“I fantasize about it,” Craig Finn says of his first post-Covid gig with The Hold Steady, still unscheduled, like all gigs and all things. “There’s a celebratory but also a physical aspect of the shows we play,” he continues, and he is both absolutely correct and vastly understating the point. Finn, 49, is a tornado of bliss and poetry onstage, a guy who begins each show looking like the creative writing professor he once was and ends each one an unlikely rock god. In every last encore, Finn tells the crowd, “There is so much joy in what we do up here,” and while from someone else it could come off self-serving, at the end of a Hold Steady show, it is just a fact. A Hold Steady show is cathartic and ecstatic, a situation where you wind up arm in arm with a stranger, maybe two, definitely someone else’s beer down your front. The vibe in the crowd is joyful, communal, sweaty. It’s the kind of thing we’ve been denied for nearly a year, and as the band drops its eighth album Open Door Policy, out today on Nashville indie label Thirty Tigers, the fans are as antsy as Finn.
Those massive nights will have to wait until the world comes back to normal. If the world comes back to normal. “I mean, I hope at some point everyone feels safe enough to celebrate, and to behave like that again.” But for now, the world’s best live rock band is stuck at home, just like you.
Finn’s in his apartment in Greenpoint, doing press for a record borne out of a particularly dark year. But not that one. “The album was 90% done by December 2019. I think a lot of artists are going to say this, but 2019 felt like a heavy year, like everything was going to shit,” he says. “With The Hold Steady, there’s an effort to maintain some amount of hopefulness, but it felt like a dark record.”
A dark record has met its moment in a time of overlapping crises. “I had this joke that if Open Door Policy were a movie poster, the line right under the title would say ‘Power, wealth and mental health.’ Those were the sub-themes of the record, and those things have just blown up in 2020: Mental health, certainly, but also power and income inequality.” Open Door Policy features some vintage Hold Steady—tight short stories, desperate characters in search of grace, and giant riffs—but there’s a quieter side to it, more in keeping with Finn’s recent solo work. The band had been releasing some one-off singles, taking advantage of the quick turnaround time 2020s technology affords a band. But they were itching to make an album, a full statement. “[Producer] Josh Kaufman and I were talking about The Wall and Dark Side of the Moon and records like that, albums that invite you in, that let you know right away it’s going to be a whole experience.” Opening track “The Feelers” does just that, with gentle piano and Finn delivering what’s almost a spoken-word performance. And then the riffs come in, and God dammit, you start itching to see live music again.
The week the world as we knew it ceased to be, the band was doing its annual London residency The Weekender. “We played on March 8th, and people were crawling all over each other in the crowd. When we landed in New York the next day, it was like: it’s on. We got in just under the wire.” With a record ready to drop and a rising pandemic looking like it might inconvenience us for a few weeks, they held steady. “We thought, okay, let’s push it a little bit so we can play some shows around it. And then it became obvious that that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. So we just decided, let’s put it out before it’s old.”
The Hold Steady is a six-piece band now, as keyboardist Franz Nicolay has returned to the fold for good. After having left the band in 2010, Nicolay came back for a few shows around the tenth anniversary of its breakthrough album Boys and Girls in America in 2016. “I said, ‘Well, we’re going to need a piano if we’re going to do Boys and Girls properly, so we might as well call the guy who played the piano on the record.’ We weren’t in great touch to be honest, but we called him, and he quickly said, ‘Yeah, that sounds cool.’” They rehearsed. “And about an hour into rehearsal, I was like, Jesus, this sounds incredible. We’ve got to figure out how to get him to stay. I said, ‘You up for more?’ And he said, ‘Totally.’ He joined right back in.”
And he clicked with Steve Selvidge, the third guitarist who joined the band after Nicolay’s departure. “Those guys had to figure out where they both fit, but they clicked right away. They’re the two guys that don’t live in New York, they both have kids the same age, they’re a great thing together. I think it’s a very important part of the story of like what I call The Hold Steady 3.0.”
The Hold Steady 3.0 has played a few shows in the last year, and though they weren’t live live, they scratched the itch. The band’s fifth-annual Massive Nights residency at the Brooklyn Bowl went on as scheduled last December, with some fundamental alterations, mainly that if you were going to jump and spill your beer, you’d have to clean it off your own floor. As comforting as it was to see the band back together, it was equally nourishing for them to see us. “We had monitors around the club so that we could see the people who were watching, if they opted in. As a performance, it helped me to see those people, rather than just looking out at an empty club.” The shows were beautiful, stirring things: a remote reunion of a worldwide family of Hold Steady fans, each one raising individual hells at home. As a viewer, I will admit to having gotten a little teary, and I’m relieved I’m not the only one. “It was very emotional at the end. The director toggled through all the webcams, and we saw all these people from literally all around the world, holding up their beers, their fists, their dogs. It reminded me of all that we’ve lost this year, but also it reminded me of what we have, and how the band has built a community that’s unique and a really huge part of The Hold Steady story.”
While we all wait, Finn is making the best of it. He’s reading—Douglas Wilson’s Shuggie Bain, The Index of Self-Destructive Acts by Chris Beha, and Maritta Wolf’s Sudden Rain are recent favorites—and exploring uncharted areas of the rock canon: “Somehow I had a hole in my music knowledge where The Kinks are supposed to be. I knew the big songs, but I didn’t really know deep Kinks stuff. So for a couple of weeks, I listened to all The Kinks albums chronologically, one a day. It turns out I really love them.”
Finn also has a pretty solid self-care ritual: he’s deleted Twitter from his phone and replaced it with the Kindle app, which he’ll scroll through before bed. “I’ve stuffed it with trashy rock bios: NOFX, GBH. No matter how debauched or bad the reading is, it somehow makes me feel less dumb and less assaulted than two minutes of Twitter.” He’s gotten a little into buying stuff online, as we all have, for that microdose of dopamine. He’s bought gear, more books, his first new guitar since 2008. He’s jogging around the warehouses of Greenpoint, and sticking with his daily habit of writing over coffee in the morning, just putting stuff down that he’ll fix later: “You write a bad song first, and then you try to make it a good one.”
But the isolation makes it harder to discern exactly which bad ones are going to turn out to be the good ones. “I have a hard time with the loss of my normal life to kind of judge what’s worth pursuing, what’s what I like” he says. “There’s a lack of what you put your ideas up against. I write certain lines and they aren’t vibrating the way they might before. They aren’t up against the experiences you have in a normal week of going out and running into people and talking.” And the travel that he counts on for inspiration is on indefinite hold. “I find inspiration in motion, in travel. And that’s not necessarily going to the top of a mountain, that’s being stuck in an airport bar in St. Louis. That weird in-between state I get something from.”
Touring is going to look different in the After, but touring for The Hold Steady was beginning to look different anyway. “Instead of grinding it out on the road, we’ve gone into a sort of residency thing. We’ll go out and play three shows at the same club in a city. It’s actually been amazing, because not only have we gotten older, but a large part of our audience has gotten older too. So rather than rolling into a small Midwestern city on a Monday night and going on at 10:30, it’s like: why don’t you guys meet us in Chicago six months from now, and the Cubs are in town and we’ll make a weekend out of it?”
“When I try to look at that whole future thing, it feels pretty cloudy,” Finn says. “Every day brings a new surprise.” While we wait for the clouds to part, 2021’s Weekender is going on as scheduled: first weekend in March, live from Brooklyn Bowl, 3 p.m. Eastern to accommodate those London fans. Noon for us here on the West Coast, which, for me, a Hold Steady fan exactly Finn’s age, is kind of the ideal time for a rock show. “Yeah, noon is not as weird as it used to be. It’s not like you’re going to be running errands.”
And what’s time, anyway? Finn remembers a moment from that last Massive Nights weekend in December: “Toward the end of one of the shows, there was a guy who just held up a sign that said “Italy, 5am,” and I thought: wait, did he get up early, or had he never gone to bed? There was just this kind of beautiful sense of well, fuck it, here we are. We’re all going to do our best. And it made me feel incredible.”
So for now, we wait. But even when there is your laptop and what they do is play an empty room, there is still so much joy in what they do up there. And we need it worse than ever.