The Hold Steady enjoy their status as the world’s biggest bar band

[22 July 2008]

By Chris Riemenschneider

Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

Tad Kubler says it happened backstage at England’s mammoth Glastonbury Festival last summer, when 177,000 attendees were introduced to the Hold Steady.

‘We walked off-stage and the crowd noise was amazing,’ he recalled.

That’s when the Hold Steady guitarist realized his Twin Cities-rooted, New York-based group was no longer just a bar band.

“It was our first European festival, and we just stood backstage looking at each other through the noise. It was one of those moments when you realize there’s no going back.”

The Hold Steady spent the rest of 2007 touring the world, playing gigs in such far-flung locales as Slane Castle in Ireland (where it opened for the Stones) and Zagreb, Croatia (with the Stooges). So much for that whole just-on-weekends thing.

This international success explains why the Hold Steady’s fourth album, “Stay Positive,” took two years to make - and what, exactly, there is for the band to stay so positive about.

Both Kubler and singer/guitarist Craig Finn talked positively by phone from their apartments in Brooklyn on July 3. Two days later, they headed back overseas for some U.K. dates crammed in before their long U.S. tour.

“Our third record was the first to get released overseas,” Finn said. “And it kind of blew up pretty quick. Our amount of touring essentially doubled.”

They also nearly doubled their record sales, which - with 122,000 U.S. copies sold from their first three albums - weren’t all that impressive compared to the mouth-frothing critical accolades the group has amassed since its 2002 debut, “The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me.” Still, 122,000 isn’t bad for a classic-rock-riffing, low-frills band formed in 2000 by some frumpy-looking, 30-something, semiretired musicians just for kicks (and to spoil the dance-punk movement).

One measure of success for Finn was seeing his band stand up to the rigors of the road, and maybe even thrive on them.

“It showed us that we really like being together,” he said. “A lot of bands get in trouble when they start touring a lot. We might have an advantage because we’re a little older and have some kind of perspective and treat each other with respect.”

“Also, we’ve all had day jobs,” he said. (Finn still worked in an office as recently as 2006.) “We definitely know what we’re missing by doing this.”

Being closer to middle-age than to drinking age is a defining theme of “Stay Positive.”

On previous albums, it seemed as if the Hold Steady couldn’t write a song without at least one reference to booze, drugs or sexual hookups. But the members - who didn’t necessarily live their songs, anyway - strayed heavily from the partying lifestyle last year to endure the heavy touring, Kubler said.

“We realized we weren’t sprinting across the finish line, we were on a marathon,” he said.

Said Finn, “I’m 36. I can’t party like I’m 26 anymore.”

What’s more, at least a couple of people close to the band endured serious addiction problems in recent years. When Finn, Kubler and keyboardist Franz Nicolay started writing songs on the road - a first for the band, and done out of sheer necessity - those low-down songs about high-living didn’t seem so fun anymore.

“Most of us know someone who’s taken the party beyond the part where it’s any kind of celebration,” Finn said.

“A lot of this record is about my idea of the attempt to age gracefully and trying to hold onto some kind of youthful exuberance as you grow older. It gets harder and harder to have fun when you accumulate more responsibilities - and more problems.”

Addiction is a clear subject in one of the album’s standout cuts, “Lord, I’m Discouraged,” a title Finn lifted from blues pioneer Charley Patton. Finn sings, “She keeps coming up with excuses and half-truths/ She keeps insisting the sutures and bruises are none of my business/ She says that she’s sick, but she won’t get specific.”

Yeah, no fun.

Despite its cheery title and the band’s continued prosperity, “Stay Positive” is actually the band’s darkest record to date. As Finn noted, “Anytime you say, ‘Stay positive,’ it’s usually in dark times.”

Even some of the record’s more up-tempo rockers are bleak in tone, such as the grimy “Navy Sheets” - featuring backup vocals by the Drive-by Truckers’ Patterson Hood - and the epic closer “Slapped Actress.” The latter was inspired by John Cassavetes’ 1978 movie “Opening Night,” in which Gena Rowlands plays an actress past her prime.

“The movie’s a metaphor for Cassavetes’ own life,” Finn said. “He lived his whole life trying to make this true, raw art, but in the end his self-destructive behavior did him in.”

Sounds like a metaphor for a lot more than Cassavetes.

“Stay Positive” is not all gloom, though. The album’s first single, “Sequestered in Memphis,” is another rowdy, chant-filled rocker that’s classic Hold Steady.

“I had to call a lawyer friend of mine to make sure I had the correct terminology of ‘subpoenaed’ and ‘sequestered’,” Finn said, admitting the song’s eventful story line is purely fictitious. “We spent a couple nights in Memphis on the last tour, and it seemed like a town you could get in trouble in - that’s the only story behind it.”

A common Hold Steady shtick, the band also has fun paying tribute to some of its blue-collar rock influences. There are shout-outs to Joe Strummer (“He might’ve been our only decent teacher”) and even to positive-minded punk band 7Seconds. The song “Joke About Jamaica” is based entirely on Led Zeppelin’s catalog and the correct pronunciation of the song “Dy’er Mak’er” (if you have to ask).

All too fittingly, “Jamaica” features an amusing guitar solo enhanced by another ‘70s rock fixture, the TalkBox, the weird, vocal-tube-through-guitar-amp device that Peter Frampton made famous with “Show Me the Way.”

“I saw the voice box when I came in the studio one day and I thought, ‘Uh oh. It’s coming down!’” Finn recalled. “Definitely Tad’s most ridiculous solo to date.”

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