Craig Finn: Can't Look Away

Music Features Craig Finn
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When you climb the stairs from the underground Bedford Avenue stop on New York’s L Train, you emerge into a world where everyone is 25, skinny and dressed in black. This is Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, the hub of the indie-rock world in 2012. As you walk Bedford Avenue, the main drag, to the northeast, however, you cross McCarren Park and enter a world where people come in all ages, fashions and misshapen forms. This is Greenpoint, a largely Polish, working-class neighborhood, a place where the hardware stores still outnumber the health-food stores.

On the border between the two neighborhoods is Five Leaves, a café/bar where I nearly bump into Craig Finn in the doorway. He has just walked the three blocks from his apartment deeper into Greenpoint, and as a 40-year-old with a rising forehead, short dark hair and doughy features, he certainly looks better suited to the blue-collar side of the park. And yet, as the lead singer and lyricist of one of the world’s greatest rock’n’roll bands, The Hold Steady, he perhaps belongs on the hipster side of the park. So this border café is an appropriate place to meet.

We take a tiny table by the window overlooking Bedford and over coffee Finn explains the local geography and sociology. Wearing a green plaid scarf and Buddy Holly glasses, he points out that The Hold Steady rehearsed three blocks from the café, long before he actually moved into the neighborhood. Now the band’s guitarist, Tad Kubler, lives a block away from his apartment. The drummer, Bobby Drake, lives two blocks away. Bassist Galen Polivka lives in Manhattan, and the band’s newest addition, guitarist Steve Selvidge (replacing departed keyboardist Franz Nicolay) lives in Memphis, presenting a new challenge for guys who have always been a neighborhood band.

On the other side of the park are the equivalents of their former selves—twentysomethings recently arrived from somewhere else, sharing apartments with too many people to save money, rehearsing more than gigging, taping Kinko fliers to lampposts, drinking too much, falling in love with girls who will leave them, and drinking some more while listening to old Cheap Trick records to get over those girls. Some of them, by the time they’re in their late 30s, will be gigging more and drinking less, but for a lot of them it will be the other way around. And it’s that latter group, the casualties of the hipster life, that fascinates Finn.

He has always written about them on the Hold Steady albums—the sleepless guys at the OTB, the waitresses who never get out of the restaurant, the guys who now avoid the mosh pit, the college girl nailing townies by the dumpster, the drunks atop the water towers—and he brings them into even sharper focus on his first-ever solo album, Clear Heart Full Eyes, released today. “No Future,” for example, is about a guy who was dumped by his girlfriend and has to move into an apartment with “bed sheets for curtains,” where he obsessively listens to Queen and Sex Pistols records. Over an uptempo, garage-rock thump, the character tells his girlfriend, “I’m alive. Except for the inside.”

“There’s a period in your 20s,” Finn suggests, “when everyone’s partying and having fun. Then a few years later, it’s not so much fun. Some people adjust, and some people don’t. When I was in my early 20s, I worked in an office for a while, and I saw these people a little older than me just drifting. They were making just enough money to pay the rent and go out drinking. Before long they’re caught in something they can’t quite control; they feel trapped in their own lives.”

On “Rented Room,” a guy like the one in “No Future,” maybe the same guy, moves out of his ex’s place and in with a bunch of almost-strangers, where he has to listen quietly to his Kiss and Ozzy records, because “certain things, the get really hard to do when you’re living in a rented room.” With a woozy lead guitar representing the protagonist’s head and a choppy rhythm guitar representing the world going on without him, the lean song builds a remarkable tension till Finn delivers this telling image: “I bathe in the dark; it feels like a womb. I know I should be getting over you.”

“I’m fascinated by these characters,” Finn adds, “because all of us are only one or two turns from having the same problems. Once you get into trouble, it kind of snowballs; once you get a police record and you get picked up again, you’re guilty until proven innocent. These characters have dramatic stories to tell, certainly more dramatic than my own life. They maybe have higher highs, and they certainly have lower lows.”

“Jackson,” another song from Clear Heart Full Eyes, describes three people who shared a hotel room for three months: a wannabe actor named Jackson, the good-looking but unstable Stephanie and an unnamed narrator. For a while things went fine, but gradually Jackson’s career began to crumble, and so did Stephanie’s mental state; the ambulance siren approached, and the three scattered to the wind. Over eerie, beeping guitar noise, the narrator seems to shrug as his half-sung, half-spoken vocal asks, “Why you asking about Jackson? It was a long time ago and nothing really happened.”

It’s a good question. Why are we listening to a song about a forgotten loser like Jackson? Is it merely what Arthur Miller said about another generation’s loser, Willy Loman, that “attention must be paid”? Is it that these characters are object lessons in what was waiting at the end of the paths we might have taken but didn’t? Is it possible to have eyes full of recognition for these characters’ self-sabotaging tendencies—all our self-sabotaging tendencies—and still believe in their eventual redemption with a clear heart?

“I always say it’s never too late to be saved,” Finn says. “Even if it doesn’t happen in the song, the potential is still there. The idea that these people can be saved or redeemed is part of the reason of writing a song about them. I’ve seen it; I’ve seen people who’ve come back from trouble and have soldiered on. Maybe someday I’ll write about those redemption moments, but when I sit down to strum a few chords, that’s not what comes to me.”

When Finn writes a song like “Jackson,” he’s creating fiction, as much as Arthur Miller, Cormac McCarthy or Randy Newman might. Finn is not one of the characters in the song, even if he inevitably shares some traits with them.

“I imagine the narrator as a character as much as Jackson or Stephanie,” he insists. “That ‘me’ who’s telling the story has a name that’s not Craig Finn. The narrator has presumably made a few different decisions and is in a different place now than Jackson and Stephanie, but they were in the same place at one time. And, as in a Randy Newman song, the narrator is not altogether trustworthy.

“People are sometimes disappointed when they meet me. They think, ‘Yeah, you’re going out every night and coming back in the morning.’ But it only takes a little while for that impression to be dashed against the rocks.” He laughs out loud at the notion. “On the other hand, with just a few wrong turns, I could be that character. There’s a little bit of me in every song; my view of human nature is naturally filtered through myself.”

In March 2011, The Hold Steady finished up touring behind their fifth studio album, Heaven Is Whenever. After nearly eight years on the record-an-album/tour-the-album treadmill, the band decided to step off the belt and take a hiatus. They’d been prolific, but they were exhausted and needed to recharge their batteries before regrouping.

Finn decided to recharge his own batteries by writing some songs by himself for a change. Almost all the Hold Steady songs, it’s surprising to learn, begin not with Finn but with Kubler. When the two longtime pals from Minneapolis get together for a songwriting session, it’s Kubler who starts things off by demonstrating his newest guitar riffs. Finn will listen intently for a while until he can sing scat syllables in a rhythm, melody and mood that match the riff.

As soon as he can do that, he starts leafing through the moleskin notebook that never leaves his side until he can find a line or even a stanza that fits what he just sang. Finn writes in the book every day, he says: lyric lines, possible song titles, diary entries, overheard conversations, grocery lists, to-do lists—his whole life goes into the notebooks. It’s like a used-auto-parts junkyard that you search until you find the part that fits the car you’re working on.

“On the song ‘The Swish,’ from our first album,” Finn says, by way of example, “Tad kept playing me the opening riff till I could to latch onto an emotional feel and a meter. I mumbled through it and then I found the words that fit that phrasing: ‘Pills and powders, powders and pills, we spent the night last night in Beverly Hills.’ I found something else in my notebook that I thought worked with those lines. You hear the characters saying something like that, and you try to figure out where they are and why they’re saying that. You try to shine a light on the details. Then there’s a lot of editing.

“Once we have the chords, tune and lyrics—more or less—we take the song to Bobby and Galen—and now Steve—and they put their two cents in. It sounds a whole lot different when the whole band is playing than when Tad is playing it on acoustic guitar, so we have to rewrite a little more. In the beginning, I contributed more to the music, but as time went on, I saw that my ideas weren’t nearly as good for a rocking band as Tad’s.”

But last spring, as The Hold Steady was beginning its hiatus, Finn spied the chance to write some songs for a project that wasn’t so rocking, wasn’t so loud, a project where the lyrics could occupy more of the foreground, where he could write his own music to support them. He gave himself the challenge of writing a new song every day, as if he were a journalist on deadline.

“My friend Tom Ruprecht, who writes for the Letterman show and who worked with me on a screenplay adaptation of Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City, says it’s really lame when you see a movie about someone who has writer’s block,” Finn recounts. “When you’re a TV writer or a journalist, you can’t afford to have writer’s block, because show’s going on that night or the newspaper’s coming out in the morning, so you have to turn something in by six o’clock. So you just write something, anything, and try to make it better later.

“I decided to try the same thing with songwriting. You get into a groove and write to meet the deadline. You put it aside and when you look at it later, you go, ‘That’s not so bad; I can work with that. I’m glad I didn’t erase that in a moment of self-doubt.’ I kept working on them throughout the 10 weeks. I’d open up the laptop and ask myself, ‘Is there anything I can do to make it better? Ooh, that one line is bugging me; let’s try something else.’”

Finn wound up with 50 songs and whittled them down to 23. He sent those off to Mike McCarthy, an Austin-based producer who’d overseen albums for Spoon, Patty Griffin and the Heartless Bastards. The two men had met through a mutual friend, and when they had a drink together in New York, Finn liked what he heard when McCarthy explained his approach to producing. McCarthy whittled down Finn’s 23 songs to 14, and they made a date to record those at an Austin studio. Eleven made it to the final album.

“I met the musicians for the first time when they came into the studio on a Monday morning,” Finn says. “We shook hands and got to work. Once we did the first song, ‘Balcony,’ I knew this was going to be okay. By Friday, we had all 14 songs done. I sang all the vocals live, which was new for me. We tried to fix some of them later, but it was hard, because the musicians were playing off my vocal. When I stepped up to the mic, they’d step back.”

Six of the 11 album tracks have a rootsy, Americana feel quite different from the Hold Steady records (the other five have a stripped-down garage-rock sound, also different from The Hold Steady’s anthemic rock ’n’ roll). The twang was partially the influence of McCarthy, who’d been a pedal steel guitarist in Nashville before moving to Texas. But even when he was writing the songs in his Greenpoint apartment, Finn could tell they were leaning in a rootsy direction.

“Americana is a recent interest of mine,” Finn admits. “It’s impressive what guys like Steve Earle and Willie Nelson can do with such a simple form. It’s a lyric-driven music, so if you’re a lyricist, you’re drawn in that direction. Springsteen got more rootsy as he went on, but I think every serious songwriter gets more rootsy as they go along.”

It’s been a long journey getting there, however. Finn and Kubler spent much of the ’90s in Lifter Puller, a band that combined the bright, brittle sound of ’80s New Wave with the lo-fi basics of ’90s indie rock and Finn’s inimitable, doleful baritone. The band was big in Minnesota but could never quite break nationally. When the group split up in 2000 (though they reunited for a handful of live shows later), Finn wanted to leave Minneapolis and indie rock behind.

“I was almost 29,” Finn remembers, “and I had the sense that my 20s were wrapping up. Most of the people I knew were on bar stools and I said, ‘If I stay, I know where this is going.’ I’d always had this romantic notion of living in New York, and so I moved there within a month of Lifter Puller breaking up. For two years, I wasn’t doing any music, but then one night in 2002 I saw the Drive-By Truckers at the Bowery Ballroom, and they looked like they were having so much fun. I said, ‘I want to do that.’

“I remember thinking, ‘This isn’t very indie. This kind of rock will never be the cool thing on a blog, but it will never go out of style.’ When I was a young punk rocker, I’d been suspicious of classic rock, but when I started listening to The Rolling Stones, I soon found that it was all that I was listening to. I said, ‘Oh, that’s why it’s classic.’ The Southern thing that the Truckers did seemed very different from Minneapolis, but I liked that they were writing about people from their own town—and I liked that they were smart as well as fun.”

“I met Tad Kubler around 2006 while we were playing in Manhattan,” the Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood says, “and we began an online friendship based on our mutual love of each other’s music—and having children about the exact same age. It was around that time that we first began plotting for the two bands to do some kind of tour together, which finally happened in 2008. I thought Heaven Is Whenever had some of their strongest material yet.

“When my friend Will Johnson, who sang on Craig’s new solo album, played me a couple of tracks from it, they totally blew me away. Craig has an uncanny knack for narrative that seems more akin to very fine short stories than traditional songwriting. I love his reoccurring characters and sense of place. His fictitious retelling of [Tampa’s] Ybor City folklore combined with his Minneapolis roots and Brooklyn residence makes for a compelling mixture of fact and fiction.”

If Lifter Puller was brittle, The Hold Steady was rubbery, as brawny as the Faces or The Silver Bullet Band. Kubler’s epic riffs and the rhythm section’s muscular momentum implied a redemption for Finn’s characters even if the lyrics didn’t. When keyboardist Franz Nicolay joined the band during the recording of The Hold Steady’s second album, 2005’s Separation Sunday, he reinforced the classic rock sound even more.

But when Nicolay left to pursue his solo career at the beginning of 2010, The Hold Steady recorded Heaven Is Whenever as the original quartet. When they toured the album, they added keyboardist Dan Neustadt and guitarist Steve Selvidge to play the older material. When the band invited Selvidge, the son of Memphis’s rockabilly legend Sid Selvidge, to become the band’s fifth member, they were making a conscious decision to move in a rootsier, keyboard-less direction. The five of them are currently writing and recording a new Hold Steady album to be released later this year.

But when Finn set some lyrics to his own music and recorded them in Austin without The Hold Steady, it sounded different than anything he’d done before. “There was more room for the melancholy,” he says. Because the music was darker and quieter, the awful dilemmas facing his characters became a lot starker. Is the guy in “Rented Room,” nursing a broken heart with cheap beers and old Kiss records, ever going to turn it around? If Kubler’s celebratory guitar isn’t around to save him, what will? Certainly not Finn’s lyrics.

“I’ve lived in a rented room in a group house with other people,” Finn confesses. “You can never get comfortable there, because you can never make the living room or kitchen the way you want it. Like the guy in that song, I grew up on Kiss, and they continue to fascinate me, if only because they’re so ridiculous. But if the Truckers represent classic-rock when it’s smart and fun, Kiss represents it when it’s stupid and funny and powerful. I think the guy in the song knows they’re ridiculous, but he has listened to Kiss for a long time, and that’s where he goes for comfort. I think there’s an optimism in that, despite all his flaws.”

Maybe. Or maybe that optimism is as self-deluding as it is in “Terrified Eyes,” also from the solo album. Sean visits his girlfriend Shannon in the hospital, where she’s being treated for problems related to her drinking. He’s trying to find something to say that’s as positive as the jaunty country-rock playing behind him, but he can’t imagine what it might be. They can make “fake plans,” he muses, but still the unpayable bills will come in and Shannon will still ask to go down to The Wagon Wheel. Something has been set in motion, the story implies, that can’t be turned around.

“I’m fascinated by that whole thing of knowing you have a problem and you can’t do anything about it,” Finn says. “When Sean says, ‘When you come home from the hospital, we can’t go back to The Wagon Wheel—and if we do, we can’t go every night,’ you know where that’s going. You wish there was some way to stop it, but you’re not sure that there is.”

When you’re 25 years old in Williamsburg, going down to The Wagon Wheel for one more drink doesn’t seem like such a big deal. When you’re 40 years old in Greenpoint, you know it is.

Those of us who are over 35 all have old friends who drink or smoke too much, who keep sleeping with the wrong folks, who vote against their own interests, who don’t believe climate change is real. We want to grab them by the shoulders and shake them, as if we could awaken them from a spell. But usually our response is to look away. Craig Finn can’t look away.