The Hold Steady - Craig Finn and Franz Nicolay on "Thrashing Thru the Passion" - A Late Peak | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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The Hold Steady - Craig Finn and Franz Nicolay on “Thrashing Thru the Passion”

A Late Peak

Jan 10, 2020 Web Exclusive
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Aside from being a return to form for The Hold Steady after a couple of lackluster LPs, 2019's Thrashing Thru the Passion also marked the return on wax of keyboardist Franz Nicolay. His tense departure about a decade ago, which he then attributed to being "kind of a fox in a hedgehog band," was followed by a lull for the Brooklyn bred band. But the famously mustached, vaudeville indebted keyboardist and backup vocalist began singing a different tune a few years back in every sense of the word, rejoining Hold Steady cohorts Craig Finn (vocals, guitar), Tad Kubler (lead guitar), Galen Polivka (bass), Bobby Drake (drums), and new guitarist Steve Selvidge for a handful of gigs, and then a string of piecemeal recordings. They bundled many of those one-offs into the collection Thrashing Thru the Passion, one of 2019's very best releases, and drew praise from The Washington Post last fall for defying both conventional recording cycles and standard touring with their residencies at venues across the country.

In two separate interviews with Under the Radar, Nicolay and Finn look back on their triumphant year, reflect on the trials of parenthood and being praised as music industry entrepreneurs, and tell us how it feels great to literally have the band back together again.

Q&A with Franz Nicolay

Kyle Mullin (Under the Radar): How does it feel to be back on The Hold Steady's latest record? 

Franz Nicolay: It's been several years since I rejoined, almost as many years as my first stint. But yes, it feels really good to be a part of it. The band's in a great space. It's been baby steps every step of the way. The other members hadn't been playing for 18 months or so when I re-joined. So there was a process of people feeling each other out. Reuniting for live shows lead to new songs, and we've achieved some real momentum now. We have a collection of songs on a piece of vinyl, but really it's been a process of recording over time. We were in the studio doing some new stuff pretty much the week Thrashing Thru the Passion came out. So I'm glad people like it. But wait until you hear the new stuff! 

A Washington Post article praised that piecemeal, streaming friendly recording process, along with your recent ditching of conventional touring in favor of residencies, as entrepreneurial and innovative. How did it feel to be framed that way?

It feels a little funny. We didn't invent a software or algorithm. We just have a dedicated enough fanbase to be able to do these sorts of things. It's not for everyone. But for veteran bands who have a critical mass of people that want to see them, it just makes sense. We put in a lot of work touring over the years, and we have a good sense of what we like and don't like to do. And we're in a position now to do the things we want to do. 

Some musicians like to talk about the benefits of limitations, hurdles, and discomfort, how all that can be an inspiration. But that's not the case for you guys? Knowing what you like, and trying to stick to it, helps your artistry? 

Let me put it this way: there's a lot of dead time in the average full-time rock band's schedule. And those lulls are filled up by moving gear, and driving, and doing interviews if you're in a press cycle. All this stuff that's not making music. And the challenge that has presented itself at this point in our careers is: not everybody lives in the same city, and we don't have a regular schedule where we see each other a couple of times a week, like we used to.

I found, when I became a father, your amount of time is severely circumscribed. So you make a point of doing more with the time you have. Now if I only have two hours to work, I often get as much done as when I had eight hours during more carefree times. And I would propose that something similar is going on with us-with everybody's busy schedules, with Craig's solo touring, with me and Steve living in different cities, we don't have unlimited time to dick around, and play songs over and over. So we have to do as much preliminary work as we can, and luckily technology has advanced enough for all the primary songwriters to make demos, chopping up other people's demos into other arrangements, and adding bridges or choruses or things like that. Everyone can have a lot of that arrangement work, and teaching each other the parts, and proof of concepts on a song, all done before we even get into a room. We always worked fast, putting out a record a year back in the day, but now we're even more efficient. 

Aside from ramping up your efficiency, does parenthood inspire your creativity?

No, I would say the opposite. Which is not what people often say. But artist parents quietly talking to themselves often admit there's all these things getting in your way. I found I've lost some of my performing mojo, because there was a certain nihilism and cynicism in my onstage character that I couldn't access once I began taking things so much more seriously as a parent. 

And anytime I'm working on the book I'm writing, I'm not doing Hold Steady demos, or vice versa. Or anytime I'm prepping for a class that I'm teaching, I'm not writing lyrics for something. Where I once might have been able to work on two or three large scale projects at a time, there's a triage now that has to take place. 

And what about your time away from the band-has that led to you bringing new ideas, skills, and styles to The Hold Steady that you accumulated while you were away?

Mainly what it did was give me a better attitude about the band. I was coming back to it having done the stuff I wanted to do outside of the band's busy schedule back in the day. I got that out of my system. And I got some perspective on how good the band is. I was so much in the bubble in those five very intense years, that I didn't have time to step back and realize how much the band meant to so many people, a lot of whom I met while travelling around doing my solo stuff. 

What specifically do you have a newfound appreciation for? Craig's lyrics? The rhythm section? The band's onstage chops?

Craig's lyrics, I'd say, are a given. I remember having a conversation with a producer about a song not working, and how I wanted to scrap it. And he said, "But the lyrics are so great!" And I said, "Yeah, the lyrics are always great. But let's put that aside." 

But here's something that's made it a tremendous pleasure to be back playing with the band, particularly writing new songs with them: the addition of Steve on guitar, who I hadn't previously played or written with. He gives us this infinitely bigger palate, because of his musicianship and professionalism and because of the things he can do, and how that frees [guitarist] Tad to not have to fill up all the space. And that goes for me too, it gives us a much more textured and more musical ensemble in a way that's really fun. A new texture is always welcome. Having Steve in the mix has unlocked a new cabinet of tools that are really fun for all of us to take advantage of. 

It must be great to have that fun new dynamic, and to have your other solo needs done and out of your system. By the way, were those solo hankerings what made you leave the band in the first place?

No. It was one of many reasons. Of which I don't want to rehash again, because I've talked about it a lot. My joke is that one of the reasons I rejoined The Hold Steady is so that I wouldn't have to keep answering questions about why I quit. 

Fair enough. I'd also like to ask you about your favorite songs on Thrashing Thru the Passion

"Blackout Sam" I love. It really works. And "Epaulets" really gets me excited. It's a super energetic song. There are many times where Craig is writing lyrics on the spot, and the first time I heard "Epaulets" it was one of those "Holy shit!" moments. I couldn't believe he wrote that. "She texts from the exit, says she's on her way over/In an ocelot coat with the epaulet shoulders." That's so fucking good. 

I'm happy with most of the stuff that's on there. Everyone has their little pet ones that they wish had made it on there. For me that's "Snake in the Shower." But luckily those songs still exist out there online, they're just not on the LP.

Right, like you guys said in the Washington Post article: the way fans can access music now, and the way you can put music out song by song on streaming services these days, all allows The Hold Steady to have more fun recording. 

As far as I'm concerned, there doesn't need to be a canonic track listing anymore. If people want to make a playlist in any combination, that doesn't bother me at all. 

Lastly, what are your fondest memories from your recent successful string of Hold Steady residencies? 

I'm just amazed by how far people are willing to come to the shows. People come from Japan and New Zealand and various places in Scandinavia. It adds to the level of community between the audience and the band. Everyone is travelling to be there. That also makes it a special weekend for us-we're coming to do this special thing that we all get to experience together. That's always special and amazing. 

Q&A with Craig Finn

One Thrashing Thru the Passion song that everyone seems to love is "Denver Haircut." What inspired you to write about a protagonist shaving his head at the airport?

Being a touring musician, I've spent a lot of time at airports. And sometimes you see people that are a little too comfortable at the airport. Sometimes I just get the first line, and the lyrics unfurl from there. This is one of those instances. 

Are you at airports less, now that you're spending more time in central venues as part of The Hold Steady's residencies? 

For The Hold Steady, yes. But not for my solo career. I'm about to go to Europe for three weeks of solo gigs, actually. It's awesome though. The solo career has allowed me to keep as busy as I want to be, which is very busy. And it also allows me to do a different type of song, and investigate different themes than I would in a Hold Steady song. This current arrangement allows me to flex two different muscles. With The Hold Steady, the music being big, big, big, I write about people doing dangerous or outrageous things. In my solo music, I write more about people who are trying to do the right thing, but that's not working for whatever reason. 

Is that a conscious decision on your part?

It's because, when I get the music for The Hold Steady, from one of the other guys usually, there are these big riffs. So it inspires me to write about big, wild things, like people getting shot or falling off the roof, or shaving your head in the airport, and so on. And with my own songs I'm able to do be more empathetic, and turn the lens on something that's a little smaller, and blow it up a little bit, to something that more resembles my actual life. 

Speaking of getting music from your bandmates, I wanted to ask you about working with Franz again on Thrashing Thru the Passion, the first Hold Steady album that he's contributed to in over a decade. 

Yeah it's great. When he left, we replaced him with Steve Selvidge, and when he came back Steve is still here, so now we have the best of both worlds. And having those two collaborate I think has been really interesting to watch, and it's a big part of the sound on this record. They figured out spaces for each of them to add a lot to the music. It was real cool to make a record with this lineup. And when we play live, it's the strongest lineup we've ever had.

Do you think Franz's time away led to him bringing new ideas and strengths to the band now that he's back?

It's hard for me to say. But overall we're all older and bringing in newer stuff across the board. 

It must be exciting to feel like you have your strongest lineup yet. After all, the stereotype is that many bands fizzle out over time. 

We're hitting a peak pretty late here! But it is exciting. The live shows have been just fantastic over the past few years. The fans, the community around the band, have been leaving me feeling really enthused and excited. 

I think the way we've done our business, by doing multiple shows in different markets, has highlighted the community around the band. And it allows us to be more musical. We can vary our set lists, and not worry about packing gear every night. We try to make the sets different each night, and the fans are appreciative of that, with some of them coming a few nights in a row. So we try to give them a different show every night and that keeps our head in the game, and makes us a better band. 

How did you guys come up with the idea to do residencies? 

We did one in Toronto in 2014 and people came from all over to see it. And we thought that was a lot more fun than having a smaller show in four towns around the central location, and keep always moving. So we tried it in Brooklyn in 2016, and then in Chicago and that was a big success, and now we're going to keep going with them. We're 15 years in, and members of the band have different ideas about touring and how much more they want to do, some of them have kids and so on. So this makes more sense than going to every little town, where we may or may not have a good fanbase. 

You're also breaking convention on the recording front, shaking off conventional album cycles and releasing new songs piecemeal. 

It frees us. To record an LP and wait eight months for it to come out seems like a long time. Now it's cool to have this direct channel to fans, where if we want to put out a new song we just put it out. 

Franz told me he's excited about that as well. He said there was debate about what songs made the cut for Thrashing Thru the Passion, but those that didn't make it can just be released online. 

Exactly, and I think that's really cool. But I'm actually a little surprised by how many fans feel like they need the album, still. Because there is something about putting out an album, even when it's a collection, which Thrashing Thru the Passion sort of is, it becomes legitimized in some people's eyes. We'll try to keep pleasing all those people. But we love the idea of music coming out sporadically whenever we feel like it. And it's nice to know everyone has access digitally to all the songs. 

Did you ever think, back when The Hold Steady was formed, that one day The Washington Post would write a business story about how entrepreneurial you are with these piecemeal releases and residencies? It must be surreal. 

I hadn't thought about it that way. But it's healthy to question whether or not the current model is working, and whether we're just doing it because "we're supposed to." 

We're very much in touch with our fans. We know where they are. We talk to them, and listen to them. So it's always worth reevaluating how you're doing things. Because a lot of these things make it more efficient for us, help us ward off fatigue, and let us concentrate on what's most exciting for us. 

How do you maintain that dialogue with your fans?

We do social media, and an email list that helps us know where our fans are. But it's also just about talking to fans when we meet them. Before we put out this latest album a lot of people were asking for vinyl, which lead us to get some records pressed.

Are you ever taken aback by those fan interactions, and how passionate they are about your music?

We have crazy good fans, and they never cease to surprise me. The hundreds of tattoos of Hold Steady lyrics I've seen on people's arms is just amazing. The personal stories I've heard, about how our songs helped people through tough times, has been moving. And there's also just so many fans with encyclopedic knowledge about our music, or dates or numbers or how many shows they've been to. That's flattering too. 

What's it like to write a lyrics and then later see it tattooed on someone?

It's pretty cool! Even cooler: people's different interpretations of lyrics, or how they've attached them to other artwork. It's great to see how people have made our songs a part of their lives. There's even a website that annotates my lyrics line by line, and some of them are very well researched and right on. And some are far off what I was thinking, but I love that and would never want to correct it. It's part of the mystery. 

Speaking of lyrics, Franz told me how, after his rocky departure, he's glad to be back in The Hold Steady. But it's not always smooth going-he said the band debated whether one of the new songs should be on Thrashing Thru the Passion, and when someone pointed out how good the lyrics were, Franz said "Yes, it's a given that Craig's lyrics will be great. But what about these other aspects I want to point out!"

That's really nice. I think we're all in a cool place where we know the things we do well, and make space for each other to do those. And I think that's really cool. 

We're excited to have Franz back. We're moving forward with this lineup of the band, and doing cool things. The past is the past. This is now, and it's really exciting.   

By the way, as a notorious Bruce Springsteen diehard, what are your thoughts on his latest LP Western Stars?

I love it. It has some amazing songs. I listened to it a lot this summer. It's a great driving record. Bruce is now 70 years old, and I think it's a very, very good mature record that sounds very elegant. I'd love to hear him make another record with this style of production.

www.theholdsteady.net

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