Monday, November 13, 2017

INTERVIEW: Craig Finn (January 2017)

Jettisoning much of his parent band’s lyrical grandeur, Craig Finn’s solo releases offer a more reflective version of his familiar stumbling, goggle-eyed worldview - the foggy Sunday-morning comedown to The Hold Steady’s hedonistic Saturday-night house party. His latest, We All Want the Same Things, continues this trend with ten new songs focusing on disparate characters all struggling to get by from day to day in post-crash America.

Given what a distinctive vocal presence Finn exhibits both live and on record, it’s perhaps surprising to find that the bellicose style he’s perfected over the years is in itself something of a persona. In conversation, he’s far less boisterous than I’d expected - providing yet one more stage of removal for an artist who’s chosen to focus so much of his own work on the lives of others.

You’re one of the most distinctive voices that I can think of in music - both literally and figuratively - yet it’s quite rare that you seem willing to explicitly place yourself at the centre of your own songs. Obviously Preludes and Newmyer’s Roof are recent exceptions to this, but I was wondering why it is that you’ve chosen to focus on the lives of other people in much of your work.

Well, I guess I’ve always liked telling stories, and I think that oftentimes there’s an expectation for songwriters to be confessional, you know? Like, people think that if you write a song, it’s supposed to be about you on some level - in a lot of cases, people make that assumption, whereas I don’t think novelists or filmmakers are held to that same standard. You know, I don’t think people think Quentin Tarantino does the things that happen in his movies.

For me, it’s a way to tell bigger stories that are maybe more dramatic using characters - I think that, especially with The Hold Steady, you trying to find something that matches the bigness of the music, so characters allow me to tell bigger and more dramatic stories than what happened in my everyday life. In the solo work, I’ve been able to put myself more in there, I think, because it kinda happens at a lower volume and thus provides more space to be vulnerable and maybe a little more intimate.

Who are these people? Are they people you know? People you invent from scratch? People who you see out and about and decide to invent histories for...?

All of those - I mean, a lot of characters are composites of people I know, you know, taking a little bit from one person and a little bit from another person. I’m also a fantastic eavesdropper [laughs] - I listen to a lot of conversations, and living in New York is great for that: you can hear people on the train or in cafés, or whatever... and sometimes I just make up people; I get a lot of inspiration from reading books, you know...

But I think that, especially in this new record, the characters are largely unremarkable. They’re people just trying to get by, trying to get through - and on some level, people just trying to survive. On this record, I tried to create characters that are very believable and, you know... unremarkable.

What is it that attracts you to the people on the peripheries - the hoodrats, the downtrodden or the kind of people whose stories don’t generally get told?

Well, I mean, in The Hold Steady and my earlier work, I think that some of it was that there was a lot of desperation, so they did big... their stories moved quickly, meaning their backs were against the wall and they had to kind of strike back or strike out. And that made for good drama. I think as I’ve gotten older, I’m more interested in people who are making slower movements and trying to get through. I also felt like in the past year, obviously, but in the past few years we’ve seen a lot of, in this country - well, everywhere - a lot of people just trying to get by. And um... normal people: how things affect them, and things like... I mean, I don’t think the record’s very political, but I think about in our country, like how health insurance would affect most of these characters on the record - and how things like that... how the average person is just trying to get through.

I watched a film the other day called Killing Them Softly, starring Brad Pitt - on the surface it’s a small-scale crime and revenge thriller, but by the end it becomes apparent that it’s about the slow death of American ideals and a comment on the inaccessibility of the American Dream. The cover of the new album seems to really tap into that sentiment: the idea of things just trudging along, people just going about their lives, trying to get by from day to day. Is that how you experience life in America?

Yeah - I mean, for the most part, I think a lot of people, you know... I mean, I live in Brooklyn and I get to be a musician and travel to all these great places, so I mean, I feel fortunate on that. But I also, from going all around, I just did a tour where I was in Ohio, and Michigan, and Pennsylvania - I was in all these places that you kind of read about all through the election as being a little more downtrodden or having these issues. I do think a lot of these people are reflected in my songs, as they’re kind of doing what they were told to do, you know? They’re working hard, and they’re showing up, and they aren’t doing anything crazy - but it’s still not working. And, you know, they’re disillusioned because of that. And in a lot of the cases in this album, they’re sort of partnering up with other people in some kind of imperfect version of love, just to try to get through; you know, just to cut expenses, if you will. And to partner up to push a world where even if it isn’t, like, a Disney romantic version of love. And the album cover I think is, like, people are literally trying to get somewhere through bad weather, and that sort of speaks to that.

I haven’t seen that movie you’re talking about, but I think I read the book - the guy who wrote a couple of really good books, whose name’s escaping me now, but he talks a lot about people who are kinda pushed to the edge of something - they’re not necessarily... you know, they don’t start out as bad people, but they’re kinda... they’ve got their backs against the wall.

The album’s title is obviously quite telling given the current social and political situation in your country - I’m interested to know how you square that sentiment up against the new politics of division that seems to be taking hold.

Yeah - and the record was named before the election, but that certainly... whenever I named it in 2016 there was still a very divisive landscape going on. And it’s a line from a song - that’s often how I get the titles for album, I was going through the lyrics and saw that one, and I said: “Well that’s pretty much perfect”. It’s darkly comedic in some ways - we’re obviously so divided right now, I mean, it’s pretty much right down the middle! At the same time, I do believe that on some level it’s true - I believe that we all want the same things: we all want health, security, safety, freedom, etc... We just disagree on how to get there. You know, I think that’s important... that makes me feel better to remember, that maybe some of these people that I see on the internet, and... not as much in real life because of where I live, but you know - maybe we’re closer to them than we think.

Bruce Springsteen is the obvious reference point for songwriters who reveal a sort of universal truth through the lives of others, and I know that he’s made quite a big deal as time’s gone by of returning to the lives of his early characters to check in on them. Have you done that over the years? Are there any characters that you’re particularly attached to?

Yeah, I mean, I’ve thought about... in some ways, I’ve kind of checking in on them even though their names may change, I’m sort of checking in. When I started to write with my first band, Lifter Puller, we wrote a lot about the most debauched people, you know? And then Hold Steady, I think, we tried to write about the high and the hangover. And more nowadays I’m writing about: where are these people now? They’re 35 and they have children and they’re just trying to get... they’re trying to live a straight life, if you will. But I’ve thought about checking in, and I have had these sequel songs over time, but I’m always worried that it’s going to turn into a... I was joking with someone that at some point it becomes too late to revisit them, and then you’re into Crocodile Dundee III.

And no-one wants to be that, because that was terrible, wasn’t it?

[Laughs] Yeah - that was an aside because I saw it one day on TV, we were watching it with the band and we were like: “Why did this get made?!” And it turned out it came out thirteen years after Crocodile Dundee II. Which is... yeah, too far gone!

This is perhaps a bit of a loaded question, but are you one of these people yourself, or you take a bit more of a detached view as someone who’s able to travel?

Well... I mean, I think I’m more of an observer. I think that I’m fortunate to not have to be so much of that person, and not have to punch a clock. And, you know, just because I don’t have any kids or anything, I have a little more freedom in my life than a lot of people my age...? You know, that’s... I’m sort of able to move about a little easier [laughs]. So I think I’m more of an observer, but I do understand that, and I do understand... I will say that do very much understand the persistence of people - I think that’s something that, as an artist, you are in touch with: just working every day and just crossing your fingers that something gives. That it leads to something breaking or, you know, something... good. And the last record was called Faith In The Future - that’s everything from being an artist to being a cab driver: showing up and doing your job, and believing that it’s gonna lead to something better than just staying in bed.

One of the people you’ve always reminded me of a little is Mike Doughty, formerly of Soul Coughing - he has a kind of detached drawl that’s similar to yours, and seems to always have one eyebrow slightly raised. How would you react to being described as ‘arch’ in relation to your characters?!

[Laughs] Yeah, I mean, I think I am always looking for something a little bit humorous and maybe detached, but I do hope that some sympathy comes across, or some empathy for these people, because arch to me sometimes would make me say... it would make me think that was lacking, so I would hope that some sympathy and empathy comes through.

Do you think that you know more than your characters do, or are they more like unreliable narrators?

No. I don’t think so, I don’t think I know more than anyone the older that I get, I really don’t. I think that there’s been times when I’ve looked back, there’s a few songs that seem a little preachy on a couple of later Hold Steady records, and I’ve realised that after the fact - like, late, you know? And I think that in the last few records I’ve really made a conscious effort to try to tell a story and then get out. You know, leave it there - rather than editorialise, or whatever.

The songs are so literate in the first instance - and in fact, something like God In Chicago isn’t necessarily even a song in a conventional sense of having a melodic through-line. How do you actually put a song together? Do the lyrics come first and the music second, or do they evolve in tandem with one another?

They tend to... like, lately they’ve really evolved in tandem, but I mean... in most cases, they tend to start with the first line. You know, I don’t think I’ve ever written a chorus before a first verse. So they kind of unfold like the story’s told, almost - and in some cases, I’m trying to figure out what the story is. And I only have a first line - sometimes I have a story, but I need a way in. But it’s really just telling the story, and I think even the way the last two records have been produced, a lot of decisions sonically have been to put that story first. In the case of God In Chicago, I brought that to the producer, Josh Kaufman, and I was trying to make it into more of a song - more of a traditional song - and he was like, “You know what? This is cool. Let’s try this”. And it ended up being sort of an experiment in how it’s... you know, right on the edge of just being a spoken story, but at times it matches up with the music, at times it doesn’t, etc. So, it can happen all different ways.

You mentioned earlier with The Hold Steady about the highs and the lows - one of the things I’ve noticed, particularly with this album, is that the grandeur of the music acts as a sort of counterpoint to the numbing reality of the lyrics and the situations the characters find themselves in. Is that something that’s intentional on your part?

I always love that - I mean, I think that The Hold Steady often had, like, party music set with terrible things happening! [Laughs] And in this case there was an attempt to create kind of, like, beauty where otherwise you might not see beauty. And that’s sort of the role of the music, with these horns and pianos and something kinda heralding the arrival of an otherwise mundane situation.

There’s a couple of tracks that really caught my ear on your last solo album that I wanted to ask you about. The first was Newmyer’s Roof, which has that incredible back-story of you watching the Twin Towers come down, and again with your partner actually being in the building on the day. Obviously a lot of time had passed between those events and the song emerging - so why that narrative, that recollection or that sentiment now, at this time?

Well, I think that I’ve always gotta date backwards about ten years [laughs], and I think with some distance you can kind of find out... sometimes it’s interesting to find out what’s interesting about that time...? And what struck me about 9/11 and that song is that, looking back, I was really interested in the hangover that New York felt for a number of years after that - in my personal life and, I think, just the city: the way that people kinda drank more and went home with people easier, etc. So I was kind of just obsessed by how that put a bunch of things in motion: in my case there was a divorce, but at the same time, a few years later in that hangover I started The Hold Steady, and that became a whirlwind where I went around the world a couple of times and it sorta spit me out the other side, wondering what happened in 2014, you know?! The it was time to process it and write a song about it.

The other was Sarah, Calling From A Hotel, which really lingered long in the memory for me - particularly that lyric: “The last thing she said to me before she hung up the phone was / Here he comes. He’s got a gun. I gotta go.” I was wondering where the inspiration for that song came from.

Well, it was... It’s actually not too far off from some of the songs on this record, and I think it’s the idea of, you know, ‘true love’ or security. And I think in the case of Sarah, she goes with someone who’s, you know, financially secure, but maybe not emotionally so, and ends up being dangerous. So she’s trying to... she’s giving up on some version of love she might have had before for a quote-unquote ‘better life’. Ah, it doesn’t... [laughs] There’s times when it might remind me of our new First Lady! Ya know, who sort of sometimes feels like a hostage...!

There seems to me to be a very definite split in tone between your solo work and that with the band, so I’m wondering: how do you decide what becomes a Craig Finn solo song and what becomes a Hold Steady song?

It’s kinda... it’s become kind of easy. With The Hold Steady, it’s the process of us getting in a room mainly, and Tad usually has some riffs we play on, and I start yelling into a microphone, and a few hours later we have a song. And with this, I’m just sit with an acoustic guitar and create at least the skeleton of a song by myself. And, you know - which isn’t to say The Hold Steady wouldn’t play those songs, but when I’ve brought ’em in having been creative that way, we sorta haven’t been very successful in being able to ‘Hold Steadify’ those songs, if you will. So almost by getting it to that point, kinda complete with just an acoustic guitar and my vocals, it almost inherently becomes a solo song.

Despite a shift in tone towards a more reflective outlook on later albums, the band seems to still be quite defined by the aesthetic of Boys & Girls In America - does it frustrate you that there’s still this perception of you as the hard-partying boys, or is it just something where you think “We can work around that”?

[Laughs] Well, if anyone’s paying attention in any way, I think it’s good! So I’m happy to do that. And you know, it’s true that I don’t feel the same always as when we wrote Boys and Girls - that’s not how I feel in my mind, but it’s very easy when we get on stage and plug in the guitars to say “Alright, well this is going to be a party, and I’m ready for this”! [Laughs]And, ah... the music can, you know, get me there very quickly. So, I do very much relate to both sides of that.

I’ve got to ask for all those who are interested - what’s the status of the band at the moment? I heard you got together played some reunion shows over Christmas.

Yeah, we played four shows in Brooklyn and they were amazing - Franz [Nicolay] was playing piano with us again, so it was a six-piece line-up of The Hold Steady, which I believe to be the best line-up of The Hold Steady yet; Steve Selvidge who came in after Franz was there, too. And I think... I don’t see, like, any massive touring, but I definitely see more shows in the near-future, so it’s just a matter of... I think what we did was really nice, like playing a bunch of shows in one location over a weekend,  and I think we’d like to replicate that in different places, rather than any big month-long tour. I think it’s finding spots to play multiple shows, and making ’em really special for that, rather than just overdoing it. So I think, you know, we’re looking for the next round as we speak.

So we can look forward to something more like ‘An Evening with The Hold Steady’, would be the way it’s billed...

Yeah, I mean, or a weekend. A whole weekend...

I dare say many people wouldn’t be able to handle that, to be honest! Just a couple more questions for my own amusement more than anything else - I’m a big fan of Josh Ritter, and I was wondering how you came to hook up with Sam Kassirer on this record.

Oh! Well, Josh Kaufman produced the record, and he plays in Josh Ritter’s band with Sam, and they’ve worked on a lot of stuff together. And so Josh said if you need a piano player, I think we should get Sam, and so Sam came down - I hadn’t met him until the sessions, but he worked out great, he was a great part of the record and played on a lot of them.

Did he come up with that little musical twist in Preludes that kind of divides the verses up?

No, that was Josh Kaufman who came up with that, and then... that’s also a flute, so Stuart Bogie the horn player, the reed player, the wind player who did that - I think Kaufman came up with kind of the melodic line.

It’s a really clever bit, I think - it’s kind of the musical equivalent of going: “And then a few minutes later...”

[Laughs] Yeah, no - it’s a really nice thing, it’s certainly a tone that I don’t think has appeared in any song I’ve done before.

And finally: what your five favourite songs that you’ve written, or which are the five that you’d most like to be remembered for?

Oh! Okay, um... Well, I’d say I’m going to have to pick, like, one from Lifter Puller, my old band, which shall be Nassau Coliseum... and from The Hold Steady, I’d say Stuck Between Stations and Positive Jam... and then, ah, let’s go with two from the solos... which would be, I’d say, Newmyer’s Roof, and I’m gonna say God in Chicago, as I’m really high on that one right now.

I have to say, I’ve always really liked Southtown Girls, which has a really nice sentiment that captures the band really well.

Yeah, that’s a... you know, they’re all my babies! [Laughs] It’s so hard to pick favourites, I like that one too.

Ninety Bucks on this record, that’s my standout - a surefire single if ever there was one.

I hope so! I hope so. That might come next.

We All Want the Same Things is available now via Partisan Records.


Post a Comment

<< Home