The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn On How To Survive Touring

From on stage vomiting etiquette to how to deal with silent lurkers, Craig puts our man **Kev Kharas** straight on the pitfalls of touring.

The songs of The Hold Steady, so wet with wry tributes to wayward men and women and the dizzying liquor they glug, seem born of and for the bar room. Frontman Craig Finn has a manner that suggests that he would be as much at home on a stool at some dead-end saloon as in the boisterous bluster of his band’s noise. He seems to be a narrator with a calm face that’s seen it all before but whose anecdotes, no matter how celebratory, still seem to chime with bitter experience. It’s that experience, bitter or not, that’s famously given Finn and his band the chance to tour far beyond the haunts of their respective hometowns and it’s that experience which finds them the lead focus of a special report on middle-aged musicians by the UK wing of Sky News. As the regular posers are thrown down once again by an English journalist approaching the affable New Yorker with a face honed for stubborn politicos, you wonder if Finn ever tires of this line of questioning.

“No, not really,” comes the typically good-natured response after a moment or two’s consideration. “It’s just good that people are interested. Yeah, I think it’s good.”

The Quietus is speaking to Finn as he prepares for a show that evening in Fargo, North Dakota, though the time lag gives him plenty of room to enthuse about the opportunities thrown up by his late introduction to national and international live circuits. It’s an appreciation that, when combined with the common-sense which seems to come with middle-age, puts Finn in an ideal position to dole out wisdom to greener peers. That and the fact that The Hold Steady will be almost permanently on tour ‘til October and their last record, Stay Positive, was written in Manchester, Hamburg and Milan as well as other outposts far-flung from their homes in Minnesota and Brooklyn.

**1. Touring is a marathon not a sprint

You have to pace yourself a little bit and really think about your physical and mental health. That means not getting completely wasted every night. I try to not really drink at the show and then if I want to go out after I can, but at least I’m making the right decisions late at night then. When we first started we’d never really done any big tours before so it’d be every night. We didn’t have a bus or anything to retreat to so we’d always end up in the hotel so things would get crazy. In fact, I’m standing here in Fargo, North Dakota which was the site of our wildest show ever. We’ve only been here one time before I’ve just walked up to the VFW where the show was and looking at it just kind of gives me the chills. We did about seven rounds of tequila shots while we were onstage that night and we played every song we had in about three hours. We won’t do that again. Tonight we’ll make up for it though, we’ll try to be tighter.

**2. Your fans don’t always have your best interests in mind

Trying to make your fans happy isn’t all that easy. There’s this thing in Curb Your Enthusiasm called the ‘Stop and Chat’… There are a lot of people – we’re far from a household name – but people do want to talk and they don’t really care what they talk about. They just want to have said that they met you, so you get in these weird, awkward conversations while you’re on tour, like, “Hey man, I’ve never heard you before but my brother said you’re in The Hold Steady, I hope you rock tonight”. And it’s like, “Thanks, y’know, I’m glad you interrupted my conversation for that”. Of course, I was totally that guy when I was younger, talking rubbish to the bands, following them around and whatever, so… Also, the people who are most likely to be disruptive at a show are your most dedicated fans. We’ve had beer cans thrown up on the stage and you know it’s not that likely that people are trying to hurt you, but people get too excited and think it’s a good idea. Perhaps it’s some kind of attempt to reach out.

**3. Beware lurkers

This is kind of related to the last one I guess, but last night we had a guy – I was with friends in our hotel – and he came in and sat at our table, this guy. I assumed that my friends knew him and my friends assumed that I knew him… it was a while before we figured out he shouldn’t be there. And then the security came over and asked if we wanted him removed but I felt like that was over the top, so we just didn’t talk to him and eventually he left. He was an awful conversationalist, he was really creepy. He followed me from our bus.

**4. Be ready to struggle through

I got food poisoning once in Cincinnati I was throwing up ‘til we got on stage, we played the show, I threw up, we came up for the encore, I threw up. You just have to do it you know you just have to power through it and know that you’re going to be alright. Also, wherever you are in the world you have to be ready to put yourself out there and find people who will work with you even if you don’t know the language. When you’re in Croatia or something like that it can be intimidating for people but if you just get out and make an effort to experience things people will usually help you along and it’s a really cool feeling. I hadn’t travelled much at all before the last two years.

**5. Find the right diet

I feel if you’re hungry you have more focus. When I eat too close to the show my mind really wanders and I end up missing cues or losing lyrics and stuff. I really try to drink a ton of water though, whether I’m drinking alcohol or not – like, four or five litres a day. So I do always have to pee but it helps with my voice a lot, hydration. Tons of water and, I dunno, as much moderation as you can handle the night before.

**6. Give each other personal space

It’s very helpful. There’s a lot you learn about people when you’re cooped up around each other for weeks on end. I tend to go and explore the cities we visit anyway. I like walking around and finding little places. I don’t do well sitting in the hotel room or on the bus, so I tend to get out and run around.

**7. Support bands

Choosing a good support band that you know already can make the tour so much better, a lot easier. Because you’re always together as a group and things are more in your control, y’know, if you need to share a drum snare or something. A good support band can make the tour a hundred per cent more enjoyable. It’s not even that you have to like them musically, but just that you can tolerate them for the while you’re out there.

**8. Don’t forget your roots

Email makes it a lot easier to keep in touch with your family and friends back home, and you have to learn how to compartmentalise it in your mind – family and home life and the band. Otherwise you’d go crazy. The rock & roll dream as a teenager of having groupies – y’know, I don’t know when it happens because we finish the show, get on a bus and go away. Not that we get too much attention anyway. The one thing I try to do on tour is live on my per diems. So then when you get home, you’re with your girlfriend and it’s worth more, you know? It’s an easy way to budget – I know I’d rather spend more on tour, but if I can live on my initial allowance I’ll be happier in the end.

**9. Vary your routine

When we were in the UK a little while ago we went to this place in Leeds a bunch, it’s called Mojo’s and we’d go after shows and the staff knew us and at the start it was really nice. Anyway, I think someone put on our message board that we would be there after the concert and I didn’t know that. So we showed up and there were 300 people in the bar singing along to our songs on the jukebox. I was like, “This isn’t where I’m drinking tonight!” I put my hood up and tried to just stay around for a drink and then headed out. Also, we’re aware that a lot of our fans are starting to follow us to multiple cities and venues, so we try to switch up the setlist as much as possible. Some other bands might find that devotion creepy, but it’s really a huge compliment that they would do that, I think.

**10. Kill dead time

Anything that you can do to fill up a time in a constructive manner is a good thing, there’s really so much dead time. You can do some song writing, sometimes we’ll even sit in the back and figure out how to play other people’s songs. You’re around all that booze all the time, it can get bad – it’s easy to see how people can end up in trouble, just because of the amount of dead time there is on tour.

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