The Hold Steady's Boys And Girls In America is the New York meta-bar-band's third album in as many years. Like 2004's Almost Killed Me and 2005's Separation Sunday, it's a rollicking record about growing up and getting high in Minneapolis, and about how rock 'n' roll can make bad ideas sound great. The band's co-leaders, Craig Finn and Tad Kubler—who've been musical partners since their days in the Minneapolis cult act Lifter Puller—recently spoke with The A.V. Club about how they work together, why they can't stop singing about kids getting high, and why some critics absolutely hate them.
The A.V. Club: Boys And Girls In America has a theme, but not a concept. Is that right?
Craig Finn: Exactly. The title comes from Jack Kerouac: "Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together." That was the jumping-off point. But when we started writing, I thought, "You know, if I make a concept record again, I'm going to have to make one every time out, for the rest of my life." So this time, we did things a little different.
Tad Kubler: This is also, I think, one of the most personal records I've ever heard Craig write, whether he'd admit that to anyone else or not. There were times I remember listening to the lyrics and thinking, "Oh shit. I guess that's one way to handle it." [Laughs.] It's Boys And Girls In America, and that's kind of what it's about. Probably the largest theme in the history of rock 'n' roll.
AVC: Craig does revisit some old characters.
CF: Yeah, but not a lot. "First Night" is a fully extended window into Separation Sunday. It keeps alive the idea that I could pick up that story again if I wanted to. But it's just sort of that song. It gives the fans something, because everyone wants to hear what happens next. That's why I started using characters in the first place, because I'd hear songs by Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan when I was younger, and hear references to these seemingly real people, like Wendy in "Born To Run," and I'd think, "Wow, I'd like to know a little more about her."
AVC: Is there a song in particular that really challenged you as a guitarist?
TK: "Citrus." I was listening to a lot of Nick Drake and other older, more acoustic guitar players, and the song started out as an exercise, trying to get better at a guitar style I wasn't necessarily really comfortable with. My daughter really liked it. She's totally fascinated with music. When we walk around New York, if there's somebody in the park playing saxophone, she goes crazy in her stroller until I stop. So "Citrus" was kind of a song that I wrote for her. I remember, I showed it to Craig, and I was like, "Dude, I wrote this for my daughter, so can you not make this about some girl that's a junkie and dies?" [Laughs.] And he followed that out, and I thank him for that.
AVC: How old's your daughter?
TK: She's 2. A little Petri dish. The only time I'm not sick is when I'm on tour. She's super-social and we live in New York, so God knows what she's got right now. My girlfriend freaks out like she's got leukemia or something. I'm like, "Chill out, it's a fucking fever!"
AVC: You're out there playing these songs about destroyed American youth. Do you look at your daughter and think about what she might have to go through when she gets older?
TK: Yeah, but I think every parent does, right? A friend of mine has a kid who's 18, and he's like, "God, I busted my kid smoking weed yesterday." And I was like, "What did you do?" And he's like, "I didn't do anything! Thank God it's just weed!" And another friend, his kid's got ADD or something, and he's fuckin' up in school, and I'm like, "Can't you get medication for that?" And he's like, "Well, he's 14 now, and he's probably about to get into street drugs, and I don't want to throw anything else into the mix if I really don't have to."
AVC: Do you think you'll be more protective, or will you be the kind of parent who lets his kids experience all the rough stuff that everyone has to go through?
TK: I don't know. I don't even like to think about that. I'm pretty protective, I think, but at the playground, I'll let her play and shit. I've got to let her get hurt. Hopefully it isn't too severe, but the only way she's going to figure out that she's not big enough yet to swing across the monkey bars is if I let her fall. Thank God there's sand, and it's not that high up. But how do you know your coffee's too hot? You put it to your mouth.
AVC: Craig, why the continued fascination with drugs and strung-out teens?
CF: Can't get enough. [Laughs.] That's just sort of what I write about, these highs and lows, and how people get through life. And that's kind of what rock 'n' roll is about to me, this American teenage experience. From Chuck Berry to Bruce Springsteen… although Springsteen actually writes more about adults now. Maybe it's nostalgia on my part, but it's also trying to explain what's special about that time, now that you can see the forest for the trees, looking back 15 years. I think, quite honestly, the reality is that drugs and alcohol are a part of that experience for a majority of people, in some way. Not to the point of addiction or anything, but most people have it as a part of growing up, in their life or a friend's life.
AVC: You've said in the past that what the characters do in your songs isn't necessarily what you did when you were young, but more what you saw.
CF: Yeah, I mean, I was interested in rock 'n' roll right away, so getting into a punk-rock scene early, there's a lot going on. And then there's also high-school stuff. Kids getting high in the parking lot. Keg parties. Pretty all-American, but still about getting fucked up.
AVC: Did you participate?
CF: Not any more or less than most people.
AVC: All The Hold Steady records indicate that rock 'n' roll played a huge part in your collective boyhood. Do you have any specific memory of a moment when rock made an impact on your life?
TK: Well, I grew up across the street from the daughter of Ken Adamany, who in the '70s and '80s was Cheap Trick's manager. So my first exposure to music was meeting Rick Nielsen when I was about six. Also, a lot of the kids in the neighborhood I grew up in were a few years older than I was, and I'd go watch them play with their bands in their basements. They did Black Sabbath and Van Halen covers, shit like that. I was always borrowing their Judas Priest records, and Queen and Triumph and AC/DC. Right off the bat, rock 'n' roll played a huge part in who I hung out with and what my life involved. It's been downhill ever since, I suppose. [Laughs.]
AVC: Was being a rock guy about separating yourself from the crowd?
TK: No, it was about being with the kids I wanted to run around with. Also, there was always music in my house. My parents liked Jim Croce, The Beatles, Bob Seger, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, stuff like that. Music was always at the forefront, even when I was just a passenger. So hanging around with these other kids in bands just seemed like what you did. Like BMX racing, or skateboarding.
CF: I got into punk rock, and most specifically local punk rock, the first time I heard The Replacements. I got Hootenanny, and it was just great. They were mentioning streets that I knew very well in Minneapolis, and I couldn't believe that someone in my own city was making music like this. It was my first exposure to the possibilities of rock 'n' roll. Maybe not in the grand way, but in the small way. It seemed like you didn't have to be from Los Angeles to make a rock record. It sounds simple, but that's probably something I didn't literally know at that point.
AVC: Were you playing music back then?
CF: Nah. I was taking guitar lessons. [Laughs.] This is seventh grade I'm talking about. I didn't have a band or anything. But it all seemed possible at that point, where maybe it didn't before.
AVC: How much of the songs' subjects do you work out together?
TK: Craig is solely responsible for the lyrics, and it's a privilege to work with someone like Craig, because it makes my job easier. I think on this record, he had been constantly writing from the time we finished Separation Sunday, so he had a really clear idea what he wanted the songs to be about. So I tried to get into that too, by focusing on areas of my playing as a guitarist that were kind of out of my comfort zone. I tried to come up with song ideas that were going to force me to go to that place.
Obviously, you try never to make the same record twice, and I think with this one, we went into writing songs a little more deliberately. But at the same time, we write really quickly, and we always have. Especially since Craig and I have worked together for so long. It's five guys drinking beer in a shitty rehearsal space in Brooklyn, banging out rock songs. I wish there were a more artistic, creative explanation for what we're doing, but that's the God's honest truth.
CF: For the lyrics, I have words in these notebooks. I try to write a little bit every day, just free-writing, and then I go back and find out what's going to work for the song. I figure out, given the riff, what the meter and the vocal line is, and then I go through these books to find the lyrics. I don't think anyone really knows what the lyrics are until we record.
AVC: Not even you?
CF: [Laughs.] No, I know.
AVC: Do the guys ever ask you about them?
CF: Every once in a while. I think they're scared. [Laughs.] No, it's like an unveiling process once we get to the studio and they hear what I'm saying. And a lot of that is due to the physics of our P.A. not being loud enough for them to hear when we rehearse.
TK: Craig writes all the time. When I'm driving and we're on tour, it's always super-distracting, because every 10 minutes, he'll grab his backpack, rip his notebook out, scribble something down for four or five minutes, then stuff it back in there. And this goes on for hours. Every 10 minutes this happens, and I can see it out of the corner of my eye, and it drives me fucking nuts.
AVC: How much do you throw away?
TK: It's probably about half and half. We'll even go so far as to structure a whole song musically, and we'll play it for six practices and you can kind of tell nobody's feeling it, so it just never comes up again. [Laughs.] We probably had like 25 to 27 songs we wrote music for on this record. Then we picked through the ones we liked and Craig put lyrics to 15 of them. We recorded 15, and put 11 on the record.
Franz [Nicolay], our piano player, has a pretty big writing role now. He's an outrageously talented guy and a classically trained musician, and a lot of the songs, he and I just sat down with a piano and an acoustic guitar and banged some stuff out. Especially the arrangements. Plus, if we have a four-hour rehearsal, at least an hour and a half of that is just talking about nothing in particular. "Oh, check this out, I was on the train today…" That's part of the songwriting process too. It doesn't sound very artistic, but that's really kind of what it is.
AVC: Tad, when it comes to writing big riffs, do you check yourself against repeating what other guitarists have done?
TK: Oh no, I just let it happen. And I think I wear my influences on my sleeve. [Laughs.] I should probably just cut Jimmy Page a check. But you know what? If it sounds good, it is good. You've just got to keep it that simple. Obviously you want to grow as an artist and a musician and a songwriter, and that's something I always try to stay conscious of, but at the same time, it's rock music, you know? It's fun. We're havin' a good time. It doesn't need to be any more complicated than that.
AVC: What was the first song you learned on guitar?
CF: Straight on through? I think "Blitzkrieg Bop." Before that, of course, I learned how to play "Smoke On The Water." Just the riff.
TK: I think mine was Judas Priest's "Living After Midnight." And then The Kinks' "You Really Got Me." I took a couple of lessons when I got my first guitar, when I was 11 or 12. Then I got into punk rock shortly after, and I was like, "Fuck, I don't need lessons!"
AVC: Craig, did you see The Replacements live much?
CF: Oh yeah. I saw them at The 7th Street Entry, which is about a 250-capacity club. And First Avenue. All the way back to the Let It Be era.
AVC: Great shows or shitty shows?
CF: Both. I'm also a fan of The Grateful Dead, who could play great shows and then very bad shows. If you don't take the risks—if it doesn't verge on being out of control—rock 'n' roll never gets good. Being on the edge of totally losing it is the best a rock band can be.
AVC: Do you feel like there are nights when The Hold Steady completely falls apart on stage?
CF: It doesn't happen that often, but there are certainly nights when we go for things that don't work.
AVC: How important do you think it is for a band to sound similar in the recording studio and on stage?
TK: That seemed to be a real popular philosophy about 10 or 15 years ago. Steve Albini was such a big proponent of the studio being more of a conduit for capturing how a band sounds live. But we're not playing live, we're playing in a room with headphones on, and there's a lot of glass that separates everybody. It's two different things. That's what's so cool and exciting about being in the studio—you get to experiment a little more, then find a different way to translate that live.
AVC: On the flip side, how important is it to you to have a reputation as a good live band?
CF: I think it's just important in the landscape of music right now. It's getting increasingly harder to sell records. Bands live and die by their live shows. But those have always been the bands I love, too. I'd hate for it to be the other way around. That would hurt my pride, for people to say, "Well, their records are great, but they aren't much live."
AVC: Why do you think The Hold Steady produces such a love/hate reaction?
CF: I think my vocals are hard for some people to take. I also think that people of a certain age in the indie-rock scene experience music as a part of their identity. If you're into, like, I don't know, Saddle Creek or whatever, and you're younger, you want people to know that's what you're into. I think us being kind of classic-rock-based might be threatening to those people's sense of identity. I can understand that. I love The Grateful Dead and I also love hardcore, but when I was 20, I couldn't see how I could love both. At 35, it makes tons of sense to me.
AVC: Did you watch the reality-TV series Rock Star: Supernova?
TK: Is that the one with Tommy Lee? No I haven't.
CF: I think I've seen one episode.
AVC: The contestants were all pros to some extent, but they still really got off on having their one moment to rock out to a Who song in front of America. It was kind of touching.
TK: Totally living the dream. But at the same time, it seems so trite. Yeah. That's the dichotomy of rock 'n' roll. And celebrity, too. My girlfriend reads those fuckin' magazines, and I don't understand it. Leave fucking Jennifer Aniston alone! That poor fucking woman!
AVC: At least you aren't popular enough to be stalked by paparazzi.
TK: Oh man, thank God. Because I tell you what, if you'd caught me at around 2 a.m. last night, you'd have a whole fucking magazine, man. I don't even want to get into it.
AVC: What were you doing?
TK: None of your business. [Laughs.] Rock 'n' roll can lead to some complex moral situations. Let's leave it at that.