The Hold Steady Discuss New LP 'Teeth Dreams,' A Decade in Rock
"I just want to keep playing shows and making records… As long as people are showing up and having a good time, I want to keep doing it."
The Hold Steady's Craig Finn is a 42-year old native Minnesotan who grew up on the Replacements and Hüsker Dü, so he's been privy to the life-affirming wonders of Great American Rock 'n Roll Bands. But he's also a realist, very much in touch with the popular music landscape his band is preparing to release "Teeth Dreams," its sixth studio album, into next month.
"When you watch an awards show, rock's relationship with the mainstream is like, if Dave Grohl is available, they'll have it," Finn jokes. "And if he's not, they won't."
Even if he missed Imagine Dragons' much-talked-about Grammys team up with Kendrick Lamar, Finn is absolutely correct in saying that rock music -- especially the sort of raised-on-the-classics fare his band made a career out of -- isn't populating the charts like it once did.
So what's the Hold Steady to do? When the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Minneapolis rockers hit their critical peak (including a Village Voice cover) in the mid-2000s, they did so not by chasing trends, but by fine-tuning the punk-fueled Springsteen vibes Finn had been toiling with since the days of his '90s, proto-Hold Steady act Lifter Puller. With their first album in four years on the way (via a brand new label, no less) the Hold Steady aren't about to add a synthesizer or start dressing like Mumford & Sons.
"I've talked to people who've said it's a big rock record, it's a guitar record, and it's a loud album," says guitarist Tad Kubler, who's played alongside Finn since the Lifter Puller days of the late '90s. "I feel like it is, but it's also dynamically more diverse than a lot of our previous records."
"Teeth Dreams" drops March 25 via Positive Jams, the band's new imprint under Razor & Tie's Washington Square Records. Where their last effort, 2010's "Heaven Is Whenever," used piano interplay amongst all the riffage, "Teeth Dreams" finds Finn and company completely abandoning the instrument, in favor of an all-guitar onslaught. Echoing Kubler's words, the band added additional wrinkles to its sound, in order to mitigate the loss of keys since the departure of pianist Franz Nicolay. Hence, strings give an added luster to the electric onslaught in "Spinners" and "The Only Thing's" chorus weaves jangly guitars into a poignant, jabbing crescendos seldom approached in the band's back catalog.
Adding a new guitarist to the permanent lineup (former tour-only member Steve Selvidge) allowed Finn to finally put his guitar down and go full-on frontman.
"Even though it allows me to move around a lot more, I come offstage a lot less tired," he says. "I compare it to driving. If you drive six hours, you feel like you're just sitting there, but then you come out of the car and you're exhausted. It's like paying attention to playing guitar; there's a part of your brain that's freed up."
Finn the frontman summoned the energy to rock through a whopping 28-song set Feb. 7 at Brooklyn's Music Hall of Williamsburg, in celebration of the 10-year anniversary of the Hold Steady's first record, "Almost Killed Me." Across the two encore-set, Finn guided fans through the obvious jams, less obvious album cuts, and revisited old recurring characters Charlemagne, Gideon, and Holly.
"I think "Teeth Dreams" is very much a return to storytelling," Finn says. "There are characters for sure. I didn't want to name them, because sometimes when you explain too much, there's not enough room for the audience to put themselves into the song."
Take lead single "I Hope This Whole Thing Didn't Frighten You" for example. A guy takes his girlfriend home for the holidays to meet his parents, presumably for the first time. In the process, they run into his crass old hometown friends, leaving the lady a tad terrified. Even if Finn has ditched the dense storytelling of 2006's high water mark LP "Boys and Girls in America," he's still doing an admirable job of writing for the real life boys and girls of America.
The band embarks on a North American and U.K. tour on March 29. The frenzied, packed crowd shouting along to their marathon set at their 10th anniversary show proves they've got a dedicated fanbase that's in it for the long haul.
"The aspirations we had when we started were so low," Finn says. "I'm not even joking when I say we were having discussions as to whether we were going to play a show or not. We were really having fun just drinking beer in the practice space!"
Looking to the future, he echoes the gospel of his humble college rock forerunners: "I just want to keep playing shows and making record. The big thing is keeping a dialogue with the fans. As long as people are showing up and having a good time, I want to keep doing it."