Full Steam Ahead for The Hold Steady

Craig Finn Talks Touring, Recording, and the Art of Storytelling

From left to right: Craig Finn, Galen Polivka, Tad Kubler, and Bobby Drake.
Mark Seliger

If Craig Finn can teach us anything, it’s that looks can be deceiving. The fair-skinned, bespectacled frontman for Brooklyn’s The Hold Steady may not look the part, but put him onstage in front of a few hundred fans, and he’s about as hard-rockin’ as they come. Championing the guitar-heavy, pub-ready sounds that so few can pull off eloquently, The Hold Steady make a case for classic rock with every record they release. And with Finn’s truthful, story-like lyrics and reoccurring characters in place, it’s not likely that they’ll slow anytime soon.

This Friday, The Hold Steady (now minus pianist Franz Nikolai) head to Velvet Jones in support of their latest, Heaven Is Whenever. I recently caught up with Finn to talk about recording, writing, and why all his friends think his songs are about them.

How does Heaven Is Whenever compare to past albums? One thing is that we just took a lot more time. We do these short bursts where we’d record a few songs, then take some time off and listen to it and see what we wanted to do next, so I think it was a little more deliberate. Rather than practicing really hard, then going into the studio for 30 days and coming out with a record, it was more like, practice, write, go in, come back, talk about what we did. We also wrote and recorded this as a four-piece, rather than a five-piece — our piano Player Franz [Nicolai] left before we did this record — so I think there’s a little more space. Franz is a really good musician, and he played all these different instruments, but I think sometimes we had a hard time resisting the urge to fill up all the available space with music. I think these songs breathe a little more.

How did you settle on the title? I was thinking a lot about struggle and reward, and how most things that pay off, things that feel great, are things that you work for. And so, in that sense, maybe part of the reward is the struggle, is the work. I also was kind of thinking of the Christian idea of heaven being this big payoff at the end and how, if you live a righteous life, you’re going to be rewarded every day, with your relationships and things like that. Mixed with that, it comes with a lyric, “Heaven is whenever we can get together,” which I think talks about what we do and how in this day and age with the Internet, and Facebook, and Twitter, and whatever, getting people together in one room, in a physical space, and communing over rock ’n’ roll music is an increasingly unique thing, and I think a beautiful thing.

You guys have been basically been on the road since [2005’s] Separation Sunday. Is the mystery and mystique of being on the road still there for you? I think it just gets better because you get better at it. You can maximize the parts you like. And now that we’re on the tour bus, there’s some comfort. You sort of just get used to it and it gets really good. I really have a hard time imagining it because, you know, now that we’ve done this for a long time, I really like that we get to see a lot of people all around the country. You get to stay in good touch with your friends from all over the place. It’s still something I really, really enjoy.

What’s the one thing you like to check out when you visit somewhere new? In Europe I always go to the cathedrals. I find, like, the oldest church in town on a map and go there. Even if you don’t get in, the walk there gives you something to do. I really like just kind of walking around and taking a book and finding somewhere to read. I get a lot of inspiration for songwriting from it, too, even walking through some neighborhoods and saying, “Hey, look at the house. I wonder who lives there; I wonder what goes on in there.”

Do you feel like touring and crafting the next batch of songs kind of go hand-in-hand? Like do you think you would you be able to write just sitting at home and hanging around the house? It would be harder, that’s for sure. I think displacement from your daily routines can really lead to creativity. I think that’s the one way I find creativity, so I would definitely have to find another way for coming up with ideas. I don’t think it would be impossible, but it would definitely take some changing.

The thing that’s always struck me about your songs is that I’m never quite sure where you fit into the picture. Are the stories you’re telling and characters you’re writing about vested mostly in truth? [Laughs.] Well, they’re definitely stories, and I think that if I was writing stories that were really confessional about my own life, they’d be quite a bit more boring. But [these characters] are at least loosely based on people I know. They’re sort of composites of types of people I know and more likely people I’ve known in the past. It’s kind of a weird mixed-up mixture of all those things. I’d say it’s maybe 50-50, but it is definitely a fantasy world. It’s a world that I’ve removed from. Sometimes I’ll try to take something and flip it in, write a song that is more about me just to kind of confuse the balance a little bit.

So you’ve probably gotten plenty of people asking you whether or not a song’s about them. Yeah, yeah, and every time they’ve been pretty far off. It’s kind of like, at the risk of sounding like a dick, “Don’t flatter yourself; you’re not that person.”

I’ve read some interesting anecdotes about your writing process. Is it true that you rarely show your bandmates your lyrics until you go in to record? Well, I’m always working on lyrics. I change them right up until the second they go on tape. I kind of keep them to myself because I always think they’re a work in progress. When I was in my band before, Lifter Puller, I had a really big thing about not writing down my lyrics because I heard that Jay-Z doesn’t write down his lyrics, so I would just do it all in my head. But then I started to forget stuff, so I started writing ‘em down for the Hold Steady, and I think that’s better for everyone. But I’m always kind of playing with them. When we’re rehearsing and it’s all loud, people can’t hear me, so when we get in the studio and I’m actually singing people can actually discern what I’m saying. It seems like they’re hearing it for the first time.

Does writing in such a manner find you regretting things after the fact? There’s lines and things that, yeah. I was in a car recently and one of our songs came on the radio, and I realized that I sing it a little differently now. I kept making improvements to it in my mind after we recorded it, and I think that’s actually good. In some ways, you can say that we keep working on [songs] forever. It might just be small words, but it’s stuff like that that makes things flow better.

Religion plays a semi-sizable role in your lyrics. Do you consider yourself a pretty spiritual guy? Um, you know, it’s weird; I feel that I’m more religious than I am spiritual. I would say spiritual is someone looking down from a mountain, and I take a lot of comfort in more of the rituals. Like going to Catholic mass and having it said the same way every time. … It’s almost like religion plays more of a part of it in my mind than spirituality.


The Hold Steady play Velvet Jones (423 State St.) this Friday, August 27, at 8 p.m. Call 965-8676 or visit clubmercy.com for tickets.


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