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DEFENDER OF THE FAITH: The Gospel Of Rock N’ Roll According To The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn

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Artwork by CRAIG HORKY

mecroppedsharp_1BY JONATHAN VALANIA When Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn was growing up in suburban Minneapolis in the shag-carpeted ’70s, there was nothing musical about the family Finn, nothing at all. Nobody played an instrument. Nobody played records on the stereo. They did not even sing show tunes on long car rides. But when he was eight years old Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham choked to death on his own vomit, and that’s when he discovered the all-consuming, spell-casting, mood-altering, prayer-answering, life-taking power of rock n’ roll.

Up until this point he’d thought of rock n’ roll as nothing more than the interstitial music between the zany capers and wacky hijinks on The Monkees and The Krofft Superstar Hour. But judging by the trail of tears running down the apple-hued cheeks of his babysitter — a pretty neighborhood teen he had a secret crush on — this was an Important Cultural Moment, right up there with the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the Kennedy assassination. His babysitter made him listen to Led Zeppelin A-Z that day and there would be no turning back. One day, he vowed with God as his witness, he would make pretty girls cry when he died. This remains a work in progress.

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It’s 3 PM on a yet another colder-than-a-witch’s-tit January afternoon in the Greenpoint neighborhood in hs-constructive-summer-finalBrooklyn, in the Year Of Our Lord 2014 A.D. The Hold Steady frontman is nursing a seltzer and lime at a back table at Lake Street bar, an old man dive short on old men and long on beardo Brooklandians getting a head start on tonight. Finn asked to meet here because he knows the owner — Hold Steady drummer Bobby Drake, who is presently re-stocking the bar in preparation for the coming happy hour onslaught — and, as the song goes, the drinks are cheap and they leave you alone.

He’s a little bummed at the moment. His friend Oscar Isaac didn’t even get nominated for his indelible portrayal of thwarted folk singer Llewyn Davis in the latest Coen Brothers film. “I think he got screwed,” says Finn emphatically. “He was mind blowing.”

The first thing you notice about Craig Finn when you get up close and personal is the kind, clear eyes hidden behind his trademark Clark Kent spectacles. Soft-spoken and courteous, dressed in a blue v-neck sweater over a crisp white oxford, his hairline making a slow northward retreat, Craig Finn looks more like the guy who would do your taxes than the fierce, suds-fueled, battle-hardened, 21st century defender of the rock n’ roll faith of his press clips. He knows this, of course. He gets it all the time. And he made his peace with it a long time ago. But that doesn’t mean that, deep down, it doesn’t still sting a little. Matador records honcho Gerard Cosloy famously dismissed The Hold Steady as “later-period Soul Asylum fronted by Charles Nelson Reilly.”

“I remember when that came out I was like ‘If I read that, I’d probably want to go see that band’,” he says when I ask him if he cares to respond. “Honestly, though, I was also disappointed because it wasn’t meant to be complementary and the dude’s label has put out some of my favorite bands. But you’ve got to let some of this roll.”

Finn is too nice of a guy to return fire so I’ll do it for him. Craig Finn — who, come to think of it, doesn’t really look all that different than Gerard Cosloy — has something that the Cos, for all his vast reserves of hipness and uncanny knack for recognizing what comes next before everyone else, will never have: the gift of the common touch. Like the Boss, from whom he is clearly descended, Finn’s never pulled a shift on the line, he doesn’t play beer league softball with the boys on Saturday afternoons, his hands are soft and he votes straight Democrat, hell he read Infinite Jest. Twice. But, like The Boss, he has an unshakeable belief in the transcendental power of a shit-hot bar band to set the working man free on a Friday night, if only until last call, and is more than willing, night after night, to shed the requisite blood, sweat and beers it takes to git ‘er done.

So word to Mr. Cosloy: Next time they ask you about Charlemagne, be polite and say something vague.

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In the beginning, Craig Finn was born in Boston but in grade school he moved to Minneapolis where lived until 2000 when he moved to Brooklyn. He’s been there ever since but if anyone asks he’s from Minneapolis. His dad was a tech guy for a big accounting firm and his mother was a housewife. He has no brothers and one sister. She is five years younger than him and still lives in Minneapolis, as does his dad. His mother is deceased.

The first band he fell hard for was The Ramones. “I didn’t even know they were punk rock,” says Finn. “I hs-constructive-summer-finaljust thought they were a less successful rock band that I heard and I liked.” By junior high he started figuring it out. His friends had older brothers. Mix tapes were traded. Rock elder wisdom was dispensed. One day he saw a flyer on a telephone pole advertising a TSOL show at the local VFW or some such. “Where is that and how do I get to that?” he asked himself. After asking around, turns out you could get there from here and he started going to all-age punk shows all the time. One night, when he was all of 13, someone from The Descendents asked Finn and his buddies if they knew a girl that would give him a blow job. “If we knew that why would we be here with you,” Finn told him, displaying a mastery of the withering retort well beyond his years.

“We weren’t even close to knowing somebody like that,” he says now.

Growing up in suburbs, you had to take a couple buses to get to the cool record store in town. It was not easy, you had to want it. This was pre-Cobain, you couldn’t just go to the mall. Every Saturday, Finn and his buddies would get on the bus. The plan was simple but very effective. Everyone would buy one album and then they’d go home and everyone would make a cassette tape of everyone else’s purchase. So for the price of, say, REM Reckoning you also got the first Violent Femmes record, The Replacements Let It Be, and Husker Du Zen Arcade. Samizdat rock n’ roll, comrades.

Finn and his friends started a band called, regrettably, No Pun Intended, or N.P.I., as was the style of the day. It was slow going at first. It took them weeks to get the hang of “Should I Stay Or Should I Go,” which might as well be called “Punk Rock For Dummies.” Craig Finn did not yet have the cajones to pull off lead singer, that job fell to the “cool, good looking guy that could actually sing.” Instead, he played guitar, barely, and, more importantly he started writing songs. N.P.I lasted four years. Mainly covers. They broke up when they all graduated and Craig Finn left for Boston College.

BC was a much different scene than the Twin Cities. On a fairly conservative campus, FInn made a few friends that liked music but he invariably wound up going to hardcore shows by himself. So he hunkered down and did the college dude thing: girls, beer, classes. But the last semester of his senior year he formed a band in the Dinosaur Jr./Buffalo Tom mold, as was the style of the day. They were called Sweetest Day, which is sort of the Canadian Valentine’s Day. Craig Finn switched off on bass and guitar and sang with a lazy, stoney Jay Mascis-style yowl, as was also the style of the day. They got good enough to play The Ratt. Suddenly people reacted differently to him. He felt cool. And it felt good.

After college he moved back Minneapolis, where rent was cheap, and he “knew a lot of people that worked at bars and played in bands, and stuff like that.” He got an apartment with one of his fellow BC alumnae, a guy named Dave Gurlach. They started a band and called Lifter Puller — a pun on Twin Cities bong euphemism. A bong gets you high, so it’s called a lifter. And the person who sucks the smoke out of a bong is a puller. Doing bongs equals pulling lifters. Hence, Lifter Puller. He changed up his vocal style, less J. Mascis, more Mark E. Smith. Acerbic, talky, cutting. Partly it was a function of singing out of an amp at rehearsals and trying to get over the band. Partly it was a function the clipped, percussive, hard consonant lyrics he was writing. Partly it was a function of him having figured out a long time ago that he was neither a pretty boy nor a crooner.

Lifter Puller put out three albums in the course of six years. More importantly, for our purposes here today, one Tad Kubler, straight outta Janesville, Wisconsin, arrives in town at roughly the same moment that Lifter Puller was in the market for a bass player. A guitarist by trade — — Kubler was willing to take a bullet for the team. In 2000, Lifter Puller called it a career and Finn alighted for New York City. “I was married at the time and it kind of felt like after the band broke up in Minneapolis it was either like buy a house and have a kid or else double down on rock n’ roll,” he says. “And I knew Minneapolis had gotten a little small and there was also a bit of a drinking culture there that I saw that was maybe going to go down a…there was a lot of just sitting on a bar stool going on there. That’s fine but I just sort of was like ‘Maybe this is the time.’ I moved to New York about three weeks after Lifter Puller played their last show.”

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Back in 2003, when Finn and Kubler assembled a Paul Shaffer-style house band to pound out Bowie/CheapTrick/ACDC covers in between sketches by a short-lived, Upright Citizens Brigade-derived improv comedy troupe called Mr. Ass, they had no greater ambition than to drink beer and, like, really fucking kill it on “Back In Black.” Exhausted and dispirited after spending the better better part of the last decade in Lifter Puller trying to smash through the glass ceiling of local celebrity back in the Twin Cities, Finn had more or less called off the search for the holy grail of rock stardom. It was supposed to be fun, but by the end of Lifter Puller was anything but.

However, this really fucking killing it on “Back In Black” business? That was fun. A lot of fun. So even when Mr. Ass went away after two or three shows, the band kept going. They even started writing songs, with big muscular AOR riffs and dense, cinematic word clouds for lyrics. Even in his Lifter Puller hs-constructive-summer-finalDays, Finn was a fierce and formidable storyteller, able to connect the dots of human foibles with an eagle-eye for telling micro-details, a master of the withering aside with a gift for transmuting public experience into private mythology, his barbed-wire snarl spitting out ultra-vivid vignettes of debauchery and grace at an amphetamine pace. But when wedded to this new group’s propensity for unironic, unapologetic anthemic, hard rock crunch — more Zep, less Wire — Finn’s noirish, photorealistic rants sounded like the Gospel according to Charles Bukowski. There were recurring characters awash in American sadness — Charlemagne, Gideon, Hallelujah, Hard Corey — scratching around in the dark of some post-kegger purgatory for dope, sex and transcendence or at least one last cigarette before they slip into unconsciousness.

Hmmm, maybe they were onto something.

A show was booked at Northsix in Brooklyn, which meant they needed a name. They met for breakfast to discuss it. Finn wanted to take a phrase from “Stay Positive,” one of the first songs they ever wrote:

All the sniffling indie kids: hold steady
And all you clustered-up clever kids: hold steady
And I got bored when I didn’t have a band
And so I started a band, man
We’re gonna start it with a positive jam
Hold steady

All it needed was the definite article THE and behold an action becomes a thing. A many splendored thing. A second chance at glory. A band on a last chance power drive. All were agreed: The Hold Steady it is. So, they had songs and they had a name, now all they needed was a crowd. This being the days when dance-punk was ascendent, they weren’t so sure how it would play with the cool kids. I mean, they liked it, they thought it was good, maybe even great if they went all in, but what did they know from New York? They were from the midwest.

“I knew it was going to be an affront to some people but there was a lot more people at the first Hold Steady show than I thought there was going to be,” says Finn. “I thought it was a hundred but maybe it was only 60. A fair amount of them were people I didn’t know. That’s the thing, like right away there was people I didn’t know.” A hundred people — or for that matter 60 people — show up to see the first show of a band that didn’t even have a name before breakfast this morning? Yes, they were definitely onto something. F. Scott Fitzgerald said there’s no second acts in American life, but that’s because F. Scott Fitzgerald never heard It Nearly Killed Me.

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It’s a couple hours after my audience with Finn and I’m sitting in Hold Steady guitarist and songwriter Tad Kubler’s Lilliputian Greenpoint apartment, which he shares with his 9-year-old daughter Murphy and a cat named Mouse. Blonde and bespectacled, Kubler, it has been pointed out on Hold Steady message boards, looks like the less googly-eyed brother of The Office co-creator Stephen Merchant. Kubler grew up in Janesville, Wisconsin, (pop. 63,588). When he was seven, Cheap Trick’s manager at the time lived across the street, and one day he got to meet Rick Nielsen, and there would be no turning back.

After bumming around Madison for a time, he made his way to the Twin Cities at precisely the moment that hs-constructive-summer-finalFinn’s old band Lifter Puller was in the market for a bass player. A guitarist by trade, he agreed to take a bullet for the team. When Lifter Puller called it a day in 2000, he headed to LA to pursue portrait photography before ricocheting back east until he wound up in New York City where he found work shooting the likes of Leonard Cohen, Gregg Allman, and Arctic Monkeys for Rolling Stone. Eventually The Hold Steady took over as his primary passion/creative outlet and, a couple years after that, his day job. Up until a few years ago, he was Neko Case’s boyfriend.

Alcohol — like sex, dope and The Devil — is one of rock n’ roll’s great force multipliers (see The Replacements). It’s is also the great undoing of the many languishing in the Dionysian precincts of rock stardom (see The Replacements). If nothing else, The Hold Steady are the world’s greatest bar band. In the early days The Hold Steady played loaded for bear. On a good night, and depending on how much they and you had to drink, they didn’t just rock, they summoned up sweaty, Springsteen-ian salvation. Rock n’ roll was their church and beer was sacrament. The problem with rock n’ roll as religion is that the only way to get to heaven is to die. Back in 2008 Tad Kubler almost got there.

For a while there he was drinking a bottle of whiskey a day, if for no other reason, because he could. “I’m one of those guys with that metabolism where I can just do more than most and it doesn’t have much effect,” he says. “I could drink almost a liter of whiskey and get onstage and play a show.” Until he couldn’t. By 2008, he’d drank himself into acute pancreatitis, which leads to organ failure, necrosis, infected necrosis, pseudocyst and abscess. There is also a downside:

“Basically your pancreas stops working and then tries to kill everything else in your abdomen,” says Kubler. “It’s also very painful. It feels like somebody smashed a windshield and you swallowed a handful of broken glass and washed it down with a glass of orange juice. And then the pain grows, it gets to be so bad you are vomiting and then passing out because it’s so painful.

The thing about pancreatitis is there is no treatment for it, you just have to stop using [your pancreas]. No food, no water. Two weeks. In intensive care for five days, and then a regular room, on morphine and dilaudid the whole time. So you get out of the hospital and you can’t drink anymore and you’re like, ‘I know what I’m gonna do [heroin]. I’m gonna go pro. I would have bouts where I would try to get cleaned up and I would wind up drinking again. When we were working on Heaven Is Whenever I wound up in the hospital again. And they were like ‘The fuck you doing? We told you this was going to happen.’”

Being in The Hold Steady but not allowed to drink, upon pain of death, is like running a brothel with your wife. Kubler found other ways to self-medicate: opiates. “Being on a bus with people who are drinking and partying, I kind of built up a wall,” he says. “I knew none of those guys would go there, so it was like my thing. It feels incredible for a while and then after a while you’re just maintaining and then you’re fucked.”

By 2010, around the time they were finishing up work on Heaven Is Whenever, he’d had enough. “I hs-constructive-summer-finalwas like ‘Fuck this I don’t want to do this anymore’,” he says. “OD scares? Sure. Because I used alone, there were times I would just wake up a few hours later and be like ‘Fuck!’ And you make all kinds of deals with yourself. I don’t want to turn this into an NA meeting but a lot of my using was resentment and resentment, as they say, is like drinking a bottle of poison and expecting the person you resent to die. Here I am in a band that’s about partying and I can’t do that anymore, so I’m just going to hide.”

There were other resentments, too. Kubler writes all the music, but Finn gets all the credit. That’s not necessarily Finn’s fault, he is the frontman, lyricist and the face of the band — the glasses, the smirk, that hairline — and it comes with the territory. “When you are the lead singer of the band, there’s more scrutiny, and you tend to be the focal point of a lot of derision and animosity and criticism — and that’s tough — but you are also the focal point for a lot of the praise,” says Kubler, carefully choosing his word so as not to sound bitter or needy or ungrateful. “I’m sure it’s hard to deflect that.”

He’d gotten clean and sober in the nick of time, but it may have been too late to save his relationship with Finn. The bottle and the damage done: the seeds of doubt had been planted. “I’m sure by that point he was thinking ‘This guy could not even be around in a year,’” says Kubler. “I’m sure he was worried about me as a friend but also worried about me as a business partner and a songwriting partner.”

_________

A couple week later, I’m backstage at the Williamsburg Music Hall where The Hold Steady is celebrating their 10th anniversary with a concert at the club where they played their first show — back then it was called Northsixth. That’s the problem with starting a band in Brooklandia, sooner or later your creation myth will be gentrified. The show is way sold out and the club is hot and heaving. Many cups runneth over. The bartenders pull on the beer taps like a Texas prison warden flips the switch on the electric chair: Over and over and over again. Somebody’s gonna hurt someone before the night is through. Somebody’s gonna come undone, there’s nothin’ we can do. There’s gonna be a heartache tonight, a heartache tonight, I know.

Lord, I know.

Outside their dressing room The Hold Steady guys line up in the narrow hallway leading to the stage and, as per band ritual, high-five each other the way baseball players shake hands at the end of the game. Except this game is about to begin and it’s definitely going into extra innings. The band takes the stage to the strains of The Velvet Underground’s “We’re Gonna Have A Real Good Time Together.” Moments before they launch into “Stay Positive,” Finn straps on his guitar grabs the mic and makes a declaration. “This is for anyone here who saw us at Northsixth and anyone who wakes up and says ‘I’m not old, I’m old fucking school!” Crowd goes nuts. And then he takes off his guitar, the instrument which, it is well known, he does not play so much play as wield like a shield. “My New Year’s resolution is to stop playing fake guitar,” he says. “It’s 2014, let’s stop lying to each other.”

As the band lurches into the rutting bump and grind of “Stay Positive” before segueing right into Stooge-ian electric mainline of “The Swish,” Finn flops around the stage, alternately poking his finger in the crowd’s chest in that hey-you-kids-get-off-my-lawn way of his, or frugging comically like Igor doing the time warp again. The crowd goes ballistic. Beer showers down from the balconies like glitter in the spotlight, baptizing a sea of pumping fists in warm PBR. Two hours and two encores later, they end with the last song from their first album, “Killer Parties.” It’s the one that starts with that line that goes “If they ask about Charlemagne, be polite and say something vague.”

_________

And, scene. So that was the better part of a 2014 MAGNET cover story I wrote about The Hold Steady, who kick off a two-night stand at Union Transfer tonight. I only reprise it here because you’re crazy if you think I’m going to try and figure out how to say all that again but with different words. Over the weekend, I called Craig Finn to catch up.

DISCUSSED: How to stay positive in an Orwellian dystopia; The Drive-By Truckers; the election of Barack Obama; Penn State; the death of the album; the Mets; the cook and the chauffeur; Jersey Mike; the K + L Guardian Foundation; Joe Strummer; Harrisburg, PA; Fugazi; “Killer Parties”; Charlemagne; Pope Francis; cafeteria Catholics; Pkew Pkew Pkew; Elliott Smith; John Berryman’s suicide; alcoholism; Leslie Gore; Tad Kubler; to guitar or not to guitar; Springsteen; whether or not beer on ice is a crime against humanity.

PHAWKER: We are living in dark days, I think we can all agree, very discouraging times for defenders of truth, justice and the American Way. You’ve always been a beacon of positivity — one of the things I’ve always liked about you — wondering how you are holding up and what advice you might have for the deeply bummed.

CRAIG FINN: I’ve been going through listening to the Stay Positive record a lot, ten years on, and trying to uh, we’re learning a few songs that are kind of deep cuts from the record that we haven’t played in a while. And I listen to the record now, and it’s like God, I was so optimistic then [laughing]. But it was 2008, you know we’d elected Barack Obama. On the tour for this record, forStay Positive, we were on tour with Drive By Truckers. We were in State College, Pennsylvania the night of the election, the night that we elected Barack Obama. And it felt huge, you know. It’s hard to see ten years later – it felt like something was happening one way and it didn’t. Or it did briefly or something. I don’t know, it’s above my pay grade to explain all of it, but it’s discouraging. But at the same time, when I listen to the record – there was a lot going on in my personal life from 2006 to 2008 that was very bad. And so some of this positivity was almost saying, “If I believe it, it will manifest,” you know? And largely it did. So I’m trying to tap into the positivity of that time now. Things on a global level are now more difficult, obviously. But on a personal level, it’s always the same, but I think if you put positive things out into the world, positive things happen.

PHAWKER: Fair enough. The kind of answer I was hoping for. So let’s move on to the new things. The last Hold Steady album, Teeth Dreams, which was the last time we spoke, came out in 2014, but in the past year you’ve been releasing a series of gnarly, one-two-punch singles. And I’m wondering, have you guys given up on the album format? Going forward, are you just gonna cut songs as soon they come to you, get it out there, and tour on it?

CRAIG FINN: Well yeah, I wouldn’t say any decisions have been made. But I think that thehs-constructive-summer-finalPHAWKER: I agree.

CRAIG FINN: And it’s really fun. And honestly, 15 years in, it allows us to get away from some of the things we don’t enjoy, which is taking promo photos [laughing], or doing a hundred interviews in a row, etc. It’s like “Hey we have two songs, you wanna hear ‘em?” And you can directly engage with the fans in a very cool way.

PHAWKER: So the latest single, “The Stove & The Toaster,” it seems like it’s a sort of a heist story or some sort of crime caper. And the result of it is a great betrayal at the end, I believe by the cook and chauffeur?

CRAIG FINN: Yeah.

PHAWKER: Yeah, but I believe the kicker is that you guys were supposed to steal the toaster and the stove and it wasn’t there?

CRAIG FINN: Yeah, the idea is that you come in and you look for the stove and you look for the toaster. And you know, you get in the house and the stove isn’t there. There’s not even a stove. Toaster’s not happening either. And then you realize, “Oh shit. This has gone very poorly.”

PHAWKER: [laughing]. Yeah, it’s a cool song and a cool little story. So all the proceeds from that single go to the K + L Guardian Foundation, which benefits the family of the late ‘Jersey’ Mike Van Jura of Harrisburg, PA. Could you tell me a little bit about ‘Jersey’ Mike?

CRAIG FINN: Jersey Mike was kind of like – so our hardcore fans call themselves the Unified Scene, so I would say from the get-go, we’ve always wanted to be inclusive, positive and inclusive. We wanted to have a relationship with these fans. When we started, I thought a lot about the Clash. I read about people like Joe Strummer, making sure the fans had a place to stay when they traveled for out of town gigs. And Jersey Mike was, there’s no leader of the Unified Scene, but if there was, it was Jersey Mike. He’d come down to shows for us in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where he was from, but he traveled all over the East Coast for us. He was kind of just this spiritual leader. Great dude who died unexpectedly at 36 years old from a heart attack.

One thing that I really always thought about was, and this is like one of the things that’s said about the Hold Steady: Obviously we’re a classic rock influenced band, but we all kind of come from punk rock. And the thing in the 90’s that was so impressive about people like Fugazi was like, they’d do those shows at Fort Wilson or whatever, and they’d say, it wasn’t like “We’re gonna raise ten million dollars to keep Republicans out of Congress forever.” It was more like, “We’ve got this health clinic that helps underprivileged people and they need ten thousand dollars really badly. And we think we can do it.” And so to me, I just felt like, you know there’s more and more as we have things that come up, you know benefits, as a band you think at some point you need to give back to charity. Like this is something we can do. Mike left behind two young children, you know. It feels good. I went to a Mets game with his family the other

PHAWKER: Sure, sure. So K and L, are those the initials of his kids’ first names?

CRAIG FINN: Yeah, yeah.

PHAWKER: Well that’s very noble, and my hat is off to you on that. So for the last two years you’ve been re-issuing the early Hold Steady albums in remastered form with bonus tracks. Are these mostly tracks from those recording sessions or that era that did not make the album?

CRAIG FINN: Yeah, we are in the process of, if we were more organized or had a bigger organization, we’d be dropping the re-release of Stay Positive at this moment. Instead, I am working on it, and I think we’ll have it out by Christmas. But with that said, Stay Positive is the most well-documented release of our catalog. We made so many demos for that record, which is to say we have really good stuff that’s gonna come out eventually.

PHAWKER: Okay, so the one record that I was really digging on is Almost Killed Me, the first one, which you will be happy to hear in my opinion, has aged quite well. And I think we might’ve talked a little bit about this last time, but I’m still kind of hung up on the last song on that album, “Killer Parties” – I think between that and “The Swish,” they’re my favorite songs. But that “Killer Parties” song, it features what I think is the greatest couplet which is really saying something, because I really think you are a never ending fountain of great couplets. I really think you are a remarkable writer, rock n’ roll or otherwise, and I’m not easily amused in that regard. The line that slays me every time is: “If they ask you about Charlemagne, be polite and say something vague.” Charlemagne is a recurring character in your early work. But I’m wondering who is Charlemagne based on or is he totally made up, and what made you name him Charlemagne?

CRAIG FINN: To me [laughing], Charlemagne is like…to me, a lot of my characters are just like composites of people, different types of people. Charlemagne to me is kind of a pimp-like dude. Back in the day, when I used to go downtown in Minneapolis, you would see actual pimps. Like hat, fur coat, all that. I mean I’m talking about, I’m 46, so when I was like ten.

PHAWKER: So the ‘70s, okay.

CRAIG FINN: And I was trying to imagine someone who was grandiose like that. And you know Charlemagne is Charles the Great, so I thought that was just kind of a dude that might be like that. Which isn’t to say that Charlemagne’s a pimp, but you know with the 1970’s, ‘81, but I was just trying to tap into that. It’s also a nod to my ninth grade history teacher, Tim Rosenfield, who taught me about Charlemagne, the actual Charlemagne, and was so excited in doing so, that it got me excited about him too.hs-constructive-summer-finalPHAWKER: Excellent. So the real Charlemagne became the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and he was one of the earliest defenders of what would become the Catholic Church. And I’m wondering if that speaks to your complicated relationship with Catholicism? I think all Catholics have a complicated relationship with Catholicism.

CRAIG FINN: More complicated as you get older [laughing]. More complicated now than it was in 2014.

PHAWKER: Well that’s what I wanted to ask you about. Where do you stand these days? Because I think at the time you told me that you still went to mass, that you enjoyed the rituals and the ceremony of it all.

CRAIG FINN: Yeah, I go to mass. I’ve created my own Catholicism in my head. It’s sort of easier than going to try and find this perfect religion. To just say, well I’m used to going to mass, and maybe this is bad, I don’t know. But I go to mass, I get out of it what I need to, what I want to, but you know, I’ve been there and I probably said this last time we talked four or five years ago, but there was a time in the 2008 election that I was there, and the priest read a note from the bishop that said, “Just a reminder, when you go in the voting booth on Tuesday, this is a one issue election.” And I just got up and walked out. All these people are fucking crazy.

PHAWKER: Right. That one issue was abortion and if you are Catholic cannot vote for anybody that’s not anti-abortion…

CRAIG FINN: Yeah, and look, I’m a pro-choice Catholic, if there’s such a thing. And there are people who will tell you that can’t be and that I’m not a Catholic, and that’s fine.

PHAWKER: Don’t they call those cafeteria Catholics?

CRAIG FINN: Yeah and I’m fine with that. I like the pomp and circumstance, I like the rituals. It makes me feel a connection to my grandparents, but you know, I’m not gonna go along with some of this bullshit. And also, for the record, the human rights and cover-ups for the molestation stuff is despicable. So I’m not gonna sit here and explain away that.

PHAWKER: But I’m sure you like the new Pope?

CRAIG FINN: I do. I adore the new Pope because I think the one thing the church can do is work on poverty.

PHAWKER: Totally, I mean who did Jesus minister to? Not the rich and the well-off…

CRAIG FINN: Yeah, and so I think this is an amazing Pope. There’s so much weird shit done in the name of church or Jesus, but the Pope seems to get it, right? Which is kind of amazing honestly. My girlfriend’s not Catholic, and I remember we watched when they were picking the Pope. And it’s so weird with the smoke and all that, you know? It’s weird, it’s like sci-fi.

PHAWKER: I’ve got a line for you, if you ever wanna use it at some point or find a place to plug it in, feel free. There was this weird period after John Paul II died where there was no Pope. Where the old Pope dies and they’re selecting a new one. It went on for two weeks, I think, and I remember visualizing a Star Wars-like crawl going across the screen with the words: In The Time Between Popes..

CRAIG FINN: Yeah, my friends have this band up in Toronto called Pkew Pkew Pkew, do you hs-constructive-summer-finalknow this band?

PHAWKER: I do not.

CRAIG FINN: Check into them, but they’ve got this song on their next record – I’m privy to their next record. And it’s an amazing song. It’s about the dude who, the singer skipped work that day and was just like slamming beers, watching the pope, like watching the thing come in.

PHAWKER: Waiting for the smoke.

CRAIG FINN: “Fresh Pope” is the name of the song. [singing] Fresh pope, oh yeah, fresh pope.

PHAWKER: That’s good. So getting back to what I was saying about Almost Killed Me, one of the great revelations for me with these newly released tracks was the song “Hot Fries,” which is a great song, and as best I can tell is about mapping the line between drug use and drug abuse. Or the line between using drugs and being used by drugs, or whatever gets you high — alcohol, whatever. There’s this great line in there that references Elliott Smith, “All your songs wouldn’t seem so sad if you weren’t so depressed” – which is a great line. And “Elliott Smith seems like a mess to me / And you cry way too easily….I went to your party and your party was got clever / I put a milk crate on my head and surrendered in the corner / Some borderline whore asked me how I’m liking California / I just cried” – is that based on anything or is that purely imagination?

CRAIG FINN: It’s pretty much imagination. I will say Elliott Smith was alive when I wrote that song. So it may seem insensitive, but you know, there was a woman that I know who is a very big fan of ours and is a very big fan of Elliott Smith, who hated that song and would literally leave the club while we played it. She went to a lot of Hold Steady shows. She would walk outside if we played that song

PHAWKER: Wow, that’s commitment.

CRAIG FINN: The song is about sort of celebrating the darkness in a way that I don’t think is that healthy.

PHAWKER: Well there’s a great line in one of the choruses: “It’s my party and I’ll die if I want to” – great line. Kind of a pun Leslie Gore’s “It’s My Party And I’ll Cry If I Want To.” I had a chance to get know Elliott Smith a little bit. I did a story on him and hung out with him on the road for four or five days. I’m talking like eighteen years ago — I can’t believe that much time has gone by. But honestly, that was his attitude: It’s my party and I’ll die if I want to. I mean, he more or less said that to me. Because people were always trying to get him into rehab and doing interventions and it just drove him crazy. But if it’s any consolation, if you see this woman again, you might want to tell her that I know Elliott Smith, and I think that song is dead on.

CRAIG FINN: Well, yeah I just think that I’m really inspired by, especially as I get older, like a lot of us, I love reading rock bios. I love reading rock biographies. And the two that I read in the past five years that stick with me are Paul Stanley’s and Paul Simon’s. Both New Yorkers. Both guys that never got strung out. And it was awesome. They each have their own, they made things difficult in their own way, but if you can get through rock and roll without getting strung out on drugs, it’s fucking awesome. I think there need to be more stories of people who say, “I wanna live a healthy life. And I can write about the darkness.” Obviously if you’re gonna be in music or creativity of any sort, hs-constructive-summer-finalyou’re gonna meet people that are you know, challenged with depression or anxiety or those sorts of things. But I just really wanna be a beacon of positivity of some sort, and not be that cliched. And you know, people struggle for a lot of different reasons, but I think if I can be not that person, then that’s awesome to me.

PHAWKER: I’m all for there being less rock casualties. So there’s another great line that I wanted to just tease out here for a second. This is from “Stuck Between Stations” off Boys And Girls in America, and I was kind of going through all of the lyrics a bit, and one really caught my eye. This verse about John Berryman that goes “The Devil and John Berryman, they took a walk together / They ended up on Washington” – which is a big thoroughfare in Minneapolis that runs along the Mississippi River, correct?

CRAIG FINN: Yeah, that’s correct. Crosses the river.

PHAWKER: Okay, “They ended up on Washington, talking to the river” – which is a great line. “He said, ‘I surrounded myself with doctors and deep thinkers / But big heads and soft bodies make for lousy lovers’ / There was that night that we thought John Berryman could fly / But he didn’t, so he died / She said, ‘You’re pretty good with words / But words won’t save your life’ / And they didn’t, so he died.” Now tell me, what was your connection to John Berryman? What did he mean to you?

CRAIG FINN: John Berryman’s work is, I’ve enjoyed it, but honestly, the reason I found out about John Berryman is that I read an article in the newspaper about his suicide. And it was like the

PHAWKER: Is that what he did? He jumped off the bridge?

CRAIG FINN: Yeah. Yeah, he jumped off the bridge, but I don’t think he made the river.

PHAWKER: Oh, he landed on one of the pillars holding it up or something like that?

CRAIG FINN: He landed on the shore I think. But you know, I remember reading this article about him and I subsequently went back and read The Dream Songs, but I was like ‘Whoa, this happened in Minneapolis?!?’ And Saul Bellow has a quote that John Berryman was the greatest American writer. Which I think is [laughing], if Saul Bellow says that, that means something. My brother-in-law’s father was at the University of Minnesota teaching at that time, and actually had some small relationship with John Berryman. And I just thought it was very interesting. He’s a literary giant, but in those last two years of his life, he had rehab, he had a lot of conversions to Catholicism, he saw angels.

PHAWKER: He battled alcoholism his whole life, correct?

CRAIG FINN: Yes, and I think his dad committed suicide. He was, you know, when I read the story – and this was before the Hold Steady happened – but I almost felt like it was being written for me, you know? And I was, especially in the first three records of the Hold Steady, I’d moved to New York in 2000, and I think I was making sense of what makes Minneapolis an interesting place by being away from it. And it just seemed like such an interesting part of the city’s history.

PHAWKER: Actually I didn’t even know that he was from Minneapolis.

CRAIG FINN: Yeah, he’s not from there.

PHAWKER: But he was living there at the time, and that’s where he committed suicide?

CRAIG FINN: Yeah.hs-constructive-summer-final

PHAWKER: Well, I’m glad I asked about that. So, on a lighter note: the last time we talked, you decided you were going to stop playing guitar on stage and just focus on singing, is that still the case or have you gone back to the guitar?

CRAIG FINN: No, no. Once we had two guitars, I got hung up on the fact that you couldn’t really hear my guitar, so I sort of felt like I was faking it and it distracted me in some way. But it turns out, it distracted me more not having a guitar in my hands.

PHAWKER: I think that’s the right move. I think even if it’s just hanging off your neck, I think it just looks right.

CRAIG FINN: Yeah, that’s sort of where I am. The problem with being just a singer is the parts where you’re not singing.

PHAWKER: Exactly, what do you do with your hands and your body and all that stuff?

CRAIG FINN: Yeah.

PHAWKER: And I don’t know, there’s something about the guitar swinging around while you’re jerking your body around – it’s a good look. I’m glad to hear this.

CRAIG FINN: Yeah, it’s funny. My hero obviously is Bruce Springsteen, and that guy does it pretty well, but he’s also a way better guitar player than I am.

PHAWKER: Well yeah, and you know, there’s no shortage of great guitar playing going on in your band as well. Tad Kubler consistently crushes it. Okay, so the last questions are basically, what’s the best part about being Craig Finn these days? And then the flipside of that is what is the worst?

CRAIG FINN: What’s the best part of being Craig Finn these days?

PHAWKER: Correct.

CRAIG FINN: So I think with the last solo record I made, I’ve been able to, I don’t know, I sort of feel like I actually connect with people in a way that’s like, because I don’t know the way I write for the Hold Steady is different from the way I write my solo stuff. But it’s allowed me to do both things which allows me to work all the time, which is what I want. I love the band, I love the Hold Steady. But there’s stuff about being in a band politically, and managing personalities and stuff that isn’t always exciting for a 46 year old man. So the cool thing about the solo stuff is you just say, “Oh this is gonna work.” But the band is very exciting, as with any rock band that’s greater than the sum of its parts, and I think the Hold Steady is that. So that’s what’s great about being Craig Finn. In 2018, Craig Finn is super excited about that.hs-constructive-summer-final

PHAWKER: Okay, and alternately, what’s the worst part about being Craig Finn these days?

CRAIG FINN: Ohhh, um, jeez, I don’t know. I’m pretty positive, I don’t wanna complain. I

PHAWKER: [laughing] That’s the perfect answer.

CRAIG FINN: It’s been a rough summer.

PHAWKER: Last question, do you still drink?

CRAIG FINN: Yeah.

PHAWKER: So, you guys are a hard drinking band, and the reason I was setting all this up is that I have a question for you, and I think you would be an authority on this, because at the great bane of my life in the summertime is warm beer. I can’t stand warm beer! So I like to drink beer on the rock, and this turns out to be a very provocative gesture. All the time, I get people who are personally offended by this: “YOU’VE GOT ICE IN YOUR BEER?!?” Like I just took a dump in the punch bowl or something. And I’m just like, ‘You know it’s 90% water anyway, right? And also, you’re just cranky because your beer is warm and mine is really cold and refreshing.’ So my question for you is, do you approve of beer on ice or no?

CRAIG FINN: 100%. Actually, it’s not the first time this has come up. The mother to Tad’s daughter drinks beer on ice in the summer. She’s a New Yorker. She says the same thing, it’s just water. Yeah, I think having a cold beer is worth it. And also, did you grow up in Philly?

PHAWKER: Well around Philly. I grew up in Allentown, which is about an hour away.

CRAIG FINN: Oh okay. It seems to me like a New York/Philly, and I live in Greenpoint up here, and it seems like an old Italian or and old Polish guy would put ice in his beer.

PHAWKER: Totally, my girlfriend has a 93-year-old Italian father, who was a lifelong bartender by the way, and he was working the bar at a dive in Philly when Billie Holiday was playing in South Philly back in the day. But anyway, he drinks beer on ice.

CRAIG FINN: Yeah, it feels kind of weirdly East Coast to me.

PHAWKER: Definitely. We’ll leave it there. I think that should actually be your epitaph, “Having a cold beer was worth it.”

THE HOLD STEADY PLAY UNION TRANSFER JULY 26TH & 27TH

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