Imagine the best bar band in the world recruiting a gifted street poet like Craig Finn as their frontman and you end up with The Hold Steady, who are back with their eighth album, Open Door Policy.
Over the last 17 years, The Hold Steady have built a loyal following with relentless touring earning a breakthrough with their critically acclaimed 2006 Boys and Girls In America album that was full of Finn’s stories about big characters having riotous nights often set in his native Minneapolis.
Since then Finn has also released four solo albums, but on Open Door Policy he brings his evocative stories about losers and dreamers battling their own demons or thwarted dreams back to the band.
Paul Clarke spoke to Craig Finn at his Brooklyn home about the band regaining its mojo and a return to storytelling on this new record.
One of the things you’ve said about Open Door Policy is that it’s more expansive. What do you mean by that?
This is the second album we’ve made as a six-piece, our keyboard player Franz Nicolay left the band for a while and we replaced him with guitarist Steve Selvidge. Franz came back so just by the nature of six people being on stage, or being in the studio, there’s more sound. I think that over the past few years since we all came back what’s defined The Hold Steady sound is figuring out a place for all those elements. I think that’s largely fell on Steve and Franz because they haven’t been in the band together before, and figuring out how to play with each other, and against each other, has made for a bigger sonic range.
Isn’t it a bit tricky to not go over the top sonically when you’re a six-piece with two or three guitars?
When you have six people then you would think that it’s ultimately louder, but in some ways it’s been about making sure everyone plays less, and having a wider palette to work with, but kind of offering more restraint as well.
Ironically when you listen to this record compared to the last couple it seems there is a lot more space on the songs. Do you think that is the case?
I definitely do, I think that some of that is wisdom and age, which we all acquire as we get older, but there’s also that the producers lean towards: ‘hey, this is not your moment here’. I think by offering that restraint, or that quiet, you end up with something that’s a little more tightly coiled that gives it a little more attention when the release happens to feel bigger.
How pivotal was producer Josh Kaufman in making sense of a band who have been doing this very successfully for a long time now?
Josh has become an amazing person in my life starting with the three records I made with him, and then bringing him over to The Hold Steady. Josh is not known for producing big rock bands, but he took it on as a challenge. I think he was very helpful in that he knew The Hold Steady, but he was not a scholar of it. He didn’t come in with a preconceived notion of what it should be, and he has a real talent for arranging. Saying you don’t have to play that because he’s already playing that, that kind of thing, sort of directing traffic, and hanging things up sonically. So I think that’s a real positive on his side.
You recorded this album in two blocks so how did those intense sessions go?
We’re 17 years in and we have a low tolerance of things that don’t feel fun at this point, even though we were making a record which I kind of consider heavy, or isn’t always light-hearted, the sessions were always fun. That’s something that Josh really brings to it that everyone is enjoying themselves while we’re recording even if it’s a down track, or a particularly heavy song. I think everyone really enjoyed the process and that says a lot.
Over the years band members have had to battle personal issues which they overcame, and it seemed we might never see album number eight, but you seem in a good place as a collective?
The band is in really good shape as far as like personalities, morale etc. I think everyone’s really enjoying what The Hold Steady means in 2021. We’ve changed the way we tour a lot by doing more residencies and I think that invigorated us. We’re not driving ourselves for a month and exhausting ourselves by playing every small mid-western city on a Monday night, we’re going to Chicago posting up and playing three nights, or in London. We have this massive catalogue now of about 120 songs we pull from so we can do all these different things playing way different sets every night and that’s exciting.
Has coming off your previously relentless touring treadmill helped relight the band’s fire?
I think we’re more than appreciative of where we are, there’s a lot of gratitude and still a lot of creative fire. This week I’m getting music from each member saying what about this? I think of it as The Hold Steady 3.0. It’s just a blessing, it feels very, very good and very strong right now.
An interesting addition to this album is a horn section so why did you decide to add some brass?
On Separation Sunday and Boys and Girls in America there are several songs on each of those records with horns, but how it kind of reappeared, and reappeared so big, was through my solo work. I started using horns on a lot of songs through Josh Kaufman. For the Hold Steady, it’s such a great sound because it kind of hits exactly what we do. Lyrics that might often on paper scan as being sort of depressing, or bleak, being presented in a sort of a party way like raise your glass. The horns kind of bring that party right with you, make it sound more triumphant, big and more exciting, so it’s actually sort of a perfect fit.
When you listen to the album it seems full of the themes that typify this strange year of COVID and lockdowns yet it was written in 2019. Are you Mystic Craig?
2020 didn’t jump out of a box, it’s hard to remember 2019 as that felt pretty heavy too. In 2019 as I’m thinking about writing these songs there was a divided political scene at both our ends. Income inequality, the way technology plays into that, as well as late-stage capitalism and consumerism.
What were your main preoccupations on this record that has plenty of light and shade musically, but is still stuffed full of troubled characters?
I keep mentioning people’s jobs. There’s a lot of occupations on this record and technology too, the way we communicate. People kind of pop up, and the way we are doing this interview we wouldn’t have been doing this in 2019, most likely. All this technology that kind of brings us closer together, but maybe puts us further apart. As 2020 came and we started to see the rich getting wealthier and wealthier during the pandemic and people’s living situations changing, people less anchored at home and more about their online presence. All these stories kind of became solid and strong in a way that I didn’t anticipate. but I guess was fortunate in some way for the record.
Your lyrics do seem to be more focused more on storytelling this time around?
I think one of the things was that I really wanted to make an album this time. With Thrashing Thru the Passion, our last release, we were kind of making singles and collected them for the most part. But this one we said let’s make an album, so I was thinking maybe not an album that has a narrative but an album that had themes. In general, my songwriting has in recent years, with the solo stuff too, really been leaning towards a storytelling style. It’s always been there but that interests me more and more.
In many ways, the best way to read this album is not like the narrative of a novel, but like a collection of short stories which in some ways is what an album is anyway.
I think that’s a good way of looking at it, it’s not a narrative, but it’s stories that are grouped together for a reason. That’s the best way of saying it is as short stories about a world that all these people live in.
Part two of our interview with Craig Finn looks at why the return of keyboardist Franz Nicolay was so important, the themes in Open Door Policy’s songs and why The Hold Steady love British audiences.
Words by Paul Clarke, you can see his author profile here.