The Hold Steady will release their eighth album, Open Door Policy, on February 19 (on the band’s Positive Jams label via Thirty Tigers – Read our review here). No doubt the alternative rock band’s unusually dedicated fanbase will immediately begin analyzing every detail. Singer/guitarist Craig Finn knows this is the case. “It’s an honor,” he says, calling from his Brooklyn home. “It inspires me to do my best.”
Finn’s lyrics are often cited as a big reason why The Hold Steady inspire such devotion. He’s known for writing about characters who are going through addiction, mental illness, and other struggles, yet he does so with a non-judgmental touch. “Being empathetic is something that, as I’ve gotten older, I think has become more and more a part of my songwriting,” he says. “I think getting in touch with that part of your human being is good, and what I’m trying to tap into—even in a big, loud rock song.”
Although Finn’s stories ring true, he says that he does not write specifically about anyone he knows. “These are not real people in my songs, but they’re types of people that I know,” he says. “I think even if you’re making someone up, you can still be honest about them. I think that’s the goal, is that even when you’re dealing with fiction, you’re trying to come up with something that is how it is.”
When writing, Finn says, “I punch the clock, so to speak. I say, ‘I’m going to write a song this morning.’ And then I try to make it better down the road. Getting words down on the page, and then I’ll move them around later if I think it’s worth pursuing.”
The rest of The Hold Steady members—guitarists Steve Selvidge and Tad Kubler, bassist Galen Polivka, keyboardist Franz Nicolay, and drummer Bobby Drake—write the music, which they’ll put in a shared Dropbox to start the writing process. Speaking from his Memphis, Tennessee home, Selvidge says that these early-stage ideas can come in a variety of forms.
“It can be anything from just an idea on a voice memo to a fairly complete demo,” Selvidge says, adding that it’s an “organic process where you started with a little kernel of something, and all the sudden it grows into something amazing.”
Once there’s a batch of musical ideas, Finn says, “I’ll go through them and I’ll write words then. Then we’ll get together and flesh them out.” Once everybody’s in a room together, Selvidge says, “You get a sense of being able to suss out how the songs exist in real time with people playing it. From there, we go in the studio, where things might change a little bit, as well.”
With Open Door Policy being The Hold Steady’s eighth studio album, the members have their songwriting and recording processes well in hand by now—but both Finn and Selvidge can still recall what it was like when they were fledgling musicians still figuring things out. They each came to play music via very different paths, however.
“My dad was a musician—a singer-songwriter,” Selvidge says. Growing up in Memphis, he says, “I was with my dad at the big guitar store in town. He would sit me down with a guitar and plug it into an amp, knowing that as a kid, I couldn’t get up and run around if I had a guitar in my hands. It was just a way to make me stay put. So I was just messing around with a guitar, and I picked something out that sounded like a song that I had heard, and it was transformative. It was like magic. It was like I had decoded a secret. Everything turned into Technicolor.”
In contrast, Finn says he “didn’t come from a musical family.” Yet, he also remembers becoming entranced with music at a young age. “When I saw bands on TV, I just felt it looked like an amazing thing to be able to perform and play music with other people.”
It turned out that Finn, who grew up in Minneapolis, also had the benefit of being in the midst of a particularly thriving music scene. “The Replacements were a band that was happening when I was in high school—that was a big one,” he says, “and then Hüsker Dü and Soul Asylum were the other big local bands at the time. That was important to me, the idea that there were people in town doing this. I was really into things like that. I liked going to shows, and especially shows in smaller venues. I really found that to be exciting.”
Beyond that, Finn says, he was a kid who liked to read, which he could easily apply to his budding lyrical skills. He started writing his own songs in seventh grade, when he got his first guitar. “It just became an interesting way for me to think about telling stories,” he says. He laughs as he recalls his first stabs at songwriting: “They were terrible, obviously. But it was what I wanted to do.”
Both Finn and Selvidge worked their way up through the ranks with different bands until finding significant success with The Hold Steady. From the start, with the band’s 2004 debut album, Almost Killed Me, listeners noticed that the songs featured memorable characters, resonant recurring themes, and a raucous yet skillful musical style. With each successive album, the band continued this approach, and it has earned them a fiercely loyal fan base. “There’s this thing where the songs kind of reference each other,” Finn says. “Sometimes I do [it] as a sort of reward for the people who’ve listened really closely for a long time.”
The Hold Steady have also developed a reputation for their lively concerts, which attract especially enthusiastic audiences. “We’ve built a community around the band,” Finn says. “It’s a culture and a celebration.”
The current pandemic means that there will be no extensive touring to support Open Door Policy (at least not right away), but the band will perform livestreamed shows from Brooklyn Bowl, their favored venue in New York City, on March 5 and 6 (tickets available here). While this clearly can’t offer the same concert atmosphere as in normal times, both Finn and Selvidge agree that these livestreams can be surprisingly moving, as they discovered when they did three such shows last December.
“We had an array of monitors where you could see people in a Zoom room, so we were watching people react,” Selvidge says. “People were holding up signs, and holding up their pets and their kids. You could see the people that had parties going on and stuff. That was helpful and distracting at the same time—I got so into watching what was going on, I started messing up on the guitar! We’re so fortunate to have a beautiful fanbase. I think people are along for the ride with us.”
Photo by Adam Parshall