Interview With The Hold Steady
The Hold Steady's simple approach to rock and roll music has always been both the appeal and the most commonly cited criticism against the Brooklyn-based band. While there are those that claim their music merely retreads old conventions and remain unimpressed by songs about hooking up at clubs or getting high at parties, there's no doubting guitarist Tad Kubler knows his way around a riff, while Craig Finn's seemingly simple narratives brim with subtle insights into human frailty and self-destruction. Having released five albums between tours in just six years, with plans to start writing their sixth next summer, The Hold Steady's calendar is chock-a-block. Ahead of their Irish return and yet more touring in the UK and Australia, Finn took some time out to chat to Jenny Mulligan about the recent loss of their most recognisable member, his growing preoccupation with getting older and how the "less is more" approach made all the difference on latest album 'Heaven Is Whenever'.
What would you say makes 'Heaven Is Whenever' stand out from your previous albums?
Every time we go into the studio I think things are a little more musical. We've gotten to play more music since the last record, and being a full time musician you do spend a lot of time around music, around other musicians, just getting better at your instruments, so it's a constant progression. The other big thing is that we were a five piece before 'Heaven Is Whenever' and our piano player left, Franz (Nicolay) left, so now were a four piece, and having a little more space allowed the songs to breathe a bit more and I think that's one of the cool things about our latest record.
How losing Franz affect the writing process for this album?
Well, Franz is such a great musician, he plays all these different instruments, and having somebody like that around, it's sometimes hard to resist the urge to fill up every available space with music. You know, "let's throw a mandolin here, or a harpsichord there" so in some ways I think it allowed us to get back to basics, to being just a rock and roll band without all that extra stuff.
You've taken on two extra touring members now too, the change must have had an effect on the dynamic within the band?
It's been cool because it breathes new life into some of the old songs, you know, different personalities, so it kind of reenergised things. It's a different group of guys, especially Steve Selvidge, the guitar player, he's been able to work with Tad (Kubler, guitarist) and they've really been able to play off each other in a cool way and I think as the band evolves that'll be a big part of it.
You've said the fact that there's less piano means there's more a more spacious sound on 'Heaven is Whenever', but I think that's partly down to the production which seems more atmospheric to me than previous records, would you agree?
Yeah I think that was something we were going for, something a little bigger. I think sometimes when you take things away it actually allows you to get bigger. I think you're hearing some of the space. I mean outer space is this biggest thing around, so I think sometimes by doing that you do get a bigger spacious sound.
You're known for being an incredibly hard-working band, in that you spend most of the year touring. Do you ever get tired and just want a break?
Well yeah, I mean I'm 39 years old now so it's harder than it used to be, but I think the travel is one of the really exciting things about being in a band for me. I hadn't really travelled that much before we started doing this and now I've literally been around the world. As an artist it's very inspiring to keep moving and be displaced and away from your normal routine, away from your home, so I think it ends up working back into the songs.
It's strange that being in foreign places inspires you when you seem to write so much about your home town in Minnesota. How does that work?
Well, you're just wandering around, it gives you a lot of time to think. I'm a big walker, I love just walking around, especially in a place that I've never been to before. You know, it can even be walking into a residential neighbourhood somewhere and looking at a house and saying "God, I wonder what happens in there". There's a lot of down time, being a musician, and those are the kind of things you can fill your time with, that maybe someone with a more normal job doesn't get to.
The stories are obviously a huge part of The Hold Steady's appeal. You're primarily the band's lyricist, so how do you go about marrying the words with the music?
Well the process is, I write every day in these books, in notebooks, and I try to write at least a page of something every day, and then Tad comes in with a riff, or a couple of parts to a song and then I look through it, and sometimes it's the tone, you know, if it's a dark song I look for more dark lyrics and sometimes it's the meter. We'll just start hammering it out and I might rip one part from one page and something else from the back of the notebook might work for the chorus, so we just start fitting it together. And then there's just a ton of repetition, just keep doing it and keep doing it and it keeps improving.
Boys and Girls in America was your breakthrough record, particularly here in Ireland and in the UK. What do you think it was about that album that got people's attention?
I think it's the timing. It was the first record that came out over there and I think we were really lifted off into a new place but I think it was a lot to do with timing. It came on the backdrop of a more fashionable time. There were a lot of bands, at least in New York, that we were contrarian to and I think a lot of people picked up on that. That one and 'Separation Sunday' was when it really felt like it was taking off. The first song 'Stuck Between Stations' I still think might be the best Hold Steady song, where what I was trying to say I think I said it the best. Sometimes you do better or not as well with that but people really connected to that one.
I mean, we could go on and just keep doing 'Boys and Girls in America' but it's a moment in time and you want to connect on that level but at the same time there's something about being a known quantity. When you're on your fifth record you're part of the establishment. I find people often like the first record they heard by a band the best, so I think there's some benefit to that too.
You've always focused on the classic themes of sex, drugs, rock & roll, is that from growing up listening to rock and roll or how much of it is based on your own experiences?
It's a little of both, you know, I think I'm hyperconscious of rock and roll and the role that it's played in my life so a lot of the lyrics are about that but there's definitely some stuff that's more about people I know, especially people I used to know. So it's a combination of both, but I think more so than most lyricists I'm aware of rock and roll as a whole and it comes into my songs as an influence no matter what I'm talking about.
The people you know used to come up sometimes as recurring characters in the songs but we don't hear much about them anymore, why is that?
I think one of the great things about a song, versus another form of art or entertainment, is that you can put yourself in them. The listener can project themselves into the song or the story and make it understandable on their own terms, but if you're always saying, you know, "Jim went to the store" or "Sally went home" they might feel less connected from it, so I wanted to be a little less specific, a little less spelled out, so that people could have a little more of their own lives in it.
What's the significance of 'heaven' as a recurring theme on the new album?
When I wrote the record I was thinking a lot about struggle and reward, the relationship between struggle and reward, and heaven, in the Christian sense, is this great reward in the end, so I was thinking well, if we live a righteous life, if you really love what you're doing, some of the struggle, some of the everyday should be part of the reward. In some ways it also relates to what we do. We have this opportunity every night when we're on tour to get a bunch of people in a room and really commune around rock and roll music, but at the same time the travel and the soundcheck and the setting up is also part of it and you have to learn to embrace all of it, no matter what you do, to live a joyful life.
Again, the lyrics are such a central part of The Hold Steady's music, a lot of your fans know every character, every reference, every little detail in all the songs. Does it mean a lot to you to be able to reach people like that?
At times it's actually overwhelming. I've had people come up to me and talk to me after the shows and it's really moved me to tears at times. It's an overwhelming feeling, just knowing, especially at my age, at 39, the sacrifices people make to be at these shows. You know, people travel and people wait out early just so they can be up close and it's an amazing feeling, it's great but at times overwhelming and even a little confusing.
That's the second time you've mentioned your age, and the last two records are quite preoccupied with getting older too. Surely it's a bit early to be thinking like that, especially when you consider all the rock and roll bands still going now well into their 60s?
Well I hope so, what most impresses me about people like Dylan or Bruce Springsteen or Neil Young is their ability to make great records over a thirty year period. It's certainly not impossible, although I think it's a challenge, because so many people associate rock and roll with youth.
So do you think you'll still be doing this is ten or twenty years?
I hope so. I hope we do it as long as it's fun and it's still very fun. It's hard to imagine being 59 but if I'm in good enough shape and there's an interest I would love to be doing it.
The Hold Steady play The Academy, Dublin, on Thursday February 10th and Belfast's Spring and Airbrake on Friday February 11th.
Story by EI Team | 09:00 | Wednesday 9th February 2011 | Music
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