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Stay Positive: Craig Finn Looks Back on the Highlights of His Career

The Hold Steady frontman picks his best songs as he prepares to release his second solo album

At 44, Craig Finn has nearly two decades of hoarse, literary rock’n’roll behind him, and he doesn’t sound anywhere near finished. Up until the Hold Steady’s 2005’s breakthrough, Separation Sunday, he almost abjured choruses altogether just to fit in more verses, more tales, more hoodrats. But fewer people know that before making ’70s-style Thin Lizzy’n’E Street sounds safe for indie kids to pillage, Finn already had amassed a whole career’s worth of shaggy-dog stories in the ragtag Lifter Puller. And his rootsy solo albums  2012’s depressive Clear Heart Full Eyes and the upcoming Faith in the Future (coincidentally out September 11, more on that later) should appeal more to Drive-By Truckers fans than Titus Andronicus ones. SPIN spoke to Finn about his proudest moments as a songwriter, and how he’s come to look back on his massive nights and crushing lows.

“Nassau Coliseum” (from Lifter Puller’s Half Dead and Dynamite, 1997)

The lyrics are about a Grateful Dead show I’d seen in 1991 at Nassau Coliseum in Long Island. A lot of people were getting busted in the parking lot for selling drugs, and the cops were being kind of aggressive with them. I sort of made up a story about that whole scene that didn’t really exist, but that show definitely did exist. And then at the end of the song, I start naming all these places — Brookline, Brooklyn, Twin Cities, Costa Rica and Alaska; my first year after school, those were the places that my friends were living. And I knew that these were likely the only people that were ever going to hear this song because I was going to send them a cassette of it. All these years later, it’s funny to me that a lot of people have heard the song, but that was just kind of a roll call of all the places that I had friends at.

“Let’s Get Incredible” (from Lifter Puller’s The Entertainment and the Arts, 1998)

Again, it’s kind of a list. I think at that point Lifter Puller had kind of caught on, at least in Minneapolis; there was a real community around the band. Every time we’d play, these specific people would show up and they knew the words, and there was this whole scene around it. To me, that song speaks to that sense of community, like we’re in this together. That was a really special time for me and I think that song really captured that.

That sense of community became a hallmark of the Hold Steady too.
Yeah, it really continued into the Hold Steady. The first song was “Positive Jam,” and I really wanted to [make that clear] right away, like, we’re gonna be a part of something. If you want to get into the band you’re going to be a part of something. That was always important to us.

“How a Resurrection Really Feels” (from the Hold Steady’s Separation Sunday, 2005)

We really started to embrace the ‘70s. I remember when we were doing Almost Killed Me and Separation Sunday, thinking people are gonna be repulsed by this, and being kind of psyched about that. Because it wasn’t like indie, it wasn’t like the Strokes, or those other things that were popular in alternative rock at the time. It was maybe more heartfelt and a little more square. The piano came in as a full-time instrument on Separation Sunday, which led to the barroom feel even more and became sort of the defining sound. Then, the way the lyrics worked out for that record, I was able to build a story, and “How a Resurrection Really Feels” kind of wraps the story up in a nice way. Although that’s been subject to a lot of debate on what really happens in that song. I’ve had a lot of people ask me and I don’t really care to spell it out for them.

It’s like the Sopranos ending a little bit.
Or Lost. It’s one of those songs that when we play it live, you can only play it last. You can either play it last in the set and then come out for an encore, or you can play it last in the encore. But there’s no going into another song after that.

“Stuck Between Stations” (from the Hold Steady’s Boys and Girls in America, 2006)

“Stuck Between Stations” is still one of the songs I’m most proud of, of anything I’ve ever done. I was thinking a lot about the role of depression in art, how much artists oftentimes have depression problems. I was finding I was writing a lot when I was hungover. And then I cleaned it up, started exercising a lot, and I started not having as much material. And I was like, “Uh oh, I’m getting more healthy, and now my artistic stuff is drying up.” Or at least it did temporarily. But then thinking about John Berryman gave me this sort of view into that. It was almost a perfect story. I knew about him already, but just to think about especially his suicide, and his last time on earth, just being very dramatic, and from my hometown, which I was already prone to singing about a lot. And he sort of had this crisis of faith, which I covered too. So it was a good story to hang a song on.

Boys and Girls was when you were really writing a chorus on every song.
I was kind of anti-chorus. I was like, I want to say more stuff. Boys and Girls might have been the first time that I accepted that a song was going to be stronger if it had something that was a little more memorable about it that people could grab onto. It was definitely conscious, because a lot more people were paying attention to the Hold Steady at that point than anything I’d ever done. So we thought a little more about that, structures in songs, and also, the producer John Agnello came in. He wouldn’t really spell it out, he would leave some of it up to me. But he’d say stuff like, “You should probably say that line again.”

Is it safe to say it’s one of the crowd favorites you’re least sick of?
The other night I went and hung out at the Titus Andronicus show and I got onstage. And we were going to do a couple songs; Billy Joel’s “You May Be Right,” and “Bastards of Young” by the Replacements. And Patrick [Stickles, frontman of Titus Andronicus], right before we did the Replacements song, went into “Stuck Between Stations” as a surprise. And it was really fun. A lot of the crowd knew the lyrics, and yelled along. It’s one of those songs that the Hold Steady play every night. It’s a hit, if you will, in our universe.

“Stay Positive” (from the Hold Steady’s Stay Positive, 2008)

Around Boys and Girls in America, we started to actually have people ask us to sign stuff, records or tickets or whatever. And I started signing “Stay positive” as my autograph. And I started laughing because when you’re saying that, it’s probably because there’s something negative happening. Almost everything that we’d written about for some records had been character-based, and then “Stay Positive” kind of flipped it and it was talking about myself a little bit. “I’ve got a lot of old friends that are getting back in touch,” that was real. I was reconnecting with people because the band was doing well enough that people were like, “Hey, I don’t know if you remember me.” And then we noticed that having a big catchy chorus with a lot of whoa-whoa-whoas is an effective thing, especially as the band started to play bigger things, like festivals.

“The Sweet Part of the City” (from the Hold Steady’s Heaven Is Whenever, 2010)

When I listen to Heaven Is Whenever, I personally get really hung up on like, are we elder statesmen at this point? A lot of bands don’t get to their fifth record. A lot of the songs, they’re these weird advice songs. I’m offering advice to people. And I don’t really feel like, at that time nor now nor anytime, I’m in the position to have a lot of advice for people on how to live. But I thought I was this older brother, kind of telling you how to do things. And the shortcoming for me on that record is that tone. It came across as preachy or self-righteous sometimes, when it should have sounded more lighthearted. But “Sweet Part of the City” is one of those ones that isn’t. I think that’s why it’s my favorite song on that record.

Conor Oberst was saying how he makes a new record and goes on tour, and people don’t really react to the songs on this record, but when you play the ones from last record, now they love them. “Sweet Part” and “Hurricane J,” from Heaven Is Whenever, or “The Weekenders” or even “Rock Problems,” it’s a huge response from the crowd now. But at the time people were like, “Eh, I’m not sure if I’m into this.” So you’ve gotta give people some time. But “Sweet Part” is the one that I really love; it’s got a little more groove and a little different sonically.

“Terrified Eyes” (from Craig Finn’s Clear Heart Full Eyes, 2012)

The thing about the Hold Steady versus the solo record [Clear Heart Full Eyes]: With the Hold Steady, the music’s always pretty big, and I always feel like the stories and the words have to do something big. When I made the solo record, my joke was like, no one on this record gets shot, or falls off a roof, or anything like that. The music was kind of smaller and the topics were a little more mundane and certainly treated that way. Because of that, the record allowed me to be a little more vulnerable and a little more personal.

And “Terrified Eyes” — I started to write a lot of songs about two people, and that one’s about a couple, Shaun and Shannon. And I started using two people’s names in the songs talking about relationships. I’d gone through a divorce and in some way Clear Heart was my divorce record in that it allowed me to get some things out there. And “Terrified Eyes” is a song that reflects my experiences, being really scared and having someone who was having health problems and mental-health problems in my life, and just being really scared about wanting something to be better but not knowing how to make it better. That’s a very sad song for me.

Did you have a lot of personal stuff coming out of you that made it easier to clear the decks for the next Hold Steady album? Or did it change your entire direction?
I’ve said this in interviews before, but I’ve played every Hold Steady show. So if anyone’s gonna feel clichéd or tired about it… like, God, I can’t write another song about being drunk in Minneapolis. I don’t feel spiritually good about that, I don’t feel like I’m trying. There are people that want that song. But I’m not gonna feel good about that.

So the solo record for me, coming from punk rock and coming from — me personally, not the guys in the band — a very limited musical background and ability, to force myself to go down and make a record in a more traditional Texas or Nashville way, where I didn’t know the guys who were gonna play on it… I walked in and shook their hand and started showing them songs. It first made me very uncomfortable and then it made me very comfortable. So it gave me a lot of confidence, and allowed me the opportunity to work at a quieter volume and do something a little less huge in a way that was good. Because at 39 or 43 years old, I didn’t always feel like “Stay positive” or “Whoa whoa whoa.”

Did you reach a point where you felt like you were afraid to express yourself to your fans in a way that was out of character?
It’s hard to sing a song about going to the grocery store when there’s all these guitars firing at full blast.

“Oaks” (from the Hold Steady’s Teeth Dreams, 2014)
I really love that song. We had it for a while, a story about a couple that couldn’t get out of where they were, and it was quiet, and a little more mundane, but it was also super, super depressing. And I kept thinking, “I like this song but it’s really depressing.” So I had the idea of like, why don’t we put a coda at the end of that, that kind of adds on a whole part about, “We dream, and we hope.” I really like Teeth Dreams, but I think that song is kind of a special moment, especially the way it came together and sort of took on a second life and became more pretty than dark.

I think the production style on that album weirded some people out, but I was like, “This is R.E.M.’s Document.”
Yeah, or Monster.

“Newmyer’s Roof” (from Craig Finn’s Faith in the Future, 2015)

I just did this interview a few weeks ago with Slate, and it went really well, but in the modern age, which as a writer you might know something about, the guy did a great interview and he sent it over there and they wrote this headline like, “Craig Finn’s 9/11-Themed Album and the Future of the Hold Steady.” [Ed. note: It’s “Craig Finn on His New 9/11-Themed Solo Album and Whether the Hold Steady Will Return”] And the Hold Steady part was the last sentence in the interview, where I said, “Yeah, we’ll probably do something, I’m not exactly sure.” But the headline was built for this modern Internet age.

And 9/11-themed album… Newmyer’s roof is where I watched 9/11 happen, but it’s the only song on the album that talks about that. And it barely talks about it because the song itself is this list of rock’n’roll cliché stuff — hotel lobbies and hotel bars and limousines — which is all obviously not my life, and then it says, “All these tall tales but one tiny truth / I saw the towers go down from up on Newmyer’s roof.” The album is about continuing on after tragedy and change; 9/11 is one of those tragedies that we all lived through in our own way. But the 9/11 thing is overstated in that headline.

Do you find yourself dividing songs into piles, one for Craig Finn albums and Hold Steady albums?
It kind of takes care of itself in some way, because the Hold Steady, Tad writes the music, and he shows me riffs and I match lyrics to it. And I have lyrics laying around, but my own stuff I tend to write to a song. I write the whole song all at once.

Do you see those colliding at some point?
They may, but right now it just feels like that’s what we’ve settled into. It works pretty well.