Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Q&A with the Hold Steady's Craig Finn

Posted By on Wed, Jan 22, 2014 at 2:18 PM

The Hold Steadys Craig Finn
  • The Hold Steady's Craig Finn
For this week's Flyer, on newsstands today and online tomorrow, I wrote a story about the Hold Steady's upcoming show at the Hi-Tone (Wednesday, January 29th, 8 p.m.) and the impending release of the band's 6th album, Teeth Dreams (March 25th). Last week I conducted separate phone interviews with Hold Steady lead singer Craig Finn and guitarist/Memphian Steve Selvidge. As is the case sometimes with print, there was a lot of material from the interviews that didn't make it into the story, or that can be given some room to breathe with greater context. Presented here is the Q&A with Finn. Here's the full Q&A with Selvidge.

Memphis Flyer: Have you spent any time in Memphis preparing for the tour and album?
Craig Finn: We will be there rehearsing for the four days leading up to the show. About two years ago I was doing some touring on my solo record [Clear Heart, Full Eyes], and [the rest of the band] went down to Memphis and wrote some songs that ended up becoming part of the record. So there’s definitely some Memphis in there, and obviously with Steve [Selvidge] in the band.

What's the flavor of those songs written in Memphis? How does Memphis bleed through in them?
I’m not sure, other than the fact. It would be hard for me to know. The big thing is having Steve, a born and bred Memphian, in the band. He was a really strong addition. One of the big things with the next record is that it’s the first one where Selvidge is involved in the writing and recording. He came in in the process of touring for the last record. That’s a big part of [Teeth Dreams].

Is that part of the reason of you're opening the tour in Memphis?
Finn: Yeah, kind of. We thought that’s a good place to go. We made the record in Nashville — the first record 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. We’re starting the record cycle in Memphis, and Steve is such a huge part of the record.

Craig Finns solo album, Clear Heart, Full Eyes
  • Craig Finn's solo album, "Clear Heart, Full Eyes"
It’s been four years since Heaven is Whenever. Apart from the obvious member changes, how is the band different? It’s been awhile.
We put out five records in five years and toured really hard on all of them. At the end of the cycle, there was some pretty heavy emotional and mental fatigue. The big thing for me was to recharge: take a break and have some new experiences. I made a solo record, which was a chance to do something a lot quieter. That was nice for me in a creative and artistic way. But it also made me excited to go back into a loud rock band again. Also, for a lot of records we had a piano player [Franz Nicolay, who left the band in 2010]. There are keyboards and piano on our new record, played by another Memphis guy, Al Gamble, but it’s a much more guitar-focused record than any previous.

A calling card of the band is the continuity between the albums and the stories that are told. Does that continue with Teeth Dreams?
Absolutely. It’s more of a story-based record than our last two. It’s a return to the storytelling and character-based stuff. Some of the songs relate to each other, some to other records, and some stand on their own.

Do you feel pressure, even internally, to continue that narrative? Or are these characters you want to go back to and revisit?
I always like having them to return to. They’re comforting in some way. I don’t know that I’d say I feel pressure, but I like songs that are stories. I’ve always been drawn to those songs be it Bruce Springsteen, Warren Zevon, or Bob Dylan, where they have these characters and you want to know more about them. When you get around to making music, you don’t want to listen to yourself. It’s kind of easy for me to get there.

Does your personality appear in the lyrics in subtle ways?
There are a lot of things that appeal to my sense of humor. The stuff that happens to people in Hold Steady songs is more cinematic than my own life. But my own personality shines through, and people who know me well would find it in the songs.

You said on The Colbert Report in 2010 you didn’t think the Pope at that time would agree with your version of Catholicism. What do you think of the new Pope?
I think the new pope is pretty great. And I have to say, the old pope gets some real credit in my book for being the first in 900 years to step down. That guy deserves more credit than I gave him. But the new pope is very exciting, even for on-the-fence Catholics like myself. He’s mentioning the right things and talking about poverty a lot, which is the one thing the church really can help. And shying away from these weird social issues that make the church real divisive.

Obviously it’s a personal topic, religion, but since it does show up so frequently in your songs, and your experience evolves over time, is the new album just as religious as previous ones?
I would say it’s less religious. The solo record I made was very religious, so I backed away from it on Teeth Dreams. There’s barely any religion stuff on it. It’s not where my head was at, or maybe I just got it out on the solo record. I felt like that 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.

I had read a couple places you had taken some singing lessons a few years ago. Are you still continuing in that training, or was that report overblown and not that significant a thing?
I did about six of them a few years back. It was more about keeping me from blowing my voice out. I learned some stuff that has really helped with touring. I can continue to be a better singer, but it’s mainly doing exercises.

With past albums, there are guest appearances from people like [Lucero's] Ben Nichols or [Soul Asylum's] Dave Pirner. Teeth Dreams was recorded in Nashville; there are a lot of people there. Does anyone show up on the new album?
Strangely, the only person is Al Gamble. We lived in Nashville but recorded closer to Franklin, kind of in the woods [at Rock Falcon Studios]. There weren’t people dropping in. it was just the five of us plus Al for a few sessions.

Another strong element to Hold Steady songs is the regionalism, and the way geographic places have a presence. Because of the recording, is there a particular Tennessee presence on Teeth Dreams?
There’s another song set in Minnesota, a song in Michigan, some Tennessee, some Texas. It’s all over the map. Throughout the life of the band, Memphis has turned up in the Hold Steady’s music a fair amount.

How much new material will you play in the show at the Hi-Tone?
Quite a bit. One of the reasons for the shows is to get the new material out there. I think we’ll play a pretty long set, so it will include plenty of old songs. But I would say probably five or six new songs per set.

Coming tomorrow: Full Q&A with Hold Steady guitarist and Memphian Steve Selvidge

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