The Hold Steady is arguably the most critically-acclaimed rock n’ roll band of our generation. Having just released their sixth studio album, Teeth Dreams, on March 25th of this year, the band holds an otherworldly 80/100 average score on Metacritic, spanning the body of work they have produced over a decade of making music (find another contemporary group that comes close to that score – you can’t). Yet, mention the Hold Steady to your average music fan today, and you will more than likely be met with a blank stare.
Why? Because, like expensive brandy and Beluga caviar, the Hold Steady is an acquired taste. Led by frontman Craig Finn – whose rough voice can scare less adventurous listeners away – the Hold Steady is not “easy listening.” No, they are something far better; they are a complex, detail-oriented group whose music is at once an intellectual exercise and a beautiful artistic expression.
In today’s music scene – a scene that focuses more on saccharine than substance; more on overproduction than authenticity – it seems that watered-down, commercially-viable singles are the norm. But there exists a core group of bands, led by the Hold Steady, that keep the flame burning for that great American sound: rock n’ roll.
With the release of Teeth Dreams, the band’s first album in four years, the Hold Steady are back and better than ever. Before the group sets off on their USA tour this summer, I was lucky enough to catch up with Craig Finn last week, to discuss the new album, rock music, religion, and everything in between.
Ascher: So you guys just put out your new album, Teeth Dreams. It had been about four years since you put out your last album, and in that time you’ve had some lineup changes. How do you think the new record reflects the lineup changes, and the direction you’re heading as a group?
Craig Finn: Well, it definitely is affected by that in a pretty big way. Maybe the biggest thing with the new record is that it’s the first album we’ve written and recorded with Steve Selvidge – who joined on the touring for the last record, but hadn’t made a record with us. So, having him there – he’s a very accomplished guitar player – and having the two guitars pushing and pulling together, playing off each other, is a huge part of the sound on the new record, and I think absolutely defines the new record and the direction the band is going.
Ascher: So more on that note, how much do you think of the record as a continuation of the prior work versus a new jumping off point, moving forward with the band.
Craig Finn: To me it’s both. I think it still sounds absolutely like a Hold Steady record, but it definitely reflects the strong points of the new lineup. But still, every record is supposed to be rock plus storytelling, and in that way it’s no different – it’s a big rock n’ roll album with storytelling.
Ascher: Definitely. Prior to the release of Teeth Dreams, there was a lot written about how it was going to be a big, kickass rock album with a little less quiet stuff. However, the album definitely has some more quiet, introspective moments. How do you think the loud, aggressive songs balance out with the more quiet moments? Do the softer points kinda allow the lyrics to stand out a bit more?
Craig Finn: Yeah, that’s the thing, I think as you go along, you become more aware of the quiet parts, and how you really need them on a record so you don’t wear people out. But, for me, it allows a shift; a shift in tone allows you to tell a differently-paced story. And with the loud songs, like “On with the Business’ from the new record, it’s something that when we do it live, it’s almost hard for me to keep up with all the words and all the volume. So when you do something like “Oaks,” because of the different texture of the music, it allows you to slow down and tell a differently-textured story.
Ascher: How I always describe you guys to anyone I’m trying to get into the band, and how I’ve described you on the site, is as one of the only bands out there still kicking ass in the traditional rock vein, the way it was intended to be. So as the frontman in a band that’s still playing awesome rock music, in a world that’s constantly evolving away from the traditional rock sound and more towards computers and the like, what do you think the future of rock n’ roll music is; what do you think the direction of rock music will be?
Craig Finn: It’s funny, I think that certainly the commercial aspect of rock n’ roll seems to be at a real low point. You know, if you watch the Grammy Awards or the MTV Awards, there’s really no rock being played anymore. But I think rock n’ roll will always have a niche audience. It seems like it really ebbs and flows a lot, even in my lifetime. I mean, around 2000, everyone was saying that rock music was over and everyone was going to get into electronic music, but then The White Stripes and The Strokes came out and it seemed like rock really got big again. Now it’s kinda back to that place where at the festivals you’ll really see dance music becoming so popular and prominent with young people. But I really think rock n’ roll is a timeless thing; there will always be rock n’ roll fans, it might be just a little smaller…but if it’s smaller, maybe it’ll burn even hotter.
Ascher: Yeah, I’ve always thought of rock as the intellectual alternative to the music that people listen to when they just wanna take some ‘E’ and dance.
Craig Finn: Yeah, I think it’s geared a little more towards thinking – it’s not a mindless thing, rock’s done best when it’s somewhat challenging.
Ascher: In your mind, as someone who’s really involved in the scene, who are some of the up-and-coming rock bands who you think can really carry the mantle into the next generation?
Craig Finn: Well, I don’t know how “big” or “small” the bands are, because some of these bands are already pretty successful, but there’s the Arctic Monkeys and the Gaslight Anthem. And then there’s the Drive-By Truckers and Titus Andronicus. A little “smaller,” there’s Deer Tick, who we’re on tour with – they’re a great rock n’ roll band. But as for “up-and-coming” (laughs) I mean, they’re on their fourth record, but the Cheap Girls out of Michigan – they’re also a great band – and they’re also doing a bunch of dates with us this summer.
Ascher: So if you were putting together the ultimate rock n’ roll festival of today, and you guys are headlining, who are the four bands you want opening up?
Ascher: You had me for a second there, I was gonna say I didn’t think “Hotel California” would fit in too well.
Craig Finn: (laughs). Yeah, probably not.
Ascher: So while the band was having a little bit of downtime the last few years, you put out a solo album – Clear Heart, Full Eyes. How did doing the solo album influence any of the sound and songwriting on the new record?
Craig Finn: For me, the big thing was to just go off and do something that was maybe a little bit quieter, and I really liked that part of it. I feel like it really gave the storytelling room to breathe a little bit more. You know, the Hold Steady is a real, big, loud band, and to get a break from that doing something a little more spacious and a little softer was good for me. But at the same time, it kinda made me restless to get back and make a big rock record with the Hold Steady.
On the tour for the solo album when you play those quieter shows, it’s different, people aren’t reacting the same way; people aren’t jumping up and down and going crazy. And after ten years of doing this, I kind of find validation in that – you start to crave the wild shows and wild crowds.
Ascher: Definitely. So I have to ask – based off of all the songs you’ve written over the years, am I correct to assume that partying with Craig Finn would be the best fuckin’ time ever?
Craig Finn: Maybe (laughs). Some of my stuff is a little exaggerated. I always say that if I wrote songs about my real life, they’d all be about going to the grocery store and the post office (laughs). But, you know, on a good night I can still go for it.
Ascher: Of course. So, in the early work with the band you used to use characters to convey a lot of the messages in the songs. Now, while the characters might still be there, you’ve phased them out with more universal messages. Do you think kinda transitioning from the use of characters has made the songs more universally-relatable and allowed people to ascribe their own meanings to the songs?
Craig Finn: Yeah, I think I’ve tried to allow a little more space for people to put their own hopes and dreams in there, and I also got interested in this kind of – like, when you read a Raymond Carver short story, what he leaves out is just as important as what he puts in – and it kinda makes things more elliptical. Sometimes when you’re trying to build a story, you want to do it with just enough details, not too many details. Sometimes that works, and sometimes you leave it a little too vague, but I think I’ve really become more interested in doing things that way.
Ascher: You’ve frequently been referred to as one of the most literate songwriters, and in your lyrics it’s obvious that you read a whole lot. I gotta ask – do you have any recommendations for good books you’ve read lately?
Craig Finn: Yeah, my favorite book of the past few months was The Free, written by a guy named Willy Vlautin. I also just finished Flash Boys, the new Michael Lewis book on the high-frequency trading on the stock market, which was really interesting. And I’m currently reading the biography of Alex Chilton. I’ve always got something going, and reading has always been a passion of mine. I’m really enjoying the Chilton book too, so those are three great recommendations.
Ascher: How much do the books you read influence your songwriting?
Craig Finn: Well, you get ideas from all over. You know, you can get ideas from walking around or driving around or reading or watching a movie. But I do spend a lot of time reading, so a lot of ideas come from that.
Ascher: How about contemporary bands? What other artists do you look to for ideas and inspiration?
Craig Finn: Always the Drive-By Truckers, who are friends. They were a band that I saw that really made me want to start the Hold Steady. They just do things in a certain way, with a certain grace. But as for my favorite lyricists, they’re currently John Samson from the Weakerthans and John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats. Those are probably the two guys that whatever they do, I’m gonna run out and get it and dive in.
Ascher: Got a serious one for you. You guys have frequently been described as a Catholic band, and a lot of your music has to do with religion, and the dichotomy between faith and “living in sin.” So how would you describe the way that religion is sort of married with your music, and for you personally, do you view religion more as a fundamental belief system or as a way to convey universal messages and lessons?
Craig Finn: Well, I was raised Catholic, and I still consider myself some sort of Catholic. I go to church – I don’t go every Sunday, but I try to go when I can – and it’s really a part of me, it colors the way I think about everything like morality and forgiveness. Being a Christian, being a Catholic, and really following Christ’s example is a part of me and has definitely influenced my art and it continues to – whether it’s overtly, like mentioning the Cross or Jesus, or more just in the way that I hope the characters come off sympathetically. It’s all influenced by that Catholic faith and upbringing.
Ascher: On a simpler note, what’s your favorite venue to play in the United States?
Craig Finn: Definitely First Avenue in Minneapolis, it’s my hometown. And I think most musicians would tell you the 930 Club in D.C. or the First Avenue in Minneapolis. I love both, but I’ve just seen so many great shows at the First Avenue that I just can’t not go there, it’s always a magical experience in that building.
Ascher: Alright, one last question, and I’ll make it broad. You offer a lot of advice in your songs, it’s something you have always done, via characters and stories or a little more directly. So, having lived in the rock n’ roll scene and experienced it all for the better part of a decade and a half, what kind of advice would you offer to my generation, to all the twenty-somethings?
Craig Finn: That’s a good question, because I really don’t feel like I’m in any sort of position to give anyone advice (laughs).
But I think that you really gotta spend your life doing what you love, or pursuing that actual love itself. Whether it’s love for what you’re doing, or love in your relationships, love should hold it all together. And I think that’s something about why we’re all here, to try to figure it out and to find that thing you love.
Make sure to catch Craig and the Hold Steady on their United States tour this summer, and check out their latest single, “Spinners,” below. Teeth Dreams can also be purchased on iTunes here.