LouFest Interviews: Craig Finn of the Hold Steady

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Mark Seliger
In 2004, Brooklyn's the Hold Steady rushed into the indie rock n'roll circuit like a healthy dose of Thin Lizzy shot through the veins of a jittery Bruce Springsteen. Building off the strength of its debut album, Almost Killed Me, the band maintained a steady sprint, releasing three albums in three years, all of which were met with critical praise which led to relentless touring throughout the U.S. and UK. Perhaps due to singer Craig Finn recently adopting running as a hobby, now five albums into its career, the Hold Steady has come to appreciate a steady pace in lieu of the sprint. Finn spoke to us about running, his upcoming solo album, and tepid reception of the band's most recent album, Heaven is Whenever.

The Hold Steady plays from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturday, August 27th on LouFest's Blue Stage.

Michael Dauphin: The Hold Steady has a string of shows lined up, including your LouFest appearance in St. Louis. What does your lineup look like right now?

Craig Finn: We added a guitar player [Steve Selvidge], we are a five piece. We are rolling without keys right now. We did some shows without keys and we really liked it. It sort of opened things up for us. We have two pretty amazing guitar players in our band, and it's really fun to have that space and spread out. They can sort of work against each other/with each other. Steve's been a great addition to the band. We came across Steve many years ago and we always kind of said, "Man, if things open up and we can get him in the band, we want him."

I understand you just spent a few weeks in Austin recording a solo album. How is that coming along?

It was really cool. [The Hold Steady] has been on a little break so I had some time to do it. And I had been thinking about doing it for a while. I went down there and recorded for three weeks. The producer, Mike McCarthy (Spoon, Heartless Bastards), put together a band. It was really fun and interesting. It was nice to step out of the usual way we do things. I'd obviously been down there a bunch to play shows. But recording down there for three straight weeks and to get into somewhat of a routine, I was able to see different side of the city. It was a really good experience overall.

I know you write all the lyrics for the Hold Steady, but how much of the actual music do you write for the band?

At the beginning, I would sometimes bring in songs, but they tended to be the more simple ones. As time went on though, our strength with the Hold Steady was Tad [Kubler] making the music and me writing the lyrics. Those songs just ended up being better. But with the solo album, there were still songs I was writing that were simpler, and maybe more reserved. And I still liked them. They ended up going towards the solo record. But the Hold Steady's strength is a marriage between my words and Tad's big guitar riffs.

The solo album is a little more Americana--a little more Texas, maybe. It's a little more quieter and reserved, a little more storytelling. There's still a little bit of rock on there, but it's not as anthemic and celebratory as the Hold Steady.

Has the Hold Steady every toyed with the idea of trying to record an album outside of the New York area where you all live?

We have talked about it but one thing that comes up, with as much as we tour, if we can do the thing in New York, it's sort of nice for people. Tad has a daughter. We all have girlfriends and whatnot. So, it's like, we could go somewhere, but it would just be more time out of town. It could change, but there's something really nice about being in New York. But, now, our guitar player, Steve, lives in Memphis. So wherever we record this time, someone's not going to be at home.

Being a band that seemed to tour non-stop over the last few years, what else has been keeping you busy on this recent break?

Generally, just hanging out, reading and whatever. But the only real productive thing I did was run a half marathon in Minneapolis. That was kind of fun. It was a goal I had during the break.

I have done one before, too, and I just got so burnt out on the training.

It was nice for me because I had a break and I had a lot time to prepare. But I have no idea how anyone with a full time job could try to train for one of those. You need hours and hours! But what was nice was the race started at like 7 in the morning. So by 9 in the morning I was done and I was like, "Man, I ran 13 miles today. I can do whatever the fuck I want for the rest of the day." That was my favorite part.

Your last album, Heaven is Whenever, took somewhat of a detour compared to the band's other work. It wasn't a huge departure but it certainly had a different vibe than the previous albums.

Yeah, I generally agree. But it's hard to explain it. It didn't feel like a totally different approach, it just ended up a little different. So it's hard to tell where the new one will go. We're going to start writing another album in September. I'm curious whether it will be an extension of that, or if it will be a return to what we did before. The only thing I can say though is that it didn't feel like a different record when we were working on it, but sort of ended up being a little different.

I am sure losing your keyboardist (Franz Nicolay) attributed to some of that.

Absolutely. I think there was a little effort to create more space though. It seems like with some of our records, we had music crammed into every available space. So we tried to let the songs breathe a little more. That was the intention anyway. Whether it worked or not, I don't know.

After as much critical praise your previous albums received, was it weird to finally see the tide turn a little bit?

I sort of knew it was going to come regardless of what we did. We're not a new band. Record number five, especially in the rock criticism world, is a little hard for people. With the internet now, people are driven to new things. But then there's this band that's not a new band by any means--it's their fifth album. They're not huge but they have some level of popularity. We're not U2 or Kings of Leon... I think people get a little ho-hum. "Here we go, another Hold Steady album." And the album wasn't hugely different, but a little different. I think people were just like, "Well, what can we really say about this." My publicist in England even said that it was hard to get people to write about it over there because it was hard to find anyone who hadn't weighed in on the band already. I really like the idea of coming out with a steady stream of music. But we came out with five albums in seven years. That's a lot to digest.

You have a tendency to play on numbers in the lyrics of your songs; however, I didn't hear any of that on the new album. Maybe that's why the album turned out so different.

I know what you're talking about. It's funny--this is a numbers thing, too--but Heaven is Whenever was also the only the album we've recorded that didn't have a Dillinger Four (Minneapolis punk band) reference. So maybe that's where we went wrong.

Yeah, you have probably been over-thinking everything. It could be as simple including more numbers and D4 references.

The numbers are funny though, I know what you're saying. I'm not much of a math person, but when I make lists, I have to number everything.

As a band that has played St. Louis a few times, and you have certainly played a bunch of festivals, can you describe what kind of scene you're expecting out of LouFest?

I don't know really know, I hope it's a nice day. I really like the variety of festivals. What's interesting about playing outdoors is that you can see the people that are least interested--the ones in the back. In a club you really can't see that. Hopefully, there won't be too many of those people.

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