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Craig Finn on The Hold Steady’s many forms of storytelling

 A black-and-white photo of six men in casual dress looking at the camera, which is using a fisheye lens effect.
The Hold Steady
Craig Finn and The Hold Steady went big for their 20th year as a band, with a new album, book and tour.

The Hold Steady are stepping into their 20th year of existence in a bunch of big ways.

The release of their newest album (and ninth full-length), The Price of Progress, was delivered to fans this past spring, for starters. And was that celebratory enough? Nope. The band is also gearing up to send out a book in July: The Gospel of The Hold Steady: How a Resurrection Really Feels, co-written by the band and Michael Hann. The book features stories both from The Hold Steady and some of their favorite writers, plus a ton of photos to go along with those tales.

The band maxed things out even more with a slew of tour dates, including three just down the road in Chicago: June 30 and July 1 at the Salt Shed, and July 2 at the iconic Empty Bottle. Just in case they needed any confirmation of fans’ excitement, all three shows sold out.

Anyone who’s been a fan of vocalist and guitarist Craig Finn’s past work in indie rock band Lifter Puller and now The Hold Steady (not to forget his excellent solo stuff) will connect the dots and admit the book is a no-brainer and probably overdue. His songs, after all, are pieces of literature — stories with central characters who grapple, struggle and try to iron out the big question-wrinkles of life.

The Price of Progress’ story-songs like “Sideways Skull” and “Grand Junction” (shared on the 88Nine airwaves in recent months) are brimming with life while sporting a slight air of defeat. They’re played in the key of American, beer-swilling rock ‘n’ roll: golden, bubbly and a little bitter.

Just before the album was released, Finn stated, “These are some of the most cinematic songs in The Hold Steady catalog, and the record was a joy to make. I feel like we went somewhere we haven’t before, which is a very exciting thing for a band that is two decades into our career.”

I caught up with Finn right before the band heads to Chicago this weekend. He talks about the tour, writing and, of course, throws a baseball metaphor into the mix.

Hey Craig, thanks for taking the time to talk about what's going on with you right now. You've got lots of cool things to look forward to, and one of those is a pair of sold-out shows at The Salt Shed in Chicago and one at The Empty Bottle as well. Congrats! That's the closest you all come to Milwaukee, but it's pretty darn close. What's your fave memory of playing in Chicago?

We’ve had amazing shows in Chicago throughout our career. I think we’ve played all the major clubs and even recorded a live record at Metro when we were on tour with Art Brut in 2007, on Halloween. But for some reason the one that sticks out to me is 2009 at Taste of Randolph Street, which was a massive free event where people seemed especially excited. A very fun night.

The Empty Bottle is one of my favorite venues of all time (if not my favorite). What's your relationship to that particular venue, and what does it mean for you, personally, to play there?

Our relationship with the Empty Bottle goes way back to the 1990s, when my first band, Lifter Puller, played there a number of times. Bruce and everyone who works there have always been super-supportive, and I’m super happy we’ve been able to continue playing there with [The Hold Steady], as well as their other clubs, Thalia Hall and Salt Shed. It’s been cool to see the empire grow over the years!

How often do you get back to Minnesota these days (I see you're headed there for their State Fair in September)? What are a couple former Edina or Minneapolis haunts that formed who you are in a crucial way?

We play Minnesota roughly once a year, and it’s always a thrill to be back. I don’t have any family that lives there anymore, but it’s still home and always will be.

As far as places, nothing in the world compares to First Avenue, which is the greatest rock club in the world. I started going there the summer after eighth grade, and I’ve seen all my formative shows there: the Replacements, Husker Du and so many, many more. There are a lot of great places in Minneapolis, but that’s far and away the best.

Which band or artist from that mid-2000s era do you miss and wish would make a comeback so you can tour together (or just see them play)?

We did a tour with The Constantines, a Canadian band, in 2005. We were blown away by them every night, and I’d love to see that band again. The tour was long and grueling, but every night they were amazing. One of the most underrated bands I can think of.

What's a valuable lesson you can say you've taken away in these 20 years of being in a dedicated group like this?

I think just showing up is a huge thing. Being persistent and working hard. It’s like baseball — you don’t win every night, but if you start to take two out of every three, things are looking up. I’m a bit prone to baseball metaphors, but I think this one is true.

While writing the new record, did any of the songs take a surprise turn, lyrically? 

“Carlos is Crying” is a song that I didn’t come into the studio with a ton of lyrics for, and the ones I had mostly set the scene. But then I came up with the idea of a grown man breaking down in tears, and his friends being uncomfortable and not knowing what to say. That seemed like a place a rock-and-roll song doesn’t usually go.

You've mentioned that The Price of Progress is "ten narrative rock-and-roll songs about people trying to survive in this modern age." Have any fans reached out to you to share their own stories of struggle (not necessarily to be incorporated into a song, but just to share what they're going through)?

This happens all the time, since we started the band, and it’s a very nice thing to know that you’re getting through to people and sometimes even helping. Mostly they just say thank you for helping without going into details, but I think a lot of our songs acknowledge that people struggle with mental health all the time, and that it is normal and part of being human.

For your forthcoming book, you team up with Michael Hann. How much of your own writing time and creativity were devoted to this project?

This book was a massive undertaking. Even though it was an oral history, there was a ton of work to be done on photo editing, layout and deciding the overall tone for the book. I really love how it looks and feel,s but it wasn’t easy to get there.

Your two Salt Shed shows are with The Mountain Goats and Dillinger Four. What can fans who have their tickets lined up expect for that night, with that crew in mind?

We just played a show in Austin with The Mountain Goats, and they sounded amazing. I haven’t seen D4 in a bit, but they are some of our oldest friends. Remarkably, though, we’ve never played on the same bill with them. These are two of our favorite bands, and it promises to be an amazing few shows with them.

88Nine Music Director | Radio Milwaukee