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The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn Talks Female Characters, Catholicism, Drinking

Craig Finn

Craig Finn is not quite “America’s Storyteller” but he’s spent six albums with the Hold Steady scratching at all the misery and lust that lurks beneath, chronicling some post-collegiate afterworld where people come undone and, if they are lucky, rise again. The band’s just-released sixth LP, Teeth Dreams, is their — forgive me, please — steadiest work in a while, and engages with the classic rock monolith on its own terms, giving into that glorious dual-guitar thrall and FM pleasure. But Finn is a bit more modern a man than the music he makes might imply: He writes women and girls into his songs, but they are not sidepieces. To the contrary, they are the compelling center that will not hold, going far beyond the bad girl and good girl archetypes we know from recorded rock’n’roll history, more like the girls we know and the girls we are. SPIN spoke to Finn last week about the women he writes, the Catholic church he attends, and the love lessons to be gleaned from Guns N’ Roses songs.

How are you?
Good. I went to South By [Southwest] for a week, which was a little much. We did the interactive, too, and after playing a bunch of 45-minute sets, that mostly made me really excited to get out and play real shows for, like, real fans.

Playing on some tiny stage to people sitting in folding chairs in the middle of the day is not fun?
We didn’t — well, that’s the thing. Now, South By uses these big stages where — well, we didn’t do the Dorito Stage, unfortunately — but it gets so big they have these big compounds now. It’s really crazy. It puts me in touch with the non-drinkers of the world because I don’t drink during Lent, and that’s always South By. So it’s like talking to drunk people. It puts me in touch with how the other half lives.

Do you always give up drinking for Lent?
I have for like six years, seven years.

Why has that been your go-to?
I’m in a rock band. There’s a lot of beer around and I’m kind of a beer drinker, so it’s a way to build some time into my life that I don’t drink, and maybe I go running a lot and try to get in shape a little more. Singing in a rock band, it’s never inappropriate to be drinking.

As far as the Catholic calendar, what are you really down with? What are your favorite, most significant occasions?
Christmas is awful because of the presents and the pressure. And Easter is sort of just, eh, if you don’t have kids you aren’t really going to look for eggs, and otherwise, what is it? Like, a ham? I don’t know. I think in some ways I like Ash Wednesday because there’s the fire and brimstone, walking around with ashes on your head. I think that ritual appeals to me. The Catholic calendar isn’t the part that really excites me. I just like the Sunday Mass. Just the week-to-week grind of it.

Why do you think that is?
It’s a comforting ritual. It really connects me to my family. Church was something we always did every Sunday morning. My dad did it always, and his parents did it always, and I feel like it’s kind of an acknowledgment of where I come from. When I go there and my mind wanders — which it usually does, I’m usually not rapt with attention to the sermon — it is, oftentimes, my family that I think about.

When did you start re-embracing your Catholicism?
About 10 years ago. My parents came to town to visit me, and we went to church at St. Patrick’s Cathedral one Easter. And I was like, “I’m coming back here,” just because the church was so grand. Living in Brooklyn, the trains get weird on the weekends, so I found a church near me and I started going. Now I’ve got one in Greenpoint that I go to — maybe not every Sunday, but I try.

There are running themes that have shown up in your work and especially Hold Steady lyrics, about resurrection and redemption, that are in line with radical Catholicism, of Vatican II thought, of embracing fallen or outcast people. Is that part of the appeal for you?
I think that’s one of the things. Take the new Pope. As soon as he started talking about poverty, rather than rules, it wasn’t about restricting people. I went to church a couple of years ago, right around the second election that Obama won, and the Bishop had written this letter that they read in church and it said, “When you go in the voting booth, remember you’re only voting on one issue,” and that, of course, is abortion. And I thought, “This is insane. We’re a country. We’re at war, and you want to boil this down to just one issue?!” And then this new Pope comes in and starts talking about poverty, and I think, “Well this is the one thing that the Church actually can help.” I think that with the fallen characters, I really am trying to accept the idea that we’re never too far gone and that no matter what you did, you can always ask for forgiveness. With the Hold Steady, I try and deal in ways that are maybe bigger and more cinematic than in my own life. And so desperate characters are attractive in that way to me. This morning I went to the post office and the grocery store, and that would make a pretty terrible song.

While we’re discussing characters, I want to talk about writing female characters. Because sometimes you have not just written female characters, you’ve written entire records around women who have names, who are doing things, who aren’t just a way to deepen or change the character of a man. You have made women the center to your records, and something that’s actually fairly rare for contemporary male or female songwriting. How conscious are you of the way you present women in song?
I’m really sensitive about it, because, look, have you been to a Hold Steady show? How many women do you see in the audience? A small percentage.

Maybe 18 percent?
[Laughs] Yeah, so there’s a lot that ends up scratched out. I’ll put it that way. I’m very self-aware that things could go wrong. The way I write about women has to be right. So, I want to create a sensitive character that has ups and downs. But ultimately, it’s a human, right? It’s something that I pay attention to, but a lot of the way I use characters in general — men or women — is out of a desire for listening to rock music with characters. When I was growing up, thinking about, like, “Born to Run” — he says “Wendy let me in, I want to be your friend.” I always wanted to know more about Wendy.

Not to drag [French psychoanalyst Jacques] Lacan into this, but there is this idea that women are deeper than men and that there will inherently always be something unknowable about women and the female character. Do you think in some ways that makes women easier to work with as a character? Because you can go more places than you might be able to with a male protagonist in your songs.
Maybe. I think about the idea of love, and no matter how much older we get, and how much wiser we get in a lot of things, we don’t seem to learn much about love. So there is a mystery there that’s unknowable in some way, and it’s charged with some sort of magic, I think. I think about that with the character Holly [from 2005’s Separation Sunday] and the two guys, Charlemagne and Gideon. She’s running it. She is moving forward, and they are in her orbit, so to speak. In that case, yeah, they are almost secondary to her.

On this record, a “she” shows up almost immediately in every song. What informs how you write about women?
My life. One of the big things is that we’re all trying to get something. Love is a huge part of it and some version of love — real or imagined — is the thing we think is going to fill this void. The second song on the record, “Spinners,” there is a girl who’s going out, and it’s from seeing a girl dressed up on the train and thinking about where she was going. I was thinking like that: going out and trying to make a connection, just trying to go out as a single person on a Saturday night and trying to find some feeling of belonging.

What do you think rock’n’roll has taught you about love that’s actually accurate? What good intel about love, romantic or otherwise, do you think you’ve gleaned from rock’n’roll?
That’s a good question. I don’t know, maybe when Axl Rose says you need patience. That’s true. [Laughs]

When you were younger, did you buy rock’s mythology about love?
I felt like there was a real disconnect between the girls in the records and the girls that I know. So no, I don’t think I did. [Laughs]

What was the first record where you felt like you heard some truth?
Maybe this is sappy, but when I was in eighth grade I was having a really tough time, I was getting picked on at school. I was just starting to get into music, scratching the surface of the underground: punk and hardcore. And the Replacements’ Let It Be came out that fall, and I went and got it, and I think it was like “Sixteen Blue” and “Unsatisfied” — the second side there was really exciting. And also it was exciting to know that these guys lived in my hometown. And I think that those were really moving. I wasn’t even 16 yet, but that whole, “Your age is the hardest age and everything drags and drags” was really comforting. I always go back to “I Will Dare,” where there’s this idea of love being a brave or daring thing — to take that leap, to have that leap of faith to fall in love with someone. It’s a very romantic song to me.

What does the Hold Steady discography tell us about love?
I think that it can tell us that love is something we strive for and will always be confusing. Boys and Girls in America addresses love most — it was written when I was getting a divorce. There’s huge amounts of failure that I felt at that time.

Listening to the new record at times it feels like a reinvention in a way. Was that necessary?
Yeah. There was a couple of things. One was Steve Selvidge joining the band and playing guitar along with Tad and going for the dual guitar attack. Having him around and his input was a bit of a shot in the arm. Going and doing a solo record, it was nice to do something quiet and kind of make sure the words got through. It was like, “OK, now that I’m done with that, I’m really excited to make a big rock record again.” I’m proud of us, that we’re on record number six and at 42 years old we didn’t bring in the mandolins and the string section.

You are not going whimper off to dad-rock and get into your solo-Henley phase? That’s very much the default as you cross 40: Have kids, and express doleful resignation.
Yeah. There’s probably an exception, but someone pointed out to me recently that there’s never been a good rock record with a song about your new baby. It’s a sign that things have gone terrible.