On March 25, Brooklyn rock quintet the Hold Steady will release its sixth proper studio album, Teeth Dreams, on Washington Square. Ten years removed from its 2004 debut, Almost Killed Me, the band's newest effort fits rather comfortably alongside the rest of its catalog. The same sketched-out, streetwise hoods show up in the lyrics, celebrating the subtle beauty and not-so-subtle tragedy that everyday life has to offer.
The most glaring difference with Teeth Dreams, however, is the beefed-up production value. The band recorded with Nick Raskulinecz — known for producing albums for Rush, Foo Fighters and Danzig, to name a few — and his imprint cannot be understated. The swirling guitar riffs shine and pop as if they were made to bounce off the walls of a jam-packed arena, and singer Craig Finn's neurotic hiss is as fierce as ever — the delay tacked onto his vocals, along with his noticeably improved singing chops, add layers of depth to the songs. As a whole, Teeth Dreams feels like the album that the Hold Steady has been building toward since its inception.
To celebrate its tenth anniversary and the release of the new album, the band is gearing up for a short tour of the clubs it outgrew years ago. Fortunately for St. Louis, Off Broadway is the second stop of the tour, marking the band's first proper St. Louis club show since 2007. We caught up with guitarist Tad Kubler to discuss the new album and tour, and what it's like playing together for a full decade.
You guys recorded your new album, Teeth Dreams, in Nashville with Nick Raskulinecz. This marked the first time you have recorded outside of the New York/New Jersey area. Did the change of scenery have any impact on the sound of this record?
I don't think that geography had a huge impact on things. But one thing that was really nice about working with Nick was that he actually told me, when I first met him in the spring of 2013, that he was not familiar with our band. He said, "I had never heard you guys until I listened to the demos." And I was like, "That's fucking awesome! That's just what we want." We wanted somebody that didn't have a preconceived notion or idea about what we should be doing. We wanted to be able to just go in, set the bar and make a great record. That was one of the most important things about this particular album. Expectations can be a real killer, creatively, because they start to inform how you do things. I think that can be really dangerous. Being able to get away from that was probably more important than almost any of the decisions we made when we began the recording process.
How much input does a producer like Nick have in terms of arrangement? Is he pretty hands-on, or does he take more of a backseat?
He really gets in the mix. This is going to sound artsy and douchey, but I really wanted somebody that I was comfortable with totally surrendering to. "You think the chorus should be in half-time? All right." I had to make myself let go of things for a change. I had to not focus on the minutia and let him really produce the record, and do what's best for the overall thing. Sometimes that can be hard to let go of. When talking to Nick about how we're going to track and whatnot, I just had to say, "OK, you know what? I'm just going to stay the fuck out of your way."
This was the first album you recorded with [former Lucero guitarist] Steve Selvidge playing guitar. I would imagine there was an element of "letting go" with the guitar parts as well.
Yeah, totally. Steve and I have a pretty special relationship. Steve and I were born on the same day, about three hours apart. We figured that out about 24 hours into meeting each other, years ago on tour. And from there, it was on. We joke a lot in the band and say that had he and I met each other in our twenties, he would be my nemesis. "God damn, that guy's good! Fuck him." But instead, we're very tight, and it's totally gross. We are like those thirteen-year-old chicks that are best friends. Steve and I have developed this great rapport, creatively. Even though we come from similar places aesthetically, our approach is vastly different stylistically. In fact, about three or four days into recording our guitar parts, I was in the studio saying how great things were going and how this was our first record with Steve. Nick didn't believe me that I hadn't been in the studio with Steve before. He thought I was fucking with him. He even said he would have assumed that Steve and I had been playing together since high school. That gives you an idea about the relationship we have.
Does having him on board impact your songwriting?
Sometimes, yeah. One of the things he and I do well is we play to each others' weaknesses. Steve can really help fill in the blanks. Quite frankly, he's technically a much better guitar player than myself. I feel like I have everybody a little bit fooled. I'm more of a songwriter, and I'm good at coming up with ideas. But my technical execution is not always spectacular. I can play guitar — I've been doing it a long time, and I can do it standing on my head. But on a technical level, I don't think there is anything that Steve wouldn't be able to do. That was a very important part of this record.
You guys just took your longest break, three years, in between this record and Heaven is Whenever. Would you say this helped refresh you in any way?
For sure. It was a much needed break. Let's face it: The pace at which we were going was awesome and a total blast. But I think we were all aware that we weren't going to be able to maintain that forever. At some point, the momentum of things starts to carry you along, and you are in a place where you're more reacting to what's happening than making deliberate decisions. I think we really needed to come up for air a little bit and catch our breath.
With this tour, you are playing smaller rooms than you would normally book. What's the idea behind that?
Just getting out after having a few years off. Now that we have a new record finished, it's a matter of getting out and having this mechanism spring back to life. If you're playing festivals and huge rooms, and you're playing new material, you don't really get an idea as to how things are working in the live show. So to finish the record and go out and play some new material at shows — for me, it's nice to have the opportunity to do that in a more intimate setting. It's a little more controlled than a larger show.
As far as the setlists go, your tenth anniversary is this year. Do you plan on digging deep into some older stuff as well?
We're going to be doing a little bit of both. We're excited to get out and play some new songs, and we're excited to kind of reflect and look back a little bit at some of the records and songs we haven't played in a couple years. But for the most part, we're going out with the idea that we have a new record coming out and we have written a bunch of new songs. Now let's just go play them live.