’s more of a concept of rejecting this current reality we have been presented by society, media and politics. I don’t believe we are being told the truth and there is no way to find out what is real and honest, and what is manipulation, biased and ultimately a big farce. I like that we can choose to take the power back, create our own beliefs and our own reality to exist in… and even use these platforms like social networking to manipulate perceptions and ultimately make things a bit more imaginative and interesting again.
Helena Bonham Carter is one of my favourite songs on the new album–you sound like you’re talking about one of her many Johnny Depp collaborations in the song. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
I think Helena Bonham Carter is amazing. She transcends the Hollywood image of a successful actress and I had heard a story about her and husband Tim Burton having separate houses that had a secret tunnel between their respective bedrooms. I thought this was a very romantic concept… but then realized that I was believing what I was reading. We make so many assumptions about celebrities and their lives through things we hear and read. I guess like with the title of the record I was writing from a slight cynical view about these assumptions and fascinations with celebrity life and the desire to want to be rich and famous.
How did you find living in NY affected you and/or your music?
It had a huge affect on this record, the sounds and the songs. There’s something incredibly surreal about living in that city and every day riding to and from the studio felt like I was in a movie. My studio has a great view out the window looking over the East River at Manhattan. I started imagining the city acting as my subconscious and that these songs I was writing we’re playing out amongst the commotion of that Metropolis. Sonically there’s a lot going on too, and the sounds and production ideas I was getting largely reflect the pace and hectic nature of NY and the condensed contrast of the organic nature and the synthetic.
You seem to have a great working relationship with lots of other musicians and welcome collaborations, is there anyone you’re trying to get to work with?
I have always been a huge fan of Ennio Morricone’s movie scores and dream of the opportunity of making something extravagant with him… He actually made a record with New Zealand classical singer Hayley Westenra… lucky her… but also maybe it means it IS possible.
You seemed to have your own musical identity from an early age–it must come pretty naturally to you but do you consciously think about the sound you’re going for or does it just emerge depending on what’s going on in your life at that time.
It’s hard to say. Mostly it’s about following your gut and going with whatever seems most exciting. Whenever I try and make something sound a certain way it almost always turns out completely different so I’ve learned just to go with it. I think influences take a while to process and stuff I was listening to and inspired by a few years ago makes it’s way into how I hear my songs turning out. I am quite often chasing something mysterious I can picture in my head. Strangely it’s more visual than audible as to what I’m going for.
Eliza Jane is big presence in your music, how do her vocals come into it, do you write for her or does she find her place once the songs are developed already?
I love writing songs with her voice in mind. It frees me up to try new things and also makes and always so satisfying to hear her singing it back. Quite often she misinterprets my lyrics and all of a sudden the song makes more sense…
Sometimes I have the whole thing already written but then she’ll find a way to get something new and different out of the harmonies and keeps it sounding fresh and exciting to me. Definitely an invaluable partnership… I hope we will sing together until we are old and decrepit.
Rachel Lpisitz interviewed Liam Finn at the Lexington on 1st September 2014. Rachel has her own website here http://www.littletrousers.com/
Liam Finn is in residency at The Lexington with Murmuration until the end of September