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The Hold Steady

Rock group

From the ruins of the critically lauded band Lifter Puller, former members Craig Finn and Tad Kubler applied the same intellectually stimulating lyrical slant with a more refined "classic-rock" sound with their new band, the Hold Steady. The band put to tape two albums of smart, bar-band friendly rock and roll for the Frenchkiss label, and picked up right where Lifter Puller left off, impressing critics and fans alike, prompting the Village Voice to put them on the cover of their May 2005 issue—the first New York band to receive the honor since 1990.

The road to the Hold Steady started when Boston-born Finn was enrolled at Boston College in the early part of the '90s. Majoring in Communications, it was there at Boston College that he began to teach his roommate Steve Barone to play guitar. Following their graduation, Finn and Barone headed to Minneapolis (where Finn spent his formative years), to start making music. Of his relocation back to Minneapolis from Boston, Finn told Sponiczine.com, "When I moved back to Minneapolis I felt like [it] was a way better place for me to do what I wanted to do. Minneapolis just seemed like the easier place to be creative." Growing up in Minneapolis—where his first concert ever was seeing the Replacements and Soul Asylum at famed Minneapolis club the 7th Street Entry—the move back seemed a natural choice for Finn, who wanted to start a band that would follow in the footsteps of his hometown heroes.

Back in Minneapolis, Finn began messing around with some ideas, and played with the band's first drummer Dave Gerlach, eventually releasing a 7" for Crisp Records in 1995. Soon, Dan Monick started jamming with the duo on bass, and Barone would occasionally sit in on guitar when necessary, but the first few Lifter Puller 7" singles hardly featured a solidified lineup. When it came time to record an album, however, Finn sewed up the official Lifter Puller lineup and sound: Barone on guitar, new bassist Tommy Roach, and Monick switching to drums. Culling inspiration from varied sources like Bruce Springsteen, Brainiac, Girls Against Boys, Husker Dü, and hardcore rap like NWA, the sounds generated by Lifter Puller tapped into a fan base that enjoyed a bit of intellectualism with their rock. Much of the supplied smarts had to do with Finn's lyrics, which detailed, as Sponiczine.com put it, "drunken days and drugged-up nights" and dealt with various characters that would turn up from song to song.

Finn told Indieworkshop.com that his writing style was "Specific, which I find important in lyrics. Painting in broad strokes isn't something I am interested in. I love to tell stories. I think people close to me would tell you that I am a good storyteller." In telling his stories, Finn chose a more unconventional way of vocalizing, where instead of singing a melody, he'd employ his fascination with hip-hop, and almost rap/talk his brainy lyrics. "When I started Lifter Puller it was some of my earliest singing, and I set out to create a vocal style that was very close to my speaking style. That seemed natural. I hate nothing worse than when vocalists sing in a voice entirely different from their real voice. Dave Matthews comes to mind, unless he talks like that. I doubt it." With Finn's speak/sing in place, the band cranked out three full-length albums (1997's Lifter Puller, on Skene! Records, 1997's Half Dead and Dynamite, on No Alternative and 2000's Fiesta + Fiascos for Frenchkiss Records) one EP (1998's The Entertainment and Arts on Threatening Letters) and numerous 7" singles. In October of 1998, Roach left the band, and new bassist Tad Kubler joined on for the Entertainment and Arts EP and Fiesta + Fiascos album. (Soft Rock, a 40-song album compiling released and unreleased tracks from albums, singles, and rarities was released by the Self-Starter Foundation in 2002.)

Following the release of Fiesta + Fiascos, however, Finn felt like the band had run out of steam, and chose to break up Lifter Puller. He told Indieworkshop.com the breakup was caused by "mostly just the feeling that we had done the band and we all wanted to try new things, live in new places, etc. We set out to play shows and make records and we felt like we had accomplished that. At the time I really felt that it had reached its maximum potential." The members began to relocate to different places, with Monick choosing to pursue his photography work in Los Angeles, Barone staying in Minneapolis to work on his solo project, Kubler splitting to Los Angeles, but then back to Minneapolis to play with Song of Zarathustra, and Finn setting his sights on a full time job at the Digital Club Network in New York.

The rock bug kept biting back at Finn, though, and he began working with other musicians on various projects to quench his thirst. He recorded two EPs of music with an electronic musician named Mr. Projectile, under the name The Brokerdealer. He also began working with Matt Henderson of Agnostic Front and Madball on a studio project that, in his words, was made up "a lot of weird sounds... sort of Steely Danish." However, neither of these projects seemed to satisfy Finn's need to have a real rock band again, so upon Kubler's relocation to New York, the two former Lifter Puller members began playing under the name The Hold Steady. With Finn on vocals and guitar, Kubler on guitar, bassist Galen Polivka and drummer Judd Counsell, the band formed with specific ideas in mind, playing their first show on January 22, 2003. Finn told Indieworkshop.com that the Hold Steady "is more of a bar rock style [band] than Lifter Puller, but has some similarities. I really want The Hold Steady to reclaim the concept of bar rock."

Fueled by Finn's growing distaste for 1980's revivalism that began to run rampant in the indie music scene in 2002 and 2003, the Hold Steady headed into the studio to record their debut album for Frenchkiss Records entitled The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me, released on April 20, 2004. The album showed Finn in top form, delivering burning and often-humorous accounts on the state of indie rock. Pitchforkmedia.com said, "Finn's lyrics and delivery are the crux of the Hold Steady, skewering whole characters and lifestyles with unapologetic aplomb. Boasting all the seething, pent-up fervor of someone who's been talk-singing for nearly a decade, Finn expertly shoots his lyrical barbs like little arrows, knocking down and dismantling everything from recreational drugs and the tech boom to bartenders and jukebox codes, all in a familiar, half-smirking growl." Behind Finn's witty laments, the band cranked out heavy riffs and bombastic rhythms that only served to drive home their singer's word play. Popmatters.com said the band, "play like they've been sworn to uphold a hallowed tradition. The rhythm section is tight, the solos wail, and the echo pedals are out of the box and on stage where they belong. They even seem to be channeling the E-Street band on the earnest piano number 'Certain Songs' and the sax workout on 'Knuckles'." Following the release of ... Almost Killed Me, the band hit the road sporadically, touring with the likes of the Thermals and doing their own headlining shows. By the end of 2004, the band wound up on numerous Best Of... lists, ranking at number 31 on the Village Voice 's annual Pazz & Jop list (which Finn told the Village Voice "It was like being nominated for an Oscar or something"), and being listed in Spin and Rolling Stone as making one of the top ten albums "you didn't hear in 2004."

After a successful 2004, the band reconvened and revamped in 2005, adding keyboardist Franz Nicolay of World/Inferno Friendship Society as a full-time member (he played keyboards and organ on The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me) and replaced Counsell with Bobby Drake, former drummer for End Transmission and Arm. Many of the members of the Hold Steady had by now started families and decided to keep their day jobs, so instead of a heavy tour schedule for 2005, the band decided to write and rehearse songs for a new album. The result was Separation Sunday, released on May 3, 2005, by Frenchkiss Records. Finn told Sponiczine.com 's Rob Heater that, "The record is very cohesive, I think. [It's] very big sounding and I think more than anything I've ever been involved with, it works as a whole. Where I think my personal critique of our last record, Almost Killed Me, was that the more I examined it, it seemed like ten songs, but maybe not an album. And I definitely think that this is an album ... I think anyone who liked our last record has a pretty good chance at this record. And I think anyone who didn't like our last record might find something in this record that's a little easier to take." Again, critics agreed with Finn, as praise for the album came pouring in from the likes of Spin, who in their May 2005 issue featured the Hold Steady one of their "Bands to Watch."

For the Record . . .

Members include Judd Counsell (left group, 2005), drums; Bobby Drake (joined group, 2005), drums; Craig Finn , vocals, guitar; Tad Kubler , guitar; Franz Nicolay (joined group, 2005), keyboards; Galen Polivka , bass.

Group formed in New York, NY, 2003; signed to Frenchkiss Records and released The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me, 2004; released Seperation Sunday, 2005.

Addresses: Record company—Frenchkiss Records, 111 E. 14th St., Ste. 229, New York, NY 10003, website: http://www.frenchkissrecords.com. Publicist—230 Publicity, 625 Broadway, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10012, phone: (212) 253-2559, website: http://www.230publicity.com. Website—The Hold Steady Official Website: http://www.theholdsteady.com.

Splendidezine.com "Picking a favorite song from Separation Sunday is like pulling teeth ... Separation Sunday stands a chance of being one of 2005's true classics. You'll listen to it for years. If you're even vaguely open to the idea that classically styled rock could be exciting under any circumstances, you need this record."

Selected discography

The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me, Frenchkiss Records, 2004.

Seperation Sunday, Frenchkiss Records, 2005.

Sources

Periodicals

Spin, May 2005.

Village Voice, May 2005.

Online

Frenchkiss Records Official Website, http://www.frenchkissrecords.com/ (August 19, 2005).

"The Hold Steady," Sponic Zine,http://www.sponiczine.com/article_detail.asp?id=1565 (August 18, 2005).

"The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me," Pitchforkmedia,http://www.pitchforkmedia.com/record-reviews/h/hold-steady/almost-killed-me.shtml (August 18, 2005).

The Hold Steady Official Website, http://www.theholdsteady.com/ (August 18, 2005).

"Interview with Craig Finn," Indieworkshop,http://www.indieworkshop.com/interviews/18/ (August 18, 2005).

Lifter Puller Official Website, http://www.lifterpuller.com/bio.html (August 19, 2005).

"Review: The Hold Steady," Popmatters,http://www.popmatters.com/music/reviews/h/holdsteady-almost2.shtml (August 19, 2005).

"Review: Seperation Sunday," Splendid e-Zine,http://www.splendidezine.com/review.html?reviewid=11138179182110092 (August 12, 2005).

—Ryan Allen

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The Hold Steady

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