Interview: The Hold Steady

Wandering through the winding corridors backstage at Glasgow’s Garage, qmunicate encounter Craig Finn, the frontman with American rockers The Hold Steady.

In interview he’s thoughtful and intelligent, debating the similarities between the congregation and the rock show; and gazing back over ten years with a band that has seen him go from Brooklyn down-and-out to one of rock n’ roll’s foremost laureates. qmunicate join him to discuss the rituals of a rock show, his Catholic upbringing and what his three most famous characters are up to now.

Firstly, how is the tour going?

It’s going really well. We’ve just done nine shows on consecutive days, when normally we’d only do three or four but fortunately we’ve got a day off tomorrow. It’s just been great taking these songs out to people.

You’re renowned for drawing on different works of literature in your lyrics, what are you reading at the moment?

I’m actually reading Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson at the moment. It’s a great novel set in rural Montana that someone recommended to me on Twitter and I thought I would check it out. I’ve also go the new Murakami but those are always difficult to start. There’s a new book by John Darnielle [from beloved lo-fi American indie rockers The Mountain Goats] I want to check out so I might end up putting Murakami to one side until I have finished that.

How would you convince someone who has never heard a Hold Steady record to pick up [new album] Teeth Dreams?

It’s a real rock record, in a time when a lot of bands seem to struggle to write a record with balls, it’s an attempt to make something that really connects in that way. And I guess hopefully there are some characters and situations that people can relate to. I think when we started out there was this big, dance-punk scene going on in New York and then we came along and were just a rock band, nothing more and people really connected with that.

You’ve written a lot about small town characters in some pretty desperate situations, now that the Hold Steady have been going for ten years now, do you worry about drifting away from your roots and not being able to write about those situations?

(Laughs) Well, I have sort of drifted away from writing about characters drinking in bars because I don’t really drink like I used to. I think of course, as you get older, you see some things in a different way to how you used to but at the end of the day they are just that: characters, and I hope I inhabit them in a way people can identify with. This new record is some of the loudest, most rocking stuff we’ve ever done – a balls-out rock record about middle age.

You’ve spoken before about your Catholic upbringing, how does that influence your life nowadays?

Well I drifted away when I was at College but eventually found my way back (pauses to ponder). Some of the political decisions I disagree with but there is something about the community and the rituals that I really like. I like to go and sit and think. I’ve only been to mass once since we’ve been out on tour but of course, when you’re on tour you have a different set of rituals: coffee in the morning, soundcheck, buses. [When you’re onstage are you feeling the power of the congregation then?] Yeah, there are certainly some similarities, being up there in front of all those people. There are little details like the “fifth horse in the sixth race” or “raise a pint to Saint Joe Strummer” where you look out and see it connect with people, everyone has their arms in the air and that’s really special.

Do you write with those moments in mind?

Not really but I think when you do write one you sort-of know and think “I want to do more of that”.

What’s the last gig that blew you away?

I was incredibly lucky to see The Replacements twice, once in Minneapolis and once in New York and that was just amazing. Such fantastic songwriters. The other one was Patti Smith. She’s just such a legend. She came on and spat onstage, she does a lot of spitting.

Several of your records, particularly Separation Sunday and Boys and Girls in America, really function well as suites of songs with their recurring characters and narrative arcs. Since we’re at the ten year anniversary of the band would you consider doing some shows playing those records in their entirety?

We did Boys and Girls in America actually on 4th of July in a barn in Iowa. We hadn’t planned it at all but I looked at the date and the setlist I had written and it felt right. I’m a little nervous about bands playing their old records in the entirety because I sort-of feel it’s like admitting that you’re not moving forward any more but I wouldn’t rule it out.

What’s your goal nowadays then? What keeps the Hold Steady moving forward?

The people. Taking these songs on the road and playing them in front of an audience is what keeps us doing this.

Your new album ends with a song called Oaks, which is nine minutes long, was this your tribute to the classic rock epics of bands like Led Zeppelin?

Originally that song was much shorter but it was kind-of depressing so we ended up adding a long coda so that it didn’t end in such a downbeat manner. And of course, if you’re going to have a nine minute song, it kinda has to go last!

Finally your albums had these fascinating recurring characters, Holly, Gideon and Charlemagne, can you tell something we don’t know about the three of them? Where are they now?

(Ponders for some time) They’re not in the same state. [Geographically or mentally?] (Laughs, equally ambiguous) they’ve not seen each other for some time. I have no plans at the moment to go back to them but I reserve the right if you know what I mean.

[Max Sefton – @maxsefton]

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