Indie Ambition: Hold Steady

Full disclosure: I started a web site called ‘Hold Steady Play My Wedding’ (now defunct). The purpose of the site was pretty self-explanatory.

Fuller disclosure: This column, and much of my writing over the last three-and-a-half years, flows from a gushing email I sent to my friends list along with a Hold Steady mp3 after I saw the band for the first time. They played an early afternoon set on one of the main stages at Lollapalooza 2006. They completely blew me away and, three days later, with synapses still fried and ears still ringing, I knew I had to share the good word with others. If you want to blame somebody, besides me, for this ramble known as The Rockist, you might as well blame Craig Finn and his mates.

In that email I wrote that everyone knows a Craig Finn-type; he’s the quiet high school acquaintance with the sly grin who’s much more aware of where everyone’s at than anybody else. He’s the closet card, sure that somewhere there’s that outlet where he makes sense. And he’s the one who, days after the show, still hangs on to the vibe from that last chord.

The Craig Finn’s of the world consume the dreams that the pop music industry manufactures by the minute. They know that one great song can change everything. They are the true believers.

And I am one of them.

Craig and I are the last children weaned on the ‘ol pop music assembly line. From Elvis Presley to Michael Jackson, retailers sold pop product marketed through radio and later, video plays. We all listened to Jackson’s music because we couldn’t help it. It was everywhere. His sudden death last year reminded us all how much of a part of our lives he was. We all shared Michael Jackson. That’s the power of pop. It brings people together.

When our generation reached adolescence we discovered new sounds and a whole community beyond our own. We identified with this often poorly distributed and promoted music, the fruit of punk’s DIY ethos. Call it ‘alternative’. Call it ‘indie’ music. We didn’t care. The music mattered more than the classification of it.

And support the music we did. So much so that born-from-indie acts as dissimilar as Metallica and R.E.M. would soon fill stadiums around the world and earn major label millions.

Fifteen years ago, finding new music took effort. You had to find the right record store. You needed to go to shows. You needed to listen to lots of music, much of it lousy. But the effort had benefits. You learned your own taste.

Starting a band was much simpler then. You found a few like-minded fellows, practiced your ass off, and fought for any gig you could. If you caught a break, an independent label would sign you and issue an EP. Maybe a college radio station picked it up.

The career of Lifter Puller, Craig Finn’s first band, pretty much followed the same script. I had an opportunity to speak with Finn via phone last month while he promoted the re-release of Lifter Puller’s back catalog by Orchard. Finn answered from the Brooklyn apartment he shares with his cat. The night before he saw the Mountain Goats, and was a bit wiped out. “I don’t get to see many shows anymore,” Finn offered.

Finn grew up in Edina, Minnesota. “My first stereo system was a Hitachi record player my grandmother bought me in second grade,” he told me. “I listened to mostly hardcore growing up. I didn’t even get into Led Zeppelin until my mid-twenties.”

Finn never ran into Prince. Not even at the Seven Eleven.

Finn recalls the Lifter Puller days fondly. The late ’90s were indie music’s salad days. Bands like Pavement and Guided by Voices were still together, and former indie artists like Flaming Lips and Wilco released challenging albums on major labels. In true punk fashion, Finn wanted to join in. So he taught his Boston College roommate Steve Barone guitar and started the band.

“My one goal for Lifter Puller was to play one show. I was excited to be in a band, I was just out of college…We wanted to participate in this scene we loved,” Finn said. “After our first goal, our goal was to release a seven inch. When we accomplished that, our goal was to play shows out of town. We created our own little world.”

Lifter Puller exceeded Finn’s romantic expectation and went on to release two proper albums before breaking up in 2000. Listening to Lifter Puller post-Hold Steady, you are instantly struck by how Finn already possessed a distinct voice and frame of reference. The songs all bear tiny parts of the much larger narrative we now know exists in Finn’s head.

After Lifter Puller, Finn and second bassist Tad Kubler moved to New York City and formed the Hold Steady. Barone shoots videos for ad campaigns. Dan Monick, the drummer, is a photographer in L.A. whose work appears in Fader and other publications. Tommy Roach, the band’s original bassist, teaches film at Providence.

The Hold Steady’s recipe for success combines old school roadhogging with the new school of interactive technology. Faced with the fickle tastes of the on-line indie scene and a decrepit distribution network, Finn and his band have built a warm, inclusive community which reflects the pre-Web indie world at its most positive.

Finn told me he was 38-years-old. The Hold Steady made him a professional musician. His day job now is to be the front man of this band, a role he embraces with relish. Finn answered me swiftly and with the concision of a veteran of many interviews.

The fact that Finn has far more ambitious plans for this band came through loud and clear. When asked about his expectations, he told me he just wants to continue to have fun and grow with every album. But in the next breath he talked about how excited he is to perform in front of new audiences and to as many people as possible.

Such ambitions in the indie music world are rare indeed. In this short attention span, Hype Machine marketplace, can you ever count on anyone to care about your next album?

Finn thinks so, and to prove it he works the media outlets like a born promoter. In the last three years, the Hold Steady have been everywhere — in the pages of the New Yorker, on stage with Bruce Springsteen, and over video game menus.

At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if they came out with a Rock Band– Hold Steady edition.

Stay Positive is not just the title of the new Hold Steady album. It is Finn’s brand. When I steered the conversation toward talk about on-line music sites and their adolescent posing and shallowness, Finn rode to the rescue. Over the course of our chat, I couldn’t get him to say one negative thing. I don’t know if the sun was shining in Brooklyn, but it sure was through the phone.

Recent history bets against the Hold Steady playing in arenas anytime soon. One American band who’s debuted in the last twenty years tours arenas exclusively. And I don’t think I’m going to see a hipster sporting a Pearl Jam shirt anytime soon.

Finn has an Eddie Van Halen problem. For the Hold Steady to play arenas, they need to attract the kind of broad appeal that Stay Positive aims for. Of course, that broad appeal and bigger domestic following will mean that they no longer will receive free publicity from the pitchfooled lemmings of the music blogosphere.

Their best bet to keep everyone under one tent is to move to England. In the indie world, British bands can sell as many albums as they want and still be cool.

As skeptical as I am of Finn’s ambitions, I admire his moxie and sincerity. No withering ironic detachment for him. No siree.

Don’t look behind you, Vedder. There’s something gaining on you.