Rock Candy Interview: Craig Finn of The Hold Steady

The Hold Steady

Over the last few years, The Hold Steady has become one of my favorite bands. No surprise, as I tend to get giddy like a child when they come to town.

For me, it’s that the Hold Steady are a direct line to what the hell is going on. Frontman Craig Finn’s lyrics paint a picture of good times and laughs as well as desperation and drunkenness. Meanwhile, Tad Kubler’s guitar riffs are so huge, they’re bumping against the ceiling.

I can’t get enough of the band and I’m looking forward to Finn’s upcoming solo album and the next Hold Steady record, which Finn told me is coming soon.

In anticipation of the band’s rocking set coming tonight at Slowdown’s annual block party, we called Finn during a break with the band’s rehearsals in Milwaukee.

Check out the show tonight for free by heading to main sponsor Toyota’s website and submitting an RSVP.

We talked about the band’s current tour, his recently-recorded solo album, whether girls really do go for status and how he’s proud that he doesn’t look anything like The Strokes.

Kevin Coffey: What’s The Hold Steady’s lineup like right now?

Craig Finn: It’s a five-piece. No keys. We did a few shows with it earlier this year and it really energized us. We really liked it. Once we added the second guitar player, there felt like there wasn’t a ton of room for everything.

The guitars were playing so well together that we decided to kind of take it in that direction.

We had to reinvent a couple songs a little bit to cover the keyboard parts, but we’ve really liked it.

KC: There’s a few of those songs were the keys are the main melody.

CF: I think you’d be surprised. There’s even some keyboard breakdown parts that we had to rethink but it caused us to be really creative. It’s been fun. It’s pretty cool. We’re really happy with it.

KC: You just got done recording your solo album, right?

CF: I did a record down in Austin, Texas, in July and hopefully that will come out probably just after the new year. It’s still being mixed. That was super fun.


KC: The Hold Steady was on break from touring. Was that something to do or did you have some material you wanted to put out?

CF: Yeah, I had kind of some material that was really, I don’t know, simpler than the Hold Steady. It was kind of like real lyric-driven things that were pretty mellow, maybe more narrative, more story-telling kind of things.
I kinda wanted was something like that.

We had a four month break which was the longest by far we’ve ever had in this band. I thought, ‘Hell, this is a good time to do it.’

I went down there and it was a lot of fun.

As we’re gonna start writing the new Hold Steady record this fall. I kinda thought I was like forced into some creative growth, just trying to do new things with new people. That was kind of an unintended benefit, I guess. Or maybe an intended benefit, too.

KC: How do you usually write? Do you sit down with a notebook?

CF: I write like a notebook that’s separate. I just write. Then Tad comes in with riffs and stuff and I say, ‘You know, I’ve got soemthing that works with that.’ That’s kind of how we piece everything together.

It’s sort of separate and then he’ll come up with riffs individually. He writes pretty much all the music. I’m pretty much bringing all the lyrics.

KC: A lot of your songs reference real places and real songs, but are the stories real, too? It’s hard to believe someone could live through all that.

CF: Yeah. I always say that if I ever wrote the stories that were really about my life, they’d be really boring songs. But there’s certainly some relation to it.

But I’ve always really liked as a music fan really specific lyrics. That’s always something that I think is important and cool.

You always make the music that you want to hear yourself. That’s what I like — things like city names or street corners or even songs or musicians come into my lyrics.

KC: Rarely are you lyrics vague.

CF: Yeah, at least that’s sort of what I like about the lyricists that I like. Often times, (it’s) their specificity. Specificness? Something like that. You know what I mean.

KC: Who are some of your favorite lyricists?

CF: You know, the classics. There’s Dylan and Springsteen and Paul Westerberg was a huge one growing up in Minneapolis.

But more recently, I think John Darnielle from the Mountain Goats is a great lyricist. John Samson from the Weakerthans is one of my favorites.

Anything can come and surprise you. The Drive-By Truckers are a great one.

KC: Do you still go to a lot of shows?

CF: Yeah. All the time. I go a lot. I really still love music. Even though I’m on the road and surrounded by music. I really do enjoy going out. In New York, I’d say at least a show a a week. Maybe more.

KC: Do you go out a lot in Austin?

CF: I saw Alejandro Escoveda. It was one of the best shows I’ve seen all year. I saw him at the Continental Club and it was super Austin. It was everything I wanted Austin to be when I went there.

KC: What do you do when you’re not doing The Hold Steady?

CF: I read a lot. I ran a half marathon. I trained for that. I’ve always been a runner but I’ve never done a distance like that. I’ve always done like 3 miles. I upped that game little bit. I spent a little bit of time in Minneapolis.

But mainly I tried to rest up because I knew that touring and all the craziness that comes along with it would crank up starting right now.

KC: You’re 40 now. Is it harder to do now than it was 10 years ago?

CF: Yeah, definitely. It’s harder, but you get better at it.

Put it this way: It would really hard to do the way I was behaving 10 years ago. It might be easier to do now that I’ve gotten it under control, so to speak. (Laughs)

KC: Have you calmed down?

CF: Yeah. I think when we first went out, we thought they’d take it all away from us so we had to go to every party and drink every bottle of booze.

Three albums in, it’s like wait a minute, we’re going to be doing this for awhile, maybe. You gotta pick your battles.

We still have a good time but it’s nothing near where we were. It used to be kinda crazy.

KC: You always seem to enjoy touring. At least, you seem really happy onstage when other artists sometimes look bummed out. It’s like they enjoy the tour, but not the actual performance.

CF: Personally, this is easily the best job I’ve ever had. It is fun. I think I’m blessed to be able to do this.

I don’t really get that, that sort of pouting on stage.

KC: What are some of the other jobs you’ve had?

CF: I worked at some Internet companies. I worked in wealth management for American Express Financial Advisers.

I had my licenses and all that in my 20s. That was tough. That’s the one I look back on and sort of shudder. We were really overworked and it was pretty tough. It was definitely a job that I had a hard time getting excited about going to.

KC: At your shows, it always seems like there’s a lot of guys and beer cans raised in the air. But the more times I see The Hold Steady, it’s becoming a little more female friendly.

CF: I think it couldn’t get more male, so we’re moving in the right direction.

KC: What do you notice about your fans?

CF: I think one thing that’s kinda interesting is that we have a classic sound. One thing that I think is always kinda cool is when you see fathers and sons or people of different generations showing up at the show together, which is really cool.

It makes me happy to see that.

There is a really big age difference. We skew older, but that allows us to get a big range.

KC: Did you ever go to shows with your parents?

CF: My dad took me to some concerts when I was younger. Styx “Killroy Was Here” tour was my first concert and my dad took me to that. He wasn’t a huge rock fan, but it was just him being a cool dad. I’ve seen the Stones with my dad and Springsteen, I think.

My parents do love The Hold Steady and they definitely come to every show we play in their area.

KC: I’ve always wondered about the story with “Girls Like Status.” Is that a story that your dad actually told you?

CF: Sort of. It was actually a conversation that both of my parents shared with me that they had at a dinner party the night before. It was sort of a consensus that this dinner party reached.

It’s funny. While I definitely tended to disagree when I heard it, it only took moving to New York to see it in action every day.

KC: You talked about another interview that you liked seeing Paul Westerberg because he looked and acted like people you knew. The Hold Steady also seems to give off that vibe. Do you agree? Is that something you’re proud of?

CF: Yeah, it is. I think it’s obvious that our audience sees a lot of themselves in us. I think that’s why we exist. That’s part of the story. Our fans are kind of cheering for us because it’s like ‘Wow, you don’t necessarily look like the Strokes, but you’re out there making good rock music and living this life.’

I think that’s something our fans find attractive in us.

KC: “Heaven Is Whenever” feels a little different from “Stay Positive” and other Hold Steady material. Was there a different approach to that record?

CF: I think it’s kind of what happened. One of it is was writing without the keyboards opened it up. I think there was a little more space or a little more room to breathe.

I think we were trying to do something a little different. “Boys and Girls” and “Stay Positive” sounded really similar to me. We worked with the same producer and they seem like companion pieces to me.

We were somewhat consciously trying to get a different sound in “Heaven Is Whenever.” And with Franz leaving the band, it was sort of a transition period too.

It’s hard to know what comes next what sonically it will be like. We really haven’t starting writing, but that’s going to reveal itself soon.

KC: I really like the lyric in “Our Whole Lives” that goes “Gonna make like a preemptive strike/Hit the 5:30 Mass early Saturday night.”

CF: Someone else just told me that today. Someone literally told me that today and said that it was her mom’s favorite Hold Steady lyric.

I do that, too. I’m like, “Tonight’s going to be pretty fun, so I’m just going to get it out of the way.”

KC: Were you raised Catholic?

CF: No, not raised Catholic. I have my own version of Catholicism. I go in like waves of going to church a lot and not going. In this year, 2011, I’ve been on a pretty lame schedule of going to Mass. I’ve probably gone six times this year.

It goes in streaks. I don’t know. I’ll probably be that way my whole life. I don’t have a wife or kids or anything. When you have kids, you start to really make the effort. If it’s just me, I don’t know. That’s when I get really streaky.

KC: You guys have had a big musical output with five albums in seven or eight years. How do you put that much music out?

CF: I think because we’re a little older, I think that our work ethic might be maybe a little more… You know going back to we’ve all had worse jobs.

I just feel like in this day and age, people consume music quickly. If you got ideas, it’s worth sharing and keeps people interested.

So much of what we do is the live thing and my releasing albums it gives us more different songs to throw into the set, which can kind of make for varying sets, which has become more important to us.

With all of the material that we have out there, it’s good to mix it up for the fans.

KC: Other than maybe a few songs, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you guys play the same thing.

CF: That’s really a point of pride for us. There’s some songs that we play a lot: “Chips Ahoy,” “Sequestered in Memphis,” “Stuck Between.” But the ones that round out the set tend to be way different each night.

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