MAGNET Classics: The Making Of The Hold Steady’s “Separation Sunday”

The making of the Hold Steady’s Separation Sunday

By Hobart Rowland

Separation Sunday rightly qualifies as the Hold Steady’s Born To Run, if only for its unavoidable sense of place. In terms of geography, Springsteen’s central New Jersey is not unlike Craig Finn’s central Minnesota, with its mostly flat terrain and proximity to various bodies of water. But where Born To Run’s working-class stiffs are engaged in a vaguely noble struggle imbued with a certain delusional romance, the motley misfits, random misdeeds and sin-soaked unofficial landmarks assembled by Finn for Separation Sunday amount to an oddly enthralling hell on earth—one with a lethal sense of humor and a dumpster full of Catholic guilt.

“You came into the ER drinking gin from a jam jar, and the nurses making jokes about the ER being like an after bar,” huffs Finn in his signature spoken-snarl delivery on “Stevie Nix,” the album’s riff-happy centerpiece, later noting, “She got screwed up by religion, she got screwed by soccer players.”

Springsteen’s fussed-over classic, Separation Sunday took about six weeks to make. Finn and co-founder Tad Kubler were well into their 30s, with a new baby at home (Kubler) and a divorce on the way (Finn). It was released a mere 14 months after the band’s 2004 debut, Almost Killed Me, an alcohol-fueled punch in the sternum that left critics winded and scrambling for superlatives. With Separation Sunday, the Hold Steady not only avoided the sophomore slump, the band spun back around and leveled it from behind.

Though the group was a bit reluctant to acknowledge as much when it was released on the Frenchkiss label in May 2015, Separation Sunday is a concept album, with Finn as the scatterbrained narrator. Many of its recurring themes were culled from Finn and Kubler’s days with Minneapolis indie outfit Lifter Puller. There’s Holly, an addict/hood-rat who’s found limited solace in her status as a born-again Christian. Charlemagne and Gideon are an unlikely pimp-and-skinhead tandem whose party-hopping lifestyle frequently takes them across state lines. Their stories are loosely framed by the highways and waterways of Minneapolis-St. Paul and the “sketchy” shenanigans that unfold in unsavory locales like the “party pit,” “penetration park” and the “camps down by the banks of the Mississippi River.” Dig a little deeper and you uncover a central theme: the surreal clash between urban depravity and suburban absurdity.

Much like the record’s protagonists, the music on Separation Sunday is in danger of going off the rails. Kubler’s classic-rock guitar aspirations are as likely to be interrupted by a quiet interlude from keyboardist Franz Nicolay as an abrupt shift in momentum or structure. As for standard verse/chorus/verse predictability, there’s almost none. “Until we did Separation Sunday, none of us were trying to be professionals about anything,” says Kubler. “It was kind of like, ‘Let’s see who can get the most fucked up.’”

Not a half-bad setup for the recollections that follow.

Dave Gardner (co-producer): Craig and I have known each other since 1989, through the Minneapolis hardcore scene and Lifter Puller. On the last few Lifter Puller recordings we did, we tried to get a little more adventurous. Craig’s narrative vision was getting really visual—tied to this idea where you could have this cinematic presentation of characters interwoven into rock music.

Craig Finn: I’d been away from Minneapolis for a few years, and I was beginning to see some of the unique things about it. Separation Sunday’s overarching story was set there—or at least it started there.

Gardner: I mastered the first Hold Steady record, and I was migrating away from production. But Craig had the idea that if there were two of us in this engineer/producer role, it would flesh things out and we’d make something more than just a super-kick-ass rock record.

Dean Baltulonis (co-producer): I produced Almost Killed Me, and I’d talked to Dave on the phone, but I never met him in person until we got into the studio. I felt like I’d known him for 20 years after the first hour. We really jelled.

Finn: Separation Sunday is about that exploration of getting your feet wet. In the Midwest, with the lack of public transportation, there’s such freedom in getting your driver’s license. Your range of motion is suddenly huge, and hilarity ensues because of that. I was trying to create this grand tale out of the things everybody does in suburbia, with characters that had been banging around my head for a long time.

Gardner: We wanted to have these big scene shifts within the record. I knew Craig’s lyrical stuff and Tad’s guitar playing were going to fit these scene-change ideas. If we weren’t going to have the traditional verse/chorus/verse structure, we had to find other ways to signify those shifts and enhance where the song was going.

Baltulonis: The band had almost the whole album already written. We used a studio called Gigantic in NoHo, Manhattan, though we did some recording and mixing at my studio. Frenchkiss traded for the studio hours, so we had an ample amount of time. Almost Killed Me was finished in six days; the recording for Separation Sunday was done in three weeks. It was all day and all night for Dave and I—we figured we made about $1.35 an hour.

Tad Kubler: For Almost Killed Me, we wrote a lot in Craig’s kitchen—he would pace back and forth and rant. We recorded five or six songs on our own. We’d done some shows and used that money to go into the studio with Dean. Then Syd heard them and told us he’d put out a record if we recorded six more.

Syd Butler (founder of Frenchkiss Records): It had taken about nine months for anyone to pay attention to Almost Killed Me because of the actual size of Frenchkiss and our limited ability to promote the album. When they went in to record Separation Sunday, the press for Almost Killed Me had reached a fever pitch.

Finn: We loaded in to record in December 2004 around Christmas. That day, both Spin and Rolling Stone had come out with their year-end issues, and both listed Almost Kill Me as a record you should’ve heard. I remember thinking, “Maybe the next one will be a record people do hear.”

Kubler: With Separation Sunday, it was like, “Here’s your budget, do it the way you want to.” It wasn’t on the scale of Boys And Girls In America or Stay Positive, but it did allow for a little more confidence. I was about to be a dad, and Craig was going through a lot of personal stuff, so we weren’t spending as much time together. I was writing a lot of the music on my own. Then Craig and I would run through the music part, and he’d start to pull the lyrics together.

Finn: There were no b-sides on Separation Sunday. It was only the songs that made the album.

Kubler: We half-talked, half-bullied Franz into being in the band. He was like, “I’d love to do it, but I don’t know how much time I have.” We were like, “It’s not going to be a big commitment; we’re not really going to tour. Just play on the record, and it’ll be fun.” He ended up staying for like five years.

Gardner: (Original drummer) Judd (Counsell) came in at the very beginning and knocked his stuff out. I remember taking the train with him after the session, and he said something like, “Well, that was fun. Now I’ve got my life to take care of.”

Kubler: Judd and (bassist) Galen (Polivka) grew up together and were playing in bands since they were teenagers. Judd had a legit nine-to-five job and a kid, and he couldn’t really tour, so we knew it was time to have a sit-down with him and see where he was at. (Current drummer) Bobby (Drake) was definitely ready to move from Minneapolis if need be. So Craig and I met up with Judd, and right after we sat down, he said, “I feel like I’m holding you guys back. As much as I hate it, I think you guys should find somebody else.” We were like, “OK.” We’d thought it would be more emotional, but Judd was so kick-ass about it.

Gardner: When it was time for everyone to do their parts, there was no fucking around. What I remember most is a lot of fulfilling, long days of work—and never feeling discouraged. There was a feeling like we were in the middle of something special.

Kubler: Bobby moved to New York, and the first night he was there, my daughter’s mother went into labor. We’d already done half a dozen songs with Judd. Bobby played on the rest. They’re both great drummers, but they have distinct styles. Judd is also a lefty, so that was part of it.

Baltulonis: For the most part, we kept everything running smoothly. There were some sober days and some not-so-sober days.

Kubler: We’d all play together and make sure we had a great drum track. Then, like pretty much every Hold Steady record, I’d do 30 guitar overdubs unless somebody told me to go home.

Gardner: Even though we were using all the modern recording tricks, we wanted Separation Sunday to feel very organic. When I revisited the album for the (2016) reissue, I was amazed by how it didn’t sound at all dated.

Finn: I was really not that interested in choruses at the time. I had a lot of words, and I was just sort of mashing them all up. At some point, I was like, “You gotta give people something to remember,” but I didn’t think that way back then. At the time, it might’ve surprised people and led to some notoriety.

Gardner: Craig’s not a conventional vocalist, so there was no point in recording him the conventional way. We were tracking multiple mics—one that was pretty clean, one that was kind of fucked up. We did a lot of cutting of his vocals, where he finishes a line and starts the next line under the end of the previous line. Obviously, Craig can’t do that live. But we embraced that rhythmically on the album.

Finn: Ever since Lifter Puller, I’ve never really been into writing lyrics down—and I do have a very good memory. But I did have little cheat sheets for Separation Sunday.

Gardner: It was definitely like: Hit a couple lines … break, hit a couple lines … break. Then we’d go back and work them together. We wanted a representation of Craig at his best. But an album is make-believe—it’s not real. So we were like, “Let’s do what we can to fulfill how this should fit from a poetic standpoint.”

Finn: “Hornets! Hornets!” is a reference to the high-school hockey team in Edina, where I grew up. It’s the kind of town that, if you want to be a cool rock guy, you probably don’t want to admit you’re from there. So that was my way of saying, “Fuck it. This is where I’m from.” It was kind of an obvious first song.

Gardner: Separation Sunday is about disease, so we started off the record by laying that right out, with that pan back and forth on the intro vocal to “Hornets! Hornets!” The narrator is in a place that’s a little seasick.

Finn: “Penetration park” refers to Loring Park in Minneapolis. It used to be a big cruising spot, though I’m not sure if it is anymore. There are these homeless camps down by the Mississippi River. I used to go running down there, and I’d turn a corner on the trail and run into something … like, “Whoa, sorry.” Fans will come up to me and say, “I just went to Minneapolis for the first time, and it’s a lot nicer than I thought it was going to be.” It’s actually a very nice city, but I guess I didn’t really explain the nice side.

Kubler: Craig is more of a recorder of events—sometimes an instigator. The stuff that’s autobiographical is a little more subtle and abstract. In “Stevie Nix,” there’s that line, “And the guys from the front lawn were making jokes about the white swan.” That came from a party we were at. I was up to some shenanigans with a few people in the bathroom. I came out, and we were standing on the front lawn drinking beers and running our mouths a mile a minute. Jessica Hopper, this writer from Minneapolis who loved to give me a hard time, walked up with this knitted shawl draped over her, and I said, “What’s up, Stevie Nicks?” And she’s like, “You know what, Tad? I think you have more in common with Stevie Nicks than I do.”

Finn: We’ve always sequenced for vinyl, so we wanted “Stevie Nix” at the top of the second side.

Kubler: It’s usually not hard to get lead singers in rock bands to talk about themselves, but it is hard with Craig. I think a lot of it is self-awareness and not wanting to appear too self-conscious. The Hold Steady is a traditional rock band, but not in line with what most people think of as a traditional rock band in a lot of ways. I think Craig deliberately tries to steer clear of coming off as ironic—or something like that.

Baltulonis: From what I recall, only “Crucifixion Cruise” was written in the studio. We recorded that late one night when we were almost packing up. It took like 40 minutes, and it was done.

Finn: It wasn’t something we came into the studio planning to do, but I thought it would be nice to have a little song. That’s a Guided By Voices thing—having a short song set up a longer song.

Kubler: Craig really got deep into the religious imagery and Catholic stuff on Separation Sunday. I was really nervous about how people were going to react to that.

Finn: I was spending a lot of time thinking about my faith right around then. I started to go to church again. In indie rock, you mention Jesus, and everyone gets nervous. But it was just a way of telling the story.

Gardner: We were getting into mixing the album, and there was some tension about the relationship between the guitars and keyboards. In my attempt to address it at whatever local bar Bobby was the mayor of at the time, I got into this whole discussion about the rock ’n’ roll eagle, with the guitars as the wings, the keyboards as the feathers and some nonsense about soaring … I’d clearly had some drinks.

Butler: The Hold Steady’s Village Voice cover really just blew it up. All of a sudden, everyone’s expectations changed. I remember having a fight with a publicist over a 100-person ticket buy for their show, and I didn’t even have $1,000. It was like, “Holy shit. I don’t want to get in the way of their shot.”

Kubler: When we started to do press for Separation Sunday, I remember Craig admitting that it was a concept record—and I was like, “What? OK, well, I guess it is then.” I think he was wary of that term because it can sound so high-minded.

Finn: I always think of Kilroy Was Here by Styx when I think of concept albums.

Butler: After Separation Sunday, it felt real. It felt like we had a real band with real commercial potential—not just some artsy-fartsy indie-rock band. And that helped to propel Frenchkiss to another level.

Gardner: For me, Separation Sunday was like, “Boom. I’m done. This is where I want to end my career as a producer. These guys just handed me the best way to go out.”