Last summer, we invited The Hold Steady to play an intimate acoustic set on a beautiful day on a roof in Ridgewood, Queens for our Gothamist House series. The band is back in NYC this week, playing two shows at the Music Hall of Williamsburg on Sunday and Monday (and another show at Terminal 5 in April)—and serendipitously, we just found the following "long-lost" interview with them. Back in June, we talked to lead singer Craig Finn and guitarist Tad Kubler about their incessant touring, love of Cheap Trick, and latest album "Heaven is Whenever." You will also find two previously unpublished videos from that day last summer.
You guys have been touring non-stop this year, including quite a few strange venues on the first leg of the tour. Your last show in NY was in Westchester, of all places?
Craig: It was a radio station, The Peak, I think? The place was kind of like a family rec center. Seems like a pretty Westchester thing, I've never seen a place like that. And there’s a rock climbing wall, that's the first time we've ever—
Tad: —and a ball pit.
Craig: A ball pit. We've always wanted to play at a ball pit before, but I don't know about a rock climbing wall.
There must've been a fun atmosphere to it though?
Craig: Yeah, well, it definitely didn't scream rock and roll.
Tad: It's always fun to play places that aren't a regular rock club sometimes, but sometimes too, with our volume and being a rock band with six members and two guitars, or three guitars, that's one thing that can be a little hectic, trying to make it sound good for people that paid to go to the show.
Craig: Yeah, sometimes the dingiest rock club might not have the best atmosphere, but after being on tour all year, it's the thousandth show, so you know what it sounds like.
Tad: Yeah, the room isn’t always going to sound good.
Over the last decade, you guys have grown from "bar band" to a much different set up, with six people on stage. It seems like it would give you a whole different sort of sound.
Craig: And the crew. The scope of the whole thing has grown, when you think about the crew, or being in a tour bus. It's been a gradual thing in the way that we've experienced it. If you look at it from where we are now to how we started, then that's kind of a major jump.
Do you miss playing smaller venues, with less pressure and fewer expectations?
Craig: We've had some really fun shows in a way that we probably won't have [now]. We're having a different kind of fun, I think. You start to charge a little more for tickets, you know, and you have a little more responsibility not to taint the show.
Tad: Craig said different kind of fun, but I think anytime you do anything creative and make it a public thing, or do anything that's performance-based, live music especially—to get people in a room together, to celebrate music, and to have that kind of connection with people—I think experiencing that with more people is always a great thing.
Craig: And taking it to different parts of the world. I'm still in shock when we set up in Australia, or Amsterdam, or wherever we may be going, and people show up. It's an overwhelming touching thing. Even in the US, we'll play a new city, I'll be like, "No one's going to show up to this thing, how the hell would anyone know us in Savannah?"
You sound like you're still surprised by the acclaim that greets you wherever you go.
Craig: Sometimes, yeah. I'm not going to sit here and say, "God, I can't believe…" We've done enough shows in New York, or Minneapolis, or Chicago, that I'm not surprised that we're playing big venues. When we're playing Hawaii or Alaska, it is surprising.
Tad: I think surprise might not be the best word. There's still a tremendous amount of gratitude involved. We're thankful that we've gotten a chance to do this. There's a tremendous amount of hard work that went into it too, so I just think that's just part of the reward, and it's part of what we had to go through to get here. I think that we're just, again, tremendously grateful.
I was reminded, when you guys were talking about that feeling of gratitude, of the lyrics from the track "We Can Get Together:" "Heaven is whenever we get together / Sit down on the floor, and listen to your records." It almost seems like what you're doing on tour is that same feeling extended over.
Craig: Yeah, that song's about being in love with rock and roll music, and falling in love to rock and roll music. That was very conscious. I think Heaven Is Whenever, the title of the record, means a number of things to me, and one of them is doing this. Putting on a show, and having the audience come in, drink beer, and jump around—these moments attach themselves to that.
Tad: I've especially noticed this more recently. When I think about our lives—my life in particular—over the course of the last ten years, it's really gotten to the point where music has been such a constant, both in what I do, what we do together in the band, and also just in enjoying it as part of my life. Whether it's staying at home with my iPod, or the people you meet through music, or what we do professionally now, it consumes our lives. That's what so great about this particular record and that song in general. I can sit and enjoy it on a real level of being a fan of music, and that's what I think is really fun about it.
Craig: What Tad's saying also is that there are these relationships that you get to make. I've gotten to meet a lot of people in my favorite bands. And I still love going to see music, you know. Like, Patterson Hood from the Drive-By Truckers—it's a blessing to be able to turn to your favorite songwriters and the frontman of your favorite band and go, "Patterson, what do you mean by this? What do you say in this song?" Or John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats. Any of these people that you say, "What was that song about?" or having them be like, "I got this new record you got to hear," or being excited about their stuff. As a music fan, that's really kind of a cool thing.
Do you consider yourselves music nerds? Or do other guys in the band?
Craig: Yeah, I guess. If you were to come in after our show after a couple beers, and see our front lounge, we’d maybe be listening to some Led Zeppelin outtakes.
Tad: Yeah, Led Zeppelin II Bootleg Outtakes. Or some kind of documentary concert footage of Rush in Brazil.
Craig: I say "music nerd" would definitely describe when we're all hanging out watching Rush in Brazil. There are certain bands, too: Zep's one of them, Replacements are another. I think those are probably the big two. Everyone has their bands. I know stuff about my favorite bands that is just bizarre.
Tad: This goes to what Craig said too; I think I was having a conversation with Carl Newman of the New Pornographers about the ten most important bands of the seventies. We got to like Yes, and Supertramp came up.
Craig: Is that like one through ten? Did he have a number one?
Tad: Somebody walked up and they were like, "Ah, I've heard this conversation before!" It's like part of—we started touring, and there's people that you meet and the relationships and friendships that you make too. That's what's really funny. I started that conversation with him last October and picked it up a week ago where we left off. It was really nice. It's that kind of geekery that goes along with being a music fan. But at the same time, some people—and Craig has talked about this before—can make it really sort of exclusive, like you've got to be really cool to have heard this kind of thing. I think that some of the things we enjoy can be very inclusive.
Craig: Those people don't enjoy rock.
Do you guys get into arguments amongst yourself about these things?
Craig: I'm trying to think if there's anything that sets off people. There's nothing that I think is awful that anyone else really likes. There might be guilty pleasures people have. I know Tad and I both have a soft spot for Billy Joel, but some others don't share it.
Another band like that, and this just jumped out at me a couple days ago, is Cheap Trick, and you have that verse in "Rock Problems" that references their classic album, In Color.
Craig: Yeah, we grew up in the Midwest, and Cheap Trick is more appreciated in the Midwest than it is on the coast.
Tad: Cheap Trick is to me what the Replacements is to Craig.
Craig: They're from his region.
Tad: And I saw those guys growing up where I did, and I got to meet those guys when I was young, like seven or eight years old. Rick Nielsen, Robin Zander, and Bun E. Carlos, briefly. Two girls that grew up across the street from me, their dad was Ken Adamany and he managed Cheap Trick really during their heyday, so I was able to gain a little bit of access.
Craig: There's something awesome about Cheap Trick in that, they are a Midwest band, they don’t hit either of the coasts anymore, but even today, they still do a fair amount of gigs.
Is it the original lineup?
Tad: Yes, yeah it is.
Craig: Yeah, and also, for where they are now, I feel like Cheap Trick really understands their role and place in rock and roll currently. They're not trying to relive their glory days, they're—aside from having some work done or something like that—I feel like they've aged somewhat gracefully. They all still play very well.
Tad: Robin Zander still sings very well.
Craig: Yeah, he's got one of the best voices in rock and roll.
Do you feel like you're a part of this lineage then?
Craig: No, I don't know about that. But I think we're informed by the stuff we like, which is things like Cheap Trick and the Replacements, which to me, kind of go together. Pop, rock, guitars, good lyrics. They've had some moments.
They were the Oasis of their day, in a way.
Tad: I like that comparison. I never would've made that, but that's a good one.
Especially their first two or three albums—there's sort of a backlash at this point, but—they're still solid records.
Tad: I really think that they're in the same ilk as a band that really wore their influences on their sleeve, and weren't shy about saying, "Yeah, this is basically a T. Rex song."
The other band that this discussion reminded me of is Guided By Voices. They all stayed in Dayton, Ohio. They were just small-town guys, and Robert Pollard always seemed to dislike touring.
Craig: That's a band that comes up quite often. Especially when we drank a lot more. We don't release records anywhere near their schedule, but we've done five records in seven years, so we have a commitment to keep music coming out. It struck me the other day: a friend of mine in San Francisco was a huge GBV fan, and he mentioned that their shows really had an audience, a mass fan base, but their shows were not really any bigger than our shows are right now. Which made me feel like, whoa.
Tad: Yeah, when I think of Guided By Voices I think of a whole different plane or league of music.
Craig: Doug Gillard from GBV played on our last record.
Tad: He's playing with Nada Surf now.
Craig: He's a great guitar player.
As you said before, you guys have been pretty productive. You've recorded five albums in seven years, and that's not taking into consideration how much time of the year you're on tour.
Craig: Half the year. Yeah, we tour pretty hard. One of the reasons for that is because we like it. One of the reasons is, that's how the income comes in. That's sort of what I think a rock band does, you know: play shows.
Tad: One of the other things is, we enjoy traveling. I feel like with some of the people we've met over the years too, we enjoy touring more than most people do. I don't know what to attribute that to necessarily, I just think we do it well and that I'm grateful for. We have a pretty good time everywhere we go.
Craig: To me, I'm fascinated by travel. Especially for someone who hadn't traveled much before, and then you have this band. It was like, "Oh, I'm in Omaha," but now it's like, "What the fuck? I've never been here before. I'm going to take a walk around and see what's up." Maybe you see something really interesting, or cool, or unique. Even in America, there are still parts that are hugely different from other parts, and that kind of stuff is really interesting to me.
Can you tell me about the latest album, Heaven is Whenever?
Craig: For this one, we did things a little differently, like I gave Tad some lyrics beforehand. Usually he comes up with a couple parts, and then I look through my books, and find out what I've been writing and match them. This time we did it that way but also a couple of other ways, but it's generally him doing music, me writing lyrics, and then showing it to the band. You can do whatever you want on acoustic guitar, but when you get in the practice space and turn up the amps, some things are going to have to change a little, or you have to try to add some dynamic or whatever. Things come up differently, but that tends to be the way.
Tad: Especially this record, moreso than others, it blended together better. Craig sang so much on this record, it’s kind of on a whole other level. I also think the songs are a little bit different in that I didn’t come up with some particular riff and then write a couple more parts around that and write the rest of the song that way. I think the songs are a little more, maybe more dynamic’s not the right phrase to use, but a little different. Also, Craig and I sat down together on a few occasions and wrote things in which the music came up at the same time as the lyrics, which I think also helped a lot because the words themselves and the stories definitely had an influence on where the music went. So, it’s funny because obviously we get asked that a lot. I wish we had a better answer for that, but it just kinda happens.
Craig: When we write the next song, it might be totally different. I’ll probably continue to write the lyrics. But maybe the other guys in the band will give me post-it notes. Didn’t that happen in Some Kind of Monster [2004 documentary about Metallica] when they were showing them handing the lyric sheets around once the therapist said they should all write the lyrics, and the lead singer wrote one word on the page and everyone else was like… they had 20 years’ worth of ideas.
Tad: There might be stuff, like, let’s go back and fix that chorus, or, we need to repeat that line. And we definitely - I think that, in saying that I write the music, I don’t just come into the room and say “I wrote a song, look guys, here’s how it goes!” We’ll sit down together and really start to hammer stuff out in terms of the arrangement and how the song moves. And I think Craig brings in the lyrics - I think that has a big influence on how the song moves along.
Craig: Right, like when we started this record, I was just writing a lot of songs. It sounds ridiculous, but I started writing all these songs about rock ‘n’ roll, about being in a band, like “Rock Problems,” but there were more. And some were really specific to real rock ‘n’ roll like soundcheck. The producer was like, “you know, we could use a few less of these.” I think it was my sense of humor, and it would have been lost on a lot of people, like, “what the hell is he talking about?” But yeah, the songs were about going to the festivals and not getting a sound check and things like that. It was ridiculous - luckily, we straightened that out.
Speaking of producers, it was Dean Baltulonis - he produced the first two albums, right?
Craig: Yeah. He’s a great guy, he remains a friend. We just wanted to do something different. Tad and Dean own a studio and they’d worked on stuff. They worked really well together, in the studio and during production. Yeah, it just seemed like it was kind of more relaxed, or maybe less formal.
Tad: And the approach he took on this one was a little different, particularly from the previous two, which were just rehearsing and writing and rehearsing and writing and going into the studio and hammering out an album. This time we worked more in short bursts, as ideas came up. Between Dean’s schedule and the fact that he and I have a studio together, I realized that this would work out well. And I think the idea that we had in terms of how we wanted to tackle not just recording, but also building the songs - like, Dean and I have very similar ideas - using the studio to kind of construct songs, I guess that would be the best way to say it. We were very comfortable with him because we’ve worked with him a lot over the years.
Craig: Moreso than anyone really, I think he really worked me on vocals in a way that was cool - you know, I know him really well, so he could be like, “that wasn’t very good.” He knows what I’m capable of, he knows what I’m not, and I know that when he says “let’s do that again,” we should probably do it again.
I think it’s pretty interesting that you said you wanted to go with something really different and you went to someone you obviously have a pretty long-standing relationship with. And yet, the album sounds completely different than all your other albums, I think.
Craig: But I think, once again, that was a little bit a decision of ours. To say that, I think we’ve used co-producers on all the records, but it’s not producers in the sense of Quincy Jones.
Tad: The producer is the one who sorts out schedules for the week, who knows you, who can bring the best performances in you, and help you to execute an overall idea of what you want your record to sound like. And Dean was great, I mean he was perfect for that. Dean is a great musician and has a really good ear so he’s somebody that - it’s funny because we’ve been friends with him for a long time, and he is definitely a peer of ours, but he is someone we’re able to trust a lot. When you’re the songwriter and everything else it can be hard to see the forest for the trees sometimes.
Craig: If there’s one thing we’ve learned - and it was with Dean that we really figured this out - that what you need is not really production, but a leader - someone who sorts things out. There’s certainly an artistic and creative thing, but you really need someone who talks the talk of management, someone who arranges the studio time and arranges other musicians. You know, that’s all, that’s the part of it that I didn’t get before - I just had a grey vision of this band, and then this guy turning knobs. I mean, what do you think of Phil Spector? You don’t think of Phil Spector as the guy who was getting invoices from the horn players and writing checks. Yeah, he probably had an assistant for that.
So you’ve been living with this record for a while now, it’s been out a couple of months. Do you have any perspective on it?
Tad: It’s fun because now we play the songs and people know them. It’s weird. You can get really hung up in thinking, “this song’s different, it’s a radical departure,” but when you sort of fit songs into the rest of our songs in the larger set, it’s just sort of all the Hold Steady. I just think it’s fun because some songs are newer, but it kind of fits in there, I guess.
Craig: And the way we’ve done records too. And our philosophy with the first and second records, I think many other bands have done the opposites. Just being like, “God, I gotta make sure I get this idea on this record” - “I’m such a genius.” I think fortunately, the way we make albums works out really well, just like, “Well, I’ll get to that one on the next album” and “we forgot to do that on this album,” and stuff. It makes it a little easier to make an album because you get slightly less precious about everything and kind of just have fun with it.
The Hold Steady plays at the Music Hall of Williamsburg this weekend.