“I like the crowds at the really big shows. People touching people that they don’t even know, yo!” So sings Craig Finn of the Hold Steady in the band’s 2005 tune, “Hornets! Hornets!” the leadoff track on Separation Sunday. The album was released to reviews that made the band impossible to ignore, helping establish The Hold Steady as a critical darling, with live shows that built the hype, and a community to go with it. And that verse perfectly encapsulated the massive nights in sweaty rooms.
This past Dec. 4, though, playing the middle of a three-night livestream stint in an empty Brooklyn Bowl, the verse hit like a sucker punch. We’ve all lost a lot in the past year, and even if it’s not a death in the family, it’s perfectly reasonable to viscerally feel the absence of truly live music.
We’re all still at least a few months away from the return of those really big shows, but the band is back with Open Door Policy. The album — the second recorded with the current six-man assemblage of Finn; guitarists Tad Kubler and Steve Selvidge; pianist Franz Nicolay; bassist Galen Polivka; and drummer Bobby Drake — was recorded and ready to go in early 2020, but held back in hopes of coinciding that the tour dates that were canceled last year.
Produced by multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman, who also handled the 2019 album Thrashing Thru The Passion, as well as Finn’s last three solo works, ODP shows a band growing into new life experiences, with a ready eye on mental health and adult drama.
Ahead of the album’s release, and an upcoming two-show virtual run at Brooklyn Bowl in March, Finn and Selvidge chatted with SPIN about surviving 2020 and learning from all that was lost in a dreadful year.
SPIN: Let’s start with Open Door Policy. It’s your second time writing and recording with the current six-man group. How did the process compare to the sessions that turned into Thrashing Thru The Passion?Craig Finn: I think one of the stories of Thrashing Thru The Passion, but especially Open Door Policy, is that Franz and Steve, there were times in the past when only one of them was in the band. So they kind of have had to figure out their space. And as we’ve written, that’s become a big part of it. Figuring out where they both fit. And I think we did a good job of that on Thrashing. And I think we did an amazing job on ODP.
And I think there’s a comfort with Josh. He runs these really fun sessions. And I think the Hold Steady is kind of at our best when we’re having fun.
Steve Selvidge: By the time we came into the studio to do ODP we knew that we were going to be making a record. We did it in two separate sessions. And we had a number of months of gigs, really years, playing as a six-piece and recording and working with Josh, so it was just we had that much more of an established framework.
You’ve spoken about how collaborative the process is and how everyone brings pieces and synthesizes it into a song. I thought it was really interesting, going back to the bonus features on the Heaven is Whenever reissue, because you’re able to see the bones of everything a little bit more. These days, as you write with a six-man group, how much do you see of the bones in the final product of ODP?
CF: That’s a good question, because, for instance, “Heavy Covenant,” Franz brought in two different things, and we combined them. So I guess, you do sort of separate yourself from the bones, but I could probably tell you, for every song, what the first thing was. “Family Farm” was that riff that Tad started out with. “Feelers” was a piece that Franz brought in. So you go on a journey with it, and especially with Josh producing, he really challenges us on the songs, even before we get to the studio. So I think they do change quite a bit. But I can usually tell who brought it in and what that germ of an idea was.
But Steve, even just listening to the way you guys went back to playing songs from Heaven Is Whenever last December. There were definitely things that I could see that you added after the fact, since you weren’t in the band for the album, and there were songs that you probably hadn’t ever even played. If that’s coming out in the concert, is that just the band saying, “We prefer what Steve’s bringing here and we want to add this into the song.”
SS: I mean, they trust me, and I think we’re all on the same page in terms of what works and what doesn’t. And again, with those songs, some things are evident like, “Oh, well I’ll just double this riff.” Or there’s an obvious overdub, so I’ll play that additional part so we could fill it out like it sounds on the record. But then there’s also “The Weekenders,” I just sort of came up with my part and it meshed in. We had a really good time revamping “We Can Get Together” for the shows around that.
The characters on ODP are more Earth-bound in a lot of ways. The kids aren’t gushing blood but still feeling pretty sweet. What you’re getting here is Magdalena coming back to Scranton with her tail between her legs. Is that just something about staring at 50 and thinking a little bit differently than he was when you all were 35? Or Craig, do you think that some of your solo work is translating to what you’re putting out as The Hold Steady?
CF: All of that. Let’s be honest, I made three solo records with Josh. And then he came in and made two Hold Steady records. And there’s something there, too. But I think like, the characters I’m singing about are definitely older. They do bigger things. They’re more cinematic, but they’ve aged just like I have.
It’s very natural; those things are the things I’m interested in. I am more interested in the consequences. I’m more interested in people who feel stuck. I’m more interested in people who are attempting to keep their head above water and barely doing it or not doing it at all.
SS: I’ll use the M-word. Look, there’s some maturity. And look, to be honest, we didn’t know what was in store yet, but in a lot of ways, people weren’t feeling super sweet in 2019, either. People kind of forget how shitty of a year 2019 was. And so that informed it. I think, “Family Farm,” that tableau, that milieu, that really encapsulates it for me.
There’s life experience and there’s real shit in there.
CF: I mean, even some of the partying stuff has become more like mental health stuff. I definitely think it’s just a different view. Like, you know, as they get older, the gaze comes from somewhere else. And I might be looking at similar types of people, but I see different things.
SS: It’s so clear. It kind of reminds me a little bit of an outgrowth of “One For The Cutters,” (from the 2008 album Stay Positive) or something. I remember going through the crash course of really learning the DNA of every song when I joined the band. That song freaked me out.
The last time you guys played in front of crowds was March 6, 7 and 8 of 2020 in London. Almost every day I think about the bullet that all of us in the venue those nights dodged out there. In retrospect, it’s crazy that there wasn’t a body count.
CF: It does seem like we got it in right under the wire, like there was this last night, right? Like there was this last night of normal?
SS: It was like the curtain was coming down.
CF: Maybe ignorance is bliss. If I did it all over again, I’d do the same thing. I don’t think we had a superspreader event, and we have the memories. But it did feel like the day after that show, everything changed.
As you’re canceling each of these shows last year, and you’re all getting a little older, and it’s getting harder, in some ways keep doing this, are you thinking about some of these moments slipping away? And things that you might not get back?
SS: I do have a sense of, as I get older, you can’t take time for granted. So a year makes a big difference. And it goes by fast, you know? And a lot can change. I know I’m personally aware of that more so than I was even 10 years ago. So when you lose the opportunities to do these shows, that’s precious time. But again, this is so unprecedented. I think everyone is still sort of shellshocked.
How conscious were you of what was missing?
CF: I mean, very. I’m a social guy. I’m from Minneapolis, but you move to New York to live in a small apartment but have all the access to all these cultural things, bars and restaurants. Suddenly, you don’t have those and you’re like, “God, I wish I had a backyard.” So I was totally aware and haunted by that.
SS: I would hope that the difference is that maybe people wouldn’t take for granted live music as much. I would hope that as a community and as a public that there is a heightened sense of the sanctity and the blessing that is getting people together in a room to celebrate.
I can’t even fathom not buying a ticket to a concert that I want to go to right now. I want to buy tickets to concerts I couldn’t care less about. “Always go to the show,” right?
SS: Yeah, just go to the show. It would be great to see this explosion of people from the smallest dive bar to the biggest stadium.
You played Brooklyn Bowl in December, and you’re doing it again March 5 and 6. It was clear that you were eating up the interactions from fans on the video boards. But it’s such an alien experience. How do you hype yourself up to play a concert in an empty room?
CF: I was so excited to see the guys and plug in amps, and hear a kick drum. Audience or not, it wasn’t like we had any opportunity to do it anyway. So to get together with the guys and work on music, that was exciting. The audience coming in on the monitors was really helpful. To see people literally around the world holding up signs, holding up their pets, drinking beer, it was actually pretty emotional.
One of the crazy things Tad and I did at the beginning or talked about is we want to have a band that feels like there’s a community around. That feels like you can be a part of. Bands like the Clash that had that kind of feel. And I’m kind of amazed that we did it. Like, I don’t know how we did it, because I think we just declared it. And then, you know, try to be good to fans and try to make it special for people who traveled to shows. But that was a reminder that we sort of built what we said we were going to.
So you have eight albums now. That’s a real catalog. That can keep people listening for a long time.
SS: I mean, we all know the trajectory of rock and roll. The classic rock bands, or whatever, they had this many albums and they broke up, or somebody died or whatever else. As we got into our teen years and later on, things were even shorter-lived.
I think it all comes down to the community that’s around the band. We certainly wouldn’t be here doing what we’re doing without them. And look, man, we’re lucky to be where we are. Album eight, people interested in it. But we didn’t get there without some bumps in the road ourselves, too.
CF: You can have a discussion about classic second albums, you can have a discussion about what’s the best third album ever? Eighth album, that’s a small, small group. I think that there’s something really nice to knowing that people are going to hear this record, right? You put out your first record, and you’re like, “I hope the guys at my work might listen to it.” But there’s something really nice about knowing that the fans are going to listen to this, and they’re going to have a reaction to it.
So I think there’s this thing of sticking with it that allows you this.