48 minutes with … Craig Finn

The Hold Steady singer on why you shouldn't even think of texting if you sit in the front row at one of his gigs

According to the Washington Post, your solo album Clear Heart Full Eyes "underscores Finn's role as a major American songwriter". Will you be telling that to your girlfriend next time she has a go because you haven't done the washing up?

Yeah! She sometimes uses my press against me. Rolling Stone called me "small and rumpled". She sometimes brings that up.

What are the criteria for being a "major American songwriter". Aside from being American, obviously (1). It's having good songs, but it's also maybe a body of work. Great sometimes means great in number.

And dealing with serious themes?

I think so. In later Hold Steady stuff and on this album, there's a conscious effort to visit adult themes, and that's a hard thing to do in rock'n'roll. Not many people get there, and it's certainly not where anyone starts. But you get to 40 years old, and start writing songs about the frustrations and problems of adulthood. And you have to stick around a while before you can do that.

And when you say adult themes, you don't mean in the sense of Rocco Siffredi (2)

No. No I do not. Although that is an adult theme.

On Apollo Bay you make reference to the 12 Apostles. You're actually singing about an offshore rock formation in Australia. But you must have been realised there'd be a swath of listeners who'd roll their eyes and think: "Here he goes. On about the bloody Bible (3) again."

Yeah. I found the 12 Apostles very funny, because I'm sitting there looking and there's like nine or 10 of them. And then there's a plaque that says: you can't see all of the 12 Apostles. Or, I thought, they don't exist. There's an act of faith in just that. Why are there 12 then? Because they're hiding behind each other. And I was like: maybe it should have been the 10 Big Rocks.

That's what they would have called them in Germany or Denmark. They're very literal with their naming.

Yeah. There was something about the faith of believing there were 12 when you couldn't see them. That's how faith works.

You told your girlfriend this was your divorce album. How did she take that?

She came down to Austin and we were driving round listening to New Country. There was a song I'm Goin' Through the Big D and I Don't Mean Dallas (4) that we heard a couple of times on the radio. I said: "I think I'm gonna make this my divorce record." And she said: "Well, we're in Texas, and that seems to be what you sing about down here." So she took it well. The fact is I've been married before, so it can't be avoided. And when you're making more of a country blues record, the lyrics start to go there, you know?

The album's also a result of trying to write a song a day. What was the worst couplet you came up with?

I don't know if this is the worst, but I wrote a song called Brooklyn Blues that talked about how I didn't like it when people brought dogs or babies to bars. "Your dog just told me with his eyes he'd rather not be in this bar," was the line, I think.

Legend, nurtured by you, holds that somewhere in Brooklyn there is a giant piece of paper detailing the lives of the characters from the Hold Steady albums. I don't believe that. I think you're having the fans on, because you know they like that idea.

I sort of know in my mind what happens. And it's not a majorly detailed story – it's a very simple story. I imagine it as this fake Christmas tree that I hang ornaments on – Oh, you know when he did that? Let's talk in more detail about that little scene. There's three characters and they went off and did something and came back. And it's as simple as that. It's not written down. It's in my head.

Are people looking for a direct narrative in your work on a fool's errand?

I think they'd get frustrated. I kind of witnessed this. My friend Eddie worked on Lost, but mentioning it in passing to people they'd go: "They didn't answer any questions!" But it's a television show, you know? They didn't have to. "Well I needed some answers! You tell him …" There's never going to be this final episode where everyone goes: "Aha! It was the butler!"

Have you had your ideas about other people's songs shattered completely when you've discovered the truth?

When I was a kid I was really into this one album by the Vapours. Not Turning Japanese, but the one that followed that, called Magnets. It had a lot of songs about the Kennedy assassination, weirdly. But I was convinced it had all these secret messages in it. It turns out they just used words that were very British and I didn't know what they meant. They'd say "bog" or "fruit machine", and I was like "This is deep stuff!" and I was trying to decode it. Some years later, I realised: Oh, they're just British.

You've said this album is much more personal than the Hold Steady records. Give me an example of something that has the ring of truth.

Well, I lived in a rented room.

Everyone's lived in a rented room.

In my 30s. Post-breakup and I rented a room with three other roommates. You don't feel at 35 like settling in with your roommates and watching TV. There's never the level of comfort you have when you have a home that's yours. It's not exactly how it went down, but there's truth there for sure.

Talking of homes, you recently showed off your delightful apartment in a property feature in the New York Post. What on earth possessed you?

Angie and I are Post addicts. It's an unhealthy addiction. There's probably an average of 1.75 copies of the Post bought per day in our house (5). The celebrity gossip is really good. When I moved to New York it was 25c. Now it's 75c. But for 25c? That's a lot of entertainment value for a quarter. So we got hooked. Angie was very excited to be in the Post. They left out our cat, but we thought it was a moment for him too.

On the Hold Steady messageboard, they think Angie is "hot" …

She is! She is! Although she said her picture looked "intense". Intensely hot maybe.

Ricky, your pedal steel player (6), is a proud gun owner. As a northern liberal, how do you feel about that?

I just learned that, the same moment you did. But I think when you go down to Texas and start hiring people you haven't completely vetted, you might get some guns. I would venture a guess he would not be the only gun owner travelling with us. Hopefully the guns will stay home.

You've been namechecked in a novel by George Pelecanos (7). How do you feel about novelists who namecheck musicians?

I wrote something for Q on Ten Thousand Saints (8) and it was one of the few music mentions in a novel that wasn't embarrassing to me. They always get it wrong. And I'm too close to it, so I can't enjoy it. The second they start talking about this fictitious band, I'm all "Oh God …" It's an honour, though, to show up in Pelecanos's work.

But you're a prodigious namedropper in your own work …

A lot of that's rock'n'roll stuff. I remember when I first heard the Drive-By Truckers they had the song Let There Be Rock, where he sings about dropping acid at the Blue Öyster Cult concert, and "I never saw Lynyrd Skynyrd but I sure saw AC/DC", and it's all this mythology of rock joining up. We all know who Ozzy (9) is, so I'm gonna throw that in there. It's about being excited to be a part of it.

Does playing live present fresh challenges when you're out on your own?

We're gonna have to deal with a different set of problems – chatter is something that doesn't come up a lot at Hold Steady shows, but it's going to come up at these shows.

How are you with chattering audiences?

I'm gonna have to figure that out. One thing I don't like is texting in the front row. At the back, who cares? But if you're front row centre …

Even if they're texting "I'm front row centre at the Craig Finn show and it's awesome"?

I'd rather it was "I was just front row centre …". There's a weird thing as well of people who want to be front and centre whether they enjoy it or not. There was a girl in New Orleans. Her boyfriend was having the time of his life and they were front row centre. She was crying, storming off to get a reaction then coming back and crying, then being dramatically dejected and flopping down on the stage. We got between a song and I said: "You're really distracting me. I would like for you to leave." And the whole crowd started cheering. Then she said: "It's his fault!" I was like: "It doesn't look like it to me. You look like the problem."

He was the one who dragged her along! Wasn't it his fault?

He was fine for her to leave! They probably got married. That's my experience with those things. Those people find each other and stick together.

How much capacity do sports results have to alter your mood?

It depends where it is in the season. A Twins (10) play-off loss to the Yankees can put me in a funk for a week. But when the Twins lose 99 games in a season they roll off your back pretty quick. The Twins are the only ones that can really hurt me – but someday I hope to be dancing in the streets one more time.

Are there any other people in New York with season tickets to a baseball stadium 1,227 miles away?

The two other guys I have 'em with! That's probably it. And my friend Nick who's just moved to New York could probably be persuaded. He had Vikings (11) season tickets and he's planning on four out of eight games for next season. If he's got that in mind, I can see it getting up to five or six. Convenient business trips or whatever.

So sports can alter your mood. More or less so than going to church?

Probably more. Church only puts me in one place, and that's reflective. It always brings me back to family stuff, because church was a family activity, so I'm more likely to think of my grandparents or parents when I'm at church because it seems natural.

When was the last time you heard the first record you ever cut?

The first record I ever cut – I had this band in high school called No Pun Intended. I have not heard that in a long time. Luckily I'm not the singer. It's only the rhythm guitar. I have not heard that in more than 10 years. I'm just glad I'm not the singer: that's me in the background playing D, G, C and B over and over again. We probably sold a hundred copies.

Are there a further 300 in your parents' loft?

I think in the basement there are quite a few.

Was there a song your first girlfriend loved but you hated. And did you tell her?

Pour Some Sugar on Me by Def Leppard. And it was part of my identity being a music guy, so of course I told her: "This is a terrible song, but you've gotta listen to this – it's by Hüsker Dü!" She said: "That sounds really noisy."

Men will do that, though …

I took Angie to see the Joe Strummer movie, and expected her to be like: "Right. Now I know." But she was going: "Wow. He was kind of a careerist, weird guy." "No! It wasn't like that!" "He sure seemed like he was on ecstasy all the time!" "No! That wasn't the good part!"

It's compulsory in every piece about you to make reference to Bruce Springsteen. Will it be time to start worrying when the pieces start to reference Southside Johnny or Joe Grushecky (12) instead?

Yeah. That would be a bad sign. It wasn't until I became a Bruce devotee that I even heard of Southside Johnny or Joe Grushecky, and you realise they come with it. You're like: "Who's that?" And it's: "He's great! He's just like Bruce! Cos Bruce knows him and likes him. Bruce jammed with him!"

Every music fan knows the feeling of buying a record recommended by their favourite band, then getting home and wondering what the hell this rubbish is …

The obvious one being Big Star, from the Replacements (13). Now I love Big Star, I love Sister Lovers. But at 15, 16, you run down the record store because you think it's going to be loud and punky because Paul Westerberg likes it. And really, it's Holocaust (14). Where's the part with the children by their millions? This doesn't sound awesome; it sounds depressing.

"Children by their millions/ Waiting for Alex Chilton" is the most optimistic line in pop tribute history. It should have been "Children by their dozens/ Waiting for Alex Chilton"

Not even children! Middle-aged men. Middle-aged men who work in record stores, by their dozens.

(1) And writing songs, equally obviously
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(2) Italian porn actor, who is referenced on the first Hold Steady album
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(3) Finn namechecks Jesus 20 times on Clear Heart, Full Eyes
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(4) Goin' Through the Big D is by Mark Chesnutt
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(5) Clearly he doesn't mean they leave a quarter of the paper at the newsstand every day. Think of it as seven copies every four days
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(6) His name is Ricky Ray Jackson, and he plays in Phosphorescent. In a conversation before this interview, he defended a Texan man who murdered his family after his wife failed to buy him a Christmas present, on the grounds: "It wasn't just the wife – no one in his family got him a present."
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(7) Crime novelist, screenwriter for The Wire, producer of The Pacific, and pop obsessive
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(8) A novel by Eleanor Henderson, set against the backdrop of the New York punk scene
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(9) Ossie Ardiles, former Spurs midfielder. Oh, all right, he means Ozzy Osbourne
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(10) The Minnesota Twins did indeed lose 99 games last season. The Hold Steady recorded a version of Take Me Out to the Ball Game, which has been played at the stadium before Twins games
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(11) The Minnesota Vikings are Minneapolis's "football" team
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(12) "Blue-collar rockers" much beloved by Springsteen. Less so by most of his fans
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(13) The Replacements – Finn's favourite band – recorded a song called Alex Chilton, in tribute to Big Star's leader
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(14) Holocaust – closing lines: "You're a sad-eyed lie, you're a wasted face, you're a holocaust" – may be the most cheerless song in rock history
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• The single Jackson and album Clear Heart Full Eyes are out now on Full Time Hobby. Craig Finn tours the UK until 29 March. Details: steadycraig.tumblr.com


Michael Hann

The GuardianTramp

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