Interview: Craig Finn (of The Hold Steady)


img 4707cos 260x260 Interview: Craig Finn (of The Hold Steady)It’s hard to shake off Craig Finn. As frontman for Brooklyn’s own The Hold Steady, the guy’s rambling vocals have a knack for purchasing real estate in that ever-absorbing noggin of yours. But, that’s okay. He knows how to tell a good story. Five albums in – not counting the man’s work with the equally inviting Lifter Puller – Finn’s still trucking. This year, he penned/released Heaven is Whenever, toured across the country, hit up half a dozen summer music festivals, and now he’s getting ready to finish off 2010 at Milwaukee’s Riverside Theater, for what will undoubtedly be one rare spectacle to enjoy.

But, then again, when isn’t The Hold Steady a spectacle live? Earlier this summer, we checked them out in Minneapolis, where we enjoyed one of the best Fourth of July parties one could throw, and then later in the Fall at Chicago’s Vic Theatre, where Senior Staff Writer Dan Caffrey witnessed a “welcoming whirlpool of working class dance.” Needless to say, it’s hard to leave unimpressed with the boys.

On-stage, Finn acts more or less like a spiritually charged minister – the likes of which you’d find in the dawning of our country. He screams, he beckons, he begs for you to listen. He’s a rare energy in a genre that’s far too staple these days. That’s why the idea of sitting down with him, one-on-one, seemed rather daunting. Instead, Finn proved to be quite the cordial folk, digressing on topics and questions with ease, coming off more like a distant friend than an iconic songwriter. We discussed his time growing up in the Twin Cities, his favorite authors, his relationship with The Replacements, his forthcoming film adaptation of Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City, and plenty more.

So, let’s get to it, already.

You were born in Boston, The Hold Steady hails from Brooklyn, but most of the songs trace back to Minneapolis or Minnesota. Will that always be home for you?

Yeah, I’ll always consider that home. I feel New York’s a tough place to write about and I think moving there just 10 years ago gave me a pretty good perspective on what’s interesting about Minneapolis. I guess I just feel more comfortable putting songs there, more than anywhere else. It’s a unique place and I think it suits the songs well.

It seems like Brooklyn would be the opposite mindset of the more wholesome and open minded folk of Minneapolis. We were at your 4th of July show this past summer in Minneapolis, it definitely felt special, as if you were home. Do you ever get homesick for it?

[laughs] Yes and no. We get back there a lot. My parents are still there and all that. But yeah, I think that there’s something special. Because we sing about Minneapolis, our fanbase there kind of feels this extra attention, and our shows there are always pretty amazing. Not to mention it’s just a great music town.

Your music lends itself to that area, too. The cold, the close-knit community, the friendly feelings. A lot of bands from there work off that – The Replacements, for one.

Absolutely. I think it’s part of who we are – everything from sort of the honesty to the flock of people, to the cold, the music scene, and just sort of the whole atmosphere. At least for me. Not everyone’s from there, so I have to be careful. But most of us have lived there, so I think we’ve been influenced. The other guys are from Wisconsin, so I think it’s that whole region that forms what we do.

Do you have folks you stay with when you’re up there?

I usually stay with my parents.

replacements let it be 300x300 260x260 Interview: Craig Finn (of The Hold Steady)Jumping back on The Replacements, I’ve read that Let It Be is one of your favorite records of all time. Gotta ask: What’s your favorite song off it?

“I Will Dare”. It’s my favorite song. It’s the first song that takes you back to buying that record, to the first week it came out, and thinking, Oh my god, I think this is going to change my life, the moment I first heard that first bass line and that first riff. And, you know, “I Will Dare” is a really romantic statement to me. Living or loving takes a bold amount of bravery.

There’s plenty of great insight in their biography – The Replacements: All Over But the Shouting – published a couple years back. Your quotes are all over that book.

I was young, so it wasn’t like I was any peer or contemporary of them, but they were playing all-ages shows around town at the time, and as soon as I got into them, I didn’t miss a show, so I saw some pretty great stuff – the Bob Stinson years, especially. It was really chaotic and cool. I think it told me what I wanted to do – as far as what an awesome rock and roll band could be.

Have you ever sat down with Paul Westerberg or Tommy Stinson?

I’ve met Paul [Westerberg], it was really cool, but intimidating, too. You know, you put him on a pedestal for 20 years, you sort of go in and you’re just thankful to be around him. But he was very gracious and a great guy, obviously. I guess I met Bob Stinson for a little bit, but he wasn’t…he was in the bars a lot, before he passed away. So, that wasn’t really the best way to meet him.

Admittedly, it’d be a dream to see Westerberg and the band work together – sort of like what Roky Erickson and Okkervil did earlier this year. Any opportunities there?

Nothing’s come up like that. It certainly would be fun, but it would take a lot of chump from both sides, and I think Okkervil found an artist that really complemented them and that’s a really cool thing. It would, obviously, be an honor to work with someone we honor like that, but it would require special circumstances. It would be a hard thing to go make happen, I think.

I guess you’d have to run into each other at a bar, or a house party, something…

[laughs] Yeah, you’d probably have to get someone who had a confidant really close to them, and would think it’s a good idea.

You’ve stated that your work isn’t necessarily personal and that a good storyteller doesn’t adhere exactly to the truth, but it comes off that way. Plenty of writers firmly believe all writing, at the end of the day, is autobiographical. Are these characters you develop at all based on people you’ve come to meet down the road?

They’re kind of composites of people I knew when I was younger and situated issues like that. So it’s not autobiographical, but it’s certainly based on people I knew or people I lived around, and they might not necessarily be things that happened to me, but to other people. But they’re also not a one to one relationship, like this one character isn’t just one guy. It’s kind of a composite, so you know, it’s influenced from my own life, in some respect, but I think it’s blown up and made more exciting and cinematic. I like to say that if the songs were about my own life, they’d be pretty boring songs.

How do you go about writing them? Do you sketch it out ahead of time? Or does it just come out in the lyrics?

Well… you know, it’s a little bit of both. But the one thing I think we definitely do is make albums. So when we’re writing an album, I tend to think about what is this album going to say, what are these songs going to say about each other together. I write in books everyday – there’s a notebook in front me right now, actually – so I just write down ideas and keep going through them, taking little bits from one page that I wrote on one day, and then bridging them with another, kind of play with them. Then Tad [Kubler] will come in with some riffs and music, and I’ll see what fits with my lyrics and we’ll make it into a song. There’s a lot of editing and rewriting. I’m a big fan of literally writing the song down, then flipping the page, and writing it again. Maybe one word changes then, but it’s usually for the better.

It seems like the melody is just as important. “Massive Nights”, for instance, without that bounce…

Yeah, it’s all about finding the right kind of meter, finding the right pocket for the vocals, that’s like the most important thing. It’s also about finding the space in the music where they’re going to hear you. It’s all kind of together. Bob Dylan, for instance, one of the greatest lyricists of all time, sung in some ways where you remember most of his songs because of the melodies.

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Photo by Heather Kaplan

In terms of the characters, is Heaven is Whenever the last we’ll see of them?

No, I don’t think so. I don’t know though. We haven’t really started on the next record, so I’m not sure. I feel Heaven is Whenever had less of the characters, but I always have a little window in the back story while I develop others.

What was the angle for Heaven is Whenever? Were there some facets that swayed the record’s focus? Franz Nicolay’s departure, for one.

What it changed is that we went back and wrote it as a four piece. So I think it had a lot more space in the songs. It came across as this sort of wide open sound, which we were digging. Franz [Nicolay] was a great musician, and a really talented guy, he plays like every instrument in the world, so sometimes it was a little tempting to fill up every available space with music, rather than let things breathe a little more. That was a big focus of ours: to let things breathe. I was also really thinking of the idea that… Heaven is Whenever is about struggle and reward and heaven is this great reward, in the Christian sense. You do good all your life and then you’re rewarded in the end. I was thinking, you know, embrace the struggle, you should feel rewarded everyday – a sort of euphoria. A lot of the songs deal with that.

Is there a song that’s written first and then worked around that?

Usually going in I have this rough idea of where I want the songs to work towards. I don’t remember if there’s a first, off the top of my head. If there was, it might have been “Sweet Part of the City”, but I’m not entirely sure on that.

That song’s a departure in itself.

Yeah, I think one of the big changes on that was how, starting out, we had gone on tour with the Drive-By Truckers and there was no opening band. It was either us or them, so we flip flopped. When we’d go out on stage, we’d always go out and play “Constructive Summer”, “Stuck Between Stations”, the really up beat songs, and when those guys played earlier in the night they always did something that invited you in, rather than punched you in the face. So, I watched that and thought that was kind of cool, and that’s kind of the idea here, let’s try to invite them in on this record rather than coming out swinging.

Based on your writing, have you ever tried any fiction? I could see you owning a killer book club.

Yeah. [laughs] You know, I tried. I rented a house and tried to write a book. I got about 20,000 words in, but I looked at it and said, “I’m doing this for the wrong reasons. I’d really love to write a book, but this story doesn’t need to be told.” So, I’d like to try again, but I’m not going to put so much pressure on myself. Hopefully, down the road, I’ll have both the time and the idea that’ll inspire me to do something.

What do you read?

Well, I read a lot – everything from Larry McMurtry, who I love, Philip Roth, who I’ve read everything. Recently, this guy Willie Vlautin, who’s also this musician, I was really impressed by his three books. But, I read all the time, some of it’s popular, common stuff – I love Freedom, [Jonathan] Franzen’s book that came out this year. I loved that.

Does that take up most of your free time?

Yeah, and on tour. It’s a pretty good thing to have a book going on tour.

The telepathic horse racing saga of “Chips Ahoy!” and “The Weekenders” would make a great movie, as would many Hold Steady songs. Has anyone ever approached you about adapting any of your work?

No one’s approached us in a super serious way. We’ve had some fans, some 17-year-old’s maybe. But, someone who could get it done, no, we haven’t heard from yet. It would be cool, but one of the great things about songs is that, you know, because there’s so little information, you put your own life into them. When you listen to a song, you project a little of yourself into it. In a way, adapting that would shut that off some way. It’s kind of like when you read a book, when you see the movie, you say, “That’s not what I thought the character looked like.” Sometimes they nail it, but sometimes you’re so bummed out, you’re like, “He doesn’t have black hair, he has blonde hair.” There’s a lot of stuff that goes on in people’s heads with books.

fargorockcitymovie Interview: Craig Finn (of The Hold Steady)You’re starting to get your feet wet in film with appearances on IFC and last year there was talk of turning Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City into a film. Any updates there?

Yeah, I’ve been collaborating with a couple people. I really like collaboration on just about anything. So, I knew some people in that world, and a situation came up where someone, my friend Tom Ruprecht, writer of Letterman, came on, and said, “I’d like to do this, Fargo Rock City,” and I told him I’d like to help. It’s still a project we’re working on, the script’s been worked on, and we’ve met with a bunch of people and it continues to go on. But, the one thing with this world is that it moves a lot slower than music. It’s been fun, though. Actually, I’m going to be spending a bit of time on it this afternoon.

What angle did you go for? Given the book’s essay-like format, it’s surprising that it’d be adapted for a film.

I’m not at liberty to say, but you’re right it’s a totally hard book to kind of pull a story out of, because it’s not really a story it’s a collection of music. But what we did is we pulled one thing out of there and we expanded it. We used the book as a jumping off point. I mean, we kind of created something about kids living in that era in North Dakota, which is largely based on Chuck [Klosterman]’s book. There’s a lot of arguing about rock ‘n’ roll and there’s a lot of doing dumb shit, too. It’s pretty good, I think. Chuck really wrote us a nice note after he read it and he really seemed to love it, so as long as he thinks it’s good. But whether or not it gets made…

We’re championing for it.

I really think if we get it done, which we can, it’ll be a respectful adaptation. The three of us were really big fans of Chuck’s work.

You mentioned the film industry being vastly different than the music scene. Now, you started in the ’90s, so you’ve seen how the music industry’s transitioned into now. Are you particularly a fan of where the industry is today? Or has it become conflicting? Music’s easy to grab, the idea of the record store is fading…

It’s hard for me to say, whether I’m into it or not, because it seems like it just is. But, I think there’s something lost in the ease of it. There’s also something gained, though. There’s something romantic about taking the bus downtown to buy a record that you couldn’t get anywhere else. I remember those times fondly in my life, it was a part of growing up to love rock ‘n’ roll. At the same time, I lived close to the city, if I lived far off, it would have been completely lost to me. In the pre-Kurt Cobain time, you couldn’t get an alternative rock record anywhere except in an urban area. So, I think those kids are blessed for something that wasn’t accessible almost 20 years ago.

There’s certainly more ways for an artist to reach their fans, which is very cool, but one thing I think that maybe isn’t so good is the way the internet has put a focus on self-promotion – on things like Twitter, or blogs. It’s this “look at me”-thing that a lot of artists are participating in. You have to promote your band and your music, but there seems to be a real comfort with just a constant, “Here’s a blog about me, or here’s a website, and my Twitter.”

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Photo by Heather Kaplan

For fans, it’s exciting, but for artists, it’s also probably terrifying. You’re putting more and more of yourself out there.

I just don’t think sharing with your fans what you ate for breakfast is necessary.

[laughs] Yeah, we don’t either. We watch the feeds for updates, but there’s so much out there where we just shrug and say, “Who cares?”

Sure, sure. I don’t think it’s part of being an artist. I think, in the long run, it’s just something you don’t need to be doing.

Well, let’s hope it changes. Who knows, though, everything’s so unpredictable these days, anyhow.

It’s probably at its peak right now. But, I really feel like the next thing is where you can remix songs yourself.

We get countless emails day after day of remixes from songs that were released even last week. It never ends.

Yeah, but the software, too. Certainly studio guys are trading raw files from records – you can buy like a Bob Marley track that’s broken into 24 channels and remix it yourself – but I think there’s an opportunity for retail or consumer software, where you can buy these, instead. I think that’d be a really great way for people to start experiencing music. I think it’s coming.

Almost like Rock Band, where you can download tracks.

Yeah, yeah. You can compare and say, “Oh, this is what I did with it.” It’s the same source material, but you get different results.

Kind of takes the mixtape making to another level.


Now, for your next tour dates, you’ve been hitting some intimate venues. Lincoln Hall here in Chicago was a surprise.

Yeah, it’s kind of about doing different things. You can do the big show, but then something else. I think we sort of take pride in that. We’ll do a festival set one day and something else for the next. For example, this fall we did the Beacon Theatre, where we sold it out, and then two nights later we played for 250 people in Newark. We certainly try to connect differently. That’s a challenge for us. It is sometimes hard to dial back down and play for a couple of hundred people. Playing a show for 3,000 people is different. It’s not just the energy, but sonically, how do you get through to these people? The PA is a little weaker, you gotta make sure you’re not going to blow them away or whatever. It just keeps things exciting, keeps us on our toes.

When do you write the set lists? Hours beforehand?

Ah, it’s not that much beforehand. That’s a big thing for us right now. Because we have all this material, we’re really trying to play varied sets. So, during the last tour, on the back of the bus, we had all the set lists taped up, so we could scan it and think,What did we play the last couple of nights or what do we play tonight? We also have a big master list of all our songs. That’s one of our big things right now, to play a different set every night.

souths Interview: Craig Finn (of The Hold Steady)Big characteristic of you guys – not sure how you take this – is that you’re labeled the “the world’s best bar band”, at least since Springsteen.

The bar band doesn’t bother me. I wrote that in our first press release. [laughs] So, it always goes back to me.

Nice. I thought you might lash back.

No, no. Everyone always asks me, “Does that bother you?” I’m always like, “No, I made it up.” Well, I didn’t make it up, I wrote it up, but it’s my fault. But no, I think that’s the spirit of where we’re at.

Drawing on that, everyone always throws around Springsteen references, but has anyone likened you to Southside Johnny?

[laughs] No because I don’t think many people know about Southside Johnny, at least those outside of New Jersey. But, I like that idea, though.

Still don’t have plans for New Year’s? If you’re anywhere in the Midwest, it might behoove you to hit up Milwaukee, where Craig Finn and The Hold Steady will no doubt melt down the ice for 2011. Get your tickets now!