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Craig Finn’s inventions
So you want to start a band?
Leaning back in his seat and speaking conversationally from the stage of Lyons Dining Hall, Craig Finn ’93 cut a different figure than his fans are accustomed to: the red-faced shouter of punk poetry, frenetically dancing with the microphone stand while his neglected guitar, hanging by a strap from his shoulder, flails on his chest.
Finn is the singer and lyricist of the indie band the Hold Steady, highly regarded by rock critics. The Hold Steady has recorded three albums since 2004, and maintains a Grateful Dead-esque tour schedule—more than 300 shows since the end of September 2006. The band’s latest release, Boys and Girls in America, was named the eighth best album of 2006 by Rolling Stone magazine. In late September, Finn came back to Boston College, his first visit since graduating, to be interviewed by English professor Carlo Rotella as part of a Boston College Magazine series, Master Class: Alumni in Residence.
Born down the street at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Brighton but raised outside Minneapolis, Finn was exposed to punk rock as a young skateboarder, but got serious about the music when a friend’s sister started dating a member of the Replacements, a Twin Cities punk group. “Up until that point,” Finn said, “I didn’t believe that rock and roll could come from Minneapolis, or anywhere I was.” He immersed himself in Minneapolis’s potent rock scene, getting rides to rock shows from his parents. At Boston College, he didn’t find many peers who shared his musical tastes, but Finn wasn’t the archetypal punk rock outcast. “I was always a traditional kid,” he told the audience in Lyons. “I [got] back to other interests like sports, beer, girls. The things that were readily available.” He started a band at Boston College, but not until his last semester, “so it was born to lose,” he said.
After graduation, Finn returned to Minneapolis, not only because “it was a cheap place to be broke,” but also because “it was like going to college again, in that . . . I felt like I could reinvent myself.” Part of that reinvention was his first serious effort at forming a band, called Lifter Puller. In Lifter Puller, Finn and his band mates developed not only an energetic, barroom-documentary sound, but a work ethic appropriate to a Horatio Alger morality tale. “We played a lot of shows where there were five to 10 people,” he said, and the band would perform as if the room were full. “That’s the mind-set you have to have: We have to get these four people. If there’s a show that four people are at, those are probably the people that care most about music in that city. They’re the people that end up championing your cause later.”
Lifter Puller gained popularity and critical praise in Minnesota—Joe Strummer, former front man of the Clash, told a Twin Cities newspaper that “it’s Lifter Puller’s world. We’re just living in it”—but the band broke up in 2000. Another self-reinvention was in order, and Finn moved to New York. “I said, well, music’s done. I thought I’d maybe go to New York and become a writer, or I maybe wanted to try comedy. Instead I just drank for two years.” He supported himself with a job at a digital music company. Then, in 2002, some friends were putting on a comedy show and needed a band to play hard rock riffs between sets. Finn got a group together and they started practicing. In New York at that time, “there was a lot of dancey punk [music], and everywhere you went had a DJ,” he said. “We got into this practice space, and we were playing AC/DC’s ‘Back in Black,’ and it was like, none of us had heard music like that in two years. [We said] ‘Let’s have a band like this.'” With a sound defined by loud, old-school guitars, the Hold Steady was born. Finn’s lyrics, dense with rhyme, puns, and allusions, and his rough, arch, spoken-song style propelled the Hold Steady out of the bar-band league.
After drawing out the essential turns in Finn’s career, Rotella, who received a Guggenheim fellowship last year to begin work on a book about the attachment of musicians to their music, threw the gate open for questions. “What’s the hardest part about the music-making process,” one student wanted to know. Finn answered unequivocally: “The diplomacy between musicians.” Untrained musicians—and that includes most of the Hold Steady, he said—are at a disadvantage because of their inexperience at communicating with other musicians. “You know, ‘I don’t like this part. It’s too fluttery.’ And then it’s like, ‘What’s fluttery? I think it’s swampy,'” Finn said, illustrating.
Another student asked about Finn’s narrative lyrics, especially on the band’s second record, Separation Sunday, a concept album that tracks three characters, Charlemagne, Holly, and Gideon, and their associations with dealers, addicts, and thugs. Finn invented them, he said—”No one thinks Quentin Tarantino kills people. The characters are a way for me to remove myself from [the songs] in some way, to tell a story that has a cinematic quality or a good story arc without people saying, ‘He’s crazy.’ Especially my mom.”
The next question came from a youngish man with glasses and a plaid button-down shirt. “I thought I’d start off by telling you I’m a priest, and some of your lyrics have been featured in sermons,” said Fr. Michael Rennier, rector of the Church of the Resurrection in Brewster, Massachusetts, eliciting an “Oh, cool. Way cool. Wow,” from Finn, and raised eyebrows from the audience. Fr. Rennier asked Finn to talk about what kind of faith he experiences and how that informs his music. “Just because I don’t go to church doesn’t mean there’s no Catholic influence in my life,” Finn said. “I spent so much time there, and there’s all these things that I still believe are hugely important, like forgiveness and redemption.”
“Whether they know it or not, the Hold Steady are preaching the Gospel,” Fr. Rennier said later. “They aren’t flinching from the consequences of sin and at the same time they aren’t ruling out the possibility of redemption.” Both sin and redemption abound in Separation Sunday, which Finn told the audience “was created at a time when a lot of heavy stuff was going on” within the band. The serious illness of Finn’s wife and the birth of another band member’s child led to a spiritual, reflective album, fixed in the grit of punk.
“Your singing style is really kind of divisive,” another questioner began. “How long did it take you to get comfortable with that?” Finn smiled at the characterization before reiterating a point he made several times that evening. “You make the music that you want to hear,” he said. “I knew I wasn’t going to be a great singer. [My singing voice] is basically my talking voice amplified, and to me, there’s an honesty to that.”
The Hold Steady’s musical stance is influenced by indie bands like the Replacements and Hüsker Dü, as well as rock storytellers like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. One student raved about a YouTube video of a performance of Springsteen’s “Rosalita” featuring Finn and the Boss himself at a Carnegie Hall tribute concert. “This is what it would be like if I ever got to play with Springsteen,” the student said, “it was the most honest performance I think I’ve ever seen.” Finn smiled. “There was one second where I thought ‘Oh my God, I’m at Carnegie Hall singing with Bruce Springsteen,'” he said. That video “is just a flicker . . . but I think you can see how excited I was.” Then he blushed.
Most of the 70-odd members of the Master Class audience lined up afterward to have their programs or albums signed, and it seemed as though each one had a story about a favorite Hold Steady show. One student bragged about tailgating a Hold Steady concert, and Finn’s eyes lit up. “We want tailgating at more shows,” he said, as serious as if he were talking with his manager. “Can you make it work?” The student assured Finn that he could and moved along, as Finn beamed.
Read more by Tim Czerwienski