The band’s first few albums were densely packed with the ongoing stories of characters like Holly, Gideon, and Charlemagne. On the new album, though, you mention Cityscape Skins [a fictional skinhead gang referenced in a few previous songs] in the very first line, but then things get less specific. There are more pronouns than proper names. Did you begin to feel boxed in by telling stories about those specific characters?
I remember when I was growing up, going to buy a Steve Martin album or an Eddie Murphy album, and you put them on and they’re really funny, and then you know the jokes. And then you play them again, and you’re like “eh.” You’re not encouraged to play them a third time. And I felt like leaving some space for people to put in their own hopes and dreams, and their own interpretations, was ultimately good. Yeah, I was feeling a little boxed in, like “yet another chapter in Charlemagne, Gideon and Hallelujah.” It wasn’t bad, but I wasn’t as excited to do that. I wanted to do something that was more elliptical and a little less specific. And I’m thinking about the great short stories, the [Raymond] Carvers, whatever. Sometimes they’re great because of what they leave out.
Still, I’m curious about how you plot those stories. Each album almost feels like a new season of a serialized television show. When you’re writing about these characters, are you ever thinking beyond the next album toward the ultimate resolution?
Yeah, I kind of have the ultimate thing in my head. It’s more like I’ve got a Christmas tree, and I’m hanging ornaments on it. These songs sort of support the big picture. So, yeah, I definitely have that. It’s just that I’ve reserved the right to write some songs about that and some songs about not that.
Is there going to come a day when there’s a big finale or resolution when we know what happened to those people?
I doubt it. My best friend from growing up was one of the writers on Lost, the television show, and when that ended, I felt like the fan base reacted so poorly — “You didn’t answer all the questions!” And it was a huge turnoff to me in some way. You gotta make yourself happy with your art, and I don’t see any big resolution or any spelling it out for anyone.
In 2012 you did a solo album and tour. Did anything from that experience impact the way you work with the band now?
[The Hold Steady is] a big, loud rock band, and [during] some of the touring for Heaven Is Whenever we were just crushing-loud, and I didn’t feel like I was cutting through, and people were yelling “We can’t hear the vocals!” I thought, “If all I contribute is the lyrics, and I’m out here for months at a time and no one can hear me, what am I doing with my life?” So it was nice to go do something that was quieter, and really cuts through, tell the stories, and when there’s a funny line, people would laugh at the joke. At the same time, you play quiet music and people react, even though positively, they react quietly. And I started to miss people throwing beer up at the stage. After 10 years in the Hold Steady, that’s how you get your validation. So by the end of the touring I was really excited to come back and make a big rock record. I think that’s mainly the way the solo album affected this record.