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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The musician Tad Kubler was over 30 when he finally made the recordings that brought him success. Several members of the Hold Steady were past the age when rock stars are usually made.

Mr. TAD KUBLER (Musician): We just thought starting a band would give us an excuse to get together a couple times a week and hang out. And then next thing you know, it seems like we're in the airport in London with a 14-hour-delayed flight to Croatia to play with the Stooges.

(Soundbite of music)

HOLD STEADY (Rock Band): (Singing) (unintelligible)

INSKEEP: Their somewhat delayed success seems to affect their new album, "Stay Positive," and other recordings. The Hold Steady sing of people who've been around a few years and who suffer for it. Consider this Midwestern woman who takes drugs for the first time and watches 16 years fly by in a blink.

(Soundbite of music)

HOLD STEADY: (Singing) She got high for the first time (unintelligible), and wants to be 17 forever. And she got confused about the truth, and she can chew on a confession. She got high for the last time, and they camped out by the banks of the river. Longs to be 33 forever.

INSKEEP: The lyrics of band member Craig Finn often mark time along the river that he remembers from growing up in Minnesota.

Mr. CRAIG FINN (Musician, Hold Steady): The Mississippi River, as an example, is sort of the life blood of America, and it runs between Minneapolis and St. Paul. You don't think about it that often when you're living there, but you know, having some distance from it, looking back, you see this romantic, huge body of water.

INSKEEP: Well, let's listen to one of your new songs that is set on the banks of the Mississippi River, in Memphis, to be particular. It's called "Sequestered in Memphis."

(Soundbite of song, "Sequestered in Memphis")

HOLD STEADY: (Singing) Yeah, sure, I'll tell my story again. In bar-light, she looked all right. In daylight, she looked desperate. That's all right, I was desperate, too. I'm getting pretty sick of this interview. Subpoenaed in Texas, sequestered in Memphis. Subpoenaed…

INSKEEP: So I listen to that song, and I'm all of a sudden in the story of some minor character in "Law and Order" or one of those murder shows. A guy goes out with the wrong girl, discovers she's wanted for something, and all of a sudden he's in one of those grey rooms being questioned by people.

Mr. FINN: Right. It's happened to all of us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Is there some true story behind it?

Mr. FINN: Not at all. That was just sort a story I thought up. It's - I mean, I'm sort of fascinated by people who are smart enough to make good decisions but continue to make bad decisions.

INSKEEP: Do you guys feel like you have a little better perspective on people? Because, well, let's face it. You're a little bit older than your normal band that's on the third or fourth album.

Mr. FINN: I think that when you're 36 like I am, you look back at people who are 19 and 20. You see this great age of having a car, maybe a little money, but still you're not as smart as you think you are. And that's where a lot of the roots of my - you know, the behavior that my songs talk about come from.

INSKEEP: May I play a little bit of another song here which, if I understand it correctly, it's somebody who's in college, probably some college town. It's the way I imagine it anyway, you'll tell me if I'm wrong, and…

Mr. FINN: You're right.

INSKEEP: …ends up hanging out with the townies, the people live in town, either go to school or they don't, but a different class of people than you imagine the upper-class kids from out of town.

(Soundbite of music)

HOLD STEADY: (Singing) When there weren't any parties, she parked by the quarry, walked into the woods until she came to a clearing where townies would gather and drink until blackout, smoke cigs till they're sick, (unintelligible) and then pass out.

INSKEEP: This song does make me think of class differences. You've got this woman who is doing pretty well. She's in college. She's got a good future. She can go drink and mess around, and it's okay. She's going to be fine. But she's hanging out with these people for whom this is the high point of life, and that's about all there is.

Mr. FINN: Yeah. And I think there's also that age there, too, where you realize you might be fooling around or thinking something as low stakes. But in an instant, things can get sort of strange and really make a big impact on the rest of your life.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Who's responsible for the regular references in your music to redemption, to sinning, to crucifixion, to loss and trying to recover again?

Mr. FINN: The responsibility lies on me and the many millions of hours I spend in church as a kid. I was raised Catholic. I don't go to church regularly, although I am going more lately. But, you know, it's just - there's a beauty in it of forgiveness and redemption, especially in regards to the Catholic Church, are interesting to me.

(Soundbite of song, "Lord, I'm Discouraged")

HOLD STEADY: (Singing) Lord, I'm discouraged. The circles have sucked in her eyes. Lord, I'm discouraged. Her new friends have shadowed her life.

INSKEEP: Again, you're not the guy in that song driving yourself into the gutter. You're watching somebody else do it.

Mr. FINN: Yeah. I mean, that song is really - obviously, we write about drugs and alcohol, celebration, as well as hangovers. But I think that that's the first song that I think that's really talked how alcoholism or drug addiction can really rip apart not just people, but the people close to them and the people that love them.

(Soundbite of song, "Lord, I'm Discouraged")

HOLD STEADY: (Singing) …they burn to nothing, she keeps coming up with excuses and half-truths and fortified wine - excuses and half-truths and fortified wine. There's a house on the south side she stays in for days at a time.

Mr. FINN: The focus, or the star, of "Separation Sunday," our second record -this was not a prodigal-son story, I guess a prodigal-daughter story. It's about a girl.

INSKEEP: Tell us the story.

Mr. FINN: Well, a girl who grew up in a religious background and goes off to try to find something bigger, better, or something that she's missing, and has a lot of experiences and ends up coming back, not only to her family and to her town but to her church.

INSKEEP: Do you ever wonder if you're going to go into some Cat Stevens kind of phase, just become so spiritual that you find that you can't do what you've been doing anymore?

Mr. FINN: I think I'm more religious than spiritual. I don't know if I'm that spiritual a person. I just like going to church. So I think I'm at low risk of that. I think - I wonder if I might get the opposite of Cat Stevens and be too normal and end up watching too many baseball games and eating too many wings.

(Soundbite of music)

HOLD STEADY: (Singing) (unintelligible) We've got to stay positive. (unintelligible)

INSKEEP: Greg Finn and Tad Kubler of the Hold Steady. The music section of npr.org has songs from "Stay Positive," and this group described as Midwestern Bruce Springsteen described meeting the real Springsteen. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DEBORAH AMOS, host:

And I'm Deborah Amos.

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