"We always like to joke that Craig likes to be concise and Tad likes to be truthful," the Hold Steady's press guy tells me on the phone as he's transferring me from a line with the singer to a line with the guitarist.
Ironic, because Craig's the word man – well, in the songs anyways. The lyricist and bandleader who's marked a decade in tightly crafted lines and elaborate, multi-album character arcs is indeed more reticent on the phone than on stage. His musical counterpart Kubler, Hold Steady songwriter and his loyal axe man since their days ripping up the Twin Cities in Lifter Puller, the rowdier, more debauched punk predecessor to their current gig, is far more verbose.
Hell, I'm just happy to hear from the Hold Steady at all.
Finn and Kubler went their separate ways for a while in the four-ish years between 2010's Heaven is Whenever and new release Teeth Dreams. Finn took off to Austin to record a solo album (the Friday Night Lights name-checking Clear Heart Full Eyes, released in 2012); Kubler worked on tracks and getting healthy.
"We had a lot of false starts [working on Teeth Dreams]," Kubler says. "We'd get together and work on some stuff, and then months would go by."
With plenty of material to revisit in the meantime, devoted listeners — among which I emphatically count myself — waited patiently.
Finally, March brought Teeth Dreams. The new release continues the last few albums' break from the character-driven specificity of albums past – most realized on Separation Sunday where Finn's spit-sung tales of kids in trouble Holly, Charlemagne and Gideon, and surrounding drug dealers, church goers and scenesters are legendary in their scope – to songs whose central players are a bit more ambiguous by design.
"It just felt like telling a big, long rambling story that maybe people were going to stop listening to," Finn says when I ask him where Holly and the gang have gone. "If you have a song that says, 'Charlemagne went to the store / Charlemagne bought a can of soup / Charlemagne made the soup,' there isn't much room for people to put their own hopes and dreams in there. Keeping it a little more elliptical, I think and hope, allows people to fit their own lives in there more."
Finn might not be talking about Holly and Charlemagne explicitly anymore, but the ramifications of their years of antics lies heavy in the tracks on Teeth Dreams. It's a record about the morning after – the headache pang, the divorces, the overdoses. It's not pretty, but it's fully Hold Steady, right down to the nine-minute closer, "Oaks."
On that one, Kubler (who says he goes into each record knowing what he wants to close out the album with) tears through three separate guitar solos.
"The whole thing came about from my total obsession with that Radiohead song 'Exit Music (For a Film),' " he says. "Those guys, Radiohead, are able to capture or emulate or articulate an emotional state with their music. I wanted to try and get close to something like that, or just to see if some way I was able to create an emotional response with a song, especially one that, like that Radiohead song, was kind of hopeless."
Their studio time was spent with Nick Raskulinecz (Foo Fighters, Rush), who, Kubler says, helped them realize their new album in a way no producer before him had managed.
"It was one of the first times that I was sitting in the studio and whoever was engineering and producing and mixing was able to make it sound like it sounded in my head," he says.
"Oaks" is a perfect example of that heaviness that pervades Teeth Dreams, which Kubler describes as "a good representation [that] illustrates really well what the last particularly four years have been like."
"There is this event that takes place," Kubler says, "when you're kind of saying what should be a very benign, non-eventful goodbye to somebody. And as soon as you turn around and walk away, you realize that's the last time you're ever going to see them. Because you just kind of know that they're not going to make it."
For all the drugs and trouble that invade Hold Steady songs, Finn wants to make sure listeners know there isn't a 1:1 ratio between songwriter and song material.
"I've met people who think that I'm kind of in that world [of crazy partying and drug use.] They're like, 'You guys want to go smoke crack after the show?' And I'm like, 'No, I definitely don't,' Finn says, laughing. "I always think of [us] like the world's most complex straight edge band. It's not just drugs are bad; it's, like, drugs are bad and I'll explain in detail and very complexly why."
Kubler may agree (he even brings up that 1:1 reference during our conversation), but he still emphasizes how personal Teeth Dreams is, both in music and lyrics.
"The one thing that I can hear differently in this album than in any previous records is that you can hear some passion and empathy in Craig's voice. He's not just a narrator anymore," Kubler says. "He's more connected to what's going on in the stories, somehow or another. ... There are a lot of moments in the songs where I'm like, 'Oh, I remember that.' "Even the most devoted of listeners can't know the exact scenarios the Brothers Steady have lived through in the past decade or so, but they will remember some lines and reference from Hold Steady albums of yore. Finn, whose songs are threaded with callbacks, prioritizes these little lyrical Easter eggs.
"One of the reasons I wanted to start the new album with the song we did ['I Hope This Whole Thing Didn't Frighten You'] was because the first line was, 'I heard the Cityscape Skins are kind of kicking it again,' which was a line off the first record [on 'Sweet Payne']," Finn says. "I was kind of like, "Oh, people who have been paying a lot of attention are going to really love that. Those are the kind of things I really love doing and that I spend a lot of time thinking about."
Hold Steady lyrics are uniquely hyper-intertextual. Briefly: Sometimes characters are "shaky and sweaty," ("Runner's High") "shaking hard and searching" ("Your Little Hoodrat Friend"), "shaky but still trying to shake it"("Banging Camp"), or just shaking it up in Shaker Heights ("The Swish") They party all the time in Ybor City, a spot referenced surprisingly often for being just a tiny district of Tampa (it's namechecked in "Killer Parties," "Slapped Actress," "Cattle and The Creeping Things"* "Most People Are DJs" and "Almost Killed Me"). The lyrical geography of the Hold Steady, mostly grounded in Finn's native Minneapolis-St. Paul but peppered with all sorts of places, is important to Finn.
"When I started Lifter Puller back in the '90s, my friends had this joke that it was map rock, because it named so many places," he says. "I always was, as a kid, obsessed with maps. Even when I was in high school and I loved rock and roll, I'd plot my own tours, going, 'Well, can you get from here to here in six hours and still get there in time for soundcheck?' Then, when I actually started touring, it started to inform the songs themselves."
When I bring up scene-setting, I'm asking Finn about about Stay Positive's harpsichord jam "One for the Cutters," the tale of a young IU coed who gets embroiled in – you guessed it – drugs, booze and, eventually, a grisly murder cover up after falling in with Bloomington townies. Stay Positive came after the Boys and Girls in America, somewhat of a breakout album for the group; Stay Positive experimented with a few new sounds (that harpsichord I mentioned, along with a talk box solo or two; the gruff-voiced Finn even took voice lessons). Their fifth release, Heaven is Whenever, brought with it a rough patch for the group: longtime keyboardist Franz Nicolay departed just before the album's announcement; the lineup was juggled as two new touring members were added to the ensemble (one, guitarist Steve Selvidge, stuck around and is now a full member). Kubler calls it an imperfect record in an imperfect world,
"I think that record gets a lot of attention for being maybe kind of a mess? But I think that that needed to be the record that it was," he says. "I don't think Craig and I in that block of time were really inspired at the same time or in the same way. I think we thought that we could go in and start working on the record and it would start to click and present itself, in a way. And I don't think it ever did."
That click is back on Teeth Dreams, albeit in a different sort of way. That inspired shit-talking about religion that nailed down Separation Sunday (at its best: " I guess I heard about original sin / I heard the dude blamed the chick / I heard the chick blamed the snake") is mostly traded for some wit and wisdom about the death of the American dream in "On With The Business." His songs' subjects are just as sick and shaky as ever ("The pills they prescribed they made me fragile and fried / I felt full body fuzzy then touchy," Finn belts in "Runner's High"), but they're older, divorcees instead of scene kids. Gideon's back with his old gang, the Cityscape Skins in "The Ambassador" and "I Hope This Whole Thing Didn't Frighten You," but not by name. Kubler's massive, sky-scraping solos are matched by Selvidge's relentless shredding.
And shows are still selling out, massive crews of sweaty dudes are still screaming the choruses and hoisting their beer bottles high. For all the Hold Steady's lyrical melancholy, Finn always has seen the shows as a place of communion and joy — a unified scene, he (and now we) call it.
"There's something that Patrick Stickles [Titus Andronicus] said that was really great," Finn says. "He said sometimes just yelling out the chorus, even if it's meant to be a sad song, sometimes it's just an acknowledgment. Like, we're all here. We're all here together tonight. And that's something worth celebrating."
(Editor's note: A previous version of this piece incorrectly stated that Finn namechecks Ybor City in "Chips Ahoy." That is incorrect. Thanks to the excellent Unified Scene forums for keeping us on point.)