Craig Finn is the frontman and lyricist of the Hold Steady, the Brooklyn-based rock band whose albums celebrate the bars, gutters, frontage roads, and youth countercultures of America. Finn’s lyrics mix the frankness of drunken confession with the literary allusions and skillful character development of someone who has read a million books on the college quad. (In Finn’s case, he studied at Boston College.) His songs are full of hood rats and saints, and his lyrics find beauty in back alleys and outcasts.
In 2012, Finn launched a solo career with his album Clear Heart Full Eyes. His second solo album, Faith in the Future, is due out, appropriately, on Sept. 11. I sat down with Finn at a used bookstore near Kansas City’s Record Bar (where Finn played later that night) to discuss why he wanted to make an album that dealt with the aftermath of 9/11, the shifting roles of religion and regionalism in his songwriting, and what’s next for the Hold Steady.
I first learned about the Hold Steady in January 2005. I was teaching a class called “Midwest Fiction.” On the first day, we went around the room and said the first thing that came to mind when we heard Midwest. Most students said stuff about farming and flatness. When it got to this blue-haired girl, Becky, she said, “The Hold Steady.”
Why do the blue-haired Becky’s of the Midwest think of your band as Midwestern?
In the first two albums—Almost Killed Me (2004) and Separation Sunday (2005)—we were trying to capture the idea of driving around. Growing up in Minneapolis, 40 miles wasn’t too far to drive to go to a party. More times than not, the party wasn’t even happening. But that’s what you did; you drove around and listened to the radio. I was trying to capture some of that feeling.
Which makes the Kerouac reference in Boys and Girls in America (2006) all the more apropos. The car culture you capture in the first two records is what fed the Beat aesthetic, especially the idea of expansiveness, of getting somewhere and it not really being happening.
But in On the Road (1957), when Sal gets somewhere, there’s still a chance it’ll be a real place. In Denver, there’s sawdust on the floor and saloon doors. Now there’s Petcos and Home Depots everywhere. Denver doesn’t look much different than Minneapolis or Orlando. I try to capture that shift, too—the way places are no longer scaled to the human. I’m at a Red Roof Inn and there’s a Denny’s and it looks close. I take a shortcut and I surprise a guy sleeping in the bushes. There’s poverty on the fringes. It’s very alienating, and that alienation is something I want to capture.
You recorded Faith in the Future (2015) in a studio in rural Woodstock. Did the album need that kind of seclusion?
I’d been writing songs after my mom died in 2013. Work was the answer to anxiety and grief. I brought some of the songs to the Hold Steady, and no one really reacted to them. So I showed them to producer Josh Kaufman. He said he’d help me out. So he and I and drummer Joe Russo went up to Woodstock on January 2, 2014.
We immediately got snowed in, which was convenient. I didn’t know those guys very well and being snowbound helped us gel. Josh is a very cool producer. The first thing he’ll do every day is start making a meal, like a big pot of soup. So we’re snowed in and there’s great bread and soup and we start working and we take a break. It’s very relaxed. At some point the wine comes out. Very comfortable. And the “studio” is basically a house with some microphones and recording equipment, none of the things you think about when you think about a studio. Joe would play drums, I’d play guitar, and Josh would play bass or keyboard. We’d sing a song then talk about what else it needed—the idea always being that we wanted the narratives to come through. We’d try to keep it sparse and elegant—try to keep out of the way. Because I feel like in the Hold Steady, individual members compete for space. For this record, we were able to avoid that.
The Hold Steady has a pretty standard process: Tad [Kubler] comes in with riffs and we build songs up from there. Tad’s an amazing musician and that process has worked well for us. But there’s always some amount of treading lightly, of being fair, political. Making the record with Josh and Joe in Woodstock, we could ask questions like “Does this song need bass?” When you have a bass player, you can’t ask that question. The solo project is about me wanting to do something quieter, wanting to not always be Stay Positive (2008) guy.
Your lyrics often contain a lot of geographically-specific references.
When the Hold Steady started, I was obsessed with the Drive-By Truckers, who sing a lot about where they’re from. I remember seeing a review of Almost Killed Me in Seattle’s the Stranger that said we were like Drive-By Truckers for Northerners. I was like, they got it. That’s what I was trying to convey.
But isn’t it a liability to be attached to a place, especially when that place is in the Midwest?
I think it’s an asset in a way. But I will say that we played Minneapolis two nights ago, and though it still feels like coming home, there’s only one or two Minneapolis references on the new record. I’m 15 years away from that place. In 2005, I was really interested in telling all my New York people what a special place Minneapolis was. Now, I can’t even make a decent restaurant recommendation. When I go out there anymore, I stay with my dad in Edina, which is a suburb. I meet my friend at a generic sports bar close to his house. I have very little information about what’s cool or hip there anymore.
The lyrics on new album place personal experience in the context of big historical events, rather than geographical specificity. That interest in history, as opposed to place, has always been there. I’m thinking of the first line of the first album: “We woke up in the ’20s…” It’s a decade-by-decade tracking of the evolution of the countercultural “we.” What role do you think rock music plays in marking historical periods?
It’s always going to do that. Look at how Vietnam changed rock. I’ve been thinking a lot about Vietnam lately. I read Joan Didion’s novel Democracy (1984), and I wrote “Honolulu Blues” about that. Democracy is about war profiteering in Hawaii, about how what we think of as a great, magical place is actually pretty dark. And that got me thinking about my parents, who had friends die in the war, and about how the first half of the 1970s must have been like a hangover. The five years after 9/11 were like a hangover for me. Dark times. Everyone was a little scared. We had that weird blackout in 2003. I’m interested in the hangovers that follow big historical events.
Why is your 9/11 album coming out in 2015?
It’s about how long the post-9/11 hangover lasted. For me, the years between then and now are bookended by my divorce on the one end and the death of my mother on the other end. In between, I found love and a more positive path. So I think the album’s about the interaction between the personal and the historical.
My current girlfriend was in the 33rd floor of the first WTC tower. At shows, I tell the story very dramatically: They told her to stay where she was, and she defied the order and got out. That’s true, but everyone on her floor got out OK. She’s conflicted about her connection to that day. We were in Oklahoma on vacation, and we met this couple in a bar and we chatted with them and 9/11 came up and the woman started bawling, and Angie was like, “It’s OK. I’m here.” The day comes up every year, and she’s not cavalier about it or detached, but she is wary of continuing to revisit that tragedy.
There’s a spiritual sensibility to your lyrics that, over time, has gotten more earnest. Aren’t you worried you’ll start to draw fans from hipster Christianity?
Yeah. In Kansas City at least, a lot of gentrifiers are covertly Christian. They’re well-dressed, skinny-jeansed, mustachioed young people who open churches and coffee shops in urban zip codes. They don the mask of counterculture. What do you, who have a career-long commitment to documenting and advocating for youth counterculture, think about that?
I was in an Uber once with this driver who had a New Testament sitting out on his dash. We talked and when I said I was a musician, he said, “I gotta play you something.” He played this song by a bluegrass band from Nashville called Judah and the Lion. They are Christian but not overtly so.
Christian-but-not-overtly-so should be a genre.
There was something about it that was so earnest that I had to go home and watch the video three times. I was like, “I kind of can’t believe this.” He drops the Jesus bomb in the third verse, but before that, the lyrics are about how he likes skinny jeans and V-neck T-shirts, about how he’s not a hipster and also not a redneck. He lies somewhere in between. And then the third verse starts, “Yes, I love Jesus.” And they’re really good looking and they play bluegrass. And I was like, I’m sure this is really big, probably in the coffee shops you’re talking about.
How will you feel if Faith in the Future becomes super popular with Judah and the Lion fans?
Well, I’m not in a position to turn away any audience, but I feel that it’s unlikely that there would be that crossover. And I don’t want to disparage any band, as I know the hard work and sacrifice that goes into this thing. But, also, people grow. I have met people who have sort of graduated from listening to square Christian music to become massive rock fans with incredible depth and knowledge of all kinds of music. Christian music seems like a logical entry point for a lot of people.
You and Stephen Colbert are two public figures who’ve managed to own your Catholicism in a way that hasn’t earned the derision of the godless commentariat.
Part of my Catholicism is, I think, about my grandpa. He was really Catholic. Rather than search for a place that aligns with all my political beliefs or whatever, I’m just going to be sort of a Catholic, whatever that means. I’ve spent enough time in church to think about sin and forgiveness in certain ways. I feel like I connect with a lot of Catholics who are roughly in the same place I am, or maybe a little further away. There are people who appreciate the connection they can make through my song’s Catholic references.
What’s the difference between the Catholicism of your lyrics and the Christian-but-not-overtly-so quality of Jonah and the Lion?
I think there might be something more world weary in my lyrics, and it’s certainly filtered through the music I grew up with, which was 1980s punk and hardcore as well as classic and underground rock ’n’ roll. The Christian stuff that makes me nervous is the really bright-eyed Youth Group kind of scene. Like, I never want to hold anyone’s hand during the Lord’s Prayer; that doesn’t seem right to me in the Catholic Church. I like the fire and brimstone. I like the Jesus who hung around criminals and prostitutes. I like redemption. A lot of Christianity in music comes from a place and people that never had to be saved or redeemed. They just always bought in. I think I’m interested in the struggle.
Through making Catholic references, you’re taking a risk, especially with the cynics of your Gen X audience demographic.
Honesty’s a risk. I remember people were uncomfortable with the Catholicism in Separation Sunday, which is obviously a Catholic album.
Separation Sunday is also a concept album about hood-rat redemption. In that way it’s like Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs (2010) and Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City (2012), two recent game-changing albums. So what seems in one context—the context of Gen X cynicism—to be an audience-alienating move may just gain you Millennial support.
My friend went to his nephew’s wedding, and he said, remember how when we went to a wedding and we were 25 and only a few of us would dance. We’d have to get really drunk first. He said that’s not the case anymore. At the first song, every kid at the wedding went for it. They all danced. And they all loved “Don’t Stop Believing.” They’re very positive.
When I was young, I was always into positive hardcore: 7 Seconds and Youth of Today. I felt really good when I’d go to those shows, and a lot of it was angstiness, like “We’re all together! We’re against them! We’re for us! We’re gonna fight!” I felt like I was part of something. At some point I connected positive hardcore to Catholicism. That was a watershed moment for me. With the Hold Steady, I wanted to translate that hardcore vibe into a rock ’n’ roll band.
But there are no odes to angsty teenagers in Faith in the Future. Have you stopped advocating for geographically-specific subcultures? Have you stopped caring about the blue-haired Beckys of the world?
Faith in the Future is motivated by a belief that something better is coming, and also just a fascination with the fact that people, with very few exceptions, keep moving forward. We get up and we go to work. Most people don’t shut down. They wake up and they try to do something.
The new album urges its audience to be more hopeful. I’m thinking of the line from “Newmyer’s Roof”: “Look at these mountains./ Look at these trees./ Tom, there must be something you believe.”
Doubting Thomas has the cynical take, and I’m trying to point out that there’s something beautiful. The second song, “Roman Guitars,” has the line “all these molecules add up to something beautiful.” It’s not just molecules. We can break it down, but some things are still magic. There’s magic infused in all of it. So when I ask Thomas what he believes, I’m asking him to acknowledge some of that.
[The song “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child begins to play in the background.]
And if Doubting Thomas were here, he might remark that Beyoncé’s voice just drowned out the sound of Craig Finn saying there’s “magic in the world.” You’ve got competition. And the dancing Millennials are more interested in Beyoncé positivity than in the gnarly bits you pulled out of the hardcore scene.
I know. When I was 20, I was really interested in Pavement and the guys at the record store were like, “This is just like the Velvet Underground,” and I was like, “I can’t see those bands. This is my band.” 22-year-olds have their own bands. They don’t need the Hold Steady. That’s reality, and accepting it doesn’t make me any less interested in connecting with people.
So what’s next for the Hold Steady?
The Hold Steady did 120 dates last year, and everyone came back a little fried and needed a little space, and I wanted to do some stuff in 2015 and other people didn’t. It’s my expectation that we will fire it up, again, but I don’t know. I can’t guarantee it.