After recording, releasing, and touring for five albums in six years, it was time for the Hold Steady to take a break. Culminating with the tour for 2010's Heaven is Whenever, the band was experiencing "some pretty heavy emotional and mental fatigue," says Hold Steady lead singer Craig Finn.
That exhaustion might be familiar to some of the recurring characters in Finn's songs, nomads strung out on the scene of too many years of too many killer parties. (Not that you should mistake Finn's characters for his own narrative: "The stuff that happens to people in Hold Steady songs is more cinematic than my own life," he says.)
"The big thing for me was to recharge: take a break and have some new experiences," says frontman Finn. He made a solo record, 2012's Clear Heart Full Eyes, he says, to do something quieter and to expand artistically.
While Finn was on tour with his album, the rest of the Hold Steady — including its newest member, Memphian guitarist Steve Selvidge along with originals, guitarist Tad Kubler, drummer Bobby Drake, and bassist Galen Polivka — came to the Bluff City to work on new material. The February and March 2012 sessions in Memphis marked the beginning of many of the songs on the next Hold Steady album, Teeth Dreams, due out on March 25, 2014. "We all camped out at my place and wrote and arranged songs," says Selvidge.
The hiatus proved healthy, Finn says. "[The solo album] made me excited to go back into a loud rock band again."
Last summer, the Hold Steady convened in the woods at Rock Falcon Studios in Franklin, Tennessee, and recorded the album proper. "One of the big things with the next record is that it's the first one that Selvidge is involved in the writing and recording," Finn says. "Steve is such a huge part of it."
Asked if he felt a pull to try to write something that sounded like the band's previous work, Selvidge says with a laugh, "I wasn't going to write a straight country tune. But I was conscious about not trying to copy a Hold Steady song. I just went with my gut."
Teeth Dreams, produced by Nick Raskulinecz, harkens back to the first three albums, Finn says. "It's more of a story-based record than our last two. It's a return to the storytelling and character-based stuff." Among the fictional personalities who have shown up in past albums are Hallelujah, a drug addiction survivor, Charlemagne, a drug dealer and pimp, and a host of party vampires pithily defined by allusions to real, famous people (from Elizabeth Shue to John Cassavetes, from Phil Lynott to Rod Stewart).
"I like having the characters to return to," Finn says. "They're comforting in some way. I don't know that I'd say I feel pressure [to include the characters], but I like songs that are stories. I've always been drawn to those songs, be it by Bruce Springsteen, Warren Zevon, or Bob Dylan, where they have these characters and you want to know more about them."
The album is also less overtly religious than those in the past. "It's not where my head was," Finn says. "When the solo album was done and I started performing the songs, I was like, 'Whoa, there's a lot of Jesus here.' There are a couple lines on Teeth Dreams, but it doesn't play as major of a role.
Previous Hold Steady albums have featured non-members such as Lucero's Ben Nichols, Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner, and Dinosaur Jr.'s J Mascis. Teeth Dreams features just one guest musician, Memphis keyboardist Al Gamble. "We needed a real keyboard player," Selvidge says. "I said, 'My buddy Al Gamble is just down the road and he could do it.' Gamble came in and kicked ass."
When it came time to introduce the new album live, to "get everything greased up and to make sure it's working well," Selvidge says, the Hold Steady decided to run a 10-day, eight-city sprint starting in Memphis. Selvidge was the inspiration for the Hold Steady opening in Memphis, Finn says. The band will be in town rehearsing for four days leading up to the show. "We made the record in Nashville, and it was the first one we made that was outside of New York. Especially as [band members] get older, and a couple have kids, it's nice to go somewhere else to work. Memphis was the obvious choice."
The Hi-Tone show will include about 5 or 6 of the new songs, Finn says, adding, “We’ll play a pretty long set, so it will include plenty of old songs.”
Selvidge says, “It’s super cool for the guys to come down, and it’s great for me to start in Memphis. I’m enthusiastic about getting back on the road and touring a record that I was a part of.”
For more of these interviews, see the Flyer music blog "Sing All Kinds" at memphisflyer.com/blogs/SingAllKinds
The Hold Steady with Tim Berry
January 29th, 8 p.m.