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The Hold Steady
couldn’t quite get things right. There’s a chunk of this interview that just can’t exist for you; my tape recorder tried to stretch itself over the noise of the first bar we occupied, but alas, nothing but the shrill hiss of laughter and snippets of words. Topics included:
---Chapel Hill, North Carolina (a good place all-around)Anyway, we finally settled in to a quiet bar’s back porch. I was nervous, but they’re very friendly, easygoing, and hardly shy; it’s probably to the insult of my interrogative skills that the interview was more bearing witness to/participating in general fraternizing. Without further preface, a chat with the Hold Steady.
---ex-Television guitarist Richard Lloyd (selling drugs from the hospital, being awesome)
---Craig Finn’s attendance at the Descendents show that became either the album Livage or Hallraker (a story that guitarist Tad Kubler swears he tells to everyone)
---an armless Minnesotan stripper who works at a lounge called Skyway, not to be confused with the Minnesota skyway system, a series of over-ground tunnels connecting various buildings, where Craig met his wife ice hockey (Texas took their beloved North Stars)
---their unlikely rained-out pairing with Joanna Newsom (“she wasn’t even weird at all,” Craig assured/lamented).
---Craig’s short conversation with Sire Records mogul Seymour Stein
Craig: I just really wanted to say thanks for…
Seymour: The Replacements
Craig: How’d you know?
Seymour: Fuckin’ look at yourself!
Craig Finn (vocals and guitar): Did you know this guy Mitch Hedberg? He’s this comedian who died last night, and I had heard of him before, but only really because he’s from St. Paul and I’m from Minneapolis.
No. Why do you ask?
C: Well, I was thinking about it because I have this thing, I think comedy is really integral to rock n’ roll. I mean, most good rock n’ roll has this comedic element to it, like the Rolling Stones—you watch Mick Jagger, and it’s funny—Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, Springsteen, you name it. I had this argument with my buddy, and he was trying to play Nick Cave as this counterexample. I’m a big Nick Cave fan, but I think there’s something funny about him. And so I read this interview with Nick Cave in December, and he was saying “yeah, I hope people understand the humor in my music,” so I cut it out and sent it to my friend. Elliott Smith is the one guy who doesn’t have a lot of comedy in his music.
I don’t know if that was really to his credit or to his detriment.
Tad Kubler (guitar): [appears bearing several glasses] Mike, how do you feel about whiskey?
I like it.
T: And I like you because you like it.
C: What is this?
T: Beam. Thanks, Kentucky.
[Much clinking, tape recorder falls over.]
C: That’s the article. The Hold Steady Broke My Tape Recorder.
T: So hey, Voyles located the dictaphone, and he’s going to send it over to me. He said there’s some funny shit on there.
C: That could by the name of my solo album.
T: No, it’s just A Dictaphone.
C: Well, we had this idea, I had this idea, uhh…
There was an idea.
T:He had it and we realized it.
C: So I decided that for this tour I would just, well, basically smoke as much weed and drink as much Diet Coke as I could.
T:He’s not lying.
C: And my comedy got, well, pretty out of control. Pretty funny.
T:Depends on who you ask.
Galen Polivka (bass): The volume was definitely there.
C: Well, the quality was intended to be hit or miss.
Bobby Drake (drums): You’d open Craig’s door and five or six Diet Coke cans would roll out and there’s be a bunch of smoke.
T: There was some Peter Sellers shit going on.
C: I thought I would get a Dictaphone and record a comedy album, you know, in the car from Cleveland to Detroit or whatever, and just sell the one mini cassette as a “limited edition” at the show.
C: Well, that’s kinda the thing about smoking a lot of weed. Plans just kind of linger there and never get forced into action.
The fruition thing is tough.
C: The comedy was pretty unstoppable though.
T:I think that we’d all agree… for the most part.
C: Well yeah, there were probably parts that were going over your head.
G: Yeah, it got real cerebral…
T:I would swear by about 60% of it.
Didn’t Bob Pollard release a comedy record recently?
C: Yeah, it was between-song banter stuff.
G: It was very Venom, actually.
[Tad Kubler howls, claps]
C: Have you heard that Venom MP3? Thurston Moore edited these Venom bootlegs and put it on the B-Side of a Sonic Youth record.
T:Wasn’t it a Moistboyz 10-inch?
C: Can’t remember. It’s this whole Venom live set… you know Venom?
C: Speed metal…?
T:More death metal. They’re one of the original death metal bands.
C: From the UK in the 80’s, mid to late 80’s.
T:They did “In League with Satan,” uhhh…
C: Black Metal. That was a big record. They kinda coined that term.
T:Yeah, they kinda coined that term I guess.
C: Anyway, it’s this 6 or 7 minute MP3, a whole Venom show, but without the music, just the banter. There’s some comedy on there that…
C: My favorite bit was [in Thunderous British Accent]: “Tomorrow night we are playing in New York! We think it will be a lot bigger than this!”
T:Which makes me think of a Venom show with 60 dudes just kind of standing around.
G: Well, what’s really great to imagine is what Venom fans circa 1983 or whatever looked like in Secaucus, New Jersey.
C: They were probably playing at the City Gardens in Trenton. When I met Tad, he had a big sewn-on Venom patch on his jean jacket.
T:Yeah, it was a great jacket. A light jean jacket. And it was a back patch—it fit perfectly. I bought it in Canada when I was on tour with this other band, at this super-crazy Mom and Pop record store/head shop kind of place in London, Ontario. Venom. Black Metal. Back patch.
C: Wasn’t it like a goat or something?
T:Yeah, it was just a goat’s head with a pentagram and it said “Venom” across the top and “Black Metal” underneath. My friend Tricia sewed it on for me. I had it for a long time, for years.
[I conclude that the patch probably looked a lot like this.]
C: It was kinda your trademark.
T:Yeah, and it was great, you know, because I’m just this guy— I would just be walking around, you know, wearing my glasses, and I would turn around and there’s this Venom patch. And I got these looks, like “that dude doesn’t listen to Venom,” but I really grew up on a lot of that bullshit… we can get to that later. So, we were playing at the Fireside Ballroom in Chicago when Craig and I were in Lifter Puller and some guy fucking stole it off the stage.
C: It was kinda irresistible.
T:No, just a great jacket. And every time we play Chicago, I just comb the audience, waiting.
So you just didn’t see some guy grab it off the stage.
T:Well, nah, I mean, let’s not get into this, because I… I could’ve just got drunk and left it there. Which is actually probable.
It sounded like a great jacket though.
T:It was. And it was this thing, I would walk into a room full of crust punks and they would say “dude, sweet” and it was just instant bonding—you’re buddies.
C: I think there’s a 30% chance you got wasted and left it there.
G: I say 60%.
T:Well… uhh, yeah.
G: Let’s just say it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility.
T:Edit that shit out. It was stolen, there were fisticuffs, it was great.
C: I kinda feel bad just talking… so, I guess you probably have questions?
They’re even written down in this little notebook. [I fumble awkwardly, already having had a few drinks and now slightly taken aback at my responsibility, basically having settled into just hanging out]. Listening to Separation Sunday, it’s obvious that the palate, the sound is much bigger. You recorded Almost Killed Me in about a week, and this one in about a month.
C: Yeah, the last one was two sessions, roughly six days. This one was scheduled for three weeks, and it kinda went into overtime, due to some technical problems.
Didn’t you lose some horn files?
T:It was partially that, but it was also just that we had a really specific goal in mind of what we wanted the record to sound like.
C: And we were able to do it.
T:And if stuff didn’t sound exactly how we wanted it to, or the way Dave [Gardner] and Dean [Baltulonis, the producers] wanted it to, we would redo it, or remix, or just do it a little differently. It was very calculated. We tried to not just be “good enough.” We kept going back to things.
C: We were in a situation that none of us had really been in before, where time constraints weren’t so much of an issue. I also think Dave and Dean were a big part of it; adding a keyboard/organist [Franz Nicolay]. My friend Dave is an auto mechanic, and he said something once that stuck: you bring your car in, and there’s always something that could be done to it. If you’re in the studio for three weeks, it could always be worked on just a little bit more. Time affords a more expansive sound.
That basically answers my next question—the time spent on this record was just a matter of means.
C: It’s also just, well, the first half of the first record was really just documenting the band. We played our first show in January 2003, and the first six songs on Almost Killed Me were recorded in February. We recorded the rest four months later. We just put them all together, and the record came out a year later. I think the new record is way more cohesive, way more of an album.
T:More deliberate. In saying that, I think we spent a lot more time talking about how we wanted to put tracks together.
C: We threw songs out for the first time, I’ve never done that before.
T:Even after laying stuff down, mixing it, etc., we spent a lot of time putting it together as a record. I think sequencing albums is a really lost art. I think this one works as a whole album, rather than just ten or eleven songs thrown together.
Definitely. Well, one of the things I wanted to say was… well, maybe I don’t want to say this right now.
T:Do you want another whiskey?
[I’m nervous; I don’t know just quite how to answer, so I resort to ever-reliable honesty.] Yes. Are you going to have another?
[Tad looks at me, almost incredulously, puts his head down in laughter, and solicits a high five.]
C: Never ask him that question.
[There is a discussion about whiskey. American whiskey. Scotch whiskey. “Single malt shit” as Craig says. We slowly get back on track.]
C: Anyway, I felt like on a lot of the last record, it was like, “when I stop singing, play a solo.” And this one, like Tad said, was way more deliberate. I would work on stuff with Galen, Tad would come in, it would come together. The first record was more practice space-y.
G: Also, it’s the simple fact that we’ve been a band longer, we understand each other better.
C: We’ve learned to play more to our strengths, I think. Franz also brings out a lot of the texture. A lot of the E Street Band thing.
Totally. On the topic of cohesion, anyone who got into the lyrics of the record will see that you’re kind of slicing off a piece of the story—characters only alluded to on the first record are the central figures on the second. Had you thought about this before the first record even came out?
C: Sure, when we started the Hold Steady, I had this story in mind. If the first record told a certain portion of the story, the second tells another. And the next, well I don’t fully know yet, it might be a different slice. I mean, of course it’s not really in my best interest to tell you the story—I know that’s not what you’re asking. The characters are a place to hang the record on. None of the lyrics from Separation Sunday deviate from the story I wanted to tell on Almost Killed Me.
Yeah, and I can’t judge how everyone listens to a record, but if I’m sitting there listening to every single word, you hear these lyrical mirrors…
C: There’s definitely a reward for people that got into Almost Killed Me.
Well it’s funny that you say that. I wouldn’t way that you guys are a “niche” band, but like Lifter Puller [Craig and Tad’s old band, a mighty beast indeed], there’s a cult-ish atmosphere to both bands…
C: We played in Atlanta last week. The bartender and the soundman both said, “Yeah, I’ve been to a few shows with less people—there were less than fifty people there—but I’ve never been to a show where fifty people had been so concentrated on the stage;” every single person knew every single word to the old songs, and a lot of the new ones, too. I did merch that night, and I know that we sold a piece of merch to every person in the crowd. It’s a feast or famine kind of thing with us.
In a way, it’s obvious that you hold that kind of place, which is strange. But do you feel like, as a band, you guys are standing on your own, or are there other bands that you find yourself in tune with?
T:I think we have our peers that are also doing their own thing, doing something very, very specific stylistically or genre-wise. At the same time, I don’t get the same kind of response.
You’d know better than I would.
T:Well, we just got off tour with The Bloodthirsty Lovers, and the people that love what he does will always just love what he does. How, or whether or not he reaches people is a whole other issue.
G: It’s also just impossible to control. We just do what we do, and we throw it out there. We can’t really predict anything else. We’re not looking to be a niche thing.
T:My only hopes and expectations are that people like it, and that we really get to enjoy it too.
C: Tad and I were in Lifter Puller. And we moved here, and Tad and I were kinda playing music. And then The Last Waltz got reissued in the theater, you know, The Band movie. And my wife’s a huge fan, and so she took me to the theater, and it fucking blew my mind, because it was people playing music and having fun in a loose manner. The reason I bring it up is because, look at us, we’re kinda old. I mean, I’m 33, Bobby’s almost 30, Galen and Tad are over 30, Franz is the youngest one. We want to do something that’s timeless. I think we’re a classic rock band, insofar as we’re influenced by rock music that was made when we were born, and I was born in 1971.
T:Most of our influences are stuff from when we were growing up, and most of the people we align ourselves with are influenced by the same kind of stuff. When you grow up with something like that, and I think I speak for everyone, you just want to write good songs.
C: I was driving around in Minneapolis, doing this press thing, and it’s interesting. You grew up in Manhattan, or around here. I thought about how growing up in the Midwest, on an average Friday night in high school, you spent four to five hours of a six-hour night in the car. I think about radio. I moved to New York four and half years ago, and radio plays zero part in my life now, but when I got my car, the day I turned 16, my life was wide open. There wasn’t really alternative rock radio back then, there was just classic rock. It wasn’t really like you were making a choice, it wasn’t like “dude, I just love classic rock.” You could get into alternative and punk rock, but classic rock was the base. In car, you had KQRS: Rolling Stones, AC/DC, Led Zepplin, Boston. It was just constantly filtering through your brain. When the Hold Steady started, classic rock was just ground zero.
T:It seemed totally obvious and natural to us, to play through this sound that was such a huge part of our development.
B: It just makes sense. You’re not kidding yourself.
C: I got a guitar when I was 12 or 13. You start to figure out how to play, and learn “Smoke on the Water” first, and it’s not because you really like Deep Purple, it’s just the song you learn.
T:“You Really Got Me.”
B: “Iron Man.”
C: All those. Growing up in the suburbs of a Midwestern city, it’s just part of your psyche.
T:I was lucky enough to grow up in Janesville, Wisconsin.
G: You were lucky enough to grow up in Janesville, Wisconsin?
T:Yeah… let me rephrase that: I grew up in Janesville, Wisconsin across the street from the Adamany sisters, whose mom was married to Ken Adamany at one time, who managed Cheap Trick through most of the 70’s and 80’s. They were 5 or 6 years older than me. And I’m in between Madison, Wisconsin, and Rockford, Illinois, where all those guys lived. When I was seven and eight, I got records from those guys for my birthday.
C: Yeah, actually, one of the things I think we’ve lost through the internet is a sense of music regionalism. I mean, Cheap Trick is a big band nationally, but in the region that we grew up in, they were way huge, really, really big.
B: Budokan, man, Budokan.
C: They’ve just kept up in the Midwest in a way they haven’t nationally.
[Tad tells a rather involved, but hilarious story about Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielson, a Chicago Cubs baseball cap, Christmas, and the then unrealized but subsequently deduced possibility of quickie cocaine consumption.]
C: I’m sure we’ve pretty much stayed on topic, right? I mean, these are how all of our interviews go. You say one thing and we just start talking a lot.
You did the work for me, I guess. Plus, I had fun.
C: The Cheap Trick thing is kinda a metaphor, in a way. I have some friends out here on the East Coast that are huge Cheap Trick fans. And I’d really like the Hold Steady to be a “smart-rock” band, a band that embraces the rock elements of rock—riffs, Zepplin, etc.—but brings a level of intelligence to it. Cheap Trick, while I wouldn’t go so far as to call them “intellectuals”—
G: There’s a subversive element though…
C: Definitely, and my friends out here that really like Cheap Trick; I tell them that they’re really much bigger in the upper Midwest, and they’re like, “damn, it must be a promised land out there.”
G: Yeah, Rockford [Illinois, birthplace of Cheap Trick].
T:It’s probably one of the biggest crack dens in the US right now.
C: Rockford suuuucks.
T:Another story. Cheap Trick played three shows on First Avenue [in Minneapolis] right before I moved. They played their first three albums, one each night: Cheap Trick, Black and White and In Color, then on Sunday they did Heaven Tonight. On Sunday, Aerosmith was playing across the street at the Target Center—this big arena. Cheap Trick start jamming, and they’re like “some friends of ours are here from Boston; we saw them around earlier, and if they’re still here, we’d like them to come onstage and jam.” And I’m so wasted, I don’t know who the hell they’re talking about.
C: Some coke dealers, probably.
T:Yeah, right. They were doing “Train Kept Rolling”—this old blues/traditional song—and this guy plugs in onstage, and he’s got this weird haircut, weird pirate moustache, and I’m thinking, “that’s Joe Perry from Aerosmith.” And Steven Tyler just runs out there, rips his shirt off, starts shrieking, grabs a mic, and everyone’s drink just went up in the air. And Aerosmith have had their ups and downs [everyone giggles], but it was so great.
G: I was talking about this the other night with a friend actually. He was at the show standing next to this hesher couple, and when Aerosmith got onstage, the dude just starts bawling—weeping uncontrollably.
C: I don’t understand admiring something and crying. Tears of joy—I just don’t get it.
T:That’s horse shit dude, and I’m going to call you out on that. You cried tears of joy at your wedding, okay?
[The silence is near-perfect. We’re soon asked to leave the bar; the patio is closing up. I didn’t get all my questions answered, but I had a whole lot of fun.]
Many thanks to Debby Hambrick from 230 Publicity for facilitating this interview; also, many thanks to Craig, Tad, Galen, and Bobby for hanging out.