A World of Their Own

The Hold Steady: indie rock's most prolific, distinctive band?

| October 05, 2006
The Hold Steady with Craig Finn (center)
The Hold Steady with Craig Finn (center)

In this age of musical overproduction, no genre has benefited/suffered more than indie rock: There are so many arty guitar bands fronted by forgettable singer-songwriters that even genre specialists couldn't keep track of them all Web-surfing through a hundred lifetimes.

There are plenty of exceptions within this heaving, frequently indistinct mass, of course, and one of the biggest is the Hold Steady: Love him or hate him, no one writes songs like the Hold Steady's Craig Finn.

Over the course of six LPs with two bands (Minneapolis' Lifter Puller in the '90s; the Brooklyn-based Hold Steady this decade), Finn has perfected a style all his own: Dense songs packed with allusions (to religion, rock music, literature, pop culture, his own band and back catalog), hip-hop-style rhyme for rhyme's sake, intentionally corny puns, killer one-liners, and, most crucially, an overarching narrative that extends across albums.

In each of his bands, Finn has created separate, self-contained worlds -- subcultural rock-music equivalents to Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County -- following a handful of characters at the intersection of youth culture, drug culture, and music scenes. With each band, the story's chronology is jumbled, with characters, places, situations, and bits of lyrics repeated song to song, album to album. And in both bands, Finn has devoted one magnum-opus concept album totally to the ongoing story arc. (Lifter Puller's Fiestas + Fiascos; the Hold Steady's Separation Sunday.)

"That's something that I was interested in as a music fan," Finn explains. "I would hear a Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan song and think, I wanna hear more about that character. Like Wendy in 'Born To Run.' That's where I got the idea about continuing to develop characters over [multiple] songs."

Though Finn has deployed this strategy in both Lifter Puller and the Hold Steady, the differences are compelling. Lifter Puller's music was a fictionalization of the present -- a hard-boiled tour of the seedy, druggy nightclub culture. By contrast, the Hold Steady's music is largely a fictionalization of the past.

"A lot of it comes from when I was a teenager," Finn says of the inspiration for the Hold Steady's songs. "When I was part of the hardcore scene -- meeting all kinds of knuckleheads and doing stupid things. There's a certain amount of trust at that age; you get yourself in trouble."

The result is more empathy for the users, dealers, and music-scene hangers-on that populate Hold Steady songs than was apparent in Lifter Puller. "I'm trying to offer more hope than in Lifter Puller," Finn acknowledges. "There's a celebratory aspect to the Hold Steady."

This also comes through in the music. Where Lifter Puller's music -- tightly wound indie rock -- could have been what its characters were listening to, there is more distance with the Hold Steady, which uses classic-rock guitar and piano riffs (written by guitarist Tad Kubler, who played bass in Lifter Puller) to spin tales about punk-scene kids. This gives the music an almost avuncular compassion and somewhat nostalgic romanticism.

Last year's Separation Sunday is the band's masterpiece. It's one of the rare albums that feels like it could be adapted into a movie, yet there's none of the "rock opera" overreaching or pretentiousness that mars most narrative concept albums. And it packs more gravity and emotional commitment than the Lifter Puller peer Fiestas + Fiascos.

The album's story (a "comeback story," Finn calls it) centers on a Catholic schoolgirl named Hallelujah (Holly for short) who skips out on CCD class and falls in with shady characters, first diving into the rock scene, then the drug scene, getting involved with drug trafficking. Years later, she wakes up in a confessional and then stumbles back to her old church, crashing Easter mass with an offer to "tell the congregation how a resurrection really feels."

Finn & Co. take the listener on a twisty, harrowing, heartfelt journey, with deliriously vivid details, Sopranos-worthy subplots, woozy jokes, and sad snapshots all crammed together in what feels like one 40-minute song.

This storytelling mode encourages obsessive listening (relevant personal tidbit: Separation Sunday is probably my favorite record of the decade) but also -- along with Finn's distinctive, near-spoken-word delivery -- plenty of detractors.

Some claim that an identification with Finn's subject matter is necessary for appreciating his songs, an assertion that bothers Finn.

"Jesus, I hope not," Finn says. "I think what you're trying to do as a songwriter is use specific examples to illustrate something that's more universal. So, I think, and I hope, though these are things I'm familiar with -- at least somewhat -- I'm reaching people who aren't."

The songs on the band's new album, Boys and Girls in America, are set in the same subcultural milieu, but otherwise the album is a big change for Finn and Kubler. A pointed departure from the intricate conceptualism of Separation Sunday, it's Finn's most conventional batch of songs ever, with more verse-chorus-verse structures and more actual singing.

The characters that were introduced on the band's first album, 2004's Almost Killed Me, and who dominated Separation Sunday, make an appearance on Boys and Girls in America, but only a minor one.

"On that one song, 'First Night,' they kind of come back heavy," Finn says. "There are a couple of reasons for that. One is that it's fun to give something for the fans who have been with us for a while, and, two, to keep the idea alive so I can write about those characters again if I choose to."

Instead of another concept record, Boys and Girls in America is, as Finn describes it, more of a "theme record." The title comes from Kerouac: "There are nights when I think that Sal Paradise was right/Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together," Finn sings to open the album, an idea that spins off into a collection of love songs, Craig Finn-style: Two teens meet when they wake up in the "Chillout Tent" at a rock concert, make out, and never see each other again. On the acoustic ballad "Citrus," Finn uses religious imagery to posit drug abuse as a betrayal of the promise of romantic love. "Party Pit" uses a location familiar from Separation Sunday as a launching pad for an unmistakably personal story of a strained post-high-school relationship.

As the follow-up to an album as engrossing as Separation Sunday, the less ambitious Boys and Girls in America can't help but underwhelm initially. But it proves as durable, distinctive, and addictive as any of Finn's and Kubler's other records over repeat listens. Three great albums within the past three years: Even with such an explosion of music, no other band can make the same claim.

Craig Finn's Memphis

Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn sets foot in Memphis for the first time this week, but he's got plenty to say about the city:

Flyer: There are Memphis references in a few early Lifter Puller songs. Where did that come from?

Finn: All of that comes from the Grifters being my favorite band of the '90s. I was always super-enthralled [with that band]. They were really cool to look at, to be around. But I'd never been to Memphis and have still never been to Memphis. So the Memphis I was writing about was what I had in my mind from knowing the Grifters and their music.

What was your attraction to the band?

I think they did the noise thing and the indie-rock thing well, but they had this connection to older rock-and-roll. They had more soul than other indie rock bands did. People would compare them to Pavement, and I never got that. They were more informed musically. There was a beauty in the way they played. They also reminded me of the Replacements shows I saw in Minneapolis growing up. They were always threatening to fall apart at any second, but that was part of the beauty of it.

And the Hold Steady ended up touring with [former Grifter Dave Shouse's] Bloodthirsty Lovers later?

Yeah, for about five or six shows. That was really fun. Dave's a good friend of mine, and we've talked about writing a song or doing something together but haven't done it.

And now you guys are touring a little with the Secret Service, beyond just the Memphis show?

Yeah, Steve Selvidge's band, who we know from the Bloodthirsty Lovers. They're playing with us on a few shows in the South. I was really fascinated with that Robert Gordon book It Came From Memphis around the time we were touring with the Bloodthirsty Lovers and talked to Steve about that, since his dad [Sid Selvidge] is all over it.

You did an interview with Pitchfork.com recently where you cited the new Lucero record as one of your current favorites.

I've been aware of Lucero for a long time. I've liked a lot of their records, but I think this one is by far their most focused. I don't know those guys. I've never even seen them live. But I get the feeling that they're probably punk-rock guys that got into more roots music. And they did that Jawbreaker cover, which is one of my favorite bands. I just sort of feel like when we do meet, we'll get along.

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