At least in appearance, there is nothing even remotely punk rock about Craig Finn, the lead singer of The Hold Steady. He looks like the kind of bespectacled nerd who meticulously catalogs his Radiohead bootlegs, works part-time as an I.T. guy, and insists on calling comics “graphic novels.” But to see Finn on stage is to witness unrestrained rock enthusiasm in all its frantic, goofy glory. He’s what the rest of us look like when we’re alone in our homes and not feeling particularly self-conscious, dancing and singing along (and sometimes doing David Lee Roth–style high kicks) to our favorite songs. But Finn does all of this in public. His arms flail wildly as he bounces in a manic pogo dance, smacking his head and finger-pointing at the crowd and scream-singing songs about druggy misfits named Holly and Charlemagne. When Finn is at full throttle, it’s like an epileptic seizure with a shit-eating grin.
The Hold Steady’s latest, Heaven is Whenever (released in digital form next Tuesday, May 4th, for those who weren’t among the lucky few to snatch up the limited-edition vinyl at Record Store Day a few weeks ago), isn’t all that different from the band’s first four albums. Old-school fans will complain that the production is too polished and the wall-of-sound backing vocals have shades of top 40. But underneath the gloss, the Hold Steady is still the same glorious bar band playing meaty riffs over tales of debauchery and salvation. Almost everything on Heaven is Whenever is weirdly familiar, like a classic rock song you’re sure you’ve heard before but can’t quite place. The opening track, “The Sweet Part of the City,” sounds like a Led Zeppelin acoustic b-side, or maybe an Exile on Main Street outtake, especially when Craig snarl-sings “We went out to get some more wiiiine.” It’s the kind of album that makes you want to get very, very, very drunk, and then dance around your apartment like a spastic, unapologetic idiot.
I called Finn at his home in Brooklyn, where he may or may not have been cavorting in bed with a half-dozen nearly naked groupies, Paul Stanley-style.
Eric Spitznagel: You’re going on a world tour soon. After all these years, do you have the road-weariness of that Bon Jovi song? “I’ve seen a million faces and I’ve rocked them all.”
Craig Finn: (Laughs.) No, I really like to travel. Before we started the Hold Steady and things started to go well for us, I never got a chance to travel as much as I wanted. I get a lot of inspiration for lyrics by being in new places, even mundane places, just by walking through neighborhoods and looking at houses and thinking, “I wonder what goes on with the people that live there.” But it’s a tiring lifestyle. At 38, I’ve had to make some changes to keep healthy, both mentally and physically.
Did you give up drinking again for Lent this year?
Yeah, I do it every year. It only lasts for about 45 days. I used to try quitting on my own for a month every year, but I’d always end up cheating. Quitting for Lent makes it a little easier. I don’t want the Pope to get mad at me.
That’s gotta be disappointing for fans when they meet you. Based on your songs, I kind of expected you to be a slurring mess.
(Laughs.) Yeah, I’ve heard that before. Last Saturday, I went out and I was talking to someone and I brought up the S.E.C. allegations against Goldman Sachs. And this guy just looked at me and said, “Dude, you’re the worst rock star ever.” But I believe rock n’ roll doesn’t have to be all about cigarettes and leather jackets. I find a real beauty and a positivity in rock n’ roll. That’s what I want to celebrate.
Wait, can we back up? I have to hear your thoughts on Goldman Sachs.
I’m really interested in the mortgage crisis. It just seems like logic went out the window. You know what it’s like? Imagine you’re sixteen and you’re drunk as hell and you’re having a party at your parents’ house, and then your parents call and they say, “We’re coming home early, we’ll be there in fifteen minutes.” You could try to clean up, or you could just finish the rest of the tequila. Because what the hell, you’re screwed anyway, right? It looks to me like that’s what happened in this mortgage crisis.
They knew they were getting caught, so they just drank the rest of the bottle?
And these are people who graduated from Ivy League institutions. They are not dumb people. But they drank that bottle of tequila like they were teenagers about to get busted. It was just like, “Fuck it, I’m taking a few more million and then I’m getting out of here!”
That’s a fantastic analogy. But honestly, I’d trust a drunk teenager with my money before anybody at Goldman Sachs.
(Laughs.) Yeah, me too.
The stupidity of teenagers sometimes leads to great things. Didn’t you go to your first Replacement show when you were just a teen?
I was in eighth grade, so whatever age that was. Thirteen, fourteen maybe. And I was blown away. It was rock n’ roll right in front of your face. And it was believable. I didn’t know anyone who looked like Steven Tyler, but I knew a lot of guys who looked like Paul Westerberg. All those guys in the band, Tommy Stinson and the rest of them, they looked like people I recognized, the guys pumping gas or walking down the street. It was such a big moment for me, because up to that point I never considered that a normal dude like me could be in a rock band. I thought I was the guy who had to buy the records. And somebody else, Steven Tyler, can be the rock guy.
You didn’t recognize yourself in Paul Stanley, sitting in bed with a bunch of half-naked women in Decline of Western Civilization Part II?
(Laughs.) Oh man, don’t get me started on Paul Stanley.
You don’t care for KISS?
I love KISS. That’s the problem. I can talk about little else sometimes. What I love about them is, Gene Simmons has made untold millions of dollars, and he’s still mad that critics don’t like him. Which is hilarious.
I’d feel more sympathy if he didn’t make himself such an easy target.
I know, he’s such a bad dude. (Laughs.) First of all, the songs are kind of weak. I always get the feeling that when they’re planning a new release, they put together the packaging and the concert theatrics, and at some point they realize, “Oh yeah, we gotta write the songs.” That’s the part about being rock stars that they don’t like doing. There doesn’t seem to be anything creative going on like, “Hey Gene, I just wrote another great one.” It feels more like, “I don’t know, maybe you write five and I’ll write five. I don’t care, let’s just get it done.”
The Hold Steady should be cashing in on some of that KISS merchandizing. I’d definitely buy a Hold Steady lunch box or coffin.
Yeah, but it’s hard to put your name on something after Gene Simmons has done it so awfully. You don’t want to wake up one day and think, “Am I turning into KISS?” I guess when I start doing interviews with girls in lingerie laying in my bed, then I’ll know I’ve crossed a line. (Long pause.) But then again, this is a phoner. How would you know?
You can learn a lot about somebody by listening to the Hold Steady with them. For instance, if you’re with a girl who nods along a little too knowingly to a lyric like “Sniffing on crystal in cute little cars/Getting nailed against dumpsters behind townie bars,” is it possible she’s got some history she’s not telling you about?
(Laughs.) Oh yeah, definitely. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but it’s a pretty good litmus test. I’ll have to remember that.
A few years ago, you wrote a piece for The Guardian nominating the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” as one of the worst songs of all time, specifically for the lyrics “There’s a killer on the road/ His brain is squirming like a toad.” Have you written any songs or lyrics that in hindsight you wish you could take back?
There aren’t specific lyrics that bug me, but I do feel like I’ve maybe rhymed “bar” and “car” a few too many times in my life.
As in “Sniffing on crystal in cute little cars/Getting nailed against dumpsters behind townie bars?”
(Laughs.) Yeah, exactly like that. I might want to watch out for that in the future. That has to be the most unoriginal rhyme in rock n’ roll.
You also do a lot of finger pointing at the crowd during your live shows. But somehow it never seems as stupid as when some rock stars do it.
I think it’s about acknowledging that people are there, and we’re all in the same room together. When you go to a concert, you often don’t know if the performer can see you. So it’s like, “Yeah, I know you’re out there! I see you! You’re rocking!” It’s a respectful acknowledgement that they’re part of it.
So it’s not like when somebody from Mötley Crüe or Poison does it, and they’re just picking out the girls to be given backstage passes?
I don’t know if you’ve been to one of our shows, but there aren’t many women there. (Laughs.)
That’s probably not the best way to promote your tour. “The Hold Steady in Concert: No Chicks, Nothin’ But Dudes!”
I probably shouldn’t keep joking about it and putting that idea out there. It could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s actually been getting better. I think the percentage is changing in a good way.
I read somewhere that you didn’t get into Led Zeppelin until you were thirty. I thought all boys went through a Zeppelin phase in high school.
I think so, yeah. I have friends now who are high-school teachers and they’ve told me that Zeppelin is the one thing that doesn’t go out of style. When you’re fourteen, you just love Zeppelin. You can look at any kid’s iPod, and all the other music on there could be terrible, but he’ll still love Zeppelin. There’s just something hardwired into adolescent boys.
And yet you discovered it so late in life. Is that typical for you? I imagine you showing up for band rehearsal and saying, “Hey, have you guys heard about whippets and movie-theater handjobs?”
(Laughs.) Yeah, yeah, I know. I think it’s because I was so punk. Zeppelin was too establishment for me. I was already into the Replacements, so I was like, “Why would I be into that if I can be into this?” It took me a while to contextualize them. Now I’m old enough to understand that both bands are equally awesome.
What made you change your mind?
When I saw Zeppelin playing on stage. I was like, “Wait, these songs come from four people?” I always thought it just descended from a mount. Moses gave us the Ten Commandments and “Misty Mountain Hop”.
There are Catholics who go to church because they believe in the Devil and a judgmental God, and then there are Catholics who just enjoy the comforting rituals. What kind of Catholic are you?
I’m an in-it-for-the-comforting-rituals kind of Catholic, definitely. Around the time of the last presidential election, I was sitting in church, having a blissful time, and the priest said, “Remember, when you go into the voting booth next week, there’s only one issue that we’re voting on, and that’s abortion.” And I was like, “Oh, yeah, I forgot, you people are insane.” I was in my own blissful, accepting Catholic world. I don’t know that the Pope would have anything to do with my version of Catholicism. I’m just the guy who shows up occasionally at church and sits in the back. I don’t even know if I’m technically a Catholic. There’s something I get out of it that people probably get from doing yoga or whatever.
What are some of your favorite Catholic rituals?
I like that part at the end of the Lord’s Prayer. I think it’s in the Gospel of Mark, the prayer for forgiveness, where Mark says “Lead us not into anxiety.” Which I think is really interesting. If you think about the literal interpretation of the bible, it’s all about atoning for sins and avoiding hell and all that. But when you replace it with things like anxiety, you get a more modern take. You’re not supposed to sleep with your neighbor’s wife because it’s a sin, right? Well, you know what else? You shouldn’t sleep with your neighbor’s wife because it’ll lead to a lot of anxiety. It shouldn’t always be about keeping out of hell. Sometimes it’s just about keeping a clear mind and having better days.
That seems to be what Heaven Is Whenever is about.
Yeah. It’s about how living in a good way every day brings good things to your every day. Not that Catholic idea of “If you do this all the time, it’s gonna suck, but trust me, you’ll go to heaven.” It’s more like, be good and you’ll be rewarded every day.
On “We Can Get Together,” you associate heaven with something as simple as listening to music with somebody.
Yeah, it’s a real beautiful moment, shutting off the world and spending time with just one person and their records. I think that’s what I was trying to capture. It’s getting those tiny moments of euphoria.
Your songs deal with a lot of mythology, religious and otherwise. Do you have a favorite rock star myth?
I love the way rock myths were before the Internet, when things were kind of unverifiable. When I heard that Rod Stewart had his stomach pumped, I was like, “Well, he probably did.” Now, all you’d have to do is log on and go to some Website and it’s like, nope, that’s not true all. It takes some of the fun out of it.
I remember as a teenager, we didn’t argue about whether any of these urban legends were true, just the details of them. It wasn’t “did Rod Stewart get semen pumped from his stomach” but “did he blow a soccer team or Lou Reed?”
(Laughs.) I heard he blew his whole band. And it was a massive amount of sperm.
I think it was a pint, right?
A pint, really? That’s amazing. That was the really interesting part of the story. Who are these people? I remember some of the wild things I’d hear about Ozzy Osbourne as a kid. I heard that when you went to an Ozzy Osbourne concert, he lets loose all these dogs and the audience has to kill them before he’ll go on stage. Oh, and you know what my favorite myth is? That Gene Simmons died in a car accident and was replaced by a robot. I hope nobody thinks that happened to me, because what can you say? “I’m not a robot!”
The more you deny it…
… the more it’s probably true.
Well, we can fix that right now. If you got to choose your own rock myth, what would it be?
Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think it would be killing animals or blowing my band. I like the stories where a singer could’ve had a more respectable career but decided to be in rock n’ roll. I used to hear that Eddie Money was a cop but then he became a drugged-out rock star. I’d like to think I could’ve been in the mortgage department at Goldman Sachs if I’d put my mind to it, but I decided to do the rock thing instead.
No offense, but I was expecting something a little more badass from you. As the Hold Steady guy, I thought you’d pull a Keith Richards and go to Switzerland for a total blood transfusion.
(Laughs.) Yeah, that’s a good one. Anything involving Keith Richards is usually pretty good. I’d much rather follow in his footsteps than anything I’ve heard about Chuck Berry, I’ll put it that way. It’s just too…
Yeah. That’s not my scene, man.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com