The Hold Steady: Stuck Between Stations
On Dec. 3, Craig Finn woke up and did something he hadn’t been able to do for three-quarters of a year—he plugged in and played a Hold Steady concert.
“It was so nice to be in a room with the guys, using monitors—looking up and being in the middle of a show,” The Hold Steady frontman says a few weeks later, checking in from his apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y. “It reminded us not just of what we lost this year, but also of what we have—the community that we’ve built.”
The gig, the first of three at New York’s Brooklyn Bowl this past December, kicked off the fifth installment of The Hold Steady’s annual Massive Nights residency, one of the group’s cherished tent-pole events. Though held without a live audience due to concerns stemming from the novel coronavirus, the shows, which were streamed on FANS, still felt like the sextet’s celebratory year-end parties—complete with deep setlists, a few sit-ins and even some true audience interaction, thanks to Zoom technology. With their virtual crowd hunkered down and watching in places like Australia, Italy, Singapore and Finn’s old Minneapolis stomping grounds, the band even opted to start their third show at the very un-rock-and-roll hour of 5 p.m. in order to better accommodate viewers in other time zones.
“I love the ritual—it’s the Catholic in me,” Finn says with a laugh as he runs through the city-specific, multi-night runs that have shaped The Hold Steady’s tour schedule as of late. “This one is our spring break; that one is our winter vacation. For a lot of people, Massive Nights kicks off the holiday season. It’s the best time to come to New York—you get that holiday feeling, but it’s not overwhelming yet.”
In addition to helping keep their sacred tradition alive, The Massive Nights streams also coincided with the rollout for The Hold Steady’s eighth full-length offering, Open Door Policy, which was eventually released in February. The group’s second studio set in less than two years, Open Door Policy was recorded at Rhinebeck, N.Y.’s Clubhouse with Josh Kaufman, the increasingly prolific producer and multi-instrumentalist known for his work with Bob Weir, Bonny Light Horseman, Yellowbirds, Hiss Golden Messenger and, more recently, Guster, Fruit Bats, Muzz and Taylor Swift. Kaufman also oversaw The Hold Steady’s previous set, 2019’s Thrashing Thru the Passion and, just as notably, was also part of the core team behind the three solo albums Finn dropped between 2015 and 2019.
“It was a balance for me—being part of a band, you don’t want everyone to just work with the guy the lead singer knows. Josh and I, obviously, have a very comfortable relationship by now but, [on Thrashing,] the guys were still catching up in the familiarity and friendship departments,” Finn admits. “With this one, we were already there. Everyone was well acquainted, and we were able to get to somewhere new.”
“When we decided to work with John Agnello [on 2006’s Boys and Girls in America and 2008’s Stay Positive], one of the things that Craig wanted—and I think he was right about—was the utility of having a producer who is a father figure,” keyboardist Franz Nicolay adds later in the day, checking in from his home in California. “John was an elder that everyone respected as an honest broker in the studio. And that really worked for the records we made with him. Josh is more of a peer—someone who not only understands the vision of the record but also has the musical chops. And he knows our musical language well enough for us to bounce things off of him.”
Thrashing Thru the Passion was not only The Hold Steady’s first album in five years but also their first record in nine to feature Nicolay, an always animated presence who left the group in 2010. While the outfit—which is also comprised of lead guitarist Tad Kubler, bassist Galen Polivka, drummer Bobby Drake and rhythm guitarist Steve Selvidge—released cuts from that LP as they recorded them, with Open Door Policy they were looking to craft more of a classic LP.
“With Thrashing Thru the Passion, there was a bit of a disconnect between the way that we were writing and recording and the way that the audience received those songs,” Nicolay says. “The songs were originally released as Bandcamp singles. This time around, the writing and recording process was the same, but we waited to release them as an album—we got together, wrote 4-6 songs remotely via Dropbox, went into the studio and recorded them. And then, a handful of months later, we did the same thing again.”
At this point in their career, The Hold Steady’s songwriting process usually begins with Kubler, Nicolay or Selvidge working on their own demos—sometimes in pairs—and then passing those sketches to Finn, who adds his trademark, visual, character-driven lyrics. “Basically, it’s a process of pitching ideas to Craig and seeing which ones he feels like he can work with,” the keyboardist says. “And a couple of days before going into the studio, we’ll all hash things out as a band.”
“Thrashing Thru the Passion felt a little bit piecemeal, just because of how we recorded and released everything.” Finn adds. “Traditionally, the way The Hold Steady used to work was that we had albums with overarching themes. Partially due to our age, and partially to keep people guessing, we started releasing music as it came. But, this time, we said, ‘Let’s just keep recording but shape it as an album.’”
The same month The Hold Steady officially unveiled Thrashing Thru the Passion, they started laying down their first Policy tracks in Rhinebeck; Finn points out that they even had a Washington Post journalist trailing them to cover Thrashing when they reentered the studio. “It always feels good to be releasing something and then making music for the next one—it feels like you’ve got momentum,” he admits. “It was summer, the weather was great, there were good vibes.”
In the past, Finn has sectioned off his Hold Steady work from his solo material by describing the former as “riff-heavy” and “full of misbehaving characters” and the latter as “smaller stories about smaller people.” Yet, given the subject matter, those worlds seemed to blur a bit more this time around.
“It would be impossible not to be informed by the solo records I made with Josh,” Finn says. “The things you learn, you take with you. But, at the same time, when Steve and Tad are cranking up their guitars, there’s only so much introspection that’s gonna get through. You have to create something a little bit cinematic for those parts. So we were able to create a dynamic that paired a little bit of those smaller stories with some bigger parts.”
That shift is apparent from Open Door Policy’s invocation, “The Feelers,” which centers on a conversation between two individuals.
“Craig’s been able to take the depth of his development as a fiction writer from his solo career and bring it back to The Hold Steady,” Nicolay says. “The characterization, the plotting.”
The ensemble followed up that idyllic trip with another go-around a few months later, right after Massive Nights 2019. Finn felt his voice was fried from the run so they ended up rerecording some parts in early 2020 before flying over to London for their traditional The Weekender winter residency. Finn notes that the overdub process ended up bleeding into March and then, of course, the world stood still.
Yet, despite being written and mostly recorded before COVID-19 took foot in the U.S., the album’s lyrical content is strangely ominous.
“How can the 2016 election and everything after that not inform your subject matter in this day and age?” Kubler says bluntly, while calling from his home in Brooklyn a few days later. “Some of the ideas came out of a period of time when I was trying to become more self-reliant in the studio. Sometimes I’ll go in for three or four hours to work on music and just go, ‘Maybe this will be the idea behind a Hold Steady song or maybe it is better for one of the younger top writers I end up somehow working with. I don’t know why, but I’m the guy they call for 22-year-old female wannabe pop stars.”
Finn echoes some of his bandmate’s sentiments. “The past four years felt dark, politically and culturally,” he notes. “So the songs we wrote in 2019 already had that feeling. But they almost make more sense after the last year—after you shine a new light on them. This is a record about power, wealth and mental health. And those things—income, equality, power dynamics and certainly mental health— have been illuminated by this virus. They’ve become even more obvious issues. I don’t want to say the album is somber, but it’s a heavy record and, even though I know some people are using it as an escape from the world, it makes sense that it’s dark.”
In 2016, after six years away, Nicolay rejoined The Hold Steady as they celebrated the 10th anniversary of Boys And Girls In America. His return marked the start of the ensemble’s current chapter, both sonically and cosmically. When he left The Hold Steady to pursue a solo career, the keyboardist—who joined in 2005, after clocking in time in the punk-cabaret collective The World/Inferno Friendship Society—likened his tenure in the band to feeling “kind of [like] a fox in a hedgehog band.”
Formed in 2003—a few years after Finn and Kubler tasted some critical success with their punky Minneapolis project Lifter Puller—The Hold Steady have long grown into a defining 21st-century New York institution. Though they’ve experienced a few lineup changes over the years, they recorded some of their most beloved material during Nicolay’s original tenure in the group from 2004-2010, after he guested on their debut record. When Nicolay left, The Hold Steady decided to bring Selvidge in as a third guitarist, instead of hiring another full-time keyboardist.
“Franz and I wrote a lot of Boys and Girls together—we’re tight in that way,” Kubler says of that acclaimed record. “But right before Franz left, we were becoming a pretty guitar-centered band. We really wanted to plant this flag—like, ‘This is rock-and-roll.’ So it was becoming a little difficult for me sonically [with the keyboards]. Also, everybody always thinks that their idea is the best idea. That isn’t always the case. With age, it’s much easier for me to say, ‘We’ll try that—we can always go back to this.’ There is less preciousness now and less ego—and not in a bad way because, in order to do this, you have to have a certain amount of drive. You need to have this headstrong idea that what you’re doing is the right thing. Otherwise, why do it at all? There’s got to be something that sets you apart.”
Reconnecting with Nicolay also marked the end of a few bumpy years for the group, which included some interpersonal tensions, label and management reshuffling and a formal hiatus from 2012- 2013. Meanwhile, Kubler faced his own demons and dealt with his longtime drug and alcohol issues after being diagnosed with pancreatitis. He eventually made the decision to get sober.
“We went full-circle with Franz,” Kubler says. “Craig and I had to talk him into joining. And then he and I went through this honeymoon period. But things got a little weird, and I got a little weird. Then he left to figure shit out and, once he came back, it was great.”
Since Nicolay has rejoined, The Hold Steady have embraced the expansive sound of their sextet lineup, which now boasts three guitarists and a keyboardist. Finn sees parallels between the “supersized” version of his group and the E-Street Band after Bruce Springsteen brought back both Steven Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren when he reconvened the project in 1999.
“It feels like ‘Mark Three’ of the Hold Steady—in the past few years, we’ve found the space for all those bodies and all those instruments,” Finn says. “You don’t have to choose; you can have both.”
The singer admits that they had to figure out “where everyone sat, musically,” when Nicolay first came back into the picture, yet they’ve long since made room for each instrumentalist.
“It’s interesting—Steve and Franz are the two guys who don’t live in New York, and they both have children around the same age so they immediately got along really well,” he muses. “Musically, it became rewarding for them to create space for each other to kind of play off of.”
“We’d all done enough growing up that we could make space for everyone,” Kubler adds. “Steve and I were already very good friends when he came into the band, and I made the space for him that I probably should have made for Franz. I always wanted us to be more musical, and the piano brings all these dynamics—this whole city of sounds. And Steve is the caliber of guitar player that can do a lot of that stuff that I’m not as good at or don’t want to do—in terms of the melody and, rhythmically, how things work.”
Franz agrees: “Steve’s level of musicality is so high, and now we’ve got an incredible diversity of options. When I listened to Thrashing Thru the Passion, as compared to [my first full album with the group, 2005’s] Separation Sunday, it just had more textures. It’s like a fresh carpet, with these various silken threads. The band, in its early days, was much more like a framed-out house with thick beams. It was much more about these stark musical statements. That development has had a lot to do with Steve being involved and the versatility he brings to the band, musically.”
Given their mix of heartland textures, rock-and-roll swagger and lyrical description, The Hold Steady have always garnered comparisons to Springsteen; the Boss even shared the stage with them at Carnegie Hall in 2007. However, in recent years, Finn has started to mine another source of inspiration in his music.
“I’ve joked about the ‘jam-ification’ of The Hold Steady, though that doesn’t mean that we’re going to go stretch out for 13-minutes,” says Finn, who came of age in the punk world but has grown to appreciate the Grateful Dead. “It’s more about the band’s relationship with their audience and the ability to play with your catalog—coming up with ideas to surprise and thrill the audience is part of it. That applies to the Dead, obviously, but also Springsteen. You go to a Springsteen show, and there’s people out in the parking lot talking about what he’s going to play.”
As they’ve grown older, and especially since they returned from their break, The Hold Steady have shifted their touring model to favor residencies over marathon runs. And, by spreading out in the same city for a few days at a time, the musicians have been able to fully explore their repertoire as well as test out their latest ideas.
“Part of the excitement is the reveal,” Finn says. “If we play 25 songs, then we are going to play ‘Chips Ahoy!’ and we’re gonna play ‘Stuck Between Stations,’ but we’re also gonna play this song that we haven’t played since 2009 and a song we’ve never played before. And people are gonna always remember they were there when we played it for the first time.”
After holding Open Door Policy for almost a year after it was largely completed, The Hold Steady released the record on Feb. 19 through their own Positive Jams label and via Thirty Tigers. Instead of a traditional promo run, the band opted to stage a two-night Weekender stand at Brooklyn Bowl in early March. And, while the group has a few irons in the fire for 2021, like everyone else, they are hesitant to make too many plans. However, Finn says, one way or another, they will stage Massive Nights again in December.
The singer/guitarist calls the lack of travel during the past year “totally maddening” for someone so used to moving around, but he’s also figured out different ways to stay creative. The frontman is riding out the pandemic at home in Greenpoint; his partner is a nurse, and he has stayed put in the city to support her. Early on in the pandemic, Finn says that he temporarily moved into her sister’s apartment for a few weeks while she was working with COVID patients, but they have since relocated into a new space that is more “Zoom friendly.”
Until their recent Massive Nights run, Finn points out that the entire band hadn’t been in the same room together for months. “I hadn’t seen much of Galen even though he was in Manhattan—I see Bobby cause he’s in the neighborhood and I see Tad a little bit, but it’s been hard this year,” he admits. “We rehearsed before the shows at the Bowl because it was empty, and it was just amazing to have us all in the same room.”
For Kubler, last year started off tragically when he lost his mother. Though he’s toyed with some song ideas during the pandemic, he’s mostly exerted his energies elsewhere; he finished building a studio in Brooklyn and is considering relocating within a two or two-and-a-half hour radius of the city.
“After having done a lot of writing, building the studio has mostly been in preparation for having a space of my own that I go to on a daily basis to be creative,” he says. “I’ll go through periods where I don’t pick up the guitar for months at a time. It’s like the Mitch Hedberg joke where he talks about the microphone cable being like a hose. If I step away from working on music for a little while, when I get back, it’s sort of this race to get all the ideas recorded. It’s a cycle.”
Nicolay—an indie-rock favorite who leads a parallel career as a successful studio musician—has been making the most of the quarantine, adding his parts to a range of projects.
“Everybody’s still holed up so a lot of musicians I know are making records either at home or in the studio. And I’ve been putting down my keyboard parts and emailing them over,” he says. “It’s been a good period for writing music—I wrote a solo record that I’ll try and record at some point when it’s safe to record again. And, besides that, I’ve just been losing my mind a little bit.”
He mentions that he and Finn had been “throwing demos back and forth, especially in the early period when the COVID-19 crisis seemed like it wasn’t gonna last as long,” but that process lost a little bit of steam as the pandemic wore on.
“Hopefully, we’re in the home stretch and then we can start picking up that rhythm again—writing and recording a half dozen songs every two months,” Nicolay says.
Finn continued to write for The Hold Steady, as well as for some other projects he is involved with outside the music world, but is unsure what the results yielded.
“Without our normal life, it has been hard for me to tell what is good so I end up saving everything and I’ll decide what to pursue later when life is normal again,” he says. “I wrote to escape but then, when I look back on it, I kept seeing it through this lens of the modern.”
He thinks back to “Parade Days,” an Open Door Policy bonus track about Minneapolis that The Hold Steady recorded in December 2019, which took on new meaning in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. The city, he says, will now understandably always be associated with that tragic event. Then, he sermonizes on 2020 as a whole.
“It’s like Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon prism—the light hits it and sort of bends a different way,” he says. “2020 is gonna have that. Although, at the same time, given the first few weeks of 2021, it is possible that 2020 is a box that we never step out of. Maybe it’s part of getting older and being more aware of things, but we are living in particularly heavy times.”