I’ll spare you the details, but in a lot of ways, the past decade or so of living in Brooklyn has felt like a song that only Craig Finn could write.
The music Finn has written with his band The Hold Steady has told stories of parties that never end (even when you desperately need them to) and have included unreliable narrators that may not deserve your sympathy. These stories are barked in rapid-fire prose by Finn over lean bar band riffs that recall if bands like Thin Lizzy and The E Street band had incorporated ‘90s indie rock into their DNA. These days, the band has slowed down touring considerably while Finn has spent more time on the road promoting his fantastic solo career. Instead of wearing themselves out on extensive trips around the globe, the band has opted to make annual stops in major markets for three to four nights.
With the band’s first new release in five years, “Thrashing Thru the Passion,” they will be returning to Brooklyn Bowl tonight for their fourth annual “Massive Nights” celebration, which will see them playing four nights in a row, each with a different opener. I recently spoke with Finn over the phone to talk about the new Hold Steady album and the state of the band.
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A lot of the songs that are included on the new album were originally released as singles over the past two years. Was the initial intention to keep them as singles or did you always have a full-length album in mind?
Craig Finn: The way that we’ve been recording, we did 4 songs or 5 songs at a time. So at first, it all started in this very practical and small manner. It was like, ‘Oh, we have these songs. Let’s just put them out?’ There was this funny moment when we were doing these Chicago shows. We had three shows and each night we were going to learn a cover of a Chicago band. The first night was a Cheap Trick song, the second night was a Wilco song, and then the last night was a STYX song. We were learning the STYX song - which is a band that I don’t particularly like - and I was like, ‘There’s got to be a better use of our time than learning songs by STYX (laughs).’ So I was like, ‘Let’s make our own songs. We’ve done that before, we haven’t done that in a while.’ So we did that, and recorded it.
It’s sort of a thing, from the business end of things, that we know where our fans are. We know how to get to them, whether through social media, our email lists or whatever. So, we can deliver music to a significant amount of people, who are interested, digitally. There is something kind of exciting about that. It just started as a small thing. Let’s record some songs and send them out to the fans, basically. But as it had gone on, vinyl people are interested in vinyl. A body of work started to emerge and it seemed like we should collect these on a piece. Then what happened was, in January of 2019 we went up and recorded five songs and all of the sudden those five songs sounded like the first side of an album. So, it was like ‘Well, why don’t we make this the first side of an album and then we’ll use some of the other songs to round out the LP?’ Then the other four songs are coming out on the Record Store Day thing coming out this Friday.
Did you find that this process was reinvigorating for the band? Do you see The Hold Steady recording like this in the future?
Craig Finn: Yeah, I think we’ll just keep recording. I don’t know if we’ll feel tied down to one method of releasing music over another. We’ll just keep doing what we do. It’s a different world out there. With technology and streaming and all that, It’s silly to be like, ‘We’re gonna always do it the same way.’ It just doesn’t seem necessary or really that smart. We’ll figure out what we want to do with the next stuff that we record. I’m sure we’ll put stuff out digitally and we’ll put stuff out on vinyl as well.
The sound of the band is much different than the past two records [2010's "Heaven is Whenever" and 2014's "Teeth Deams] and you can really attribute that to this being the firsrt record to include the addition of new guitarist Steve Selvidge and the return of keyboardist Franz Nicolay. Has having those two members contributing music, as well as longtime guitarist Tad Kubler, recharged your creative battery when it comes to writing for The Hold Steady?
Craig Finn: I think the combination of Steve and Franz together in the band has really defined this new era of the band. I think having three people bringing in music for songs is part of it, to. The other part of it, is that Josh Kaufman has produced all of this music since we have come back. He’s a really excellent collaborator. He’s recorded my last three solo records. He’s brought out some cool stuff from us. It feels creatively like it’s in a new spot. To me when I listen to the record, I can hear how much fun we’re having with it. I think that’s one of the big differences between that and the two records that preceded it.
Your solo record from this year, "I Need A New War" is fantastic. What has been the difference between working on your solo records with Josh and switching gears back to the band?
Craig Finn: Josh on the solo records, it’s a different thing because it’s not a band. In the studio it starts with me, Josh, and Joe Russo on drums. So we can kind of build up stuff and we can say at some point, ‘I don’t think this song needs bass’ on a solo record. Josh is playing a lot. He’s playing a lot of instruments on those records. In The Hold Steady, we’re a band. So you have to kind of figure out how the band is going to do the songs, where the strengths are and what’s going to sound cool with a full band arrangement. I think it’s different for him.There’s a lot of bodies around (laughs). But I think it’s also exciting for him. He’s really hitting it off with the band, I knew he would. But it’s a different energy to the recording verses the solo albums. When we record solo, it will be just me, him and Joe and we’ll go, ‘Okay, let’s take a break’. But with the band, it’s almost like an assembly line. The guitar player gets his thing done and now the piano’s ready. For Josh and the engineer it’s nonstop. There’s always people ready to get working on their parts.
For me, I have always viewed your depictions of characters in The Hold Steady as sleazy warnings as opposed to the solo work which seems like you take a more sympathetic approach to similar characters after they’ve experienced the fallout of those bad decisions.
Craig Finn: I think that’s somewhat right. I always say that with The Hold Steady, that people are making bad decisions and following them belligerently to their logical and terrible conclusions. The solo stuff, a lot of the times, people are trying to do the right things but for whatever reason, they’re having a hard time keeping their heads above water and failing in some way. I really think the last three solo records have been extremely, and successfully, empathetic. That was my intention with them and I think we got there.
I can only imagine how fun it can be to slip back into the zone of writing these outrageous and debaucherous characters with The Hold Steady as opposed to the seriousness of your solo work.
Craig Finn: Yeah, The Hold Steady universe kind of exists at 130%, you know? I feel less concerned for those characters, maybe. It’s fun. The Hold Steady has a little more fun and dark humor that I’m trying to tap into when I’m writing.
There has been a recent trend where people have been denouncing songwriters or specific songs for including problematic characters. One recent example has been the Pogues' "Fairytale of New York" where the band's songwriter Shane MacGowan has had to reassure people that the characters he had created in that classic song are indeed deplorable but in no way reflect the artist that created them. As someone who has created his fair share of problematic characters in his songs, do you think that people should recognize the difference between being confessional and creating characters?
Craig Finn: I agree with Shane in this, I think. I haven’t really gotten the whole story on this controversy. I think to me songwriting is no different than storytelling or in some ways, if you compare it to a fim. Quentin Tarrantino creates some characters that are pretty bad and pretty amoral and tt doesn’t seem like people are holding his foot to the flame. Songs have this expectation of being confessional in a way that is wrong and unfair in some ways. I think a bad person can appear in a song and that doesn’t reflect on the artist. I think in some ways, it’s a way to try to explain a part of the world.
With the way that The Hold Steady are slowing down touring with these annual multiple-night stints, it kind of reminds me of the way that some established jam bands would normally tour.
There is some part of it that we took from the jam band world. That’s how the Grateful Dead used to tour. They’d roll around annually. Now we play annually in Brooklyn and annually in London. We have these posts that we build our year on. It’s really nice! Sometimes on social media, you’ll see someone upset that you’re not coming to their smaller towns. But, these weekends we have done is a part of reinvigorating the band. It’s taken a lot of unnecessary travel and some of the exhausting and less fun things about being in a band out of it. We try to do shows in places that are good to go to. This year we played in Seattle, Nashville, Chicago, Brooklyn and London. These are all places that are good destinations. So if people want to hang with us, we’re providing a good place to do it. I think largely our audiences are in the bigger cities. It’s been really successful for us to do things this way and I think we are going to continue to do things this way.
It might leave some of the smaller towns off of the list, but I think that anyone who comes to one of the weekends I think gets it. It also creates such a community. We’re doing several shows in a row and people are going to several shows in a row. They’re meeting other fans. I think that’s the coolest thing. I saw it a lot this summer, people that I knew didn’t know each other but they meet on Thursday and by Saturday night before that third show they’re out getting dinner together. This is kind of what it’s all about. Creating that community around the band.
Make sure to check out The Hold Steady at Brooklyn Bowl starting tonight, December 4 through this Saturday, December 7. 61 Wythe Ave. Brooklyn.