Plenty of bands take forever to fuss over new material. The Hold Steady is not one of them.
The band Tuesday releases “Heaven Is Whenever” (Vagrant), its fifth studio album and sixth full-length overall since 2004 — an impressive pace, especially given how much time the Brooklyn group spends on tour.
“One thing that’s really helped is that we really haven’t taken much of a break ever,” singer Craig Finn tells Listen, Dammit. “I think that’s important, just keeping a work ethic. In my mind, a rock band plays rock shows and puts out rock albums.”
The Hold Steady is now doing both without keyboard player Franz Nicolay, who left last fall to concentrate on various other projects. The band soldiered on without him, Finn says, writing new songs last summer on tour and recording 20-25 of them last fall in upstate New York before winnowing the track list to 10. Here are three additional facts we learned:
1. Sometimes specificity is good. Particularly, Finn says, when he finds himself in an unfamiliar locale, which happens often when the band is touring. “I have a kind of obsession with knowing where I’m at,” he says. “If I’m at a hotel or a rock club, I need to walk around a little bit and see what’s around there, find it on a map. When I’m watching a movie, I can’t really start paying attention to the plot until I find out where it’s set. I’m always kind of looking for the car license plates and stuff in an opening scene. That’s a big thing for me, and it’s somewhat reflected in our songs and in my lyrics in that they tend to be rooted in a fair amount of specifics.”
2. Sometimes specificity is bad. Although the Hold Steady’s first few albums were very much rooted in the characters that Finn created — Hallelujah, Gideon and Charlemagne — their role in the band’s songs has become more oblique on recent efforts. “I hope to always strike a balance between using these characters and leaving room for people to insert their own lives into it,” Finn says. “If you make it too specific, it’s almost like when you buy a comedy album: once you listen to it once, you know all the jokes. If I write a record where I explain exactly what happens, you already know the story, and repeated listens are maybe less fruitful.”
3. Inspiration comes from unfamiliar places. Not only does walking around new places allow Finn to get a sense of his surroundings, it lets his imagination roam, too. “One of the big things about being on tour is displacement,” he says. “I think displacement can be a really healthy thing, just walking around somewhere you haven’t been before and getting a little lost and thinking about what it would be like to live there. What people’s lives are in these houses you’ve never seen before, and the ways that they’re similar to you and the ways that they’re different. It’s one of the times when I do a lot of my thinking.”