The Hold Steady: Craig Finn's Characters Are Growing Up

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The Hold Steady: Craig Finn's Characters Are Growing Up

This month will see the release of two Hold Steady-related albums. The band’s eighth studio album, Open Door Policy, will be released in all formats February 19. And lead singer Craig Finn’s fifth solo album, All the Perfect Crosses, will be released digitally February 26 after coming out on vinyl for last August’s Record Day. Both projects extend the band’s epic exploration of their own generation—those born in the ’70s—via some of the best rock ’n’ roll of the 21st century.

Finn says that his songwriting always seems to examine what was happening to that generation about 15 years earlier. When he co-founded Hold Steady in 2003, for example, the 31-year-old was writing about his teenage years in Minneapolis. When the Brooklyn-based band reached its first peak with 2008’s Stay Positive, Finn was 36 and writing about his early 20s. Now that the band is reaching a second peak with this month’s release of Open Door Policy, Finn is approaching 50 and writing about his mid-30s.

“Maybe it takes that long to get some perspective,” he says over the phone from his Brooklyn home. “But it changes the songs—what felt important at 18 or 20 doesn’t feel important at 35. Thirty-five is a time when a lot of people get stuck, while other people make a break from what they’d been doing. What’s the difference? A lot of it comes down to luck.”

It’s hard to get that perspective when you’re in the middle of the action. You can see the close-ups of your running partners, but you can’t see the long shot of the context. You can grasp the rationalizations but not the real motivations. You can see the decisions being made but not the consequences.

Looking back across a decade and a half, however, you get a bigger, clearer picture. In “Spices” from the new album, for example, two former lovers in their mid 30s meet up on an Easter Sunday. They start with beers and soon move on to “vanilla vodka in a Diet Dr. Pepper” and “something wrapped in black wax paper.” The woman claims she’s different than she was in the past, but things soon go downhill along the same old slope, accelerated by Tad Kubler’s string-bending guitar riff. Meanwhile, the wider world goes on around them—the majorettes in the Easter Parade glistening in the sun.

A lot of Finn’s songs—not only for Hold Steady but also for his solo albums—deal with characters involved in small-time drug deals and shabby drug habits, and it rarely turns out well for them. Finn himself has too strong a work ethic these days—he works on songwriting and/or recording every day, he says—to partake himself, but he’s long been surrounded by a generation of dealers and dabblers. And what better way to examine their marginal economic activity and craving for distraction than through the shadowy world of drug transactions?

“I’ve become way more interested now in the mental health side of it than the procuring and ingesting side of it—especially on this new Hold Steady record,” Finn claims. “The early Hold Steady songs are about partying, but this is the other side of it: the hangover, the depression, and the people trying to self-medicate to cope with their lives.”

Finn has traveled a lot since his 20s—Hold Steady has played in all 50 states—so the songs are no longer mostly set in Finn’s and Kubler’s hometown of Minneapolis. Several of the new songs take place in California; others in Missouri and Florida.

“It’s been 20 years since I lived in Minneapolis,” he points out; “I can’t even make a restaurant recommendation there anymore. And the world becomes bigger to me as I travel more. So the songs are everywhere on this one. I was placing these songs in deliberately obscure places to make it more universal in a way. There’s a similarity to a lot of places these days, and this record nods to that. The only things that are local anymore are beer and pretzels.”

On “Heavy Covenant,” for example, the protagonist is a software salesman from Tucson stranded in the California mountains, confronted by the challenge of trying to score drugs in a strange town. He shakes the hand of a local musician and palms him “forty bucks to make it safe to bring the subject up.”

But the real subject of the song is neither the deal nor the need that drives it but rather the loneliness of a rootless man in a dead-end job. The music has the throbbing organ, thumping kick drum and clipped guitar of a Velvet Underground song. That rock-noir sound fits the nihilism of the story, but it’s countered by a three-man horn section whose punchy riff hold out hope for a happier ending.

“In all my work, things can get dark,” Finn admits, “but the horns allow things to sound more celebratory, more upbeat, maybe more muscular. When you’re describing something downbeat, as I usually am, you need that. That interaction has always attracted to me. There’s a similar push and pull between the guitars and the piano. The piano can be so ornate, while the guitar can be a bull in a china shop. The give and take between those two things is a lot of what the Hold Steady sound is.”

The new song “Lanyards,” for instance, opens with a beeping guitar figure pushing back against the romantic piano chords. The song’s narrator has traveled from Missouri to California in search of the glamor of Hollywood movies and surf songs. He starts off seeking the right color of wristband to get backstage at the rock show and ends up asking for the right color of wristband to visit his new girlfriend in a hospital after she’s overdosed on cocaine in her “camper van behind some old warehouse.” As the contrast between hopes and reality ratchet up in the lyrics, they do the same in the music as the guitars crash like waves against the bright piano and glockenspiel.

Finn didn’t realize how important that piano/guitar dialogue was until Franz Nicolay, the band’s keyboardist, left in 2010. Nicolay was struggling to find time for his own solo projects, because Hold Steady was so busy in those years. At the time, the surviving bandmembers (including drummer Bobby Drake and bassist Galen Polivka) made the decision to replace Nicolay not with another pianist but with another guitarist, Steve Selvidge, so Finn could concentrate on singing and Kubler could have another master guitarist to joust with.

But when Riot Fest invited Hold Steady to recreate their landmark 2006 album, Boys and Girls in America, for a 2016 concert, the rehearsals revealed how crucial Nicolay had been to the sound of that record. So they called him up and asked if he’d rejoin for the concert. When he arrived, the rehearsals and the show itself went so well that they asked if he would like to rejoin on a more permanent basis. He did.

There was no question of getting rid of Selvidge, however, because he had made himself indispensable. The Memphis-reared guitarist brings a funkier, Southern sensibility to the instrument that makes for a dramatic contrast with the Minneapolis-reared Kubler’s harder-edge, Northern approach.

“For me it was great when Franz came back,” says Selvidge over the phone from his Memphis home, “because I no longer had to cover keyboard parts and could do more of my own thing. He adds so much to the band. When he came back, I found myself bobbing and weaving with him just as I had with Tad.”

For a while, Hold Steady and Selvidge’s earlier band, the Bloodthirsty Lovers, had been on the same label, Frenchkiss Records, and had toured a lot together. Out of that bonding experience came the invitation to replace Nicolay. When Selvidge enlisted in 2010, he soon learned the band’s unusual songwriting process: the band collectively comes up with the music and only then does Finn add the lyrics. In the early days, that meant gathering in a garage or other rehearsal space to jam on different ideas until a song took shape. In recent years, due to geographic dispersion and the pandemic, it has meant all six band members sharing new ideas and revisions of old ideas over the internet.

“Franz is in California and I’m in Memphis,” Selvidge says, “so we’re not all getting together after work and crushing beers. But technology allows us to keep working by putting ideas into a Dropbox folder. For me, that can be anything from a voice recording on the phone to a full fleshed-out demo with guitars and drums. ‘The Prior Procedure’ on the new album was one of my more or less finished demos; it didn’t change that much.”

Do his demos ever include lyrics or a vocal melody? “No, no, no,” Selvidge cries in mock horror. “I would never even try to do lyrics; Craig is perfectly capable of that; I want to hear what he has to say. Sometimes my chord changes suggest the melody, but that’s his world. Craig starts to pull from things to see what gets him going. That leads to some conference calls and to a rehearsal space and finally to a studio where we can start cutting.”

That’s the crucial difference between the Hold Steady records and Finn’s solo efforts. On the former, he’s writing lyrics for the band’s music; on the latter he’s writing both lyrics and music himself. Because his own guitar and piano playing is smaller and more intimate than the larger gestures of Selvidge, Kubler and Nicolay, Finn’s solo songs tend to be quieter, more personal, though just as dark.

You can hear that on All the Perfect Crosses, a collection of 20 unreleased tracks, single-only releases, alternate takes and demos from the sessions for his first four solo albums. The title track is a piano ballad, the regrets of a man who discovers that it’s dangerous “to force yourself to fall in love with friends.” The crucifix around her neck never bothered him before, but now it does.

By contrast, “It’s Never Been a Fair Fight,” describes the Minneapolis punk scene in 1999 with ironic bar-band horns and a narrator unconvinced that everyone was as free and as talented as they claimed. In “Calvary Court,” offered in two different versions, the narrator warns his pal against venturing into a dangerous neighborhood for a drug deal. “Man,” he sings, “we’re still not bulletproof.”

“It’s a great collection of what I’ve been up to over the last few years,” Finn says. “This compiles it nicely all in one place. You always have to make these heartbreaking decisions about what to put on the album and what to leave off. I’m a hard-working guy. Part of my process is I write every day, and things can pile up.”

Except for the first one, all of Finn’s solo albums have been produced by Josh Kaufman—a member of Bonny Light Horseman, producer for Bob Weir and guitarist for the National and Taylor Swift. Kaufman came to a Finn solo show and told him, “If you ever want to work on some songs; I think I could help.” Finn tried it out, and Kaufman helped a lot. So much so that the singer brought the producer in to handle Hold Steady’s 2019 album, Thrashing Thru the Passion and this new one.

“I didn’t want the band to think that he was just my guy,” Finn explains; “he could work with all of us. And it worked out. He knew the Hold Steady but he wasn’t a huge fan, so he came without a lot of baggage. He makes sessions fun and keeps the energy up. Now that we’re a six-piece band, it’s important to find a place for everyone, and he does that.”

Kaufman even helped Finn edit the songs in pre-production. A lot of the time, he recommended deleting the first verse, so the listener is plunged into the action without too much scene-setting. Soon Finn was internalizing these challenges and whittling down his songs. “You ask, ‘What’s the lamest antelope on the side of the herd?’” Finn explains, “and you kill that one.”

It’s a hallmark of Finn’s writing that he describes certain things in great detail and leaves other things mysterious. On “The Feelers,” the opening song of the new Hold Steady album, he describes a British clipper ship inside a bottle on the fireplace mantle below the portrait of a family patriarch. He describes a kitchen where the insects scatter as soon as you hit the switch. What he doesn’t explain is why the narrator is in this dilapidated, ominous mansion, flirting with someone else’s wife and trying to complete an elusive deal.

“When you think about a great short story,” Finn says, “which is the closest literary equivalent to a song, Raymond Carver or someone like that will build tension by what they put in and what we leave out. In my songwriting, that’s what I’m trying to do. I’ll say to myself, ‘Let’s really describe that jacket but not explain why he’s in that room.’ You don’t want to do it like R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet, where he describes every single thing. You want to leave room for the listener to put themselves into it.”

There’s room in all of Finn’s songs—both with the band and on his own—for the listener to find a wall to lean against and eavesdrop. Anyone who’s lived through their mid 30s—or anyone who sees it fast approaching through the windshield—will want to be that fly on the wall, perhaps to understand what happened the first time or what’s about to happen.

These are songs where the way someone pays the bills is as important as who they’re sleeping with, where how they recover from their defeats is as important as their hopes for a better future. These two new albums are so revealing that one looks forward to Finn turning 60 and writing songs about his generation in their mid 40s.

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