Most listeners know Craig Finn as the poetic frontman of The Hold Steady. His show Friday at Off Broadway (3509 Lemp Avenue, 314-773-3363) puts him in a quieter context as he plays songs from his solo debut Clear Heart Full Eyes. From a parking lot in Oklahoma City, Finn spoke to RFT Music about the topics dearest to his heart: booze, bands, flags and Jesus.
Ryan Wasoba: This is your first solo tour. How is the dynamic different than what you're used to?
Craig Finn: Basically, when I made the record in Austin the producer Mike McCarthy put together the band, and the live band is a combination of people who played on the record and people who were recommended by the guys who couldn't come on the tour. We know each other a lot less so it's really good, but we're just getting to know each other.
The Hold Steady has been together so long and we're so close and so tight. We've spent eight years together and played a thousand shows and I think the way we're approaching this and the way we're playing is a little looser. We just go up there and see what happens. We're throwing in new stuff in most nights. We rehearsed for one long day, but it's not the big loud tight machine that the Hold Steady is. It's a bit more sparse and the songs have more room to breathe. And the songs are a bit quieter too, and we're playing smaller rooms it's a more intimate thing. The Hold Steady's volume prevents any chatter from happening, so we're connecting at a different level. People aren't throwing beer in the air and climbing on top of each other. And the performance is more subdued from myself; it's more about connecting with the lyrics.
It's been said that people should call off work the day after a Hold Steady show. Is that still happening on this tour?
I may have said that. There's definitely less of that. The Hold Steady is this big huge celebratory thing, and I love doing that and will continue to do that, but I really wanted to do something more reflective. I think this is something where you can go to work the next day. People are having a good time, but they're not necessarily lining up shots on the bar. They might be drinking and crying into their drink.
Because of the intimate setting and the fact that audience members are new to the material, are you getting a more immediate reaction to your lyrics?
The Hold Steady, people can listen to the record and analyze the lyrics. But really, if you'd never seen the band before and you went to a show, you wouldn't have a chance of understanding the lyrics. So this show, I think if you'd never heard it before you can listen to the lyrics and hear them while they come. Even the record, we made it all playing live in a room and I sang the vocal live. I showed the band the song and then we'd record it. The guys are watching me, so when I'd step to the mic they might quiet down and then when I didn't sing any more I'd step away from the mic and they'd get louder. So the vocals are driving it rather than singing on top of something.
People naturally associate Craig Finn with the Hold Steady. Now, talking to you it seems like you also make that association yourself, that your art is connected to that band even when you're not playing with them.
One of the reasons I did this record and this tour is that we've made five Hold Steady records in eight years. You get into these habits, whether they're good habits or bad habits. If we went and did our normal thing, which is make a record, tour, make a record, tour, make a record, tour, if we just went in and make a record right after our last tour, we'd probably make the same record. So I wanted to do something that gets me out of my comfort zone, gets me with people that I'm not used to communicating with to see what I can learn and bring back to the Hold Steady. I've spent eight years in that band, so I see everything through that prism. At the same time we're in the middle of writing a new Hold Steady record, so maybe that's how it should be. It's funny that you wanted to use your time off from the Hold Steady to challenge yourself and make this record, and that period was only four months.
In our world, that's huge. Part of the thing has been to work. Within or without the band, my angle to be creative is to stay busy and do things that make creative sense and hope good things happen. I don't think there's any more of a career arc than that. So I had this time off, but I didn't really have anything to do. I could sit at home. I don't have my kids or anything, so I could go to the bar for four months or I can take on a new project.
I wanted to ask you about the promotional bandana for Clear Heart Full Eyes.
I haven't seen it yet. It's related to the album cover, which is actually a flag. We had a flag made that's hand stitched, it's really cool looking and it's sort of a reproduction of that.
Before you go, I wanted to ask you to explain the lyric "It's kind of hard to suck with Jesus in your band" from "New Friend Jesus."
I think that whole song is about Jesus as a man, not the son of God, walking around us. The thought of human Jesus was always attractive to me. So it's kind of a joking song, but it's this idea of Jesus as your friend and then the unintended benefits, like if Jesus was in your band he could probably help more than your average member.
I thought maybe it was poking fun of Christian rock bands.
I wasn't, really. Although most of them do suck. Jesus isn't in their band!