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Whether as the singer for The Hold Steady or the late, great Twin Cities post-punk outfit Lifter Puller, Craig Finn is known for plying his effusive storytelling craft in front of bands. So it was a learning experience when Finn set out to make his first solo record, Clear Heart Full Eyes, which comes out January 24. Recorded in Austin with Spoon producer Mike McCarthy, Clear Heart features the sort of colorful tales about down-and-out characters that have become Finn’s specialty, only this time, presented in a stripped-down, singer-songwriter vein. It’s starker, less optimistic, and not nearly as loud as a typical Hold Steady record, though Finn plans to get back to rocking soon, as the band is currently writing its sixth record. The A.V. Club recently talked with Finn about whether the mixed response to Heaven Is Whenever prompted him to go solo, what he learned from making Clear Heart, and what the future has in store for The Hold Steady.
The A.V. Club: The cliché about solo records is that artists make them because they feel like they can’t do certain things with the bands they’re in. Was that true for you?
Craig Finn: In some ways, the cliché is definitely true in this case, in that I wanted to do something with a little more storytelling and a lot less volume. We decided to take a four- or five-month break from The Hold Steady, and I was looking for something to do. And then also, I thought maybe going and playing with different people, and trying to do something that involved different characters, might be good, as far as what happens with the next Hold Steady record. Just try to break habits that you have and try to push yourself a little bit. I was talking to a friend of mine who had this theory that as a musician, when you play a show, it’s worth, like, six rehearsals. I feel like that’s because you put yourself out there. Some similar growth can be obtained by pushing yourself with new people and seeing if you can communicate with them. On some level, music is all about communication, so trying to communicate with new people is an interesting challenge.
AVC: The response to the last Hold Steady record, Heaven Is Whenever, was lukewarm compared to your other records. Did that influence your decision to make a solo record?
CF: No, I don’t know if it was that, but we were in the cycle, for five records, of “Make a record, tour; make a record, tour; make a record, tour.” We did five records in seven years. If we would’ve gone back and made a record right after we got done touring with Heaven Is Whenever, it probably would’ve been a very similar record. I just think if you don’t give yourself time to step back and figure things out, you can get in a rut. In some ways, Heaven Is Whenever… I think there might have been some fatigue on our part when we made that record. But at the same time, one of my personal thoughts about records in general is that if you keep making ’em, if you keep putting ’em out, they don’t all have to be a masterpiece—you have another one coming up. I kinda liked, when I got into Kiss when I was a kid, that they had a record every nine months. In their case, they’re all masterpieces, right? [Laughs.] But it sort of takes pressure off yourself. And in this day and age, you really can’t expect your fifth record to be received like your first or second, just by the way people report on music.
AVC: It’s automatically not as fresh anymore, because people know who you are.
CF: Yeah, exactly. So much of the way we consume music now is based on the new.
AVC: You recorded this record in Texas, and many of the songs have a singer-songwriter, almost country-ish sound. How much did recording in Texas influence the sound of the record?
CF: Well, they’re all Texas musicians, so it did definitely influence it there. And the songs were written with that singer-songwriter thing in mind, and certainly a little more of an Americana approach. So it was definitely part of it, but the funny thing is, I really think of the songs as being—I think about making the record in Austin, and all the guys being from Austin, so I think of it all as in Austin. I have to remind myself that I wrote all the songs in Brooklyn, sitting in my apartment. It’s kind of half-and-half. I came up with these real simple songs, and then turned them over to the producer and the band, and what happened was directed.
AVC: Earlier in your career, you worked mainly with post-punk and hardcore influences. Have you come to the singer-songwriter influence recently?
CF: Yeah, I’d say in the last five years, especially. I think you kind of mellow in your age. I mean, I still love The Fall and I still love the Cro-Mags, even, but I can listen to a Townes Van Zandt record and find something that’s really beautiful in that, and moving. I think that when you’re 40—I’m 40 now—there’s something about that kind of vulnerability of someone just going up and singing a song that tells a story without 2,000 watts of power and a drum set that can be just as, if not more, powerful. As I started to listen to more traditional songwriters in the past five years, I really just got to that place with it.
AVC: Do you see those influences making their way into The Hold Steady’s music?
CF: I feel like The Hold Steady’s a different thing. For one, the way we write is all getting in a room and turning up the amps and banging around, so there isn’t as much… I don’t know how it really can go back and influence The Hold Steady, other than, I guess, whatever you’re listening to influences you in some way. But I think The Hold Steady is more of a rock ’n’ roll band, and will continue to go that direction.
AVC: It sounds like when you were writing these songs, you knew they weren’t going to be Hold Steady songs, they were going to be solo songs.
CF: Yeah, that’s correct. They were simpler and came from a much softer, quieter place. I don’t think it’s what The Hold Steady does, or what the guys in the band would be interested in doing. So it definitely seemed like my own thing, a solo thing.
AVC: The one song that might work in a Hold Steady context is “No Future.”
CF: It’s funny, too, because that one kind of snuck in there, and then once we recorded it, it was like, “Oh, you know what? That’s kind of a Hold Steady song.” My original demo of it maybe was a little quieter, and then when the band took it, it rocked out a little bit more. So, the end result got to a more Hold Steady place, but I’m not sure that’s where it started.
AVC: How did the band react when you said you wanted to make a solo record? Were they threatened on any level?
CF: I don’t think so. I think everyone’s cool. Everyone was looking forward to keeping busy in their own way. I think, especially when they heard it, they were like, “Oh, okay. I see why he wanted to do this.” [Laughs.] But everyone was supportive, and I think everyone realized that playing with other people and doing some other things would probably be good for creativity, in the long run.
AVC: You challenged yourself to write a song a day during the process of making this record. What was the point of that, and what did you take from that experience?
CF: It’s funny, when I look back—I’ve been talking about that a lot—every year, I quit drinking for Lent, and I think that was also during Lent, so it might’ve been just to give myself something to do. [Laughs.] But it came from my friend who wrote on Letterman. He would joke, “It doesn’t matter. I can try to sit down and write a really good show, but I can’t really get writer’s block, because my show’s going to be on the air at 11:30. So first I write a show, and then I try to make it good.” And I was like, “Oh. Well, that’s what I’ll do. First, I’ll write a song, and then I’ll try to make it a good song.” So it gives you a structure to work with, and something to improve. That was the idea, and it changed my way of thinking about making music or making art, in that if you sit down, you got to put the work into it. You can’t sit and think and wait for inspiration to strike.
AVC: It’s the craftsman approach. If you made pots, you would make pots everyday.
CF: Yeah. I’m lucky enough to do this for a living, so it was like, “Why don’t I punch the clock a little bit?”
AVC: What have you learned from the process of writing songs on your own, without the band? And what do you think you’ll bring into the next Hold Steady record, having gone through this experience?
CF: It’s hard to know. We just started writing, so it’s hard for me to exactly tell. But I think one of the things I learned from making the record is that I really believe a live performance is always going to be better than a pieced-together performance in the studio, which is how so many records are made now. Just the energy of people playing music in a room and looking at each other and communicating is not something you can fake or work on in a computer. There’s something about why so many of our favorite records were made in the ’70s: Because they were in a room, playing together.
AVC: And accidents happen, or weird little things that weren’t planned that add to the song.
CF: Yeah, everyone always talks about the accidents, but even when there aren’t accidents, there are the little breaths and stuff that you just lose. On this record, I sang all the vocals live. And then we went back on a couple, because there were some screw-ups, and tried to replace them, and they were just so wrong. I can tell that at a lower-volume thing, but using a higher-volume thing, there’s something physical and spiritual that kind of gets off when you do too many takes or whatever.
AVC: Clear Heart Full Eyes is darker than Hold Steady albums, and you’ve said “maybe I was fatigued by all that optimism.” Were you consciously writing songs that were darker, or did it just come out that way?
CF: I think it may have just come out that way. But one thing I would say is, The Hold Steady, especially live, there’s something very celebratory about it. It’s like, “We’re all gonna get together, we’re gonna have a really good time.” And the reality is, I feel that way a lot of the time, but not all the time. Just because I’m human. You don’t always feel like, “I wanna celebrate, I wanna stay positive.” You’re like, “Damn, I wanna sit and feel sorry for myself for half an hour.” So, I think the songs came from a different part of my personality.
AVC: On Hold Steady records, there’s a world of recurring characters, locales, and themes. Where does this record fit in that world?
CF: I think it’s a whole different world, but I think that the songs—at least [on Clear Heart], since I’ve only made one record—seem like vignettes that are a little separate from each other. But at the same time, I can’t help… The Wagon Wheel comes up twice on the record, and that’s a fictitious bar I’m thinking of, and that happens in two different songs. So somehow, I still am attracted to creating these worlds, but I don’t see the characters on the solo record interacting as much.
AVC: So it’s sort of like a spin-off TV show?
CF: Archie Bunker’s Place or Joanie Loves Chachi, maybe.
AVC: Now that you’ve had this opportunity to step back from The Hold Steady, are you still interested in those characters you’ve created? Do you think you’ll pick up on those stories, or is it time to leave that behind?
CF: I don’t know exactly, yet. But my instinct… there’s times I feel I’ve done enough damage to them, you know? “I’m just gonna leave ’em alone a little bit.” [Laughs.] But people do really seem attached in some way when I’m talking to fans about those characters, so I think I’ll always want to know where they are. I feel like for the last … some of the records, there have been little peeks into it, but the records haven’t fully concerned themselves with those worlds, and I think that may be the best way to keep going on it.
AVC: The Hold Steady now has a sizable discography and history that goes back almost 10 years. Is there a point where your history starts to become an enemy or burden you have try to get away from?
CF: I don’t know if it’s a burden or something you have try to get away from, but you certainly have to think about, “How do we keep this interesting? How do we grow?” And growth could come in a lot of different ways: It could be artistic, it could be the size of the band. Or just, “What do we want to do? We’ve done a lot of these things. What do we want to do? How much do you want to tour? Where do you want to go?” So I think we’re pretty informed now, and it’s like, “Let’s go do this; let’s not do that.” We’re always, I think, going to be a pretty heavy touring band, but, “Let’s go out with that band,” or “Let’s make sure we do things this way.” I really want, in the next year or so, to do some two-night stands at smaller places, so we could get to hang out in the city a little more, rather than keep rolling. But that’s the kind of thing you can start to think of because you’re able to do those things.
AVC: You recently turned 40, but it sounds like that hasn’t changed your desire to tour a lot and play shows.
CF: No, I think that that’s what I do. I want to work, and I figure that’s how a musician works in this day and age. But I certainly make changes in how I behave myself on the road and whatnot. I want to be on the road and feel good.
AVC: Live, you’ve fully evolved into a potent two-guitar band, and when you play, a three-guitar band. When you go into the studio, how do you think that’s going to affect the band’s sound?
CF: Well, I think it’s going to be more guitar-heavy. That’s my expectation. I can’t see me playing any guitar in the studio, but we still have two pretty great lead-guitar players. So I am certainly hoping to go toward that, the dual-guitars thing. I expect we will.
AVC: Was it a difficult transition into this current incarnation of the band after Franz Nicolay left?
CF: Yeah, I think there were certainly some speed bumps. We went up to a six-piece—we added a keyboard player, too—and it just seemed like there was too much music. It was kind of unwieldy, just the amount of equipment to set up. It became bigger than I wanted it to be, as far as the touring party and all that. So I think it took us a while to figure it out, which is not surprising; Franz is a great performer and great musician. We had to expect to lose something when we lost him. But I feel like we’ve gotten our legs back.