Craig Finn is a music nerd’s music nerd. He’s not into rock and roll for the sex or the drugs. He’s into it for the love of music, the camaraderie, the excitement of the “did you hear this album yet?!” exchange. Lest you think he formed some kind of lame Christian rock outfit, he’s also interested in slamming brews with pals while doing all of the above. You know him best as the singer of posi-rockers The Hold Steady. But you, being the music nerd you are, have at least a few songs of his first band, Lifter Puller.
“I started The Hold Steady with low expectations, minimal ambitions,” Finn says with obvious modesty. “It was an excuse to get together and drink beer and play guitar. Luckily for us, we got those two things right first before we started on anything else.” He expands, “We were just a bunch of guys who liked the same loud bands and decided to make our own loud band.” Finn is sincere about the band’s beginnings and when speaking to him, you get the sense that he is genuinely amazed and tremendously happy at the way his music career has turned out — mainly in that it turned into a career in the first place.
Finn is noted for the literary bend to his lyrics and the characters that populate his songs. “I never studied literature at a post-secondary level or anything like that. But I have always been an avid reader of novels, of fiction. That influenced how I approached rock and roll. I would buy a new record and pick the lyrics sheet out and follow along as the songs played. So, while not classically literary, it’s definitely had an influence on how I write songs.” The tales of down-on-their-luck losers seeking redemption, drug-addled relationships and finding true love in the detox tent at a festival are but a few of Finn’s tales.
Beyond the fan base, Finn notes that “people I look up to will also mention that they like my songs. This is just the coolest thing. Having The Drive-By Truckers or John K. Samson, people I look up to, come up to me and say they love my songs, well, it just reinforces how much of a music geek I am.” One other geeky aspect of Finn is he freely acknowledges his influences from his early days and never denies that he owned a certain record or had a certain haircut. “With Stay Positive,” recalls Finn, “it made me remember how important music is in terms of community, somewhere you can go and feel a part of something. The late ’80s hardcore [generously referenced in the album] movement came at the right time for me. I was removed from school and being a little different, being yourself wasn’t cool. I look fondly on what those experiences taught me.”
Growing up in Minneapolis “the first two or three shows I saw were The Replacements. It was a life-changing moment. It all seemed possible when I saw them. They looked like people I knew and they had these amazing songs. It was almost right then I wanted my own band and record. I feel fortunate to be there through the ’80s. Another great Minneapolis band was Soul Asylum, so amazing live. I would go to see them religiously.” Finn notes that his fans are also particularly religious and that he never plays the same set twice out of respect for fans that are missing work or school to follow him around. “We keep all our set lists posted at the back of the bus. So we’re constantly surrounded by what we’ve done.”
It’s impossible not to catch Craig Finn’s earnest enthusiasm for music when either hearing the songs or speaking to him. He wants to spread the gospel, so to speak. “It’s not all leather jackets and smoking cigarettes. Rock and roll made a deeply positive impact on my life. Our onstage positivity is one part of it. Our crowds are older and it’s very much appreciated by our fans. We always make our shows feel like a community and make people feel like a part of something.”
The Hold Steady play Olympic Plaza on June 23.
by Spencer Brown