Big Riffs and Survivors: Craig Finn interview

The Hold Steady frontman on Thrashing Thru the Passion, covering Frightened Rabbit and his latest solo release

Feature by Fraser MacIntyre | 09 Aug 2019
  • Craig Finn

Craig Finn recently revealed a map on his website that pinpoints every location referenced in his four solo records, the first of which arrived in 2012. “I always kind of need to know where I’m at,” he begins, as warm and enthusiastic as you’d hope one of the most joyous performers in the business to be off-stage. “Geography has been a passion of mine since I was a little kid, so when I write songs, I need to know where they take place before I concentrate on the story.” 

A lot of ground is covered by the characters in Finn’s songs – “survivors, not from a shipwreck or an airplane crash... just plain survivors of the world we live in today” – as they deliberate driving ‘straight to South Dakota / Or somewhere else wide open’ to escape an unhealthy relationship, find God in Chicago in the wake of losing a loved one, or try to find their footing in a city that doesn't always offer newcomers a floor: New York. The Big Apple was Finn’s home of 19 years, and is a key location in I Need a New War, his most recent solo release.

“I always feel like I’m gazing back a little in my writing, but nowadays, if I’m gazing backwards 15 years, I’m still in New York,” the Brooklyn-resident continues. Throughout his career, Finn has made copious references to “the Twin Cities, my home town”, a habit knowingly referred to in semi-recent single Blankets, as one of his characters claims to ‘know some songs about this place.’ The Twin Cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul, are located in Minnesota, where Finn is calling from today, exactly a month before The Hold Steady’s first record in five years hits shelves and streaming platforms.

The Hold Steady, solo writing, and New York

After almost two decades as a resident, Finn admits that New York “has moved into my psyche a little more. I still don’t know if I feel like a New Yorker, but I feel a little less like I’m visiting all the time [laughs].” He was compelled to bring the city into I Need a New War after deciding to focus on an “idea of a modern world that a lot of people are having a hard time keeping up with, partly due to technology. It’s everchanging, and if you aren’t changing with it, it kind of grinds you up or takes you down. I think New York, as a city, is an ultimate microcosm of that. When I come back to my neighbourhood after a tour, three of the stores are different and the rent's gone up.”

The contrast between writing lyrics for and beyond The Hold Steady is one Finn is revelling in at the moment: “I want to work all the time. It’s always me sitting at a desk and thinking about what to write – so in that sense things stay the same. But for The Hold Steady the stories have to be big, they have to meet the big riffs brought in by some of the other guys, whereas with the solo work, I’m able to put a microscope on something smaller, something that resembles my own life. It allows me to be more personal and vulnerable.” 

The one-time Lifter Puller frontman chuckles as he details the key difference between the characters populating the music of his band and his solo efforts: “In The Hold Steady, a lot of people in the songs are making pretty bad decisions and belligerently following them through. In the solo work, a lot of people are trying to do the right thing, trying to live with dignity and grace, and are having a hard time keeping their head above water. I see more and more people like that, so it’s what I’ve been interested in examining. Empathy has become really important to me in the past five years or so.”

Ask him for an autograph, and Finn will likely write your name and his name. Sandwiched in between the two will be the title of one of The Hold Steady’s finest records: Stay Positive, released 11 years ago. “There’s a lot of darkness in my songs: we all suffer, we all get sad, we all struggle. Framing a song or an album with a title like Stay Positive or We All Want the Same Things is a reminder that these are, ultimately, hopeful works, and I hope that people get that.” Given his penchant for parting with universal, profoundly uplifting and reassuring messages that have been inked onto the arms and legs of countless listeners, it comes as no surprise to learn that Scott Hutchison’s most famous line is a favourite of Finn’s.

Frightened Rabbit, and covering Head Rolls Off

‘While I’m alive / I’ll make tiny changes to Earth’, the Frightened Rabbit frontman sang on Head Rolls Off, taken from the band’s breakthrough release The Midnight Organ Fight. Released earlier this month, Tiny Changes: A Celebration of Frightened Rabbit's The Midnight Organ Fight features Finn’s own take on the song. “Scott and I became pretty good friends,” Finn begins. “We’d spend time together when we were in each other’s cities, and we always had this joke that since a lot of my music talks about Jesus, if I ever did a Frightened Rabbit song I should do that one.”

Finn’s “celebratory” take on Head Rolls Off, which places additional focus on the ‘tiny changes’ refrain, was recorded just a few months before Hutchison tragically took his own life. “I don’t know if I could’ve done such a positive version of that song after Scott’s death,” Finn admits. “Now that it’s come out that way, I’m glad that I recorded it then. I want to celebrate Scott’s work.”

Hutchison made clear, regularly, that Stay Positive was a favourite record of his, and it’s also a record Finn is enjoying revisiting in rehearsals with The Hold Steady: “Yeah Sapphire is always fun to play, and One for the Cutters has gained new life since Franz came back and Steve added a new guitar part.” Keyboard player Franz Nicolay left the band in 2010, with Lucero’s Steve Selvidge stepping in to fill the void left in his absence. Now that Nicolay has returned, and with Selvidge also now a permanent member, fans have been revelling in what Finn views as The Hold Steady’s greatest line-up to date. 

After reconvening for a few shows in 2015, the band began piecing together new material, some of which would find its way onto their seventh studio release: Thrashing Thru the Passion. “A traditional record, for a bunch of reasons, didn’t seem like the right way to go,” Finn explains. “We all have different availability – Franz lives in California, Steve lives in Memphis – and a lot has changed since we started the band about how people consume and listen to music. I felt like it’d be cool to just put out a single, and if it went well, we could keep doing it and eventually compile them all, in the way some of our favourite bands like The Clash have done before.

“We started putting out one or two songs at a time whenever we had shows, and then in January 2019, we recorded five songs all at once. To me, they sounded like the A-side of a record, so we put some of the songs we’d already released on the B-side. People had been asking about vinyl.”

On playing live

The Hold Steady’s approach to playing live has also changed. Two-to-four night residencies in major cities like San Francisco and London have replaced the long, gruelling tours Finn and company had become accustomed to. This change-up, a healthy one for a band who’ve been storming bars and theatres for over 15 years now, is one Finn is particularly invigorated by. “It very much allows us to celebrate the incredible community around this band, by bringing a big group of people together and allowing us to concentrate on them. The conversation isn’t about travelling to the next show, setting up and breaking down the gear: it’s about how we can make tonight’s show much different to last night’s show. What’s a song we haven’t played in five years that we can bring out, and people will be excited about?”

Simultaneously, Thrashing... – The Hold Steady’s most ecstatic and intricate release in years – is set to arrive while Finn is still touring behind I Need a New War, accompanied by a cast of musicians (known as The Uptown Controllers) large and accomplished enough to do justice to the sublime and diverse instrumentation found on the record. 

When asked if he plans to follow in the footsteps of contemporaries John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats) and Willy Vlautin (Richmond Fontaine), who have both released multiple works of fiction while remaining touring musicians, Finn laughs. “I absolutely want to, but I can tell you nothing is in progress! It’s a very lonely pursuit. I’m a pretty social guy, so the solitariness of it is what kind of worries me; that keeps it from happening. At the same time, I’m a huge reader, and I don’t want to leave this Earth without a book to my name.”

Thrashing Thru the Passion is out 16 August on Frenchkiss Records
Tiny Changes: A Celebration of Frightened Rabbit's The Midnight Organ Fight is out now on Atlantic Records
Craig Finn plays King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, Glasgow, 13 Oct