If you know anything about the Hold Steady, the indie-rock hybrid with one foot in Minneapolis and one in Brooklyn, you know that many of their songs are about drugs and alcohol and partying as those things might be experienced by a practicing Catholic. And so you might expect me, when I show up at the Pencil Factory in Greenpoint, to find the front man, Craig Finn, finishing off sixteen shots of turpentine in nostalgic celebration of his favorite birthday, and Tad Kubler, the lead guitarist, doing lines in the bathroom. You might expect to find pimps beating up black-eyed whores while the whores dance and recite half-remembered lines from Revelation and pregnant chicks bullying me into smoking cigarettes with them.
In fact, I do find Kubler at the bar, but he’s drinking a mild greyhound. It isn’t quite the traditional cocktail hour, so he seems apologetic. “A lot has been made of our lifestyle,” he says preemptively, “but it’s blown a little out of proportion.”
Finn comes straight from the airport wearing a new Twins cap and looking a bit defeated by an encounter with modern American air travel.
“How was your flight?” Kubler asks him.
Finn shrugs. “Fine once it left. Only an hour late.”
Don’t confuse these guys with their characters.
Finn and Kubler are consummate professionals who have built their reputations on dissipation and debauchery. They started the Hold Steady to play the kind of rock and roll they loved at a time when a very different sound dominated the scene. Their music is loud, raucous, and fun, but the stories they tell ache of desperation and loneliness. Their broad anthems are about small-bit players. And their sound, which is hard to pin down, confused by some for indie punk and by others for arena rock, obscures the universality of their appeal.
The Hold Steady’s debut album, Almost Killed Me, was released in 2004. The five-piece band was formed in Brooklyn after Finn and Kubler folded up Lifter Puller, their successful Minneapolis group, and left for the East Coast. At that time, moody, atmospheric rock bands like Interpol and the Strokes dominated the indie scene. Finn and Kubler wanted to play the kind of music they’d grown up on, though that sound was out of vogue. “We started the band to have fun and play the music we loved to listen to,” said Kubler. Their intention was to noodle some strings and drink a few beers.
Instead, they found success. They released albums, toured, and received massive critical praise from the old guard (Rolling Stone) and the new (Pitchfork). They capture the experiences of a restless and drug-fueled youth culture, and that makes their songs relatable to many of their fans. They’ve gained a loyal following.
“Boys and Girls in America and records previous dealt with characters who were young adults,” Finn told me, referring to their third release. “Seventeen to 23, say. Which is a fun age, because you’re smart enough to make things happen but dumb enough to make the wrong decisions around every corner.”
But the Hold Steady aren’t U2, and they aren’t Coldplay. Finn’s lyrics don’t feature the kind of generalities that make for a Top 40 hit. His stories are set in a specific time and place, and concern conflicts with which the majority of Hold Steady fans will never have firsthand experience. In “How a Resurrection Really Feels,” one of Finn’s recurring characters, a lost soul named Holly, crashes into a church on Easter Sunday—“limping left on broken heels”—to declare to the congregation that while druggy parties might have killed her, visions and saints have resurrected her. It’s a strange tale.
Yet like the best storytellers, Finn makes the experience accessible. He draws his characters vividly and sympathetically, so that even if you can’t locate yourself in the song, you always understand the emotion involved, the struggle and the pathos. It only takes compassion to extrapolate a kinship with some very bedraggled characters. His songs never fail to resonate despite their lovely idiosyncrasy, and his scope is remarkable for how rooted his stories are in the particular.
Those stories play out within the guitar-centric sound of a rock band in the classic mode. The band has referenced several influences in songs—Bruce Springsteen, Led Zeppelin. Yet a classic-rock pigeonhole doesn’t take into account their incorporation of the scrappy indie-trailblazer sound (bands like the Replacements and Hüsker Dü), nor the raplike aspects of Finn’s songwriting style and delivery. Despite guitar licks and solos straight off an 8-track, there is a gloriously sloppy punk ethos that courses through the best of their songs. They manage to make the populist instinct of wailing on a guitar okay for the indie crowd, while infusing it with the genuine indie impulses that stem from hard-core punk and rap. The result is a big anthemic treat.