The Hold Steady: Part Deux
The Hold Steady hit the Southgate House Friday night in support of their latest album, the excellent Boys and Girls in America. I recently spoke to the band’s genial frontman Craig Finn, the contents of which appears in the print version of this week’s paper. (Click here for the full Hold Steady lowdown.)
I also talked to guitarist Tad Kubler, the contents of which didn’t make the paper. Which isn’t to say the equally accommodating Kubler was any less of an interview subject — there’s only so much you can fit into a 900-word feature.
Here’s a good chunk of my conversation with him.
CB: How’s the tour going so far?
Tad Kubler: It’s been fucking great, man. The first four shows were sold out. Chapel Hill was a really big room, and we’d only been there once before, and it was a great turnout. We played the Cat’s Cradle, which is kind of the Chapel Hill Rock club. And, actually, Jon from Superchunk came by, which is super-cool. You know, it’s like a band you liked all your life, and to have them come up and introduce themselves at your show, you’re just kind of like, ‘holy shit.’
CB: So you’re coming back to the Southgate House. You played up in the Parlour last time, right?
TK: Yeah, it was really hot, right? I remember that show. We had to fuckin’ lug our gear up four flights of stairs. Yeah, we loaded through the ballroom, and never having played Cincinnati or Newport before, I was like, ‘It doesn’t seem like we’re going to be able to put enough fucking bodies in here.’ And then they were like, ‘Oh, no, you’re upstairs.’ I was like, ‘Oh, cool.’ And then I was like, “Ohhh, nooo!”
CB: Are you surprised by how rapidly your fan base has grown over the last year?
TK: Yes, it was one of those things … I think that the jump to Vagrant and just some of the decisions that we’ve been making as a band, and kind of how we’re conducting the business end of it, we always want to reach more people, we always want to have more people come out. It allows us to tour more and that’s really something that we enjoy. We’re still growing, obviously, and there are still shows where 50 people come out. You know, when we play Minneapolis or New York there are 1,500 people, and then two nights later you’re wherever and it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah…’
CB: You guys have been doing the band thing, in form or another, for some time now. Do you still like touring?
TK: Oh, I fucking love touring, are you kidding me? This is what we do. I love getting out and meeting people and playing with new bands and stuff like that. That’s kinda what we do and because of our age and how long we’ve all been doing this … We have a box truck that we tour in, which is kind of a converted tour bus, and we stay in hotels every night and stuff like that. So we’ve figured out how to do this. And also in terms of just personalities and dealing with each other, we have a lot of respect for one another and we’re all friends. We all hang out. It’s kind of a big party moving down the highway and with a lot of bands that’s not exactly the case. You know, there’s bickering and there’s people who don’t even speak to each other and shit like that. I think that’s what allows us to get out there and really enjoy this and have fun every night and I think that’s really contagious when people come out to the shows. I think we’re really fortunate in that way.
CB: Why did you decide to work with (producer) John (Agnello) this time?
TK: We’ve all got pretty strong opinions and I’m pretty involved in the recording process … We wanted to work with somebody who had a sense of wisdom and just had more experience in conducting a recording session in a studio. He saw us at South by Southwest — he caught our set down there on the Almost Killed Me tour. We met with him and he had a lot of enthusiasm and he really liked the band. He was somebody that I got along with immediately. I like his ideas about recording and about music in general. There’s a lot of common ground. So when I came time to start doing the new record, we talked to several producers and his name sort of kept coming up.
CB: How did he influence your approach?
TK: John had seen us live a bunch and he had come to rehearsals, and he’s just like, ‘The way you guys communicate while you’re actually playing, it’s such an important part of what you guys do, we should try to re-create that in the studio. I just want to capture how you guys play normally and in the studio because it is such a different medium.’
CB: How did the songwriting differ on this one? The songs seem a little more varied, both lyrically and musically.
TK: This record was more written as a band. The last one I had written a lot of the songs and showed them to Craig, and lyrically it kind of came together in the studio a little bit, too. For this one, while we were touring for Separation Sunday, he was writing constantly and I think he had a really clear idea what he wanted the record to be about and it definitely had and influence on the songwriting. He had the Kerouac line and he said this is what the record’s going to be about thematically, or at least what I’d like to try to make the record about. So I think that had an impact on me coming up with the rest of the music for it. For example, songs like “First Night” and “Citrus,” they might not have been something we’ve tried in the past, but it seemed like the right thing to do for this one. We also wanted to step out of what we were comfortable doing a little bit and try those things and try to grow a little bit.
CB: The E Street thing was apparent on the last record, but this time it seems much more overt. Was that a touchstone you guys talked bout while writing the songs?
TK: That seems to be the big comparison and I think a lot of that has to do with that you got a Rock & Roll band playing Rock & Roll with prominent piano. The obvious connection is the E Street Band, but more so you’ve got Craig who has an extremely strong narrative thread throughout the songs. And a lot of times you’ve got good people in bad places trying to get to somewhere better, which is going to be another common thread to Springsteen probably. But it wasn’t anything that we went in and necessarily were going for. Obviously I take it as a compliment — the Boss is always good company to be in — but it wasn’t anything we thought about while making the record. When it was done I was like, “Yeah, I can see that comparison.”
CB: And, like the Boss, there seems to be a blue-collar, almost populist aesthetic to what you guys do.
TK: We’ve always tried to make decisions with integrity and in the things that we do. I think that there isn’t this veneer of cool. I see so many bands who have this look on their face like it’s a privilege for you to come out and see them. This is a real privilege for us to have people be excited about what we’re doing and for us to be able to get out and play shows. There are so many bands that never get this opportunity and it’s been fucking great for us. So it’s exciting and I think it’s something you should never take for granted.
CB: I remember hearing Almost Killed Me (their 2004 debut on tiny Frenchkiss Records) at a friend’s house and thinking, ‘I’ve got to get this record.’ But then it took me nearly three weeks to find it, which in this age of instant gratification was oddly enjoyable. I actually had to work to find it, kinda like the old days. And when I did find it there were no pictures in the liner notes. It was all kind of mysterious.
TK: Yeah, I know what you mean. And in the climate of the music business today there are so many different avenues to get your music out there, so it just makes it that much easier to constantly be working and to constantly be looking for other ways that we can get stuff out there and reach people. Your damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Obviously with the Internet and the different ways of people staying connected to your band, it takes away a little bit of the mystery of Rock & Roll. Craig makes a great point: When you bought a Led Zeppelin record, you’ve got this weird fucking artwork on the cover and you got the songs and that’s all you’ve got to go on to figure out what these guys are about, which is kinda cool. So with technology we’ve lost a little bit of that.
— Jason Gargano