Craig Finn’s I Need a New War: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

“Once I start on something, I get obsessed about the ending,” Craig Finn sings on “Holyoke,” one of the 10 songs that make up I Need a New War, the songwriter’s fourth solo album. It brings to end the trilogy Finn started with producer Josh Kaufman in 2015 with Faith in the Future and continued with 2017’s We All Want the Same Things, a triptych sidestepping the hard rock glory of Finn’s band the Hold Steady in favor of quieter, more introspective sounds and stories. The subtler palette, gentle horns, electric keyboards, cooing background vocals, accentuate the tone of these stories: Finn’s always written about hard luck characters, but increasingly, his lens centers more on the aftermath of the action than the action itself.

As far as endings go, it’s an ambiguous one, the very same kind Finn’s character sings about hating in “Hollyoke.” There’s no electrifying conclusion here. Instead, the listener gets the sense these characters might just keep scraping by, thankful for couches to crash on, prescriptions to refill, thankful for the connections that tether them to each other and the ways they find to manage their pain. Like the first two entries in the series, it’s cautiously hopeful—a set of songs that recognizes that it can get a lot worse than the “mostly OK” Finn sings about in the mystic sock hop jam “Indications.” Finn’s always been fixated on the necessity of redemption but these songs recognize the sometimes imperceptible ways people claim a little of it for themselves in the spite of a world unwilling to grant it.

“The prodigal son is probably my favorite parable from the Bible,” Finn says over the phone from New York City, where he’s lived since 2000. “That seems like the big one. Someone goes away and is accepted back.”

I Need a New War relishes in that acceptance. Its scenes are intimate, but animated by “the idea of people being redeemed, people being forgiven… people who need help the most getting it.”

Recently, Finn joined Aquarium Drunkard to unpack the album’s themes and inspirations. I Need a New War is out April 26.

Aquarium Drunkard: What made you feel like I Need a New War was the conclusion to this trilogy of records?

Craig Finn: I didn’t start writing these songs in 2015 for a big, overarching three-part thing. I didn’t see it. We’ve just been recording straight for five years—we’ve been doing it in little bursts. We’ll come in—mainly been myself, the producer Josh Kaufman, and the drummer/percussionist Joe Russo, and an engineer, Dan Goodwin—and do five songs at a time every few months, then we’ll compile them, we’ll get like 15, 16 songs, and at some point, a record comes into view and we’ll put it out. Sometimes we’ve even been recording for the next record while the first record is yet to come out. It’s been this constant sort of work. In that way, they very much seem connected to me. It’s been the same people, the same studio largely, and even the cover art is the same, Dan Monick’s photographs. 

As far as wrapping it up, I don’t know what exactly happens next, but it feels like we’ve made three records in this vein. It seemed time to look back. I think a big element of these records, versus my other work, especially in the Hold Steady,  is that at a certain point, the songwriting became smaller; the subjects became a little smaller. In Hold Steady songs, people are kind of actively misbehaving, pursuing bad ideas. Big things are happening to them—they’re falling off buildings, they’re getting shot. In these, the songs are largely about people trying to the right thing, but not coming up ahead. They’re having a really hard time keeping their heads above water.

AD: In the liner notes, Rob Sheffield writes you have an ear for “the way American losers talk.” You’ve been doing character work for your whole career, in Lifter Puller and the Hold Steady, but this record plays out on a smaller scale than things might have in the past. The characters here are working jobs they don’t necessarily love, they’re taking medications, driving rental cars. It’s more like normal life than the “massive nights” documented in the Hold Steady catalog, you know?

Craig Finn: The Hold Steady is, often times, me setting words to music that’s been bought in, mostly by the guitar player Tad Kubler, or Franz [Nicolay] and Steve [Selvidge] now. They’re big riffs usually. That’s where they start, so I think big, like, “This has to be an action movie.” When I’m coming up with the music and the lyrics simultaneously, it can be quieter, it can be more mundane, it can be more personal and more vulnerable. To be honest—I’m 47 years old now—it’s maybe more reflective of where my head’s at and where my everyday is, you know? The people that I’m seeing walking around, et cetera.

AD: In “Magic Markers,” you sing, “Everybody’s talking about the president and me, I’m never sure what I should say.” I think more and more, people are thinking about politics in more intimate ways—the politics of going to the doctor, the politics of who can or can’t get married. Do you feel like this is kind of a political album in that way?

Craig Finn: Things like healthcare, what they pay for prescriptions—the people on these records will suffer if things continue to go away. I think a lot of this record, in particular, is about people who are having a hard time kind of keeping up with the way the modern world changes. I think there’s some of that in this [regarding] what happened with the election in 2016 and beyond: there was this kind of fearful nostalgia that kind of crept in. I think even musically on this record, we talked a lot about that, Josh and I. We had the phrase “days gone by” when we were talking about the music.

AD: You can hear a lot of Springsteen in these songs, some Van Morrison too, some Wrecking Crew or Beach Boys moments. Sometimes it almost sounds like Twin Peaks. Did you have specific records set aside as reference points?

Craig Finn: The ones you mentioned, Springsteen, Van Morrison. Obviously, Leonard Cohen, with the way we treated the backup vocals on this. There’s all this call and response or back and forth between backup singers Annie Nero and Cassandra Jenkins. We put them both on one mic to sort of have that very classic kind of thing.

[While making the record] I read this totally amazing book about the Bay City Rollers, which was the first record I ever bought. It’s really sad. Terrible things happen. This book was just horrific, but it got me on this dive right as we were starting the record on that old Bay City Rollers stuff. They were obviously a teen band, but some of the compositions have this real wistfulness. I got really into that; it made me sad in this specific way and I started pursuing that. I feel like, in my own personal history, it kind of set me up for getting into punk. It’s really not that far from the Bay City Rollers to the Ramones. You can see a straight line.

AD: In “Grant at Galena,” you write about Ulysses Grant. How did you become interested in him?

Craig Finn: I was talking to someone and they made a joke about it, from Tender is the Night, the Fitzgerald novel. The main character, Dick Diver, I think his wife says she hopes he’s in a “Grant at Galena moment.” Grant went back to Galena, Illinois, his hometown, after his first stint in the army, and failed. He floundered. He was drinking too much and was in debt and working in a general store. Then the Civil War broke out, and he knew what he wanted to do. He joined the army and lead the Union to victory and became president of the United States. You just don’t think of Barack Obama or Bill Clinton at any point of their life floundering. You think of them as driven, with their eyes on the prize, moving ahead, doing important work, et cetera. This idea that someone just had seven years, which Grant did, that didn’t go well, there’s dark humor in it. It’s someone in a “middle part,” a lull before the phoenix rises again.

AD: The guy in the song just wants to have a purpose. It reminds me of this Weakerthans song “Utilities.” The narrator wants to be a solder gun or a toothbruth. He wants to be of use.

Craig Finn: Yeah, that’s exactly it. This guy, he needs a fight. I think about people who are on the other side, and adulthood can lead you to that. Maybe you aren’t on the football team anymore, you aren’t with a pack of friends, and you can end up sort of feeling more alone than ever before, and in this case, he’s kind of washed out.

AD: In “Her With The Blues” you sing about a young couple moving to New York. You sing so sweetly about these characters, tracing their youth. I think a lot of songwriters might mock those characters more than you do. They are so wide-eyed. You have a real affection for them.

Craig Finn: It almost goes full circle, because the song came about from me noticing this thing around Greenpoint in Williamsburg where I live, where there’s a certain type of tourist that comes on “an art vacation.” There’s always some guy leaning down and taking a picture of a garbage can with the skyline in the background. And then his girlfriend’s standing off and she’s got her arms crossed like, “Let’s get on with it.” I’ve never been a photographer but thinking about that guy, maybe that was me. Maybe that was me in 2000. There’s a sweetness to it. They’re coming from where they’re coming to try to seek opportunity or make something happen in their lives, or just go on an adventure. I was able to get to that more empathetic part, and that’s why it kind of ends in the same place it starts, because it’s sort of the journey I took too, thinking about those people.

AD: Who plays the saxophone on that song?

Craig Finn: Stuart Bogie does sax on really all three of these records. He’s played with Antibalas, Arcade Fire, and Iron and Wine, and he’s become a great collaborator. He’s become really important to me.

AD: What kind of direction did you give him specifically for “Her With The Blues,” because the saxophone plays a pretty integral role. It plays a “Jungleland” or “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” role. What I mean to say is that the saxophone makes me almost immediately want to cry. What kind of direction did you give him?

Craig Finn: At this point, Stuart gets the music, so it’s like, “Play what you feel.” I think that’s largely what he did. We were looking for something that was melancholy. He really understood this song, he was like, “Oh, wow, the shoulder bag, and the bicycle. That was me,” and I was like, “Well, I think that was all of us.” He really understood it. I think he was really in touch with the sadness of the song.

AD: The record concludes with “Anne Marie & Shane.” It’s a little bit of a down note to end on, but I think that it’s a sneakily hopeful note to end on as well. You get the feeling maybe Anne Marie is gonna get out of this thing, even if Shane probably won’t.

Craig Finn: They go away and only Anne Marie comes back. My read on it is kind of tough, because Shane, we don’t know exactly what happened to him down there, but we do think maybe she’s better off without him.

AD: I definitely think that.

Craig Finn: Life is long and they’re young. I always try to find some hopefulness. I’d like to think Anne Marie is moving back to her stepfather’s home, and maybe this is her “Grant at Galena” moment. Maybe she’ll regroup. The way that song ends, it sort of fades on an ascending thing, it feels like maybe the camera panning out and out and out, first to the house, to the neighborhood, to the city, to the country, to the world, to outer space. It’s a big world out there. Anne Marie will hopefully get some other chances.

AD: Do you think that’s the kind of ending you’re most drawn to, the kind that implies there’s more story to be told?

Craig Finn: Absolutely. I really like that, cutting things off. I think I’m attracted to that in books and movies, too. Not everything is wrapped up neatly, but hopefully, if you’re an optimistic person, that allows you to think, “Well, things will probably get better. They seem like good people.” words/j woodbury

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