Interview
The Hold Steady



half of you may be saying “Another Hold Steady interview?” But to grasp why The Hold Steady are held so closely to the bosom of us here at Stylus, and nearly every other music publication going, all you needed to do was to be at their gig at the London Borderline on February 16th. The support band were a group of no-hopers called the Checks, who shoved as many retro and garage rock clichés as they could find into the microwave for three minutes, à la service station burgers. Not so much a monkey pissing into its mouth as two monkeys sitting abreast of each other, pissing into each others’ mouths. The Hold Steady, on the other hand, had the crowd eating out of their hands within 30 seconds and managed to wind us up to the point where the show ended with one of the only stage invasions I’ve ever seen that didn’t look contrived. Plus, we’ve not interviewed them since Craig’s hair got this long.

Paul Scott: One thing I noticed reading all of your UK press is that every single article starts with “Are The Hold Steady going to fly in Britain?”

Craig Finn: It’s a reasonable question. We seem like a very American band to a lot of people, and I understand why. There are very specific lyrics and references to American things, particularly Midwest America, but I’m not worried that it’s not gonna fly because we try to write songs using something specific but saying something universal. The people I’m singing about, their fears and excitements—they’re things that young people feel. I mean, it’s the same for me. Growing up listening to the Clash, I never knew what the “Guns of Brixton” were. All I knew was that it sounded cool; it sounded like something I wanted to be a part of.

Dom Passantino: The thing is though that Boys and Girls in America was a clear attempt to position yourself as a more small-town, provincial band—you’ve deliberately set the album away from New York. How do you get viewed as such an “American band” when you deliberately cut yourself off from so much of America?

Craig Finn: Part of it is being old enough to write songs about what it means to become a young adult in America. I was born and raised in Minneapolis, which is pretty good as an “everyplace.” It’s in the middle of the country; it’s not very big, very small. It’s a good position to understand how things work.

Dom Passantino: Springsteen is always used as shorthand for you guys, which I find really inaccurate. I mean, you don’t sound like him, you don’t act like him, your stories are different to his...although there’s obviously a shared core between you and him, I don’t think that you’re particularly Springsteen-esque, I think you’re probably more...non-Springsteen-esque, and I can’t quite put my finger on why....

Craig Finn: I understand what you mean, but it’s not a totally unfair comparison. He’s a vivid storyteller with a good rock ’n’ roll band, and that’s what we try to be. I mean, we were created in the shadow of the Replacements. I saw those guys a million times growing up, and when I came to New York in 2000, I just wasn’t seeing any smart bands. We’re not rocket science; we’re two guitars, bass, and drums. We’re not reinventing the wheel, we’re just playing rock ’n’ roll, writing some smart lyrics—people are always gonna go for that.

Dom Passantino: Are you talking about being “smart” or being “literary”?

Craig Finn: Well, there’s always street smarts.... I don’t feel literary. I do feel like I can speak clearly. If I go to a movie, I want to communicate what I did or didn’t like about it rather than go “Eh, whatever.” I mean, we’re trying to separate ourselves from guys like the Decemberists. That dude has read so many books. I haven’t read any books compared to him.

Dom Passantino: Because you’re seen as smart, literary, or whatever, and because you have a big appeal to kids who want to be music critics, you must get a lot of really bad interviews. Guys going over the same points over and over again.

Craig Finn: At the beginning of this record cycle, I went to my manager and asked him if we could get a FAQ section on the site. And once we confirm an interview, we can shoot them across a copy of this and get beyond questions like “How did you choose your name?” or “What are your influences?” He said it never works. But it’s a pleasure to talk to people, people who are interested in what I’m doing. I try and remember that I could be working as a waiter in a restaurant for a living, and that’d be a lot worse than doing a bad interview.

Paul Scott: You talk about being a rock ’n’ roll band, so would you take offence to being called retro?

Craig Finn: Retro would suggest something insincere, which we’re not. Dressing up in uniforms rather than what you’d wear walking down the street. We’re classic rock with a small “c.” This is straight rock ’n’ roll. If you form a band that are part of a movement, people are gonna stop showing up when the trend cycles out. The Hold Steady are exciting to me because you’re not gonna be able to do that to us. We’re not gonna become more “in” or more “out” than we are now.

Dom Passantino: If you amalgamate all of the end of year polls that were swarming around a month ago, you come third behind TV On The Radio and Ghostface. You were everyone’s favourite white people in 2006. Isn’t that critical love going to end up as its own cycle though?

Craig Finn: The critics help us get, say, 100, 200 people in a room in a town we’ve never played before. Then we have to get those people to spread word of mouth. It’s up to us to get it up to 1000 people in that room.

Dom Passantino: The one thing that gets me about The Hold Steady is that your lyrics...they’re not blue collar per se but they are working-man words. You deal with redemption, coming to terms with your emotions, nights spent at the bar...you’re a very “male” band.

Craig Finn: That’s a good way of describing it. When we first started making it, we were playing clubs of maybe 300 people. We’re playing bigger places now, but then it was just 300 people. And it was, like, 98% guys. And now we’re playing to 1,000 people the audiences are getting younger, more female. We’re expanding. But there’s more of a camaraderie between us and the male fans...we’re guys, we like watching sports, drinking beer...we are those guys. The male audiences see themselves in us.

Dom Passantino: Your male fans—me, for one—almost see you as drinking partners. You’re the kind of guys you’d sit off with, four, five, six hours in Spoony’s [Wetherspoon’s, a notoriously cheap and lifeless British chain bar] just drinking and talking shit with. That’s what I get from your songs.

Paul Scott: I don’t get that from the band.

Dom Passantino: That’s because you’re a ponce.

Paul Scott: What I get from you is that you’re a great source of a romanticized view of America, the same feelings I used to get listening to bands like, and this is a weird reference, but the Lemonheads as a kid. You just make America sound like an effortlessly cool place to be. Is that intentional?

Craig Finn: No, but I’m 35 years old now, and when I look back at being 17 or 19 I can identify what was really fun. And it didn’t even seem like fun at the time, stuff like being unable to find a party to go to so you just drive round and smoke pot all night. And when you’re 17, you find that so boring. But when you’re 35, you’re like “Wow, that’s the funnest night around, I wish I could do that again.” I mean, I can, but people with mortgages and kids can’t.

Dom Passantino: You couldn’t have done the Hold Steady at 19, could you?

Craig Finn: No, we wouldn’t have had the life experience, the perspective. I mean the title of the album comes from Kerouac, and when I read him at 16 I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand him. When I read him again at 32, I got it. I loved every word.

Dom Passantino: So a 16-year-old listening to your band now won’t “get” you?

Craig Finn: Well, if he doesn’t we’ve got a kick-ass guitar bit coming along in a while which he’ll get. A lot of lyrics for 16 year olds are vague or non-specific; you can put your own meaning into them. Y’know, you’re running for something, you’re being drowned, and at 16 you can identify your own personal trauma and attach it to those lyrics. With our songs, everything’s specific, you can’t put your own experience onto it.

Dom Passantino: Last time you spoke to Stylus you were still manning your own merchandise stand. Are you too famous to do that now?

Craig Finn: (laughs) No, no, no, we’ve done enough now to have someone else do that now. We’re on tour 200, 300 days a year and not selling merch is one of the perks of success.

Dom Passantino: What’s the most amount of time you’ve had off from touring in the past three years?

Craig Finn: Just under a month. We don’t have that much time off.

Dom Passantino: Do you want any?

Craig Finn: No, no, this is what we do. We play rock shows. I don’t wanna sit at home. I just start drinking. I don’t even watch TV anymore, I just drink.


Related Links
Hold Steady Official Site
Hold Steady @ MySpace
Vagrant Records



By: Dom Passantino and Paul Scott
Published on: 2007-02-27
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