Flavorwire Interview: The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn on Writing for Middle-Aged Bros, Slogging Through ‘Infinite Jest,’ and the ‘Fargo Rock City’ Movie

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There are few bands left quite like the Hold Steady, and even fewer frontmen like Craig Finn. He’s the Hemingway of modern indie rock bros, known for his quick turns of phrase and his drawn-out tales about nights that are hard to remember (and the substances that fueled them). At 42 and with six Hold Steady albums under his belt, these days Finn comes across more as the Springsteen everyman when it comes to chronicling a distinctly American life. This week, as the Hold Steady release Teeth Dreams, we spoke to Finn, discussing writing about troubled women for large crowds of rowdy men, what he wish he’d known about tour buses when he was young, how long it took him to read Infinite Jest, his favorite rock bios and new albums, and what’s going on (or rather, what’s not going on) with his screenplay adaptation of Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QkvM224AsOc]

Flavorwire: I’m gonna dig in with something I’ve always wanted to ask you. I’m impressed with your ability to write about troubled women and not sound judgmental or sexist, and to just tell their stories. Are you conscious of that delicate balance?

Craig Finn: Absolutely. And to add to that, our audience is largely male. There are many things that get scratched out. I’m well aware that it may get interpreted poorly, but ultimately you’re writing about a person. So much of our drama comes from boy-meets-girl, it’s part of that. To speak really frankly, I was married to someone who had a lot of problems. There’s something in my personal life that comes up a lot. It is something that I’m always working at and I’m very sensitive about.

I can only imagine the lyrics that get scratched out.

Now imagine a room of 500 mostly guys yelling it at the top of their lungs.

Has there ever been a moment in the live setting where you see your fans face to face, and they’re screaming your words at you, and you regret something you’ve written in a song?

I wouldn’t say regret. When you’re in the live setting and people are screaming out your words, it’s mostly just flattering. But there are a couple of instances that are… interesting. I wrote a song on Boys and Girls In America called “Party Pit,” and it’s about a girl I knew. I saw that things had gone poorly for her — [she] may or may not been homeless at [that] point. The chorus goes, “Gonna walk around and drink some more.” Because that’s what she’s going to do that afternoon. But you might imagine, at a bar or a rock club, where they’re serving beer and it’s Friday night and everyone’s there, it turns into a big, beer-y chorus. I was well aware that was what was going to happen, but the song is one of absolute sadness and it turned into a celebration, like it or not.

Does your audience ever frustrate you?

Ninety-nine percent of the time, no. I’ve had a few weird, poor interactions. One thing I don’t like it when people ask me to talk to their friend on the phone and shove the phone into your face. Our audience also skews older and the cool thing about that is, you get off stage and meet some fan of yours, and the next thing you know you’re talking about the best book they read last year. I think that’s a real blessing, versus having 15-year-old fans. I mean, I’d love to have the 15-year-old fans too. But mostly I see myself in our fans. You sit down and make your band, you try to create the kind of music you’d like to hear. If there was a band like the Hold Steady and I wasn’t in it, I feel like I’d be in the front row yelling along. I could easily be that guy. I am that guy.

People associate the Hold Steady with a good time, or as you said, a big, beer-y chorus. Is it a challenge writing for those expectations, as you get older?

Yes. 42 years old, six records in, life tends to be less and less about those moments. When I look at Bruce Springsteen as a hero of mine, for example, I think one of the most heroic things about him is how he writes about all these amazing songs about adults and people who have jobs, who are trying to get ahead and trying to survive for their children. As I get older, that sort of writing is more and more interesting to me. Rock ‘n’ roll is what — 60 years old? It’s on its second or third generation. It should be able to accompany us into our adulthood and beyond. So I don’t know if there’s frustration for me as I get older, but it gets more interesting to write about older and more complex characters.

I hear that on Teeth Dreams, and it feels like it sort of goes along with your “American sadness” thing culled from reading Infinite Jest, which you mentioned in a recent interview.

American sadness is, yes, something I got from David Foster Wallace, about this realization that there’s a void inside of us that can’t be filled, and it especially can’t be filled with consumer goods. The song “On With the Business,” where I’m directly referring to “American sadness,” is about consumerism and the way people screw each other over — and certainly the characters in that song do — to get more stuff, and the idea that it might not actually help.

So how long did it take you to read Infinite Jest?

Three months the first time, and then I read it again with an Internet guide and it probably took me a little less. The first time was a real struggle, and I was trying to read 25 pages/day and even that was tough. I got a lot of stuff out of it the second time I didn’t get the first time, but I probably won’t read it a third time. It wouldn’t be great tour bus reading or anything. Rock bios are probably the best tour reading.

Is the rock bio thing because it keeps you in the same world/mindset, or because it’s generally light reading?

They’re pretty light reads and there’s no big repercussion of missing a chapter. My friend asked me the other day, ‘Are there any bad rock bios?’ And I said, ‘Yes, only one, it’s Peter Criss from KISS. Every other one I’ve read is generally awesome.’ Galen [Polivka, Hold Steady bassist] read it and he said not to read it, but I thought, ‘How could this be bad, I love KISS.’ After about 50 pages in, it became one of the only books I’ve ever said I can’t read anymore. It seems like he just wanted to talk about his dick.

What’re some of your favorite rock bios?

There’s an oral history of Warren Zevon that’s amazing. He trained with Stravinsky when he was young, and his dad was a low-level gangster. Plus he was a terrible dude, just a horrendous person who redeemed himself in the end once he got sick and was so public about it. But he just left a trail of records, man. It made for a good book. The Mötley Crüe one, The Dirt, is the gold standard of rock bios. I didn’t love the Keith Richards one, honestly. The Greg Allman one’s good, but the thing I hate about rock bios is that sometimes it feels like they’re ‘setting the record straight.’ Nope, they’re lying to you. And you didn’t even know the record to begin with!

I saw you were tweeting about the excellent new War On Drugs album. Any other new albums you’re liking right now?

There’s this new band Eagulls I saw when I was in London, their record is really good. They have great songs that are super catchy but not really pop. And the Sun Kil Moon record that just came out is incredible. It’s like the great American novel in song form. A lot of it rhymes, but there’s a real disregard for rhyming on a lot of songs, which I love. It’s just a really beautiful record.

I read that the rest of the band had started writing the music to Teeth Dreams separate from you, which is a little bit of a different process than usual. Did it change anything in the way you approached the lyrics?

The music typically comes first, but I’m usually in the room. [Guitarist] Tad [Kubler] will show it to the other guys while I’m there scribbling in a notebook. But this time I was doing a tour for my solo record, so those guys went down to Memphis and started fleshing things out, recorded I think seven songs and sent them to me. Three or four of those songs ultimately made the record. It was different in a good way, and it allowed me to think about what the music was saying without words and what my words would say to that music. After six records, if you can figure out a different way to do things, some of the best stuff can come out of that.

Is there anything you wish you’d known about being in a band 11 years ago when you started the Hold Steady?

I feel in some ways thankful that we started in our thirties. There’s some amount of gratitude we’re able to get from seeing success later, feeling blessed that we get to travel around the world, that people are paying attention. This is a little more of a light-hearted answer, but something I learned was that I had the wrong idea about tour buses. I always assumed a tour bus was a big debaucherous rolling party, but the tour bus leaves at 4 a.m. which means everyone who isn’t going to the next city has to leave. And everything calms down, everyone starts partying less, because you’re stuck with the same old dudes. You look around at each other and then just go to bed.

The Hold Steady marries the unabashed energy and enthusiasm of classic rock with modern indie rock. When I think about it this way, I’d be curious to know whom you consider peers in the music space.

Drive-By Truckers were always one we liked and considered friends, but even the War on Drugs are a band we’ve toured with, and even though we sound nothing like them, I’m excited to see what they do and the dudes in the band. But there are also lyrical peers. John Darnielle is someone whose music sounds so different than ours, but when I get a Mountain Goats record, I’m excited to see what he’s written. Not in a competitive way, but an inspirational way.

Are you still working on the screenplay for Fargo Rock City?

Not really. We did that and took some meetings, but it didn’t seem to happen. There were, on our script’s part, some issues we wanted to work out. But then Tom [Ruprecht], the guy I was writing it with, had another project that caught our eye, and we’ll continue to do stuff together. But the Fargo thing is probably not happening. The big thing is, finding someone who has the money to produce the thing, and we weren’t able to do that.

What’s the other project you and Tom started working on?

Well, we had an idea for TV that’s still working. We’re good friends and he’s had a bunch of stuff on TV lately so he’s not always available, but at some point we’ll have something.