Over the course of a long and decorated career surviving in rock music’s unsavory trenches, Craig Finn has established a well-earned reputation as a detailed and compassionate chronicler of life's coulda-beens and also-rans. Best known as the animating force behind the Slade-meets-Hubert Selby bar-rock powerhouse the Hold Steady, the Twin Cities–raised singer and songwriter started out in music as the frontman for the well-loved cult act Lifter Puller, and has also released three solo albums in the past five years. The most recent of these, We All Want The Same Things, feels like a landmark in Finn's trajectory. Casting aside the obligatory big chorus gestures of the Hold Steady, as well as the attendant mythology of rock music as saving grace, Finn drills down in his writing and hits a lot of bone. "Tangletown" is a devastating and frequently hilarious Carver-like character study of two Americans still wishing for love despite drowning in debt and malaise. The partially spoken-word "God In Chicago" is a remarkable act of imagination, perhaps the best of Finn's many involved paeans to the blessings and curses of minor criminality. We recently spoke to the songwriter about his new record, Donald Trump, the late Chuck Berry, and his other recent doings.
I always thought one of the most important and least well-understood aspects of The Replacements was working-class identity and status anxiety. Throughout your catalog, you evince a fascination and sympathy with the economically and socially marginal. We All Want The Same Things seems particularity fixated on detailed depictions of the working poor. Can you discuss what draws you to this as a subject matter?
I think in Lifter Puller and The Hold Steady, I was especially attracted to characters that were in some ways desperate, because their stories moved quicker. I felt desperation lead to movement in some way. But as I get older, I'm more interested in older characters and the idea of not getting stuck. That seems to be a major challenge of adulthood —moving forward economically, emotionally, spiritually. This record features a lot of people that feel a bit trapped and are wishing for or are trying for some space and freedom. I think touring a lot for the past 10 years has had a lot of effect on it too. I've spent a lot of time in frontage road hotels, eating alone in diners, etc. I eavesdrop a lot. I take a lot of walks when I'm on tour to look around and think about stories.
Building off of that, we recently witnessed Donald Trump elected on the strength of an unanticipated wave of support in the industrial Midwest. I'm curious, given the forensic nature of your character studies, if you've considered if many of the people you describe might have been Trump supporters. By and large the sort of characters that populate your songs are well-intentioned but feel lost and left behind. Given your background as a Midwesterner and a chronicler of the emotionally and economically depressed, I wonder if you have a certain sympathy for those attracted to Trump as a savior figure?
I definitely think some of the characters on this record would not vote the same way I do. And I have sympathy and empathy for anyone who feels they need some kind of Hail Mary to get through. I write a lot about people hoping for saviors. That word savior comes up in my songs a bunch, and it's not just in the religious sense. Because I think a lot of people put 99.9 percent of their time and energy, physically and mentally, into just getting by. And a ton of people don't have major ideas of how to get beyond that. I fully understand someone can feel disillusioned by the system that exists, and that they might have nothing to lose. That said, I also often get angry and actually bewildered by anyone who can't tell what a sham this guy is.
A principal characteristic of your writing has long been a co-mingling of exceedingly earthbound concerns — getting by, getting high, staying out of jail — set to a backdrop of profound spiritual striving. That's a powerful tension that has antecedents in Hank Williams, Dylan's gospel period, and Van Morrison's "Madame George" to name just a very few. Hopefully without being creepy, I'm curious to know your relationship to your spirituality and what role it plays in your writing and worldview at this juncture?
I was raised Catholic, went to Jesuit college, etc. so it's ingrained in me for sure. I think my mind goes there when issues of morality come up. Your parents tell you not to tell lies, but at Sunday School you talk about it a lot, and what consequences there are. So it's always in my head in some way. In the songs, I'm super interested in infusing a sense of wonder and a divine presence in the everyday. On the new record there's a song, “Preludes,” about someone (me) drunkenly crashing a car into a snowbank and then thanking God for sending a sign that he was too drunk to drive. Those kinds of applications of religion are especially interesting to me, blaming or thanking God for mistakes or triumphs that were also likely within your control. I like looking for magic in the mundane.
While there are plenty of catchy songs and lots of laugh-out-loud moments, We All Want The Same Things is in many ways a downbeat and even resigned record. Back to The ‘Mats, I was always puzzled by the largely negative response to their last record All Shook Down, a record that I think is full of great songs and a narratively downbeat tone, which always struck me as the only congruent way to end their story. I wonder if you face a similar dilemma coming from the Hold Steady, where it is possible fans may have missed the implicit reckoning amidst the anthems of debauchery? Are they prepared to be there for the next-morning aftermath, after the party breaks up?
With The Hold Steady I've always tried to write about the hangover as well as the high, but there's also a sense of telling the hangover to fuck off even while acknowledging that it's coming. Like, we're going to feel terrible tomorrow but let's make tonight worth it. And I think Hold Steady shows feel like a celebration of that feeling. But the characters in We All Want The Same Things are older, further along, and trying to figure out how to push forward in a world that doesn't make a lot of space for them. If Hold Steady songs often take place during “massive nights,” then a fair amount of the songs on this record take place on anxious afternoons.
Everyone who has ever worked in the tradition owes an enormous debt of gratitude to Chuck Berry. I think of this applying to you in a very specific way as a lyricist. Amongst his contemporaries and beyond, Berry was unique in the capacity he demonstrated for world building: creating archetypal characters, shuttling them through intensely specific adventures, and gradually wringing a kind universality through this process. I think of your approach as being in many ways the same. Were you a Chuck guy?
Yes. So much. More than I think most people would guess. I went through a huge Chuck Berry review about 10 years ago, and I think it’s impossible to overestimate his influence on all rock and roll. To me, people talk a lot about his guitar playing, but his voice, and singing, is just incredible. And I do believe that most of the best rock and roll is funny in some way — Dylan, Springsteen, Jagger, Nick Cave, Paul Westerberg, etc. — they all have really funny moments. Chuck Berry brought a huge amount of that to the table. He gave names to a lot of people in his songs: Maybellene, Johnny B Goode, et cetera. I like that specificity, and that happens in my own songs for sure. I saw Chuck one time. It was after a Minnesota Strikers indoor soccer game, he played with The Coasters and Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon. It was fantastic.
What is current status of the Hold Steady? Will your solo work be taking precedence for the foreseeable future?
The Hold Steady just announced three shows in Chicago in June, and we did four in Brooklyn in December. We are trying to make the shows we play special rather than touring around indiscriminately and indefinitely. The shows in Brooklyn were spectacular, and I believe the ones in Chicago will be too. At the same time, I’m really proud and excited about the work I’m doing as a solo artist and plan to pursue that strongly. It feels like two different muscles — it feels good to flex both of them. And there’s plenty of time for both.