Keeping it in the family

"They're making decisions based on the idea that they want to enjoy these years of touring. That...
"They're making decisions based on the idea that they want to enjoy these years of touring. That was comforting to me, from a musician's point of view, that people are doing it for the right reasons." - Neil Finn on joining Fleetwood Mac. Photo: Getty Images
Neil Finn talks to Randy Lewis about touring his new album with son Liam, and joining Fleetwood Mac. 

It's often said that belonging to a band is akin to being in a family. It's an analogy that Neil Finn has taken to heart over the years.

For every venerated collaborative project, such as Split Enz, Crowded House or 7 Worlds Collide, he's alternately brought members of his biological and matrimonial families together to record and tour.

He's now adding one more musical family to his artistic resume in joining Fleetwood Mac. Finn, along with Tom Petty's longtime lead guitarist and frequent co-songwriter Mike Campbell, is part of the first major realignment of that group's line-up since the 1970s, a shift that's occurred in the wake of the departure of Lindsey Buckingham.

"It's starting to add up to a pretty strange track history," Finn (60) said over lunch on a shady concrete slab in Griffith Park, Los Angeles recently, where he was joined by his son Liam, who also has been part of an impressive panoply of musical ensembles during his 34 years.

"I've said it on a few occasions," Neil continued, "that I probably confuse the general public anyway from having been in so many different incarnations."

Now add Lightsleeper, the first Neil and Liam Finn album, scheduled for release on August 24. It's an outing that skilfully marries Neil's insinuatingly catchy and melodic pop-rock with the more expansive and experimental jam-rooted music Liam has specialised in on several solo albums he's released over the past decade.

It's simply the latest project in a career that's often put his family in the spotlight.

Following Split Enz, he also worked with Tim Finn in the Finn Brothers (as well as in Crowded House, from time to time), and with his singer-bassist wife, Sharon, in Pajama Game. In addition to Liam, he's also played with his other son, Elroy.

On this day, the choice of Griffith Park's Trails End outdoor cafe as a meeting spot was at the behest of Liam, who has been living nearby in Echo Park in recent years with his wife and their now almost 2-year-old son, Buddy - Neil and Sharon's first grandchild. That's made the elder Finns all the more motivated to spend as much time in Southern California as is practical.

"I think it's exciting that we get to embrace the uniqueness of our situation," added Liam, outwardly the more free-spirited of the two, "that we are father and son, making a record together. People have done it - obviously we're not the first, but the fact that we play with my brother and mum in the band and it's a full family band quite a lot of the time, it's pretty unique and it feels special onstage, so it's quite nice that we get to embrace that."

The process of recording Lightsleeper also had a hand in Neil's surprising (to many) move to join Fleetwood Mac. Ultimately, the pairing evolved from the same spirit that has guided most of Finn's other collaborations: not from jockeying for rock star cache, but out of musical camaraderie.

"I'd got to know Mick a little bit," Neil said. "I'd met him a few times over the years and we'd always got on well. He's a very charming, easy-to-get-on-with kind of guy. Then we went out to dinner with them when they came to Auckland and I probably just dropped it in the hat, `We're going to do some recording - Liam and I - would you ... ?"'

At this point, Liam jumps in to pick up the tale.

"He said, `If you ever need a drummer, I love playing music. Keep me in mind.' When I got back to New Zealand to start writing, Dad just said `Should we ask Mick Fleetwood if he wants to play drums?' I was like, `What?' Then he did it, and Mick said, `Yep, I'll be there,' and it was like within a week or two, it was organised and he was down there. It was surreal."

Fleetwood appears on three of the 11 tracks that make up Lightsleeper, an album that's been in the making for two years. But the invitation to throw in with Fleetwood Mac came up fairly recently.

"It was like a friend ringing up rather than getting a cold call from a professional manager or something to say, `Hey, would you like to join?' It felt significantly different as an invitation, although there was nothing certain at that point," Neil said of the initial conversations.

The new family spirit has already begun kicking in. In early May, when Neil and Liam played another of the shows they've been doing together and separately for two decades, Stevie Nicks looked on, often with a broad smile, from her seat in the audience, and Campbell joined for some engaging back-and-forth guitar exchanges with his new Mac band mate.

The Fleetwood Mac tour gets under way on October 3. Meanwhile, Neil and Liam are tackling the challenge of promoting Lightsleeper while working around Neil's new extra-familial commitment. "These guys were really great," Neil said of his sons.

As a result, they're exploring various alternatives to the traditional method of performing. "It's tricky for various reasons anyway, [including] Liam's new addition," Neil said.

"We were trying to figure out how to get 'round that if possible, maybe by doing residencies in different places," he added. "So it may turn out that this world I've just entered might dovetail quite well with some different approaches to promoting the [Lightsleeper] record and getting to play [with Fleetwood Mac] still."

Recent events in the music world have also informed the Finns' thinking about spending more time together as a family, and Neil's attitude towards hooking up with Nicks, Fleetwood and the McVies. Not least among them Tom Petty's death earlier this year. "It was a shock," Neil said. "It was a really big shock for Stevie as well. She commented on it, and that's all had a part to play in their decision-making process.

"They're making decisions based on the idea that they want to enjoy these years of touring," Neil said. "That was comforting to me, from a musician's point of view, that people are doing it for the right reasons. We've got a sense of fun that has been commented on before. We always bring to our touring, live shows or even rehearsing - that sense that it's not worth it if it's not fun."



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