The Hold Steady: Havin' A Really Good Time

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By: Dennis Cook

The Hold Steady
It's rare when a single performance can transform one into a fan. That's precisely what happened to this writer during The Hold Steady's barnstorming, glory-freakin-hallelujah great set at this year's Bonnaroo Festival. They cut through a lot of layers fast, dispensing with the usual foreplay necessary for a rock & roll seduction, getting down to business with rare sureness and skill.

The Hold Steady are the kind of band that makes you want to lay on your bedroom floor and listen to their music on a thrift store turntable with built in speakers, long ago blown out by repeated crankings of "Massive Nights," where you roll around on your back yelling "Whoa-oa-oa" at the top of your lungs, adding breath and faith and stupid enthusiasm to this plainly perfect rock band's refined clatter. While their music press admirers most often liken them to Bruce Springsteen and The Replacements, these ears pick up the pub rock perfection of early Graham Parker, Squeeze and Rockpile infused with the snotty, tight assault of Bad Religion and the whole given a gutter poetic wash by singer-lyricist Craig Finn.

Their tales of kids trying to score, asshole clergy, stupid photo shoots and battered would-be lovers have a marvelous camera eye that puts us right next to the protagonists as they snort away their blues in another club bathroom stall. There is also great joy and tenderness to these glanced over shambles, and Finn never fails to complicate our expectations or confound our prejudices. What makes The Hold Steady really stick to your ribs is the ballsy, universal hesher riffage that's equal parts pop-punk and hirsute late '70s power chords from the time when Eddie Money was still kinda cool and Cheap Trick ran into trouble with nocturnal law enforcement.

We were lucky enough to score a little talk time with guitarist Tad Kubler during a rare moment off the road. The Hold Steady is much in demand these days. If there's a more praised album in 2007 than Boys And Girls In America I haven't found it, and once promoters and audiences get a taste of their live act they're immediately hungry for more. They are the definition of a working rock & roll band, absolutely dedicated to their cause, down to believing in the power of music in a way many only find in religious practice. To that notion I offer a heartfelt "Amen" before delving into a happy ramble with Kubler...

JamBase: I had never seen your band before Bonnaroo this past summer, and I went in intentionally not having heard Boys And Girls In America. I wanted to see how the music hit me regardless of the massive buzz you've been getting on both sides of the Atlantic lately. And after two songs I muttered, "Okay, I'm fucking sold."

Tad Kubler: It was the last show of a pretty long U.S. tour, and we've got it so dialed in after playing night after night for five weeks. It makes it that much easier to go up there and focus on nothing but having a good time. If you've played the songs for 30 days in a row you're not thinking about that anymore. You just go up and have fun.

JamBase: After you've kicked the dust off of it, this is VERY participatory music. There's definitely a give-and-take with the crowd.

Tad Kubler: It seems like indie rock had gotten so exclusive and more about being cool than going out and having a really good time. That's something we noticed was missing when we started this band, like "God, what happened?" That's one thing we try to focus on and make sure everyone gets involved in that.

JamBase: There's always that well of about 10-feet in front of the stage and this motionless line of bodies at the edge of it.

Tad Kubler - The Hold Steady
Tad Kubler: It's a lot of cigarettes just acting cool.

It seems like The Hold Steady are ready to shout and stamp their feet in order to get people to cross that gap.

I'd certainly like to think so. It's so much fun for us to do it. A lot has, of course, has been made of our age and that we're a little older but I think it's allowed us to relax and concentrate on having a good time.

You guys are in your thirties, right?


I don't know why people think that's "older" except for all the manufactured teen talent out there these days.

To be honest, I don't understand it either. It's been brought up enough that I think, "Shit, now I gotta start lying about my age!"

You bring in life experience that someone younger just wouldn't have. You wouldn't write these songs in your twenties. You need to get fucked up AND see what the other side of that is like to gain real perspective and insight. Craig's lyrics reflect that.

I've gotten a lot of questions like "How come all your songs are about teenagers?" Well, because you don't have the perspective on what it's really like to be a teenager until you reach this age and look back on how ridiculous it was.

The title of the new album reflects that. You're not talking about Moms And Dads In America

The Hold Steady
[laughs] Obviously, a lot has been made about Craig reading [Jack Keroac's] On The Road, which is where the quote came from. He read the book when he was in high school and though it stunk. Then he read it again in his thirties and realized he just didn't have the life experience to appreciate what was happening when he was 16.

I'm going to be 40 in January but I still love rock & roll and getting messed up now and again. You can still tap into those things but they don't mean the same things to you that they used to. You don't necessarily have to lose the buzz entirely from partying and being reckless and running around like a hooligan just because you cross the "30 line."

Exactly. Especially with the state of the world these days, people that are my age right now are kind of hopeless and this is one of the ways they deal with it. I won't say if that's good or bad – I'm not gonna judge that – but it's also fucking dismal. We thought when we'd got to this age that our lives would somehow magically change. In fact, with the exception of having a three-year-old daughter, my life is very similar to how it was at 25.

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