The Hold Steady's Craig Finn

The Exclaim! Questionnaire

Photo: Shervin Lainez

BY Paul BlinovPublished May 7, 2019

As the frontman of the Hold Steady, Craig Finn's character-driven tales of massive nights and bad decisions have anchored the band's blockbuster anthems. But Finn's solo work reveals itself on a more intimate scale: his fourth solo record, I Need A New War, finds poignancy in the everyday struggles of its characters just trying to get by. Finn seems to be getting by in new ways these days: the Hold Steady have eschewed traditional touring in favour of sporadic weekend residencies in cities across the world, while Finn played the entirety of I Need a New War live one evening in January, before any of it had been released.
"Especially at this age, when I've had a career in music, and done a lot of things I'm always looking for things like, 'Wait, why do we have to do it the normal way?'" he explains. "What is the normal way, and where has that gotten us? You've done it already, so you don't necessarily want to do it again."
What are you up to?
I was on tour for about a month with Brian Fallon in Europe. Then I stayed over for a little bit and played three shows with the Hold Steady in London. Now I'm here in Brooklyn getting ready for a record release and all the things that that entails, including a tour in June and some TV appearances. Just trying to stay organized.
What are your current fixations?
[For] records, music, is definitely this band the Fontaines from Dublin, Ireland. I'm obsessed with their new record, which is about to come out. It almost feels like it was engineered for me, it's exactly what I like: really poetic and great guitars, et cetera. TV, I'm excited that Billions is back on the air, but I also really love Derry Girls, which I watched twice recently.
The other thing I'm really into lately is waking up early. I've started to set an alarm and do some writing at about six a.m. Just to roll over and start right away, and just get a different creative kind of viewpoint. I've always been a morning writer, but this is like straight out of bed, before I do anything: before I have coffee, before I have really anything, and just start writing. I've really started to enjoy that.
Why do you live where you do?
I live in Brooklyn, NY, and I've been here for going on 19 years. I like not having a car, and I like being in that big city and having all that New York has to offer, but also living in the neighbourhood. Some days, if I don't have to commute to a job in the city, I'll stay in the neighbourhood on foot for a couple days in a row. But then you always have all the culture and excitement that New York City has to offer. I really like it here; a lot of people get tired of New York after a while, but I still really enjoy it.
Name something you would consider a mind-altering work of art:
Any Picasso is mind-altering, in that it forces you to rethink how you see shapes, and see forms, and see perspective. I think those are among the most moving things I've seen in person. It feels like it forces you to think about how you look at things.
What has been your most memorable or inspirational gig, and why?
Well, inspirational, I have to say in 2007 I got to join Bruce Springsteen on stage at Carnegie Hall for a version of "Rosalita." Still probably my favourite song by him, one of my favourite songs of all time, and obviously he's a hero to me. So that was really a moving experience, so much so that last summer I got a dog, and I named it Rosalita.
What have been your career highs and lows?
Career highs are any connection you're making, but I think that your highs are, hopefully, consistently redefined. You keep doing work that you're more excited about. We did a show in January [where] we played this whole new record I'm about to put out, in full, at this beautiful theatre-synagogue in Brooklyn called the Murmrr Theatre. To play a whole new record, 12 songs in a row, that people haven't heard before, to have people kind of sit there and take it all in, was really exciting. It takes a lot from the listener, of which I was really appreciative. And it just felt like a really good night. That felt like very much a high, and a culmination of what I've been trying to do with the solo thing.
I think lows are just, when you're doing something, playing shows, touring in a way that doesn't feel like it's connecting, or doesn't feel like it's building or growing. Growth is what you're always looking for, so any time that you feel like there might've been stagnant periods, both with the Hold Steady and myself personally, those are lows.
What's the meanest thing said to you before, during, or after a gig?
There are plenty. I'll say this one: we were playing an early Hold Steady show, we were opening for the Get Up Kids in New Jersey. We were playing a slower song, and quieter, so I could hear people. And we were a little into the song, after the first verse, some guy yelled out, "Why don't you try singing the next verse?" Which was an allusion my talky style of singing. And I have to say I found a lot of humour in it too, but that one sticks out.
What should everyone shut up about?
Everyone should shut up at shows. I'm a huge music fan, and I can't believe how often I go out to something, especially that's maybe a little bit quiet, and people talk through the whole show when there's oftentimes a bar or a front room or a downstairs or something, that you could go and have your conversation at. Especially as a fan, when I'm going out to see music I can deal with it onstage, but in the crowd, that's what I wish people would shut up about.
What traits do you most like and most dislike about yourself?
What I like is that I'm consistent, and kind of a slow burn. I can put a goal on the thing and work slowly toward it and get it done. I don't know if there's a word for that, but consistency, and a slow drive to get things done. I think for what I dislike about myself is over-obsessing about certain things, and worrying about whether things are gonna go off okay. Obsessing about certain specific details that can drive you crazy.
What's your idea of a perfect Sunday?
Generally it'd be a Brooklyn Sunday, where my girlfriend and I wake up, go get some food, walk around, maybe kick around the neighbourhood a little bit, look in a few stores or something, walk the dog. Maybe hook up with some friends in the fall I like to watch football with my buddies at a local bar that Bobby [Drake] from the Hold Steady owns. That'd be a good afternoon. And then at night, maybe make some food or order some food with Angie, then watch when there's good TV on lotta good shows are on Sunday, whether it's Billions, Veep, a couple others. Just kinda have a nice Sunday in. Maybe make dinner, and maybe some wine.
What advice should you have taken, but did not?
Learn how to play piano. I literally was just looking this morning into piano lessons. I just got a piano, and I've never learned how to play piano, and I realize, now for 15 years, I've been totally aware of it: I should've figured out how to play piano. You'd just be such a stronger musician, it's such a nice instrument. But I've never done it, and I wish I would've done it when I was like, six.
What would make you kick someone out of your band and/or bed, and have you?
Nah, kicking out of bands is dramatic. I don't know that I've ever kicked anyone out. But I think just being disrespectful to other band members, or audience members, or staff. Being rude to club people, et cetera, is something I would frown on. Everyone has to be treated well, and that's important. That'd be the one thing I don't think I could overlook.
What do you think of when you think of Canada?
Well, lots of good stuff. The trite answer is ice hockey, but growing up in Minnesota, it bleeds in pretty easily. I think of the north and I think of nice people, cold, and actually a lot of good times I've had there.
What was the first LP/cassette/CD/eight track you ever bought with your own money?
The Bay City Rollers' greatest hits LP. I bought it at a Target. They had a TV show on Saturday mornings for a couple years, and that's one of the early bands I loved. I still do really like them "Saturday Night" was my first real favourite song. I liked it at the time, because there's spelling, and I think I was learning spelling at the time. But in the end, I realized looking back, that it really paved the way for other stuff I like a lot, really like punk rock and the Ramones. Just catchy, simple, shout-along music.
What was your most memorable day job?
I worked at a financial services company, supporting peoples' savings accounts with money stuff, like mutual funds, annuities and bonds. It was memorable in that I learned a lot; I ended up getting a Series 7 and a Series 24, which are the licenses that you need to trade. I didn't learn much about what to do, but it was my first job out of college, and I learned a lot about what it means to go to work every day, and what sacrifices that is, what it's like to keep a 9-to-5 for a long period of time, and how you can trade a lot of freedom for stability, and the balance that kind of exists there.
How do you spoil yourself?
Going out to dinner, taking my girlfriend out to dinner. New York is an easy place to get good food, and I would say food and wine are definitely the way I spoil myself.
If I wasn't playing music, I would be …
I think I'd be writing in some way. I've always wanted to be a fiction writer, that's why I write songs that deal with characters. But I think if I took music away, I'd still want to write in some way. I've always dreamed about writing a novel, but my stories always end up turning into songs. So I think if you took music away, maybe I could actually just get them down on a page.
What do you fear most?
What do I fear most? I guess I fear, especially my loved ones, getting sick, or having bad health fall upon them.
What makes you want to take it off and get it on?
I guess good music I like. Is that more of a specifically sexy question? As far as partying, music I like. I guess "music I like" is the answer for all of it.
What has been your strangest celebrity encounter?
Years ago, the Hold Steady and Drive-By Truckers were on tour, and George Clinton walked into our soundcheck in Tallahassee, FL in the middle of the afternoon. And we started talking to him, and he ended up inviting us to his house. So after the show we went to George Clinton's house, and saw the Mothership, the Funkadelic Mothership was sitting in his living room in this house in Tallahassee. It was pretty weird to go to George Clinton's house I'm not totally sure he remembered he invited us; it was quite a bit later, but he was certainly polite about it.
Who would be your ideal dinner guest, living or dead, and what would you serve them?
I'm pretty obsessed with Nick Cave. He's someone I've never met, so I'd really like to have Nick Cave to dinner. As far as what I'd serve him, he doesn't seem like he'd be a big eater, he's very thin. So maybe some sort of soup [laugh], and good wine.
What does you mom wish you were doing instead?
My mom's passed away, but she was very, very supportive of the band. So I think my mother would wish me happiness, really, in whatever it was I was doing. She actually made it pretty clear before she passed, that she was happy, that she wanted me to just pursue happiness.
What song would you like to have played at your funeral?
My favourite song of all time is "I Will Dare" by the Replacements. It's kind of a bouncy song for a funeral, but I still think that might be the right one. It's always been my favourite song, and maybe would pull people out of grieving and into a better mood. And lastly, I think that the lyric "I will dare" is very romantic. It's about being brave in life and going for things, and maybe that's a good message for a funeral.

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