Interview: Craig Finn, The Hold Steady
I’ve been listening to your last couple of albums this week, particularly the most recent release Stay Positive, and even three or four listens in, I feel I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the songs. There’s a lot for listeners to get their teeth into, isn’t there?
Yeah, the idea is that hopefully on someone’s 75th listen, they get something that they didn’t get out of the 74th. It’s pretty dense, and a lot of it relates to songs on other records. But you end up writing music that you yourself would want to hear, and I think my favourite records are like that.
Taken as a whole, your four albums form an ongoing narrative, which is almost like a novel. I’ve also heard it compared to episodes of The Wire.
It’s funny, because I’m a huge Wire fan. It does have a serial quality, in that people who are paying attention from the beginning get these updated chapters. Maybe it’s because of our age. We’re a little older, and we certainly are from the classic era of the album, rather than downloading one track at a time. So we tend to look at an album as one big thing that we’re trying to accomplish. I write songs in regard to the other songs on the album, each time we do one.
The comparison with The Wire scared me, as I’ve only ever tried to watch the series once. It was the first episode of the fourth season, and I couldn’t work out what was going on. A friend who’s a Wire evangelist said: well, come on, you wouldn’t start reading a novel at Chapter Four, would you? So, comparing it with your work: is it OK for listeners to start listening with Album Four, or do we all need to start from the beginning and work forwards?
You can absolutely start wherever you want, and hopefully if you enjoy it enough you’ll work your way backwards. But especially with the first record, it maybe only hinted at the stories that were to come. So I think the new one is as good a place to start as any.
What story is Stay Positive telling?
Stay Positive is a record about holding onto useful ideals as you grow older, get more responsibility, and become an adult. I’m 37 years old, and the idea of aging gracefully is a tough thing, especially in rock and roll. The theme of the record is that idea of staying true to yourself, while taking on more responsibilities. Not avoiding being an adult, but embracing it – but at the same time not giving up some of the things that you hold important.
This sounds like the stuff of which mid-life crises are made. As to whether you can lead a rock and roll lifestyle in your thirties, is that a dilemma which the band is actively wrestling with?
When we’re on the road, I spend almost all my time trying to stay healthy: drinking a lot of water and exercising. Being in a rock band at my age is none of the things that you might have thought it was when you were 15 or 16 years old.
Do you have any role models for ageing with dignity as a rock performer?
Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young are two people that have aged well. They aren’t really tied to one particular era or moment, so the music they make is timeless. It crosses decades better than things that are caught up in the trend of the moment.
Neil Young and Lou Reed strike me as people who lost their creative mojo for a while, and then returned to form in their forties. Do you think it’s OK to go away and regroup for a few years?
Yeah. I’ve just read Neil Young’s biography, and he was off the mark for a while. He was doing stuff that was weird, and not super-interesting. But it’s about keeping at it, and being an intelligent person. Just keeping being creative.
There are a set of characters – Holly, Charlemagne and Gideon – who were referenced on your first three albums. They’re not mentioned on the new album. Why did you move away from them, and are they in any sense still present?
I think they are still present. I left it open as to whether they are or aren’t, by not using their names – but I think that they still inform the record. I wanted to increase the mystery on this one. Separation Sunday, our second of four albums, was really a linear story – it told the story from front to back – and I wanted to do something a little murkier, and a little tougher to figure out, hopefully with the same rewards.
I get the sense that different songs are sung by different characters from different viewpoints, and you’re trying to piece together what happens from there.
There’s also the concept of an unreliable narrator, that I like a lot. Is what the guy’s saying true?
For your long term diehard fans, you put in quite subtle back references to previous songs. You might even repeat a lyric of an old song in a new song. Does that ever rebound back at you? Do you ever get hardcore fanboys coming up with incredibly detailed questions, and maybe over-analysing?
I know there’s somewhere on the internet that you can find an analysis of all these lyrics, and I haven’t looked at it for that reason. Sometimes I do get questions from people: does this mean this? And I say: no, I never thought of that.
You can just smile your enigmatic smile, and say: that’s for you to work out. (Laughter) But I’m curious to know how your live audiences react. I went to see Drive By Truckers recently, who strike me as fellow travellers. They’ve got a detached, slightly literary style to their lyrics. When I saw them, the crowd seemed to split down the middle. In this case, it was literally down the middle. On the left hand side, you had the serious listeners who were concentrating on every word, almost stroking their chins with concentration. Over on the right, you had a bunch of really drunk people who were throwing themselves around, crowd surfing, and responding physically to the music. Do you get a similar mix at your shows?
It’s not so much right-left as front-back for us – but up front, it usually gets pretty wild. It used to be that we’d come in and we’d see the big barrier between the stage and the audience – especially in England, where they’re more common in the smaller clubs – and we’d think: ah, that doesn’t seem necessary. But it’s now got to the point where I’m pretty excited when I see the barrier! (Laughs) A year or two ago, we started to have problems with people coming on stage a lot, and we do have shows that get really wild.
Does that mix vary from city to city, or from country to country?
It does vary. In the States, you can get really different reactions from city to city. The shows tend to get wilder in smaller towns, and more so in middle America. In places like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, you have pretty mature crowds.
If you were a member of your own audience, how would you react? Would you be down the front, or standing still and concentrating at the back?
I’d hopefully be somewhere in the middle. When I go to see bands, I like to get up real close, but I’m a little too old to deal with getting trampled. But sometimes you can sneak up in front of the wild people. It really depends on the show, and how the club’s laid out.
How much of what you’re singing about is derived from real life experience, and how much is purely imaginary?
It’s mostly imaginary. The characters are built out of composites of people I knew, especially from the age of 17 to 23: when you’re younger, and maybe a little dumber. But each one is not based on a certain person in my life. These are the types of things that I was around for a while, but not specifically. There’s a lot of partying and abuse and things like that in the songs, but I wouldn’t say that was part of my life any more than the average American teenager.
But there are some things that pop in from my life. Certainly I make a lot of reference to Minneapolis, my home town. That’s something I can specifically describe, or picture where these things happen. It’s a way for me to put something real – real details – into the songs.
I find it an interesting approach. I’m so used to seeing bands performing as if they have personally experienced all the emotions in their songs. That’s the default, if you like. Whereas bands like yourselves and the Drive By Truckers are going for a different approach – maybe a more detached approach. Is there a danger that it can get a little too dry and detached?
I don’t think of it as detached so much; I think of it as cinematic. You’re trying to tell a big story, that may or may not have happened to you. Songwriters are so often expected to be opening up a vein and letting their heart flow out, whereas a film maker can do whatever he wants. No one thinks that Quentin Tarantino actually shoots people, for instance. He’s just telling a story through film. We get compared to Bruce Springsteen a lot, and that’s the one thing I think I did definitely take from Springsteen. He tells these huge, epic stories that I don’t really think happened to him.
There’s a direct cinematic reference in the album’s final song, Slapped Actress, which references a movie called Opening Night. What’s the story there?
It’s a John Cassavetes movie, and it’s really fascinating. I’m not usually so moved by film but this one emotionally moved me. There’s a huge separation in the film between performance and audience. It’s about an actress who’s refusing to admit that she’s aging. As an actress, she trades on her beauty, which she’s losing. It was a compelling thing to see as a performer, because it highlights the difference between performance and real life. The title of that song relates to a scene where Seymour Cassel wants to slap the lead actress, Gena Rowlands. They’re rehearsing for a play, and he says: I have to slap you. She says: well, why don’t we just fake it? It’s a play; you don’t have to really slap me. But he says: no, I have to slap you so that it will look real. And there’s an interesting kind of paradox there: that you actually have to slap someone, to make it look real to the audience of a play.
That reminds of a Chinese film, Farewell My Concubine. There’s a scene of corporal punishment in there, which you assume was staged. It was only after seeing the film that I realised that the director had sprung a surprise on the actors, and actually did beat them hard – so the expressions were accurate.
Yeah, lots of actors since then have said: that’s not totally uncommon.
On Constructive Summer, you “raise a glass to Saint Joe Strummer”. You say that “he might have been our only decent teacher”. Did you ever see the man in action? Did you ever meet him?
Yes, I did meet him. He came to see my old band in Minneapolis in November 1999. The Mescaleros tour was in town, and he ended up at our show afterwards, and really enjoyed it, and hung out with us for a couple of hours. It was a really brilliant night. He’s a hero: for his music, but also the way he carried himself was very inspirational.