Staying positive

The Hold Steady's Craig Finn on putting down his guitar, the characters that boxed him in, touring with Deer Tick, and his rock and roll 'Teeth Dreams'
By MICHAEL ATCHISON  |  April 9, 2014

"WE'RE FIRING ON ALL CYLINDERS NOW" Finn, Drake, Polivka, Kubler, and Selvidge. [Photo by Danny Clinch]

Formed in New York a decade ago by Minneapolis ex-pats, the Hold Steady became indie rock heroes on the strength of four albums that earned the band loads of critical praise and a fiercely dedicated fan base. Singer Craig Finn and guitarist Tab Kubler sit at the creative heart of a group that includes longtime members Galen Polivka (bass) and Bobby Drake (drums) and draws influence from touchstones like Bruce Springsteen, the Replacements, and Thin Lizzy. A personnel change and Kubler’s struggles with substance abuse took their toll on the recording of 2010’s Heaven Is Whenever, the band’s least satisfying record. Now, with guitarist Steve Selvidge in the band, with Kubler healthy and rejuvenated, and with Finn having completed a solo album and tour in the interim, the Hold Steady recently released Teeth Dreams, a hard-rocking return to form. The Phoenix caught up with Finn by phone last week.

Let’s talk about the transition within the band. Franz [Nicolay’s] keyboards were a distinctive element onBoys and Girls in America andStay Positive, albums that pushed you into the broader consciousness. Then he left, you didn’t replace him, and now you’ve made two albums on which there are barely keyboards at all. Did you have any anxiety about messing with a successful template?

Not really. When you start touring as much as we tour, it becomes obvious that the biggest thing is to get people you love and really like working with, and make the music you can with them. To say there’s an open position and we need to fill it, like a receptionist at a brokerage firm, I don’t think that comes from the right place. When Franz left, it just became like, “What do we do? Who do we want to be with?” Looking back, on Heaven Is Whenever maybe we had less of a good plan going into that. It was like, “He’s gone, let’s just make a record.” Steve started with us on the touring for [that] record, and [Teeth Dreams] is the first one we wrote and recorded with him, and with him and Tad playing guitars together. Steve just fit in really well, and creatively it really happened. Having the two-guitar thing, I think, ultimately, is really cool, the push and pull between those, and it hearkens back to the rock and roll that we really love.

I think people were surprised about Steve joining because there weren’t many who thought “what The Hold Steady needs is another guitar.” But you’ve essentially stopped playing.

When Steve started playing with us, we had two big guitars on stage, and I had my little plinky guitar that I just take my hands off most of the time anyway, and it ended up being almost silly. And it was to the point where I couldn’t really hear myself on stage. And so I [thought] maybe I’d enjoy myself more and maybe I’d even sing a little better if I just stopped playing guitar. I still play a little bit, but it frees me up to concentrate more on the vocal performance.

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