The Hold Steady - Once more, with feeling

Craig Finn's first band rocked Minneapolis, but nowhere else. Now he's rocking the world. In this exclusive article, The Hold Steady frontman reveals what it was like to have a second coming

Friday 05 December 2008 01:00

My first serious relationship with rock'n'roll came to an end in late July 2000, as my band Lifter Puller played our final show, in Minneapolis. It was a sombre affair. After six years, the band's demise was best described as a logical conclusion. We had gained a great deal of notoriety in our Minneapolis hometown, but made few inroads anywhere else. We had worked hard, and we were exhausted. I was 28. I had played my last rock show. Or so I thought.

I moved to New York. The internet boom was happening, so finding a job was no big deal. Six weeks after our final show, I had a position at an internet music site. My title was artist relations manager. I talked bands into letting us webcast their shows at various clubs. Things were pretty cool.

For a year, it stayed cool. New York had much to offer. I drank a lot. I saw a ton of music. I still loved rock'n'roll, but the best place for me was in the audience. Four days shy of my first anniversary as a New York resident, I stood on the roof of an apartment building in the East Village and watched the twin towers fall. My friends in the building escaped unharmed, but the city was a new beast. Anxiety was omnipresent. I stopped going out at night.

I started writing songs again – rough sketches, a few chords, some lyrics. The songs were not born out of ambition, or even inspiration. I had written songs since I was a teenager, and I couldn't stop. Some were left unfinished, most were untitled, but I named one "Charlemagne in Sweatpants". It was written on a piece of scrap paper at my desk at work. I still have the original.

One Saturday, I went to the Regal Cinema in Union Square to see the reissued The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese's film documenting The Band's star-studded final performance at the Winterland Ballroom in 1976. I came out of the theatre energised by the music and performances of The Band, and Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan.

What struck me about the movie is how much fun the musicians were having. I began to understand music as being a fun thing, and started to miss playing with people. I missed the fingers on the strings, the buzz in the amplifiers. I was ready to date, but guarded against falling in love.

In summer 2002, my old Lifter Puller bandmate Tad Kubler moved to New York with his girlfriend. I'd started fooling around musically with my friend Galen Polivka, but Tad's guitar-playing kicked it all into high gear. We grabbed a drummer, Judd Counsell, and started writing songs. The first one we learnt, "Knuckles", was simple but fun. We worked a couple of my vague sketches into more realised structures and after a few months we were ready to play a show. We chose our name from a line in one of our own songs, "Most People are DJs".

Meanwhile, largely due to the internet, people were discovering the Lifter Puller records. Some obsessive fans were contacting me. And while these fans were unlikely ever to see a Lifter Puller show, The Hold Steady could certainly fill a void. In January 2003, we hit the stage. I think we had nine songs. The show went well. There were a lot of people there who were Lifter Puller fans who'd never seen the band.

In the next days, we were offered a few more shows. We decided to record a few of our songs. We spent three days in the studio with Dean Baltulonis and came out with six finished songs. Over the next six months, we played a bunch of shows. We were having a lot of fun. We went in for another three-day recording session with Dean and came out with another six songs. Soon, French Kiss Records expressed interest. We cobbled together our recording sessions, cut two songs, and the result became our first record, Almost Killed Me.

It came out in March 2004. Time flies when you're having fun. People were emailing, asking us to play shows. Our drummer, Judd, was unable to tour due to the newfound responsibilities of fatherhood. We found a touring replacement in our old friend from Minneapolis, Bob Drake. Our first trip was out to the South by Southwest music festival. The tour was massively successful, with the exception of a show in Jackson, Mississippi, where we saw more wild dogs than fans.

We went on a few more short tours. By the end of the year, we had written a bunch of new songs. We entered the studio in December 2004 to record our follow-up. That day, Rolling Stone and Spin came out with their year-end issues. Both named Almost Killed Me the "Best Record You Haven't Heard". We had an audience, we just had to deliver the knockout punch. The sessions for this next record, Separation Sunday, were inspired, manic and exciting. I think we knew we had something good. Midway through we made Bob Drake our permanent drummer.

In May 2005, on the eve of the release of our second record, The Village Voice put us on its cover. The cover had a photo of us in a beautiful Catholic church; with the headline "We Believe in One Band", it underscored the religious nature of the album. Our record release show at the Bowery Ballroom sold out instantly. The record sold its first pressing almost immediately. TV started calling. We had arrived.

The rest is a bit of a blur. That sounds a cliché, but as I write this I try to confirm dates and pull up memories, and they all seem to be twisted together. Our touring started to cover the whole USA. One vivid memory is the vast drive from Winnipeg, Manitoba to Vancouver, British Columbia, ending in a white-knuckle trip through the Canadian Rockies. I was eating bad food, staying at bad motels, and playing life-affirming shows. I was certainly not living the life I thought I would at 34 years old. And for that, I was thankful.

We entered the studio again in May 2006 and recorded our third full-length album, Boys and Girls in America. After a long courtship with a few labels we settled on Vagrant Records in California, who were able to negotiate a worldwide release. Again we were blessed with fantastic reviews, this time from both sides of the Atlantic. Our first trip to the UK, in February 2007, was a whirlwind. The crowds were comparable to our US audiences in terms of numbers and excitement. The Hold Steady were international. I love the travel that comes with touring. Prior to 2007, I had barely been out of the USA. I have played with the Stones in Dublin and the Stooges in Croatia.

Back home, in April 2007, I was invited to share the stage with my musical hero, Bruce Springsteen. Things have continued to grow in ways I could have never imagined while sketching "Charlemagne in Sweatpants" in 2002. To say that rock'n'roll changed my life would be an understatement. It's maybe most novel that it waited until I was 35 to make such a profound impact.

Of course, I am at heart a storyteller. This story has been told without mention of the failed relationships that rock'n'roll often helps to destruction. It doesn't mention the hangovers, or the boredom between soundcheck and set time. But it's a story about the positivity that can be found in rock'n'roll, and how I've been blessed to have my faith in it rewarded at exactly the moment where I'd lost a bit of faith.

The Hold Steady tour from Monday to 17 December (; the single 'Stay Positive' is released on 22 December on Rough Trade

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