On a recent episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, Peter chatted with Craig Finn of the band The Hold Steady, who has a new solo album out, “We All Want the Same Things.” The two discussed the difference between being big in Minneapolis and being big in New York, and the challenges of making a living as a musician in the post-Napster era.
You can read some of the highlights from the interview at the link above, or listen to it in the audio player below. We’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka, that’s me. It’s powered by Digital Media, that is a real company with a funny name. I’m here with Craig Finn. Welcome, Craig.
Craig Finn: Hey, thanks for having me.
You are the very first rock star I’ve had on this podcast. You are also the only rock star that I went to junior high school with. I think those two things are connected.
Rock star is a big word. I don’t know how I feel about it.
I was going to say working musician, but rock star sounds cooler.
Working musician. Rock musician is probably accurate as well.
You are a professional musician. You play music for a living.
That is true. That is true.
That’s pretty awesome.
That is good. Yeah. It’s something that came late. It did not come until I was in The Hold Steady, which is a band I started when I was 31, and didn’t happen probably until I was 33, 34. There’s something to be said for persistence.
There’s something for persistence, and the degree of difficulty gets harder for musicians period, right? I think in 2017, making a living in music is even tougher. I want to talk about all of that. I also wanted to talk about the fact that you have a new album out. It’s called ...
"We All Want the Same Things".
We’re going to time this, hopefully, so this will come out around the same time it’s coming out, because you want press around an album. I’m going to ask you a bunch of dumb questions. Here’s the first one. Why in 2017 does it matter when an album comes out, and what kind of press push you get, if I’m going to listen to it on Spotify whenever?
It might not, but there’s part of it that’s rooted in how I think of music. I always feel like I need to pull together 10 or 12 songs to make kind of a grand statement, and that’s because I grew up listening to albums. That’s how I think.
It’s vestigial, sort of.
Yeah, that’s how I think of things, and it’s important. I think you can release singles, but I also think that sort of the press push and all that, even something as simple as hiring a publicist. If you had one song, are you going to hire a publicist to tell the world about the song and go around and do all the interviews? I think it’s a matter of putting something together and then going out. An album still feels, to me, like the right amount of songs together.
Because you grew up listening to albums, you still think of them as the way to make music?
Yeah, even sequencing the record. I think of, “Oh, that’s a great song for the beginning of Side Two.” Younger people probably won’t think that way, but I’m probably going to think that way until the end.
When you sit down and listen to music, do you listen to albums all the way through, or are you a playlist guy?
Both, but I do listen to albums. For new music, I kind of create these shuffles, like I’ll drag a bunch of new albums, and I’ll listen to them on shuffle on my headphones when I’m on the train or whatever, but at home I’ll put on albums.
Yeah. Are you a vinyl guy?
I am a vinyl guy.
Yeah, you’re that guy.
There’s a little bit of a ... With New York real estate, there’s a little bit of an argument over how much vinyl is allowed in our apartment. It’s not much currently, but it’s already kind of getting to the end.
There’s a space issue. There’s also a how do you actually play music in a New York City apartment, right?
Yeah, I have this weird ... Someone gifted me one of those 1958 RCA console stereos, like your grandma might have. I thought it was cool. I mentioned I thought they were cool. Then all of a sudden one showed up again.
It’s cool, and especially records from that era sound amazing on it.
I used to write about music more often, and I would go to some record label ... At some point, I wasn’t writing about the songs or the albums, I was writing about the business, but inevitably someone would say, “Hey, come in here and listen to this.” There was always this ritual where they would come in and play something on a giant speaker at a super loud volume. There was this whole thing we had to sort of nod your head appreciatively no matter whether you liked it or not, which I thought was funny. I always thought no one that I know listens to music on giant speakers at giant volumes. No one can do that.
No. I listen to so much of my music on the train. I’ve been in those. I’ve visited people at major labels. It’s always major labels that do that. That is the most awkward transaction I think I’ve ever been in. Are you supposed to ...
Can you talk? Are you supposed to talk? Are you not talking? They should ban that.
Are they still doing it?
I don’t know. I don’t think so. I haven’t been in one of those offices in a long time. I don’t know. Those companies obviously are not thriving. I don’t know if they still do that. Maybe they got rid of those people.
I was asking this question with Beth before you came in, my producer. You still use labels, right? You’re not self-publishing?
Yeah, I’m on an indie label out of Brooklyn called Partisan Records.
Partisan Records, that’s for this album? Then what about The Hold Steady, which is your day job?
Then the last one ... The Hold Steady was on Vagrant for many years, the last record was on Razor and Tie, but we haven’t had a record in a while, so the next one will be on something, or if there are ...
For my continuing series of dumb questions, The Hold Steady is still a thing. You’re going to go back to that?
Yeah, The Hold Steady, we didn’t play for 18 months, and then we played a few shows in September and then four in Brooklyn in December. I think that that will be for the near future probably the model, try to find cities to play multiple shows in, rather than go on an exhaustive tour.
A lot of people are older and a lot of people ... maybe not everyone has as much energy towards rock and roll as I do.
The band or the audience, or both?
Both actually. Both, and you think of it that way, I think the audience is older. Our biggest record was “Boys and Girls in America,” which was 2006. If you were 23, 24 when you got into that record, you’re now 34. You might be in a different place. You go on a big six-week tour, you got to play somewhere on Monday night. You’re in Kansas City on Monday night, and your fans who are now 34 are like, “Oh God, I got to be at work Tuesday morning, and I’ve got two kids now.” I think in the near future to me it makes more sense to say, “Hey, we’re going to pick a major American city and play three shows there Thursday, Friday, Saturday.”
Because we know we’ve got enough people who can get babysitting.
People can maybe, and if we put them on sale in advance enough ... When we did the Brooklyn shows, I met people from New Zealand, people from Norway. People traveled for it, and it was really special. It made it more special than, “Oh, they’re going to come around every six months.”
Not only are your fan bases in these cities, but they’re near airports. People can fly in to see you. How cool is that?
Yeah, and I look at our audience, and they look pretty employed. I think people were excited to come to Brooklyn, for people who traveled. This is a great place, great reason. Who knows? Maybe you put it in Chicago, and it’s the same weekend the Cubs are in town or something like that. You can get people traveling and be a part of something, because it’s not just about the band. It’s about the fans coming together, too.
I went to junior high school with you.
Yeah, and Countryside maybe elementary, too.
That sounds right, yeah.
Yeah, I went one year there, because I was at Highlands before. We moved over to Countryside.
Yeah. Countryside Elementary. Taking the kids back there in a couple weeks. Going to do some sledding. I remember running into you at a house party in Minneapolis after college. Everyone in Minneapolis after college or that age, early 20s, was in a band. I said, “Craig, what are you doing?” “I’m in a band.” Of course you’re in a band. I just shrugged, because everyone’s in a band. It turns out you were in what became a really big band, Lifter Puller.
Big in Minneapolis.
Big in Minneapolis, but the big band in Minneapolis, which is a reasonably sized city, so you were a reasonably sized deal. That was up through basically the end of the music business, up through the late ’90s.
Yeah. Lifter Puller broke up in 2000, and I moved to New York maybe a month later. I do remember, because when I moved to New York, I worked with this company called Digital Club Network, which was a webcasting company.
It’s part of eMusic, right?
Yeah, eventually. It was bought by the same people, Dimensional Capital. When I was there, things like the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were happening. That really felt like the last gasp of the music industry. That’s when you still had people getting big deals and buying records and things like that.
Right, but as we know, looking back, the music industry peaked in ’99, 2000 because of Napster. The idea that you could make a living making albums and getting an advance and getting royalties theoretically on a record, that was pretty much gone five years after that.
Yeah, absolutely. Even now, a big advance would still be not much more than the cost of making a record. It’s kind of like the fishbowl ...
The cost of making a record keeps going down, too.
Yeah, you can make a record for next to nothing now. I feel like music is one of those things ... the fish kind of expands to the size of the bowl. If you got $100,000 to make a record, somehow it costs $99,000.
That’s what you’ll spend. Where I was getting at was when you first got into music in a big way, there was a theoretical path to having a traditional music career. Then your second version, which was The Hold Steady where you really got big, that sort of had gone away by then. Had you thought through, “All right, is this going to be a living, or is this going to be something I do for fun?”
Yeah. A lot of people are excited or ask about this one moment, when did you get to quit your job? The answer is you become unemployable first. You’re always on tour. You can’t come back to your job because you’ve missed too much.
Yeah, because you launched The Hold Steady, it was a big deal, and you still had this day job with Digital Club Network. I remember running into you there or somewhere.
Yeah, and so eventually it was like, “Can I go on tour?” “Sure.” “Can I go on tour?” “Sure.” “Can I go on tour?” “Maybe this isn’t right.” There’s that, so it’s a leap of faith, but you also are like, “Wow, when we’re on the road, we make money and we’re self-sufficient. It’s just we can’t come home for that long.” Eventually with The Hold Steady, we put it on a salary. That lead to some stability.
If you’re in The Hold Steady, you get a check weekly or bi-weekly?
When we went on break, we don’t do that anymore.
The business model, is it all from touring primarily?
Shows, but also there’s a songwriter, there’s some publishing. That’s weird, because it’s hard to plan for, but when Budweiser takes your song and puts it in an ad, this check shows up.
You’re in a Budweiser?
I have been.
Oh, good for you.
That thing is a big part of it, too, as long as you’re the songwriter.
I used to write about this more often, but when the music industry was collapsing, there was a certain group of people, a lot of who I was talking to and writing for and technology. All the musicians were complaining about Napster and file sharing, and then eventually Spotify, any version of it. They got to get over it. They got to understand that the cost of distributing music, the marginal cost, is zero. They’ve got to find some other way. Usually they sort of shrug and say, “Go on tour,” which always seemed like an easy thing for them to say, harder for you to do. It seems like that’s actually the model you guys have.
Yeah. The other thing about touring is if you’re waiting for your check from your record label, the record store took their cut, the distributor took their cut, the label took their cut. Then they’re kind of handing you this check that you kind of have to accept whatever it is. The show, the club gives you the money, and then you pay your agent. You’re touching it first. On some level, that’s always going to be better.
You got a fairly decent sense of what that show looks like, how much that show should have made.
Yeah, yeah, and what your expenses are, whether you can afford to bring the extra crew guy, etc. The one thing about touring, though, that struck me, and this is some years into after the file sharing started, I was at a club in Indianapolis, and I looked at their calendar. The week we were playing had four great bands playing in Indianapolis that week. I thought, these rock and roll fans in Indianapolis can’t be going out all five nights a week. Everyone toured more. I feel like when I see ads for a place like B.B. King’s, I’m like, “Oh my God, that band is still touring? Are they having to?”
They have to tour. They’re competing against a million other people who are also having to tour.
Yeah, so that’s kind of scary. I noticed just the poster for Air Supply at B.B. King’s. I was like, “Wow, what does that look like? Why? Do they need to do that?”
Supposedly. I would assume they would say, “We love playing live music. We love to do this.”
Yeah, it’s one thing to do it in New York. Are they doing it in every small market in the U.S.? That would be indication that they need to do it.
You had a big band in Minneapolis. You moved to New York. Usually the trajectory is, “I’m doing whatever in Minneapolis, and I want to make it bigger, and so I moved to New York,” but you didn’t do that. You were done with music. I remember running into you and you’re like, “I’m not doing music now.”
Yeah, that was one way of putting it. I was ready to not ... Lifter Puller was big in Minneapolis, but I knew I wanted it to be more robust, and we didn’t really have a label or an agent. We were touring, but we’d go to Chicago, we’d only play for 40 people. In Minneapolis, we played for a lot of people. It didn’t feel like having some global idea, it didn’t feel like it was really connecting outside of Minneapolis. We’d done enough of that that I was like, “Well, I’ve done that.”
Yeah, so I moved to New York to sort of see what would happen, I guess, is more likely.
You thought you might pick it up again? It wasn’t that I’m done ...
I was writing songs, but I was like, “I need to figure ...” I wanted a new experience, and living in New York was that. I was married at the time. I’m not anymore. I have a girlfriend of a long time now. It was kind of like, “Are we going to buy the house and have the kid in Minneapolis, or are we going to do something else?” We decided to do something else. I was writing songs the whole time, so after a few years, it was like, “I want to play these songs.”
Something pushed you to do it, and let’s start up again.
Yeah, exactly. Actually what happened was, this guy I knew had an improv comedy group called Mr. Ass. He wanted me to put together a band. I was friends with him, and he wanted us to play covers, sort of almost bumper music. I put together a band of these guys I knew. Then he was like, “You should play your own song.” I showed him one of the songs that I had, which is called “Knuckles,” which is on the first Hold Steady record. Then we played that, and we were like, “It’s more fun to play our own music.” After we did that twice with the comedy troupe, we were like, “We’re just going to make this a band.”
We’re done being the Mr. Ass house band.
Yeah, yeah. Exactly.
I was listening to the Seth Meyers podcast he did on the way up. You were just, flashing forward, but you did a stint with him, with his band at the end of the year?
I did, yeah. Right before Christmas I sat in with the 8G Band. They usually have a guest drummer, because Fred Armisen’s the drummer. He’s rarely there. He was there that week, and they decided to have a guest vocalist. Fred, I know Fred from ’93. Lifter Puller was on the same label as Trench Mouth, his old band.
Right, because Fred Armisen’s a music guy.
Yeah, he used to sleep on our couch when he was on tour and playing in Minneapolis. He was always funny. I know some of the other guys in 8G Band, too. They had me up, and it was really fun. You compose all the music the same day, because they don’t license. They license one song a day, which would be the song I would perform. The rest is composed and ...
Your instant song, in the same way that Seth and those guys are writing monologues.
Yeah, yeah we write the songs. You come in at noon or something, and you write the songs. Then you play them. They’re short, because there’s only so much time for them. It’s really fun, and I loved the energy of, you build something all day, and then it’s over, and it’s over.
I’ve done TV with the band before. It’s always striking to me. You’re there all day to play one song when you’re a guest. You play the song, and then God, it’s over so quick. The cameras kind of roll away, and everyone’s gone. You’re out on the street with your equipment like, “What happened here?”
I really loved the energy. I wondered if it was like being a trader or something where the markets closed and you kind of are like, “It’s done for the day.”
It’s kind of like blogging, a little bit. That’s one of the reasons I like that. You write, and then you hit publish, and you’re done. It’s out.
Yeah, and then you do it the next day. That was the cool thing.
There’s no homework for it.
Seth told me that they try not to talk too much about the show after it’s done. If you’re like, “That didn’t go so well,” but then you sleep on it and you’re like, “Let’s just try to do it better today, tomorrow.”
Yeah, and also you’ve got to do a new one the next day.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. That was actually ... a friend of mine worked for Letterman for a long time. He was very influential on the way I write songs in that he was one time telling me he was annoyed by depictions of writer’s block in movies like with a blinking cursor. He was like, “My show’s going on at 11 pm. We have to try to write it.”
Letterman’s a real factor, right? Those guys are in a cubicle pounding out hundreds of things a day.
Yeah, yeah. I think so.
They literally put it in a tube, I think.
It’s like you have to try to write a show, and then try to make it good. That’s kind of how that changed my song writing. I was like, “I’m just going to block off two hours, and I’m going to write a song.”
Then it’s done.
Well, then I’m going to put it aside, and then I’ll revisit and see if it’s good. If I have something on paper — I’m sure this is like writing — if there’s something on the page, you can start moving things around. If it’s a blank page, you got nothing.
Blank page is the worst thing. I would much rather take something that someone else wrote and start monkeying with it than look at the blank screen.
Yeah, exactly. In songs, that really works.
We were talking about business models. We make some money here through our fine advertisers, so we’re going to hear from them and come right back. First up, here is my boss, Kara Swisher.
Back here with Craig Finn, who I’m not going to call a rock star. I’ll call him a working musician who has an album out. He will tell us what his album is called one more time.
“We All Want the Same Things.”
You can go buy that album?
Do you care where they buy it, by the way? Does it matter for you if they buy it at iTunes versus ... Can they buy it from your store?
What really helps musicians is there’s a preorder, and we do our preorders through Pledge Music. Anything in advance really helps, because it’s good for the first week, but I think more ends up in the artist’s pocket.
So there are two things. One is the actual economics. You’ll end up with more of that?
Yeah. Also, there’s more stuff. We offer signed vinyl. There’s test press, and there’s things to add on, which of course are helpful.
Then also you still care about where it places, or there’s momentum in charts?
I don’t say I’m hugely involved in that game, but theoretically it helps.
Yeah. I literally can’t remember the last time I bought an album. Some of it is that I’ve aged out of music in some ways. Even last year, two of my favorite bands, who again were bands that I liked in the ’90s, De La Soul and Tribe Called Quest, both had albums. That made my day, and I listened to both on Spotify.
I have guilt about it, but I didn’t buy it.
Yeah, but both those bands probably had pretty good years in other ways. It’s kind of like automation. It’s like some of these things aren’t coming back, so I don’t really think about, “Why aren’t people buying my albums?” I hope they’re enjoying the music, and that it will lead to other things. I think you have to have faith in that.
You’ve got really committed core fans, people who fly in from New Zealand. Do you sort of count on them to buy the album regardless for that same reason?
Well, you’d hope that you’re offering something that they have ... For every person that’s like, “I only listen on Spotify,” which I get, because I get it, there’s the other guy who’s like, “Why can’t I find this seven-inch that you put out in 1994? I need it. My life can’t move forward until I get it.” There’s those people, too, so there’s a mix.
Yeah. Where do you find new music? I really listen to a lot of Spotify. Spotify Discover, do you use? Are you a Spotify guy?
I’m not a Spotify guy, but I actually will listen to Napster, which is just ... a friend of mine works there.
Rhapsody owns that brand, I guess.
Yeah, but I think now they call it Napster. A friend of mine gave me a free account. Then I sort of got hooked on the interface. I don’t know, it was more intuitive to me.
I don’t know what Napster does in terms of discovery, curation. Do they have something where they present stuff to you, or you go tell them what you want?
Yeah, there probably is, but I read a lot about music still. Also, just being on the road, you see what bands are playing. You’re like, “Oh, that looks like something I’d like.”
“Let me go listen to this.”
I do kind of use that as a music discovery. I’m not usually led by them, but I am led by reviews or word of mouth. People say, “Oh, this is a cool band,” and I’ll go check it out.
Then do you have some tipping point where you’re like, “All right, if there’s two songs I like, I’ll buy the album”?
Yeah, maybe, or sometimes it’s just like I think that’s something I want. Sometimes I’ll be in the record store and be like, “I want to hear that. That looks cool.” The thing about the album, I really like the artwork and all that, but also it comes with a download card usually. You can get it on the device that you’re more likely to listen to music on.
Yeah. What is the difference between a Craig Finn album and a Hold Steady album?
The solo stuff kind of burns a little slower maybe, or burns a little less. The Hold Steady is a bigger, more rocking thing, and I’d say the solo thing is a little less big.
This one sounds kind of big to me. There’s a lot of production in it.
It’s pretty big.
It sounded pretty similar to The Hold Steady.
Yeah, this one has a lot of horns and stuff. The one thing, as far as the songwriting goes, is I pretty much just write the lyrics for The Hold Steady. We get in a room. The way songs come out is we get in a room. Tad usually has riffs. We play them, and I’m yelling into a microphone. A while later we have a song.
With this solo stuff, I’m kind of playing a guitar, and I write the song, a very simple song. Then in the past I’ve shown it to The Hold Steady guys. It’s not like, “Oh no, we don’t want that song. Put it on your solo album.” It’s more like, almost by the point of having music and lyrics together we’ve had a hard time Hold Steadifying the song. It ends up just kind of being a solo song.
I like that you used Hold Steadifying as a verb, because I wanted to use Springsteeniness as an adjective.
I understand where you’d be going with that.
That Springsteeniness that’s in The Hold Steady stuff, and I think in this album as well, that throughline, is that Tad? Is that you? Is it both of you?
Probably both of us, although if it’s on the solo record, it’s just me there.
Right, although he’s on this one as well, right?
Yeah, he does play some guitar on this. Springsteen is something, it’s like I’ve been obviously compared to a lot, because I am a huge fan. He’s a literate guy with a great backing band and a musical thing that references both new rock but also harkens back to classic rock and older rock, which is something also. The Hold Steady’s use of the piano also really kind of connected us to Springsteen, E Street band.
Yep, and some horns.
And the horns. Springsteen’s something I came to in my 20s.
I was going to ask, because I listened to Bruce Springsteen, but I listened in the same way that everyone, we’re the same age, we all listened to “Born in the USA.” At least in Minnesota, it wasn’t like you talk to people who grew up on the east coast, “I love Bruce Springsteen,” but there wasn’t that connection. We were into indie rock bands and whatever.
Yeah. I was nervous about ... I was sort of identifying as an indie rocker, like a mild punk rocker. To me, listening to Hüsker Dü and the Replacements was something that was hipper than listening to Bruce Springsteen.
Yeah, it was the conventional wisdom among the little subset of us, right?
Yeah, yeah. I don’t think Springsteen was that hip. I also was kind of mistrustful of Led Zeppelin. I sort of just burned out on indie at some point in the 20s or got more ... I don’t know. I kind of went back and folded back into really getting all the Rolling Stones records and Springsteen and Led Zeppelin.
Right, so all the stuff that we would have listened to on KQRS.
Then that got discarded, because it was old guy music.
Yeah, yeah, old guy music, but maybe then getting a copy of “Let It Bleed” and hearing the songs that they didn’t play on KQRS, like the deeper cuts, and being like, “Oh, this is actually kind of amazing.”
“Monkey Man” is an amazing song.
Right. Yeah, like “Goat’s Head Soup,” because Mick’s wearing the cape, and this real kind of decadent thing. It was just like I burned out on indie, because it at some point just got really nerdy to me.
You’ve got a bunch of songs about that, right? “Stay Positive” is about burning out on that scene.
Yeah, and also sort of wanting to do something, even though Lifter Puller was big in Minneapolis, I wanted to do something that was ... We still did weird shows at art galleries that no one knew about and were kind of deliberately not for everyone or something. I think when we started The Hold Steady, we had conversations. We wanted to be really inclusive.
Yeah, I got to say I didn’t love Lifter Puller. It was a little aggressive for me. I can admit that now.
When I heard that you had a new band I’m like, “Oh, well it’s going to be like that, so probably not for me.” When I eventually heard them, I’m like, “Oh, this is accessible.”
Yeah, it was more accessible. It was more wide open, I think, and less jagged or less spiky or something.
Yeah, that’s a good word for it.
It was reflective of what we were listening to, kind of more open minded, but also just really wanting to be inclusive.
Now it’s — again, I’ve really not listened that much — but it seems like there’s a thread of that sort of that kind of music, that people are newly appreciative of Titus Andronicus, who you’ve worked with. Again, sort of similar, sort of indie rock plus Springsteen, maybe.
Springsteen really has had a second or third or fourth act or something that people really ... I don’t know. People admired his, I don’t know what the word is, but just his work ethic and his inclusiveness and his words.
Yeah, I just always thought of him as kind of a regional ... I knew that he was a giant international star, but at least growing up in the Midwest, he just did not come through there.
Yeah, it’s funny though. I felt the same way, but then I saw him in 2007 at St. Paul. All the bars around the Xcel Center were cranking Springsteen and stuff. I was like, “Oh, maybe this was always there, and I just wasn’t paying attention.”
Music was ... I needed people to know that I was this one way when I was younger. I always think about, I would go to shows at First Avenue, and you’d go to the merch table. You could buy the record, or you could buy the t-shirt. I always bought the t-shirt because if I bought the record, who at school would know I went to the show? I guess there’s a part of getting over that that’s important.
Yeah, I think about that. I also think about the idea that at a certain point for me, even knowing about music or even having a chance to listen to it meant that you displayed some kind of commitment, because you had to get on a bus or get your mom to take you, however you got to First Avenue. You had to expend effort to know about this stuff and consume it. Again, that’s all sort of gone now. One button, anything you want. On the one hand, that’s great. You can literally hear anything you want. On the other hand, it seems like it’s lesser, and so it’s less cool. But I got to get over that.
Yeah. There’s less commitment or less discovery. Think about buying pre-Nirvana, buying an alternative rock record or whatever it was called, I would say underground rock back then. You had to go to Oar Folkjokeopus or something. It wasn’t like you could go to Musicland and there’s all these records, but they weren’t those records. You had to go to almost a specialized store.
Right, Northern Lights Music.
Yeah, or something. Northern Lights or Oar Folk and buy ... I remember explaining that to my mom. She was like, “Why don’t we just go to the [mall]?” “They’re not going to have the good stuff.”
They’re not going to have it.
She was like, “What is this stuff you’re into?”
The idea of sort of setting yourself apart was part of the thing.
Yeah. It’s an identity.
Do you think about that when you’re looking at people who are consuming your stuff now and realizing for many of them it’s ... Again, they come from New Zealand to see your show, so that’s some serious effort, but for a lot of it, it’s a button, and then they hear something else, and they move on.
Maybe it means less to them?
I think maybe, but I don’t know. I get the feeling just from talking to the people coming to our shows that these people, they’re like Springsteen fans. They are really into this one thing. It’s not like, “Yeah, I went to ...” I meet a lot of people that have gone to ...
They didn’t stop by.
Yeah. A lot of people are going to their 45th show. It’s not like, “I went to nine shows this week." It’s like, “I traveled. I traveled 1,200 miles to go to this one.”
That’s cool. We’re going to take another quick break so we can hear from our sponsors.
We’re back here with Craig Finn. I was reading one of the articles about one of the other solo albums you did. It said, “This is Craig’s 9/11 album,” and it’s 15 years later. Everyone’s getting their head around Trump. Do you think your music, it’s generally not political? Springsteen is often more political. Do you think that’s going to change the way you create music?
I’m not sure. I do feel like we are in new times. I think this record I’m putting out right now, "We All Want the Same Things" talks about a lot of characters that are in ... It’s more anecdote-based than stories, but it’s a lot of people that are, well, I would say not all the characters voted probably the same way I did. I would say a number of them don’t have health insurance. I think a lot of them are struggling in today’s America and just trying to get through. The stories and the songs are about people who are trying to push through in this world today. In some ways that is political on some level, but yeah, I — certainly more than ever before — I get really angry when you’re on social media and people say, “Stick to singing.”
Or stick to sports or whatever.
Stick to sports. Whatever you are, I am a singer or a ranter or a talker or whatever you might say, but I’m also a small business owner. At the very least I think I have the right to express my opinion as that.
Do you think your audience all votes the same way?
Do you think you sort of ... No? You think it’s a heterogeneous crowd?
I think it’s a mixed crowd, but I’m guessing most people vote the same way as I do, but I think there are definitely Trump voters in my audience.
Do you think about, “Everyone in my blue state bubble spent the last few months going, ‘I don’t even know anyone like this. I literally can’t comprehend this?’” Do you sort of go, “Oh, I know what some Trump voters look like, because I’ve seen them in my audience.”
Yeah, you also are touring, so you’re going to different parts of America. My friends in the Drive-By Truckers made a great album called “American Band” last year that was very explicitly political. They lost. They got some negative feedback from some portion of their fan base. I was sort of like, “I don’t know what Drive-By Truckers you guys were listening to before, because I always thought they were a political band.” This was maybe one click more explicit.
Yeah, I think Springsteen has people in his audience obviously that are mixed, and people’s politics are hard to predict when they’re at the show. I’m sure, I’m sure, but nor do I think that people who vote differently than me are inherently bad, even in this election, but I would say that maybe they aren’t asking the same questions I’d ask.
I saw Louis C.K. play in Philadelphia the week before the election. I thought, okay, at some point in this hour and a half, whatever it is, he’s going to reference, because he’s talked about Trump a bunch of times on social media, and it’s in Philadelphia. Not a word. By the end of it, it seemed almost strange for him not to even acknowledge the election in any way. I always thought, “Is he possibly concerned about losing an audience?” That doesn’t seem right. That seemed like a real conscious effort for him to not do that.
Yeah. The one thing I would say, and I just did this Living Room tour where I played in living rooms, and people invited strangers into their house. It felt mildly political, mildly revolutionary to just get people in a room all together, people you don’t know, and invite them into your house. I think that at a rock show, every day, every year it gets more and more important that we have these experiences. We all get in the same room together, because as we know, we could sit in our computers and converse.
Yep, we can be in the same room and be separate.
Yeah, and to be focused on the same thing I think is more and more important. I think Trump voters found that same thing at those rallies. I think that there was a lot of power that he gained from putting those people in the same room and saying, “These people think like me.”
I feel like going to a rock show is great. You feel like, “All right.” When I’m at a show and I look over, and there’s a guy in a Titus Andronicus shirt, I can say, “Hey man, Titus, did you see that last show at Webster Hall?” That’s not weird, you know what I mean? We’re here. We’re together. We’re able to talk. I think those moments are very important. I think that’s one of the things that still excites me about doing music, is building these communities.
You talk about Springsteen a lot, but I want to make sure, you played with him, right?
I sang with Bruce at Carnegie Hall.
How cool is that?
It was pretty cool. We sang “Rosalita,” and he invited a bunch of us on. It was a night that was kind of paying tribute to him. We were told, I think it was expected that he wouldn’t be there, but then he was there. He got up, and he played “Rosalita” and he invited some of us to sing. I sang the first verse, and then a couple other people took the other verses.
There’s a lot going on in that one, right?
Yeah, it was pretty obvious I knew it pretty well, so he let me kind of bring it home. It was great. There was a moment where I was like, “I’m singing with Bruce Springsteen. I need to not think about that for five minutes because I just got to get through this.”
Where does that rank in your all-time cool things you get to do as a rock star?
Pretty high up there. I was able to meet him through that, although it was a little later, and very good and very supportive. They say don’t meet your heroes, but I think Bruce sort of transcends that. Opening for the Stones was another one. We opened for the Stones in Slane Castle in Dublin. That was a big one, too.
Do you interact with them when you opened for them?
No, no, no. I don’t think we got anywhere near them. Also, it’s great to say you opened for the Stones, but not many people are there to check out the opening band, but it was cool.
How did that go over?
I’d say it was all right. It was raining, and it could have gone ... No one was hostile, but I think people were pretty ready for the Stones to come on.
Yeah, yeah. Other cool things I know that you’ve done, you got to create a Minnesota Twins theme song?
You did “Take Me Out.” Okay.
I’m a big Twins fan.
They played it in the stadium, right?
Yeah, they played it in the stadium for a season. We never did it live.
Oh, they played your version throughout the season?
Yeah, yeah. They played it at every game, pretty much. I used to have a connection to the music guy there who was a really good guy, but he doesn’t work there anymore.
You guys got a shout-out in “Lost” through our classmate, Eddy Kitsis.
We did. Our classmate, Eddy Kitsis, who remains my best friend, was a writer on “Lost” and I think threw that in there. Hugo — Hurley — said it.
He was wearing the t-shirt, right?
No, he asked a girl if she wanted to go see The Hold Steady at the Troubador.
Oh, I thought someone was wearing a Hold Steady t-shirt at one point there, too.
That may be possible, but any rate, any interaction with TV. We’ve also had a connection with “Game of Thrones.”
That’s the last one I was going to ask you about.
Any time you connect with TV, you realize how much bigger TV is than music, because that “Lost” thing, I remember I was sitting in a diner eating dinner with the band in Canada. All of our phones just started shaking. It was someone mentioned us on “Lost.”
That’s very cool. Yeah, so “Game of Thrones,” at the end of one of the episodes, “The Bear,” right?
Yeah, the “The Bear and the Maiden Fair,” and that was ... the guys who run the show were fans and said ... I think they’ve done one every season where a band ...
They bring in a contemporary band to play.
Yeah, the National did one, I think, because the song was in the book. We didn’t write the song, or the lyrics, anyway. We kind of created the song. They had an idea of they wanted a drinking song. It was cool.
So the scene ends, the episode ends, your song comes on.
Yeah, not only the scene ends, but the guy got his hand chopped off. Then it goes black and the song comes in.
I found that doubly thrilling, because the guy got his hand chopped off, and then there’s Craig’s band. It’s amazing.
Yeah, yeah, that was cool. I don’t know the show that well. I know my girlfriend watches it, and a lot of the guys in the band watch it, but I haven’t watched it. I haven’t really plugged in, but we did get to visit the set outside of Belfast. That was really cool. Even without watching the show it was like, “Wow, this is actually kind of ...” They have these worlds created.
It’s pretty cool to watch people, at least for me, because I’m a nerd about this stuff. Even if I ever were to get to go on a studio lot and get to see, “Oh look, that guy’s in a costume. He’s going to make a TV show or movie or something,” that’s still pretty cool.
Yeah, we watched a scene getting shot, and then there was an ice world or something that was fascinating, because it was like this white, cottony ...
It’s the wall, I think.
Yeah, the wall, maybe.
I’ve watched every episode. I should know. I’m going to feign like I don’t know it in great detail.
Yeah. I think it was the wall.
You talked about that in the beginning. That’s money for you ... In this case, someone had written the song, so it’s not publishing.
Yeah, that wouldn’t necessarily generate, but other things do. Sometimes it’s a little thing, like you’re in the background of “Law and Order” or whatever, but it adds up. That’s helpful.
We’re two middle-aged guys sitting here talking about rock and roll. How long do you think you will be touring? Do you think you’re going to be Air Supply playing B.B. King in 30 years?
Probably. Probably. That’s the other thing is I think I like it more than other people. I really like to travel. I don’t have kids, so I think I keep myself pretty ... It’s light, as far as other things weighing me down, but I really enjoy, I like nothing more than being in a strange city and kind of lost. The touring is exciting to me.
You’re not bored with it?
No, no. I like it. I really like it. I like the performances. I like the community. I think other people have less tolerance for it than I do, but I would hope I’m not doing it out of complete necessity when I’m 70 years old.
Something you like, and also you’ve got the image of The Hold Steady as rock and roll, beery, boozy, but you can’t keep that up forever, right? You sort of mod it a bit.
Yeah, that’s sort of a little bit ... There’s some of that now, but it’s definitely changed. I think at some point when we started doing over 100 days a year, it was like, “We can’t really behave like this.”
That was both what you were doing onstage and hanging out after stage, but also the characters and sort of the themes of the songs, right? It was all just sort of one big ...
Yeah, it was a celebratory thing. I think in Lifter Puller I really wrote about the most debauched, the party stuff. Hold Steady I wrote about both the party and the hangover. Then in the solo work I think I’m more into writing about people being on the other side of all of it and wondering if they’re stuck or trying to get out of being stuck or trying to sort of rise above their circumstances.
Do you find that people, your fans, casual fans, get that there’s you singing a song, and you’re singing in the character of someone else, and there’s a distinction?
Most people do, but I have always said there’s more of an expectation for things to be confessional in songwriting than filmmaking. No one thinks Quentin Tarantino does the things that are in his films.
Quentin would love it if that was the case, maybe.
Yeah, but songs, people are like, “Did you really do that?” There seems to be an issue of authenticity with music in some way and songwriting. People love, “That guy’s really down home. That guy lives in a shack with a shotgun, so he can sing that song.”
Some of that’s like late ’70s on, singer-songwriter, like just a different style of music and a different perception of it, but I got to say, I’m fairly sophisticated about this stuff. I remember when I was hearing your “Separation Sunday” album I’m like, "Craig and I grew up in a leafy suburb. Maybe he had a whole alternate lifestyle, but I don’t remember this being part of Craig’s lifestyle.” I’m like, “Oh, no, they’re characters.”
Yeah, they’re characters. I think I’m trying to do something that’s somewhat cinematic, if that makes sense.
Yeah, and people get it.
Yeah, yeah. Most people get it.
The whatever thing I got from your guys that had a little bit of an explanation for each song, which is cool, will someone be able to see? There’s a paragraph of explanation for each one of the songs.
I’m sure. That was press materials, but I’m sure it’ll end up on the internet somewhere.
Those little liner notes, there was a great thing about you said something about co-dependence, another co-dependency song.
Yeah, a lot of the songs on this new record, “We All Want the Same Things,” are about this modern version of love, which is as I say, “uneasy partnerships.” People pooling their resources to kind of get forward. I think living in New York, the real estate being so high, people move in after their third date.
Yeah, so you have a lot of real estate relationships.
Yeah. I think there’s versions of that throughout the record of people kind of making these teams. When you’re 28, there’s somewhere you go to nine weddings. Then you’re 45 and some of those are kind of unraveling.
Yes, they’re done.
You always hear your friends are saying, “But we’re such a good team. We get the kids to school on time. We put dinner on the table. We do the hand-off after school so well.” It’s kind of ... that got me thinking a lot about how we make these partnerships to get through.
Oh, I got to re-listen to everything with that mindset. Craig, this was super fun.
Let’s do it again in less than 20 years?
Go buy Craig’s album. Where? What’s the best place for them to find it?
Whatever works for you, but let’s say in your local record store. An independent record store would be the nicest for everyone.
Go find an extant local record store and consume it there. Thanks, Craig.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.