Q&A with Craig Finn

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Through eight years and five albums the Hold Steady have earned themselves a reputation as the go-to act for big, broad rock anthems and life affirmation via power chords. Recently front man Craig Finn used some downtime between Hold Steady endeavors to record a solo album, Clear Hearts, Full Eyes (Vagrant), that's considerably more subdued and introspective than anything he's done with either the Hold Steady or his previous band, Lifter Puller. Finn's first solo tour comes to the Empty Bottle tonight. Last Thursday, the day after the first show of the tour, he and I talked on the phone. Hit the jump to see our conversation.

You just played your first show of the tour. How did it go?

We had our first show last night in Austin, which was really fun. It was like the dudes in the band, all of their bands played—all of their normal bands. They put together that show because we were leaving on tour, kind of a fun thing, and then I said, "Well if you guys are gonna do that, let's play first."

What's it like playing with this new batch of guys? The Hold Steady's been going on for such a long time.

Yeah I think it's 100 percent—well, not 100 percent, but a lot of the motivation for this is that the Hold Steady's been together for so long and we're all such good friends and it's really fun but you fall into habits, good and bad. We do things this way. We got a little break last year and I was like, You know, I wouldn't mind doing something quieter—and also just push myself outside. Music on some level is communication, and to try to communicate with different people is kind of a challenge. It's intimidating on one level but sort of what I'm going after for this project and tour.

It seems like the solo album, you're kind of moving into different territory not only sonically but emotionally as well.

Yeah, well, the volume is so much different. Just playing at a much lower volume allows you to creatively get more vulnerable and maybe more personal too. With the Hold Steady it's big guitars and drums and everything and real anthemic and all that. So the lyrics are matched up and made more cinematic, I think. So on this I didn't feel like people had to get shot or fall off a roof or anything. [It's] kind of everyday stories about more mundane things.

I've always considered your lyric writing, there's always been a really heavy novelistic aspect to it. One of the things you share with novelists is this sort of evolution from big, flashy stories to more subdued, more intimate and smaller stories.

Yeah, or less cinematic. The song "Rented Room" is about a guy just sitting in this room thinking about how he ended up in this rented room. But there's not much beyond that. It's a mundane, everyday thing and an examination of these details.

The solo project is kind of based out of Austin. What led to that?

The big thing is that I love Austin and I've always had fun when I went there. I have several really good friends there. But I think the big thing was that I was trying to figure out how to make this record and I had talked to a few people. I had [producer] Mike McCartney in mind, and as we started talking it became obvious that he was the right guy. And he lives and works down there, and he was like, "I'll put a band together for you." That made it really attractive. That kind of defined it.

I met the guys from the band for the first time on the first day of recording. As it went along it became a really cool thing and I was really excited about the results. When I put together the touring band, not all of the guys on the record were available, but I decided that I really wanted to keep it based in Austin because it really kind of lived there spiritually for me.

I was sort of picking up on some vintage country influences on the album.

I think real straight songwriter stuff like Townes Van Zandt or even Warren Zevon or Randy Newman were really what I was listening to a lot going into it. Mike said, "I'm really hearing a lot of pedal steel on this," and Ricky, who's on tour with me now, played pedal steel a lot and that really brought in this country influence. I think that the interesting thing about country music is that the forms are pretty basic. So as a lyricist you have this fairly standard thing to work around. It rarely goes into this real surprising break or anything. As a lyricist it's really a fun challenge. It seems to put lyrics up front.

So the tour is being booked in smaller venues than you've been playing on the past couple of Hold Steady tours. Are you looking forward to scaling things down?

Yeah. I think it's a challenge. We're driving around in a van, and we've been in buses with the Hold Steady for a while. Part of this whole thing was to make myself uncomfortable and see what results we get. So I'm really looking forward to it.

Obviously with the lower volume there's a different level of communication and connection that can take place. I don't think at a Hold Steady show we're ever going to have to deal with chatter. People can't really talk over us. Meanwhile with the solo stuff people aren't going to be throwing beer in the air and climbing all over each other or moshing or whatever. It's a different energy. It's going to be a challenge, to be quite frank, but it's a challenge I'm looking forward to.

Have you succeeded in making yourself uncomfortable yet?

Yeah, I mean, I really succeeded. When I made the record I left for Austin on July 5, and I remember July 4 I came home from a party and I was lying in bed because I had an early flight the next morning and I was like, "What am I doing? This is scary." I knew that Mike had put together a really strong band of really good players—and to go up there with my shaky guitar hands, because I'm not a very accomplished player, trying to show them these songs. There were looking at me, nodding, and I was like, oh my God. They get up and they play it and it's like yeah, you guys got it. When you put yourself in these uncomfortable situations and it works you really get a lot of confidence out of them.

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