We’re an American Band: The Hold Steady holds steady

Music Features The Hold Steady
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I’m crammed into a dark wooden booth in the front window of Corner Bistro, New York City’s preeminent burger dive, squished into place by guitars, a keyboard, suitcases of gear, cheeseburgers, fries, mugs of beer, Diet Cokes and all five members of Brooklyn’s The Hold Steady. My giant winter parka is wedged tightly under my kneecaps; my feet are resting tentatively on a guitar case. We’re diplomatically assessing Van Halen graffiti—impressed deeply, earnestly into the tabletop—and being loud.

Corner Bistro’s colossal burgers, served with bacon and raw onions on tiny, greasy paper plates, get passed around, and the conversation shifts to road food: things you can buy and eat at gas stations, the relative superiority of certain condiments, backstage deli platters, the British preoccupation with mayonnaise and hard-boiled eggs, sloppy southern barbecue, unappetizing flavors of potato chips (prawn, and lamb and mint, in particular). I ask the band if they’ve ever chomped down a Hot Brown, Louisville, Kentucky’s famed—if unfortunately nicknamed—open-faced turkey-and-cheese-sauce sandwich. The scatological implications of the dish’s moniker hit hard and fast; drummer Bobby Drake, wool hat pulled low over a mop of scraggly blonde hair, starts snickering. His bandmates groan. Guitarist Tad Kubler hollers, “Off the record!”

This is why The Hold Steady are the five dudes you most want to chew burgers with at noon on a Monday, when everyone’s a little bit zonked from the weekend, but still capable of chortling at inadvertent allusions to turds. Despite the band’s ever-swelling reputation as the newest liberators of old-fashioned rock ’n’ roll, The Hold Steady still feel more like the five older brothers you’ve always wanted—scruffy, impossibly affable rock nerds equally adept at quoting John Berryman as Billy Joel, eager to spill tips on all the good records, and ready to clarify precisely how to prevail at KISS pinball.

The Hold Steady’s third LP, 2006’s Boys and Girls in America, topped a mess of year-end roll calls, thus solidifying the band’s status as critic’s pet: While it has corralled a massive amount of positive press, it’s difficult to find one nasty word scrawled about the band (save Matador head honcho Gerard Cosloy’s description of an unnamed band at SXSW—long presumed to be The Hold Steady—as “later-period Soul Asylum fronted by Charles Nelson Reilly,” which may or may not be an insult). It’s not particularly surprising that writers and editors are so eager to anoint The Hold Steady’s rollicking guitar-rock; anchored by Minneapolis-native Craig Finn’s dexterous parking-lot poems, the songs are distinctly literary constructions, populated by addicts and saviors, bar bands and poets, and boys and girls in America (check the overwhelming clarity of a couplet like “She looked just like a baby bird / All new and wet and trying to light a Parliament / He quoted her some poetry / He was Tennyson in denim and sheepskin.”)

The Hold Steady’s debut, Almost Killed Me, popped up on French Kiss Records in 2004, instantly titillating closeted Thin Lizzy fans, serving up unmitigated, exuberant riffs and boozy, half-shouted diatribes. Almost Killed Me was so sincere in its raucousness, so intent on feel-good, leg-kicking rock ’n’ roll gusto, that it was tough to believe The Hold Steady hailed from the same borough as imperturbable dance-punk outfits like Radio 4, !!! and The Rapture, whose throbbing “House of Jealous Lovers” was the de-facto Brooklyn bar anthem that year.

When I ask about the discrepancies between their rowdy debut and Brooklyn’s detached, irony-anointing tendencies circa 2004, Drake starts making sharp dance-punk beats with his mouth. “I think we were somewhat aware that there was a void [in Brooklyn],” Finn laughs. “There’s a theory that if you feel a certain way, there are probably a lot of other people who also feel that way. And if you can communicate [that feeling] clearly, it will attract people. That’s kinda what happened with us. When we started the band, we just wanted to have a smart rock band. It wasn’t all dance-punk [in 2004], there was rock—but it was stoner rock, which celebrates the stupid parts of rock, or garage-rock, where it’s more about the costume and the image than good songs. You know, the lyrics are all ‘Baby, baby, baby. Yeah, yeah, yeah.’ But the bands I really loved were like The Replacements—good bands that were smart but were cool.”

“When I heard the first record, Almost Killed Me, I was like, God, this is awesome, I love this!” Kubler adds. “But I thought, ‘No one’s gonna listen to it.’”

“It was really smart to do [Almost Killed Me and its follow-up, Separation Sunday] on French Kiss, because French Kiss is known for artsy punk,” Finn continues. “And I think people really paid attention because it was so weird that there was a straight rock band coming out on French Kiss. I was surprised that people came to our first show. There was a lot of carryover from [former band] Lifter Puller, and that was a really nice platform to come out on.”

Lifter Puller, which Finn formed in Minneapolis in the mid 1990s (along with guitarist Steve Barone, drummer Dan Monick and, eventually, Kubler on bass), dissolved in 2000, but managed to maintain a sizable swell of appreciation, which carried over to The Hold Steady. Finn and Kubler eventually relocated to New York City, but Minneapolis remains very much at the core of Finn’s narratives; it’s hard to imagine these songs taking place anywhere else.

“Someone could go to Minneapolis after listening to a couple Hold Steady records and be very disappointed,” Finn says. “But if they went with me, I could show them a good time. There are dudes at your show in Minneapolis who would not be at a rock show if they lived in any other city. They go to meet girls. And girls go to meet boys. I think there are two big reasons for [the strength of the scene]: [Local alt-weekly] City Pages, which has put out a lot of rock writers, and [rock club] First Avenue, which has been operating since before I was born. You always know who’s playing First Avenue, and that makes it very easy for people. It’s not like you have to look over 10 different clubs’ schedules, or find out about some weird party that’s happening, or some secret show,” Finn says, nodding.

“I’ve never thought about that before, but that’s the thing about living in New York. It’s like f—, Mastodon played last night?” Kubler sighs. “In Minneapolis, that would never happen. I would have known about it months in advance.”

“And one other thing people cannot seem to comprehend in a place like New York is that in Minneapolis, you end up going to a lot of shows of bands you don’t particularly like,” Finn continues.

“Or you’ve never heard of,” adds Kubler. “The whole cultural side of [Minneapolis] is based on going out to see live music."

It’s awfully easy (and somewhat fun) to get tangled up in The Hold Steady’s Midwestern mythos—the band’s aesthetic is straightforward (brews, devil horns, guitars, good times) but not simplistic (Finn’s lyrics are near-prophetic), and they’ve cultivated, however inadvertently, a certain working-class appeal (see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, The Hold Steady’s most obvious predecessor). They’re the band you go see when you feel like getting drunk on PBR, dancing and then loitering outside the venue, eating crappy pizza on the curb; they embody the half-tragic, half-ecstatic American adolescence every 33-year-old with a desk job wants desperately to re-live.

In some ways, their appeal is as much about escapism—a return to teen-dom, to making out with a friend and hunting down parties in the woods—as anything else. I hold up a stack of press clippings and tell Finn I’m tempted to highlight every instance of the word “beer.” Finn grins, surveys the drained mugs littering our table, and raises his eyebrows. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he deadpans. The members of The Hold Steady are clearly comfortable with their easygoing, pints-and-riffs rep, but still: Does “bar band” (and all its attendant connotations) ever start to feel like a pejorative or, worse, a burden?

“Yeah,” Kubler laughs, “at 9 a.m.”

“If you don’t like our band, you can use ‘bar band’ as a pejorative. If you do, it’s a compliment,” keyboardist Franz Nicolay says with a shrug.

“I just always go back to The Replacements,” Finn says. “They were obviously drunk. But when you listen to their records, it’s not what you’re thinking about. You’re thinking about the songs. Now when [you’d] go see them play, [it’d be] hard to miss that they were drunk. The one thing I will say is that over the last two years, I’ve had so many people say ‘Oh, so-and-so saw you, and you were really drunk,’ and more often than not, I wasn’t drunk. So that’s the bad thing about having that reputation. Just because I’m there, doesn’t mean I’m drunk.”

Unsurprisingly, Finn is equally accustomed to listeners conflating the pill-addled anti-heroes of his songs with his own, tamer lifestyle. “People make assumptions about me, but I’m not surprised that it happens. Someone will be like, ‘Dude, you wanna go smoke some crack?’ and I’ll be like ‘No, no, that sounds completely unappealing. Why would you think I would want to smoke crack?’”

Regardless, The Hold Steady still boasts a glorious history of booze-addled onstage antics, most of which involve some kind of inadvertent physical comedy—at a recent show in Sheffield, England, a gently inebriated Finn plunged through a hole onstage, despite his bandmates’ best efforts at prevention. “I very much pay attention to him when he’s onstage,” Kubler explains. “Because once he’s feeling it, he’ll go anywhere, so I try to keep crap out of his way. And when we were loading-in in Sheffield, I almost said, ‘Dude, watch that hole.’” Kubler shakes his head.

“I saw it. I should have known,” Finn moans.

“He cruised past me, and I almost reached out and grabbed him,” Kubler continues. “And then I was like, ‘He’s hurt.’ He wasn’t, but he went f---ing down!”

The Hold Steady, like all good rock bands, are teeming with these sorts of road stories: rich, giggly anecdotes about having drinks chucked in their faces in Seattle; taking accidental drum-dives in Orlando; and attempting to hurdle a railing in Bowling Green, only to sprawl ass-over-teakettle backward, finishing the now-out-of-tune guitar solo with legs draped over the other side. If they’re selling their fans a second adolescence, they’re also living one, in every major American city. Finn admits that the trappings and iconography and exhaustion of near-constant touring—highways and rest stops, strip malls and gas stations—occasionally seep into his songs.

“There’s a little bit of a feedback loop. You see things, a sign or something—I get a lot of inspiration, lyrically, from driving down the road, watching everything fly past,” Finn explains. “There are places you wouldn’t go at home, but you’re suddenly there because that’s where the rock club is.”

The Hold Steady has managed to release three full-length records in three consecutive years, although the success of Boys and Girls in America—along with its subsequent tour and new promotional schedule—has dealt a temporary blow to the band’s prolificacy. “That was the pace we were on, but that’s not going to work this year,” Finn shrugs. “Three in three was pretty good. But the success of this one, in particular, makes it almost impossible to keep going.”

But Kubler says that, even though it’s become more difficult, the band is still committed to writing: “The first thing I do after we load in and wait around for mics to get set up and cables to get run is grab my acoustic guitar and start playing. I’ve been trying to come up with more ideas on the road because, as a band, we like to keep a quick work pace. I want to make sure that I maintain some sort of creative focus. We’re on the road so much now that if we weren’t writing on the road, we wouldn’t be writing at all.”

Considering their recent success, it’s inevitable that the band has witnessed some key changes in demographics. “A lot of the people who listen to our music see themselves in us. So when we first started playing small clubs, it skewed older, and male. But as we expanded, we started having younger fans and more female fans. It was all pissed-off girlfriends at first. I would see them from the stage, and they were mad at me and their boyfriends,” Finn says.

“One time we were in L.A., and we were setting up our stuff,” bassist Galen Polivka says, grinning. “And we hear this guy and his girlfriend or his date or whatever, and he’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m so glad we’re at this show, it’s gonna be so kick-ass!’ So we’re three songs into the set, and they’re front and center, and the guy gestures to his girlfriend, like ‘What do you think?’ and she’s like ‘Eh,’” Polivka laughs, tipping his palm back and forth to illustrate apathy. The band guffaws.

“In England, where the set times are earlier, we see a lot more older fans, groups of guys who are 55 years old,” Finn says.

“It’s like A Hard Day’s Night,” concludes Polivka. “Only instead of teenaged girls chasing us, it’s 50-year-old, mustachioed men.”

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