The Hold Steady: Belly Full of Fire

There are ranters who deserve our dismissal and then there’s The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn. He is not the Bible-thumping wacko who uses a corner side as a pulpit and assures us that we’re hurtling straight into a hereafter of hellfire and damnation. He does not proclaim to know the almighty truth, just the truth as he sees it—which ends up sounding like a tropical storm of corroborating contradictions that carry more steam and feel more like reality than any passage from the Old Testament ever could.

But he’s not a preacher, finger-pointing all the way there and back, losing his voice to save others from themselves before it’s too late. He’s that keen observer of human behavior who anchors his narratives to the dark side of the funny bone, keeping songs about drug abusers, dirty scoundrels, and the lost as light as they can be without losing the squalor that’s vital to all their existences.

He has peers in another line of work, outside an indie-rock world that has quickly come calling since the band released its debut, Almost Killed Me, and followed it up last month with a triple-strength album, Separation Sunday, that’s much more than more-of-the-same. He has more in common with the spoken word–touring Henry Rollins than he does with the Black Flag–touring Henry Rollins. Lewis Black, Dennis Leary, and David Cross come to mind more often than songwriters do when listening to Finn question the born-again in “Cattle and the Creeping Things,” a song as stimulating as it is wowing (similar to Modest Mouse’s “Bukowski”). He sings, “I guess I heard about original sin/I heard the dude blamed the chick/I heard the chick blamed the snake/I heard they were naked when they got busted/I heard things ain’t been the same since,” and the floor drops out from beneath you. You chuckle, you ponder and nod, and realize that there’s a little more to this than trite poetics and a half-cooked mind.

“It’s related to comedy,” Finn said of his songwriting. “Most of those edgy comedians deal with a lot of truth and there’s an aspect of fun to it. There’s no good rock, that I like, that’s not funny in some way. I had a conversation with a friend of mine about this and he says, ‘Nick Cave. Nick Cave’s not funny.’ And I said, ‘Nahhhh, Nick Cave’s funny.’ Then, the other day, I read an interview with Nick Cave and he said, ‘I hope people find some humor in my music’ and I had to send it to him right away.”

Finn, the former leader of Lifter Puller—a Minneapolis post-punk outfit that had legions of fans in the city and only grew in significance once it was gone—moved away from the land of 10,000 lakes to New York five years ago to try something different and he’s already benefited. The Hold Steady, formed with ex-Puller guitarist Tad Kubler, was the first band that the nation’s biggest weekly newspaper, The Village Voice, placed on its cover in seven years, along with the headline, “We Believe in One Band,” in storybook font. Finn gets invited to Saturday Night Live after-show parties by friends Queens of the Stone Age, where he was a couple Saturdays ago with future tourmate, comedian Eugene Mirman (who has done stints opening for The Shins). The band’s been featured in the high-browed The New Yorker, Entertainment Weekly, Spin, Rolling Stone, Blender, etc. He’s found everything to be accelerated where he now calls home.

 “Being in New York is a big difference. Lifter Puller started getting going in 1994 and a lot of this is just growing in music. It’s a small scene and if you spend ten years in it, it makes it a lot easier,” he said. “I would say it was hard to meet with other people [living in Minnesota]. It was very isolated. We couldn’t hammer out the same stuff that we can from here. There’s this national and even international aspect of living here. It just happens quicker here.

“When it rains, it pours.”

Finn’s distinct delivery, with which he sounds like he couldn’t be madder at the menagerie of ungainly sorts he created and housed in the Minneapolis that he still remembers as home, is persistent in its ire—for bad choices and worse ones, for false beliefs and destructive ways of believing. He could be heard above the roar of an airplane propeller, but settles for coming to the front of Kubler’s vintage guitar riffs, borrowed from the days when there was no such thing as light beer or subtlety.

“When we started the band, I wasn’t a singer, obviously, and I just wanted to do something that was similar to my regular speaking voice,” Finn said. “I guess it’s ranting. It’s speaking. It’s yelling. It’s singing, some of it, I’d like to think. I’m just kind of wildly proclaiming. There’s not a hell of a lot of melody. We have lovers and haters. I think we’re all pretty honest about that. I think it would be a pretty heartbreaking thing if we believed that everybody liked us.”

As an album, Sunday explores, in a very abstract and nontheological way, the different ways people find a religion that fits them. His take of the fluctuating investment in a higher power—whether it be the drug addict getting clean and discovering church as his salvation or those who preach beyond substance—is steeped in the Catholic upbringing he continues to question.

“I don’t go to church that often, but growing up, we did everything from being in church on Sundays, not eating meat on Fridays, and going to church on holy days,” he said. “The characters in my songs are involved with very nonreligious situations. They’re wildly swinging between one extreme and another. There’s a lot of that in our culture right now. There’s always that kind of aspect to people.”

And his characters are nothing like he is. The drug problems aren’t his. The reckless behavior is someone else’s, too. Sometimes that’s a cause of disappointment for fans expecting a hard-living man seeking instant gratification out of everything with which he gets involved.

“I’m a pretty moderate person. I tend to be really predictable,” he said. “I think people really want me to be like the characters in my songs. I had this guy write…and he was young, it was for a college paper…this story about us and he came to a practice. He wrote, ‘Craig Finn was all fucked up,’ and I was dead sober. I guess you believe what you want to believe, but I’ve always been a pretty moderate guy.”

He’s just a moderate guy with a belly full of fire, that’s all.

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