Craig Finn is about to learn a lesson. It's just not clear what lesson it will be. With their third album, Boys and Girls in America, Brooklyn's Hold Steady are receiving the best reviews of their career, playing to packed houses and living the crazy life of indie-rock desirables. It hasn't been easy. They've had some breaks, as any artist needs, and they've had some setbacks, as any artist learns to accept. The New York Times has profiled them. People argue over them. To an outsider wondering what all the fuss is about, it might seem like the rock press is doing it again: setting a band up only to eventually knock them down when they don't deliver on the imagined promise.
The Hold Steady specialize in grand, pumping riffs that are classic-rock in their delivery. Their keyboardist has expanded his role and suddenly the Springsteen/Meat Loaf/West Side Story motifs are being realized. And then there's the singer. His lyrics obsessively chronicle fucked-up teens sampling booze, sex and religion with careless attitudes and very real consequences. They're funny and sly and slightly heartbreaking. You're not laughing at them, but the way Finn sets up the situation, well, you're laughing at it. ("She was a really cool kisser and she wasn't all that strict of a Christian/She was a damn good dancer but she wasn't all that great of a girlfriend.") And the way he sings, or rather rants, will be the deciding factor. You either gravitate toward his fat-tongued delivery or you wonder why anyone listens to a guy who barely attempts a melody. It's only rock & roll, but some people, I've learned, never like it.
Now, this is the part of the story where I'm supposed to tell you about Lifter Puller and the band's early days in Minneapolis, where Finn and guitarist Tad Kubler started making the scene. There they started their own version of the Kiss Army with a cadre of rock critics who, like themselves, would find their way to New York over the next decade and begin the mass conspiracy to take over the world. Lifter Puller released a bunch of records that, every few years, indie-rock CD collectors debate the merits of, and to a newbie sound good, with a select group of highlights that change every time you put the damn things on. If you were 15 years old, you would have these moments tattooed on your brain. Over 30, you have vague recollections of really liking certain spots and a grand ambition to revisit those spots sometime in your forced early retirement.
However, rock & roll is a world of commerce, and while selling moldy old Lifter Puller albums might be in the Hold Steady's general interest, it isn't really the point of all this ambitious touring. Besides, Craig Finn may be someone who likes to take notes and think about life and reflect on its transitory meaning, but he's also in the here and now and glad to shed light on his latest creation. And considering how damned great I find the new album, shouldn't we be talking about that?
Yes and no. One of the sad truths about "music journalism" is that it's most boring when people talk about the music. Craig Finn has his flashes of inspiration like anyone else. When it comes, he's elated, and when it stops, he grows concerned. It's why the opening track of the new album, a monster of a tune called "Stuck Between Stations," resonates as it recounts the life and suicide of poet John Berryman.
"I read a story about John Berryman and the article was about Minneapolis' most famous suicide and it gave all the details and I thought, ‘This guy sounds like a Hold Steady song,'" says Finn. "They had a quote from way back when, from Saul Bellow, where he called Berryman the greatest American writer. So I thought, ‘I should check into this.' I think a lot of it is the impression of what goes into drinking and how art fits in there. A lot of artists get this creativity out of depression and that song is interested in that. I have a feeling Berryman's talent was wrapped up in his miserableness. It's something of concern to me. I know there are periods where I go running a lot and I get healthier, and my creativity tends to dry up a little then. So I'm always trying to figure out how to do this for the long haul without dragging myself through the mud to get material. But touring, alcohol and drugs provide plenty of highs and lows to capture stuff from."
If you've been reading many of the articles that have been appearing on the group thus far, you might be getting the impression that this is less a group of musicians than a gang of alcoholics. It's something that amuses Finn, and he's quick to point out it's not true.
"I have a pretty good drinking routine," he says with a laugh. "I don't drink until we get on stage and then I drink as much as possible. I could see if people thought that was my pace all day. I would be a disaster. But when you're just drinking for an hour and a half and sweating a bunch of it out, it's not that bad."
The drinking is actually strategic, a way of pacing the set, so to speak, explains Finn. "It sort of sprawls out during the set. I think that's a good concert. Any of the bands I've loved come out and do the encore and it's a little looser than the rest of the set. That's how it was with the Replacements and Rolling Stones and those kinds of bands."
It is to "those kinds of bands" that the Hold Steady aspire. The question remains whether or not they'll keep it together long enough to attain their goal, and whether or not the audience they've been slowly building will stick with them and help them rise to that next level. So far, it's worked.
"I think it's a slow build and especially when you're doing something a little off-center, I think that's how long it takes," says Finn. "You build on it. People stay with you if you have something real. It's like picking up people along the way. Part of the trick is keeping people, people who saw Lifter Puller. We've kept a lot of those older fans. You start to have kids and day jobs it gets really hard and you have to decide how to spend your money."
Nobody's dummy, Finn knows there could be a backlash waiting. I've got a list of credible songwriters who can't get arrested these days. I force his hand. Has he got it figured when it might happen? "A couple months," he answers with an amused chuckle. "I guess it depends on how big a record it becomes. I'm not reading stuff. I think that's important."[email protected]