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Talking Ybor City and Bruce Springsteen with the Hold Steady's Craig Finn




Their singer spews highly literate lyrics. Their sound is big and brash enough to fill arena. But their fans are mostly club kids.

Unlike any other band, The Hold Steady bring classic rock to the hipster set.

Tbt*'s Wade Tatangelo called Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn at 1 p.m. June 23 at his Brooklyn home. You can get the short version of their conversation here.

But the Hold Steady didn't accumulate such rabid fans by sticking to the short version of anything.

So after the jump, we present Wade's full, 45-minute interview with Craig Finn. In it, he talks about playing bigger venues, comparisons to Bruce Springsteen, opening for the Dave Matthews Band, his fascination with Ybor City and putting a permanent stop to fans bum-rushing the stage, which is what happened last time the band played Ybor City, at Czar in 2008.

Finn listened closely to each question. He chose his answers carefully.

Take it away, Wade and Craig ...

You have about a week off before coming down here to Tampa to play the most wildly known “secret” show in the history of secret shows.

How are you spending your down time? Are you relaxing? Are you writing material? Are you stuck doing interviews the whole time?

What are you up to, Craig?

Right now, ah, I‚Äôm just trying to rest up from coming off tour yesterday. But I think I‚Äôll probably, I don‚Äôt know, just try and catch up with friends. I‚Äôll probably see a couple shows. I think I‚Äôm going to go out and see Patterson Hood (Drive-By Truckers) tonight and Dinosaur Jr. on Thursday. And catch up on my reading. That kind of thing. It‚Äôs hard to read on tour. 
Any book you want to plug? One that’s on you nightstand or that you recently read?

I‚Äôm reading The True Adventures of The Rolling Stones by Stanley Booth. I can‚Äôt remember when it came out but it‚Äôs pretty awesome. The book I‚Äôll plug, my favorite book of the past year or so, is Netherland by Joseph O‚ÄôNeill. It is a great book that takes place in almost the exact time that I moved to New York, so it‚Äôs especially interesting to me because it covers the same time period I lived here. 
That Stanley Booth book, I read it a long time ago, but if I remember correctly, it chronicles some serious debauchery. Any of that parallel The Hold Steady’s tour bus life?

Yeah, I wouldn‚Äôt say the debauchery but one of the things (Booth) captures is really the monotony and just sort of all the waiting around you do as a touring musician. 
So would you agree with the sentiment — I forget who said it — that goes, “We play for free, we get paid to travel and for all the bulls--- in between.”

Yeah, I think that that‚Äôs probably true (laughs). 
Congratulations on the new live disc A Positive Rage. It really documents your live shows well. The 10-minute version of Killer Parties that closes it reminded me of when you last played Ybor City, at a club called Czar, in January of last year. It looked like about 100 people were on stage as Killer Parties was ending. Fans were even grabbing guitars and stuff. How often does that happen to that degree, Craig? Because I’ve only seen you play in Ybor — and I’ll have to ask you about that later — but is it always like that? Like when you’re playing in the middle of, I don’t know, Illinois?

Yeah, for like a while, we were kind of encouraging that kind of ending to the show. And so it would happen not every night but, you know, one out of every three or four shows. But, actually, at some point, it started to get a little much. And things started to go missing from the stage. People started grabbing me inappropriately ‚Äî things like that. So now we have put the complete kibosh on it. No more. Just because it started getting dangerous. 
I remember watching — and I’m a little bit claustrophobic — from the side of the stage of Czar and, yeah, people were putting their arms around you, people were grabbing stuff and suddenly I became very sober — not that I was exactly hammered, I covered the show — and I thought, “Man, if that was me, I’d be yelling for security.”

As the band gets bigger, the idea of people coming on stage, I‚Äôm not as excited to see it anymore ‚Äî I‚Äôll put it that way. You know, to see Noel Gallagher get punched in the face by a weirdo fan or weirdo guy in the front row, it is pretty wild to think someone would spend that money to get on stage and do something like that. I don‚Äôt know, I, I, I guess I used to be more open-minded about that kind of thing but we had to shut it down. (Lead guitarist Tad Kubler) just added a pedal-board to his rig, too, and that‚Äôs another thing. We can‚Äôt have people spilling beer on that. 
No, no, not at all. Well, speaking of Ybor, your “secret show” is July 2. You’re playing this place called The Ritz. It’s an old theater. It’s even bigger, I think, than Czar, which you sold out, and you’re going to pack this place.

Is it like right on‚Äî did there used to be a club there, too? 
Yeah, called Masquerade.

Yeah, we played there in the small room years ago. 
Oh yeah. Well, this time you’ll be playing the big room, which has been renovated with great sound and everything. My editors and everyone I’ve talked wants to know. You have to break down what’s up with all the awesome Ybor City references. I mean, we love ’em, and, with a certain bit of brevity, can you go into how this started, because it permeates so much of your music.

The story might be rather disappointing. I saw Ybor City on a map and I heard of it and I really liked the way it was spelled and the way it sounded to say it. So, on that first record (2004‚Äôs Almost Killed Me)] I put it in a couple songs. But I literally had not been there. I had some friends up in New York who grew up in Tampa and they would go down to Ybor City and see punk rock and hardcore shows in, I think, the 1980s. There used to be a Cuban Club down there where they‚Äôd see Black Flag and things like that. 
Yeah. The Cuban Club. It’s still there.

Then what happened was, it kind of took a life of its own. The first time we played at The Masquerade a whole bunch of The Hold Steady fans went to it because they said, ‚ÄúYou got to see The Hold Steady in Ybor City.‚Äù And so it‚Äôs taken on a life of it‚Äôs own and now we‚Äôve played there a couple times. 
After playing Masquerade, did that prompt future Ybor City references?

Yeah, yeah, and also just seeing how people reacted to it ‚Äî sort of took on a life of its own. 
Slapped Actress (off 2008’s Stay Positive), which has the Ybor City/Tampa reference, was one of the most played songs on the popular community radio station here WMNF 88.5. And Killer Parties (the band’s most famous song to have an Ybor reference)] is one of those songs that for a certain group of people that hang out in a certain area of Ybor, they know every word.

It’s like how people would know Born to Run or, y’know what I mean? Do find you have a larger fan base here than in markets of the same size?

Yeah, possibly, possibly. I think certainly more than anywhere else in Florida. I think people really react (to city references). When I was listening to music growing up I always really appreciated specific references in lyrics. You know, like, I don‚Äôt know, when the Ramones sing about Rockaway Beach or 53rd and Third, kids are kind of like, ‚ÄúYeah, that‚Äôs ours.‚Äù 
Right, right. 

I think there‚Äôs a little local pride that goes up. I known that certainly The Hold Steady has a million Minneapolis references and people in Minneapolis go nuts for that. I think there is a real hometown (attitude) of, ‚ÄúYeah, he knows what he‚Äôs talking about.‚Äù So many times as a songwriter you‚Äôre using this specific example to explain something that‚Äôs universal. When you say ‚ÄúYbor City‚Äù or ‚ÄúMinneapolis‚Äù you hope people in Sacramento or Las Vegas or wherever can still relate. 
I’m just glad that on that first record you didn’t pronounce it “Y”-bor like all the tourists do.

[Laughs]. That was why I liked it, because I did know how to say it and it sort of looks different than it sounds. 
Totally. I don’t want to have you break down every song, but there’s one, because of the Ybor reference and it is one of my favorites and I love the John Cassavetes/Gena Rowlands reference. I understand some songwriters don’t want to, but can you go into Slapped Actress a little bit? There are these two different stories going on. You talk about going to Tampa but then there’s the reference to the Cassavetes film. What’s going on there, Craig?

It‚Äôs, ah, kind of about keeping your story straight, if you know what I mean? Keeping an alibi straight. The idea of acting. I had seen that Cassavetes movie Opening Night with Gena Rowlands and there‚Äôs this bit in the middle that kind of has this weird paradox, a conundrum. They‚Äôre acting in a play, a stage play, and he wants to slap her. And she says, ‚ÄúWell if we‚Äôre just acting, why don‚Äôt you just fake slap me?‚Äù And he says, ‚ÄúNo, we need to make it look real.‚Äù And so it‚Äôs just kind of this idea of keeping the story straight, and then the idea of always being on stage. And I think in some ways the song was a reaction to ‚Äî even though we‚Äôre not a household name ‚Äî my own relationship with becoming more and more of a public figure. Especially in the age of blogs and things like that. 
Have you partied in Ybor City?

Yeah! At Masquerade. And we have played one other show in Ybor. 
Czar, January 2008.

And there‚Äôs one other. It was in the middle, it was in another club. 
Orpheum, I think it was.

Orpheum, yeah. That was probably on the Boys and Girls in America tour. 
Yes. It was.

So, we definitely partied there. In fact, we had a lot of friends come down for that show last January. We definitely went off. 
Did you ever go to a little bar called Fuma Bella? It’s about the size of a living room and right around the corner from Orpheum. That’s where bands usually go. The serious drinkers. They have a great liquor selection. Did you ever make it over to there?

No, I don‚Äôt think we did go over there, but it‚Äôs good to know about. 
[Laughs] So what’s your favorite bar in Ybor?

We went to Orpheum after the Masquerade show and we played there once, too. So I think that‚Äôs probably our favorite. 
I’m a huge fan of Bob Dylan and Springsteen — as well as your band. But I got to admit, Craig, when I first heard your music, I recoiled a bit at the similarities between your phrasing and Springsteen’s. I quickly got past that, though, and thought how Springsteen kind of had to grapple with that same criticism in the early 1970s in regard to Dylan comparisons. What’s your reaction? Do the Springsteen comparisons bother you?

No. Not really. I mean to me I really hear a lot of other things. Like certainly I‚Äôm a huge Springsteen fan. But, for instance, The Replacements were way more of an important band to me growing up. I don‚Äôt think I got into Springsteen until I was in my 20s. But I think (that comparison is bound to occur) when you put a vivid storyteller in front of a great rock and roll band ‚Äî and that‚Äôs what we hope to be ‚Äî so it doesn‚Äôt really bother me. I think it‚Äôs maybe a tiny bit about laziness. You know how these things go in the press. But, y‚Äôknow, I don‚Äôt get too hung up on it. 
Speaking of Springsteen, how high does singing Rosalita on stage with him rank on your list of magic moments?

Maybe No. 1, y‚Äôknow? That was pretty cool. A pretty special night. To be able to sing that song with a hero ‚Äî I don‚Äôt know how many times I‚Äôve sang that song at home in my bedroom. But then to be on stage at Carnegie Hall, trading lines with him, or singing into the same microphone, was pretty incredible. 

I got chills when I read about you then, months later, going back stage to see Springsteen and how he asked for a request and then said, “What’s your girl’s name?” And then he said, “This is for 'Angie' and sang Thunder Road. What was the look on her face, when you’re sitting in a packed arena in St. Paul (Minn.) and Bruce Springsteen just dedicated a song to your girl?

There were tears. That‚Äôs kind of like the hand of God coming out of nowhere and touching you on shoulder. It was pretty cool. It was pretty cool. It was a weird, very touching moment. 
That’s such a beautiful thing. Speaking of musical heroes, you guys do a killer version of Dylan’s Can You Please Crawl out Your Window? on the I’m Not There soundtrack. I think that’s a single or an outtake from Blonde on Blonde — I could be wrong. Either way, it’s a rather obscure Dylan song. The phrasing is tough, but you nail it. I think Dylan is an underrated singer because he’s able to cram so many words into a single line but you nailed it. That’s not the easiest Dylan song to perform. What made you choose that?

Ah, I don’t if it was an outtake but it was a single released after — what do call it? — Positively 4th Street
That’s right. You’re absolutely right.

I didn‚Äôt know Can You Please Crawl out Your Window? But I was drinking with our friend George, who is also our attorney, and we were tossing around a few ideas, I can‚Äôt even remember what other songs we were thinking of, and he said, ‚ÄúYou know what, I think this one would be good for you.‚Äù And it‚Äôs upbeat and more of a rocking number. I really love the Dylan stuff, like, where you get the feeling that the band playing with him hasn‚Äôt heard the song before (laughs). He‚Äôs just kind of walking them through it and then says, ‚ÄúWell, that‚Äôs a take.‚Äù 
Had you heard (Jimi) Hendrix’s version of (Can You Please Crawl out Your Window?) That’s the only other cover of it I’m aware of.

No. Who did it? 
Jimi Hendrix. It’s on a couple bootlegs. If I find it I’ll send a YouTube link to (your publicist).

OK. Cool. Yeah, I‚Äôve never heard that. 
You and Dylan are both from Minnesota. Have you ever met him?

No. No. Y‚Äôknow, the thing about, like, meeting Springsteen is, he was aware of us, and because he was aware of us, it wasn‚Äôt one of those awkward conversations. It wasn‚Äôt like, ‚ÄúI really like your music.‚Äù It was a dialogue. Dylan ... [pause] Dylan, it‚Äôs really hard to imagine having anything more than a worshipping conversation with him. I‚Äôm not sure. It‚Äôs really hard to imagine meeting him and coming up with it being anything less than totally awkward. 
It’s funny you say that. People know I’m a big Dylan fan and they assume I’d want to meet him and I say I’d like to sit down with Springsteen and have a beer. But with Dylan, I don’t know if I would enjoy the conversation as much.

I wouldn‚Äôt have anything to say to (Dylan). I‚Äôd just want to listen. 
Exactly. Right. So many songs that you have written detail the lives of people living, for lack of a better term, on the fringe of society. Where do you find your inspiration, Craig?

Well, I think that a lot of characters in my songs are very desperate in desperate situations. But because they‚Äôre in desperate situations, things move quickly for them. They might be more on the edge but they‚Äôre still dealing with human emotions. So even though they may be put in harder or more vulnerable situations, I think they relate to everyone. They‚Äôre still sort of struggling between wrong or right, or doing the right thing, and trying to be true to yourself or to the people you love. I guess I‚Äôm drawn to those characters because they move things along. But the things that inspire me to be a writer are everything from my real life to things I read to movies to whatnot. 
When you look out do you find your fans reflect the desperate characters of your songs?

I think there are a couple things. One, I think that in some ways no. A lot of characters in my songs don‚Äôt have the kind of lives where they recreationally spend $15 to go to a rock show. And drive there, drive back, and go to work the next day. But that said, I think a lot of what we are talking about is inclusion, belonging, and searching for something bigger than kind of consumerism or if this 9-to-5, nice, sober kind of American way. I think a lot of people who come to our shows are searching for something that really is human and that touches them. Especially in this era of Facebook and Twitter and all this, I think people are coming to our shows to be in a room with several hundred other people who feel the same way about rock and roll music as they do. 
It’s interesting you mention that. Because one of the things I find most striking about The Hold Steady is your band’s ability to unite the indie/hipster set and more mainstream listeners. For instance, I know Hold Steady fans who wouldn’t be caught dead at a Rolling Stones or Bruce Springsteen concert because, for whatever sad reason, they consider that stuff bloated baby boomer rock. How is it that you think you’re able to get away with performing classic rock that’s accessible to the hipster set?

Yeah, I know what you‚Äôre saying. I think it‚Äôs that we offer really a rock and roll experience. You can go and see Springsteen, and it is totally amazing, but some people are just allergic to the idea of going to an arena. So, you can see a timeless rock and roll act with The Hold Steady and stand 15 feet from us, if you choose, and it‚Äôs very in your face. So eve though (our music) is kind of taken from The Rolling Stones and Springsteen and Bob Dylan and things like that, it comes off maybe a little more modern or immediate because just the proximity you can get to the stage. You can get spit on and sweated on and there‚Äôs no seats and people bump up against you. And the liquor and beers aren‚Äôt $9 each ‚Äî  hopefully anyway. So, I think there some of that but in the same sense, I grew up in Minneapolis watching The Replacement and they were my favorite band. Looking back, The Replacements were really a classic rock band, kind of. They were pretty down the middle. But when you went and saw them, it felt like a complete alternative than going to a Rolling Stones shows. 
When I heard Sequestered in Memphis, the first single off Stay Positive, I thought this could be a hit single. Unlike some people, I like to see my favorite indie bands make it big. Do you find that to be a dilemma? Do you guys ever sit down and say, “We’ll never playa venue, larger than, say, 10,000?”

No. no. We just got off the road with Dave Matthews Band. So we were playing to a lot of people, who weren‚Äôt necessarily interested in hearing us. I think growth in any way, whether it‚Äôs artistically or just in the size of the audience we‚Äôre after, I think the way bands are presented to people, it‚Äôs going to be a little different when it comes to us. We‚Äôre not super young, we‚Äôre not super skinny, but we‚Äôre trying to create something timeless. I‚Äôm more interested in making a touring rock band. The live thing is very exciting to me and getting people in the room and building it that way rather than with billboards and rock videos  and things like that. I do think we‚Äôre going to continue to get bigger. But it will be a real organic thing. 
Dave Matthews is known for handpicking his opening acts. Did you have any interaction with him?

Yeah, he would introduce us each night. That is such a cool thing. It‚Äôs the difference between going out there to totally deaf ears and having fans say, ‚ÄúWhoa, Dave just came out, maybe we should listen tot these guys.‚Äù 
Do you think you won over some new fans?

Well, it was definitely different than our normal sets because the seats were not very full but there was a huge lawn behind them where there tons of people. So we were kind of projecting to a couple hundred yards away. 
At every show you talk about the “joy” of playing live. Do you ever get on stage and the magic is just not there?

Yeah, we have nights, but I think you have to be able to access that place in you, that‚Äôs part of your job as a performer. Not to fake it but to be able to get to that spot. Sometimes the sound [system] is bad and you can‚Äôt hear yourself on stage but I think that‚Äôs the difference between good and bad performers. You don‚Äôt start pouting about not being able to hear your self. The reality is this: I‚Äôm 37 years old. I‚Äôve had worse jobs than being in a rock band. So, it‚Äôs pretty easy for me to get excited. 
Thanks so much for your time, Craig. Future recordings? Anything I didn’t ask you that I should have?

This fall we‚Äôll start to make the next record in some fashion. I think that pretty much covers it. 
And I should warn fans not to try and mob stage like they did last year.

Please. But, (laughs), if they do they‚Äôll probably find out pretty quickly they‚Äôre not welcome. 
Is (your guitarist) practicing the Keith Richards fan-swatting move you can see on YouTube?

(laughs) No, we wouldn’t do that.

-- Wade Tatangelo, tbt*. Photo by Getty Images.

[Last modified: Friday, June 26, 2009 9:30am]


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