A young Liam Finn learned to play many instruments, because when you’re a Finn, there just are a lot of instruments about. And when you’re possessive of as much natural talent as he, to have them sit there gathering dust would not so much be a waste as it would a crime on an internationally important scale.
Though I’ll Be Lightning is his first solo album, it’s not by a country mile the 24-year-old’s debut musical endeavour. Liam’s first publicly visible use of those aforementioned skills came in fronting the band Betchadupa, a close knit outfit of childhood best friends with whom Finn relocated from his native New Zealand to London toward the end of 2004. Yet Liam eventually found himself torn between band concerns and a new set of songs, inspired by his relocation, a more personal, confessional sound he felt uncomfortable presenting to the other members.
“The songs were emotional so I was a little hesitant to show them to my band, who are my three best mates. It just felt more natural to play these songs by myself”, he says of the decision to try it alone. It soon became more and more clear that the songs that would form I’ll Be Lightning were not going to work with a band, but did have to be worked with all the same. Yet instead of becoming your average, run of the mill, lonesome solo artist, Liam decided to become his own band.
A debut album a few years in the making now, I’ll Be Lightning is a record on which Liam Finn – over a two month period in Roundhead Studios in Auckland – like some bearded, Kiwi version of Prince, plays, records, engineers and produces nigh on everything you hear. It’s a process born out of a strikingly singular, unshakable vision, a desire to record the songs exactly as they were in his head, free of outside influence. It seemed, and was, the only way he could have done it.
I’ll Be Lightning also admirably shunned a few contemporarily popular, trendy recording techniques. “I purposely did it all analog; there were no computers involved. Tape has such a warm sound and really captures something you can’t on computers.” (As if to propel it further in to the realm of unshakeable rock n’ roll credibility, the mixing desk used throughout had once belonged to The Who.) But despite the attention to detail, it’s not a record full of ponderous or overcooked ideas. Standout moments such as the title jam were written and recorded in the space of a day, and appear in thrilling, honest, warts ‘n all versions, virtuous precisely because of their lack of polish.
Liam would agree with you if you told him these were the best songs he’s ever written. But behind his impenetrable beard, he’d probably blush uncontrollably if you told him, however honestly, that you reckon if these songs were penned by Neil Young, Elliot Smith or Stephen Merritt, they’d be among the best songs any of them had written too. I’ll Be Lightning only feels like a debut in its freshness, not in that anything about Liam Finn is other than the finished article. It’s not that he can’t go anywhere from here (conversely, the world is his oyster), but that you don’t get the impression anything about it could be deemed half formed, or the work of someone still finding their feet. Unlike the first full lengths of his contemporaries, this shares more in common with glorious sprawls like Pavement’s Wowee Zowee or Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica. Like those records, it rejoices in loose ends and untidiness, but has a sleek ghostliness and an ‘if the demo’s the best take, we use the demo’ attitude shared with Springteen’s Nebraska.
As Liam puts it, “your demos always end up being the versions of your songs that you fall in love with but never release. You keep on trying to make them ‘better’ with a band, an engineer, a producer and so on, but you usually fail, so I thought I’d release the demos instead. Of course that means there are heaps of mistakes in there, but they add a lot of character. The accidents and the mistakes are often the things that become your favourite bits.”
The first time you hear the songs, you can’t wait to hear them a second time. That process continues until numbers like ‘first’ and ‘second’ become ‘forty fifth’ and ‘ninety eighth’. It’s an achievement made even more mesmerising when you come to witness what he does to the tracks in a live setting. The record, you soon realise, is not a way of setting the songs in stone. It’s simply one interpretation, relative to the space in time in which they were recorded, not the final be all and end all. Rather than going through the motions on a note for note rendition, the privileged attendee at a gig gets from Liam their own, often radically expanded or altered, unique version of a song to cherish for themselves in the knowledge that tomorrow night’s performance will sound different yet again.
So Liam shoots his own publicity photos, album artwork, and videos. He plays damn near everything on the album, and damn near everything live too. But the live shows would be vastly diminished in their impact if it weren’t for the vital role played by EJ Barnes. Far from merely the effortlessly glamorous assistant you assume she might be before she unleashes that incredible voice of hers and deftly manipulates the vast array of looping and sampling equipment before bashing the living crap out of a defenceless few drums, watching her casually make awesome and hold steady whilst Liam threatens to get completely lost in the music is one of the many delights of a Liam Finn gig.
“Whenever I walk in and see just a guy and a guitar, I think ‘Here we go again.’ I want to give people something different”, thinks Liam, commendably. That he achieves that difference isn’t in any doubt - if ever the term ‘singer songwriter’ seemed woefully inadequate (offensive, even?) in describing an artist’s craft, it’s with Liam Finn. “I think the fact of doing this looping, one-man-band sort of thing really keeps you on your toes and keeps it fresh. The more you mess up, the more you’re forced to turn it into a good mess and people seem to respond more. I find it really stimulating. I just love the danger of it, really.”
He might claim that it was self consciousness about these very personal songs that stopped them from becoming band songs, but one glance at Liam on stage and you’ll notice that this is not the frame of a timid, introspective singer songwriter. Honestly, once the looping’s out the way, the J Mascis-aping guitar solo still squalling in to the distance whilst Liam stares at the drumkit, only he knowing what’s about to happen, you’ll not have seen a man attack a set of skins like this fella can since you first set eyes on Lightning Bolt. Though energetic, Liam Finn shows aren’t aggressive – they’re explosions of unadulterated joy, the physical manifestation of being in music for the right reasons.
And such feats were observed early on in that most notoriously difficult of locales to crack – the States, where Finn’s album began quietly selling thousands through DIY touring. Before long, surreal and Big Things started happening. Following a tip in ‘Rolling Stone’, in early 2008, a ‘David Letterman’ appearance ensued, and soon they all started phoning up – all those big, bizarre programmes where bands appear to zillions of viewers whilst laughing along awkwardly to scripted swipes. Instead, Liam, with guitar, drums and EJ in tow, looked like a defiant savage, passionately peddling the likes of debut single ‘Second Chance’ with a brutal yet vulnerable intensity that leapt out from beneath the throng of studio lighting. Starting with just guitar and voice, before extending to loops and percussion, it was a final wrestle on the drumkit amidst a chaotic whirlwind of sound, and then a sudden halt, which made Liam an overnight word-of-mouth hero. Letterman was baffled yet clearly overjoyed by the serene severity of the booking (seriously, watch the reaction on youtube). More TV personalities followed suit, eager to bottle the effect for viewers – ‘Craig Ferguson’, and rumours abound that ‘Conan O’ Brien’ is next up. A trip down to SXSW in Austin, Texas, stealing headline slots from The Lemonheads and performing no less than 9 packed shows to adoring and eager hordes didn’t hurt, shortly after – neither did the invitation to be a part of an sold out theatre tour with grunge veteran Eddie Vedder in April.
So, before barely even breaking into the second quarter of 2008, 52 shows had already been notched up. Plus it’s not just America that’s keen. The UK’s nearest equivalent one-stop-shop for musos on TV – ‘Later with Jools Holland’ – launched Finn’s work in fine fettle recently.
But now it’s time for some more intimate performances throughout the rest of at least certainly this year to introduce these wonderful songs to new people – environments which are a little closer, more personal than behind a screen. Besides, that’s how best to be ushered into the world of Liam Finn: personally. What may well follow are many repeat visits and listens, and maybe even that most sacred, if frightening of things – obsession. Trust us, he’s worth it.