Father and son Neil and Liam Finn talk family jamming, Irish passports, and that call from Fleetwood Mac
As they prepare to take their first album together on the road, Neil and Liam Finn talk about their Celtic genes, family jamming sessions and getting that surprise call from Fleetwood Mac
Liam Finn had got used to seeing his famous musician father on stage from his earliest days. He was born when Split Enz were in their pomp, after all, and he was still at primary school when Crowded House were touring the globe. But last year, he tells me, was something else entirely.
"You'd be there, in the audience, and you had to pinch yourself that it was happening," Liam says. "It seemed like something from a dream where you wake up and think, 'Did that really happen?'"
He's talking about the sight of his dad performing alongside Stevie Nicks in a new-look Fleetwood Mac. Neil Finn essentially replaced Lindsey Buckingham in the supergroup last year after the latter had fallen out with his erstwhile mates, and he will be a key component of their global tour this year.
"I can't quite believe it either," Neil jokes. "But when the opportunity arose, I couldn't not do it."
Father and son are speaking to Review by conference call from Los Angeles. The New Zealanders released a well-received album, Lightsleeper, last summer and they are taking the record on the road this month for a very special tour that will also feature Neil's wife Sharon and his youngest son, Elroy.
But first there is the little matter of Fleetwood Mac to talk about.
"I ran into Mick [Fleetwood] years and years earlier and I reconnected with him a few years ago when he was in New Zealand," Neil says. "We just went for dinner really, but there was chemistry there. He ended up playing on this record because I had this whimsical thought that Mick might want to come and play some drums - and he was up for it. He turned up for 10 days and we had a really fun time.
"We got to know him really well, but I could never have imagined this eventuality [joining Fleetwood Mac]. But then, out of the blue, he contacted me to say that Lindsey had gone and would I consider playing with them and see how it felt? It was such an unexpected call I wasn't entirely sure that it was necessarily the right thing for me to do - even though I was very flattered to be asked.
"So I spoke to Liam and the rest of the family and they said, 'Well, you'd have to go and play - you'd have to see what that felt like'. And I did that and our voices sounded good together and I really liked the music and the people so I jumped right in."
Mike Campbell, guitarist with Tom Petty's backing group the Heartbreakers, was also drafted in and both will be in situ when the band play Dublin's RDS Arena on June 13. "We did quite a lot of rehearsal and it wasn't as strange as you would think when we finally went out and played in front of an audience," Neil says.
"We worked at it for seven or eight weeks, and you get pretty ingrained. I've been in bands - I know what that's like, I come with a fair amount of experience - and I was confident in my parts. But there were moments when I was stood on stage where I thought, 'This is really strange - what am I doing here?'"
But while the latest incarnation has been well received by many, Buckingham took a catty view of the line-up last month when he dismissed it as "a cover band".
Neil is far too diplomatic to get into a slagging match. "I think it's been working really well and there's a really good rapport there - and I'm really enjoying it, as I think, is everyone else in the band."
"There really is a strong rapport," Liam agrees. "The response from audiences have been really good and when you're there, in concert, you remember just how many great songs they have. But I have to say it feels really weird to see dad on stage with them. I've been to a decent amount of shows by now and the novelty hasn't worn off."
Theirs is clearly a very close father-son bond. They finish each other's sentences and seem to really enjoy each other's company.
Liam jokes that there was no prospect of him pursuing any other profession than musician.
"Maybe the most rebellious thing to do would have to become an accountant," he deadpans.
"But it would never have happened. Music was everywhere growing up. It was only when I got a bit older that I realised it can be a difficult thing to do and to continue doing it forever. The passion has to be at the forefront for it to be a feasible career."
Lightsleeper is the first album they have released as a duo but, in truth, they have been making music together for years.
"We were experimenting with atmospherics," Liam says of the beginnings of their work on this album. "Early on, we realised we were making a relaxing, cinematic soundscape thing together so we started writing songs on top of them. And mum and Elroy would be on drums and bass. The song 'Meet Me in the Air' was the first family jam we had. We'd take these 10-minute jams and cut them down and one of us would write vocals on it. It was a very collaborative, but also relaxed, process."
"We are a close family and we enjoy each other's company," Neil says, "but that's not the only reason we do it. We find that we play well together, as I discovered with [brother] Tim.
"There is a genetic disposition towards good music. It's super enjoyable to play the music that we want to do. And this is the first time we've reduced the touring line-up to just the four of us - my wife, Liam, myself and Elroy - and we're pretty excited to see how it goes."
Neil is especially keen to come back to Ireland. His mother, Mary, moved from this country to New Zealand when she was a child and he grew up with a strong grounding in traditional Irish music and culture. "I have no doubt that there's a deeply ingrained Celtic gene running through me that is attracted to certain melodies," he says.
"My mother was only three when she came out, but she had a strong Irish heritage and all the people that we grew up had it too. I carry it deep within.
"Maybe it was reinforced by the fact that when I was 15 or 16, the only music I could find to play in the small town I grew up in was the folk clubs… I'd sit around campfires playing old Irish - and English - folk songs and I think it's very valuable.
"The Irish have influenced so much in music - look at country music in America: it's derived in a large part, I think, from Irish traditional music."
Liam says he doesn't "think about it much" but when he gets to this country, it's a different story.
"Even in my limited travels around Ireland I've felt that there is a tangible connection to my family. It makes it extra special."
Both Finns have an Irish passport - which, Neil says, "makes travelling around Europe easy - but we're proud of it. When you grow up in New Zealand, you're very conscious of where your parents or grandparents came from."
With such a busy 2019 in store, Neil says he hasn't much time to think about a new Crowded House album, but he says he "wouldn't rule anything out".
"It's in a very good place because we did those shows about three years ago at the Opera House [in Sydney] and we played as well as we ever have. I think of it as a really nice car up on blocks in the garage. All it would take is a bit of a dust-off and some new tyres on it and it's running again."
Neil and Liam Finn play Dublin's Olympia Theatre on January 16