We’ve Got A File On You: Craig Finn
We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.
Depending on how you look at it, there’s been a long wait for a new Hold Steady album. They did, of course, return with a smattering of singles that wound up turning into their 2019 album Thrashing Thru The Passion. But that album was more of the band getting back into gear. Open Door Policy is, in many ways, their first full-fledged album-length statement since 2014’s Teeth Dreams. And after that long stretch of time, here’s the good news: Open Door Policy is an addicting and nuanced listen that finds the band tapping into a core essence of their identity while also subtly evolving throughout.
Part of that might be thanks to the fact that they’ve cohered into a six-person lineup: Craig Finn at the helm as ever, Tad Kubler and Steve Selvidge on guitar, Franz Nicolay back in the fold for a few years now on keys, Galen Polivka and Bobby Drake forming the rhythm section. The sextet joined the prolific indie collaborator Josh Kaufman, and together they’ve taken the Hold Steady’s trademark literary pub-rock and added new surprises and textures throughout.
On one hand, Open Door Policy has some songs that either boast classic Hold Steady-isms musically (“Family Farm”) or are just insistent and infectious (“Heavy Covenant”). But there are also songs that collapse and heave their way to climactic conclusions (opener “The Feelers”) and twist and shapeshift unpredictably (the snarling grooves of “Spices” and “Me & Magdalena”). And all along the way, Finn’s lyrics are characteristically gripping, somehow finding him able to wring new thoughts and angles on his favored topics that are as striking as ever.
Finn, of course, has a way of telling whole stories with only a couple of lines. His character sketches are funny and bleak and poignant throughout the album, which he’s said was dwelling on some heavier subjects and/or the long-term fallouts of the behavior glimpsed in songs from across the Hold Steady’s past. That doesn’t prevent his characters from fumbling for, and often missing, connections with each other, or walking down roads they know are no good for them. Take, for example: “I could ask you about a girl I met last night/ She had the aura of an angel/ But she had a couple problems/ I guess the big one is she’s someone else’s wife,” or “She makes it really clear that she’s a way different person/ Than the person that I knew in the past/ But once she starts rolling it’s wild like the ocean/ And the ocean is violent and vast.” And leave it to Finn depict a character demanding vanilla vodka and diet Dr. Pepper and have it feel like an appropriately emphatic, desperate moment in the song.
Of course, Finn’s been very busy this past decade. Even while the Hold Steady took some time between releases, he was cranking out solo albums. The band popped up here and there in other contexts, and Finn embarked on some other projects to the side of the music world. So, ahead of Open Door Policy‘s arrival this Friday, we caught up with Finn via Zoom to talk about the great new Hold Steady album, and all kinds of other odds and ends from his now-decades-spanning career.
Open Door Policy (2021)
When you announced Open Door Policy, you talked about it as very much being intended as an album-length work, vs. a collection of singles, which Thrashing Thru The Passion basically was. This is, in that sense, the first true album you’ve done with the Hold Steady in almost seven years. Did you have to get into a certain kind of headspace for that?
CRAIG FINN: I really approached the solo albums as albums, so that muscle was still in shape, if you will. But there was a different thing, vs. Thrashing Thru The Passion, as you mentioned. Those songs came out piecemeal for the most part, or at least half of it. When you’re putting out songs as quote-unquote “singles,” you’re swinging for the fences each time. You’re not going to make the weird ending song, the sort of things that make up a classic album, where every song isn’t trying to do that one [single] thing. Even on Thrashing, the last song was “Confusion In The Marketplace.” Most of our records can have this wind-down song or something anthemic. That one probably feels less to me of a closer than any in our catalog.
You also circle the wagons a little bit. We did [Open Door Policy] in two different sessions, August and December 2019. Going into that second session, you’re like, “What do we need here to create this fully-formed thing?” There is definitely a different approach. From the get-go, I really liked the freedom and lack of wait time of putting out songs as they come. There’s no lead-in, it’s just “We recorded something, wanna hear it?” I love that. But at the same time I think I’ve discovered I also love making albums. Josh Kaufman said, “Let’s make an album this time,” and I’m glad he did.
Another thing you said that stuck with me is that you consider the album to be more expansive musically. With Thrashing, I feel like people were excited that it had that rawer Hold Steady thing after Teeth Dreams was a little bit slicker. This album continues that a little but there’s also all these surprising textures or hooks. I’ll often be a minute and a half in and think I know the score and then a new little earworm pops up.
FINN: I think it’s the six of us getting there somewhere and getting there with Josh. I think some of that was: How can we make this sound interesting? Now that people are hearing the record, or when people asked what it was like, I always struggle like, “Well, I can’t tell you how it’s different but it’s a little different.” [Laughs] It’s a Hold Steady record. But it’s the closest thing to a headphones record we’ve made. There’s little things happening. In “Heavy Covenant,” there’s this one part I love where you can just hear someone’s hand on the strings. They’re not even playing. You’re aware that there’s humans there.
Also, the story of the record to me as far as the band goes — we had Franz, then we had Steve, and now we have Franz and Steve. The easy comparison would be the Nils Lofgren/Little Steven [arc of the E Street Band]. Franz has already been back in the band for a little while, but as we got into the writing, the relationship of him and Steve together has become kind of the story of what I think of as Hold Steady 3.0. They’d never been in the band together before. What ended up being pretty cool was, for one, they got along pretty well. They’re the two guys who don’t live in New York, they’re probably two of the best musicians in the band, and they also have kids around the same age. I think they really found space for each other on this record. I think that’s kind of what’s taken on a new, exciting thing.
When you talk about building an album, you can definitely feel that arc, “The Feelers” as the swelling opening or “Me & Magdalena” as the dramatic penultimate moment. Was there a story arc from front to back?
FINN: I think it’s all part of the same world, but not a straight narrative. What’s in there… we made this record in 2019, which at the time I felt was a very heavy year, so I kept thinking these were very heavy stories. Mental health, technology, income disparity, and how the modern world works and how we connect. They’re all stories about that. I think [all the characters] are living in the same world, but they’re different vignettes. That said, if you listen, some of it starts to refer to itself and it’s very much trying to create a dome everyone’s living under.
Right, they could be separate characters but there’s moments where it’s kinda like, the woman from “Spices” could be this woman in this other song. Or how in “Lanyards” you’re singing “The doctor said he only wants to help me make more healthy decisions/ Went out around the 4th Of July and I was back by Thanksgiving” and the narrator’s in a hospital in the next song.
FINN: There’s those connections. I don’t want to give away too much, but those are choices you make. Some of it you plan, and some of it reveals itself to you. Like, wow, we wrote 15 songs and nine of them were about mental health, well, that’s an interesting thread maybe we should go there. That’s where it ends up. All of those things are kind of why it’s fun to make an album. Even words. The first Psychedelic Furs album, Richard Butler says “stupid” like 17 times over eight songs. You’re like, “Wow, that’s a choice.” There’s even phrases or things that exist on this album that exist over the Hold Steady’s catalog.
On that note, one of the lines I really got a kick out of was the reference to Scranton on “Me & Magdalena,” because I’m from there. Was there a specific reason you chose that, or just another one of those small towns that sort of exist in that suburban language of the Hold Steady?
FINN: I’ve been there. Actually, I have a slight amount of interest in it because my mom’s family, who I never met, are from Wilkes-Barre. Scranton seems to me, when I’ve been there — it’s smaller but there’s still a downtown. Those kinds of places are interesting to me because maybe you see how America’s changed when you go to places like that. Including my own hometown, Minneapolis. Like, “Oh, in the ‘50s everyone went downtown and shopped” and now things are more spread out. I think mostly [the setting] is an everyman kind of thing. To me it’s unloaded, it’s not loaded like New York is. There’s a Lifter Puller song that talks about Scranton too. It’s been on my mind for a while now.
Portraying Walt Whitman On Titus Andronicus’ The Monitor (2010)
Let’s go from one dense album to another: You were one of the voices on the The Monitor. This was the beginning of a seemingly fruitful connection between you and Patrick Stickes. I saw the Shea Stadium show in 2015, when he was turning 30 and releasing The Most Lamentable Tragedy, where you got onstage for a few songs. You did a split single in 2016.
FINN: I crossed paths, physically actually, with Patrick in England. They were on tour, we were on tour. It was kind of a mini-festival, a SXSW kind of thing. They played pretty early in the afternoon and we were playing much later. I saw their set, it was cool, I went up to talk to him after at some point. We were playing later, and he jumped onstage. Our roadie grabbed him pretty hard. I was like, “No, no, no, that’s my friend!” Then I realized: I had kinda told our roadie not to let people get onstage, so I was kind of interfering with his job and I felt bad all the sudden. I told him “I’m sorry to confuse you in the heat of the moment there.” He said, “Yeah, I didn’t know that guy so much as your friend as the guy I’d seen drinking in front since three PM.” [Laughs]
We became friends after that. In fact, he ended up doing some cat-sitting for me. We recorded a song one time that we called a one-song band named the House Husbands. But he’s been a great friend for a long time. The Monitor is a spectacular work. I was honored he asked me to be Walt Whitman. It’s still a record where, when I put it on, I jump around the room. It’s certainly a classic. As is a lot of their work. I’m a fan of all of it. He’s a deep-thinking rock and roll artist.
So you got to know him before The Monitor. When he pitched you on being involved did he give you any context? Or was he just like, “I want you to read this Walt Whitman thing for my album.”
FINN: I think he said he just wanted me to read this thing, you’re going to be the voice of Walt Whitman, there’s going to be an Abraham Lincoln. I said, “That sounds so ambitious, I’m totally here for you.” We may have had to do it twice. There might’ve been a tech issue on the first read through. I think he brought a recorder of some sort, something old-school, to a show we did with them down in Jersey. I think I just did it into a microphone backstage somewhere. It’s a little fuzzy. I remember listening to the whole record for the first time, and I’m still so happy I’m a part of it.
Appearing In A Seamless Ad On The Subway (2015)
This is something more random: You and Marnie Stern were both in these Seamless ads on the subway.
FINN: An old college friend of mine who had music industry connections, she called and said, “Don’t feel like you have to do this, but…” Two things. One: There was money, and I needed it. Two, she said, “It’s not going to say Craig from the Hold Steady, it’s gonna say Craig.” The idea was, the way she pitched it to me, it was like a “notable New Yorker.” We don’t have to say “from the rock band the Hold Steady,” but people are supposed to know who you are. Maybe that appealed to my vanity. I’d finally made it in New York, you know? [Laughs] It was a weird photoshoot. Something about holding food — I don’t love posing for photos anyway, but something about holding food you don’t want it to be, “I’m the guy who eats a whole pizza six times a day!” You don’t want it to look gluttonous but at the same time it was the gig you signed up for.
Were friends hitting you up after this like “I saw you on the subway.”
FINN: What’s weird is, like a lot of things, New Yorkers got used to it very quickly. But everyone I knew who was visiting was like, “Do you know you’re on the subway?” It’s like, yeah, yeah. It was just kind of funny.
But the commercial offers didn’t come rolling in after that huh?
FINN: No, no. But the other thing was that it was x amount of dollars and a big Seamless credit too. So takeout was free for a while.
That’s a pretty good deal.
FINN: [Laughs] It was a pretty good deal all around, and it took about two hours.
“The Bear And The Maiden Fair” For Game Of Thrones (2013)
This is a huge needle drop moment in Game Of Thrones, when Jaime loses his hand. Obviously some of your indie contemporaries were also involved in the show, these songs usually appearing at choice moments like that.
FINN: They got in touch, and they were fans. They were trying to do one contemporary band each season. They had a pretty good idea of what they wanted. The song existed in the books and in the show. They wanted a drinking Pogues-y back and forth sort of song. We executed it, and they liked it. When those things happen, you become aware of how much bigger TV is than music. We were mentioned on an episode of Lost too. The second it happens, your phone just kinda levitates. I haven’t really watched Game Of Thrones. It’s a blindspot.
It’s not the first thing I’d assume you’d be into.
FINN: I’ve never seen Lord Of The Rings either, that type of culture is just not where I go to. But I was pretty psyched to be able to go to where they filmed when we were near Belfast. We got to see them film a scene, and they showed us some of the tricks they did to make things look epic and grand.
The Hold Steady Performing At A Party On Billions (2018)
You performed as yourselves in this instance.
FINN: That is a show I watch. Brian Koppelman was a fan and became a friend. He’s one of the creators of the show. He was like “You know, someone at that age who is a professional dude might be into the Hold Steady” and I think he was right. Basically the storyline was [the character] hired the Hold Steady to play at this party they were throwing to celebrate a profitable end of the year.
Once again, a little look behind the curtain with TV. It’s a lot of work — a lot of work. It was a full day. They wanted us to do two songs because they didn’t know if they’d use the end of one or the beginning of the next. They ended up pretty much using “Entitlement Crew.” Damian Lewis, the main character, introduced us. As someone who’s a fan of the show, they had positioned the different characters in the crowd of extras. We played the song a lot. By the end, the extras too were singing along because they had heard the song so many times. It kind of did look like a Hold Steady show.
The Fargo Rock City Adaptation That Never Happened (Late ’00s), The New AMC Show National Anthem (Forthcoming)
In terms of crossing over into that world, you’ve grazed up against writing for television and film. Eleven or 12 years ago, there was this news you were going to adapt Fargo Rock City. Did that fall apart?
FINN: When Tom Ruprecht asked me to work on it with him, he had licensed the book from Chuck Klosterman. There’s a term on that. We wrote a script and had a few meetings and it didn’t really get off the ground. We sent it to Chuck and he seemed to like it, he was very complimentary. I think a lot of his books had reached that place where it had been optioned but never made. We weren’t able to get it to the next level and then the option ran out.
It was Fargo Rock City, which was kind of interesting because that book doesn’t really have a narrative. But it does have this story that really attracted us. [When we were writing] it was around the time of the financial crisis. In the book, there’s this story where he can take out money that wasn’t his. And he did it all summer. So our story was about this kid who could just access money that he knew wasn’t his. In Chuck’s story, as well, the thing I found charming — you know, he’s a young guy. His tastes are so limited he can’t spend that much. He buys some CDs and basketball shoes and pizza for his friends. But this bill he racked up, it was not The Wolf Of Wall Street.
Did you get any kind of screenwriting bug from that? Because now you’ve got this new thing, an AMC show called National Anthem.
FINN: I’ve been interested in storytelling always. I’ve always had friends in that world. I have never cranked out my own screenplays or something so I guess it’s of limited interest. I always think I want to do something more. Then I think of a story and it becomes a song. I’m always sabotaging myself on the longer-form stuff. In some ways that tells me I’m a songwriter, and in some ways it tells me I’m undisciplined or something. [Laughs] I’ve tried to write longer prose, maybe a novel or something. I find it very solitary. I think the thing with screenwriting that is interesting to me is the collaboration.
I know you might not be able to say much about National Anthem yet but I’d be curious to hear more about that.
FINN: I can tell you National Anthem is a musical about a family that is downwardly mobile. While I say it’s a musical, I’d say it’s not a traditional musical in the way music’s used. And it’s set in my hometown of Minneapolis, also the hometown of Scott Z. Burns, who I’m doing it with. I met him through him being a fan of the band and he said we should do something together. That was 10 years ago. It took us probably five years to figure out what it was and then another five years to slowly develop it. Last year we spent a lot more time. And T Bone Burnett is involved on the music side, and has been super, super helpful and very cool to work with.
Since it’s a musical, do you have involvement on that side or you’re strictly a screenwriter?
FINN: No, no I write all the songs. I was in the writer’s room as well. I think I have at least one script credit.
That sounds like a massive undertaking, writing all the songs for a show. It seems like a lot of music.
FINN: It’s funny. As we get further into it I may bring in co-writers, but I will say it sounds worse than it is. It sounds harder than it is, to me. When you’re writing a record, nobody’s telling you what the songs are about. The way [the show’s] stories are developing, it’s like, “OK, this song’s definitely about this thing.” You aren’t starting from a blank page.
Covering “Head Rolls Off” For The Scott Hutchison Tribute Tiny Changes (2019)
Scott was a friend of mine before he passed. I remember how hard it hit home when I saw you perform that song at the Rough Trade tribute show, and then again on the compilation. Do you remember your impressions of him when you first met?
FINN: When he passed, I was having a hard time remembering our first meeting, in that it felt very natural to always be their friend. I traced it back to maybe at the Music Hall Of Williamsburg one time. My friend was working with them early and gave me a record and I loved it. I remember they were fans of us too, so we were kind of ships in the night. But we ended up becoming really good friends. There was this standing date, if they played New York and I was home we’d go out after, if I was in Glasgow, we’d go out after. Some spectacular — going out with Frightened Rabbit in Glasgow, that’s like some top 10 nights.
But, you know, he wrote such beautiful songs. They were sad but… I said it around the time of his death, it was definitely one of those feelings when you were in the crowd and singing these sad songs with a thousand other people, it’s acknowledgment that we all suffer, and it made you feel a little better.
What I think was crazy and cool about that show you’re talking about at Rough Trade was, there was this thing of like… keeping it together the whole show. I mean, barely. It’s the only show where I remember playing a song and hearing people sniffling in the crowd. There were open tears. And it was a grieving, like a funeral or wake should be, a grieving together element. But then we went upstairs when it was all over, and the sound man put on “The Modern Leper” and the whole crowd started singing together, and all of us, all the artists, just started bawling backstage. People I didn’t know that well, and we were just in heavy tears. I think it was one of the most moving things I’ve been a part of in a musical sense.
Vice Minnesota Music Doc (2014), Early Lifter Puller Days (’90s)
Back in 2014, you were involved in this Noisey short with Tommy Stinson and Bob Mould, talking about the Twin Cities’ musical legacy. This kind of brought me back to Lifter Puller and made me think about place in the context of your work. Obviously the Midwest is such a big part of the Hold Steady’s story and the themes you play with. But when you go back to Lifter Puller, it’s a bit more in that Midwest history. The Hold Steady were also part of this crucial moment in New York rock music. Do you feel pulled in one direction or another as a writer?
FINN: At this point, I think of myself, I guess, as an American writer. I do still play in Minneapolis, and I’ve been in New York 20-plus years. In the most cynical way, I’d be silly to choose — the most business-friendly, political way. [Laughs] You know, New York is intimidating. There’s part of it you feel like you live in the shadow of. In Minneapolis, you can be at a party and it’s like the best party in the city right now. But you don’t necessarily get invited to the Met Gala, you know? There’s a different kind of relationship to the city.
I’ve had the benefit of 20-plus years of heavy touring. I’ve seen how a lot of places are similar. There’s beer and potato chips, those are kind of the things that are different place to place. But then there’s a lot of similarities. If anything, I think I’ve become more of an American writer. But that said, especially in the solo stuff where I feel like I can be a little bit more personal or vulnerable due to the tenor of the music, I think New York has crept into the subject matter there much more. The Hold Steady tends to exist more in big wide open spaces. That’s the movie we’re trying to make.
Opening For The Replacements (2014)
You know, the saying goes “Don’t meet your heroes.” What’s opening for your heroes like?
FINN: The way that reunion went, they announced two shows: Minneapolis and New York. We were tapped to do both. In some ways — I mean, in all ways — it’s the biggest honor I’d ever received. The Replacements are going to play two shows and they’re going to choose an opener for each and the guys they’ve chosen are us. Pretty amazing. Minneapolis was probably as nervous as I’ve been for a show, just because I had a distinct feeling that everyone I knew growing up was going to be in the audience. But you know, once we got onstage and started playing it was like, “Oh we know how to do this.”
The New York show was even better. I got onstage, and I definitely didn’t plan this, but it struck me that I first heard about the Replacements while I was playing tennis with this kid and we were talking about music. I was just ending seventh grade. He said, “If you like the Ramones, you should check out the Replacements, they’re from here.” Onstage I’m playing a song and I look out like, “… This is a tennis court.” Crazy full circle. I told that story in the breakdown of “Your Little Hoodrat Friend.” I’d met Paul before there, I know Tommy a little bit. It was a tremendous honor. I don’t think there’s anything that could’ve happened that would’ve made me happier than being chosen to do those two shows.
Singing “Rosalita” Onstage With Bruce Springsteen (2007), The Hold Steady Covering “Atlantic City” (2009)
I’m going to jump to a thing that, as far as I can tell from the video, also made you very happy, which was singing “Rosalita” onstage with Bruce Springsteen. I had almost forgotten this moment with Springsteen when he was really getting reclaimed as an indie icon; that show was a tribute to him.
FINN: It was right around Boys And Girls In America, and we were kind of new to getting invited to things like that. There were really cool people there — Patti Smith, Steve Earle. We were told Bruce wouldn’t be there, but then he was kinda lurking around the soundcheck. We knew something was up. We played last. We did “Atlantic City.” The key to the story is, we talked about learning “Rosalita.” So I learned all the words. But we went with “Atlantic City.” So once we played that we come offstage and he’s standing there like, “Nice work!” Wow, OK, that’s cool. I would’ve been happy right there.
But then he brought everybody out and he’s like “Anyone know the words for ‘Rosalita’?” Tad kinda gave me a shove. I did a verse, Jesse Malin did a verse. During that musical break, [Bruce] is like “Bring it home brother!” I remember at that point being like “Craig, you are singing with Bruce Springsteen at Carnegie Hall, this is fucking nuts, but don’t think about that anymore until five minutes from now.” We got offstage and he said “Thanks for holding it down out there brother.” It was like “Yeah, uh, anytime, anytime you need me.”
The other thing I remember about that night is my girlfriend and I went to leave through the stage doors and they open and there’s this [sharp inhale of shock/anticipation] and then total deflation because there were like 300 people waiting to see Bruce walk to his car. That was a window into what this guy’s life is like. Wherever he goes there’s people trying to get a glimpse of him. I did end up meeting him later that year and having a longer chat and it was amazing, everything I wanted it to be. I will say, I will always love “Rosalita” but that moment is so special to me that I actually named my pet dog Rosalita.
You played “Atlantic City” that night and then a few years later you also covered it for this War Child compilation.
FINN: When we chose it I thought, because it was on Nebraska and the original was such a stark arrangement, there was so much room to grow. I think the thing about our version that we lean into that line, “Last night I met a friend/ I’m going to do a little favor for him.” That’s like, there’s a movie in that line alone. We got there and just started repeating it. I feel like that’s the way we Hold Steady-ified it, building up the tension there. We learned it for that night at Carnegie Hall, but for War Child the artist asked another artist, so Bruce’s people asked if it’s something we would do. I guess they liked the version at Carnegie Hall.
You’ve been asked by the Replacements and Bruce a couple times over, not a bad run.
FINN: It’s pretty good, it’s pretty good.
Brokerdealer (Early ’00s)
Brokerdealer was a transitional era, but it’s radically different than anything else you’ve done, singing over this electronic music. And in the ‘00s there was Cex and you were going to maybe do something with him that was electronic-oriented. My co-worker interviewed him in 2006 or so and he described that project as “the Postal Service for tough guys.” How do these experiments come about? Is there a reason they are more so aberrations for you and not an aesthetic you’ve returned to more?
FINN: They both came about out of the desire to have more things to write to. I like working. If someone within the Hold Steady gives me music, some idea, I will either write something to it or try my damndest to. I’m always looking for something to write to. I write my own songs, but sometimes I like the puzzle of taking something and putting words against it or on it. The Brokerdealer came out just after Lifter Puller broke up but before I came to New York. I was hanging out with this guy who had a connection to that world. He called himself Mr. Projectile. He said I should put something on this and he gave me some beats. He gave me a second round and we finished that but I was in New York and it felt like it had done its thing. I started to try and put together a band.
Cex, Rjyan Kidwell is his name. He was a friend of a friend and we became friendly. I went down to Baltimore and we were trying to do something, but I can’t remember how far it got. One idea was trying to get two of the guys from the Dismemberment Plan into it. Another thing where distance — it probably would’ve been a lot easier now but in 2004/2005, whenever that was, I was not up to trade files on a computer. I wasn’t there yet. I think in the end, I like people in the room working on something. Humans together make the music I find most interesting.
“Stuck Between Stations” (2006)
I have this other memory from that night when you got onstage with Titus Andronicus at Shea Stadium. Patrick says something like, “We’re going to play a classic song by one of the great Midwestern bands” and we’re all thinking you guys are gonna do the Replacements. The way I heard the story is that you also did not know you were about to play “Stuck Between Stations.” Now I know this is Patrick and the way he presents things, but “Stuck Between Stations” became that type of song. It lived on, and another artist can hold it up as a classic; there’s something that feels like it’s an early mission statement for the Hold Steady. Do you know when you have one of those songs in your back pocket?
FINN: You don’t know how it’s going to be received exactly, but I remember being particularly proud of that one when we wrote it. [Laughs] The night you mentioned at Shea Stadium is funny, because you described what was supposed to happen and what would’ve happened had a well-meaning person not came up to me during their show and said, “Oh my God, I’m so psyched you’re here, I work here and they’ve been working on your song all afternoon.” I was like, “… They have?” Someone kinda blew the surprise. I was like, “Oh, I better be ready.”
“Stuck Between Stations,” one thing I think it’s got going for it is it’s almost as if you made a greatest hits of the Hold Steady in one song. It’s got depression, it’s got suicide, it’s got art, it’s got a literary reference or two. It’s got a big noticeable riff but it also goes all the way down to the piano on the bridge. If you showed an alien what a Hold Steady song is, it’s that. It does speak to this idea of elation vs. depression, partying vs. the hangover, that has been part of the whole thing, always. In some ways, I think it’s a distilled essence of that.
If there’s a hit in the Hold Steady catalog, it’s probably that. But that being said it’s never going to be my “Radio Free Europe” or “Mr. Jones” or whatever. Every time it comes up on the setlist, I’m pretty excited to play it again. The intro is thus that the crowd kind of explodes when it kicks in. It’s still one I’m really proud of.
Like you said earlier, the new record is a Hold Steady record. There are some songs that very different, and there are some that get closer to that quintessential vibe. I know that’s how I felt when “Entitlement Crew” came out a couple years ago, too. Is there one on the new record that plays in that same zone for you?
FINN: It’s funny you mentioned “Entitlement Crew,” that’s a top Hold Steady song now even though it’s newer. I don’t know, I would say “Family Farm” in some ways has that driving Tad riff and Franz’s scene-change break. I think we got somewhere a little different this time though. There’s certainly no “whoa-oh-ohs.” That’s the thing I find difficult to discuss about it, because I do think it’s a Hold Steady album that Hold Steady fans are going to react very positively to, I hope, but I can’t say it has exactly that “Constructive Summer” or “Stuck Between Stations.” I think it does have songs that people will be yelling at each other’s faces all the same.
It’s daunting for me to think about how far back some of these Hold Steady songs go now. When you keep returning to this world — these topics and sorts of characters, finding new ways to approach them or refine them — but then you also have to deal with someone like me asking you about “Stuck Between Stations,” does it all feel like a continuum? Or do you feel removed from those days?
FINN: It’s growth. I feel like it’s part of it. I mean, you’d hope that a 50-year-old would say a different thing than a 30-year-old. You hope to learn. The characters I’m interested in now, for instance, are older. I made a joke to a friend who’s a writer: I think I used to be interested in the guy who couldn’t stop partying but maybe now I’m interested in the guy’s grandma who keeps giving him $200 every day. That’s the fucking story right there, that’s the crazy human story. Not the guy getting fucked up, which is a story that’s already been told by me and other people. But what about the grandma who’s giving him $200 every day?
To me, you find different things to train the lens on. Someone on social media was saying if they had advice to a younger person they’d say get your chemicals right in your twenties because it’s going to start becoming a problem in your thirties if you don’t. I was like, “That was probably true advice.” As a writer, my relationship to this stuff has become a lot less about the party and a lot more about the mental health. I think that’s where this record gets to.
Open Door Policy is out 2/19 on the band’s own Positive Jams label. Pre-order it here.