The Hold Steady was my favorite act at this year’s Fun Fun Fun Fest — held Nov. 5-7 in Austin, Texas and featuring a diverse bill that included Deerhunter, Polvo and Slick Rick — but I understand the somewhat common “Dad rock” quip about the band. No matter: With the mainstream buzz, its deep love for the American experience without dabbling into empty patriotism, and its interest in having a raucous good time, The Hold Steady is, in a lot of ways, a quintessential rock ‘n’ roll band of the 21st century. Heaven Is Whenever, released in May, might not have the same bite as the group’s more frantic earlier work, but I’ve yet to see a band more capable of transforming its weakest songs into absolute stompers in a live setting, a skill vital for any meat-and-potatoes rock band. Backstage at the Fun Fun Fun Fest, frontman and chief lyricist Craig Finn and I talked about how rap influences his songwriting, the benefits of a Giants World Series victory, and the obligatory ballad spot in the live set.
Heaven Is Whenever is your fifth album. How does the depth of your catalogue impact your live show?
My favorite thing about right now is that we have this huge catalogue, so we’ll try to do something in each set that will surprise the hardcore fans. But, of course, there are some songs that you kinda feel like you have to play.
And now you have four or five ballads to pull from.
Yeah, the ballad slot is a lot more developed at this point. [Laughs.]
So instead of “We Can Get Together” you can go with “Lord I’m Discouraged.”
Exactly, the other night we did both of ‘em. That was real down-tempo. That was salsa, you know?
What have you seen at Fun Fun Fun Fest that you really liked?
This whole thing has sorta brought a lot of us together. I know Dustin Taberski from Snapcase from way back; I saw P.O.S. over at the Blue stage; and I’m watching Polvo right now, which I’ve really enjoyed. And obviously I’m unbelievably excited the Descendents are playing. I was at their farewell tour back in ’87, and here we are.
You seem to be into hip-hop — I’ve heard you really like Nas and Aesop Rock. What effect does that have on your music?
It’s a really lyrics-based form of music, and it’s very inspiring to write lyrics — like, “Oh, man, he just rhymed that with that. How did he do that?” It’s hyper-lyrical and a competitive form of music, which I really like.
Most of your albums have a loose concept, but from where I sit Separation Sunday is the only Hold Steady album with a real, holistic concept to it. Do you ever want to get back to writing a full concept album?
At this time I don’t, because I feel like there’s a part of leaving some things vague that allows other people to put their lives into it. The concept record sometimes feels like, “I woke up, I went to the store, I bought milk, I came home.” There isn’t enough space for someone to insert their own experiences into it, and that’s why I like something a little more inclusive.
The Giants just won the World Series. What do you think that does for baseball? They’re obviously not your traditional team.
I hope it’s a good thing to get a little variety, so it’s not just the Yankees, the Cardinals, the Red Sox or whoever. The Giants were a likable bunch, but deep down I felt I wanted the Rangers to win so Cliff Lee doesn’t become a Yankee.
That’s a good reason to root for them.
Yeah, but in the end I realized I was rooting for the Giants all along.