Vs. Wilderness, the full-length album crafted by Finn Riggins and released last week by Portland label Tender Loving Empire, offers a grab bag of fascinating sounds. Each composition contains its own weirdly wondrous spark: booming bomps of synth dot “Dali,” the dreamy, prom-dance-ready sway guides “Shaky,” spunky thumps of steel drum can be found in “Vs. Birds,” and the craggy post-punk guitars fill “Mahoney.” The vocal component offers tremendous range, as well: a female’s sprightly bursts evoke fountains shooting water skyward, a male’s shouts burn a lofty glow, and the occasional gang chant produces a moment of vocal unity. In sum, the group’s dynamic could be whittled down to “indie pop” but that definition doesn’t convey just their earnest effervescence. This is a band alive, awake and ready to pursue risky territory. Finn’s willingness to experiment is central to their appeal.
Eric Gilbert, Lisa Simpson, and Cameron Bouiss first played together in other groups as music majors at the University of Idaho. When they founded Finn Riggins in 2006, however, they made a commitment to take the new project seriously, which meant sharpening their live show. “The three of us got along well and were willing to drop everything and pursue music,” recalls Gilbert. “We basically packed up and left town so we could focus on doing that.”
After that crucial turn, it was an artistic free-for-all.
“We wanted to remain really open to whatever we wanted to create,” says Gilbert. Initially, this meant implementing a range of instruments, leading the group to include keyboards, a washboard, an organ, an accordion, and a steel drum in their repertoire, along with standard-issue guitar and drums (plus other knick-knacks). However, Gilbert does attest that lately they’ve been trying to rein in their instruments a bit. (Presumably, doing this might subtract chaos from performances, although chaos might be a positive.)
Collaboration drives the songwriting process. Each member brings to the table a rough draft of a potential hit, which the others help flesh out. For example, Simpson brings in a finished song while Bouiss pens a pair of off-the-wall portions that undergo rewrites. As Finn Riggins is, in Gilbert’s words, “essentially family” (Simpson and he are married, and Bouiss is “like a brother”), there are no formalities in the ranks. “We’re really comfortable with each other, so it’s easy to bring something new to the table that you may be not be comfortable with,” he tells. “There’s a lot of freedom to look like an idiot.”
While the outfit is all “over the place” when it comes to influences, one major source of inspiration is their home state. “I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Idaho but it’s a lot of open space,” says Gilbert. “We grew up with wildlife around.” He also mentions that they take in a healthy amount of “visual stimulation” during their lengthy travels; in 2008, Finn Riggins spent 245 days on tour.
While each musician is a multi-instrumentalist, performances usually feature Gilbert on keyboards and vocals, Simpson on guitar and vocals, and Bouiss on drums. “We want the recordings to capture the energy we play live and to not misrepresent us,” notes Gilbert. In terms of the tone of the group’s material, he says, “We like music that’s fun and positive by nature, but also challenging different emotions. Also, we like to dance.”
As Finn Riggins revels in experimentation, their work occasionally yields strange reactions. Consider one review of A Soldier, A Saint, An Ocean Explorer, the band’s ‘07 full-length, that focused on off-kilter dance tune “Glove Compartment.” “They likened it to “My Humps” by the Black Eyed Peas in how dumb it was,” reports Gilbert. “I thought it was funny and that was kind of the point of our song anyways. It was ridiculous. We still get a kick out of some guy going, ‘This is as bad as “My Humps.”’ I guess, ‘Ah, OK, I hope we sell as many as “My Humps!”
When quizzed about the trio’s musical future, Gilbert is hesitant to answer. “I don’t even know what it sounds like now,” he ponders. “We recorded our last records basically live. With our next, we want to build an album from the ground up, as in figure out how to play it live after that. That would elicit a whole different take.” Since Finn Riggins takes pride in their desire to explore, it’s best to leave it all up to chance. “We’re pretty in-the-moment with this whole thing,” he says. “It’s hard to say what we’re going to sound like in a year, even.”
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