INTERVIEW: The Hold Steady

With their new album Teeth Dreams just released, Eliot D'Silva talks to frontman Craig Finn about their expanded line-up, classic rock and music as a way of combatting anxiety

Photograph courtesy of Danny Clinch

Today sees the release of The Hold Steady’s sixth record, after a four-year hiatus from writing and recording together. Teeth Dreams sounds tense and lively, with no let-up in noise or emotion thanks both to the addition of guitarist Steve Selvidge as a fully-fledged band member (having joined as a touring guitarist for the last album, 2010’s Heaven Is Whenever) and the sense of social anxiety that these songs take as their theme. It’s a work as strident as it is bizarre, and also totally human. The heavy guitars duel and surge over singer Craig Finn’s astonishingly concise lines: "Once you cut her loose, I knew that she would leave/ For a while I couldn’t breathe/ I couldn’t even breathe", he confides on ‘The Only Thing’, a song that typifies the band’s attention to our routine delirium. I spoke with Finn over the phone moments before the band put in a performance on Late Night with Seth Meyers, to discuss how this record was conceived and created and whether rock music can help us enjoy the frenzied times we’re living in.

Where was the new album recorded and what was the process?

Craig Finn: We recorded it in the summer just outside of Nashville. Steve lives in Memphis and the rest of us are in New York and it was the first record we’ve made with him so we just had to fly out there. We were ready to make a record as soon as we went out there, and that’s what we did. It was the first time we’d been out of town to make a record; at this stage in the band people have other responsibilities so to all be in the same place gave us focus and was really good for the music. In the space of a month we wrote a lot of material

You mention writing a lot of songs – is the same true for your lyrics? Do you edit them down from reams of notes and ideas?

CF: At this point I’m cutting the amount of words and verses down rather than adding more. Just cutting and pasting things around because there is always too much and you have to pick your favourites.

Your solo record, Clear Heart Full Eyes, was very direct in that way. How did doing something on your own change your approach to songwriting?

CF: It helped to do something that was really quiet. I really enjoyed the musical quietness because I only write the lyrics in The Hold Steady, so to make something hushed and to take it on tour meant that things really got through: people could hear what I was saying. Having said that, there was also part of it that made me want to be in a loud rock band again. When you play quiet songs people like it, but they also react quietly.

Right, and this release shows your resurgent interest in the energy and loudness of classic rock. Would you agree with that?

CF: Yeah. I think one of the big things was that when we added Steve it allowed us to jam with each other, and to write guitar parts that move back and forth. I really think that movement defines the record and makes it louder. You expect that by your sixth record and at forty years old you’re going to be the band that brings out the violins, but for us it was different. This is our biggest and heaviest record.

There have always been heavy moments in the previous albums, but did you see this record as distilling or honing down that sound?

CF: We’ve been together as a band for a long time, and I think we were influenced by the music that we’ve listened to over the years: Queens Of The Stone Age, Zeppelin, Thin Lizzy. We all like our own separate things but when we get together that’s always the stuff we get excited about.

And were there any non-musical interests or experiences that informed the record?

CF: One thing that was interesting was that when we recorded we rented a house together and we had this big yard which was amazing. We all live in apartments, so to be in this space in the summer where it was really hot and to be able to drink beer in the backyard felt special. It was also near the woods, and there it was just infested with spiders so they might have been an influence too.

Another thing that’s strange is the title of this record. It’s the type of two-word phrase that makes me think of something like a Pavement album. What does "Teeth Dreams" mean for you?

CF: That’s funny! It is like a Pavement title, plus it kind of rhymes like Wowee Zowee or Slanted And Enchanted. But really, teeth dreams are very common dreams that are anxiety-based. When I heard the songs, they felt very claustrophobic and fitting for our anxious times. Many people have those dreams, and instead of being freaky or weird about it I wanted to express how we all have anxieties that come out at night and scare us.

There are a lot of moments of sadness and anxiety on Teeth Dreams. Is that a fair characterisation of the record’s mood?

CF: Yeah, well that’s just how it is today. Our earlier albums were hopeful, but this is our bleak record. I think we live in anxious times. I met this doctor at a party who said that over half of the people who come into his office come there with anxiety problems, and he’s just a regular doctor. The New York Times now has an anxiety column. It’s almost like we aren’t fighting it any more as a culture. We accept it in the same way that we accept our knees. Just a part of yourself that can be damaged. I don’t consider myself a particularly anxious person, but I did start to feel like we as a whole have changed our attitude.

Do you think of music as a way of coping with or overcoming that anxiety?

CF: Yeah, and also socialising and going out creates connection between people. Just going out there at night and trying to find someone else. I hope the feeling of listening to this record will be like seeing someone all dressed up to go out and riding the train, hoping something will happen and acting really romantic. For us when we play live it’s the same impulse: to provide something cathartic, to turn up the amps and see people singing along and having a great time.

Finally, what does your touring schedule look like?

CF: We’ll be playing shows until at least July, and coming over to Europe in May. We’re pretty much on until Memorial Day.

Teeth Dreams is out today via Washington Square. Their UK tour starts at Liverpool Sound City on May 2; head to the band’s website for full details

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