The HOLD STEADY Does The Sweep

Music Features
The HOLD STEADY Does The Sweep
Feb 1, 2004, 03:36

Craig Finn shows up at my apartment for an interview after some rigmarole with a van his band, The Hold Steady, is sharing with the Ex-Models. It has been a long night followed by an early morning. The guitarist in the band, Tad Kubler, who also played bass with Craig in Lifter Puller*, misplaced the keys, which led to an Ex-Model tracking down Finn, which led to a lot of subway rides and peeking in apartment windows and knocking on doors and cell phone calls to Kubler who was now in Texas working with a photographer. Eventually, the van thing got sorted.

Now he arrives, but only for a minute. He's got a recording session scheduled with a band in Brooklyn. When Lifter Puller stopped making music in 2000, Finn moved to New York and worked for the Digital Club Network, ironing out deals with bands and clubs to broadcast their shows on the internet. Now Finn works for eMusic, doing an Mp3 version of Peel Sessions called Crisp Songs. He's recorded Pilot to Gunner, Cex, Mark Mallman, Grey Does Matter and a dozen others. The project will see the light of day this spring.

But why are we talking about Craig Finn. Why is he showing up for an interview? Why does anyone care? Because he is one of the best lyricists ever. Not “for his genre,” not “an underrated genius.” Finn could go toe to toe with anyone in rock history and come out unscathed. He's a fucking national treasure. If you've ever done horrible cocaine, missed a ride home from a party, or spent your paycheck on a sure-thing that blew up in your face, his songs will resonate with you forever.

Finn, who has also been doing some recording with Cex: “He makes the music and I write the lyrics. Then we pick it apart and try to make good songs out of the mess,” has been running The Hold Steady phenomenon for over a year now—with occasional dips back into Lifter Puller-ville, when circumstances warrant it.

He and I polish off a six-pack talking about “The Sweep,” a phenomenon that occurs when you run into a pal like Har Mar Superstar at a dive bar, and you get about a dozen other friends together and just take the place over. We also spend plenty of time, as you'll see here— about The Hold Steady, who's debut …Almost Killed Me comes out on French Kiss Records this spring.

*You must also purchase the Lifter Puller retrospective Soft Rock (2002) on Self-Starter Foundation Records.

Did you move to New York with the intention of getting a day job, or starting a band, or both?

I didn't move to New York to have a band. But I really wanted to think about doing something after Lifter Puller ended. The thing that was attractive at that point, was the portability of being an MC. Just by keeping things as minimal as possible. I didn't want to haul around a lot of gear.

Knowing people like Har Mar Superstar or Sean from Atmosphere, I was jealous of him, ‘cause he was doing well and the only thing he ever had to bring on tour was merch. Literally. Not even a mic. I was like, this is the problem—loading up a van full of equipment and try to schedule a tour with four guys.

When Lifter Puller did the reunion shows at the Triple Rock last June, we did an interview at Radio K (in Minneapolis) and Mark Wheat (the DJ) said to me, “A cynic might say you had perfect timing to move to New York, because shortly after you moved, the New York scene was blowing up.” Or something along those lines. I think that by now, The Strokes are pretty far removed from what people think of when they think of a New York scene, but when you talk about the Liars and the Rapture—and those are two bands I think are pretty great—and all the bands that follow, are pretty disco-punk and “Let's get on the dance floor.” It's all pretty syncopated and it's all real tight, and it's all real well-rehearsed, and some of it is very interesting.

But when Tad and I started thinking about doing a band out here, we started out thinking about what we were growing up on, and thinking about The Replacements in Minneapolis. They weren't danceable at all. I wanna do some sloppy rock that actually has some danger in it, and our band might fuck up. Here, I don't ever get the feeling that these bands would ever dare make a mistake. With The Replacements, two-thirds of the shows were terrible, but that third show might be amazing. The Grifters were like that too, and that was a band I loved.

Did you think Tad and you would ever be in a band together again?

Tad is such an amazing musician. He's a huge part of The Hold Steady sound, he's loosely—without knowing songs—able to create this huge chunk of sound that fills up space.

Everyone in your band is a Midwesterner, thank god. Are you all adapting to living in NYC and being a band?

Oh yeah. Galen and Judd, who're from Milwaukee, have been here for over five years. They moved out here with Punchdrunk, and they broke up maybe two years after they moved here. All the guys in that band went to high school together, and they'd been a band since roughly 5th Grade. I think they all finally wanted to do something different. Galen ended up going on tour with Verbena, and he was kinda the bass player for hire for a while. When he came back to New York, he formed a band called Holmes. They were really cool. Their singer was the guy who drew Heathcliff, the cartoon. I think he inherited it from his uncle or something. Anyway, they were long on partying and short on being a band. They had one of those keg-erators in their practice space. I think they drank way more brews and talked about baseball more than they buckled down and played music. They did the band for three or four years then eventually Galen started playing with us.

What's it like playing in New York now that you live here?

It's a hassle. We're always hustling. We don't have very good equipment. We don't have a great drum set right now. The reality of playing New York is that anytime you can share equipment, it's probably a good move. So we try to share. The protocol is usually bring your own snare, cymbals, and a kick pedal, 'cause that's a fragile piece. Those are the things that you really whack.

What's your routine like now on the day of a show?

The big thing about shows now is that I don't drink until I'm back at home afterwards. And the reason for that is the load-out. If you've got four guys in a band that are all wasted, load-out takes until seven in the morning. (acts drunk) “Well, you know,” (scratches head) “Where's my bag? Did we pack my bag? Let's just pull everything out and see if it's in there. Yup. There it is.” So that's the big thing. I've also found that eating sushi before we play is good. It's light and has a lot of protein. You just gorge on sushi, because you never feel that full and you get a little raw fish buzz.

Do you get nervous?

No. I haven't had a lot of nerves since we first started doing this. I always feel like we're just going to do what we do and what we do is so natural to us, it's just so not a stretch that we can't fuck it up. Nothing in our power will make us strike out.

So now that you're a New Yorker: Billy Joel vs. Bruce Springsteen?

I'm always gonna go with the Boss, but I'm a fan of both. There's something inherently way more conservative about Billy Joel. I went to Boston College, which is a very conservative campus, and Billy Joel was definitely cool, and the Boss was seen as passé. I think they liked Billy Joel because he's a piano guy, and maybe he sounds like he's not so bombastic? But Springsteen is just way more of a subversive lyricist. He can get some shit over on you without 60% of the people knowing. “Born in the U.S.A.” being the perfect example. Reagan made it his theme song.

Why did Lifter Puller call it quits?

I dunno, I was sort of exhausted by the whole DIY thing. Not that I think it isn't a noble cause, but driving in the snow is a noble cause, and it eventually wears down your car. When we'd tour, I'd book it. And when we started, it was pre-cellphone, pre-internet, pre-email. I was booking tours from a payphone from the Northstar building in downtown Minneapolis and I'd have all these Post-It notes all over for each club saying “This guy is in the office at 2pm on Fridays,” and at 1:57 I'd run down to the payphone.

Why didn't you get a booking agent?

I'm a bit of a control freak. I don't wanna go out and be halfway across the country and have something fall apart. A booking agent for an indie rock band works their ass off for what? 15% of 150 bucks? But I think we could have hooked up with an indie label and a real booking agent earlier in our career than we did.

At the same time, I don't regret anything. I'm super proud of everything we accomplished with Lifter Puller before and after the fact. I'm really proud of how little we gave a fuck about what anyone thought. We just sorta did it. It was an amazing thing.

Did Lifter Puller ever get courted by big wigs?

Well, a lot A&R people will have researchers. And the researchers would call like a one-stop like the Electric Fetus in Minneapolis, which has a lot of Midwestern accounts, and ask if there's anything they don't know about that's selling really good. And the Fetus would say, “Well, you know Lifter Puller?” and the research guy would say, “No, what's that? How do they sound?” and they'd tell 'em and then we'd get a call and they'd say, “Apparently you guys are selling some records out there.” Their thinking was, go to the region and find the Hootie and the Blowfish of that area, bands who are selling thousands of their CDs to the local people.

What was the next step, would label people fly out to see you?

A couple of times. I'd say “I'd really prefer if you could buy the CD, or listen to an mp3 on our website. I don't think you know what we do.”

There's a reputation of mayhem with Lifter Puller on the road. What cities were the craziest?

D.C. was always behaved, Boston is pretty well behaved. NYC was ill-behaved. Baltimore was terrible behavior.

Why? Wouldn't—if a band was coming to New York wouldn't you be more stressed, just because it's a bigger city, tougher to park a van? Gear to get ripped off? More shit could go wrong?

See, that's logic talking. But you know, you're in New York, you're just excited (claps hands). We always knew more people here. But Baltimore defined itself as a total insane place for no reason. We had good shows and fell in with a good group of people. We just sort of established a tradition of going apeshit. I don't think Baltimore as a town necessarily goes apeshit, but the people we met… We always played Memory Lane, and that's where it all started. All the bad shit. The promoter was a real cool guy who would hang out and drink with the bands and stuff. There was a lot of stuff like, “Can I trade you an eighth of weed for a 7”? that kinda thing.

What does this info mean to The Hold Steady?

A lot of my outlook for The Hold Steady is informed by Lifter Puller. Look, I wouldn't just wanna do my day job and see what happens, with the band 'cause I think we're doing something better than a lot of rock bands. However, my vision is to always choose battles. I'm not gonna beat anyone over the head with it. It comes down to just having fun for us. Fun for me is playing shows. Fun for me is connecting to people.

So you'll take that missing van out on the road?

Yeah, but with the idea that we know there's people in Minneapolis who would love to see us, so we'll go there. We'll go to Chicago. There's no one in Florida that wants to see us. So we won't go there. We're taking it to people who wanna see it. Our philosophy is very simple. If it sounds fun, we'll do it. I remember someone calling and saying, “You gotta play with my hardcore band in Columbus.” Nuh-uh.

Do you still get Lifter Puller offers? 

Not really, actually.

Do you think you'd do another show together?

I'd never say never. But the Triple Rock shows in Minneapolis really seemed to have a weird, cool closure.

What do you think of Sting having to resort to Victoria's Secret fashion shows to try and sell records nowadays?

At work I saw a copy of Billboard and they gave him a lifetime achievement award or whatever it is. Everything that is wrong with this industry is summed up right there.

My question is, can they give it to him again the next time he makes an album? 'Cause that's what this album hinged on is fake shit like that. 

Oh yeah. Sting is so weird, 'cause there's guys like Kenny G who are obviously square, but Sting was in the Police. Now Sting is on the level of Yanni. But the difference is Yanni was never cool.

Videos and radio are over for him, so he does a sexy Jaguar commercial and Victoria's Secret. If you woulda told him that when he was 25, “Hey, Champ, guess what's in store for ya?”

The answer: The front of the Statue of Liberty on the millennium New Year's Eve! It was maybe 1 AM New York time and I turned on the TV and it was Sting playing in front of the Statue of Liberty.

Just like Sheryl Crow.

Or Bon Jovi.

Jon Bon Jovi was just on the cover of Redbook. How an 80s metal dude is on the cover of Redbook now is fucking insane. What about Kevin DuBrow? When does he get his fair shake? Bon Jovi is totally the Lifetime network guy, opening up his tender heart. 

Last season, every football game I watched had Bon Jovi. I thought by the time I got to the Super Bowl, I was gonna get off without seeing him, and then it ended up being a post-Super Bowl performance by Bon Jovi.

Yeah, that's the kind of shit I guess I was getting at. Kid Rock needs something in the record stores over the holidays so they get him to do a cover of “Feel Like Makin' Love,” and call it a record.

Throw it out there. We don't have any stars that people care about any more, that's the problem. Say what you will about Meatloaf, but when he did his thing, like Bat Out of Hell they weren't throwing him out there to do a cover. He didn't seem so flexible. Or Queen. You know what? Their hit was kick ass. Their hit was enough. Now, I smell desperation. In 1978, they wouldn't have Neil Young do, “Away in the Manger,” or “Heard it Thru the Grapevine,” just to get it out for Christmas. The label would say Neil can't be bothered.

This is the question: I just don't know at what point in my life I'd go see Rosanna Arquette DJ, but I know people who would. You ever had these conversations with people who say, “I have a crush on Tina Fey,” or “I have a crush on Jimmy Fallon.” And its like, “Whoa, do you know Jimmy Fallon?” I think especially in New York, it's crazy. “My friend's cousin is his publicist.” So there's a chance that they might run into him. It keeps the fire burning in a weird way.

Do you think you'll stay here forever?

My wife and I wanna have kids at some point. I know too much about money to enjoy living in New York without having reservations. I certainly enjoy my social life here. I like the opportunities, but it's a struggle to make rent and think about the future. What I'd really love is to create a lifestyle that allowed me to travel back and forth between Minneapolis and New York.

What do you think of gay marriage?

It's something for the politicians to worry about. I find I've gotten very few breaks from being married. I don't think that gay people are getting that much back for the right to get married. But that said, you know what? My concern is marriage in general–hetero or homosexual, needs to be thought of very seriously. I see enough stupid marriages happening amongst hetero people. Not between people my age, but when I was 22? There were marriages going on that were like—“you know?” I'd hate to double that.

Who is the rock figure you'd most like to have help you get rid of a body?

Rick Danko from The Band. For one, I read the biography, and I know he was a butcher by trade. Number two, to me Rick just feels like someone who got in a lot of situations, you know? He's the kind of guy who, not only if you had to chop the body down, but he'd know how to sever the right ligaments, too, like “That'd be a good place to cut off the leg.” I get the feeling he's the kind of guy who'd maybe been in the situation before.

Who is the best rock figure to have on your side to get good drugs?

Maybe Rick Danko. [laughs] Keith Richards. Van Morrison. I was thinking of The Last Waltz again. And I was thinking of Van Morrison's performance. It seemed like he was on some good drugs.

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