Interview: Craig Finn of The Hold Steady

craig finn

THERE’S A TRACK on the new Hold Steady album called ‘On With The Business’, and that’s exactly what singer-guitarist Craig Finn is getting. It’s been four years since Heaven Is Whenever saw the band’s music maturing and the then 38 year-old’s lyrics further enforcing his reputation as a rock and roll storyteller of the highest order. It’s easy to see why Finn’s lyrics are what they are, as he reels off names of writers you’ve never heard of.

The engaging and erudite Minneapolis-raised New York native is still telling stories with his literature-rich lyrics on new album Teeth Dreams, and since the departure of flamboyantly moustachioed keyboardist Franz Nicolay after 2008’s excellent Stay Positive, the band has taken on an extra guitarist. With a fatter, Thin Lizzy-esque dual guitar sound, The Hold Steady may have reached a new phase in their musical life cycle, but while Finn is happy to talk up his band’s new dynamic and approach to making music, he’s equally happy to chew the fat on a range of other subjects, from chasing girls as a youngster to Nirvana and the future of rock.

Congratulations on the new album. How does it feel to have it out there?

It feels really good, you know. This is the same as any album, but they take so long to get out; we recorded it in August and it was mixed in October. I’m just excited to be out here playing these songs for people. We went down and did SXSW and played seven times, but they were all these short showcases, and I’m excited to now be playing real shows to the real fans.

How did the new material go down at SXSW?

It went great and continues to go great. It’s always fun to have a new record out; you go and do a new song, and now that it’s out people jump up and sing the words, and you’re like “alright; these guys have got the record”. It feels really good.

Do you feel nervous playing songs live for the first time?

You get sort of nervous, but in some ways it’s also great because you have to pay attention a little more or be on autopilot a little less. In that sense it’s really nice; it’s kind of more of a challenge and you have to think about it, and that’s really cool. You’re maybe paying attention to different things than you are for the rest of the set, in a good way.

Why has it been four years since your last album?

We were going really hard, you know? We did five albums in seven years and toured extensively on each of them. Things were kind of fatiguing; the wheels were falling off the wagon, so to speak. I think everyone was a little tired, and creatively we weren’t in a very good place. We took a break and I made a solo record, which took some time, then we started trying to make this record. The one thing that’s different about this record is that [guitarist] Steve Selvidge joined for it. This is the first record we wrote and recorded with him, and now we have two guitar players. He had joined on the touring for the last record, but this is the first we had wrote and recorded with him. He lives in Memphis and the rest of us live in New York, so there was a bit of a geographic hurdle to get over when we started writing. It was a little formal at first, or a little forced, but we got over it eventually and wrote a ton of songs; maybe even over-writing. We had way more songs than we needed, but once our producer Nick Raskulinecz came in it happened quickly. He was like “you guys have plenty of songs for a record, let’s just go make this thing”.

What makes Steve Selvidge a good fit for The Hold Steady?

We had met him as a guitar player in an opening band years before; a band called The Bloodthirsty Lovers. Tad [Kubler, guitar] and Steve hit it off right away; they started playing guitar together and he seemed a good fit personality-wise, and then we found out that Tad and him were born on the exact same day. We thought if we were going to do a two-guitar line-up, then this was meant to be. It’s a push and pull thing between their guitars; the way they play back and forth and the way they play with each other. That’s come to define this album, and it’s a huge part of our sound now.

Do you enjoy recording or can it be a chore?

There are a lot of parts that don’t have a lot to do with me, you know? There’s a technical aspect to it, and then there are all the instruments that you aren’t playing. Depending on how you’re making the record, there can be a lot of downtime. I like making the records, but there are days which are pretty slow. I really like playing shows, so the record is a way to go out and introduce your songs to people and go out on tour again. I guess I like touring better than recording, although I love to see things fit together, and the creative moments are really fun.

What is it that appeals to you about writing about female characters in your lyrics?

For one I think so many stories we tell – whether it’s songs, books, movies or whatever – are about boy meets girl, so you need girls in there. Being of the opposite sex, there’s a mystery there for me, and I think in many books and movies the female is empowered with his mystery. Ultimately, being in a band whose audience is largely male, I need to find a way to make real women characters who you can really empathise with and that are very human. That becomes important for me.

Why do you think there are so few musicians doing the same thing?

In the big picture, I think for a lot of people lyrics are an afterthought. I’ve always been obsessed with characters in songs, and one of the things I’ve tried to do – rather than just introduce characters – is character development. Sometimes going back to these characters means I can flesh them out a bit more; that may be one of the ways that they might be a little more realised as humans.

In the song ‘On With The Business’ you mention “that American sadness”. Can you define what that is?

I got that from an interview that I read with David Foster Wallace. He’s a writer I’ve been obsessed with; I’ve read all his books and probably every interview he’s ever done. He talks about this particular American sadness, or the understanding that there’s a void inside us. There’s a realisation that no matter what we do, or what we try to fill it with – meaning drugs and alcohol or consumer goods, you know, stuff; there’s still sort of an emptiness. That song is about consumerism and about how these characters are doing whatever they can do to get ahead, and by that it means they just get more stuff. It’s the first time I’ve written about that kind of consumerism, and it made me think of the American sadness quote.

What plans do you have for touring, and can we expect an Australian trip at any point?

I’m hoping we can tour Australia either late 2014 or early 2015. We’ll be in the States for the [northern hemisphere] summer and hopefully get back to Europe in the fall; we have quite a bit of touring planned. I think we’ll probably come for your summer. Our winter, your summer would be ideal.

A couple of off-topic questions to finish up. There has been quite a resurgence in interest in Nirvana recently, surrounding the 20th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death. How much of an influence did Nirvana have in your life?

I was pretty entrenched in underground punk and hardcore music by the time Nirvana came into my life. I wasn’t an obsessive Nirvana fan; I certainly appreciated them, but I guess I was already kind of committed to that kind of thing. I have to admit that after Nirvana came out, it sort of became okay for certain girls to look at a guy like me; a more alternative guy or more weird guy. Kurt Cobain definitely helped my cause with a few girls.

Do you see them as being worthy of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction so soon?

Absolutely. Even though I wasn’t obsessed with them at the time, the songs absolutely stand the test of time. He was a great, great singer and so many people held on to that and if you look at how many people he moved and the sea change they represented in the early ’90s, they are more than worthy.

The Arctic Monkeys recently claimed rock and roll has returned. How is it looking from your viewpoint?

It doesn’t seem to me to be at its most popular. I feel that younger people seem to like electronic music more, and hip hop is really big. I think the younger someone is, the less likely they are [to be] into rock and roll, but that said, I see die-hards every night we play. I don’t think it’s going anywhere and I don’t think it’s ever gone away. I think it’s always going to be here, but I don’t know if I believe if it’s ‘back’ or at a particularly strong point right now. I think probably in a couple of years a 22 year-old whiz kid will come out and capture the hearts and minds of young people, and that’s when rock and roll will have a resurgence on a commercial level. Right now I think it’s just holding steady; no pun intended.

TEETH DREAMS BY THE HOLD STEADY IS OUT NOW.

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