[6 June 2007]
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
Talking as much as he sings during songs, Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn is like the neighborhood storyteller who draws a crowd as soon as the bartender draws him a pint.
Ever since critics began noticing the New York City band in 2005, some have crowned the 35-year-old as the new poet laureate for the common man.
On The Hold Steady’s latest album, “Boys and Girls in America,” Finn and guitarist Tad Kubler (both of defunct Minneapolis band Lifter Puller), bassist Galen Polivka, keyboardist Franz Nicolay and drummer Bobby Drake perfect their beer-hoisting rock `n’ roll.
Anthemic choruses and beefy guitar riffs make Hold Steady songs easy to grab. But sweeping, Springsteen-esque piano adds elegance to Finn’s wistful, detailed narratives about drugs, booze and the teenagers who come together, fall apart and, ultimately, experience life while partying.
Named one of the year’s top CDs by virtually every rock music publication, “Boys and Girls” finished as the No. 4 album of 2006 in the Village Voice’s annual Pazz & Jop poll of nearly 500 critics.
Phoning from a Detroit tour stop, Finn sounds, well, weakened by all the attention. Turns out he suffered food poisoning the night before, rendering his blue-collar voice punier.
But The Hold Steady still plans to perform. That’s what you do when you’re the world’s best bar band, as writers have deemed this outstanding group:
Is being called the best bar band in the world a huge compliment or a sly way of saying you’ll never play in the big leagues?
(Chuckles) To us, it’s a big compliment. I look to my favorite bands of all time and think, “Well, to me, those are bar bands.” Be it the E Street Band or the Replacements or Bob Seger or whatever. It sort of implies that you’re able to entertain people, and I think what we were trying to do is kind of take back that notion of a bar band to be a positive thing.
Is part of the “bar band” label related to the fact you shoot the breeze so much between songs?
Yeah. Or else we sort of play a little looser. A lot of indie-rock bands are just kind of like this march to the shore. It’s almost like choreography—you just try to make it sound as much like your record as you can. (Instead), I think we really react to things that are happening. A song might be 3 minutes one night and 6 minutes the next.
You tried actual melodic singing on this last record. Does that go out the window in concert?
No, not so much. It’s something I’m trying to do more and more of. The idea is I spend a lot of time on the lyrics. But if you look at, like, Bob Dylan—who is probably the best lyricist ever in my mind—he’s most remembered, I think, for some of the songs that have the best melodies. We tried this time to make a record that was more musical, and attempted to also make it more memorable.
“Boys and Girls in America” was inspired by Jack Kerouac’s novel “On the Road.” Can you explain?
I had read that book when I was 16, like everyone does. And I really didn’t understand it or like it. Mainly didn’t understand it, so I thought I didn’t like it. But I reread it again at 32 years old. I thought it was just amazing. And funny. Really funny. And I saw that line, “Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together.” And I thought, “I think I can get a whole record out of this.” And that’s what we tried to do.
You sing about relationships a lot, particularly between young people who meet partying. You’re 35. Why are you drawn to the topic of young love at this point in your life?
I think that age is sort of a good age to write about, because people have a great mix of being really confident and really naive at the same time. So you getting yourself in some dumb situations at that age. I think a lot of what I write about is highs and lows, anyways. At that age, there’s just huge highs and lows. Because you feel so much. If you aren’t allowed to go to the party on Friday night, you think it’s going to ruin your life. At 35, it turns out it didn’t, you know?
Has The Hold Steady’s relationship with booze or partying changed as you’ve matured?
In some ways. Because touring, we’re doing hundreds of dates each year now. I’m in, what, day four of a five-week tour? So you have to manage your lifestyle. Especially at 35 years old, you can’t push it too hard or you’ll just break down.
That wasn’t food poisoning last night, was it?
No, it most certainly was food poisoning! It was awful!
You moved to New York City five or six years ago, but many of your lyrics still focus on Minneapolis. Why?
I think I’m a little intimidated about writing about New York. I understand Minneapolis very well. And I think with the Mississippi River there and sort of the smaller scope of the city, it’s easier to wrap my head around. And I think having less people know about it or have opinions about it adds a little more mystery to it, too. I know there’s a lot of people I know who have gone to Minneapolis after they have listened to a lot of my lyrics, and they’re always surprised. Because it seems kind of nice to them. (Chuckles)
In trying to explain The Hold Steady, I’ve compared the band to a Drive-By Truckers for the indie crowd.
That’s reasonable. That’s very reasonable. The Drive-By Truckers are a band we’re huge fans of. When I moved to New York, I didn’t have a band, and I saw this Drive-By Truckers show. I said, “Man, I want to be in a band again.”
It’s not musically so much as sort of a philosophical approach, to me. The Truckers may have a bottle of Jack Daniel’s on stage, but they’re just up there having a good time—and they tell stories. And it’s about where they grew up in the South.
Exactly. I’ve said that to other people. I think they tell stories about the people that come from where they came from, which is sort of what we do, too.
There’s something very attractive to me about that. It’s surprising to me how many bands don’t do that.
The other thing is people have come up to me and said, “You guys and the Drive-By Truckers are the only bands I’ve seen this year that smiled on stage.” And I was like, “There’s something terribly wrong out there then.”
Maybe it’s all about having a little alcohol on stage with you?