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How the (younger) Finn brothers are branching out

From sideman to frontman: Elroy Finn. Photo/Supplied

Elroy delivers a solo debut as Liam joins an orchestra – and a Neil Young tribute band.

A certain uncle of his may have sung about having a hard act to follow, but Elroy Finn doesn’t see it that way as he becomes the fourth in the Finn family with his name on an album.

He’s served a long apprenticeship, playing on stage and on records by his father, Neil, and brother, Liam, as well as drumming for Lawrence Arabia and Connan Mockasin among others.

He began writing his album, entitled simply Elroy, in his New York bedroom where he was living while drumming in his sibling’s backing band. It saw a few more bedrooms before he eventually finished it in the backrooms of his father’s Roundhead Studios in Auckland.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

The woozy, low-key album with its textures not far from the dreamy moods of Lightsleeper, last year’s joint Neil-Liam album, is a bit like Elroy himself – preferring to sit sweetly in the background rather than calling attention to itself.

“I think trying to make music sound really normal and seamless is the goal for me – without making it boring, obviously. Trying to make complex parts or strange rhythms make sense to the listener without them having to try too hard, that’s the sort of goal that I’m going for. Create some challenges, but, overall, have it be a pleasant non-confrontational experience.

“I had a romantic idea of making one full record that I could call my own and I stuck to it, which was cool. But now, in the modern digital world, it’s sort of irrelevant whether you pick the whole record up or one track. The concept of an album isn’t really as valued as it once was.”

And leaving his world-famous-in-New-Zealand surname off the cover isn’t trying to make a statement. He just couldn’t think of a decent pseudonym, so Elroy it was. He’s not that worried about any of the expectations that might come his way, something that impresses his big brother

“I can’t imagine having a dad and an uncle and a brother making music and there not being some kind of expectation or pressure on that side of it,” Liam tells the Listener. “I think he’s managed to navigate that well – by not even trying to get noticed or something. His way of doing it obviously comes from a really pure place of wanting to make music for himself. That’s what I hear when I listen to the album, which is great. It’s very much him.”

Liam Finn. Photo/Chad Blake/Supplied

Like his sibling, Elroy plays many instruments, although he’s usually been assigned the drum stool during multiple Finn outings, as he was when he did a UK and European tour with his father, brother and bass-playing mother, Sharon, earlier this year.

He’s also something of a dab hand at fingerpicking classical guitar. He and producer-musician Jol Mulholland released an instrumental album under the name Pablo Vasquez in 2016, and were the elegant support act for the Finn family foray Up Over. The duo’s name might have implied they were taking the Miguel, but they took the music seriously. “The music itself, we don’t mean to be comedic at all. We want to be as convincing as possible – or as pleasant to listen to as possible.”

It might seem that music was always going to be his thing, as it was his brother’s. Much of his early years were spent on tour with Crowded House, during the band’s second flush of success in the early 90s, before the family settled in Auckland in 1993 and Finn Sr eventually established Roundhead.

“We both definitely had a good amount of time on the road as kids, which was a very unique but lucky experience,” he says of his childhood, “I think back about what a crazy way it was to grow up. It still seems odd to me, but I don’t know what it was like not doing that.

It took until he was nearly 17, about the time he got a scholarship to Atlantic College, an international school in Wales, for his last year of high school, that he thought music might be his calling. He hadn’t quite figured out what he might do at university. So, a gap year turned into a gap decade, “which I partially regret, but it’s not too late I suppose”.

In the meantime, with Elroy, he’s finally graduated from sideman to frontman. Well, kind of. “I don’t really have a blind drive and ambition to be a frontman, or to go out and take on the world with my band. Dad and Liam have definitely had a great amount of success in their respective fields on that front, by putting in the hard work. I’m keen to put in the hard work, but I just prefer making the music rather than promoting it.”

He’s got a second solo album almost half-finished. It’s possibly groovier, he says. So, less reserved than the debut and, indeed, its creator?

“My music is, but if I’m in the right mood or had enough drinks, I’m probably not reserved,” he laughs.

He’s off to Los Angeles the week after we talk, but not on the promotional trail. As Liam heads back to New Zealand for shows, Elroy is travelling in the opposite direction, to help his brother’s wife with their two young kids. Then it’s off to London to see his father play Wembley with Fleetwood Mac.

Brothers in arts: Liam and Elroy Finn play drums at the Pearl Jam Destination Weekend in 2011. Photo/Getty Images
Meanwhile, in LA, Liam Finn answers the phone in his home studio where, among other things, he’s been preparing for a couple of performances back in New Zealand. One has him as a guest voice at the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra show The NZ Mix Tape. He’s one of three singers – alongside Nadia Reid and Anna Coddington – covering Kiwi classics. The other, in August, sees him in a local supergroup, playing the 1979 Neil Young album Live Rust on stage.

As well as singing Bic Runga’s Drive, The Chills’ Pink Frost and a couple of his own songs, he will be covering tunes by more senior Finns in the APO show. He’s most excited about Stuff and Nonsense, the baroque ballad by Tim Finn from the 1979 Split Enz album Frenzy.“I grew up always really loving it and it’s still one of the best songs Tim’s ever written.”

Standing in front of an orchestra, he may have to curtail his natural on-stage exuberance. “I don’t know if that’s possible in the moment, but I think I’ve mellowed anyway.”

The Young tribute shows, on the other hand, are a chance to let rip alongside band members Samuel Flynn Scott, Jon Toogood, Chris O’Connor from The Phoenix Foundation, SJD, Reb Fountain, Delaney Davidson, and Dianne Swann and Brett Adams from The Bads.

Finn has been a Young fan since his father introduced him to the music at about age 14. In 2009, he was watching from the wings as Young played at the Big Day Out. “I cried for the first three songs.”

He once included Old Man (Take a Look at My Life) in his live sets, and that may be revived for the show’s first half of earlier Young stuff. Covering Live Rust in its entirety may make for some practice-room arguments. “There are some very good guitar players involved, so maybe we’ll just have to rock-scissor-paper, arm-wrestle or something. I bags the one-note solo in Cinnamon Girl, though.”

The New Zealand sojourn gives Finn a little breathing space in his next task – figuring out what he wants to do on his fourth solo album, which will be his last with US label Yep Roc and a follow-up to 2014’s The Nihilist.

“I don’t really want to rush it, mainly because it’ll be important for me to make something that I feel really good about that encapsulates the last few years of becoming a father – not that it has to be autobiographical. You will sing these songs for the rest of your life, hopefully, so I really want to take my time.”

Los Angeles, where he and wife Janina moved after five years in New York, will be home for the foreseeable future – “I keep on getting visas” – especially as it remains a musical land of opportunity, whether it’s doing a quick soundtrack for a documentary about legendary late-80s New York party producer Susanne Bartsch, or playing bass for Jeff Tweedy on The Jimmy Kimmel Show. “There’s more saying ‘yes’ over here, and little things come up that you wouldn’t get to do otherwise.”

Elroy is out now. Liam Finn, Anna Coddington and Nadia Reid appear with the APO for The NZ Mix Tape at the Civic, Auckland, on June 11. The Live Rust tour is at the Opera House, Wellington, on August 6; the James Hay Theatre, Christchurch, on August 8; and the Civic, Auckland, on August 9.

This article was first published in the June 15, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.