There have been a few father-son dynasties of note in rock, but not many who’ve actually made an album together as equals. A new entry into those rare annals is arriving in the form of Neil and Liam Finn’s debut as a duo after many solo albums (and, in Dad’s case, albums with Crowded House and Split Enz), “Lightsleeper.” The September release is being heralded with their first music video, for the song “Back to Life.”
Variety has an exclusive premiere of the clip, filmed at Los Angeles’ Largo club in an afternoon leading up to their recent album-preview show there (watch it above).
Variety sat down with Neil and Liam while they were both in town for the show and video shoot — a rare confluence since Liam, 34, now lives in L.A. with his wife and their baby, while Neil, who just turned 60, is a commuter from their native New Zealand. The dad of the duo will be spending most of the coming summer in L.A., though, getting to spending time with his new grandson as a pleasant consequence of having joined the quintessential California band, Fleetwood Mac, to everyone’s surprise, most of all his.
In a wide-ranging interview, Liam and Neil talk about how they became fast friends with Mick Fleetwood over in their home country, getting him to sit in at length on “Lightsleeper.” They’re not too upset that the Mac tour, which ironically had its germination in their album sessions, is playing a slight bit of havoc with any immediate ideas they might have had for hitting the road as a duo behind the new record.
Any fans who want to see Finns even more than Fleetwood will have to make do for a while with the “Back to Life” clip, which director Kristofski says “was so last minute, [in] such a small window before Neil and Liam had to sound check for their performance that night.” The Finns describe the video as “a little piece of theater representing the way we try to summon up the gods of our songs, like Orpheus — challenging them to bring life to those loved ones who have departed. But alas, the gods seem listless and unconcerned, trapped in their own cycles of drama and intrigue.” Sounds like backstage at a rock and roll show, all right.
Variety: When Neil got the new gig, it was fortunate that you didn’t yet have a tour booked behind this album that you would have had to think about canceling, wasn’t it?
LIAM: We had routings proposed for our stuff. But to be honest, I was more encouraging of him taking that gig than of us getting to tour our record, just because it would be ridiculous not to go and have a jam with Fleetwood Mac. Dad was a bit spun out by the proposition at first, because we were in the middle of doing one of his shows in New Zealand, but we were all like, “You’ve got to go and do that!”
NEIL: Yeah, [Liam said], ”You can stand in a room and play great songs with Fleetwood Mac and have a sing with Stevie and Christine; you’ve got to do that.” It was a delightful thing to be asked to do, and enormously flattering, but it did spin me out for a few days. And it makes a different trajectory for our project, which we are pretty excited to finally put out there, because we put a lot of work into it. It’s been a couple of years in the making, as well as almost a lifespan of playing together, but we’d never decided that writing together what we wanted to try before now.
What was the trigger for finally writing and recording a duo album?
LIAM: Because we’d started doing shows playing both of our songs for the first time, it just made sense that we’d made some songs together to have as a focus of a set. And so in a way, because we’ve achieved that, it doesn’t really matter if we don’t do a traditional kind of album campaign. Because in the end it’s kind of more of an art project for us — something that we get to indulge any kind of idea we have for making a video. We did this tour of New Zealand, of small, rural halls, places that we never even knew existed in our own country, and we made a film about that along the way that’ll come out later in the year. I feel like nobody knows what’s going on in the music industry anymore. So we just kind of want to make stuff we’re really proud of and that we would want to listen to or watch, and also create memories for us, because we’re a pretty close family, and since doing this kind of stuff, we’ve actually gotten to spend more time together. And it’s been pretty valuable with me having a kid. It was coincidental: We’d planned this before my wife got pregnant, but it became a very auspicious thing to be making an album with my dad while going through that with my wife. And then we literally finished tracking it and finishing the vocals in the week leading up to the birth.
NEIL: We didn’t know what sort of record we should make together. There might have been some vague initial impression that it would be possibly based on Liam’s predilection for sonic wildness, and that we might have done something quite raucous. But in the end we kind of got attracted to these things that we were jamming that were quite lyrical and almost cinematic. So it turned into “sultry lounge” — that’s what we kind of thought of it as our genre.
What did your dynamic as collaborators turn out to be like?
NEIL: We were good at curbing each other’s excesses, but when I think about it, we actually encouraged each other’s excesses a little, I think out of supportiveness. That’s good with family, because those kind of things maybe end up being quite infuriating within bands sometimes… Liam’s got a body of work which I’m incredibly impressed by and proud of on his behalf. He’s written hundreds of really good songs, and he’s been doing it since he was 16 years old. So I kind of feel like at this point we can come together more now as equals than we would have if we tried to do that when he was 18 and needing to establish his own identity, while I was very much being consumed and defined by my career. It’s a really good time for us to do it.
Neil, you’ve been through so many years and incarnations of working with your brother, in Split Enz, Crowded House and the Finn Brothers. Does that set you up to work with a son, or is it just a completely different animal?
NEIL: In some ways, there are similarities, because some of the family sensitivities run very deep. You can’t even unravel them sometimes. There are weird little buttons that get pushed, and you kind of get this slightly breathless feeling about the mysterious stuff that bubbles deep within – the same with Tim as it was the same with Liam. But with both Liam and Tim, there’s an overwhelming sense of preserving this very important familial thing that we’ve got, and that chemistry that you get from playing with a family member is undeniable. So, you know, just keep that front and center and preserve it, and lift that up, and other shit doesn’t need to be talked about.
Can you guys even think of a model where a father and son made a record together? There aren’t many examples.
NEIL: I know that Richard Thompson made a record with Teddy. In fact, the whole family did a record together (2014’s “Thompson”), including Richard and [his ex-wife] Linda [reuniting], which God knows how that [worked]. … And Jeff Tweedy made a record with Spencer, his son [2014’s “Sukierae”]. In fact, Jeff will probably think we ripped him off! I don’t know why there’s not many because a lot of kids have followed the family trail. But maybe it’s just a bridge too far for families to delve into.
Is there any significance to the title “Lightsleeper”?
LIAM: We had been throwing around titles for even a band name for a long time because there are a lot of pros and cons that go along with naming an album after your own names or whether you have a band name. It was quite a long process to come around to being “Neil and Liam Finn.”[Laugh.] But the album title kind of came after we’d started making the album artwork, and I had a sleeping eye of my child from a photo that I took, suspended in the clouds. And it’s sort of evocative of an album where a lot of time I was kind of trying to conjure up that feeling of that sort of almost half-state you’re in as you’re about to go to sleep. I like the idea of making music that inhabits that space, so you don’t know whether it’s real or it’s synthesized… So anyway, Dad looked at this cover image and said, “How about Lightsleeper,” at first maybe even a band name — and I liked it because we’re both bad sleepers!
NEIL: Particularly now for Liam. As any person with a baby knows.
And Mick Fleetwood is in the band on the record, right?
NEIL: Mick is playing drums on four or five songs. I had met him a couple of times years ago, and then we met up at the New Zealand Music Awards, funnily enough, had dinner, and he said, “If you want me to play on anything, just give me a call.” When people say that, it’s often just one of those things that never happens. But when we were going to do this recording, I said to Liam, “What do you reckon — Mick says he’d be up for playing, should we?” And he went, “F— yeah, of course!”
LIAM: You never go to awards shows. And I can’t believe Mick was at the New Zealand Music Awards.
NEIL: He sat there the whole night. That’s very indicative of him, though, because he is patient, and he really likes people. What is remarkable to me is that most people who spend their life as major stars have a withdrawal mechanism, where they don’t really want to have to deal with people. I think Mick is the most generous [of that class]. I’ve hung out with him and he gets recognized a lot, for obvious reasons, including that he dresses so well. He’s got time for everybody that I’ve seen, anyway, and he’ll be very charming and talks in the same manner to anyone he meets. That’s super impressive, to me.
LIAM: He came down [to New Zealand] and did two weeks of recording and hanging out with us, and no one really knew he was in town. But I had a show at the end of the session in this beautiful old picture theater, and [bandmate] Connan [Mockasin] had sung a Peter Green/Fleetwood Mac song, “Need Your Love So Bad,” at my wedding, so I was like, wouldn’t it be awesome to ask Mick if he’d be into doing that song? I was actually really like, “Is this out of line for me to ask?” But he was so excited that he was going to get to play a really old Fleetwood Mac song that he said he hasn’t played in 30 years or something, that some younger guys wanted to do.
NEIL: That [live video footage] was the first thing that came up for people when it was announced I was joining Fleetwood Mac. We actually had got to be good friends, and there was an immediate connection with the family during the course of recording. We felt very at home with him by the end of it, and Liam went and stayed with him in Hawaii just after the baby was born. When the call came from him, it was like a friend ringing up — as you would when you’re young and starting bands in your 20s — and say, “Hey man, our drummer just left, would you come and have a play and see how it feels?” That invitation was a lovely one, and based on friendship. And I guess he probably had already figured out that something about the way I sang potentially could work with Stevie and Christine, and so they assembled, and this guy [Neil nods toward Liam] encouraged me to give it a crack. So I went to cracking, and it actually felt really good, and that was the defining thing. At the time, whenever I thought about the wider implications of it and the perception and what this person and that person will say, it kind of freaked me out. But if I just thought, “Hey, I get to play with one of the best rhythm sections ever, and sing with two of the best voices ever, and sing songs that are really pretty amazing,” there was no issue. It was just like, of course — what an invitation, what a gift.
Do you know if you’ll be singing any of your own songs as part of the set?
NEIL: They say they would like to, so I don’t know. There was no insistence on my part. I get to play my own songs a lot. And I will again. There’s nothing that’s ended through this. This is only just a new chapter, but…
LIAM: You could play one of my songs!
NEIL: Now that I know that they think Liam’s even funnier than I am, you can do my jokes. Anyway, I suppose there’s quite a good chance that there’ll be one or two floating around, yeah. But I don’t care. I sort of welcome the diversion. I’m kind of thinking that I’ve been in the front at whatever level – albeit humbler level – where I’ve been the focus of attention for most of my adult life as a musician. It’s really nice not to be the main focus of attention. Maybe apart from Lindsey’s fans. [Laughter.] I’m not anticipating too much problem with them.
LIAM: Luckily, it doesn’t seem like [Buckingham fans] are necessarily angry at you.
NEIL: No, they’re not. They might be a bit sniffy or scornful of it, but I’m not getting the blame or anything. Which is kind of fair, because it wasn’t my idea. I really like him, too! Hey, he’s amazing.
When you were doing your album preview show at Largo in L.A., you guys invited Mike Campbell on stage to do “Man of the World” (a Peter Green Fleetwood Mac song from 1969). That was an interesting choice. Because Stevie did an interview where she said this new iteration of the band might be a chance to revive some pre-1975 stuff…
NEIL: I hope we pulled it off. I love that song so much, and I only marginally knew it before this, but I have started to listen to some of that [earliest Fleetwood Mac] stuff. I doubt that in the end of the wash, there’ll be a lot of songs from that era, because everybody wants to put Fleetwood Mac across in its most glorious, popular form as well; that’s a really important thing. But the band has had a massive history, and there’s some amazing music from back then, and I think [the core members] all see that as an opportunity as well. You know, Mike and I gravitated towards that, and I think we pulled it off. I think we’ll get it even better, but it’s a great song.
Had you spent much time with Mike Campbell prior to playing that night?
NEIL: We had a couple of little sessions a few days apart with just Mick and Mike and me, and John came to one of them as well, where we did a scroll through a few of the old songs and pulled out the ones that we thought would be fun to play with two guitars… Everyone’s so up for it. They’re all really eager to be a band that has fun and can redefine itself and move forward, and it’s not a mercenary mentality going on with that band. It’s “what else could we create? This is Fleetwood Mac; we can do anything.” And there was a great moment when we rehearsed the other day where Mick went for a really big fill at some point — which, in the end, he didn’t quite pull off — and he said, “Ah, man, I was going for a teenage fill.” And I thought, how great is that? This guy’s been doing it for 50 years or something, and he’s going for teenage fills, still.
You’re such a great guitarist that you could probably fill that role (in Fleetwood Mac) all by yourself, but it’s fun hearing great guitarists together.
NEIL: I’m actually not an eager lead guitarist. I can hit a good solo from time to time, but also, I’ve got a fairly high error rate as a lead guitarist. Sometimes that’s good.
LIAM: I think you’re a great guitar player. But I like that on our record, we found ourselves on piano and bass for the majority of the record.
NEIL: Yeah, I was mostly playing piano on the album. I think I’m gonna get to play a lot of guitar in this new [Fleetwood Mac] role. I’m excited about that because actually playing with two guitars is not something I’ve done a lot of. I’m not going to play any piano. I’d love to think that in the course of this new version that Christine gets to play a little more at the front of the sound on a few occasions, because she is a great piano player and a really good B3 player as well. I think it’s awash with possibilities.
Besides “sultry lounge,” is there any additional way you’d characterize the “Lightsleeper” sound?
LIAM: We weren’t trying to write hits. Probably the biggest factor is the cinematic quality. It gave us so many ideas for visuals that we wanted to put to it. And we thought there wasn’t any better visual description to what we did than to film this tour movie in our home country. Whether we mean to or not, there’s an element of New Zealand in what we do and in all New Zealand music that has something unique about it.
NEIL: And it’s very Finn-like… No, we’re post-genre… (Thinking back on a recent description:) Am I really chill-alt?
LIAM: There is such a thing as Dad-wave.
NEIL: Is there father-and-son wave? Anyway, it’s going to be a slow-release rollout of the record. So it has already been a tantric album. [Pauses.] Maybe that’s a good genre.