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Hold Steady - Interview

  by Chris O'Toole

published: 12 / 2 / 2007

Hold Steady - Interview


Literary American garage rockers the Hold Steady have met with massive acclaim for their third album, 'Boys and Girls in America'. Chris O' Toole speaks to guitarist Tad Kubler about the band's increasing popularity and the inspiration for their work

Having just signed to Full Time Hobby, the British arm of Vagrant Records, and released their third album, 'Boys and Girls in America', the Hold Steady find themselves sitting plum in the eye of a storm of hype. Guitarist Tad Kubler joined Pennyblackmusic in London during their recent tour to discuss the band's increasing popularity and the inspiration for their work. PB : A lot of the material you write and release is concerned with America and Americana more generally. Do you feel this has affected your appeal internationally? TK : Well, perhaps. I doubt it though. The songs deal with universal themes. People like yourself, journalists for example, are going to dissect the lyrics a lot more, and I don’t think a lot of listeners will be as aware as that. The stories aren’t about a particular generation. They are the kind of issues you deal with, intimate romantic relationships. It doesn’t matter whether you are 17, 35 or 70. It doesn’t matter if you are from Idaho, London, Madrid or New York City. You are still going to feel the same. They are universal themes that you are always going to run into. PB : Do a lot of the lyrics, then, come from your singer Craig Finn’s own experiences. Are they autobiographical? TK : Craig is always a little vague about it, which kind of bothers me, but sometimes I have noticed lines and think, “Shit, I remember that party”. Mostly, though, they are not autobiographical. They are things he has seen, stories he has heard. One thing we noticed when we read 'On The Road' was that Kerouac was more of a recorder of events, rather than being actually involved with a lot of the things that happen in the book. Craig has taken a little of that. I call him the instigator. He was always the one at parties who would come up with the schemes and plans. He would suggest them to us and watch the results. He is a natural born story teller, obviously very talented at what he does, and sometimes it comes less from his own experiences and a little more from what he is recording. PB : The characters then in the lyrics are not based on real people? TK : If so, probably loosely. They are not actual people. Craig writes all the time, notebooks and notebooks full of stuff. I write most of the music first, and then show it to the band. Franz (Nicolay, keyboards) and I will work out where the track is going, and Craig will then develop a sort of metre, timing, over that. I almost never come in with a whole song. We have parts and they are combined. The last record though we wrote stuff in the studio. We are a real hard working band with three records in the USA in three years, but we had never written stuff in the studio before. PB : Because the narrative is so important to your material do you push it higher in the mix when you record it? TK : Definitely. We did on 'Seperation Sunday', our last record, but this record, working with John (Agnello, Producer) and having found our stride as a band over the last year, what with touring so much, we tried to move away from the music being a backdrop to Craig. We tried to get Craig to use his voice as an instrument and maybe repeat some choruses, rather than just have this linear story line that never repeated anything. I think he has become a better singer with this record and I think we have all grown as a band with this record. PB : Has your sound changed at all then, and have you given it more scope for example? TK : 'Stuck Between Stations' was the first track we wrote for the album. I write perhaps 90% of the music, along with Franz, who had a greater influence on this album. We sit down together and begin to write parts and then will see how we can create space for each other on the tracks. On the last album there was a little bickering about which parts should be higher in the mix. Franz's influence has grown with time. He played on 'Almost Killed Me', our the first album, joined just before the second (but I had already written most of the music), and 'Boys and Girls in America' is his first album proper. He had a really active role in this album. When I was recording 'Separation Sunday', I had this nagging for something else on the record, and then suddenly it hit me: piano. I ran into Franz, and I realised he was exactly what we needed and I asked him to join the band full time. He is the only classically trained musician in the band, so he is pretty busy, and he is in about six other bands, but obviously this has taken precedence for him. I’m just a natural player.I have a little theory and we can communicate on that level, but on this record we have tried to incorporate a little more of his talent; move out of our comfort zone. We know we can do the big rock riff! We did that for the first two records. PB : How would you expect people to receive this record from you? TK : I think a lot of the themes, and the characters, 17-20 somethings, are approachable for everybody. At that time you are incredibly confident. You think you have all this knowledge and wisdom but at the same time there is this underlying naivety. You are really confused and scared shitless, and you know that, but you just don’t want anybody else to know that. You get yourself into a lot more situations, and as you grow older and gain more life experience you can learn to avoid those situations. But it makes for great stories. And that’s what Craig saw in Kerouac, a recorder, taking notes and making stories. The title of the album is taken from 'On the Road', which Craig read for the second time whilst touring the last album. He had previously read it at school. That single line, “Boys and Girls in America have such a sad time together” is the key. Craig realised he could get a whole record out of it, lyrically speaking, and any time he got stuck writing for the album he would refer back to the book. PB : This is a progression for you then and perhaps the most fruitful period of your career, including your earlier band Lifter Puller? TK : I think our main aim is to grow as a band. By playing together so much we have earned a certain level of trust. If one of us says, “I am going to go out on a limb here and try this area of playing”, even perhaps an area we are not all super comfortable with, that even if we fall on our faces it can be worked into something as a band. You learn with the writing that you have to trust everybody. Speaking personally, this is the most personal record I have ever heard Craig write. And like you say, we go back to Lifter Puller; we have been playing together for ten years. For the first time, this is really what we do, a career. Although Bobby (Strakele, bass) is a real good auto-mechanic and still picks up work when he can and Franz also works for a non-profit organisation that finds grants for composers. I am a photographer and if I get chance when I am home I send my portfolio out to people, see if anything comes up. None of us are buying real estate or anything like that, but it’s good being able to tour and record when we want to, to enjoy it a little more. PB : Have you been aware of the hype around you, your increasing popularity? TK : Not a great deal. One thing I have noticed, not so much in the States, but here is that our age comes up a lot more. One thing we have learned with age is a tremendous amount of respect for each other, both as players, and as individuals, and I think that has helped us avoid a lot of the pitfalls that younger bands might fall into. We have been doing this a long time and I think it’s been beneficial. As the band grows and the stakes are a little higher things start to happen. It’s good in certain ways; it enables us to perform at a different level. We are more aware people have come to see us. I would never call us a New York band. We are from the Mid West originally. I think our work ethic is very Mid Western and our attitude, but I think we have taken from the culture of success in New York, and this has given us encouragement to go further. Record sales, though, are so dismal for everybody, from Justin Timberlake through to the Hold Steady, but we managed to break even on this record through sales alone, and that is a remarkable achievement. Bizarrely we sold thousands of records in Holland and Norway. Everybody is really happy sales wise. No new cars, but very promising. People judge it terms of MySpace friends these days, and I don’t agree. I played to 1500 people last night, and that’s something tangible you can reach out and touch. Don’t ever get the two things confused. The web and technology can be super useful to stay in touch with people who like your band, but it’s not the real thing. PB : The Hold Steady has a reputation for spectacular live shows; do you consciously aim for this? TK: Our live shows are some of the most fun, most entertaining I have seen. All we have got to do is get people in front of us and we have got them. It’s like a party. We are a rock ‘n’ roll band. Not indie rock, even though we are on an indie label, just a rock ‘n’ roll band. We are more inclusive, less fashion. When we do a show we want everybody to have a good time. I think people appreciate that about our band. There is no divide with where the stage ends and the audience starts. If you are there, then we are all in this together. We just want to celebrate rock ‘n’ roll and have a good time, and, as clichéd as that sounds, it is true. I never want to be that preening ass hole. It’s all about that. I don’t care if you have the first pressing of the first Fugazi record. We have such an incredible time playing together in this band, and I just hope that comes across. PB : Thank you.

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Hold Steady - Interview

Hold Steady - Interview

Hold Steady - Interview

Hold Steady - Interview

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