From an outsider’s perspective, it’s been a strange year for The Hold Steady. Flamboyant former keyboardist Franz Nicolay put in his notice of resignation in September 2009, and his absence can be felt in the roomier corners of the band’s 2010 effort, Heaven Is Whenever. But despite Nicolay’s departure and the fact that the transitional Heaven Is Whenever failed to light the underground aflame in the same manner as acclaimed predecessors like Separation Sunday and Boys And Girls In America, the band’s frontman, Craig Finn, remains endlessly upbeat. (One of his finest anthems is called “Stay Positive,” after all.) The bespectacled singer-songwriter is pleased with the way The Hold Steady has reinvented itself as a touring six-piece—adding Memphis-based guitar-slinger Steve Selvidge and keyboardist Dan Neustadt—and he’s happy to be sharing that version of the band for the first time with some U.S. cities. With Finn and the band set to play Fun Fun Fun Fest this weekend, The A.V. Club spoke with Finn about spreading out on Heaven Is Whenever, talking to a younger version of himself in song, and various “rock problems” like not drinking 10 beers every night.
AVC: With the addition of the new members, will the next record stray from the more spacious arrangements on Heaven Is Whenever?
CF: I don’t know—those guys are touring members, so I’m not sure how the writing and recording will go. But the spacious part of it, I’m a pretty big fan of it, and it lets things breathe a little more. I think some times it’s easy to get caught up in trying to fill every available space with music, and it ends up claustrophobic. I think one of the triumphs of Heaven Is Whenever is that we stayed out of each other’s way very well.
AVC: Plus, that makes a little more room for the lyrics.
CF: [Laughs.] Obviously that’s something I like, as a lyricist. I think it kind of stirs them up a little more.
AVC: Over the space of five records, your lyrics have built a world with its own idioms, landmarks, and cast of characters. Do you ever feel confined by that world, or is it an environment that’s continually revealing new facets of itself?
CF: It’s revealing, but I’ll write a song that has nothing to do with it. I feel like “Hurricane J,” for instance, is a song that just completely exists 100 percent outside of the world that I’ve created from the other records. It gives me options—I think, “Is this song part of the whole thing, or is this a stand-alone song?” And that allows me to do things that are more personal at times, but then also go back and work with [Laughs] what seem like old, familiar friends.
AVC: In terms of the more personal songs, is the refrain of “Soft In The Center”—“You can’t get every girl”—a message from Craig Finn circa 2010 to a younger version of yourself?
CF: When we made the record, I was hyper-aware that we were on our fifth record. You’re part of the establishment if you get to #5, and I was thinking, “What have I learned? What wisdom have I gained from the past number of years.” So a couple of the songs have that advice quality, [“Soft In The Center”] being the biggest one. In some ways, you’re talking to your little brother, “younger you,” or whoever it is—just someone in a different place, that isn’t five records in or 39 years old.
AVC: You’ve said elsewhere that the record’s recurring allusions to heaven speak to the way it’s often viewed as a reward—is that something you think about more as you get older? Did questions like, “What are we working toward?” or “Five records in, what’s the reward?” factor into the making of Heaven Is Whenever?
CF: Yeah—the one thing I was thinking of was that it’s all got to be fun. It’s all got to be great, because if you don’t enjoy all of it, there’s never going to be a big payoff. I like when we set up for the shows, I like soundcheck, I like getting on the bus and driving to the next town. Because if you’re thinking, “95 percent of my day or my life sucks, but I’m working for this one big payoff,” it never really comes—or it’s going to be underwhelming when it does, because it’s only going to be five percent. It’s talking about making that struggle part of the reward.
AVC: Does that mean you’re moving forward with the “back-to-basics” tour you proposed in an interview with eMusic, where the band would act as its own road crew?
CF: [Laughs.] I proposed it. That’s not something we’ve done yet, but I think that it’d be good. One thing I’ve found in rock ’n’ roll is it’s sort of like a trap for small animals—you can get in, but you can’t get out. You see these bands that are on a downward kind of thing—but they’re still in the nice hotel. It’s hard for rock ’n’ roll people to cut back. Once you add that fourth member of the crew, you’re probably not going down to three. It’s something to be cognizant of. No matter what, there’s some part of the business that has to get taken care of. I was thinking maybe that would be good artistically. That said, I have a lot less equipment than everyone else in the band.
AVC: Did that “rock ’n’ roll trap” factor into the writing of “Rock Problems”?
CF: Exactly. Someone in the band thinks that you had a lousy show, but you think, “If I was 22, I would’ve killed to play this show.” It’s a lot of adjusted expectations, and also the ridiculousness of, “Wow, these are actually my problems.” And going back home, and trying to get back in the swing of things with your girlfriend and your house. You’re not moving around every night, and people aren’t telling you how great you are. And it’s not normal to drink 10 beers. It’s this weird re-entry period, and you’re trying to dial it back down so you can relate to a normal human being.
AVC: When you started the band, could you have imagined that would be your reality at 39, or that The Hold Steady would be your “career band?”
CF: We were taking steps for it to not be that. We really weren’t planning on doing touring or even records. Our expectations were so low, and we were so honest about it, the sincerity caught people off-guard. The “we don’t give a fuck” attitude propelled us into this situation. Since then we’ve become way more professional—even in the past few years. In the beginning, it was like, “They’re going to take this away from us, so we have to drink every bottle of whiskey we can get our hands on.” And now it’s like, “Man, there’s going to be another show tomorrow, and there’s going to be more whiskey. Maybe we should go to bed, so we can play well tomorrow.”
AVC: You have a cameo on Titus Andronicus’ The Monitor, reading an excerpt from Walt Whitman’s “Vigil Strange I Kept On The Field One Night.” Was that a part the band specifically cast you in?
CF: [Titus Andronicus frontman] Patrick [Stickles] e-mailed me and said, “Look, we’re looking for Walt Whitman, and it struck me that you’re the only one that can do it right.” [Laughs.] So, I was flattered. That’s my favorite record of the year—I just saw them in Minneapolis the other night, and they were so fucking good. They’re really becoming a live thing, to match their records. I have a lot of fun being around them, not just because they’re great people, but because they’re in an exciting part of their career.
AVC: Is that weird to watch from the perspective of the elder statesman of the scene?
CF: It’s interesting to me, because I’ve read things where Patrick has said Separation Sunday was an important record for him. To be influencing bands, again, seems like “rock problems.” There’s bands that are forming that [that record] is their touchstone. And the fact that one of them kicks ass is really exciting. [Laughs.]