DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – To hear Hold Steady songwriter and lead singer Craig Finn tell it, the band’s path to success was a surprised stumble rather than a focused sprint.
In 2004, when the group debuted with Almost Killed Me, the now 40-year-old bespectacled songsmith still remembers internal debates about whether they should even play live.
Finn and guitarist Tad Kubler were fresh out of Minneapolis’s Lifter Puller, a band that struggled to find an audience outside of the Twin Cities until after the Hold Steady’s classic-rock revivalism found its place in the conversation.
From 2003 to 2010, the band released six full-length albums. Their music carries the punch of stadium-ready rock riffs often matched with narrative-minded lyricism and literacy, which tells stories of soaring highs and life-shattering lows.
Indeed, there’ve been plenty of keystrokes spent on analogies of the Hold Steady’s music that note the enjoyment of the party along with the somber resonance of a looming hangover.
But beyond the pages of music magazines and the pixels of fledgling mid-2000s media websites, the Hold Steady have carved out a very distinct and direct connection with its audience –– when Finn speaks of this, his voice rises with gratitude, excitement and maybe a little shock.
You get the impression Finn and the boys are still trying to give back.
Finn, fresh off releasing and touring behind his first –– and much quieter –– solo release, which was recorded in Austin, spoke to CBSDFW.com ahead of a small Texas tour. It’ll be their first jaunt since taking a brief hiatus in December of last year.
It starts Tuesday in Austin, stops in Dallas at the Loft on Wednesday and then San Antonio Spur Matt Bonner helped bring them to play an after-game show at the AT&T Center on Thursday.
CBSDFW: So, The Hold Steady hasn’t played live since December of last year. And now you guys emerge with a mini-tour in Texas. Is the decision to play a handful of small Texas venues reflective of your experience recording solo in Austin or did it sort of just work out this way?
Craig Finn: Well, it just sort of happened. What it was, the first thing that came up was we’re playing Thursday at the Spurs game and Matt Bonner and their people reached out to do that show.
And once that was suggested, I thought it was a shame to go all the way there and only play that show. So we added Austin and Dallas. But I’ve spent a lot of time in Austin in the past year and grew to love it so I really pushed for it.
CBSDFW: You’re pretty fresh off a tour playing your own material –– how’d that experience differ from touring with the Hold Steady?
Finn: It was a lot different. The material, kind of, has a different energy to it so the performances were so much different. People weren’t jumping on top of each other throwing beer around.
It first took me a while to get used to it –– like, are people enjoying themselves? They’re just standing there listening.
But it’s just nice to have some perspective and do different things. It was like flexing a different muscle. It kind of makes me realize what’s so unique about what we do with the Hold Steady. And also taking a break from doing something so loud was something I really appreciated while doing the solo stuff.
CBSDFW: Back in January, you told the Onion’s A/V Club “the way we consume music now is based on the new” –– for a band that’s been as prolific and as well-received as you guys have been, that statement seems like it would put a ton of pressure on the music you’re working on. Is that something everyone’s conscious of or worried about accomplishing while you’re writing and recording new content?
I don’t know if it’d be worry, but we’re conscious of it. Like, look, if you give me an assignment to write about a band on their first record or a band on their sixth, I’d pick the first because it’s easier. You get the chance to tell the whole story for the first time. The sixth, it’s been told already. What are you going to say this time, short of a different musical direction? It’s different.
But I think it’s a real cool thing to make a sixth record; some of my favorite bands never did. And just, that perspective and that experience makes it a really cool and unique thing that a lot of rock ‘n roll bands never get to.
CBSDFW: Has that ever been something you guys have considered while working, or do you feel it’s more important to make the record you want to make without paying attention to the outside?
Finn: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s just something we’re aware of, like just reading magazines and listening to the radio and whatever. The difference is to have a career is really an accomplishment. To get a bunch of notice on a record is something, but it’s different than having a career.
I think where we are right now … we’ve had to keep going and keep playing for a long time, and I think you start to see bands who have done that, you gain a lot of respect for.
CBSDFW: When you were making your solo album Clear Heart, Full Eyes, you kept folks updated by posting on your Tumblr. You’re fairly active on Twitter – you’ve been a musician, and a fan for that matter, long enough to remember when the conversation between artist and listener was a lot more difficult to achieve. Did you enjoy doing that this time around, and would that be something you’re interested in continuing with the Hold Steady?
Finn: I did, but the thing I refuse to do with Twitter is answer questions [Laughs].
When I got on Twitter, I wasn’t consenting to making my whole life an interview –– I reserve the right to not answer questions [Laughs]. But it’s cool, once you get the mindset of, ‘Oh that’s something they’d like to see; that’s what people are interested in, but they’re not interested in this.”
It’s a way with how the machinery works. I don’t want publishers tweeting for me. I want to do it myself. And better than sending out a press release, I might as well start a Tumblr. It was a more organic thing and I let it develop organically into something I felt good about.
CBSDFW: When you guys started the Hold Steady, did you expect to forge the connection you have with people?
No, absolutely not. We started with some limited expectations that we were literally having conversations about whether we were going to play shows or not. Which seems ridiculous, because we’ve played more shows than anyone. [Laughs].
It’s been overwhelming and surprising and really flattering to see the connection we’ve been able to make. When you get out on tour and see people traveling three to five shows in a row, you realize, ‘God, they’ve taken time off work. They’ve got babysitters.’’ It’s just really psyched to be a part of this and a part of the community, and it’s something we get really emotional about.
CBSDFW: Is that also something you’re consciously trying to live up to with new material?
Both the new material, but even more so with the set list, you know? If you come out and play a set and that same person is in the front row three hours away, and you play the same set it seems kind of foolish. We make an effort to vary our sets and make it a new thing every night.
CBSDFW: And that’s not always the case with a lot of bands.
Yeah, I mean it’s just lazy. You do 14 dates with someone, it’s like, ‘Dude, you’re playing that set again?’”
CBSDFW: It also kind of saps the spontaneity, it would seem.
Finn: Yeah, and for me, at 40 years old, that’s what keeps me interested. I want each show to be a little different and I think that’s what music fans want too.
CBSDFW: It seems with the last two albums in particular, they’re starting to veer away from the characters that populated the first three. Thematically they’re similar, but the specifics have changed. Are you wanting to continue down that road?
Finn: I don’t know what I’m gonna do yet; some of the newer stuff we’ve been working on has more of a narrative thing, but the thing that got me away from the narrative stuff is the inability for the listener to put their own life in it. Y’know, Jane got up, Jane walked her dog, Jane went to the store; there’s not much room for someone to insert their own hopes and dreams in there.
I wanted this deliberate thing of leaving those specific details out, you know, to put their own details in. I go back and forth, though, I don’t know what it’s going to be yet.
CBSDFW: Have you started writing and recording with the band yet? How’s that coming along?
Finn: We’ve been writing since the New Year, since November, I should say.
Steve [Selvidge, former Lucero guitarist who was added to the lineup following the release of Heaven is Whenever in 2010], our guitar player, lives in Memphis, so it’s been a little more of a planned-out thing … we really wanted to write with him this time, and so it’s been us getting him up to New York and spending time writing, or us going down to Memphis.
It’s been a little more arranged, so it’s happened over a number of sessions. We’re actually staying in Texas for a little while after this tour to write some more.
CBSDFW: Is there a timeline for when the new material will be finished?
Finn: I’d love to make a record this summer. I think that’s probably what’s going to happen. It may come out in the fall, but that’s not exactly up to us. I’d love to say we’ll be in the studio in the early part of the summer; I think we’re getting close.
CBSDFW: Will you be working with John Agnello, [producer of 2006's Boys and Girls in America, 2008's Stay Positive and 2010's Heaven is Whenever] again?
Finn: We haven’t made any decisions with what we’re going to do. It could happen, but I have no idea right now.
CBSDFW: Any of the new songs going to make their way on set lists this week?
Finn: I think we’re going to start playing some new songs, yeah. Probably slowly; one a night or something like that.
The Hold Steady plays the Loft at the Palladium on Wednesday, April 11. Austin’s the Happenin-Ins open. Doors at 7 p.m., show at 8 p.m. Buy tickets here.