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The Hold Steady: 'We're treating our neuroses like pets'

Anxiety, heartbreak and regret: the cult-rockers have become the consummate chroniclers of American angst, says Nick Duerden

The nucleus of one of America’s greatest contemporary rock bands walk into the meeting room at their chosen venue, the Gibson Guitar Studio in London’s Fitzrovia, and opt to take a sofa each, both instinctively nixing the very idea that they might possibly share one. Instead, a coffee table, and possibly more besides, separates The Hold Steady’s singer Craig Finn from their guitarist Tad Kubler. It’s not that there is an atmosphere in here, but the sense that you are talking to two very different people who operate in very separate spheres never quite lifts. Neither talks over the other and they never share eye contact.

Finn is the more genial, and looks, at 42, less the debauched rock star of legend – he was once described by the US novelist Tom Perrotta as, “America’s reigning poet of drug-addled losers” – than he does middle management, in his button-down shirt and heavy-framed glasses. There is some male-pattern baldness going on, but that’s nothing to be ashamed of, and he evidently isn’t: no comb-over nor complicated fringe-teasing for him.

Kubler, 40, is almost proactively not balding; indeed, with his shaggy, blond Eighties mop, and his own heavy-framed specs, he looks not unlike Garth from Wayne’s World, a comparison he likely wouldn’t appreciate, so I don’t mention it. There is a reticence about Kubler; he is polite but clipped, and is not the type of man to permit himself a smile among strangers. He too, no longer resembles the debauched rock star of legend (to that same US novelist, Tom Perrotta, he fondly recalled a bar-room brawl in which he lost a tooth), but then he does have good reason: recurring pancreatitis means he is now reluctantly sober.

“Do I miss being loaded?” Kubler repeats, when I ask the question. He raises an eyebrow. “Sure, sometimes. It’s been a major lifestyle change. When I was getting loaded a lot, there was a lot of reacting to things, emotions, sadness, anger, whatever. When you are clear-headed, everything feels more … real. You trust yourself more.”

The implicit tension between the two is reflected in the band’s latest album, Teeth Dreams, which is their most intense, and barrelling, outing to date, its growling guitars screaming to compete with Finn’s voice, which as ever comes soaked in whisky. The album’s central subject is an anxiety, both personal and universal. On the track ‘On with the Business’, for example, his concerns are nationwide when he sings of “that American sadness”.

“That line,” he says, “is about how consumerism, particularly American consumerism, just tries to fill a void with stuff: cars, shoes, jackets. And it’s all ultimately worthless.” He catches himself frowning, then endeavours to lighten the mood. “When you get to your sixth album, that’s when you’re supposed to get out the mandolins, right? But I’d say this was our most rocking record yet, our most contrarian. It’s good to be contrarian, I think.”

The Hold Steady, which also includes Galen Polivka on bass, Bobby Drake on drums, and recent guitarist recruit Steve Selvidge, formed 10 years ago in Finn and Kubler’s native Minnesota, weaned on a diet of Bruce Springsteen’s blue-collar roil and the pummelling indie rock of Husker Du. Unlike so many of their peers, they have always had songs with lyrics worth paying attention to, with Finn, a novelist in miniature, detailing ordinary lives collapsing around drink, heartbreak and regret. Little wonder his true heroes are not rock stars but the writers Philip Roth and Richard Russo.

A key influence on Teeth Dreams, meanwhile, was David Foster Wallace’s dystopian American satire Infinite Jest. During the recording of Teeth Dreams – which he and Kubler completed separately, one handling the words, the other the music – he read the 1,000-page novel twice. Presumably, once wasn’t enough.

“It’s a brilliant book, and a very anxious one, but you read it and believe that Wallace had it all figured out,” he says. “But then he went and killed himself, and I find that very hard to reconcile.”

Anxiety has been an overriding theme in his own life of late. Kubler’s illness drove a wedge between the two, and after Finn’s mother died last year, “a lot of stuff came up. I’d be in a room and suddenly realise I was breathing real quick. So I guess I was anxious too. It’s everywhere, right?”

He recounts meeting a doctor at a cocktail party who told him that half his patients these days had similar issues. They’d make appointments for shoulder pain, but the pain was invariably symptomatic of something else. “The New York Times even has an anxiety column,” he laughs, “and so I started to wonder whether we were all living in excessively stressful times.”

But then, while visiting an Edvard Munch exhibition, he realised that the artist’s most famous painting, The Scream, was riven with anxiety, too. And that was painted in 1893. “So maybe it’s just a part of who we all are, and always were. My worry now, though, is that we are starting to nurture these neuroses of ours, and treating them like pets. That can’t be a good thing.”

The propulsive momentum of Teeth Dreams should translate very well live, and the band is currently preparing to tour. Finn and Kubler say they love the regimen of a touring schedule, that sense of a shared purpose. This means of course they’ll be spending an extended period of time together. Both singer and guitarist live, these days, in Brooklyn, as any member of a cult rock act is required to do. “We’re a block away from each other,” says Kubler. So they meet regularly for breakfast? “Hardly ever see the guy.”

It is not, he insists of the man he recently described as “very, very complex”, that he doesn’t like Finn, no; rather that they are their own people, living their own lives. “I have a kid, so I’m home a lot, and Craig likes to travel; he’s always away.”

“I have a girlfriend that I love,” Finn says, “but my goal, if I’m not having any kids, is to keep moving.” So he’s sworn off fatherhood? “I don’t know … but I’m not one yet. And so I travel.” He’s just come back from a skiing trip, and likes to take trains across country for the hell of it. When the band last played Australia, Finn stayed on. “We didn’t see him for ages,” Kubler says. “I think I’ve become more sociable since Tad’s pancreatitis, and Tad has become less so,” Finn muses. “It’s no big deal, it just means we have a different perspective on things, you know?”

The mention of perspective prompts Finn to quote Foster Wallace. “Two fish swimming in the sea, and one says to the other, How’s the water? The other says, What’s water?” He flashes a grin. “Don’t you just love that?”

‘Teeth Dreams’ is out now