The Hold Steady Kills Me: An interview with Craig Finn

"Tramps like us, and we like tramps"

Florida Times-Union (2.06) — If rock ‘n’ roll has always been the soundtrack to restless, confused adolescence, Craig Finn and The Hold Steady have taken its most romanticized elements — escapism, nervous love, frequent bursts of lively panic — and put a killer twist on them.

A storyteller whose words stream out in sentences rather than verses, Finn writes stories about growing up with as much sharp-eyed nostalgia as the Beach Boys, Replacements or Bruce Springsteen. In fact, though he represents the suburbs of Minneapolis, Finn proves himself a devout Bruce disciple on Hold Steady’s 2004 debut, The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me, and its 2005 follow-up, Separation Sunday. Both are layered with variations on youthful, Boss-ian themes, both below the surface and well above it (from Charlemagne in Sweatpants: “Tramps like us, and we like tramps”).



But if Springsteen’s legacy is in perfecting the rock-as-redemption thing, Finn’s may be in hanging it upside down by its heels and shaking out its change all over the boardwalk.

“There’s a lot of teenage nostalgia in rock ‘n’ roll, and Sunday is a teenage album,” Finn said last week. “And it’s a suburban album. When I was 16, I was able to get my driver’s license, and growing up the suburbs, that means you suddenly have this amazing new freedom.”

Sunday also boasts more overt Catholicism than any secular album in recent memory. Finn, who was brought up Catholic and attended Boston College, doesn’t go to church, but he can’t consider himself lapsed, either. “When people used to say, ‘Are you Catholic?’ I’d say no,” he said. “But then I thought that might not be entirely accurate. I certainly do not go to church, nor do I subscribe to some of the beliefs of the Catholic church, but it was such an important part of me becoming who I am that it was a big part of the genesis of the record. Redemption, salvation, forgiveness — those are beautiful, profound things you can always come back to.”

That said, despite never once advocating Satanism or gayness and assigning a starring, reverent role to the big man, the crises of faith conveyed in Sunday may alarm anyone who put forth any effort to, say, cancel The Book of Daniel. “I’m sure there are Catholic priests who would find it really blasphemous, but the chances of them hearing the Hold Steady record are slim to none,” he said with a laugh.

The Hold Steady formed in 2000 from the ashes of Finn and guitarist Tad Kubler’s previous outfit, Lifter Puller. It now includes bassist Galen Polivka, drummer Bobby Drake and keyboardist Franz Nicolay. The band spent much of last year absorbing accolades (including dueling love letters from the New Yorker and the Village Voice) and materializing on most of the known world’s year-end Top 10 lists. “I feel critically acclaimed,” Finn said. “But we still haven’t sold that many records. A huge step in being in a band is getting to the point that you have actual fans. I think that’s where we’re at, which is exciting.”

But if those fans see Finn as the ignition, the Hold Steady’s fuel is its arena-ready sound, which probably gets closer to Aerosmith than anyone who’s ever recorded under the vast indie umbrella ever has. Kubler sounds like he’s scanning the want ads for openings in Thin Lizzy, and Nicolay’s piano gets positively jump-swinging on tracks such as Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night. In two albums, they’ve captured the Replacements’ sloppy swagger and Warren Zevon’s gift for being at once graceful and dust-mouthed and sort of sad.

“People assume that songwriters are talking about personal experience, but no one ever thinks of a filmmaker in the same way,” Finn said. “The record is certainly influenced by my life, but I write songs as a cinematic means of telling a story.”

Stories that have proven accessible both to the kids still inhabiting various personas in search of one that fits, and the older folks who haven’t forgotten how hard that is to pull off.

About Jeff Vrabel

My writing has appeared in GQ, Men’s Health, Success, the Washington Post, the official, Indianapolis Monthly, Billboard, Modern Bride and more. View all posts by Jeff Vrabel

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