Liam Finn could have played — and captivated — a much larger place. But with his first full solo studio album in three years in his back pocket and a still-unnamed band flanking him, Finn brought his manic, likeable live energy (on vocals, drums, theremin, and guitar) and his well-crafted, songwriterly rock tunes to Brooklyn’s Bell House on a Saturday night. While being the son of Crowded House‘s Neil Finn never hurt, the 27-year-old New Zealander has earned his fans the hard way: via a decade of recording and touring constantly, first with band Betchadupa, then with co-vocalist Eliza Jane, BARB, and, often, solo. The audience who managed to catch this stealth, pre-album tour were treated to a sweet, sweaty set that gave the loop-friendly rockers from 2008’s “I’ll Be Lightning” a workout and also thoroughly whet the appetite for his excellent, poppy-rock-with-a-dark-soul infused “FOMO,” due June 21 on Yep Roc. A few days later, Finn chatted with Billboard about the delights (working with his brother Elroy Finn) and pitfalls (having his bassist quit on the road) of forming a new band, touring, and making “FOMO” in a lonely Antipodean outpost (with a guest turn by Wilco‘s Glen Kotche).
You’ve got a new band, but the album, “Fomo,” is still you solo, right?
I actually didn’t make the new record with the band. I went back to New Zealand after all that touring [for the last four years] and lived in a little house on a beach called Piha. I’ve always wanted to live there and it is the most beautiful place in the world, but it was quite a shock to the system after so much traveling and so much stimulation to all of the sudden be out isolated at the beach. I think now when I look back on it, it’s in a good way, but I had some pretty anxious, wigged out moments not really knowing what my objective was or what sort of record I was trying to make.
It became quite clear to me that I wanted to find a producer that could be a sounding board; I found Burke Reid. I didn’t want to try to recreate my live show with the loops and everyting and I didn’t want to do “I’ll Be Lightning” mark 2, where it was a sort of melancholic analog record. I wanted to create an atmosphere that was likeable in itself. You know when you hear a song and you don’t even know the song yet but something about it gets your foot tapping?
“FOMO” was the first time I’ve really worked on a computer making a record. I’ve always been an analog guy. With all of the options you’ve got on a computer to take from different takes and piece together things, it meant that I could really lose my inhibitions. Which is what the show has been too. I think that Burke managed to capture a lot more of that than I really expected.
How has the tour been?
Pretty crazy. About two weeks in, our bass player decided he wasn’t cut out for the touring lifestyle. It’s the first time I’ve sort of had a band on my solo stuff and we made some really exciting plans. With the amount of driving and being away from loved ones, I don’t think he could handle it. So we were stuck with the problem of what to do with him, keep him on until the end of the tour or send him home straight off the bat and become a three-piece. We went the three-piece route and it’s made it all the more wild. And that’s how I like it really. It’s like the old shows on my own or with Eliza Jane. I like seeing a band replicate their record really well, and it’s obviously always got that live energy to it. But it’s even more exciting when you see a band take the songs you know already and take them to a new place.
When I was doing the solo stuff before, with all the loops and trying to play everything myself, even before EJ was involved, it was because it was so fresh to me. Every night was completely different. What made the shows exciting as well was that element of danger and the spontaneity that anything could happen. I think after a four years of doing it solo, it still had that element but I had grown used to it. The freshness had worn off of it in some ways. I didn’t know if I was getting as much out of the danger as I once was.
Why did you decide to tour months before the new album comes out?
It was new thing to me to have a band [again]. I had seven or eight years in my old band, Betchadupa and we got really good just through years and years of touring. [I’ve] realized that putting together a band to go out and play to fans that have certain expectations, I want to be really good. I don’t want to let anyone down. So I wanted to cut my teeth before the album was out and do a good classic American tour in a van where you drive for 12 hours every day and play every night. One show is worth ten rehearsals in my eyes. It really makes you step up.
At the same time you get to play to all of the people that have already befriended you. The fans I’ve made over the last four years touring “I’ll Be Lightning,” they all look like friends. They all look like familiar faces. It felt like everyone in the room knew the songs and knew what we were trying to do. It was a nice way to give an introduction to the new band before they have to take on a whole album’s worth of songs.
Your audience seems to have grown exponentially in the last few years, especially between headlining yourself and opening for others like Wilco and Pearl Jam‘s Eddie Vedder.
I have been really lucky to have inherited a bunch of Eddie’s fans and my father’s fans and now touring with Wilco, it’s all the Wilco fans. There’s a pretty crazy spectrum of people that follow me and that are really into it. I’m really proud of it. It’s varied across such a huge age bracket. And then you start making your own ones. It’s awesome because you feel like you’re developing a family of people that are going to stick with you and hopefully support you when you take different directions.
What is the story behind forming this new band?
I wanted to find a way to mix it up again by involving other people who have just as much of a willingness to go wherever you want to take it but at the same time have their own way of doing it that is completely out of control. Collaborations make some of the best art in the world. You also write from a slightly less personal perspective which opens up so many more themes for songs. Making a record with a few friends of mine — we called ourselves Barb — made me start to crave that band comraderie. Elroy is using to playing [that way]. And my dad comes from the same train of thought, doing shows different every night. Elroy was a very natural choice to have on the drums. Joel [Mulholland] — who is playing bass now… he had to flop from guitar to bass halfway through the tour, so that’s some indication he’s willing to roll with it — he engineered and produced the Barb record.
Elroy and Joel have become a really big part of what I’m doing over the next few years. Joel is a really fantastic writer and Elroy is my brother, I’ve played with him for years. It’s exciting to feel like I’m in a band again. I think we’re going to write the next record really soon even though the new one’s only just about to come out. I want to keep the momentum going.
What part of “FOMO” are you happiest with?
The last song on the record, “Jump Your Bones,” is my favorite one. It was the one I finished last as well. I literally finished the record the day before I left for the States for SXSW. Glen Kotche from Wilco was down in New Zealand after one of their tours and stayed at the house for a few days and did some jamming. He’s probably my favorite drummer in the entire universe.
I’ve always loved his solo stuff and his experimental methods of creating rhythms, so we did a bunch of stuff with contact mics. We used these little mics attached to the drums and put them through my guitar pedals and I was manipulating his beats as they were going down. He’s on two songs doing effect-y beat things. The last one, “Jump Your Bones,” when that beat went down, I had this song in mind. When it came together it was probably the most eurphoric moment I had in the studio because it was the last piece of the puzzle. It summed up the joy of what I wanted to create. When I listen to it I get excited. It’s a really good song to drive to.
So it’s safe to say there is a lot more time on the road in your future?
It’s a going to be a year of touring. Coming from New Zealand, we kind of go away and stay away. And that’s the exciting thing about it. I love my home counry but I like going home when it’s special again; you don’t take it for granted.