Craig Finn of the Hold Steady has to be one of the most gregarious guys in rock, a characteristic that’s always more than apparent in their fist-pumping, fast-clapping live shows. Now he’s getting to put his genuinely friendly nature to a different use, interviewing bands and serving as a sort of in-studio anchor for IFC’s Crossroads House, an outpost for web-streamed live performances here in Austin. We caught up with the always-positive bandleader on Thursday for a chat about surviving South-By as an adult, and the band’s fifth album, Heaven is Whenever, due out March 4 (with a limited-edition vinyl preview on Record Store Day, April 17, available only at your local non-box-store music retailer). He also had some kind words for the words of the late Alex Chilton; read those here, and check out IFC.com for their live webcasts of his work throughout the weekend…
Entertainment Weekly: You guys are finishing a new album, and not playing SXSW this year. Why are you here? Can you just not keep yourself away?
Craig Finn: It just seemed fun. I love music. It was a reason to be down here and check out things and see a lot of people but not have the hassles. We did four shows last year — the shows are actually the easy part. Getting between the shows is the hard part. I’m talking to all these bands — I think Dawes said they’re doing 10 shows and I’m like, Oh my god. There’s a million bands, you can’t park anywhere. There’s so much stress about all that, and it’s hard to make it about the music. And it’s funny, I’ve been asking a lot of people how they get into the headspace to play their shows, and everyone has their answer which is, “No, you just do it!” But it is kinda hard. So, we’ve been working on this record a lot, and this is kind of a little vacation for me.
How are you as an interviewer?
Um. Getting better. My second one was with Lemmy [from Motörhead], so that was — I’ve been trying to talk to people as a peer, you know? As a musician. Lemmy’s not really my peer. Nor is he anyone alive’s peer, really. So that one was intimidating. I’m not even sure they got anything they could use. He kind of mumbles, and he’s drunk, and there’s not much connection there. The other ones are pretty cool, and a lot of them are my friends — you know, the [Drive-By] Truckers were here, and Jakob [Dylan] and Neko [Case]. Comfort level helps a lot.
Found any new bands you’re psyched about?
Yeah! The first night we had a party here with this band Shadow Shadow Shade, from Los Angeles. Really cool, a big seven-piece. They were a good interview and a really good band.
Do you miss having your band brethren with you?
I do. I don’t know. Usually in the band we share hotel rooms, and this week I have my own. So it’s 50/50, you know? Also, I always quit drinking for Lent, which is great with all these cameras around. So I haven’t really been partying. Just been hanging out. But it’s nice. Walking down 6th Street last night and seeing St. Patrick’s Day and South-By intersecting seemed to lead to a lot of stumbling. I’m gonna wake up at 8 tomorrow and feel great.
We’re responsible adults now. I just went for a run.
I went for a run yesterday!
I’m not getting any younger. But I might be getting smarter.
Let’s talk new album. The line they put in the press release — “Heaven is Whenever is about embracing suffering and understanding its place in a joyful life”…
Well, struggle, really. Heaven is obviously the ultimate reward in the Christian sense, and I was kind of thinking about — let’s say your run you went on this morning. When I go running, or I go to the gym, I can sit in my apartment and say, God, if I go to the gym an hour from now, I’m gonna feel so much better than I do right now. But it’s still kind of hard to get there sometimes. So it’s kind of about understanding the struggle as part of the reward. Part of doing it. It’s not just the reward. You play the show, it’s not just for people telling you your band was awesome. During the show, you should also feel joy. To understand what you’re doing is part of the reward.
And obviously it’s going to be more guitar-driven, as we’ve lost one mustache? [Keyboardist Franz Nicolay left the band in January to pursue other opportunities.]
Yeah, we’ve lost all mustaches. You know, Franz is a real ambitious guy, and I think he wanted to do a lot of different things, and we want to really follow this one Hold Steady thing to its logical end. And it takes up a lot of time. It was an amicable departure, and I think we all wish him the best. He’ll do a lot of interesting, cool things. Tad played some piano and keys on the record, but I think the biggest difference is that a lot of the songs were written with no piano or keys. So there’s a sense of space in it that I don’t think we’ve had since Separation Sunday.
And you’ve gone back to that album’s producer, Dean Baltulonis.
Absolutely. He’s a real close friend, so it was kind of a more relaxed, less formal way of making a record. We kind of went in for shorter sessions over a longer period of time, and we recorded a lot. There’s a fair amount of songs that didn’t make the record, and that’s always a heartbreaking thing, choosing between your favorite children. But in the end, it is a little different. Franz’s departure is a part of that. It’s also kind of where our heads are at. I said it’s “less anthemic” somewhere, and that was on Pitchfork, and a lot of people were like, “What??!?! It’s less anthemic??!!!?” So I don’t know if I should say that again. But that’s sort of one way of thinking about it. I think it’s a little more mature. More laid back. It might be a little less [he thrashes his fist in the air], you know? Maybe it’s more age-appropriate for a 38 year old.
Will it continue to feature your rotating cast of charaters?
I think those characters are in it, but again, like Stay Positive, I’m not calling them by name. I always like to be kind of hazy on that, because I like people to be able to get what they want out of it. But yeah, there are certainly some familiar situations.
Do you have a flow chart of Charlemagne and Holly somewhere?
I kind of look at it as a big fake Christmas tree, and I hang ornaments on it in the form of songs and stories.
Why put out new music so soon? You’ve been on such a hardcore pace, releasing a new album almost every year since 2004 — did you consider taking some time off to let it breathe?
There’s always that thought, but I’ve always used the analogy that if you’re a parent, and your son or daughter comes to you and says, “I’m gonna go back, but I just need to take this semester of college off,” you sorta know they’re not going back. I think what a rock band does is make music and play shows, and if we’re gonna be a rock band, I feel like we should always be doing that. We haven’t played since November — this is the longest time we haven’t played since we started the band. So April 2nd is a big day, our first show.
You really seem to be feeling your age.
A little bit. But look at that [he points to the monitor where the twenty-somethings of MG&V are playing in the studio downstairs] — rock is a young man’s game. The physicality of our shows is something that does take some time to recover from — certainly at 38, it takes a lot of mental energy. Put it this way — when we’re on tour, a lot of it is about recovering and staying healthy each day. But I thought Stay Positive was a lot about the idea of aging gracefully. At the same time, I don’t feel old so much as I feel like a survivor or something. It’s hard to think about being the indie rock establishment, but we’re on record five. So it’s not like album one, where you have something to prove. Now it’s like, What haven’t we said? What do we do? What’s going to make this still interesting?
So you can’t be 33 forever, is what you’re saying.
No, you most certainly can’t. Yeah. No.