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Runnin’ Up That Hill With The Hold Steady

As this piece is wrapping up for publish, the “not guilty” verdict in the Michael Jackson trial is just being announced. It seems that the fairy tale bullshit in American music has just received another validation. Not a lot is left in our music industry that is real, or even lives in real life. Fortunately, bands like The Hold Steady maintain the working man’s rock ethic, playing pub-rock the way it was meant to be: with two long sets, plenty of crowd-inclusive chatter between songs, and a bucket of beer.

Storming the country, filling venues with their signature bar rock style that, to my knowledge, has never attracted such a level of notoriety so quickly for any band. The Hold Steady were declared Rolling Stone and Spin’s best unheard band of 2004, and are the first band in seven years to grace the cover of NYC’s Village Voice.

Craig Finn, former front man for the infamous and forever under-recognized Lifter Puller [this writer’s personal favorite band in the history of the world…] and guitarist Tad Kubler, – also a former L.P. member – rounded up Galen Polivka (bass) and Bobby Drake (drums) to initiate The Hold Steady back in 2003. They released their first LP, Almost Killed Me to fantastic acclaim; and have recently followed it with the equally powerful sequel, Separation Sunday, which adds occasional keys man, Franz Nicolay as a permanent fixture.

The Hold Steady’s recent San Francisco set went on for an hour, at which point the band announced they were out of beer, but would be right back. What everyone expected to be a short encore turned out to be the second half of their set, during which they gave their beer to the audience and orchestrating the crowd’s participation like puppet masters. Toward the end, during the intro to one of the bands more exciting numbers, Finn easily got the half-cocked crowd back at attention, simply shouting, “Get excited again! Get excited again!”

During an unusual moment of not playing ring-master to captive revelers, Kaffeine Buzz had the distinct pleasure of going in-depth with the lyrical mastermind behind The Hold Steady. Here’s what Craig Finn has to say about himself and his mates…

Kaffeine Buzz: What is your favorite track on Separation Sunday?

Craig Finn: I guess it’s “Banging Camp,” because we’re gearing up for this release show; we’ve been practicing and we’re gonna have horns for that show, so we’ve been practicing with them. It brings the sound to life a lot.

KB: The style of separation Sunday is definitely in a different vein from Almost Killed Me; especially with the piano. What influenced the evolution?

CF: I don’t think it’s a conscious thing. I think with any band, the more you play together, you start playing your strengths. Having Franz [keys] play on a few songs on Almost Killed Me made us realize-when we listened to it-that could add a lot more texture to our sound. So he joined the band officially. And, I think the whole tone of the record is a little more deliberate.

KB: A few of the songs, like Stevie Nix for instance, hark back to the Lifter Puller vibe, and are full of Twin Cities references. Do you still spend a lot of time there?

CF: We go back there for tour; but it still feels like home to me. I even consider us to be a Twin Cities band. The past two weeks have been crazy. We were on the cover of the Village Voice; and we’re the first band to do so in seven years. And then we were in the New Yorker; so, I feel like there’s kind of this element of New York inviting us in. But I still think we’re modeled after some sort of Midwest rock.

KB: You make references to Denver in a few of the tracks. Do you have a regard for the Mile High Clubbers?

CF: That’s purely a Kerouac thing; he would always reference Denver. He would make it seem like this majestic, insane place; like a frontier town. That’s the imagery I was thinking of when I put in Denver.

KB: Needless to say, the lyrical content of Lifter Puller and The Hold Steady illustrate a compromised lifestyle; but none of you seem like a party out of bounds. Does this come from a stitch in the past, or is it fictitious?

CF: Well, yeah; we’ve all done whatever; but these characters are also based on people I know all combined together to make the stories. I don’t thinks it’s that specifically about some part of my past; but it’s like, an ongoing thing. I see Separation Sunday to be really teen-age; like, there’s a party and these dudes are gonna be there, and they might have some stuff. There’s still a lot of magic in it all.

KB: For a while there you were doing quite a few Lifter Puller reunions. Are there more of those to look forward to?

CF: Probably not. I mean, for the first two, Brownie’s [NYC] was closing down, and then the Triple Rock [Minneapolis] was opening up. And those were two people that were close to us, that asked for these very specific events that meant a lot to us. I don’t think we’d do one just to do one. It’s would be something we’d do around a wedding or a funeral. But the reunion shows helped us all put some closure on it.

KB: Slug, from Atmosphere seems to have quite a reverence for you guys. I think I saw him all three dates at the Triple Rock. Then, in Seven’s Travels he’s got, “that’s a Lifter Puller line for those without any game.” Are you acquainted with him, and are you an Atmosphere fan?

CF: I just talked to him yesterday; and we’re huge fans. I met him through my wife’s friend; and the first time I saw him I knew he was going to be huge. He’s got so much charisma. We’ve been friends ever since. When were at South By Southwest, he was heading west and we were heading east and we had shows the same night in Birmingham Alabama. We had an awesome there with those guys. It was a serendipitous meeting on tour. I like the way he does his whole deal. He has a new rock record label called Women Records, and he’s gonna do the vinyl for Separation Sunday. To further connect the Rhymesayers thing, there’s a guy named POS who just opened all the dates on Amosphere’s last tour. He’s the newest Rhymesayers artist; and I just did a cameo on his record. And then Brother Ali, who I think is probably the best lyricist in America, and is also a Rhymesayers artist, is opening up our record release show. We’re flying him out.

KB: Do you see the Hold Steady achieving that blowing up recognition and radio play and what not, as so many indie artists do lately?

CF: The one thing that I think The Hold Steady is, more so than Lifter Puller, is it’s very inclusive. I mean, when we play, we try to include people in the whole experience. Whether it’s getting them on stage to shotgun a beer, or sing-along/shout-alongs, I think people react to that and that’s one of the things that’s contagious about the whole thing. I guess, our chances of being recognized at the level you’re talking about depends on how included people feel; and I think that’s what we’re about to see.

KB: If you came to in the nude in a cage in the zoo, what animal’s cage would you most prefer to be waking up in?

CF: I would like to think something small, and not ferocious; like a lemur, or an owl. I don’t wanna have a bear; that would be really terrifying. I would say something small, like a sea otter. Actually, if I was naked, the Minnesota Zoo had dolphins… or, like, the beluga whale…

Craig went on to tell me a story of a pair of townie fucks getting into a fight at the Minnesota Zoo because one was checking out the other’s girl In terms of lyrical inspiration, is this guy just in the right places at the right times or what?

For Denver folks, yes! The right place is Larimer Lounge on Friday, June 17. If you like it, grow a couple extra fingers and get Hold Steady tattooed on your knuckles.

Jef actually does have knuckled tattoos, paying homage to his favorite band, Lifter Puller. It’s rumored that his knuckles got press in Spin.


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