The Hold Steady: A Positive Rage

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At first listen, The Hold Steady sound suspiciously like a really good bar band.  It is true that there’s a certain “Glory Days”–era Springsteen vibe entrenched in their music.  They write the kind of songs that attract those instinctively drawn to stories about drinking and getting loaded with friends.  However, The Hold Steady is far better than the average bar band.  They’re better than even a remarkable bar band.  A few more listens and it becomes clear that not all drug-addled songs are created equal.  Most merely scratch the surface, giving a nod to the buzz while completely ignoring the frequent regrets and consequences of a hard-lived life. This is why party songs are notoriously shallow—they give no account of what comes next.  It takes a fearless group of musicians to tell that side of the story, however ugly or torturous it may be.  Honesty isn’t always the best way to sell records, but it does make for one hell of a live show.  This is certainly true for The Hold Steady.

Their story began in 2003 when former Lifter Puller guitarist Tad Kubler and singer Craig Finn, while watching the concert film The Last Waltz, wondered why there weren’t any guitar-heavy, organ-laden, all-purpose rock bands anymore.  They decided to start one.  The two formed The Hold Steady with bassist Galen Polivka, drummer Bobby Drake and organist and multi-instrumentalist Franz Nicolay.  When speaking with SLUG, Kubler described The Hold Steady as an honest-to-God rock band.  “We’re just a rock band.  We’re five guys getting on stage and having at it.  It’s unlike a lot of indie rock these days.  It doesn’t exclude people.  It is very inclusive.”  To illustrate this he added, “There isn’t a big separation between the stage and the audience.  We’re all just people trying to have a good time.” 

Within a few years the band had released two albums on Frenchkiss Records, including 2005’s Separation Sunday—a concept album that recounted the narrative of a girl struggling to meld her religious upbringing with her current druggy-rock lifestyle.  The next three years brought the releases of both Boys and Girls in America and Stay Positive, two albums that were light on the concept stylings of their earlier work but heavy on the references to drugs and living with one’s choices.  Kubler admitted to drawing some inspiration from drugs, but he also draws inspiration from classic rock.  “We wear our influences on our sleeves: AC/DC, Led Zeppelin—a lot of the good, traditional rock bands.”  He added, “Despite what you’ve read or heard I don’t listen to a lot of Springsteen.  For every hour I’ve listened to Springsteen I’ve listened to five hours of Led Zeppelin.”  People often make the Springsteen comparison in regards to both their music and their work ethic.

One often overlooked influence is Cheap Trick.  Kubler admitted, “They were one of the first rock bands I was exposed to—one of the first bands I met.  They are a huge part of my musical upbringing and also my sound.”  When pushed for an example of this influence, Kubler paused for a bit and then cited the first song on the latest album.  “‘Constructive Summer’ is certainly me tipping my hat to ‘Hello There’ off of the album In Color.  It wasn’t a deliberate nick until I was in the studio and we listened back to it.  I thought, holy shit, if we start the record this way, this is the same way Cheap Trick started Black and White and In Color.”

“Constructive Summer” starts Stay Positive on an optimistic note, but the album has its share of songs about regret.  One highlight, the track “Lord, I’m Discouraged” recounts the story of a man in love with a woman whose poor choices keep them apart.  It is a painfully sincere song, capped by one of 2008’s most ridiculous guitar solos.  Described by some as epic, over the top and even masturbatory, Kubler thinks of it as a manifestation of his own demon rock spirit.  “Ah, that’s my total Slash moment.  Like the scene from the ‘November Rain’ video when Slash walks out of a church in the desert and just rips out a solo.  That’s what I was thinking of when I played it.”  Looking back, Kubler is a little embarrassed by how over the top it is.  “I was the first one who wanted to take it out.  This was a song I thought would do well on the radio and with the solo and the break it ends up being a little too long.  It seems like it could be more concise without the solo.  But everyone else wanted it to stay.”

This shines some light on The Hold Steady’s songwriting process.  They really do work as a team.  Kubler explained, “I write most of the music.  I come up with the majority of the ideas, and then Galen and Bobby and I hammer out arrangements and then show them to Franz and Craig.”  He continued, “Lyrics generally come later.  For our next record I really wanted to get Craig to give me some lyrics to work with, because I know he’d been writing so much.”  This proved to be a difficult request.  Kubler explained, “The way Craig works is that he never writes a complete song all at once.  It is hard for him to give me something to look at and to write music to.  How it happens is that usually I’ll start to write the music, and we’ll start to arrange it, and then he’ll go to his notebooks and piece together a story.  As such, it is difficult for the words to come first, but we are always trying to change things up.”  As Kubler has taken a more active role in the songwriting process, he has also been able to make use of some insights gleaned from his work as a photographer.  “In a lot of my photos, especially more recently, it’s more the spaces where there isn’t anything in the frame that speaks volumes.  So I think that, as I’ve written songs for the new record, I’ve tried to create a lot more space in the sound because I think that makes the dynamics of the songs so much better.”

Already working on a new album, The Hold Steady hit the road in late March to promote the most recent one.  This tour also coincides with the release of A Positive Rage, a two-disc live recording and DVD documentary about their 2006 world tour.  When asked about this, Kubler admitted to not having watched it as of yet, “I have a hard time watching myself on television.”  Then again, he is not the target audience.  He added, “It is interesting in that, being culled from footage that is three-years-old, getting it together and getting it released took longer than expected.  Had it been released shortly after it was shot, as was intended, I don’t think I would have appreciated it as much.”  Why not?  Because so much has happened to The Hold Steady during these last three years.  At the time they were touring in a “shitty box truck,” getting flat tires and never sure where the insane journey would lead them.  It was chaotic in comparison to how they tour now.  Now there is a tour manager.  Then it was DIY, very punk rock—glory days, if you will.  He continued, “It is nice to see how far we’ve come and to see us define what our place will be in the world of rock and roll, but I never want to go back.  The film is not overly cathartic, and it’s not going to blow anybody’s mind, but it is an interesting storyline.”  He specified further, “One thing I liked about it is that it focuses on fans and people that come to the shows and what they experience out of The Hold Steady as opposed to just us hanging out back stage.  I’m really happy that they captured that.”

What exactly do fans experience?  Well, you really should find out.  Come to their live show at the Urban Lounge on Saturday, April 11.  Just don’t ask Kubler about the Garfield-on-ice-skates-Pamela-Anderson-Dag-Nasty tattoo he got after losing a bet in Atlanta.  That is unless you want to see him without his pants. In that case, ask away.