Behind The Boards: Finneas Interviewed
Finneas should need no introduction.
Sparring partner to sibling Billie Eilish, he's worked with some of the biggest names around, while his own material has an international audience.
Part of a new generation of studio auteurs who are re-shaping the role of the producer, he's embracing new technology while returning to some of the oldest skills in the book.
Currently on lockdown in Los Angeles, the creativity hasn't stopped - indeed, when Clash calls Finneas is getting ready for more writing sessions.
Relaxed, almost care-free on the phone, he's a genuinely humble figure - after all, it's only a few months ago that he secured a clutch of Grammy awards.
We discussed studio life, how to unblock your creative pathways, and - naturally - the extraordinary success of 'Bad Guy'.
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So, how is lockdown life treating you?
There are places in the world like New Zealand, which have been fine. Then there are places like London and LA, kinda the same.
It's... quite an experience.
Crazy! I mean, trying to not take the time for granted, not stress out too much. Pay closer attention to the things that bring me joy every day. It’s a challenging, ongoing. You want to think that you’re enjoying yourself. Some days I feel good at it, and some days I don’t.
Have you been able to create during this time?
Personally, I’ve actually found myself being more creative. It’s a casualty of the fact that I have less other things to enjoy. I feel like instead of meeting some friends and seeing a movie it’s like… well, I’m not going to do that! So I’m going to write a song.
How do you feel the role of the producer has changed in the past 10 years?
It’s definitely fluid. When I have looked through production notes of bands and artists that I’ve loved forever, there are people for whom they are the tastemaker producer, where they sit and have their arms folded, and an artist says ‘I love that!’ or ‘well it could be better’. But then, you go back 50, 60 years and George Martin was incredibly involved and creative, and had full string arrangements, and had as big a role as most producers today.
I think that this period, this five to 10 years, is the era of the artist-producer duo. Even if it’s billed as a solo artist, I feel like of the friends of mine who are artists, there are a lot of symbiotic pairings – a wonderful singer-songwriter, and then a production nerd… like me!
In my case, I’m almost always involved as a co-writer with people, but there are several instances where I am not. Like with the new Celeste single – I had nothing to do with the writing of that song, I just got approached to produce it. I think that all different things are exciting to me for different reasons.
I think the best quality in a producer, relative to the artist, is a person who doesn’t treat on an artist’s great ideas. A person who is a cheerleader and a confidante for an artist to have great ideas, and then maybe a person who allows a song to become new and exciting in a way that it might not be if it was written six months ago.
It’s a job: how can we make this feel new and vital and different?
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You call yourself a ‘nerd’ there, Finneas… do the technical aspects of work in the studio excite you?
Ha! It doesn’t, really. I’ve never been that excited by the technical side of things. I’ve had to learn a lot of it, as a result of wanting to be a proficient producer, but I’ve never been very interested in the technical side of it. I just wanted to translate, and have my ideas by as quickly executed as possible. So anything that gets that step out of the way.
To give you an example, I’ve used these microphones for years called TLM 103s and I think they’re great. It occurred to me that I’ve never really tried anything else. So I had my friend Blake – who is a studio designer – give me some demo pairs, a U48 Telefunken, and a 251 Telefunken.
I was super-excited to try them out, and he was like: they’re tubes, so let them warm up for 20 minutes! And I was like: OK… they already lose. Because I don’t want to wait 20 minutes when I record a vocal. I’m just going to use the mic that sounds good right away.
I guess I feel that to me, the ease of use, the speed, the exposition… those are things that I’m in love with.
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You’ve mentioned speed a few times there, is that how you work? Can it be quite intense?
My presence in the studio with somebody is… well, I try to make it really pleasant. And really collaborative. I let people have a lot of room to tell me stuff, and talk a lot. We go off on tangents.
I think the issue is that sometimes you can be in the middle of a conversation, and somebody plays a beautiful chord progression, just absent mindedly… and I’ll be like: oh my God, that’s amazing! And if it then were to take me 20 minutes to get that thing down – in terms of wiring everything up, then recording it 20 minutes later – then the inspirational is lost. It is my job to be all available, it all has to be at your fingertips when you want it.
My presence in the studio is very peaceful and calm. Especially when I’m writing – I don’t know that you should feel responsible to make a great song everyday, you’ve just got to try stuff and be experimental and be creative. I think maybe when I’m only producing a song – without the writing aspect – then I try to not waste time there, because I’m being paid for a service so I want them to know I’m working hard for it. But yeah, in the creative process, creating something… it can be as loose as anybody wants it to be.
You spoke about making a song ‘vital’ - during your career, can you think of some that truly did change during the studio process? What’s it like to be involved when something as dramatic as that happens?
I mean, Billie is a very daring person, so oftentimes we’ll write a song sitting at my piano and it’ll change completely.
The earliest example I think of that was… ‘bellyache’ was just written on acoustic guitar and it ended up being this thing with a reggaeton backbeat underneath it and a bass drop in the chorus. It made the song infinitely more exciting… it was a really exciting place to take an idea, that I didn’t quite know what to do with. That’s to the credit of Billie being open-minded and imaginative and trying new things.
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Conversely, you must have found yourself in a situation where it wasn’t working… how do you unblock those issues in the studio?
The older I get and the more experience I have, the more I’m like: just give up for the day! There’s a lot of the days where I find and take note that the stuff that I suffered for, forced out, is not the stuff that I’m the most proud of or feel is my best work. So to me, it’s like… if you’re feeling like you’re not being useful that day…
To me, the benefit of what I do is that I get to change hats a lot, so if I’m home alone, and I’m trying to write a song and I’m not writing anything good, then I probably have other work that I can jump to. I can probably go, try to get the right chorus, bass synth for this other song I’m working on. I can do busy-work – push a song through a mixer or something.
I try to put less pressure on to come up with something brilliant that day. I’ve had sessions with people where the first day, we didn’t do anything very musical. We just had a great time and we talked, and then lunchtime arrived, we went and got lunch, we talked some more. We were sitting at pianos the whole time but we never focussed on a song. Dinner came and that’s part of building a relationship, too. It’s really great to make a song where the other person really sees you and recognises you. That’s one of the fun parts about it.
That would be my encouragement to people starting out. Don’t make it an unhappy experience – it should be a happy experience.
The songwriter-producer relationship is supposed to be a happy one, isn’t it?Do you ever truly reach 100% on a creative project?
I feel like I reach 100% for me. I won’t go as far as to say it’s 100% for every person who listens to the song. But I feel like for me and the artist involved, we’re aiming for 100%.
I think a lot of it also comes from being older, and having an understanding of… like, I used to be so tortured by everything in music. Like, one note would be a milli-second off but now I appreciate the way those things sound. That’s where I’m at. But 99% is what I aim for. I’m not going to ruin my life over that 1%! (laughs)
Well, ‘bad guy’ must be 100% surely?!
Well… (laughs) I mean, it is now I suppose! Considering how well it’s done, and how much love it’s brought us. But when we were making that there were sounds as a producer where I was like… did I get the right kick sound? Is it the right bass sound?
Those little things drive you crazy. And obviously now it is, because people have said it is.
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Fans quite often view pop production as being enormously involved, and having a big supporting cast. But have you had sessions that have been done and dusted in an hour, say?
Yep. I mean, it’s different for different people and everyone makes records in a way that they think works for them. To me, the kind of endlessness of some large projects… I’ve never seen it make shit better. So I just don’t do it.
If I saw some quantifiable proof that the longer you work on a song the better the song was, then I’d feel differently about it… but I don’t feel that way. It’s like the faster you get this great idea down, and the more attention you give it – that’s what works for me.
Final question: when is the last time you heard a song, and the production on it genuinely scared you by virtue of how good it was?
Lately, I’ll admit that not so much… but over the course of my youth, absolutely. You’d hear stuff and it was like: oh my God!
As a kid, I thought that Timbaland was doing stuff that I couldn’t believe. My friend Benny and I forever chat about how Dr. Dre never sounds old. His music has aged so beautifully, it sounds really timeless. Usually we associate ‘timelessness’ with classic-sounding stuff – y’know… piano ballads – but Dre is an incredible producer, and in particular an incredible hip-hop producer.
The most recent record I’ve heard and really loved was the new Stokes record, ‘The New Abnormal’. I know that was produced by Rick Rubin, and I have no authority on the process of the album, but to me it sounds like a lot of it was live-tracked.
In the middle of the song ‘Ode To The Mets’ Julian realises that Fab, the drummer, hasn’t come in yet, and says – on the mic - “drums please?” And then the drums come in half-a-bar late! And I love that, and I love Rick Rubin for saying yes, that’s the take!
If it was his idea, then that’s a fucking great idea.
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Words: Robin Murray
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