The Hold Steady: Smart Lyrics And Rock Riffs Seven years and five albums into its existence, The Hold Steady is still making intelligent rock music. Heaven Is Whenever is the band's latest record, and it confronts themes of struggle, redemption and reward.
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The Hold Steady: Smart Lyrics And Rock Riffs

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The Hold Steady: Smart Lyrics And Rock Riffs

The Hold Steady: Smart Lyrics And Rock Riffs

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(Soundbite of song, "The Weight")

The Band (Rock Group): (Singing) I pulled into Nazareth, I was feeling about half past dead.

GUY RAZ, host:

A few years ago, a musician named Craig Finn was watching the 1978 concert film called "The Last Waltz" at his apartment in Brooklyn. The movie features the rock group The Band. And after it ended, Finn asked himself: Why doesn't anyone make music like that anymore, music that tells a story?

His answer to that question came a year later when he formed his new band. They're called The Hold Steady.

(Soundbite of song, "Hurricane J")

THE HOLD STEADY (Rock Group): (Singing) You're a beautiful girl and you're a pretty good waitress, but Jesse I don't think I'm the guy. I don't want this to stop.

RAZ: This track is called "Hurricane J." It's from The Hold Steady's fifth and latest album, "Heaven Is Whenever." And front man Craig Finn writes tiny little novellas that masquerade as four-minute rock songs. In this track we're hearing, the character is a man trying to get out of a relationship with a young woman named Jesse.

Mr. CRAIG FINN (Singer, The Hold Steady): Jessie is a waitress. I was originally reading the book "Lush Life" by Richard Price. And in the book, there's a relationship between a younger waitress and an older restaurant manager, and I sort of took that dynamic and jumped off to create this story about Jesse and someone at her work at this restaurant.

And obviously, she's younger, the guy's older. And he really thinks he's holding all the cards, but in some way, I wanted to kind of play with who's got the upper hand here because he's kind of stuck in this one thing and she's got her whole life ahead of her.

(Soundbite of song, "HURRICANE J")

THE HOLD STEADY: (Singing) Hurricane Jesse's gonna crash into the harbor this summer. She don't want to wait she said it only gets harder.

RAZ: When you guys set out to create The Hold Steady, what was it that you wanted to say or to sound like or sort of that thing that you weren't hearing in other music around you?

Mr. FINN: I think it was just smart rock 'n' roll, you know, good, big guitar sounds and good riffs and mixed with smart lyrics. And at the time when we formed, there was a lot of sort of dance-punk kind of things happening in Brooklyn especially. But also, there was, you know, the garage-rock thing where everyone dresses up in the same suits and, you know, says baby, baby, baby a lot. So I think we wanted something more sophisticated lyrically. It seemed like a simple concept, but when you looked around at the time, there wasn't many bands doing that.

RAZ: The Hold Steady has recurring characters from one record to the next. And a few years ago, you wrote a song called "Chips Ahoy!," which is about psychic girl and her boyfriend.

(Soundbite of song, "Chips Ahoy!")

THE HOLD STEADY: (Singing) She put $900 on the fifth horse in the sixth race. I think its name was Chips Ahoy.

RAZ: And I think that they seem to make a reappearance in the song "The Weekenders."

(Soundbite of song, "The Weekenders")

THE HOLD STEADY: (Singing) There was the whole weird thing with the horses.

RAZ: Is that right?

Mr. FINN: That's correct. I was thinking about Facebook and how people are all getting back in touch with old friends. And I was sort of thinking, well, it's been four years or so since those two characters had this adventure from the first song, and I thought, well, what if there was something where one of them was reaching out to the other just to kind of see if they're still around or if they might be interested in hanging out. So it's kind of, you know, a modern visit on some old friends.

(Soundbite of song, "The Weekenders")

THE HOLD STEADY: (Singing) I wish we hadn't gone and destroyed it because I was thinking we could pull another weekender. You've still got a little bit of clairvoyance. I remember the metal bar. I remember the reservoir. You could say our paths had crossed before.

RAZ: I'm speaking with Craig Finn of the band The Hold Steady. The new album is called "Heaven is Whenever." Craig Finn, how would you describe the narrative art of this record? I mean, what's this album about?

Mr. FINN: I think this record's really about struggle and reward. You know, heaven is whenever. Heaven is the - kind of the ultimate reward in the Christian sense. And I was kind of thinking about how in life, we kind of have to embrace the struggle or embrace the suffering as part of a joyous life. So the record is really about understanding kind of our whole life as an arc, as a positive one, even through the dark times.

RAZ: Craig, you've talked about Catholicism, and you've used Catholicism as a backdrop for a lot of your characters with lyrics like, you know, hit the 5:30 mass on a Saturday night. You say you've tried Jesus, but it was too inconvenient. What is it about those things that kind of appeal to you and to your writing?

Mr. FINN: Well, I think, you know, I was raised going to church. So the rituals and all that of a Catholic mass are comforting to me and kind of help I'm able to frame things sort of in the time that I spent at mass and in church. And, you know, I still occasionally go.

I think that things like forgiveness and redemption are beautiful concepts. And so, you know, a lot of my - the characters in the songs are kind of downtrodden. They're in not great places. But the idea that there is always salvation available and that you can never get too far gone, I want to capture those things.

(Soundbite of song, "We Can Get Together")

THE HOLD STEADY: (Singing) Heaven is whenever we can get together, sit down on your floor and listen to your records. Heaven is whenever we can get together, lock your bedroom door and listen to your records.

RAZ: Craig, you've written that making it to the fifth album is kind of like sort of a big deal. You've talked about famous fifth albums from bands that you love, you know, Led Zeppelin and "Physical Graffiti," REM's "Document," The Clash's "Combat Rock." And you make it clear you're not comparing yourselves to those bands but that to you, it's a pretty big achievement.

But in order to reach that point, you wrote, and I'm quoting you, "For a band to reach that point, it still has to have something to say that feels it hasn't said before."

Mr. FINN: Yeah. And backing up a second, after I wrote that, I realized that "Physical Graffiti" is Led Zeppelin's sixth record. So there's a lot of comment section, you know.

RAZ: Right.

Mr. FINN: That's right. The guy's halfway through typing right now. At the fifth record, you know, traditionally, rock 'n' roll bands start to sing, especially in the '70s, about rock 'n' roll itself, you know, going down the road, going to the next show. So I started writing all these road songs, and something like "Rock Problems," which was, you know, real-life things that are happening to a touring band.

(Soundbite of song, "Rock Problems")

THE HOLD STEADY: (Singing) She said I just can't sympathize with your rock and roll problems. Isn't this what we wanted? Some major rock and roll problems.

Mr. FINN: I created sort of a fantasy world through the characters already. And playing rock 'n' roll for a living is kind of a fantasy world, as well. So it's kind of juxtaposed the fantasy world that's been created through the characters with our own fantasy world that we live every day.

RAZ: Craig, when people go to your concerts and they listen to this record, what do you want them to come away from it saying or thinking?

Mr. FINN: I guess I feel like it's age-appropriate. I'm 38 years old, and I think the lyrics, a lot of them come from a place of contentment at being 38. And sometimes when you see, like, a 15-year-old kid walking down the street, you know that the ages of, you know, say, 15 to 23 are kind of a rough age. And you - I just want to grab them and say, you know, it's all going to be okay. And in some ways, I think that's what this record's about.

(Soundbite of song, "Soft in the Center")

THE HOLD STEADY: (Singing) You gotta get yourself right, kid. I'm gonna give you some advice.

RAZ: That's Craig Finn of The Hold Steady. He joined me from member station KQED in San Francisco. Their new album is called "Heaven is Whenever." You can hear a few tracks from it at our website,

(Soundbite of song, "Soft in the Center")

THE HOLD STEADY: (Singing) You'll love the ones you get the best. Kid, you can't kiss every girl. You gotta trust me on this one. You gotta trust me on this one. I know what you're going through. I had to go through that too. I know what you're going through.

RAZ: And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Thanks for listening and have a great week.

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