Posted by: Necci – Sep 02, 2014
Last September, Fall Line Fest made its grand debut in Richmond with a weekend full of great music, art, and food. The only thing missing that first year though was that big name that would get everyone absolutely buzzing. This year, the powers that be have rectified that problem by landing The Hold Steady as a headliner. One of the most critically acclaimed bands of the past fifteen years, the Brooklyn-based band has been going strong for over a decade now and shows absolutely no signs of slowing down. With the release of Teeth Dreams, their sixth and most ambitious album to date, the band has proven that even as they approach middle age, they still have a lot left to offer the music world.
For Fall Line Fest, having The Hold Steady is definitely a huge feather in their cap. The wealth of the band's catalogue, coupled with their reputation for breathtaking performances, means Richmond is in for one of the best shows of the year. Craig Finn, the band's loquacious frontman, recently sat down with us to talk about... well, pretty much everything going on with him these days.
Now, you've famously played in all fifty states. Do you remember the first time you played in Richmond?
I believe that it would be with the Drive-By Truckers. No, wait. It was Art Brut, on the Boys & Girls In America tour at Toad’s Place [on November 19th, 2007]. That was the first show we played. We also played The NorVa in Norfolk for Stay Positive, and then we've done Charlottesville and Virginia Beach. I think that's all of Virginia we've done. We actually have some good friends who live in Charlottesville and we had a day off from touring there a few weeks ago, so we were able to hang out with them for a while. We also just toured with Tim Barry of Avail from Richmond, so now we have another friend from the area. Virginia's nice, but the bus is moving so quick that we usually don't get as much time to look around as we want to.
You talked about visiting friends. How important is it for you to be able to do that while you're on the road?
Oh, I think it's very important. I do. I think it's healthy. For me, I think it's nice to connect with people outside of the tour. Old friends, you know? I think it's grounding in some way. I always try if I can to squeeze in dinner with a friend or some time to hang away from the venue. I think it's kind of helpful from a mental state when you're doing all the travelling we do, so you don’t go crazy.
Now, you're going to be headlining Fall Line Fest in Richmond this September. You guys are veterans of the festival circuit by this point, so what are some of your favorite festivals to play at?
Well, we just did one in Atlanta called Shaky Knees that was excellent, but I'm a real big fan of Lollapalooza in Chicago. I tend to like the ones that you don't have to get out to the middle of nowhere for. I feel like there's a comfort in being able to see the festival, but then going to your hotel, rather than ones that are more removed from the city. I just like the ones in or near a city better. A lot of them are going to be determined by the artists, though. Another one that is great actually is in the Gorge in Washington, called Sasquatch! Festival. That's probably the most beautiful setting we've ever played.
I know a lot of other artists sometimes complain about their set times at festivals since they end up missing artists they really want to see. Do you remember the last time this happened to you?
Oh, of course. My good friends Trampled By Turtles, who are from Minneapolis, were playing at the exact same time as us in Atlanta at Shaky Knees Festival. There's only a few stages, and we were on at the same time. It happens all the time, you know? Either someone you know or someone you want to see, you just don't because of that. There's been countless acts I've missed that I would have just as soon wanted to watch. It is cool because you do run into a lot of artists at catering, so there can be a big family reunion feeling to those things. I did get to catch Violent Femmes at Shaky Knees though, and that was something I was really excited to see. The first kind of club concert I ever went to was the Violent Femmes and they were playing right after us in Atlanta. It was just really cool to see, especially after all these years.
So talk to me about the genesis of Teeth Dreams.
Well, we'd been writing to make a record for a while. We were just writing and writing and writing. At some point, we just lost sight of whether we had it or not and we ended up questioning ourselves a lot. We found ourselves writing a lot of songs; far more than we needed to. At one point, the producer came in and said, "Guys, you're absolutely ready to make this record. Let's do it." From there, it just happened pretty quickly. We were writing for quite a while though. There were four years between Teeth Dreams and Heaven Is Whenever, which is a ton for us because we did five records in our first seven years before that. It was a sprawling effort, and then we just kind of pared it down and made the record at the end.
In that four years between this album and the last, you released your solo album, Clear Heart Full Eyes. How did making that record influence this one?
The main thing that it did was allow me to be quiet. The solo record was a little quieter and felt a little different. It got something out of my system and I was very excited to do something that was more based on the storytelling and quiet aesthetic. It allowed me to come back to The Hold Steady and be really excited to make a big, loud record. I think we made our biggest and loudest record this time out, even though it's our sixth record and I'm 42 years old. I'm kind of proud ourselves in that regard. At a certain age, I think people just expect you to bring in the mandolin and a string section, and we just did the opposite.
Did that loud rock sound come naturally or was it something you guys actively tried to achieve?
I think it naturally happened. We had been touring with Steve Selvidge on guitar after the last record, but this was the first record we wrote and recorded with him. The double guitar attack is a big, defining part of this record and its sound, so I think in some ways it's because of that. I also think Nick Raskulinecz, the producer, is known for making big, rock records.
So where did the album's title come from?
Well, teeth dreams are anxiety. You know, dreams where your teeth are falling out, which are dreams supposedly about money woes or lack of confidence. I was asking myself a question a lot: "Do we live in anxious times, or is anxiety just part of the human condition?" I kept thinking about all of these things and I met a doctor who said that over half of his patients as a general practitioner come in for anxiety. That's the most common thing people enter his office for. There was a recent New York Times column on anxiety too. So do we live in particularly anxious times or are we just more aware of it? In the latter case, are we nurturing it?
Get an answer?
Ehhhhh, I would say it requires further rumination. A lot of the songs, because they write the music first, seemed tense and claustrophobic, so I kind of wanted to dive into that theme of anxiety, for better or worse. But I don't think I answered it.
You've always had a wide range of influences for your work. What were you listening to this time around?
Mostly guitar rock, like Thin Lizzy and The Replacements, who were my favorite band. Led Zeppelin too. You know, good, hard rock. We were listening to a lot of records when we were making the record, like Zeppelin and Rush, a fair amount in the studio. Just pure guitar rock from our youth. It really helped shape what we wanted to do.
Now, you were one of the first names in rock music to openly credit hip hop as an influence. Is hip hop still an influence to you today?
Lyrically, of course. I think there's just something about hip hop. Obviously, the lyrics are very, very important and they tell a story usually or at least comment on a story. There's also this sort of competitive nature to it. [Rappers] want to be the best, and they want their lyrics to be the most inventive and creative. I don't write any music in The Hold Steady, so I'm solely the lyricist, and I just relate in that way.
Competitiveness used to run in rock music like it did in hip hop music. Bands like The Beatles and The Beach Boys were always trying to one up the other one. Do you think this is missing from rock music today?
It's hard to say or even know. I certainly don't feel it's the same at all, though. I think it's more because of the way radio is now and singles are released. You couldn't have this dialogue going back and forth as easily as The Rolling Stones and The Beatles did. I think everyone on their own level is privately competitive though. Artists still push themselves to want to be the best they can be. It probably isn't as much fun for the media that that back and forth doesn't exist as much.
Any acts like there you're competitive with?
Yeah. I don't know if I'd explain it exactly like that, but the Drive-By Truckers were a band that really influenced us when we started The Hold Steady. Then we ended up becoming friends with them and playing shows with them. We actually have some coming up. They are a big influence, but also some kind of peer, I feel. I'm still a big fan though, and I'll get just about anything they release.
Any thoughts to some collaborations with Drive-By Truckers mastermind Patterson Hood then?
I haven't, you know? I did an acoustic tour with Patterson and Will Johnson over in Europe, which was a lot of fun. The band keeps us all pretty busy though, and there's plenty of music around there. I hope to be very busy with The Hold Steady all year so I haven't really thought much outside of that.
Wrapping up on a different topic. The Hold Steady is a great band name, but have you ever thought of any cool names since you formed the band?
At the bar, I think I'm always coming up with band names, but I never remember. There's nothing that stuck with me that I liked better than The Hold Steady. I think all people into music, especially in bands, are constantly coming up with cool or quirky band names. My friend has this sort of game of making fake jam bands. The one I came up with was Lush Vegetation. That's my fantasy jam band, which I'm sure someone will steal now. But we're always coming up with things like that.
What's the last cool band name you heard?
You know, I'm really partial to The Donkeys. They aren't really a new band, but I really like them and the name. There's a lot of simplicity to that band name that I really dig. It's super obvious, but it's also that a donkey is a fantastic image for a band.
Well, thanks for your time. We here in Richmond are definitely looking forward to seeing you in Richmond this September for Fall Line Fest.
Me too! I heard it's a great festival so I'm really excited. Hopefully I can catch some acts or maybe an art show or food panel.
The Hold Steady will be performing as part of Fall Line Fest at The National on Friday, September 5. To purchase tickets for Fall Line Fest, click here.
This article is taken from the Summer 2014 print edition of RVA Magazine, out now! Look for copies available for free at your favorite local Richmond businesses. To read a digital version of the full issue, click here.
Words by Doug Nunnally, live photos by Rich Tarbell