A whole world resides inside a Hold Steady CD, one in which Catholic girls tap a drug haze for a sense of spirituality, where small-town-Minnesota kids struggle for cool nicknames, and where a pimp named Charlemagne strolls the street in sweat-pants. Often, Hold Steady characters created in one track will resurface on another track. The rock and roll band possesses a unique narrative style. Characters from Hold Steady songs become familiar friends, like John Updike’s Rabbit or J.D. Salinger’s Seymour.
“Obviously I’m interested in writing,” Craig Finn, the band’s lead singer, lyricist and brainchild, explains when asked about the nature of the band’s lyrics.
“I have friends who are poets. If they can get sixteen people to show up to a reading, it’s exciting. But when you add melody and rock and roll and you add all the music to it, there’s something very positive that happens. People who wouldn’t read poetry — or might not even read books — will listen to us and memorize every word.”
Finn doesn’t feel especially attached to his Irish heritage. He’s not even sure when his family first immigrated.
“I don’t feel my family did anything outside of being Catholic that was particularly Irish,” he explains. In his defense, Finn didn’t hang out with a particularly Irish crowd growing up.
“My grandfather was of an era where all of his friends were Irish. I feel like my dad was probably the first generation who had Jewish friends.”
Craig’s songwriting skills, however, reflect the imprint Catholicism made on the Boston College graduate. Hold Steady characters have hallucinations of Jesus, and liken their recovery from a drug overdose to “resurrection.”
“It wasn’t like we were really hard-core,” says Craig, explaining the intensity of his Catholic upbringing. “We didn’t say rosaries, but at the same time, we went to mass every Sunday, there was no meat on Friday, and we went to mass on holy days. I’m not a churchgoer, but it can’t not be a part of my life.”
Also remarkable is the disparity between Finn’s own image and the scenes he paints in his music. To look at the married 33-year-old rocker’s thickset glasses, it’s hard to imagine him hanging with the “hoodrats” or “militia men cooking up a batch of crystal meth.” Finn describes his father as the “quintessential, older finance-type dude,” the type that eases back into a leather recliner, scotch in one hand, Wall Street Journal in the other. His mother is a microbiologist. Needless to say, Finn himself is somewhat of an anomaly in his family.
“My parents look at me with wide-eyed wonder,” he confirms.
Though his highbrow parents had difficulty understanding the origins of their son’s punk rock obsession, they were supportive of his career choices. When he first became interested in punk at the age of 12, they drove him to shows, and recently they visited New York to take in The Hold Steady’s sold out show at the Bowery Ballroom.
“‘The music is certainly more edgy than what I’m used to, but I would have to say, your show was extremely professional, but it didn’t lose any of the ragged intensity that I’m used to seeing in you guys.'” Finn beams recalling his father’s summing up of the show.
Prior to The Hold Steady, Finn, along with guitarist and fellow Irish American Tad Kabler, was part of a band known as Lifter Puller, a Minnesota cult classic similarly known for Finn’s trademark narrative style. The band split in 2000, and in 2004, Finn moved to Brooklyn and started a new band with Kabler. But their new New York homebase hasn’t diluted Finn’s Minnesota flavor. Minnesota’s baseball team, the Twins, plays Hold Steady songs at their games. For the members of the band, this is a huge honor.
“It brings us that much closer to the Twins,” said Kabler, gloating proudly. It isn’t merely that the Twins are from Minnesota that ties the band to the team. They genuinely identify with the team’s image.
“Metaphorically, the Twins are a scrappy team, the little team that could. The Twins are all substance, no style. They go out and win a lot of one-run games. One of the reasons I like them is they represent a philosophy I really believe in. They don’t spend, they don’t have superstars, they don’t always win in a dramatic fashion where they might have a lot of home runs. Rather, they slowly grind out one-two, one-two, night after night, and then they’re in the playoffs.”
“If the Hold Steady were a team, they certainly wouldn’t play in a dome!” interjected Galen Polivka, who plays bass. The band’s remaining members, Bobby Drake (drums) and Franz Nicolay (piano and keys), laughed along.
This year, The Hold Steady has definitely made it to the playoffs. While “Almost Killed Me,” the band’s 2004 debut album, was a critical smash, The Hold Steady’s second album “Separation Sunday” released in May, has put them on the road to stardom. In the same week as the Hold Steady scored the cover of The Village Voice and was featured in The New Yorker, “Separation Sunday” was named “Best Album of the Century” by Esquire magazine.
“I was in a magazine store, and I was looking at the latest magazines, and there’ s not one that’s left us out,” Finn says in amazement. “I’ll guess we’ll have to start doing television.”
And like the Minnesota Twins, The Hold Steady have eased towards victory, and worked hard to attain it. They very much have their fingers in the booking, mixing and publicity of their band.
“At 2:30 in the morning, I was moving this amp upstairs,” recalls Nicolay, “and I remember thinking, if I’m ever in a position that I have money and am successful, and someone tells me I didn’t work for it, I will beat them to death with my amplifier.”
In the life of every band (especially as the members start to age), there are moments of temptation that threaten to break the band apart.
“Of course there are moments when you feel, `oh well, maybe I should get a job,'” Finn says. “It takes a certain personality to put your head down and let a lot of other stuff fall by the wayside.”
“I guarantee you that there’s a band in Iowa right now, in their garage, that are way better than we are, but they might not ever get out of Dubuque,” says Kabler. “There a lot of people from small towns that are really good. They thought of maybe moving to Boston, but they can’t get out of construction.”
“Or maybe they got some chick pregnant!” Finn interjects.
Part of what has kept The Hold Steady on its feet is the dedication of its fanbase.
“I wouldn’t stay in a band if I knew only forty people were going to come, all from my hometown. I’m 33 years old.” Hmmm…33, who else was 33? “33 is when Christ died,” Finn answers. “It’s old to be in rock.” ♦