INTERVIEW: Craig Finn & Franz Nicolay (THE HOLD STEADY)
Forming in the early years of a brand new millennium, Brooklyn-based rockers The Hold Steady have certainly adhered to their even-keeled namesake for close to two decades. A band notoriously adept at spinning tales of insolvent characters and lush narratives, these bewitching bards have managed to strike earnest authenticity throughout their tenure, wielding immersive bar rock wiles with a twist of modernity (and sweltering acclaim along the way).
As with any musical tale, especially one with such a burgeoning legacy, it hasn't all been smooth sailing for The Hold Steady, with lineup changes, a hiatus and the usual wear and tear of life in a band bringing unique challenges over the years. But against any odds, The Hold Steady have held steadfast, as though one of their own tenacious lyrical personas spun to life throughout their multiple albums. And while the band's successes may be lined with near-universal praise for their ambitious sound, emphatic live shows and brushes with pop culture infamy (including a track recorded specially for Game of Thrones in its dramatic heyday) - stripped down to the core, The Hold Steady are ultimately a band who quite simply adore one another and what they do. And with 2021 bringing to life the eight studio album Open Door Policy (out now through Positive James via Thirty Tigers/Cooking Vinyl Australia), we grabbed some time with Craig Finn (vox/guitar) and Franz Nicolay (keyboards) to chat new music, longevity and what sparked their respective journeys into the musical realms. Interview below.
TIANA SPETER: Hi, and thank you so much for chatting today! A huge congratulations are in order with ‘Open Door Policy’, aka The Hold Steady’s eighth full length album officially out in the world right now. Now that the dust has settled slightly since its release, how does it feel to have this beauty out in the world? Have you had a moment to catch your breath?
FRANZ NICOLAY: I’ve had nothing but time to catch my breath over the last year! I’m mostly glad that people finally get to hear the record—we made it almost completely in 2019, and it was a little sad to sit on it all of last year, so happy it’s finally out there.
CRAIG FINN: It’s really nice to have it out, especially because we waited a bit longer than normal to release it due to the pandemic. But it felt like a special record to us, so I think we were all excited to share it with the world. As far as catching our breath, it’s a bit strange to not be playing a lot of shows around a record release. But we did keep busy and play some livestream shows last weekend which were really fun. Not as good as the real thing, but very cool nonetheless.
TIANA: And on the topic of ‘Open Door Policy’….I’ve read that this particular album was approached as an “album” rather than a collection of individual songs. Compared to some of your previous releases, did this process differ with how you’d normally approach conjuring an album? Does it all well like a well-oiled machine at this point, or are you always looking for ways to mix things up each time?
CRAIG: Prior to this we were releasing singles, or just releasing songs digitally as we completed them. A bunch of those were compiled on our last release Thrashing Thru the Passion. I think when you set about making an album you make some different decisions- you might think about sequence more- setting up songs, winding down the record on a final song, etc. When you release singles you are always kind of swinging for the fences. And an album can hold a lyrical theme which makes it work on a grander level.
FRANZ: As a process, it felt like a natural continuation of the way we’ve been doing things since about 2017—writing and recording in small batches of songs every few months, and releasing them in various collections and formats. That said, we knew we were thinking of these two sessions as an album, so obviously you approach that conscious of trying to have a breadth of material. When I’m sitting down to write for the band I’m always trying to think, what’s a feel we haven’t done before? If you try something musically and it works, that opens up a whole new field of play going forward.
TIANA: I find it interesting that a lot of the key lyrical themes on the album, e.g. mental health, technology, survival etc., all came into play and were recorded before the pandemic started. ‘Open Door Policy’ really seems to have inadvertently taken on extra life in a COVID-19 world in this respect, but you guys certainly aren’t strangers to addressing hard-hitting themes and infusing storytelling into your tunes. Do you find it cathartic to write and/or play these songs so dense with meaning and reality?
FRANZ: It’s been a little overshadowed, of course, but 2019 wasn’t that great of a year either! As a fan of Craig’s writing, it’s always a treat—if you must play songs over and over again, and if you’re a band, you must—to have lyrics which repay repeated listening. Even some of the old songs have taken on a new resonance when we’ve played them on streaming shows. I’m thinking especially of “We Can Get Together,” the line “Heaven is whenever we can get together.” That one’s gonna be pretty emotional when we can play it in a room full of people.
CRAIG: I think it’s cathartic to play any kind of rock and roll. When the lyrics take on extra levity, like ODP has durning the pandemic, it makes the songs hit a little heavier for sure. But to turn up amps, bang on drums, and have a crowd singing along to your music- that is always cathartic. So there’s kind of two sides: paying attention closely while listening to the record vs. hoisting a beer in the air during a show. We try to appeal to both, I think.
TIANA: Marking the second rodeo with the six-piece line-up, and also bringing in some sparkling extras on horns, backing vocals and percussion as well, there’s such a sense of personality and balance throughout the new album, with just the right amount of enhancements, while still retaining the original spirit of what so many love about The Hold Steady. As a band releasing music in 2021 after nearly two decades in existence, what is it you still love about this crazy journey you’re all on? What keeps inspiring you to keep creating and crafting these immersive tunes?
CRAIG: I think we really enjoy each other’s company, and it wouldn’t work if we didn’t. We generally have a really good time together and even when subject matter is sometimes heavy - like on ODP- we had a great time making the record. I’ve found that if we are having fun, good things happen with the music.
FRANZ: I feel like we’ve all gone through something transformative together and come out the other side, and that’s an extraordinary thing to do with any group of people. Being in a band for a long time is the opposite of being in a long romantic relationship in the sense that you’re less likely to take it for granted. I mean, this is the longest sustained creative collaboration any of us has had or is likely to have in our lives, and you have to be respectful of that and value it—especially since it feels like we’re going through one of the particularly productive times. We’re on our eighth record, and I hope we do fifteen.
pic: Adam Parshall
TIANA: I know all over the globe live music has been a massively painful topic, and here’s hoping that we continue inching to some semblance of “normality” in 2021…but when you do finally leap up onstage in front of a crowd and bring this brand new album to life, is there a particular song on ‘Open Door Policy” you’re most excited to bust out? Or is that like asking you to pick a new favourite child…? (side note, my favourite CURRENTLY is Unpleasant Breakfast. But I keep changing my mind, by the time you read this I’ve probably switched!!)
FRANZ: I do think “Unpleasant Breakfast” is the one that sounds the most different when we play it as a live band than it does on the record! There’s that little squiggly sound effect—something our producer Josh Kaufman played on a little Casio on the demo, and it stuck around—that we’ve been sort of bemused to realize that fans collectively decided was a vocal part, and one they wanted to do at the shows. So I guess we’ll all see what that sounds like…
CRAIG; We just ran through all the ODP songs for a livestream last week. It was the first time we’d played them all live. I have to say, I really dug what happened with “Me & Magdalena” in the live setting, but all of them felt great. I think Unpleasant Breakfast might be especially fun once the audience is in the room. It’s got some obvious crowd participation moments.
TIANA: And while we’re talking about live music for a moment here, let’s travel back in time briefly, can you take me back to the first time you ever played a live The Hold Steady show? Who was there, where was it, and what was the most memorable moment from the show?
CRAIG: Ha! I think it was January 31, 2003 at North Six in Brooklyn. The club isn’t there anymore, but was a cool place. I just remember being happy that we had a pretty good crowd and people seemed to like it. After we played someone asked us to play a second show a few weeks later, so we were off to the races.
FRANZ: That’s a tough one—I played on a couple of tracks on the band’s first record, “Almost Killed Me,” as a guest, and I think the first time I played live with them was on those handful of songs on the record release show at the Mercury Lounge in New York, probably in 2004. Then a few months later at Northsix was the first time I played a full set. It must have gone OK, since not long after they asked me to join the band.
TIANA: You guys have played an insane amount of shows over the years, I would list some here but we’d be here for days and I’d run out of room. But after all this time, is there still a bucket-list moment or event you’d love to play in the (hopefully) not-too-distant future?
FRANZ: Oh man. I’ll just be happy to play in front of a crowd.
CRAIG: Well, I’d like to keep traveling so playing new countries would always be welcome to me. I’d love to play with THS at Red Rocks in Colorado. And we are certainly overdue for a return to Australia. We had to postpone 2020 dates, so hope to get those back on the books soon.
TIANA: And finally to close us out today, The Hold Steady are a band who effortlessly manage to craft musical magic that is equal parts classic and contemporary. But for yourself personally, what was the one song, artist or album that changed everything and inevitably inspired you to pursue a career in music? Was there a turning point that changed everything and the rest was history?
FRANZ: My parents tell me it was seeing Yitzhak Perlman on Sesame Street that made me ask them for an instrument and music lessons. I can’t vouch for that, since I was five at the time, but it kind of feels like I never looked back.
CRAIG: For me it was The Replacements. They were from my hometown and I got to see them play some smaller shows in clubs, and they made it all seem possible. I loved how they didn’t take themselves too seriously but also could write super heavy and emotional songs. I’ve loved a lot of bands, but they are my all time favorite.
THE HOLD STEADY'S BRAND NEW ALBUM OPEN DOOR POLICY IS OUT NOW THROUGH POSITIVE JAMS VIA THIRTY TIGERS/COOKING VINYL AUSTRALIA. FOR MORE INFO, HEAD HERE.
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BY TIANA SPETER