Craig Finn, with the Village Voice box that delighted me so
Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn shed the epic bar band riffs and jams of his Twin Cities-to-Brooklyn based band in favor of a quieter solo outing in 2011 with Clear Heart Full Eyes. Then he cranked it up and made another Hold Steady record. Then he came back with another, quieter solo record out on September 11 called Faith in the Future. Quiet-ER we said – Faith in the Future isn't quiet by any means, but it exchanges Hold Steady guitarist Tad Kubler's epic guitar jams in favor of lower-key movements. That's by design. Read on for what differences Finn sees in his solo work and with his band.
NUVO: I was so stoked when I saw your new promo photos next to a Village Voice box. As an alt-weekly editor, it just warmed my little heart. What role have alt-weeklies played in your life – good or bad – through the years?
Craig Finn: The City Pages growing up and the Twin Cities Reader in Minneapolis were competing ones, or at least both came out, so you had two different music coverages. I think for me, as a kid reading those, whatever criticisms or reviews they had in there, just seeing the listings for shows was something that was really cool. I would always get City Pages on the day it came out, and Twin Cities Reader. Occasionally they'd have longer articles on local bands like The Replacements or The Jayhawks or something, but David Carr, New York Times columnist, now-deceased, was a writer at the Twin Cities Reader.
When the Hold Steady started, the Village Voice put us on the cover at a very big moment, right before Separation Sunday came out. I remember they didn't have a photographer and we shot the photos, and they were kind of weird. I remember the woman who was shooting it didn't seem like she quite had tons of experience or something. She was like shooting us in an apartment, and was like, "Hold this aloe plant." And we were like, "Do we really want to be on the cover holding plants?" So they called back and said, "These aren't going to work." So we were in Los Angeles and shot it at like 5:30 in the morning, that was the only time we had. But being on the cover was a big deal.
[We devolve into a discussion of optimal photo locales for band shoots and eventually emerge on the other side.]
Craig Finn: I think with the Hold Steady – and I really just write the lyrics for the Hold Steady – the music tends to be so grand that I think that something big has to happen. Truth be told, at 44 years old, big things don't always happen in my life. Go to the grocery store, go to the post office, make lunch, do some interviews. I feel like some of the quieter music of the solo stuff kind of allows me to put more of myself in there. I feel less pressure to make something cinematic in some way, and maybe a little bit more vulnerable, a little more personal can creep in. Even when I'm writing in characters, I think they're making smaller movements. Someone like Christine or Sarah [characters from the solo record] are making smaller movements than someone like Holly [a character in the Hold Steady albums.]
NUVO: When I was thinking about Hold Steady songs that I could see on a Craig Finn solo record, I was thinking of "Citrus," "First Night," these quieter songs, quieter moments. I wondered if you foresee a more bombastic future solo record, or a quieter Hold Steady. How will your songwriting cross-pollinate?
Finn: Either could happen. It would just be the headspace of where we're at. The Hold Steady has some quieter songs that really work. Like "Oaks" on our last album is one of my favorite Hold Steady songs. That's slow and dark and gets kind of huge at the end. It's not exactly similar to the solo thing. I could see doing both. A lot of it is sort of where my head's at. A lot of this stuff sort of reveals itself to you. You find out what you're thinking by going through the process of writing songs.
NUVO: Since you bring up "Oaks," in a piece I read a while ago for New York Magazine, you talk about "Oaks" as one of your favorite Hold Steady songs, and you mention that since you grew up in the age of albums, you pay a lot of attention to the last song on records. So I went back to Faith in the Future and listened to "I Was Doing Fine [Then A Few People Died)," the last song on this record. I guess I was surprised by the way that it faded out. It just ... is done. Because you do pay attention to the last song on records so much, what were you thinking on that one?
Finn: Well, for one, I was thinking that the Hold Steady and Lifter Puller always ended on this epic, big songs – "Southtown Girls," "How A Resurrection Really Feels," "Slapped Actress." I kind of was like, what if we did something light and breezy at the end, and kind of sad, it's going to be okay, rather than it's all a huge epic movie? I think there was like something nice there going out. It's a little light. Of course the lyrics are also kind of heavy, so it juxtaposes both of those things, which I'm fond of doing. It is this sort of fade-out, and it also felt sort of like an old record. I feel like in the '70s a lot more record faded out.
NUVO: I've read in several interviews you talking about your mom passing away. I know that a lot of this album comes from examining loss. I wonder since you've put this out into the world and people have had a chance to respond – you've done several interviews and talked about it a lot – what have you learned about how people process loss?
Finn: Something came up before I put the record out, but was kind of influential and I think applies – a friend of mine said that when his mom died – also of cancer – he would be on like a really annoying thing, like crowded subway, and think, I actually feel empathy and love for all of these people, because they're all going to lose someone, they all have their struggles they're going through. He found in times that he previously was annoyed or sort of hated all these strangers, that he was able to feel real love. I immediately, when he told me that sentiment, was able to understand. I think that's what I was trying to put into this record. A lot of people have come up to me and explained that same sensation. I was there, I went back [to be with her]. A lot of these songs came out after I was in Minneapolis and my mom passed away. Luckily my schedule permitted me to be with her. It's very sad, of course, but it's not without its moments of beauty. So a lot of this record was written as a way to push through after that and the months following. Not all of it, but a number of the songs. ... It's kind of like a lot of these things. It doesn't exactly feel like it's supposed to feel to you, either. There's grief, and there's moments where you're not consumed by it. And you're like, "Oh, shouldn't I be feeling really sad right now?"
NUVO: That's similar to some sentiments you've expressed about September 11 and the song "Newmyer's Roof." You released this record on September 11.
Finn: [laughs] Yeah, and that's funny. You know, we mixed the record in like February, and with vinyl pressing takes so long now, I'm like, "All right, can I put out the record on August 28?" And they're like , "We won't make it, it'll be 9/11." And I'm like, "Argh, well, better 9/11 than 9/25, or whatever the next day was."
NUVO: I was wondering about that! You obviously have the [9/11-referencing] "Newmyer's Roof, and you've talked about September 11. But September 11 – it's a thing!
Finn: I started trying to justify it, like, well, we have a narrative because we have a song about it. But mostly it was just better than two weeks later. But "Newmyer's Roof'' is like that song that deals with not really knowing how to feel, and drinking beer on the roof and watching the towers go down seems ridiculous and very inappropriate to me now. But at the time we had no emotion to access. That's what we did... Sometimes the event frames whatever else is happening. I had moved to New York just about the year before and turned 30 like two weeks before that. So there's all this stuff happening. Cut to 15 years later, I'm divorced, I'm with someone new, I started this band since then and been around the world a few times with that. There's this feeling of being spit out on the other side and saying, "Hey, what was that all about, anyways?"
NUVO: I love how much you write about the experience of being at a show, consuming music, listening to music. I wondered if you had a singer in mind in Faith in the Future track “Roman Guitars.”
Finn: I sort of just kind of pictured sort of a lounge singer. I'm thinking Bill Murray in the early Saturday Night Live kind of thing. Sort of an unnamed [guy]. I sort of love the idea of a scene where there's a band but it's an unknown band, the band is kind of going through covers, and in that case they're playing a Lifter Puller song, which I thought was funny. … The bar band almost harkens back to what I was thinking when we started the Hold Steady. People always ask, do you mind being in bar band, or being called a bar band? And I'm like, “Well, I was the first one who said it, so, no.”
NUVO: I don't understand where the negativity comes from – bar bands are great!
Finn: No, I don't either. I think it's great. And, you know, when we were coming out that was sort of not [cool]. We were coming out in the era of The Strokes, all the dance punk stuff, [so] that probably wasn't that cool. But sometimes it's like an investor taking a contrarian position, like, “This is cool and no one is really doing this, just as straight bar band rock right now.”
NUVO: I read a line right before I called you that really surprised me. You were talking to Noisey about the "druggie kids who were into jam, and now they're into EDM," and about the evolution of rock. And you say that it's funny that you still meet kids all the time who are 20 and really into rock and roll. Maybe because I was 20 and really into rock and roll that it surprised me that you were surprised – but I guess I don't know what 20-year-olds are doing now!
Finn: I don't know! They're certainly not in rock en masse. But the ones that are into stuff, when you meet them you're like, “Holy shit, how can you be this informed?” Because they have the Internet, and they've had it their whole lives. They know about weird Neil Young bootlegs that I've never heard. I'm like, “Where are you getting this? Is your dad into this?” In some cases, their dad is into it, and they're grown up with these crazy collections around their houses, too. We have a fair amount of fathers and sons at Hold Steady shows.
NUVO: Speaking of shows, as a music reviewer I see a lot of shows, so “Going To A Show” really spoke to me – like too much, maybe.
Finn: I like going to shows alone!
NUVO: I do too; it's a totally different experience. Mostly because I think when you drag people along with you, you're always checking on them like, “Are you enjoying this?”
Finn: That's precisely the problem with going to shows with other people.
NUVO: What do you think of when you think of life-altering shows that you attended alone?
Finn: That's funny. I was trying to think alone what I've seen that's just blown my mind. Of course it's a little weird for me now because I go alone but I tend to know five or six people there. I went to a Black Lips show alone a few years back and as far as just being alone – I was just standing in the back of the room – and the place just went absolutely crazy. There was someone onstage at all points of the show. People were jumping everywhere. I remember being like, “Wow, the energy is just so alone, but I have no one to share this with,” I'm just kind of tucked into a corner drinking my beer wide-eyed.
There's another band called The Donkeys that's like one of my favorite bands. I love The Donkeys. I went to see them at Union Pool in Brooklyn. It was like I didn't have anything to do, my girlfriend was working, my friend had told me they were cool, and I walked in and just went and sat there. By the middle of the first song, I was like, “I love this. This is like my favorite thing ever.” I did the weird went-backstage-and-introduced-myself thing, like, “I need to take you on tour with my band.” And now we've taken them on tour a bunch of times. It was just like, “Wow, this is really just right up my alley.”
NUVO: I was thinking while I was digging through your records – and I know “One for the Cutters” is about Bloomington” – has Indianapolis ever snuck its way into one of your songs?
Finn: It hasn't! It's got the unfortunate thing of rhyming with Minneapolis, which means it's hard for me to go there. It's easier for me to go somewhere else.
NUVO: Totally. So many times on the phone I say, “Hi, I'm Kat and I'm calling from Indianapolis.” And they're like, “Minneapolis, I love it there!” And I'm like, “No!”
Finn: It works both ways. It works both ways. I remember when I went to school in Boston, and people were like Indianapolis, Milwaukee and Minneapolis were just three of the same. People were like, “Which one is Happy Days in?' And I'm like, “Neither!”
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NUVO: When I spoke to you a couple of years ago on the Teeth Dreams tour, we talked a little bit about female characters and the care and attention you pay to writing them – basically avoiding white heterosexual dude pitfalls, which I very much appreciate. You've had a return on this record to female specificity. I wonder what you can tell me about Christine, Sarah and Sandra and Maggie that don't make it onto the record. What appeals to you about those specific names lyrically?
Finn: To avoid the white heterosexual male pitfalls, what I think you're trying to say what I need to do is make anybody I write about as human as possible. By naming people off the top, it helps me to see them a little bit. In all of these cases, and I think it's similar in the Hold Steady songs, there's a woman there, and they're making choices for themselves. And the dude is making choices based on them. They're in the orbit. Maggie, for instance, we don't know much about her except that this guy finds her important enough to try and reach her at the end of his life as things are kind of fading out. He feels like she's the one he needs to reach and explain things to. In Sarah and Christine, the narrator is hoping to connect with the character in a way that they don't seem to be able to. And Sandra, I think that's almost like a mirror. The narrator is finding someone from his same age, things that might be with a lot of stuff in the past. I think that because love is such a big thing in our lives, the pursuit of love, the pursuit of romantic relationships, I think that with starting with two people, it's the best way to tell a story. Even if the story is about something else.
NUVO: I was in DC last week, with the Pope. It got me thinking – as a non-Catholic – about the structure and background and inextricable stuff that Catholicism gives you. I know it's informed your writing for years, and obviously “St. Peter Upside Down” is an explicit reference to matters of faith. I wonder if there's been any change on this record, specifically about how Catholicism and faith has played into this writing?
Finn: I mean, it's right there in the title with the Faith in the Future. Whatever it is, it's sort of the belief that things are going to be better. I think that non-religious people find that just as awesome. It's sort of like getting up and going to work. Very few people give up. Very few people just say, “Fuck it. I'm done.” Most people just do what they do with the hope that it's going to get better. Whether that be going out on a Friday night in hopes of meeting someone, or going to work and working so you can pay your bills and hopefully do better however it is you want to spiritually or financially down the line, I think that part of it is most important to me. The Catholic imagery comes to me from when I think of bigger morality things, I tend to go there, because those are things you learn from Sunday School, at least in my family. We're more likely to talk about Thou Shalt Not Kill. When you think about some of these big things, big picture things, my mind tends to go there.
NUVO: What has writing solo made you admire about Tad's songwriting, now that you've had chances to write with him and without him?
Finn: Just sort of being kind of rock and roll and kick ass. Like it's like, that shit, did you just think of that? That's a riff, a big, huge riff. No matter how much volume you have, or how much you turn your amp on, or you get a Les Paul, it's in the fingers. No matter how loud I got, I could never come up with something that kick ass.