Craig Finn is wandering around outside his Brooklyn apartment, praying his cell phone's reception holds while admiring the rare winter sun that's put a little kick in his step today. His post-punk rock band, the Hold Steady, have become local celebrities since he moved here four years ago; even the Village Voice graced the cover of their hallowed weekly with the band's 30-ish mugs. But being a major metropolitan city's resident "it" band ain't all it's cracked up to be. In fact, it's why Finn ended up in the Big Apple in the first place.
"We were really popular in Minneapolis," he says of his previous incarnation as the front man of hard-rock indie heroes Lifter Puller. In 2000, the band collectively realized none of its members were willing to ante up for another album and tour; they dissolved, and Finn took off for a mythical place called New York City to join Lifter guitarist Tad Kubler, who already lived there. His motivation was simple: "I definitely didn't want to be the guy who used to be in Lifter Puller, walking around a small town."
If that's not reason enough, consider how goddamn depressing a musical scene can be that aspires to nothing more than boozing and, if it fits into the drinking regimen, playing live. Finn might be able to call Hüsker Dü and the Replacements local bands back home, but the real local bands--the ones you've never heard of for good reasons--never really got what it took to make it. "With Lifter Puller, we worked hard," he says, "but that was the exception more than the norm. In Minneapolis, it wasn't even cool to try. It's kind of like eighth grade or something--if you get good grades, you're a nerd. If you really went after something, it almost felt like you were halfway cheating."
The move to Brooklyn quickly saw Finn reunited with Kubler; there, they recruited Galen Polivka (bass), Franz Nicolay (keys) and Bobby Drake (drums) into what--judging by their ethnically diverse names--could either be the roster of a European soccer club or the disposition of a band called Hold Steady. Their debut release The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me sounds a lot like something that would make those end-of-year lists such as "The Number One Album You Didn't Hear in 2004"--which it did, topping even Rolling Stone and Spin's coveted countdowns. The irony, of course, is that means nobody except the scenesters the album relentlessly attacks were listening. Too bad, too, considering how ridiculously fun Finn's half-sung/half-shouted lyrics really are; to call him a singer is inaccurate, since he sounds a lot more like Elvis Costello would after gargling with asbestos. Nevertheless, his snarky character sketches play out with a lyrical clarity that indie rock probably doesn't know what to make of (just ask Stephen Malkmus).
"Almost Killed Me was more of a party album," Finn explains--this, when it comes time to figure out why the Hold Steady's second album Separation Sunday is, despite the accolades heaped onto their first outing, just...better. "The lyrics were really written off the cuff, a lot of times." Consider the party-starter "Knuckles": "I've been trying to get people to call me Freddy Knuckles/People keep calling me Right Said Fred/I've been trying to get people to call me Freddie Mercury/People keep calling me Drop Dead Fred."
"It wasn't as developed as Separation Sunday, lyrically," Finn continues. "I think the idea was really this sort of party record, which is why I think all the drinking and drugs came up on that one. But it's not autobiographical per se. Most of the characters are composites of people I've known or have been around, especially in my late teens and early 20s. When you grow up in the suburbs, getting your drivers license is this monumental thing because suddenly the world is so much smaller. So a lot of the characters are people or types of people who populated my life in the few years after I got my license and had this newfound freedom."
In other words, Almost Killed Me is the loser chronicle of that strange all-ages crowd you'll find in any town--the skaters, ravers and youthful malcontents that get drunk on Boone's and huff in Kmart parking lots. In fact, a few troubled characters make repeat appearances in Separation Sunday, conspiring to turn the album into that most dreaded of musical misadventures: "I wouldn't call it a concept album because, personally, when I think of concept records I think of Rush and Styx, but I don't think it would be unfair to call it that," Finn concedes. That's because Sunday is an epic of lost youth, a junky crusade for the redemption of a girl named Hallelujah, an album in novel form...or is it the other way around? Either way, Jerry Stahl's coffee table would look mighty nice holding Sunday up.
Hallelujah (or Holly) is a confused Catholic girl with some pretty naughty habits, we learn: "It's not like she's enslaved/It's more like she's enthralled/She don't need it, but she likes it," Finn narrates in "Charlemagne in Sweatpants." Every sort of miscreant pops up as copious amounts of drugs are consumed, a modern-day John the Baptist armed with nitrous tanks dunks her head in a river, and she's born again--spiritually or physically. Probably both.
Now 34, Finn finds some relief in the timing of his success. "It's different than having this kind of thing happen when you're 21," he says. "I know that if I'd sold out two nights at the Bowery Ballroom when I was 21, I would've been an insufferable person. What I do think is that, when you're in your mid-30s, there's a musical perspective. Understanding what underground rock meant before Kurt Cobain or the Internet--that's something. That makes a difference."
If having a critically lauded album wasn't enough, Finn has also popped up on fellow Minneapolis native P.O.S.'s sophomore album Audition. The song "Safety in Speed (Heavy Metal)" opens with the singer's trademark speak-sing: "I've only walked out of one single movie/It was an action-adventure/The posters in the lobby of the theater called it Predator/I called it weak and unwatchable/Carl Weathers and two future governors."
"P.O.S is a kid I've known forever," Finn says. "I've always been interested in the hip-hop scene in Minneapolis; Brother Ali and Atmosphere are the other two I'm friendly with. You know, I'm always really jealous of the hip-hop dudes, 'cause they have no equipment."
Does this mean there's a possible foray into rap in the future for speak-singing Finn, perhaps a full-length album? "I don't know if it would be a hip-hop album per se, but something created in the same manner--with beats, a really repetitive thing rather than instruments," he admits. "I have so much stuff. I write all the time. So I have to start putting out some stuff with all these words I have, these notebooks."
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