Liam Finn is sitting in an east London bar, streets away from where his life fell apart, as he secretly hoped it would. The bushy-bearded son of Crowded House's Neil had arrived here with his band Betchadupa, big in Australasia and determined to take on the world. He failed and went back alone, shattered enough to write I'll Be Lightning, the broken-hearted LP that is finally making his name.
"I still have my flat here," he tells me. "London was a catalyst for my band breaking up, and relationships breaking up. It destroys you, or makes you better. It seems like quite a while ago now."
The girlfriend who had followed him from Auckland left him on the other side of the world. I'll Be Lightning's songs fed off the break-up. The layered junkyard of instruments he built it from single-handed "in a manic, hypnotic state" was the music of a man liberated. The single "Second Chance", breezy pop with the deceptively withering refrain, "And honestly, I don't remember who you are..." is the calling card for an album full of icy emotion. As for the ex – well, he sings, "You know what you're good for." Harsh words, Liam.
"Yeah," he chuckles. "A lot of the time you don't realise how direct you're being. I didn't think anyone would hear many of the songs. They were therapy, things you couldn't say to someone's face. But I look at that heartache as positive now, because I did get a record out of it. That is a bit harsh, isn't it?"
Finn's childhood was simple by comparison, divided between west Auckland's black-sand beaches and Crowded House world tours. "I spent most of childhood on a beach called Piha," he says. "Very dramatic rocky sand, dark but not in a sinister way, right next to the beach where they shot The Piano. Whenever I drive out there now, there's something that happens when you reach the top of the hills and start descending down to the beach. Every anxiety and worry is left there, and everything makes more sense."
Watching Finn Senior unhappily sandwiched between Smashing Pumpkins and Rage Against the Machine on a German bill led him to grunge and distortion, aged 11. Dad was his unlikely source for Soundgarden LPs. Pavement added weird sounds and fun. Aged 15, he formed Betchadupa. Success at home was repeated when they moved to Australia in 2004. But London the next year was a step too far.
"If you're going to work as hard as you can at something, it may as well be where you're up against everyone," he says. "But it was humbling for my band, who had been big for a long time at home. You set yourself up for these hardships, knowing they're good for you. Then while it's happening, you think: 'Idiot, what are you doing?'
"Every New Zealander seems to go through that first year of completely losing themselves, and questioning everything," he considers. "London's a very intense place, where you can have every experience under the sun, and if you come out the other side you'll be stronger. London teaches you your boundaries. But it's not a place of much musical community. It's dog eat dog. Every man for himself. The Datsuns were the only band from home here then. We didn't fit in with the bands we met."
Eighteen months of coming home at night to failure, in a city where every experience was available but his roots were gone, left Finn enervated and lost. He was enjoying anonymity after years of fame back home, and the hectic, hedonistic possibilities he'll point out to me as we stroll around his old East End haunts later. Misery crept up on him. Betchadupa broke from the strain.
"It was already happening," he admits. "The reason why I – well, we – decided to move to London was that I felt something wasn't quite right. And maybe this will make it fresh again. I'll probably be that confused again. But I'll never dig myself a hole like that. They're still my best mates – but my dream when I was 15 had become an uphill battle. They didn't have their hearts in it. I didn't realise how unhappy I was."
The boys may still be mates. I'll Be Lightning's unwitting muse, though, has vanished. "She moved back to New Zealand about the time it came out last year. It might have been quite a harsh thing to go home to, right when I was everywhere. I don't think she should feel too upset by it. When we were together, she was always going, 'Why don't you write any songs about me?' Just you wait..." He laughs again.
Such sentiments do sound caddish in print. But Finn's honesty is amusing in person. He's only saying what every songwriter thinks. "I'm probably too open," he admits. "I can be intense and over-thinking and anxious in private. I guess everyone's got their own little demons that they know about themselves. But I am wide-eyed about this musician's life. I find it hard not to give 100 per cent to every experience."
This is obvious live, where he hurtles between instruments and whacks drums. After the show he keeps going, sucking the juice from every situation. Having played 70 gigs this year, with 100 to come, as he finally seizes his moment, he knows he may squeeze himself bone-dry. "I don't realise how manic I can get. After this long on tour, whiskeys before the show start not to go down as easily. What looks good on paper is not good for the soul. We're booked until Christmas. Eight shows in a row, then two off. But I thrive on those endorphins, they're addictive. When I'm not on the road, about 10pm, I've got energy I need to let out."
Rolling Stone picked him as one its 10 to watch for 2008. Their comparison to one of his heroes, though, gave him mixed feelings. "Their formula for me was 'A Leprechaun plus Elliott Smith minus the despair.' But the despair's my favourite part of Elliott Smith. So I'm Elliott Smith without the valid pain? I've got to take up drugs, and live harder..."
At least it's a break from comparisons to dad. Having toured in the re-formed Crowded House, Finn is hardly in denial. But the subject upsets him. "I started getting self-conscious," he says, "when I couldn't do an interview without seeing dad's name. I didn't want to fight it, but it's double-edged. No one sees how hard we worked not to pull strings in London. That goes unnoticed. It makes you think, 'Well, I'll use all the connections, if I'm going to get the negativity.' For management and PRs, saying, 'Hey, it's Neil Finn's son!' makes their job easier. With Betchadupa we weren't accepted by the commercial or alternative worlds. We were a really great band, the people who heard us loved us, I was putting my heart and soul into it. But something wasn't right."
Finn's childhood touring immersed him in a transient world. Many of Betchadupa were children of rock musicians, too, and he's joined on stage now by Eliza Jane Barnes, daughter of Aussie rock star Jimmy. "It seemed normal to me, because I don't know any different," he says of this milieu. I'll Be Lightning's lyrics of raised barriers and packed bags, it would seem, aren't just about a girl. The emotional coolness of lines such as, "I'm not broken/ Just a little energy spent..." are those of a man used to moving on.
"It made me a worldly young person," he says. "But I didn't get to see friends very often. I got used to saying goodbyes, and not having roots. I'm still doing that. I'm most relaxed and happy when I'm constantly moving. Even being back in London, I can feel the weight of slipping back into society." With girls, too, Finn now leads a "free, roving" life. "I definitely have a lot of guards up. My excuse is that I don't live anywhere. But I'm going to have to let go. Because it's no fun. I don't know how I feel."
A songwriter to his bones, Finn really pines for the material only a break-up can bring. "I want to feel things as intensely again as I did before I'll Be Lightning, that made it so genuine and intimate. I need to get hurt again, and make another record..."
'I'll Be Lightning' is out now on Transgressive Records
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