Steady climb 

"A smart rock band": Talking with Craig Finn of The Hold Steady

Perhaps the most popular indie band in the country right now, the Hold Steady come to Savannah May 25 with a rock ‘n' roll roadshow that has all the energy of a sweat-soaked punkfest, and the anthemic songs and heart-pounding glory of a stadia-sized classic rock event.

In other words, singer, songwriter and guitarist Craig Finn's group is kind of like the Ramones crossed with Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band.

People have been making that sort of comparison since the Hold Steady rocketed out of Minneapolis with the album Almost Killed Me in 2004; Finn's intelligent, narrative lyrics about lost souls, pretty girls, street hustlers and the redemptive power of a good song made Separation Sunday, Boys and Girls in America and Stay Positive some of the most well-reviewed (and admired) records of the first millennial decade.

Finn and guitarist Tad Kubler, bassist Galen Palivka and drummer Bobby Drake are on tour behind the just-released Heaven is Whenever album. It's their first record without keyboard player Franz Nicolay, who left the band earlier in 2010.

The Hold Steady's live show, however, now includes ex-Lucero guitarist Steve Selvidge, and band buddy Dan Neustadt on piano.

You play a lot of big gigs, but here in Savannah you'll be in a relatively small club. What do you get out of playing small places?

Craig Finn: I think it's fun to have variety - you have the big festival date, and then you have the small club date where people are in your face. I think what we do best is put people in a club and really give ‘em a rock ‘n' roll show that's right in your face.

And it's our first show in Savannah. When we go in to new markets for us, I really prefer to go in and do what we do best, first. And then we can grow from there.

Stereogum calls what you play "smart-guy bar rock." Is that the sort of simplistic tag that makes you smile, or beg to differ?

Craig Finn: I'm totally good with that. It's funny, when we started this band we were talking about making a "smart rock band." Meaning one that has good lyrics, and intelligent people, but also not skimping on the big, loud guitars. And I think that is what we do.

"Bar band" is something that we started saying, just to kind of indicate a lack of pretension, a lack of costumes or outfits. We're just regular guys that get up and play our music in the same clothes that we wore that day.

"Bar band," to me, just seems like a real simple presentation. And I think that's what we do. As we've grown, we've continued to try to keep that in mind - "Hey, this is a pretty simple, no-frills thing." And the challenge is to bring that to bigger and bigger stages, and keep that feeling.

Can the band get too big?

Craig Finn: It is a challenge, because we're going some places with theaters, with seats and all that. And that's the next level, where we're trying to get people out of the seats.

One thing I really wanted to do is be inclusive in this band. And if it means going into bigger places, because more and more people are enjoying it, then I'm all for it.

Heaven is Whenever is the Hold Steady's fifth album. Does this feel like an accomplishment, or a logical progression? How do you feel about that sort of milestone?

Craig Finn: When it was about to come out, I said to some other musicians, "On your fifth record, you're sort of by definition part of the establishment. Rather than young upstarts." It kind of reveals these new challenges, like "Do you still have something to say after five records?" But it's been fun for us. The band continues to grow, in audience, and musically.

It's our fifth record in seven years, so we're working at a pretty quick pace. That was kind of by design. In some ways, it takes the pressure off. You know you're going to put another one out next year, and you can let go of this one a little easier.

Do you stockpile songs? Or do you cut ‘em as quick as you write ‘em?

Craig Finn: We pretty much cut ‘em as quick as we write ‘em. And we're always working on stuff. But when we go in to make the record it's a real hyper phase - we really start to get organized with them, and turn these little ideas into real songs. I think for this one we had 25 different things, maybe, and it became a 10-song album.

In this day and age, with stuff like iTunes Exclusives and B-sides, you always kinda need songs. So it's good to have ‘em done and in the can.

Do you ever think maybe you're working too hard, maybe putting too much stuff out?

Craig Finn: For the group of people that we are, I think that we're doing what's right for us. We've worked really hard since we started the band, both with the creativity and the touring. I believe that if we took too much of a break we might lose momentum, so it's just keep going, keep going, keep going.

I feel like if your daughter comes home and says "I'm taking a semester off of college," it's like "Well, you're not going back. You think you're taking a semester off."

What has Franz' departure changed about your musical approach?

Craig Finn: Franz had a lot of other things he wanted to do, and as I said earlier our schedule's pretty tight, so they were sorta rubbing up against each other. And we decided it was best if he left and went and pursued those other things.

I think it changed for us ... we went back to writing as a four-piece, rather than a five-piece. And I think the songs on the record have more room to breathe, and a little more space. Franz is a great musician, but there was always the temptation to fill up every little space with some music. I think we didn't do that as much this time, and we ended up with something a little different. And, I think, better.

We replaced Franz with another keyboard player, and we added another guitar player, so the live thing has gotten more heavy, which I think is real cool. Having new guys has injected some new life in the touring party - the group of guys on tour - but we're even playing the old songs a little differently.

Critics always point out Franz' "E Street-like piano flourishes." Don't the Springsteen comparisons get old for you?

Craig Finn: When I read that, it doesn't make me think highly of the writer. Just because it seems so ... easy ... to call piano in rock "E Street." Rock ‘n' roll's a pretty big thing, and piano's a pretty wide-ranging instrument. So the two together I don't think necessarily have to be called "E Street." But sometimes people do their job the easy way.

I know you're a huge Replacements fan, and you used to go see them all the time in Minneapolis. What did you take away from watching Paul Westerberg?

Craig Finn: They're my favorite band, and they were the model, I think, for this band. Smart, and sometimes real tender or vulnerable lyrics. But then Bob Stinson would stomp on it. So you had this great dichotomy of these big guitars with this incredibly intelligent and vulnerable songwriting.

The thing for me, with Westerberg, and the Replacements in general, was that it made me believe that I could be in a band. You know, they looked like people I knew. And so to see a rock ‘n' roll band up close, and not in an arena, and this great rock ‘n' roll being played by guys liked that - I believed I could be like that. Up until that, I knew I certainly couldn't be Mick Jagger or Steven Tyler. So it was kind of an empowering thing for me.

The way you sing reminds me in a way of the late Phil Lynott, from Thin Lizzy.

Craig Finn: If I would have to say the one thing all of us in the Hold Steady love, it's Thin Lizzy. Especially now with the two guitars - I don't really count mine, but I guess we have three - with the two lead guitars, we have a lot more of that kind of dueling-guitar action.

There's something kind of comedic about him, because I feel like he's trying to, at times, sing about a really American experience that he doesn't quite grasp. Because he's not from here.

But it almost makes it funnier and cooler.

You're creeping up on 40. Obviously, people don't "age out" of rock ‘n' roll, but what does 40 mean to you? Do you think your look at life, or your approach, is changing?

Craig Finn: Already I've felt a lot of changes at being 38. I've reached a point in my life where, in some ways it's strange to be in a rock ‘n' roll band and also being too intense, or too relaxed. I'm very happy with where I'm at.

And I think that there's a peace that's settled down on me, internally. I hope that just continues into 40 and beyond.
I started my 30s working in an office, and now I play rock ‘n' roll full time. So it's going in a good trajectory.
I don't want to be too dramatic and call myself a survivor, but that's close to the right word, if not the right word.

What about your songwriting, though? Is there a danger that after so much music, having done it for so long, at 40 you might lose touch with the people on the streets?

Craig Finn: I think in the new record, it already has. A lot of it comes from a place of, I don't know, maybe like having more wisdom and being a little older. I feel like the new record, the tone of it, is giving advice in some way, or sharing what I've learned. Rather than being down there in the fray.

When I see a 15-year-old kid I always think sorry, but the next eight years of your life - until you're 23 - in some ways are gonna really suck. They'll be really hard, emotionally. But trust me, it's all gonna be OK.

The Hold Steady

Opening: Twin Tigers

Where: Live Wire Music Hall, 307 W. River St.

When: At 9 p.m. Tuesday, May 25

Tickets: $12 advance, $15 day of show

Online: www.livewiremusichall.com

Artist's website: www.theholdsteady.com






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Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung was Connect's Arts & Entertainment Editor from May 2009 to August 2014.

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