Of all the lapsed and unlapsed Catholics rocking or being rocked at Austin’s South by Southwest music industry conference in March, Irish Boston College grad Craig Finn may be the only one giving St. Patrick’s Day the gas face. No green beer, no “Kiss Me, I’m in Sinn Fein” button, just a big plate of barbecue and endless refills of iced tea. It seems a shame that he’s not living it up every second, because Separation Sunday, which his excellent Brooklyn band the Hold Steady releases this week, is an early contender for record of the year. Drawing on Springsteen’s triumphalist trad-rock the way indie rockers used to revise Hüsker Dü’s negative creep, Separation has epic sweep, wiseacre charm, and riffs to spare.
But Finn ain’t having it. “I hate St. Patrick’s Day,” the 33-year-old says. “Being Irish just doesn’t have anything to do with anything. But my Catholicism is a big part of everything I do.” No kidding: Separation Sunday is the most egregiously American Catholic album since X’s Under the Big Black Sun, Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love, or that Jewish new waver Billy Joel’s The Stranger. (And the latter two are clearly huge with Finn.)
In fact, a month later, it seems imperative I ask him about Pope John Paul II. Finn laughs. “I saw one of those magazines that you get in the subway,” he says. “And there was a poll in it: Should the late pope be declared a saint? And one guy who answered was this 18-year-old kid who said, ‘No, he didn’t really do anything.’ I’m like, ‘You know, I’m sure you got some sweet stuff going on in the dorm room up there, but . . . ‘ ” He trails off.
On the bloody Sunday, Catholic girls start much too early, falling in with dudes who are druggy and ugly, vanishing from C.C.D. classes and reappearing months later, ready to tell the punk faithful and their priests how a resurrection really feels. “I think Catholic iconography is a cliché in punk,” he adds. “The candles, the tapestries, all that Jane’s Addiction/Santeria stuff. But so much of the ritual is still with me. Those Jesuits could just blow your mind.”
Finn didn’t start his first real band, the semi-legendary Minneapolis math-punk quartet Lifter Puller, until after having his mind blown at B.C. Lifter Puller, which blended the same sorts of lyrical concerns with more scene-specific indie burn, burned out in 2000, after which bandmate Tad Kubler and Finn split for Brooklyn and started over.
Lifter Puller were little more than regional critics’ darlings, but that was enough to get the buzz rolling for the Hold Steady. For much of the audience, seeing them at their first SXSW appearance in 2004 had a Saul-to-Damascus quality. Booked into a small goth club called Elysium, Finn flailed around the stage, clapping his hands randomly, hitting his Telecaster now and then, shouting his wildly funny and complicated lyrics off-mic and pushing his glasses up every three seconds. The band churned something that wasn’t quite classic rock, but bore no trace of monthly-flavor influences.
Oh yeah, the band. Guitarist Tad Kubler, drummer Bobby Drake, bassist Galen Polivka, and keyboard player Franz Nicolay are all chowing down as well. They seem to embody the same sort of indie-rocker-dorkus just-folksism that Finn does. An animated Kubler talks about how he used to race BMX bikes in his youth. Polivka examines a cut that he poured glue into earlier in the day, another rock myth that they’ve managed to embody. Nicolay is bemoaning his bandmates’ fondness for schnapps. “That stuff is from the bar shelf of Dr. Moreau,” he wails.
Frankly, some folks just hate these guys. After this year’s SXSW, at which the Hold Steady played four shows in 48 hours, noted sports blogger Gerard Cosloy described a band he refused to name as “later-period Soul Asylum fronted by Charles Nelson Reilly.” But the band’s 2004 debut, Almost Killed Me, was a sleeper critical smash, winding up on enough year-end lists to finish 31st in Pazz & Jop. “It was like being nominated for an Oscar or something,” Finn says.
But wait a minute: Billy fucking Joel? Appropriately, there’s a schism in this indie band over the man who may or may not have started the fire. “Tad and I are pro-Billy Joel, Franz and Galen are anti-Joel.” Polivka rolls his eyes and reaches for the hot sauce. “Hey, he just went back into rehab,” Kubler says. “He’s living the rock lifestyle.”
Nicolay sighs. “Joel is the piano player’s cross to bear,” he says. “I’ve actually played at an Italian restaurant in New York. It’s very, very depressing. There’s nothing romantic about it.”
This is the tension that exists in the space between rumor and fact, between building romantic notions of punk and deflating them into bar rock. The way Springsteen took ’50s rock mythology, Spector-esque sound-walls, and Dylan’s visionary ramble and distilled it into rock ‘n’ roll future, Finn’s hyper-nasal whine takes the lore and urban sagas that build up around the punk scene and turns them into, well, “Born to Run.” (Like he says: “Tramps like us/and we like tramps.”) The Hold Steady are post-punk in the most literal way: Having lived the all-ages life, the band provides its legends in a rock ‘n’ vox populi.
“There’s a lot of misinformation in rock,” Finn says. “There’s a huge oral tradition that you become obsessed with. Information gets completely mixed up and these stories just build and build. I think that fits in with the Catholic thing as well,” he adds. “Early Christianity was an oral tradition to begin with, and a lot of mythology is built on the idea that the early Christians were a persecuted fringe group.”
The Empire Strikes Back to Almost Killed Me‘s Star Wars, Separation Sunday regales us with the further adventures of figures we met on the Hold Steady’s debut. There’s Charlemagne, for instance, a pimp and a pusher who the suburban kids are a little afraid of. “There were always these legendary guys that you’d hear about, and some of them were really scary,” Finn says. “You’d know enough to stay away.” But not everyone does. Hallelujah is the nice girl who gets in way too deep, the hoodrat who ends up “half naked and three quarters wasted.”
“Especially in junior high,” Finn says, “there were people who just got in over their heads and would disappear from school.” But not Finn—these drug experiences aren’t his. He was the Minnesota dude who was hip enough to think of the Replacements and Hüsker Dü as local rock. “The ‘Mats were one of the first things I got into,” Finn says. “I thought of them as an unsuccessful rock band, not like punk or part of the underground.” But he was still suburban enough to need his folks to drive his 12-year-old ass to the shows.
“I’m not sure they understood what it was,” he says, “but they knew I was a creative kid and this stuff seemed to foster creativity. Dropping your kid off at a punk rock show is a leap of faith, you know?” He pauses and swallows some tea. “It was way cooler to get dropped off at the bus stop and take the bus.” (See also Sunday‘s “Your Little Hoodrat Friend”: “Some nites the bus wouldn’t even stop/there were just way too many kids.”)
Rolling in from the suburbs, an observer and cataloger of types as much as a participant—in the scene, but not of it—Finn was the kid who played by the rules and was drawn to punk’s geekier wing. “I loved the Descendents,” Finn says. “They sang about getting no chicks, and that’s something I knew a whole lot about.” But scenester ideals can’t stop rock clichés. “At one show of theirs [a Descendent] asked a bunch of us if we knew any chicks that would blow him. I was like, ‘If we knew that, what would be doing at a Descendents show?’ ”
But it was those illusions that fueled his imagination. “I had no concept of touring or anything like that,” he says. “I would see a flyer for Black Flag or a new Descendents album and it was like it just materialized out of nowhere. Communication was not that good.”
Like many white suburban punks, Finn was hypnotized by hardcore’s mixture of the raging and the trivial, which laid the groundwork for the band’s weird mix of earnest storytelling and distancing irony. “The interesting thing to me about hardcore in the late ’80s is how worked up these guys would get,” he says. “Take a band like Youth of Today. That guy was just enraged and it was all about the scene and backstabbing and your crew versus my crew, all these kind of minor things, and they would get so furious. That’s why hardcore appealed to me more than metal. I don’t think you can be truly angry and play 64th notes.”
His fans, on the other hand, expect still more dysfunction. “Some people are disappointed when they meet me, that I’m not more fucked up,” Finn says. “They really want me to be more like the characters.”