Craig Finn is a normal dude. He may be “gettin’ a lot of double takes when he’s comin’ around the corners,” (as he sings on the title track of the Hold Steady’s excellent new record, Stay Positive) but at his core, Craig Finn is a genuinely, refreshingly normal dude. That may explain the enduring and escalating popularity of his band. Unlike the untouchable, self-styled indie rockers that are ten years his junior, Finn and his crew all look like a bunch of guys bangin’ out a few songs after a long day in the cubicle. Indeed, if Finn weren’t so damned literate, you’d wonder if he even knew the meaning of the word “pretension.”
The group’s refreshing and honest attitude, along with the love and passion that shines through all of their work, has won them what can only be described as a legion of fans (who call themselves the Unified Scene) and a critical lauding that most bands would kill for. Their big, classic rock ‘n’ roll (“bar rock,” most people label it), is girded by Finn’s storytelling, which finds its most comfortable soulmates in the Catholic sojourning of Jack Kerouac, and the weary hope of poet John Berryman. It’s a lush sound, one that practically gurgles with power and positivity, as hard as the streets that Finn’s characters find themselves unable to escape and as comforting as the faith that typically saves them. – marty garner
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Aquarium Drunkard: You guys played a lot of shows behind Boys and Girls in America, right?
Craig Finn: Yeah, we did a lot and we’re getting ready for a whole bunch more. It’s nice to have a calm before the storm.
AD: How many shows did you end up doing for the last record?
CF: I think 275, maybe 300. We were on the road a ton. But you know, that’s what we do; we’re a rock band. It’s exciting for us.
AD: Were you able to work on the road?
CF: As far as writing, we actually got some writing done for this record [on the road]. We looked ahead and saw when we wanted to put the record out and it became painfully obvious that we’d have to speed up our writing process. So, for the first time, we wrote on the road. A lot of hotel demos ended up being this record, Stay Positive.
CF: That is correct. Tad was doing this harmony [on “Navy Sheets”] and John Agnello, the producer, said, “Tad, you sound just like Patterson when you do that.” So we said, “Well, let’s get Patterson to do it, then.” We’re all big fans; we don’t really know those guys that well but we’re really big admirers and hopefully at some point in the future we’ll play some shows together. We have a mutual friend in our tour manager, too, so we’re getting close to them. We’re both always on the road so we keep missing each other.
AD: You and Patterson are often writing from the same place and about the same things — fear, growing up, addiction, faith.
CF: Yeah, we both write songs about the types of people we know and the places we grew up. With me, that happens to be the northernmost part of this country and his is definitely a southern thing, but we’re definitely similar in some ways.
AD: I feel like you’re a bit more hopeful than he is.
CF: Possibly. Yeah, he’s pretty dark, but their shows are pretty hopeful; they’re a great time.
CF: Yeah, I have, it’s great. He played a bunch of Bruce Springsteen songs one night in Athens with a band and I got a bootleg of it.
AD: Who else guests on the new record?
CF: Ben Nichols from Lucero; are you familiar with that band?
AD: A bit.
CF: Yeah, he sings on three songs, so he did quite a bit. He was out here doing a solo show and I invited him to record with us. He’s got that really distinctive voice. We liked pretty much everything he did, so he’s got a big appearance [on the record]. He sings on the single, “Sequestered in Memphis,” and on guitar is Doug Gillard from Guided by Voices and Cobra Verde. He sings on some other parts of the record, too. And J Mascis, through the mail, ended up playing banjo on one track, “Both Crosses.”
AD: J Mascis plays banjo?
CF: (laughs) Yeah, that’s J Mascis playing banjo. John knew he liked to play banjo, so he set it up.
AD: Franz [Nicolay, keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist] seems like he’s contributing more with each record. How much does it help to have his ear and versatility when you’re writing?
CF: It’s helped us to become more musical. Everything from helping us to understand why something works to — well, for starters, the piano and the keyboard are such dynamic instruments, and having Franz be able to play all of these other instruments, too, and play them well, can really add a lot of things. The harpsichord in “One for the Cutters” is something he came up with and he was able to find a harpsichord for it, too. That’s the kind of thing that can help you to grow musically. It’s been cool to have someone that musical in the band. Tad [Kubler, guitarist] fits really well with him, but basically the rest of us are just loft musicians whereas Franz is a schooled musician.
AD: People often tag you as being a “bar band.” I don’t really know how to take that as a fan, but how do you take it as something that’s supposed to describe you?
CF: Well, in a way, it’s something we started, this idea of getting up there and being an entertainer [first and foremost]. We don’t put on this pompous show. It’s more like, “We’re gonna get up there and play music and you’re gonna be a part of it and we’re gonna have fun.” And to me, that’s what the bar band thing means. I don’t think of it as an insult at all; it’s more like we’re a good, tight, rock ‘n’ roll band. Of course, we don’t really play in bars anymore. It’s fun when we do, but lately we’ve been doing more festivals and outdoor shows. Theatres, even.
AD: Your lyrics are central to the group’s sound. When you’re writing, do you bring in a lyric and have the guys wrap something around it, or vice versa?
CF: No, I write a little bit every day in these books I keep, and then one of the guys will come in with an idea — Franz especially — and they’ll jam it out, work on a couple of parts, and I’ll look through my books and try to figure out what’s the best thing to say. A lot of it depends on the meter; I talk along with them as they’re riffing it out, and I figure out what I want to say. Then I pull from my books and edit it a little bit, so it fits the song. So it’s really music, then lyrics, then we shape it from there.
AD: So you’re pretty much always writing.
CF: Yeah, absolutely. I try to. It’s a good way to keep the creative energy going, so I try to write a little bit every day. I’ll write down observations, things I see that I think are funny.
AD: I read that when you were writing Boys and Girls in America, you physically wrote that Kerouac quote [“Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together”] on your wall and you’d refer back to it when things would dry up. Is that true?
CF: Yeah, it is. I didn’t have anything else on my walls, and I wrote it out sitting on the floor. So I had to look up at that, and it was something that kept my going when I’d get stuck. For this record I didn’t really have that same thing, but I realized earlier in the process what I wanted to say.
AD: That’s something I wanted to ask you about. This album seems much weightier than Boys and Girls in America.
CF: The record’s really about aging gracefully and I keep coming back to that because rock ‘n’ roll is a tough business to age gracefully in. It’s tough being thirty-six and doing it for a living, and wanting to be an adult and a respectable person who’s able to communicate with other people in other parts of society and not just be rock ‘n’ roll all the time, you know? It’s a lifestyle that causes people to not expect that much out of you on a personal level. I mean, if you choose to drink all day, you can; no one’s gonna say anything. This is the only job I can think of where that’s true. So it’s a struggle to be happy where you’re at as a grown-up and also hold on to some of your youthful ideals.
AD: I also get a sense of responsibility listening to Stay Positive. You seem more aware of the effect that your music has on people on this record.
CF: Because we’re a little bit older, we have a different perspective on some of this stuff. To be honest, one thing that affected me a lot over the writing of this record was the success of Boys and Girls in America. Even though we’re far from a household name, it made me a more public person, and there was an adjustment period on my part to getting used to that. Some of that is really reflected in Stay Positive as well.
AD: Can you expand on that?
CF: “Slapped Actress,” the last song, is really about the difference between perception and reality and the idea of being a public figure. [When you’re a public figure,] people have ideas about you, like you owe them something. But you’re always trying to be as good as you can to people, to fans, and you try not to be weirded out when you walk in somewhere and suddenly the drunk guy’s talking to you about your girlfriend or something. It’s about being gracious and not being paranoid; it’s something that I’ve definitely had to work on.
AD: At the same time, though, your fans seem much more committed to you than most bands’ fans.
CF: I think we feel that our fans are rooting for us more than other bands’ fans are, because we’re a little older (laughs). They see themselves in us oftentimes and there’s this feeling of, “You guys can do it.”
AD: Why do you think people identify so strongly with you guys?
CF: I think with the specific nature of lyrics — like, mine have a lot to do with Minneapolis, where I grew up, but hopefully they explain something universal. Boys and Girls in America was about love, really, and relationships. Stay Positive is about getting older. Now, love and getting older are concepts that I’m pretty sure every human on the planet can relate to. No matter how specific or inside it might be at times, hopefully there’s something there [that’s universal].
AD: Another thing that sets you apart is that you write out of a strongly Catholic background, and those themes keep showing up in your music. Do you consider yourself a practicing Catholic?
CF: No, I mean, I go to church, but not that often. I guess I have my own version of Catholicism that I made up in my head and I don’t think that the Pope recognizes it (laughs).
AD: You seem much more respectable of it, though; most people who leave a certain faith are rarely as respectful of it as you are with yours.
CF: I think as you get older, bigger things start to happen, you know? People get illnesses, people die, there’s births, there’s weddings. As I got a little older, I realized that these are the things that people ponder when they go towards faith, and I started to examine my own relationship [with faith]. I spent so much time in the church on Sundays and on holy days and with my family, and then went to a Catholic college [Boston College], so I knew it just had to be some part of me. Thinking more about that is really what led to Separation Sunday and a more open dialogue between myself and Catholicism. And I’ve met a lot of really interesting Catholic scholars and Jesuits. I’ve done interviews with people from Jesuit and Catholic magazines that kind of have some of the same struggles with the church that I do. And, you know, there’s redemption and there’s forgiveness, the two great concepts that fascinate me the most.
AD: I think that what you do really well is to take these concepts that seem so abstract — redemption, forgiveness — and you root them in the everyday and show us what they really look like.
CF: Thank you.
Stay tuned for part II of the AD interview with The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn….
Previously: Franz Nicolay of The Hold Steady :: The AD Interview (2006)
MP3: The Hold Steady :: Take Me Out To The Ball Game
iTunes: The Hold Steady – Stay Positive