The Hold Steady: Tramps Like Us

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Claiming riffs from bar bands and telling stories from the suburbs, the Hold Steady wants to show you how a rock ’n’ roll resurrection really feels. By Matthew Fritch

Craig Finn saw Sal Paradise by the dashboard light. The first time Finn, singer/guitarist for the Hold Steady, read Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, he thought it was kind of clichéd. But when he revisited the beatnik bible during the long drives and downtimes of a Hold Steady tour last year, one particular passage stuck with him: “Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together.”

“It sounds like a term paper,” says Finn. “Like Morrissey or something, dramatic and maudlin. But I thought it was tremendously funny, and it’s the basis for the record.”

Boys And Girls In America, the Hold Steady’s third album, is currently getting some overdubs at Atomic Recording Co., a Brooklyn studio co-owned by guitarist Tad Kubler. Finn, Kubler and drummer Bobby Drake pace the lobby area, drinking beer and watching the Mets/Yankees subway series. Absent is bassist Galen Polivka, but a large, empty bottle of Jim Beam on a nearby kitchen counter suggests he’s still sleeping it off. Producer John Agnello (who’s recently shaped some exceptionally heavy guitar sounds on albums by Sonic Youth and Witch) is holed up in the control room with keyboardist Franz Nicolay, overseeing backing vocals on Springsteenish Boys And Girls opener “Stuck Between Stations.” It’s a cheap-shot correlation to make, but Nicolay—sporting a handlebar mustache and wearing a golf cap, sleeveless shirt and pinstripe pants, twirling a toothpick between his fingers—happens to look as if he just stepped out of the E Street Band circa Born To Run.

The Hold Steady was built to be a bar band, but thanks to Finn’s tightly packed narrative lyrics, the bar in question is less like a dive and more like the Algonquin round table—a clubhouse for sharp-tongued literary drinkers trying to outdo each other with party gossip and war stories. Separation Sunday, the Hold Steady’s 2005 LP, is a work of heavy-meta fiction. A concept album about a punk-rock girl named Holly (short for Hallelujah) who finds out that getting right with God and getting high on drugs feels pretty similar, it struck a chord with lapsed Catholics, classic-rock-deprived college kids and CD-booklet-reading critics. From the cover of The Village Voice to the inside pages of The New Yorker, the Hold Steady was afforded a lofty kind of hometown cred that even the Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs would envy.

Then there was the high-school teacher in Littleton, Colo., who used Separation Sunday lyrics as discussion material for a mental-health program for troubled freshmen. When the band agreed to play an acoustic set at Littleton High School last October, the students staged a Hold Steady look-alike contest as part of the day’s festivities.

All of which makes for some serious pressure surrounding Boys And Girls In America, an album with a more conventional narrative arc. Befitting its title and inspiration, a collection of songs about teenagers falling in and out of love sounds kind of clichéd—or at least a little tame.

“I wonder if there’s a fan we gained with Separation Sunday who just loves the heavy stuff,” says Finn. “Is that gonna disappoint the 16-year-old who wants every song to be about Jesus and drugs and blood?”

At the studio, the 34-year-old Finn gets the call he’s been waiting for since—well, maybe since he was 16 years old himself. Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner is on the line from New Orleans. After disappearing with his cell phone into a stairwell for a few minutes, Finn—who grew up a true believer in Minneapolis’ holy trinity (Replacements, Hüsker Dü, Soul Asylum)—returns to report that Pirner has agreed to contribute guest vocals to Boys And Girls‘ “Chillout Tent.”

Finn describes the song as “kind of like ‘Summer Nights’ from Grease,” and it will feature Pirner dueting with Elizabeth Elmore (of pop/punk outfits Sarge and the Reputation), casting them as two partied-out lost souls at an outdoor music festival who meet in the recovery area. “Chillout Tent” touches on all the essential lyrical topics of a Hold Steady song: There is mention of drugs and/or alcohol (she’s taking mushrooms, he’s popping pills), some obscure but well-placed rock-geek humor (“He looked a lot like Izzy Stradlin”) and the kind of everyday detail that sounds particularly sweet when sung atop some power chords and pounding piano: “I got really high and then I came to in the chillout tent/They gave me oranges and cigarettes.”

Lifter Puller was the last band before the Internet. At least that’s what a guy at a bar told Finn once. When the pre-Hold Steady outfit he shared with Kubler broke up in July 2000, not many music fans outside the band’s hometown of Minneapolis even noticed.

But something strange happened on the way to Lifter Puller becoming a local footnote. Through word of mouth, people began to discover the band’s back catalog: three albums and a smattering of singles and EPs. Turns out there’s at least one fan with the letters “LFTR PLLR” tattooed across his knuckles, and the band’s final album, Fiestas + Fiascos, currently sells for nearly $50 on Amazon.com. (You can also download it for $9.99 on iTunes.) After a sold-out reunion show in New York in 2002, Lifter Puller reunited again the next year and played three sold-out nights in Minneapolis. At the heart of Lifter Puller’s enduring appeal are Finn’s sardonic song-stories that seemed to reflect life in the band’s hometown scene: a parade of sketchy characters, cheap drugs, corrupted suburbanites and inside jokes just waiting to be decoded.

“There’s such a thing as having too much information,” says Finn. “It takes the mystique and majesty out of rock ’n’ roll. You know, with Led Zeppelin, you had the record covers and that was about it. So there are hidden messages and meanings. You were looking for scraps of information. Now you can go to My Chemical Romance’s blog and find out what they had for breakfast.”

Growing up in Edina, Minn., an upper-middle-class suburb of Minneapolis, Finn made his own way through the rock ’n’ roll haze. When he was in the fifth grade, Finn remembers being brought to a wedding reception in a neighbor’s backyard where Bob Dylan, a friend of the bride’s, was pointed out to him.

“I thought he was Joe Walsh,” says Finn, who confused Dylan as the man responsible for classic-rock radio staple “Life’s Been Good.” “I knew Dylan was considered a great lyricist, and I thought that song had great lyrics.”

Finn, whose Catholic upbringing so clearly informs the themes on Separation Sunday, attended Boston College, a Jesuit school with a reputation for athletics and partying. While studying communications at BC, he met Steve Barone, a soccer-playing jock from New Jersey. “Craig was the weird alterna-kid,” says Barone. “We called him Finn Dog. He taught me how to play guitar so I could impress girls.”

A few months after graduation in 1994, Barone reunited with Finn back in Minneapolis and became the guitarist for the just-formed Lifter Puller. Singer/guitarist Finn developed a gruff, rapid-fire bark and a relentlessly chatty monologue style so dense that it rarely left room for a chorus.

“We certainly took a lot of things from indie rock—Archers Of Loaf and Pavement,” says Finn. “And from Wire—the shrill guitar stuff. The theory I have about Lifter Puller is that we may not have been indie rock enough as dudes. The dudes were more like rock ’n’ roll guys. There were girls and drugs; it wasn’t like cardigan sweaters and grad school.”

Tad Kubler, who joined Lifter Puller on bass in 1998, barely saw the inside of a community-college classroom. He grew up in Janesville, Wis., a small town with a General Motors plant and a roller rink called TT’s Hot Spot, where up-and-coming bands such as Green Day and Samiam would play all-ages shows. Before Kubler got into heavy metal and punk, he was sponsored by a local bike shop on the BMX circuit, traveling the country and leading a lifestyle that’s not dissimilar to being in a touring band. After high school, Kubler spent a year in Madison dealing acid to hippies and University of Wisconsin students, then wound up working behind a bar in Minneapolis. A self-taught guitarist who can play everything from AC/DC to ZZ Top by ear, Kubler came in at the tail end of Lifter Puller and never really got to make a significant impact on the band’s sound. By all accounts, Lifter Puller ended quietly, with only a little drama and a lot of exhaustion.

“I thought we were really making progress, but Craig wanted to switch things up,” says Kubler. After a pause, he adds, “I was pissed that the band broke up.”

“I thought that what Craig was saying was smart, and I was always behind that,” says Barone. “No diss to me or anyone else who played in that band, but if four guys could fart in the same key and Craig put words on top of it, it would still be interesting.”

Finn picked up stakes with his wife, Barbara, and moved to New York City, where he took a job at a digital-music distribution company. Barone went on to front the Hawaii Show, a live act in which he lip-synchs to original pre-recorded synth-rock party songs such as “All The Right Moves, All The Wrong Notes” while his “band” mimes along. When the Hawaii Show somehow scored an opening slot for Nickelback in Minneapolis in 2000, the audience was less than amused.

“People thought it was real,” says Barone, who now works at a Minneapolis ad agency and writes commercial jingles. “I don’t know why. We had inflatable guitars, and the amp was a piece of black foamcore. Twenty minutes into the show, I heard a guy in the audience say, ‘Yo, this guy’s not really singing!’ At that point, the boos started raining down.”

Dan Monick played drums for Lifter Puller and now lives in L.A., where he has a career as a photographer. Says Monick, “Lifter Puller was so much fun and so good that I’ve never joined another band since.”

It’s useful if one of the guys in your bar band actually works at a bar. Polivka is pouring happy-hour drinks at Hi-Fi, the East Village establishment formerly known as Brownie’s. Ryan Adams used to practice in the basement, Elliott Smith used to sit at the end of the bar, and you can still spot an ex-member of Pavement here if you hang around long enough. Hi-Fi boasts “El DJ,” a digital jukebox that’s been customized with selections from bar owner Mike Stuto’s record collection. Despite tens of thousands of “El DJ” songs to choose from, patrons still play the drinking-class standards: the Stones, Billy Joel, Tom Petty—maybe even a little Procol Harum or Boston. Over the course of a few rounds, Finn and Kubler rehash some history.

The Hold Steady literally started out for laughs. In 2002, Finn and Kubler were solicited by a comedian friend to provide bumper music—instrumental bits of classic-rock jukebox favorites—for a live performance by a New York sketch/improv troupe called Mr. Ass. Then, around Christmas of that year, Kubler went over to Finn’s apartment to watch The Last Waltz, the 1978 concert film featuring the Band. Struck by the loose, communal vibe of people playing off each other onstage and feeling alienated by New York’s then-predominant dance-rock scene, the night ended with Finn asking Kubler if he’d like to start a band.

“Keep in mind, (the Rapture’s) ‘House Of Jealous Lovers’ is on every second in New York bars,” says Finn. “Everything was beats and DJs, and to play ‘Back In Black’ … ”

Finn trails off, but if you’d like to hear a complete thought on the subject of scene warfare and a modern version of the “disco sucks” rallying cry, check out the Hold Steady’s 2003 debut, Almost Killed Me. The album finds Finn pouring forth invective for the new-wave revival while reveling in his and Kubler’s rediscovery of Thin Lizzy’s twin guitar leads, well-placed Van Halen guitar fills and even the odd Clarence Clemons sax solo. With Finn proudly declaiming “The ’80s almost killed me/Let’s not recall them quite so fondly,” the Hold Steady seemed to have that rarest of rock-band qualities: a purpose.

“I would love to say that it was an intentional reaction to what was going on in New York at the time,” says Kubler. “But the fact of the matter is, it’s the music I grew up on. Let’s face it, we’re not reinventing the wheel.”

The critical acclaim that accompanied sophomore album Separation Sunday must’ve been satisfying on an intellectual level. More important, though, the Hold Steady tapped into an audience that craved the sheer joy of big rock riffs (the kind that are played with one foot on the monitor) and memorable lyrics (the kind that get scribbled onto bathroom stalls in bars).

“Someone said, ‘You guys and the Drive-By Truckers are the only bands that smile onstage,’” says Finn. “I want it to be like that. I do think our fans take off work the next day. We have this joke that the main type of girl at a Hold Steady show is a pissed-off girlfriend. Her boyfriend will be totally ignoring her and high-fiving his friends. She thought she was going out to dinner, but she’s getting this loud rock music instead. This is not always the case, but I’ve seen it from the stage.”

Boys And Girls In America has the potential to expand the Hold Steady’s audience in all directions. Nestled among the rock-radio anthems are a piano ballad that climaxes with the help of a string section (“First Night”) and a fingerpicked acoustic-guitar twilight moment (“Citrus”). There are plenty of background-vocal “whoa-oh”s to go around, and Nicolay’s keyboards are all over the album, sparkling around Kubler’s wall-of-Marshalls guitars.

“We talked about making a rock record—one that had the heart and soul of what made records great in the ’70s,” says John Agnello of his pre-production meetings with the Hold Steady. “We talked about records that gave you chicken skin, like Thin Lizzy’s Jailbreak. The Springsteen vibe did come up … I bought Born To Run the day it came out. Springsteen’s lyrics connected inside you. Fast-forward 30-odd years and Craig has the same effect. He tells stories that are pertinent to today, and I’m right there—I feel like I know those people. So it was a no-brainer to go with that kind of vibe.”

The Hold Steady isn’t tipping its trucker hat to the Boss with a cute little wink or a half-serious smile, and Finn finds nothing trivial about his retro-rock tales of high adventure.

“Irony is definitely the enemy of the Hold Steady,” he says. “I want to be honest. Not that everything I sing about has happened to me, but [there are] honest feelings.”

The members of the Hold Steady are slamming some brews and feeling pretty sweet. With work having been completed on Boys And Girls In America, Agnello has invited the band over to his home for a barbeque. We’re in Jersey City, but it feels like Uncle John’s Farm. The bearded, genial Agnello tends to the backyard grill beneath a towering magnolia tree while his shaggy dog pads around the outdoor deck sniffing out crumbs. Kubler is in dad mode, picking up his one-and-a-half-year-old daughter and spinning her around in the air.

“You raging?” asks Finn.

Ah, right. This is the Hold Steady, after all. But even as sangria glasses are filled and Coronas are passed around, it’s apparent that the main activity is telling stories: about the tall black guy who walks around Kubler’s neighborhood wearing a cape and carrying a sword; about that one band that was selling guns out of its tour van. Finn, sporting a Replacements T-shirt he bought on tour in Australia, recalls the day in 1987 when he had to mow the lawn before his dad would drive him to the record store to buy Pleased To Meet Me. When a beer needs opening, a friend of Polivka’s reveals a bottle opener built into the sole of his flip-flop. This leads to a story about another friend who, earlier that day, got really bummed out because he stepped in human shit on the sidewalk. When asked how he knew the offending feces was human, he replied, “Dogs don’t eat corn.”

There’s more domestic bliss than hardcore raging going on here, but the party banter is still funny, weird and true. Finn figured out long ago that rock ’n’ roll’s greatest asset is its ability to tell fantastic lies, and his best trick with the Hold Steady is getting people to believe him and live the dream, even if only for an hour or two.

“There’s a type of e-mail we get,” says Finn. “‘Hi. I’m 43 years old. I live in Portland, Ore., and I’m a graphic designer. I haven’t bought a record in five years and haven’t been to a show in six years. I got turned on to Separation Sunday, and next month when you come to Portland, my wife and I are gonna be there. We’ve got a sitter for our two kids, and we’re gonna drink ourselves blind.’ As much as I love the 19-year-old fans, I really have a soft spot in my heart for that guy. Because that could be me.”