An Interview by Mike Dixon
Craig Finn of the Hold Steady (hereafter, CF): Hey it's Craig.
Mike Dixon of the Reglar Wiglar (RW): Craig, this is Mike.
CF: How are you, Mike?
RW: I'm alright. How are you?
CF: Good. What are you up to?
RW: Uh, just...
CF: Got out of work early?
RW: Got out of work early and I'm at home now. Yeah. Let's just kind of start at... you guys started out as a cover band?
CF: Uh, well yeah. These friends of mine had a comedy thing, and it was kind of like, in between sets as they changed skits, they had us playing. No singing. Just sort of famous hard rock riffs like 'Back In Black' or 'The Boys Are Back In Town'. Kind of like bumper music. Just fun stuff that was helping them out. That's how we got together. We got together playing all this hard rock stuff, and it was so far from what we'd been hearing in the years leading up to that, and it just sounded so good, and it ended up being the genesis of the band.
RW: And then you said "Let's see what happens if we write original material?"
CF: Yeah, I had some songs lying around, and I started showing them, and all of a sudden we had a show. It's funny, bands, you always end up telling the story of how you started but it always ends up being that you aren't thinking beyond playing the first show. Often you play the first show, then you've got a band.
RW: How do you guys go about writing songs?
CF: Well, I write a lot. I just write. I have notebooks worth of stuff. Tad comes in with a riff. Usually Tad--I'd say 70% of the time. He's the guitar player. He was the bass player in Lifter Puller. He was like a replacement bass player for the last two years. He was a better guitar player than anyone, but he just joined when we needed a bass player. So he comes up with a riff, or else I will every once in a while. Then we'll just jam it out, and then I'll go home and try to figure out what words are going to go over it. Start changing it around, make it fit, et cetera.
RW: I wondered about that, because your lyrics sound almost like raps or something.
CF: Yeah. Hip hop's a big influence of mine in a lot of ways. It's also just something I do. It's half through rap and half spoken singers like Lou Reed.
RW: Do you do other writing, like short stories?
CF: No, not really. No. I have a novel. I have this outline for this book that I haven't written much of and it just stares at me in my face every morning. Every day I go home and I look at it, but I really haven't done that much with it. But like I said, I write tons in notebooks, and out of that comes lyrics. I'd like to do more co-writing with other artists, but I haven't. Writing lyrics for a different artist, you know?
RW: I had read about Lifter Puller--probably in Your Flesh or something--and thought I should check it out, but I kind of forgot about it. It slipped into my subconcience until someone said "Have you heard this Hold Steady album?" and I said "No. What's that?" and I picked it up on that recommendation not knowing what it was going to be like. And when I heard it, I thought I hadn't really heard anything like it. So I looked you up, and drew the connection back to Lifter Puller. Since then, I've only heard a little bit of the old band, but it's kind of a similar thing, right?
CF: Yeah, it's sort of similar. It was way more indie, where this is a little more hard rock.
RW: So, is there any concept behind it?
CF: It's just the way it ended up being. I think a lot of what we're doing is maybe not a conscious reaction, but certainly some reaction to--Lifter Puller was based in Minneapolis and I moved to New York in the fall of 2000, and a lot of the stuff that was big at the time or immediately following, you know, dance punk, new wave-style revival. I would say what we do is somewhat in reaction to that. I was sitting in my house and growing up in Minneapolis, I used to see the Replacements in their glory years, and I was thinking that none of these bands have anything on them. Just the power and energy that they had with two guitars, bass and drums. And that was kind of the genesis of it.
RW: I had a friend I used to work with who moved up there. He got a job working for Summit Brewery.
RW: Yeah, and I stayed in Minneapolis or maybe St. Paul for a few days, and every place we went, we heard the Replacements, either in a bar or on a jukebox. It was still--this was 1997 probably.
CF: Yeah, even the squarest jocks are really into it.
RW: I grew up in Chicago and Naked Raygun was kind of our big punk band.
CF: Sure, I used to go see Naked Raygun all the time.
RW: There were like five people in my high school who knew who they were, but the last few months before we all went to college, some of the jock-type guys from our school were showing up at the shows.
CF: That's what you want. You know what I mean? You need those guys. You can only get so far with the total hipsters.
RW: How do feel about New York vs. the Midwest?
CF: Well, it's totally different, obviously. Minneapolis in particular. I went to school in Boston and I wanted to start a band, which ended up being Lifter Puller, and I ended up moving to Minneapolis. I was from there, but I also knew that it was a vibrant music scene. It was kind of easy to build a following, pay rent, and all of that. When you do those things in New York it's a lot harder to do practices, and people tend to have more going on. But, when you do well, it's way easier to make a national impact. Which you eventually want to.
RW: Because the local press in New York is also the national press, right?
RW: What is going on in Ybor City?
CF: I don't know, because I've never been there, but it's really fun to say. I do know it's a place that used to be a really cracked-out--but since then, it was redone as sort of a South Beach type place, so it's really got the worst of both worlds. It's right by Tampa.
RW: The new album has a heavy--it's not even a subtext--Catholic thread running through it.
CF: My idea is that the record is both Catholic and suburban. Those are two things I'm really familiar with in my upbringing. A lot of my stuff is based on characters. And the characters are extreme people who go back and forth between really extreme things.
RW: You do a lot of stuff that takes place around bars or party scenes, and one thing I love about it is that most people who write songs about drugs or booze or whatever it's either "Oh man, I put my whole life through the needle" or "Woo let's drink whiskey all day"--and you seem pretty matter of fact. You don't pass any judgement.
CF: Well there are positives and negatives. It's a little detached, I guess. I think that plays into the Catholic thing. You know, you go to confession, and you're forgiven.
RW: When you write stuff do you have a bunch of one-liners and build out from there?
CF: It's usually like a page. And then I cross things out when I revisit it and shape it into verses.
RW: On the first record, you had a lot of those lines where you say "My name is-- but the call me--" and there's one song where you use the members of The Band, like Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko.
CF: That's just sort of tricks I come up with to kind of move the stuff along. The second song on the new album kind of goes through a lot of the books of the Bible. It's a technique I come up with for something to hang the song on. A framework.
RW: So I guess you don't mind too much if people have to try to figure things out for themselves because they don't totally get everything you're talking about right away--the references like Ybor City or Andre Cymone
CF: I hope that's part of the fun. When we played in Minneapolis last time there was a write-up in the local weekly paper and it said that the new album's really confusing. I don't know if that should be such a bad thing.
RW: I like it. I listen to it and there's a reference to like Rocco Sifredi, and I don't get it, but I think it's funny. Even though I don't know who he is.
CF: He's a porn star. It's littered with inside jokes and inferences so that maybe the seventy-fifth time you listen to it, you get something you didn't on the first.
RW: What else are you interested in besides music?
CF: Baseball. The Minnesota Twins.
RW: That's funny. This other writer's interviewing Steve Albini--
CF: Oh really?
RW: --and he wants to come up with something that's not a rehash of the major labels and digital recording are evil thing. So I said "Do you follow baseball at all? Because I know he's a huge baseball fan." And he doesn't, which is kind of unfortunate, because it would be an interesting--or at least an unusual interview.
CF: There are a lot of metaphors between baseball and rock and a lot of prominent rock dudes are big baseball fans. You know, you go out on a tour with a band. Some shows are good, some shows are bad. But you keep at it, and you start to come up with a two-thirds good to bad. You keep at it for a long time, and you can't let the bad ones get you down, and that's kind of what a baseball season is. There are 162 games, and the important thing is that they play well most of the time. There's this mental thing about doing it day after day after day. There's a persistence there. Then there's the whole different thing of the geeky stats stuff, which plays right into record collecting. Record collectors and baseball facticians are the same dudes, basically. There are all these obscure names, like the guy who pitched for the Twins in 1979.
RW: Yeah, it's not so much fun if you just know the all-stars.
CF: Right. There are unlikely heroes. In 1991 the Twins won the World Series, and Gene Larkin, a guy off the bench, pinch hit and won the World Series. And damned if I knew who Gene Larkin was, but it's not the players who were all-stars who won. Most of our band likes baseball and hates the Yankees.
RW: Okay, I was going to ask if you were a Yankees fan or a Mets fan.
CF: I hate 'em. I don't really care about the Mets so much. I'm actually from Boston originally, so I was raised a Red Sox fan. My parents moved to Minneapolis when I was a kid. I grew up in Minneapolis, so I got into the Twins by myself. My dad's still more of a Red Sox fan. Either way, I did not like the Yankees. To give you an idea, the Yankees payroll's about two hundred million dollars, and there are teams in baseball that 28 million dollar payroll. The next down from the Yankees' is the Red Sox', which is about 120 mil. So they're just basically paying for it. It's hatred. I don't like 'em.
RW: So, talking about record collecting, are you into that at all?
CF: No. I love records, and I buy records, but I don't collect them. Every once in a while I'll go to a record convention, and I'll be like "I can't believe it." Everything I've bought, I've never spent collector's prices.
RW: Yeah, I've probably paid $25.00 once or twice on some old punk album you can't get on CD. Do you know who Greg Cartwright is?
RW: I think his wife does well with whatever she does, but he just lives off of finding and selling records. Like 60s soul and doo wop 45s. He's just incredibly knowledgeable about the obscurities.
CF: What's his band doing now?
RW: I interviewed him a while ago, and he had just moved to North Carolina.
CF: Really? Was that because of his wife or something?
RW: I don't know. He met his wife through record collecting.
CF: There aren't many of those out there. Ha ha.
RW: So now it's him and two other guys. New guys now. They couldn't keep it together with the other guys living in Memphis. But they're keeping the name as the Reigning Sound. So, I know they've got a new odds and sods collection coming out, and then they're backing up some guy--some old blues/R&B guy--on his new album. I can't think of his name. Eddie Rogers or something like that (note: the name of the guy is Eddie Kirkland).
CF: I love that band.
RW: Yeah, the new Jack Oblivian record is really good.
CF: Is it just called Jack Oblivian?
RW: Jack O and the Tearjerkers.
CF: Is it on In the Red?
RW: I think Sympathy.
CF: I'll have to check it out. I'm an eMusic member, so they might have it.
RW: What have you heard lately that's good?
CF: They do have it, awesome. Ummmmmmm, I really like the new Spoon record. I've also been listening to this Jens Lekman record. Do you know that guy?
RW: Is he the guy. . .
CF: He kind of does a Stephin Merrit type of thing.
RW: Yeah. "I Don't Want To Be Your Dog" or something... kind of funny songs?
CF: Yeah. "When I Said I Wanted To Be Your Dog". He's got a real dry sense of humor.
RW: That's the kind of thing that I don't think it's the kind of music I like, but I end up liking a lot more of it than I will admit to.
CF: Right. Is it "Don't Throw Your Love Away"? The Jack Oblivian?
CF: I like a lot of indie hip hop stuff.
RW: Like MF Doom?
CF: Yeah. There's this guy P.O.S. from Minneapolis. He's a friend of mine, but I didn't know him that well until he became an artist that I really enjoyed. I did a cameo on his record. But his last record is really incredible.
CF: P.O.S. Like Piece of Shit. It's pretty cool.
CF: There's this band that we just played a bunch of shows with called The Oranges Band that're on Lookout Records. Their new record is fantastic. It's miles ahead of their last one. They did it all themselves and I'm just blown away by the album. Especially the vocal production on it.
RW: The new Stephen Malkmus album, though.
CF: Yeah, you have it?
RW: It's not very good.
CF: It really isn't. You know why? I'm not really down with indie rock right now, and his last two records.
RW: I've been following the guy for twelve years or so, and I'm kind of a loyalist, and I listened to it and thought "oh, this sucks". Then I listened a few more times and decided he could have made a three or four song ep and come out looking really great. But, it just doesn't sound like he worked very hard.
CF: You know, what bummed me out about it is that I thought he was going somewhere with that other stuff, with the long guitar solos. And I thought, that's what I want him to do.
RW: There's one song on there like that and it's the best one.
CF: I love the 'climing the mountain' solos. I wanted it to be more like the Allman Brothers, you know? And it kind of went back to indie rock.
RW: Well, the lyrics aren't any good either. The unreleased songs on the new Pavement rereleases have better lyrics.
CF: Have you heard this new Ponys record?
CF: I liked their last record.
RW: I've heard it's cleaner sounding. You know, they're from here.
CF: I think Brian from the 90 Day Men is with them now.
RW: Yeah. They're pretty good. They're surprising because they came from this scene here that's centered around this magazine, Horizontal Action. And they used to play at this bar--
CF: What was it called?
RW: The bar is called the Beat Kitchen. And it was mostly like 23 year old kids who'd get wasted. Rip roaring drunk and doing cocaine in the bathroom. It was kind of like some scenes out of your songs. My roommate worked at this place, and he was into the music, but he'd say "Man, we had to put the urinals back on the wall again last night". They'd make a ton of money selling cheap beer, but the audience would just destroy the place every weekend. Anyway, they were in this scene -- this garage rock scene -- and what they were doing was so much -- actually, it was only slightly different, but every other band was doing, like, the Oblivians style. And they kind of separated themselves from that.
CF: See, I'm not that huge of a garage rock fan.
RW: Some bands just have better songs than others.
CF: The Reigning Sound being the prime example. The songs are just head and shoulders above everything else.
RW: He's got a great voice, too. Good singer. It's funny, I got an Ipod for Christmas, as did most of America, or at least a lot of people in New York. You see where it might destroy the album. I listen to stuff on shuffle all the time.
RW: I do that at work. I copy cds, and I've got soulseek, so I say, "Hmm, I wonder what Moby Grape sounds like". So I search it and a half hour later, I've got all their albums. And I just put it on random play all day, usually. Go on blogs, and get all kinds of stuff.
CF: My friend has this idea where he does 'album Sundays' where he only listens to albums all the way through on Sunday. He doesn't listen on shuffle.
RW: They're doing that with radio stations. They're expanding their playlists from like 50 songs and moving up to around 2000 songs, and they use an Ipod or something to shuffle the songs. I wonder if you call up and request a song on the radio now, and they don't have it in their library, will they just go and steal it off the internet?
CF: Maybe college radio. But nowadays, I think radio stations have such intense playlists that I think they literally wait until someone calls and requests something they're going to play anyway and then just shout it out to them.
RW: My friend is friends with Spot--you know Spot?
CF: From SST?
RW: Yeah. He says that they would sit at SST day after day calling every radio station in the country requesting Black Flag and Meat Puppets songs.
CF: That's crazy. That would be their promotion?
RW: Yeah. I don't know if they just had enormous phone bills or.
CF: I know something about that. You know, Greg Ginn's a real geek. He's like an electronics wiz, and he figured something out where I don't think phone bills were a problem.
RW: That reminds me of something. I met Raymond Pettibon at an art exhibition he had here at the University of Chicago, and he signed my book "From your pal, Raymond Pettibon" because that's the way Jimmy Piersall signed his autograph. Cuz he's a big baseball fan too.
CF: That's cool. It's funny how baseball and music ends up together. I also think that baseball is bigger in bigger cities like Chicago and New York because so many people depend on public transportation. I think that's the ultimate way to follow baseball is just to look at the box score in the morning. Every morning I get on the train, I buy the Post, and I flip over to that.
RW: Rather than watching every game on tv.
CF: Yeah. Another great thing is Baseball Tonight, which is an hour long at ten pm, and you can see the three exciting plays of every game.
RW: You've been to Wrigley Field?
RW: You know that it is where it is because they wanted it where it would be accessible to the train.
CF: That makes sense.
RW: And I think the original team was the Chicago Whales.
CF: Oh, really?
RW: Yeah, I don't know if it was a minor league team, or what.
CF: The Twins are playing the White Sox tonight. I'm really fascinated by how things end up. The way I understand it is that the south side is Sox fans and the north side is Cubs fans.
RW: Yeah, but the city is,
CF: There are more Cubs fans, aren't there?
RW: The Cubs are more popular.
CF: They've got a better park.
RW: That's one thing. The White Sox stadium is no good, but the Cubs are also in a real yuppified area. There are a lot of bars and all that. My friend worked with these women who went to see the Cubs almost every night a few years ago when they were in the pennant race, and the women didn't know they were in first place. They were just getting drunk and trying to pick up guys. But, yeah, it's probably the best place to see baseball anywhere.
CF: I personally prefer Fenway, but I would say it's neck and neck. And that may be just because I like the Red Sox better. I would say one thing that Fenway offers is it's a little less yuppified in the neighborhood around it. It's still got bars, but it's a little rougher around the edges. The other thing that's interesting to me is when we tour I always talk about baseball from the stage, and people start yelling stuff out. It's a good way to get people involved. I can usually joke with people. I can just pull stuff out. I really love going to, like, Iowa.
RW: Where they have no professional sports whatsoever.
CF: Yeah. But regionally it breaks down. There are a lot of Cubs fans there. In the northern part of the state there are a lot of Twins fans. Then closer in the southwest, it's St. Louis. So it kind of spreads out. Even through the south, like Mississippi and Alabama, a lot of Braves fans. Then people just kind of make up their own. They're like "Fuck it, I'm a Red Sox fan". I always found that interesting. Also, people tend to do like I did. You know, your dad tells you who to root for.
RW: We watched the White Sox when I was a kid. My grandpa -- my dad's dad was a pretty good baseball player. Actually both of my grandfathers were pretty good, but my dad's dad actually tried out for the White Sox.
CF: Ow, cool.
RW: My mom's dad is from Buffalo, and he was on some kind of locally organized team with Warren Spahn, which is pretty neat, and he's got some team pictures.
CF: Oh, wow.
RW: Well, you know about the Disco Demolition?
CF: Yeah. That was at Comiskey, right?
RW: Yes. They've been playing a 25th anniversary special on PBS here.
CF: Oh, cool. The photos I've seen of that are amazing.
RW: Well, look up Steve Dahl. I think it's D-A-H-L dot com, and you can buy it. It's got all the footage, and they talk about why they were blowing up disco records. It's pretty good. So we watched the games all the time anyway, but we were watching that game live. And it's funny that that's become a major footnote in rock history. And baseball history.
CF: It's so cool. They cancelled the game, right?
RW: It was a double header and they did it in the middle. They had to cancel the second game, because people ran out on the field and tore it up. It attracted, I don't know a hundred thousand people? Forty thousand people (Note: 90,000 total) waiting outside drinking all day long.
CF: You know that band the Dillinger Four? They're from Minneapolis, but two of the guys are originally from Evanston. They have this song that's some other Chicago reference, I think it's called "No. 51, Dick Butkus". One of the lines is "Harry Caray making sick on Clark St." Patrick, the guy who wrote it lived somewhere over there, and he saw Harry Caray, after announcing the game, staggering drunk, and then he just goes into an alley and throws up.
RW: He and Jimmy Piersall used to be a team. They were the announcers for the Sox during that Disco Demolition, and Bill Veeck was the owner.
CF: Bill Veeck's son ended up buying a minor league team -- the St. Paul Saints, which I actually talk about on the record. Well, I make a reference to them. Him and Bill Murray. Bill Murray's a part owner.
RW: Okay, I heard a rumor that Bill Murray's going to play Bill Veeck in the Bill Veeck movie, when they make it. If they ever make it. But, Harry and Jimmy Piersall, you used to be able to hear the popping beers open on mic when they were calling the games.
CF: That's amazing.
RW: So, are you guys going on tour any time soon?
CF: Yeah. Let's see here. I just got something. An update.
RW: Are you at work now?
RW: What do you do?
CF: I work for a company called The Orchard, which is a digital distribution company. Basically what a physical record distributor would do, but we find labels, take the stuff in, and distribute it to iTunes, Napster, etcetera.
RW: So, mp3s and stuff?
CF: Yeah. Then we help market it and stuff. We help hundreds of labels. It's a cool job. They're really good to me. Um, what do I got here? I've got Thursday, June 2nd at the Empty Bottle. Should be fun.
RW: Are you touring with another ban?.
CF: Not up until then. On the west coast we're playing with a band called United State of Electronica. U.S.E., which sounds like something I would hate. But I saw them at South By Southwest, and that's why we're playing with them, because they were fucking awesome. The electronica part is sort of like Daft Punk but they play guitar, bass, drums. They have like nine people onstage. There's something about them that when I explain it, I have to mention Andrew W.K. It's really crazy. People were throwing drinks, tackling each other. It was wild.
RW: Cool music, too?
CF: It's good music. We're united by--we consider ourselves a party band, and I'd say they definitely are one. Between the two of us, it should be sweet.
RW: Have you heard the Robert Pollard comedy album?
CF: No. I've heard of it, but I haven't heard it. Is it good?
RW: It's pretty good. It's just between song banter. It's funny, my wife doesn't actively dislike Guided By Voices, but she's heard them, and we saw them open for Cheap Trick, which is probably her favorite band.
CF: They're one of mine, too.
RW: Someone gave her at tape of Guided By Voices and she didn't like it, and after seeing them live, she said "I don't get it. The whole vibe, the stage presence, yuck". I'm intrigued by them, but I don't have any of their records. So I tried to explain the whole story, the guy's 45 years old, and he's insanely prolific, and he had this band in his garage, and they got lucky and now he's living his dream, blah, blah, and she just said "But I don't like the music". Anyway, there's some really funny stuff on there like "Rolling Stone magazine's got this list of the One Hundred Greatest Living Guitar Players, and they've got Joan Jett on there. My brother's a better guitar player than Joan Jett!"
CF: My wife is totally pissed. She doesn't like Joan Jett. When she was like ten, and her older brother was fourteen, he went to a Joan Jett concert and got totally wasted to the point where he was throwing up and they had to get the paramedics and the police got involved and called his mom. So she wasn't allowed to go to concerts alone until she was seventeen.
RW: And she blamed it on Joan Jett?
CF: Yeah! She totally refuses to hold her brother accountable.
RW: What is the funniest of the bigtime rock concerts you've been to?
RW: Original makeup?
CF: Yeah. Well, the reunion show. Speaking of a comedy album, the between song banter at that was IN-credible. He was saying stuff like "Kiss loves Minneapolis so much, we're thinkin' of movin' here!" And the fans eat it up, you know?
RW: I grew up in this town called Hoffman Estates, which is a suburb of Chicago, and we had Poplar Creek, which was one of the first outdoor venues with the pavilion and the lawn, so we saw all kinds of crazy stuff. My mom worked for this company that owned seats that they'd give away to clients, but one time, they couldn't find anyone to take the tickets, so my friend and I went to see the Power Station. The seats were in the fifth row, and this was right past the peak of Duran Duran mania. Except for the guys on the stage, there wasn't another male for a hundred feet back.
RW: I had never seen anything like it. Girls screaming and crying and throwing stuff on stage. And it wasn't even Duran Duran. Really, it wasn't even really the Power Station, because they had a different singer. Robert Palmer didn't want to do it, so they got Michael DesBarres instead.
CF: Yeah, yeah, yeah. A couple times I've gone to really big shows -- like really big ones -- and seen the performer noticeably drunk. I saw Joe Walsh one time. I can understand how a band might get too drunk if they're playing in front of 300 people, but if you're playing in front of thousands and thousands, you think you could wait? Especially when it's not like you're just in the band and you're the bass player. You're Joe Walsh. You're the guy. Pull it together. I also saw the Cult open for Metallica and they were drunk as hell.
RW: I remember that one. At that point, Metallica was still kind of underground, and the fans didn't want to see anything other than Metallica. And it was like at first they tried to win people over, then they were just defiant by staying on stage. But, it's like, I don't know, ten thousand people that hate you, you're British, and you're kind of doing hard rock, but it's not really.
CF: Yeah, it's not really hard rock. I have a feeling--I'd have to review the dates, but I have a feeling that that tour may have been the end for them. As far as that's where their ascension stopped. That must have been demoralizing. They seemed like they were getting big, right?
RW: But to Metallica fans, they might has well have been the Cure.
CF: Yeah, they were the same thing to the fans. I should run.
RW: Great. I've got to eat dinner.
CF: Awesome. Good to talk to you.
RW: Yeah, I'll try to make it out when you're in Chicago.
CF: Great. Take care.