The Hold Steady
When you think about it, the Hold Steady are the perfect Boston band. They’re wicked smart. A little rough around the edges. They read a lot. They drink a lot. And, like a goodly number of this city’s citizens, they’re irrevocably marked by both the stultification and the residual spiritual yearning that are part and parcel of being raised Catholic. They also rock. They’re not from Boston, of course. They’re from Brooklyn, via Minneapolis. But Hold Steady founder and frontman Craig Finn’s roots are in Massachusetts, and he was educated by the Jesuits at Boston College (class of ’93). He’ll be returning to his alma mater on Tuesday for a “Master Class” conducted with English professor Carlo Rotella. It’s billed as “informal conversation about his life, career, and music,” so we’re imagining something along the lines of a Charlie Rose chat, or an Inside the Actor’s Studio for hyper-literate musicians.
So, back to school?
Yeah, it’s first time I’ll be on campus since I graduated. It’s pretty cool. I’m 36 years old now, and a lot of people [in my class] have gone on to do really incredible things in maybe more traditional ways. And certainly made a lot more money and things like that. But it’s nice to have the university kind of come back and say there’s a lot of different ways to judge success.
The Village Voice called the Hold Steady’s second album, 2005’s Separation Sunday, “the most egregiously American Catholic album” in decades. Talk about how Catholicism informs your lyrics.
When I was at Boston College, I sort of figured out, pretty late in the game, that the coolest thing you could do there was to take the theology course, because it exposed you to the Jesuits. So I kind of got interested in that, maybe more than the religion idea. Right now, I’m not going to church. [But] right around Separation Sunday, when I was writing the record, some heavy stuff was happening. The wife was ill. One of the bandmates was having a baby. It kind of got big-picture all of a sudden, and I started thinking about Catholicism and what role it played in my life. I realized that, having been brought up Catholic, and gone to Catholic schools, and spending all this time in church, whether or not I was currently practicing, it had shaped me a lot. It is a part of my person. So Separation Sunday focused on the part of Catholicism I enjoyed: the ideas of forgiveness and redemption.
The Jesuits are pretty cool. You don’t get the imperious vibe from them that you might get from, say, the Prelate of Opus Dei.
Absolutely. It’s a relentless pursuit of education more than anything else. Those are inspiring people to be around. And very easy people to speak with. They seem inherently more normal, in a way.
Heard of any priests who are Hold Steady fans?
Very few. But I have actually gotten some e-mails and stuff from people in seminary.
The Hold Steady are often called “the best bar band in America.” What were your favorite watering holes during college?
The normal ones. Mary Ann’s. There was Play It Again, Sam’s, which I don’t think is there anymore. And Great Scott, which has changed a lot. The Hold Steady has played a show there; it was not the kind of place the Hold Steady would play when I was there. But I also had sort of a split life. I didn’t have a ton of friends at BC who were as into music as I was, so I was also going to the Middle East and T.T. the Bear’s a lot to see bands.
Did you have a show on WZBC or anything?
No, I didn’t do the radio station. I was into things like hardcore and the Replacements and Hüsker Dü. I was into punk rock, but I was also a very traditional kid. I loved sports and had a lot of friends that weren’t into music. For the BC years, I was sort of just a normal, down-the-middle BC kid who had this other interest that I pursued mostly alone.
Talk about playing shows on college campuses. You gave a nice little name check to my alma mater, Bowdoin, on a song from Boys and Girls In America.
They can go different ways. It’s a necessary part of the business, but it’s sometimes not that pleasant. But Bowdoin got the name check because that was the best college show we’ve ever played. The kids were crazy. In my experience, the more removed a school is from a big city, the better the show’s gonna be. Bowdoin was great. Dartmouth is great. It’s hard at UCLA, where there’s a lot of stuff for the kids to be doing.