Craig Finn is explaining his m.o. “In hardcore circles, there’s a T-shirt that says ‘Straightedge Till Death,’ ” says Finn, singer and rhythm guitarist for new Brooklyn rock quartet the Hold Steady. “And there’s another one that says ‘Straightedge Till Prom,’ because most of the people in hardcore are still underage. So I think of [what I write] as post-prom straightedge songs.”
Finn has been donning this particular tux for nearly a decade, penning wordy tales of gnarly nightlife lowlifes, first with Minneapolis pile drivers Lifter Puller and now with the Hold Steady. Accompanied by fellow Lifter Tad Kuebler on lead guitar, bassist Galen Polivka, and drummer Judd Counsell, Finn still writes lyrics like “Pills and powders baby, powders and pills/We spent the night last night in Beverly Hills/There was this chick that looked like Beverly Sills/We got killed” (“The Swish”). And he still delivers them onstage like your 10th-grade shop teacher gone off his meds while the band bashes away behind him.
Lifter Puller’s final proper album, 2000’s Fiestas + Fiascos (last year’s Soft Rock collected nearly everything else the band recorded), was a half-hour epic of deceit, wanton drug abuse, and murder set against a backdrop of nightclubs and raves. But Finn hopes to make the moral tone of his seedy tales a bit more explicit this time around. “I’m trying to keep things more positive—I don’t want it just to be ‘party, party, party.’ People should know I’m not advocating anything.”
“I remember three kids on Ecstasy came up to Craig one night in Minneapolis,” says Kuebler, “going, ‘Look, we’re all fucked up!’ And Craig was like, ‘Dude, don’t you have to work in the morning?’ I always thought of that album as an example of how not to behave.”
The Hold Steady came together last fall when Finn, who’d moved to Brooklyn following Lifter Puller’s late-2000 breakup, was asked by friends from the comedy troupe Mr. Ass to be their Paul Shaffer. “Like, if there was a Vietnam skit, the band would go into ‘White Rabbit,’ ” says Finn. He enlisted Kuebler, who’d recently moved to Brooklyn after a stint in the Minneapolis band Song of Zarathustra, and Counsell and Polivka, formerly the rhythm section of Milwaukee-to-Minneapolis-to-New York transplants Punchdrunk. “We’d be learning covers, like ‘Shout at the Devil,’ and Tad was like, ‘Oh, you play it like this.’ We all came up on classic rock, so it gave us a really good basis as a band.”
That classic-rock feel pervades the Hold Steady’s material. Counsell is a more dramatic, less groove-oriented drummer than LP’s Dan Monick, and the Hold Steady move more deliberately, winding the musical tension tighter. The songs are also structurally looser. “We’ve recorded six songs fairly recently, and in total they’re three minutes shorter than all of Fiestas, which has 12 songs,” says Finn. “It’s less claustrophobic. With Lifter Puller it would be like, ‘This happens twice, that happens three times,’ but with the Hold Steady, it’s more like, ‘OK, when I stop singing, play a guitar solo.’ So,” he smiles, “this band has much more of a chance of bombing.”
“Let’s do that,” says Polivka with a grin. “If we’re gonna fail, let’s do it completely.”