LouFest preview interview: Craig Finn of the Hold Steady
Craig Finn is a wordy chap — but in the best way. For many of the Hold Steady‘s most ardent fans, Finn’s narrative lyrics and spoken vocal delivery are central to the appeal. We chatted by phone recently to discuss the upcoming Hold Steady tour, his recent recording of solo material, baseball and our mutual childhood admiration for ’70s rock band, Kiss. I hoped by the end he wouldn’t be muttering to himself, “I’m getting pretty sick of this interview.”
Scott Allen: You’ve played St. Louis a number of times with either Lifter Puller or the Hold Steady. Do you have a favorite memory or story about playing here in the Gateway City?
Craig Finn: We’ve had some good shows. I think the one I remember the most might have been the first time we were there. I don’t remember the name of the club. It was upstairs, but I don’t think it’s around anymore. [The club was the Hi-Pointe.] I remember we went back to the hotel with a British theme [The Cheshire Inn], which was right next-door. I remember that kind of being a wild night for us. I think everyone went a little crazy. We certainly had other good shows, but I don’t remember us personally getting as out of control afterwards.
You toned it down a little bit later on?
Yeah, early out of the gates it was usually pretty crazy. Then, once we started going around and realizing we were going to be able to tour for a long time we kind of calmed it down.
After a long break the Hold Steady will play some shows in late August and early September. Can fans expect a “Best of” show as the band gets its legs back under it or will you test new material as well?
I don’t know if we’ll have new material, but I wouldn’t say it’s going to be a best-of either. Now that we’re five albums in, and we have a bunch of B-sides and unreleased songs, we have a lot of songs to choose from. So, one thing we’ve really prioritized in the last few years is playing a different set each night. We try to touch on songs that people want to hear, but we also like to keep people guessing. We’ll see what happens. I know that’s a festival show and a radio show, but we’re always trying to keep it different from night to night. Especially now that fans are coming to multiple shows in a row more and more. We want to make sure they don’t see the same show every night.
For me personally, “Heaven Is Whenever” is the most cohesive Hold Steady album to date — musically and lyrically. While other albums may have some better songs, the record holds up well start to finish like a good album should. When I read the recent Pitchfork interview the interviewer said last record was “not as enthusiastically received, critically.” Does a statement like that put you off?
Well, critically is sort of the qualifier there. The critics generally like new things I feel like. I’m not trying to be snarky here, but once you meet the critics you care a little bit less about what the critics think. (Laughs) Once you see them in person. No, the big thing is it may not have garnered all the critical acclaim, but some of the records we did before that were so critically acclaimed that it would be literally impossible to kind of keep that going. It still seems to be really connecting to a lot of people and the fans, and there are certainly more people than ever coming to the shows. From where we sit that’s the important part.
As a record collector myself, my favorite song off the last record is “We Can Get Together” with the line “Heaven is whenever/We can get together/lock your bedroom door/and listen to your records.” What was your inspiration behind the lyrics of that one?
It’s just about meetings — when you’re connecting. Being a music fan or record collector, or however you want to say it, and then meeting someone else and having that in common with someone. Playing records for someone, playing records with someone. You stay up late and say, “No, no I have to play you this song.” Contrasting that with the idea falling in love and how music fits into our lives. People who love music live their lives a little bit as soundtracks by music and rock ‘n’ roll. Even through rock ‘n’ roll, be it going to shows or to record stores with your friends and how that fits into our lives.
I appreciate your Midwestern work ethic (i.e. album/tour/repeat). Do you think you’ll continue to work this frequently in the future or will fans start to see a wider gap between albums?
No, we took some time off for the first time and I think we’re all chomping at the bit to get back. Now, I think it’s been nice to get some rest and recuperate and get it together, but I think everyone’s really anxious to get back on the road. That’s what we do. We’re a rock and roll band so we play shows and put out records. I think we’ll continue to do that at a pretty quick pace.
I’m not really sure why, personally, some artists wait so long between albums to put something out. Why does it take five years between records? Why wait so long? Is it because the writing doesn’t come as quickly or what? That confuses me at times.
Yeah, I mean growing up — I got into Kiss first — and they had a record out every 9 months. So, I don’t know why bands can’t do that.
You’re only a couple of years older than me and the first band I really caught onto was Kiss too. I love Springsteen and Dylan as well, so I think we’d have a lot to talk about there.
(Laughs) Yeah, I’d say so.
Last month you spent time immersing yourself in the culture of Austin while tracking what will become your first solo album. By all accounts this is a far more acoustic record with much of album recorded live. While I love the idea of an Americana-tinged solo record, what artists have influenced your songwriting for the album?
Well, Dylan is a big one. I think more real songwriting stuff. Townes Van Zandt. Warren Zevon. Neil Young. Also, I was really listening to a ton of the first three Lou Reed solo albums. That kind of became a touchstone while we were working. I got really into those. So, it’s not so much an acoustic record as it is just sort of a different approach. It’s a little looser. It’s sort of that idea to try to record things quicker and looser. I really love those Dylan records where you can tell the band doesn’t know the song quite yet, and they’re struggling to keep up with him. That was kind of the idea. You know, to get some good players in. I didn’t know any of them, but just say,
“All right, here’s the song. Let’s go through it a few times and let’s hit record and see what we get.”
Those Dylan records you’re talking about, he laughs sometimes and you can tell people are making faces at him or they don’t know exactly what they’re doing, but he just kind of soldiers through. Those are the takes that end up on “Blonde On Blonde” or “Bringing It All Back Home” and he’s laughing during the song.
Absolutely, but there’s a lot of emotion in it. You get that from those early takes where people are really concentrating and keeping up, but also just playing what they feel because they’re not so used to it.
And you’re not taking it to the ’70s level of excess where you’re recording it 136 times live to get the one exact, right take where everybody plays everything perfectly.
Right! That was all very liberating on this record too where the drummer might say, “God, I wish I didn’t screw up that middle part,” but that whole take was better than the one before so let’s keep that.
From what I’ve seen of the solo material online, is it possible that previous characters such as Holly or Charlemagne are reappearing in your writing or are these new characters or just reoccurring ideas of people trying to escape a seedy situation and being pulled back in over and over?
A lot of the solo record is about displacement. People being outside their comfort zone and struggling with that. It’s a new set of people from any Hold Steady songs, but it has some of the same themes I tend to write about. A lot of it does have to do with being in a new place. That’s somewhat reflected by how I went and did the record — plugging into a new city with people I didn’t know and seeing what happens.
Can we expect a solo tour maybe in the spring? I had a suggestion if you don’t mind.
You and Ben Nichols [from Lucero]. Thoughts?
Oh wow! I like that. I’ll talk to Ben. (Laughs) I’d like that. That sounds like a lot of fun. I certainly enjoy his company. The Hold Steady is a priority. So, we have to sort of figure out our schedule. If there’s time I’m willing and able. I’m really proud of the record so I’d like to support it how I can, but I have to keep my eye on the main thing.
What do you think you’ll take away from this solo experience when the band
gets back together in the studio this fall?
I think it was a new way of recording. One of the things I did on this record was record the vocals live in the studio with the band. That’s possible. That’s the kind of thing I guess I learned. The idea of trying new things. “This is the way we normally do it, but hey, let’s do it this way and see what comes out of it.” You know, I’m just throwing some curve balls into the actual process can lead to good results.
This reminds me I read an interview with [Hold Steady guitarist] Tad Kubler a while back — and I’m paraphrasing here — basically he was saying that on “Heaven Is Whenever” you got away from the vintage recording style and went a bit more modern, but also more towards what you were speaking about with the solo record and a bit more spontaneous and more fun. You got maybe better takes that way.
Mainly the difference, in regards to that, was that we got away from tape, which is really expensive, and embraced the digital thing. However, that does bring in this weird … extra sort of problem with the visual. Having a computer monitor in the middle of the studio is sometimes weirdly distracting. Even if you’re not trying to it can be distracting. That’s sort of the struggle between modern and vintage.
Changing gears here: By far, “Don’t Call Them Twinkies” is my favorite song on the new Baseball Project record even though I’m a life-long Cardinals fan. I reviewed the band’s performance at Twangfest a couple of months ago and was hoping you might make a guest appearance — much to my chagrin of course [you didn't]. How did the collaboration come about? Was it your friendship with Linda Pitmon or did they just call you out of the blue?
Yeah, it was Linda and I being from Minneapolis and knowing each other from there from way back. I knew Steve [Wynn] a little bit through her because that’s her husband. They sent me the first record and said to me the next time we want to do a Twins song. That was some years ago so it sort of popped up all of a sudden. I remember, I think I was in Europe actually, which is a great place to be writing a baseball song, and an e-mail came through from Scott [McCaughey] or Steve I can’t remember who did first. I wrote it in just one day. I was like, “I know what I want to say,” and I sent them back the lyrics. Then, Steve wrote the music and they recorded it with him singing and sent it to me and I sang it and I sent it back to them. The whole thing was out and done and already released before I ever met Scott in person. Another weird modern thing. They came to Brooklyn and I did a couple of shows with them. They’re great guys and great rock ‘n’ roll people. They’re real cool. Pete Buck was playing bass and that was not lost on me, as I was a massive R.E.M. fan, still am. That was just cool to be on stage with him.
Then, when I got to see them here Mike Mills was filling in on bass so that wasn’t altogether bad either.
No, although, Mike wasn’t real happy … Mike is a Braves fan so it got back to me that he wasn’t real happy about the song and especially about the Ron Gant line.
Speaking of baseball, do you have a favorite baseball game you’ve attended or memory of a game that you’ve seen?
I was home in September of ’06 and the Twins were in the pennant race. I went to five games in a row by myself and they won all of them. I remember the best one — I don’t remember exactly who they were playing — I remember it was a Sunday afternoon game and [Johan] Santana was still pitching for the Twins and he was on. I saw him strike out the side on ten pitches, which I think was one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen. He pitched a ball, but the others were three straight strikes.
It was one of those games too where the pitcher was really grooving and it just had a really good pace. So the game was moving along. He was throwing quickly and you really just felt how in control he was the whole game.
It wasn’t a boring pitcher duel?
No, it was early on like 3rd inning. It was just something. They got a hit or two off of him, but that was it.
The slogan here at 88.1 KDHX is “Independent Music Plays Here.” While many fans know your music influences reside in Dylan, Springsteen, the Clash, punk rock and the ’80s Minneapolis scene. What other music resides in your record collection? Any recommendations on music our readers might want to seek out?
My favorite three records this year are Centro-matic’s “Candidate Waltz,” White Denim’s record called “D” and the Felice Brothers’ “Celebration, Florida.” Those are my three favorite records for the first half of this year. I’ve been playing those a ton and I think those are all indie records.
The Hold Steady performs at LouFest on Saturday, August 27 in Forest Park.