Interview: Craig Finn talks Hold Steady anniversary, Seth Meyers, and his new solo record We All Want The Same Things
Craig Finn may have spent years as the bar-band king of The Hold Steady and Lifter Puller, but the Minneapolis son has always primarily been a songwriter. Finn releases his third solo record, We All Want The Same Things, this Friday, March 24th, and it’s an exercise in both eloquent lyrical imagery and textured melodic phrasing. It’s only been a short while since his last solo outing, 2015’s Faith In The Future, but Finn has kept busy writing like he always does best: Pulling apart his specific characters and the exact moments from their daily life to tell a grander story. Whether it’s hanging in the park drinking dark Bacardi, fumbling through the jitterbug, or waiting on a savior to come, Finn writes slice of life epics that bring you with him.
His US tour with Japandroids ended a couple days ago, but I got a chance to sit down with him before their show at Union Transfer last month. We spoke about his thought process going into the new record, his residency with the house band on Late Night With Seth Meyers, the Boys And Girls In America anniversary shows, and more. Finn will be returning to Philadelphia this Saturday to play a free in-store performance at Main Street Music, open to fans who pre-order his new record. Read our conversation below.
The Key: How’ve you been?
Craig Finn: I’ve been good. We went back through New York for the weekend, and that’s weird to go back home in the middle of a tour. We did one week and then came back to New York, and that makes it hard to stay in tour mode. It started Monday the 13th, so we’re 11 days in.
TK: And playing with Japandroids, that’s pretty cool. I saw you open for Titus Andronicus here about a year ago.
CF: Easter Sunday, that’s right.
TK: So what’s your band setup for this tour? How many of you are there?
CF: There’s three plus me. For the Titus tour it was only a three piece, but now we have another guitar player. We call this band the Uptown Comptrollers, without him we called it the Vineyard Youth. This is the full rock band, it’s something that can hang with Japandroids, even though I won’t say we’re as loud as them. It is more of something we can put on bigger stages.
TK: No piano?
CF: It’s funny, the new record that’s going to come out (We All Want The Same Things) has a fair amount of piano. In a perfect world, we would have the horns and everything.
TK: Well your last solo record had a lot of that too.
CF: Yeah, and this one is even more lush. That’s the challenge of bringing this on the road and playing it for people in a way that makes sense. But it’s cool, it’s a rock band and in some cases we’re doing versions of the songs on the record and then we’ll do straight up rock songs.
TK: And you’re playing some of the older stuff too?
CF: Yeah, we’re playing songs from all 3 solo records. If we’re playing nine songs, we’ll probably do three, three, and three.
TK: I’ve only heard “Preludes” so far, but I like that one a lot.
CF: Yeah, we’ve been doing that song every night.
TK: So how has your songwriting process changed? Has it been pretty much the same or different going into this one?
CF: Well it’s gotten different as I’ve gotten older. With the solo stuff, in general I feel like i can write about stuff that is a little more mundane or smaller. More specific and vulnerable. I mean, the Hold Steady was so big so we had to have big things happen. So this stuff becomes more reflective. And since I’ve gotten older, I’ve been interested in older characters. So the people in the songs are people in adulthood.
TK: Verses drinking in bars and so forth.
CF: Yeah, right. People are still drinking, but I think its a little more about people that are stuck and trying to fit into the world.
TK: So still character based. Speaking of that, I had a more specific question. You had a song on your last record, “Sandra From Scranton”, and i’m from Scranton and thought, “Who sings about Scranton?” I’m just curious [laughs].
CF: I went there and we did a radio show there, and I think that was maybe why I was thinking of Scranton. And I never knew them, but my relatives on my mom’s mom’s side were from Wilkes-Barre. So I thought about that area, and thought it also sounds good, you know? “Sandra from Scranton.” And that story is taking place in a big city, so it felt like someone who moved to a big city and had a big 20’s and maybe even a big 30’s but the move wasn’t enough anymore. I feel like that’s where a lot of these characters are at. You can move and go to somewhere that can sustain your interests for a while but then you end up on the other side of it. Maybe having a lot of good restaurants and bars around isn’t enough anymore.
TK: So then you move to a new place.
CF: Yeah, or you stay there and think it’s all changed. And you’re just not excited about it anymore.
TK: So the new record, I read somewhere that it’s thematically influenced by our current political situation. Is that correct?
CF: Sort of. I mean, the songs are not necessarily political, but they are character studies. When I went to look for a title for the record, I was looking at the lyrics and saw that line. I thought that’s a good title for a record because we live in such divided times. I thought there was a dark comedy to it, but we do all want the same things. We want safety, security, happiness, food and nourishment. The characters in these stories, they’re not just people trying to get ahead, they’re just trying to get by. I thought that there are a lot of people out there that are like that. I thought about it in a political sense, these stories are about people that are unremarkable in some way. And a lot of these people, they may not have voted the same way as I did. I also think they are the exact people that might be affected by changes in health care. I don’t want to say these are people on the margins, they’re sort of the mainstream, but they’re not comfortable.
TK: Gotcha. So you were in the house band for Late Night With Seth Meyers‘ recently, how was that?
CF: That was amazing. It was nice to have somewhere to go to work everyday. And it was Rockefeller Center at Christmas, so that was cool. It was fun, Fred Armisen has been a friend of mine for a long time. We’ve known each other since around 1994. And Seth, I’ve known him for a bit, he’s a big Hold Steady fan so we’ve hung out a bunch. It’s a pleasure, everyone on the show is a lot of fun, and I really enjoyed the energy of building something each day. You come up with all the music that day. They don’t license anything, so you compose it and then go out and play it. And there’s the whole build up to the show, which is taped but kind of done live. They want it to go live, but you do have that safety net. It was nice building that everyday, and then you go home and do it over the next day.
TK: I saw you recently did a podcast with Seth as well?
CF: Yeah, for the Talkhouse, we were both on. He’s a really smart guy, and I’m very interested in his take on things. It’s really fascinating. He seems to really understand these times in a way. That was really fun.
TK: So composing this new record, the Hold Steady was very much a rock band in the classic sense. You got two guitars, drums bass, playing loud. But the solo stuff is more, I would say composed but the Hold Steady stuff was also very composed, but on this you have more orchestration, you said “lush”…could you describe that a little more?
CF: Yeah, well a lot of the time what I’m trying to do with the solo stuff is put my voice against different tones and different feelings. The Hold Steady is a big loud rock band and I love doing that and it’s a real blessing but it’s not how I always feel. Im 45 now, and I’m now trying to create something thats more in line with how I feel in the world each day. And also as a lyricist, when you play in a big loud rock band, you’re fighting a little bit to get the stuff across. Especially in the live setting, you’re really pushing. You go into a big rock show, you don’t really expect to hear all the words. So if you’re seeing a new band you don’t think, “Oh, I really understood those words.” You just think, “Oh wow, it was fucking loud and it was awesome.” And for the most part, I just wrote lyrics for the Hold Steady, so it is nice to work on a quieter thing and put these stories first. That’s whats nice about the solo thing for me.
TK: Speaking of that, could you tell me about the Boys And Girls In America anniversary shows?
CF: Those were really fun. We did four shows in Brooklyn and it was fun to get everyone together, the shows went really well. We had Franz (Nicolay) back on piano, but also we had Steve (Selvidge) who had came in after him and became this huge musical and spiritual part of the Hold Steady, so it was great to have them both there for the first time. I think it was the best lineup of the Hold Steady yet. They were really well attended, they sold out and people came from around the world, New Zealand and Norway. It was a great celebration. We will do more shows, we just don’t have any booked at the moment. I think what we did that weekend made me think that’s the best thing for us to do. Everyones older, some of them aren’t into touring right now, there’s kids and stuff, so if we could choose weekends and just come into a city and do multiple shows, without moving around, we could make things special. Like, we’re going to play all these different songs over three nights so people wont get bored if they come to more than one. Make it really special and fun rather than keep going around and circles and playing and playing and playing. There’s fatigue that comes with that. That’s a better place for the Hold Steady right now.
TK: Definitely, so what’s going on for you going forward?
CF: I mean, I really like touring, so I hope to tour through the year with this record but also with whatever comes up for the Hold Steady, and just work and keep making songs and playing them.
TK: What’s your relationship with Philadelphia like?
CF: Well XPN itself has been massively supportive of both the Hold Steady and myself, and I’ve had a lot of good times down here. This town has always come out big for the Hold Steady, and we’ve played XPoNential Fest before. I think there was one big storm during it a couple years ago that was very memorable. Those have felt really big. And i really love Union Transfer. We’ve played everywhere from the Khyber Pass to XPoNential to the Troc, but I love playing here. And Philly is so close to New York, it feels like were barely away from home. Its always been really supportive.
Craig Finn’s We All Want The Same Things is out this Friday, March 24th, via Partisan Records. To see him in-store at Main Street Music on Saturday, follow the link here.