The Hold Steady: the ultimate bar band
Talking townie culture and monster riffs with indie rock’s unlikely heroes
In just under five years, Brooklyn’s the Hold Steady has transformed from “just a bar band”—as frontman Craig Finn noted repeatedly in concert and in print—to “just a 3,000-seat-amphitheatre-filling, cult-worshipped band.”
“We play much bigger places now, but the spirit of a bar band remains—having a really good time playing music with each other,” says a yawny Finn at the crack of noon.
At the root of the success is a perfect storm of colorful, often mysterious character sketches—delivered through Finn’s speak-sing lyrics—and monstrous Jimmy-Page-meets-Thin-Lizzy guitar hooks from longtime partner Tad Kubler (both first played together in the Minneapolis band Lifter Puller). On the band’s latest album, “Stay Positive,” Finn brings listeners into the world of fugitives running from the law, college kids drinking with townies and the aging punk rocker reckoning with the end of the party—the latter an anthemic call to arms that shares the album’s cautiously optimistic title.
After perking up, Finn discussed his songwriting method, his fascination with townies, and his favorite rhythm guitarist.
Do you find more people singing along to your songs at concerts?
Yeah, and it’s amazing that people know every single word to some of these songs, sometimes the day after the album comes out. It’s like they worked all day on it.
Do you find yourself memorizing other band’s lyrics soon after hearing a song?
I’m exactly that type of rock fan. For one, I have a pretty good memory, which is why I am able to write so many lyrics. [Laughs] I probably know every word of the new My Morning Jacket album. What they did with their new album was very ambitious and I’m impressed by it. And even though they make more atmospheric records, they are still a rock ‘n’ roll band live. It all takes balls.
Your music is incredibly anecdotal; you tell stories with twisted characters finding themselves is disturbing situations. Do you “rip headlines” from the New York Post for inspiration?
A lot of it is walking around. I’m a huge walker and seem to get inspired when I’m moving. Also, the feeling of being displaced can get my mind working. For example, I was in Belfast this summer and I found some graffiti on this wall. I didn’t really know what it meant, but I could tell it was deeply political. So that is something that really wouldn’t come up in Brooklyn.
Did a new character pop up?
Not necessarily, but it made me stop and think in a new way.
You’ve written about the idea of the townie in many of your songs. What’s with your fascination?
It’s this idea that there can be two cultures living in the same small place. With “townie,” I often think of somebody who lives in a college town and the separation. People walking around who might be the same age, but they don’t deal with each other.
Is there always a clash between the two circles?
In movies and TV there always is a separation. I went to school in Boston and there was this bar that had a sticker with a cartoon Irishman that said “townies” on it. It didn’t necessarily mean you weren’t allowed, but that the people there would prefer you left. Boston is a city that still wears prejudice on its sleeve.
Your music includes both definitive lyrics and definitive shredding. Who is your music idol in each category?
I can comfortably say that Bob Dylan is the utmost lyricist in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.
How about for shredding?
I’m more of a rhythm guitar player, so I have to say Keith Richards. He’s got that groove. It’s unique how the rhythm comes from Richards and not the bass player. That’s why when bands cover the Stones they just can’t get it right.
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