Craig Finn is the hero avatar for legions of nerdy hipsters. The man simply rocks, despite looking like he works the swing shift at the local comic store. More importantly, on five well-received albums with his band the Hold Steady, Finn has been forthcoming with details, opening a window into the unknowable strange trips, freak-outs, and hook-ups of life in rock’s fast lane. Every party has to have its end, however, as Finn and company explored on 2010’s Heaven Is Whenever. Though some fans want the fast times to continue indefinitely, Finn is furthering his exploration into a more contemplative space with Clear Heart, Full Eyes, his first solo record.
I’ll start off by asking the question that’s on a lot of fan’s minds: What does a Craig Finn solo project mean to The Hold Steady?
I think the fans are pretty into it. I told them I was going to do it, and once they found out that it was more quiet and atmospheric they were even more okay with it. It would be a little weird if I went out and made a big celebratory rock record. As far as what it means for us going forward, we’ve been writing all fall and have a big writing session next week. Hopefully the band will have a new record in 2012. The thing for me with the solo record was that it was a good way for me to grow artistically outside of the way we do things in the Hold Steady. I’m hoping to see some results of that when we start recording the band’s next record, which will hopefully be in the spring.
It sounds like Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers, who has been able to work within his band, and then also release some different material solo.
Yeah. The Hold Steady is a big loud rock band, and rather than trying to get them to play my quiet songs, it seemed like a better idea to scratch that itch some place else and then be excited about playing loud, celebratory rock music with the Hold Steady.
Did you discuss it with the rest of the band?
As a band we decided to take some time off in 2011. We were just kind of fried. We gave ourselves basically from April to August, and I told the guys that one of the things I thought I was going to do was a solo record. But everybody was going to play a little music outside of the band. It really only helps us get better and give us new perspective.
Did you approach writing differently for this album?
The process for this record was different especially because I had this thing where I tried to write a song a day for a while. Every year I quit drinking for Lent, and it kind of coincided with that period. I was writing a song every day to give myself something to do other than go to a bar or something. I wrote like fifty songs, and most of them weren’t that good, but by keeping up with that process I was able to get to places I wouldn’t have been able to get to otherwise. The punching the clock aspect of the writing was different, but there was one other little thing- I tuned my guitar differently. In the Hold Steady, I use this Drop D tuning. I went up to standard tuning on this record to feel the chords a little differently. It was just a tiny thing, but I think it led to hearing and playing things very differently.
What single thing marks this as a Craig Finn solo album?
The number one thing is that the big rock and roll nature of The Hold Steady isn’t there, and maybe some of the optimism. I think I’m an optimistic person by nature, but there are times when I definitely feel more human. The Hold Steady songs are very cinematic and have these very big highs and lows, while these, though a little more mundane, talk about every day parts of our lives with a little more intimacy.
Is this similar territory to Heaven is Whenever, which focused less on the party than it’s aftermath?
I think it came to a point where I had written so many of the party songs, and I asked myself whether I could write another. Am I excited to write another? Then you begin to think about the other parts of your life. What other parts of your life are speaking to you? Sometimes those parts aren’t the super highs or the crazy parts, but maybe the softer moments, the smaller parts of your day.
Is that where the bridge lies between The Hold Steady and your solo record?
I think when you’re doing something lyrically that’s more intimate and maybe a little more vulnerable, you definitely don’t want to do it at full volume. Doing something that’s a little more atmospheric definitely allows you to come from a different place.
How did you select your collaborators for this project?
Mike McCarthy, who produced the record, put them together. I hadn’t met any of them until they showed up to play. That was kind of by design. I wanted to turn it over to people that I didn’t really know. The only exception was Will Johnson of Centro-matic who sang a bunch of back up. When we started recording back ups, I thought I heard a voice that sounded like his, and he ended up coming and doing quite a bit, actually. He sang on six of the songs. Mostly, though, it was McCarthy putting together the songs. He said those were the guys, and those were the guys.
Did you feel at all intimidated at the newness?
I was definitely intimidated. I’m a pretty limited musician. The night before I left town to go down there I definitely remember thinking about what I had gotten myself into. That we were able to play together and make a record that I’m proud have given me a lot of confidence.
You’ve mentioned Townes Van Zandt as an influence. Tell me about that.
Townes Van Zandt was a definite influence, but more just pure songwriting in general. Warren Zevon, Randy Newman, and of course the traditional, Bob Dylan. I think that one that emerged as a big influence is Lou Reed’s first albums. Once I got down there McCarthy and I were listening to those records a lot. Those are big records when I think about this album.
That’s kind of a big switch- from Townes to Lou.
I think it’s more about song structures, and where the lyrics sit. I’m trying to think about songwriters versus rock bands. I wanted to write song in its most basic form, apart from the instrumentation. Townes Van Zandt was a master of that. But all the other guys I mentioned were too.
What struck you so much about the Lou Reed material?
I think the thing that struck me about that first Lou Reed album was that I was able to see him thinking about where the song begins and ends. You can do a song, and then you can do the same song a completely different way. You could do a reggae version of it, and you could do a metal version of it, but it’s still the same song. Something like “I Can’t Stand It,” “Lisa Says,” or “I Love You” from that first record are songs I’d already heard from the Velvet Underground, but they were presented in a totally different way. It occurred to me that there are different versions, but somewhere in there there’s just the song in its purest essence. It doesn’t matter about the guitar part, whether there are strings, or what the drummer does; it’s about the purest essence of the song. That’s what I was trying to do on this record.
Do you look at this as a possible alternative career retrospective?
That’s interesting. That’s a good question, actually, but no, I actually hadn’t really thought of it. I was never that interested in the singer/songwriter thing. I was interested in rock and roll. It took me a while to even get to classic rock. I was always more into punk. All of this has been a real discovery thing for me. I always wanted to be in a loud rock band.