The Hold Steady | Born to Kick Your Ass

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holdsteadyFinn sets the energy level at every show, serving as the focal point for the band's maelstrom. In interviews, however, he and Kubler seem to trade personas. Finn comes across as laconic and easy-going, Kubler as giddy and talkative.

 

holdsteady  
  Photo: Marina Chavez

 

It's easy to romanticize the life of a traveling rock band. We're easily tempted to envision our guitar heroes cutting a swath of hedonistic destruction across our fair nation, hitting each town for one night only to save the souls of the faithful and then pillage the bar. When they're roaming the highways on tour, rock stars simply seem to exist beyond the realm of mortal law.

Perhaps no group today invites these hyperbolic comparisons more than the Hold Steady. In only a few short years, the Brooklyn by way of Minneapolis outfit has built its own legend on a dominating live presence, and earthy sense of good humor, and hard-charging, meat 'n' potatoes rock numbers. In an era of high-fashion dance rock revivalism, the Hold Steady is the scruffy outlier. And therein lies the appeal: one could imagine meeting any of the players at the local record store, or more likely the nearest pub.

The director of a film crew that's following the Steady crew on its current tour noticed something unique about the group right away.

"You know what," he remarked to lead guitarist Tad Kubler, "it took me a couple of shows to figure out exactly what was different about you from other bands that we've done this with. You guys smile on stage a lot."

Kubler, long-haired and bespectacled, will usually crack a grin as he bashes out another monster lead on his Les Paul. His style is a rarity in today's indie scene, classicist and spacious. He'll play an arena-style solo without a riff of irony or guilt, smirking self-assuredly as he reins over his instrument. In demeanor, his stoic confidence works as a foil to the high-wire theatrics of his frontman and longtime cohort Craig Finn. Gesturing wildly with one hand and clutching the mic in a death grip with the other, Finn sets the energy level at every show, serving as the focal point for the band's maelstrom.

In interviews, however, he and Kubler seem to trade personas. Finn comes across as laconic and easy-going, Kubler as giddy and talkative. Out of the hot glare of the club lights, neither finds it easy to precisely describe what happens onstage at a Hold Steady show. The magic happens in the moment.

"We do all these different things each night," says Finn, speaking over the phone as his group motors on to another gig. He sounds like he's stretching in mid-sentence. "You just get loose and sort of feel out what's happening, and what the audience wants. [The live act] might not get more ‘polished,' so to speak as it just... kinda rolls better."

Finn's fiery monologues, detailing the misadventures of drug-addled and directionless youth in his native Minneapolis, have always served as his calling card. Each song, often colored by Finn's Catholic upbringing, unveils a new layer of debauchery in "the scene," the exhilarating but dangerous land that his characters inhabit.

He has always delivered these tales with the fervor and lyricism of a beat poet. No surprise then that his group's new record Boys and Girls in America takes its title from a line in Jack Kerouac's iconic masterpiece On the Road. Finn's invoking the ghost of Kerouac's alter-ego Sal Paradise on the opening track taps into the Hold Steady's reputation as a group of rebellious adventurers. The album's sound, meanwhile, plays to the band's strengths, reflecting a return to a looser, more live-oriented sound.

"Separation Sunday was this idea we had, and we were able to pull it off," Finn says. "We always did some live in the studio, but the more we toured the better we got at being live, and that's influenced the record a lot."

"[Producer John Agnello] has seen us a bunch live and he wanted to try to get us both mentally and physically in a space where we were really comfortable to have a good time, and I think that he definitely achieved that," Kubler says. "John wanted to capture what we do and that's five guys playing rock 'n' roll together."

Kubler, who masterminds most of the group's instrumental tracks along with the group's decadently mustachioed keyboardist Franz Nicolay, looked to give his classically trained cohort a more prominent role for this release.

"On the last record, I had written most of the music when [Nicolay] came in," Kubler says. "Whereas on this one, it's because of all the touring we did on Separation Sunday, I think all of us have gotten comfortable playing together. He and I sat down initially to try and really create some room for the piano to carry a lot of melody on the record. I think that's something that was real deliberate."

On lead single "Chips Ahoy!" Nicolay's nimble work on the keys propels the number's syncopated stomp into a furious instrumental bridge. Elsewhere, his piano lends and epic air to Finn's sagas of fried relationships and mornings after. Nicolay seems to have come into his own as a full-fledged group member, but his ascent in the mix has produced a rather irksome side effect: one can't read a Hold Steady review these days without seeing "Springsteen" pasted in every other sentence. Kubler says it's a common topic in interviews as well, but sees more in this ubiquitous comparison than just his band's sound.

"I think one thing that I've been hearing about the Hold Steady is that people consider us as underdogs," Kubler says. "We're kinda scrappy; we're kinda thrown together. And I think that the E Street Band definitely had that appeal as well. I think on a lot of different levels I understand the comparison."

Finn generally ignores the press's dissection of his group's art.

"Look," he says, "more importantly than the press to I think all of us is the ticket sales and seeing real people come through the doors and singing along."

That's the lifeblood of this band of road warriors: making the intimate connection with supporters in the live setting. Getting fed into the media grinder is part of the job description, true, but it's only a distraction from the next venue conquest. | Jeremy Goldmeier

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