The Hold Steady: The Bards of Bar Rock

With an acute awareness of rock history, Craig Finn drops some knowledge on Jason Morton about how his band plan on sustaining the spirit of its legacy

Feature by Jason Morton | 24 Sep 2008

Back in the mid-80s - before III, before Sammy Hagar - Van Halen shot a video for a soon-to-be hit single entitled Hot for Teacher. In that clip, Eddie and Co. infiltrate an American primary school, allowing the kids - and the band members themselves - to run amok. In the end – once the teachers are bikini-clad, and after the cool kids have sped away with Diamond Dave in the back of a hot rod – the band has changed the school to their version of rock ‘n’ roll. But if there was indeed a true institute for rock music, The Hold Steady – whilst sharing some base-level characteristics (tales of excess, a propensity for blazin’ hot licks) with the aforementioned, sometimes venerated progenitors of hair metal – would teach an entirely different curriculum, and that’s exactly what wordsmith and lead singer Craig Finn suggests gives the band an edge on the competition.

“You find over the years, if you look at great artists, you have people like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen or Neil Young - these guys really, really loved rock ‘n’ roll and understood it all the way back to its roots,” he asserts. The band, whose members all fall in the over-30 crowd, see their recognition of rock’s past as an asset. “I think it's the fact that we're a little older, I think we have a little better handle on rock 'n' roll history.”

Video: Stuck Between Stations (Live on Letterman)

The crew of Brooklynites’ musical sound certainly recalls the sounds of 70s guitar rock, but looking into Finn’s lyrics one can see the efforts of a songwriter trying to pay homage to a narrative rock legacy. He employs a number of recurring figures to tell intertwining stories in The Hold Steady’s catalogue, which often have teenage protagonists working their way through trying and sordid situations, more from a 'been-there, done-that' perspective than that of someone still swimming in debauchery.

Prime examples abound on the group’s 2005 release Separation Sunday, with Charlemagne in Sweatpants delivering an account of a conflicted drug dealer and the LP’s final two tracks – Crucifixion Cruise and How a Resurrection Really Feels – telling the story of a young girl crashing mass after a hard night of partying. “I use a lot of characters just because I find it interesting, more interesting to talk, not in a confessional way, but to create something that's more cinematic,” he says. “I’ve had an overarching idea of what I want to say.” Stay Positive, released in July to critical praise and a number 15 UK chart debut, continues the themes and intentions exhibited on previous releases, with Finn still maintaining attention to his craft. “I think the last line of the record, ‘We make our own movies’, I was particularly proud of, because I think it summed up a lot of what I was trying to say on the record.”

Breakout hit Massive Nights, from 2006’s Boys and Girls in America contains another favorite line of the frontman. “It says, ‘I had my mouth on her nose, when the chaperone said we were dancing too close’. There's something about that line that I think really captured what I wanted to say about being young and not knowing what you're doing, but trying really hard anyway – trying to be cool, trying to be an adult, and faking your way through things.”

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As one can gather – through the lyrics or the band’s conspicuously titled 2006 LP – The Hold Steady impart a good deal of American feel to their sound. However, they’ve gained ground in the UK through radio play of Massive Nights, Citrus and Sequestered in Memphis as well as summer festival tours, including back-to-back appearances at T in the Park. According to Finn, however, the boys in the band didn’t expect to make a big splash across the pond. “Our first two records didn't come out in the UK, and we were told it was too American. But when Boys and Girls came out - it really took off.”

The transplanted Minnesotan chalks the band’s transatlantic appeal up to commonalities in storytelling: “I think if you're a good songwriter, you're trying to say something specific - like maybe mention a street corner in Minneapolis - to explain something that's universal.” Finn ties those sentiments not only to his approach to songwriting, but also to his own appreciation of music. “Going back to when I first fell in love with rock ‘n’ roll music, I'd listen to the Clash and I wouldn't know what a lot of things were, what they meant, but I could understand through the inflection what they were talking about; what it meant, how it felt.”

While Joe Strummer may have influenced The Hold Steady’s sound, the seminal Londoners aren’t where Finn’s keenness for UK music ends, as the band brought Art Brut on a tour of the States last year, and he ranks Scotland’s own Frightened Rabbit as impressive in their own right. “I think they're a really cool band,” he says. “I still haven't seen them live, but I really love their record.” And as the band’s popularity continues to grow, they’ve been able to foster other groups on tour such as the poppy, punky Loved Ones, and will return to the states after a string of UK gigs to cross America with recent Edge Festival performers Drive-By Truckers and Philadelphia’s The War on Drugs, another up-and-coming group whom Finn admires.

Still taking cues from their heroes, the band keeps on with near-constant touring – not to mention a release schedule of four full-lengths in five years and numerous singles. With this, one might expect The Hold Steady to hold back for a while, but Finn's got other plans: “I think if things stay the same for too long, you get bored. There's always new opportunities; last summer I thought we finished the tour and all of a sudden the phone rings: it's the Rolling Stones and they wanted us to open for them in Dublin. There's always these things coming up that keep you motivated to do it.”

Video: Stay Positive (Live on Conan O'Brien)

Full-blown stardom might still be a distance away for the band, or it could be knocking on their door, but the signals Finn's receiving suggest they're most definitely on the right path. “With this record, I knew that people were going to listen," he assures. "I knew we weren't just going to put it out to a vortex.” And the increasing crowds are a clear indication that Finn pays due attention to. “I go up onstage and 800 are backing me. It seems to me it's reaching people.” You can double that number when they hit the ABC early next month.

Pushing ahead in new directions on Stay Positive – as evidenced with One for the Cutters’ harpsichord infusion and the Zeppelin-esque Both Crosses – The Hold Steady have been toiling diligently at the Institute for Rock ‘n’ Roll and, from the looks of things, should be in line for distinction.

The Hold Steady play ABC, Glasgow on 1 Oct - Rescheduled to SECC, Glasgow on 18 Dec.