Craig Finn is the nasal, bespectacled frontman for the Hold Steady, the Brooklyn quartet that came to be the most beloved band of 2006. Their acclaimed third full-length, Boys and
Girls in America, was universally praised—critics and fans embraced the band's party rock and lyrical tales of drugs, sex, and other fun stuff. Prior to taking off for the band's national tour with Art Brut, Finn talked to The Stranger about his favorite lyricists, his old band Lifter Puller, and aging gracefully in the world of rock 'n' roll.
Your songs tell a lot of stories about different characters. Are they fictional?
Yeah, they're fictional, but they're certainly based on the types of people I was hanging out with when I was 17 to 23 years old. But they're kind of composites. That age, 17 to 23, is great. You think you know everything but you're actually really naive. But you have a car and maybe a little money, and you can make things happen. There's always that guy that everyone thinks is really cool, and turns out he's not that cool.
You talk about drugs and drinking a lot in your songs. Was that a big part of your life growing up?
Not any more than the average American teenager. I think I've done every drug I know about. That said, most of them I don't want. I still party, but I don't think it's ever gotten in the way of trying to accomplish things. I think highs and lows, and the way people manufacture highs and lows using drugs and alcohol, are interesting.
You're one of my favorite lyricists. Who are some of yours?
John Samson from the Weakerthans—he is the lyricist that I can say, without hesitation, is better than I am. But almost everyone else I think I'm in contention with. [Other favorites are] Blake Schwarzenbach from Jawbreaker/Jets to Brazil, obviously Dylan, Springsteen—that kind of thing. But John Samson is the best right now.
Did you like the lyrics for Jets to Brazil as much as Jawbreaker?
Uh-huh. I think one of the hardest things to do with rock and roll is to age gracefully, and I think it was an attempt on [Schwarzenbach's] part. You have "Kiss the Bottle," but once you sign to Geffen and you have a little money, you probably have a girlfriend, and you're living in Brooklyn—to keep writing songs about being strung out in Oakland is artistically empty. It was awkward at times, but I think it was his own attempt to figure himself out.
That's something that you, no doubt, battle with too.
Oh yeah, I think that that's a real challenge that I need to face as a lyricist. I'm super fascinated by 19-year-olds because at 36 you can be like, "That's hilarious!" The best lyricists—the people like Springsteen and Dylan and Neil Young—figured it out. They're able to write about adults, and that's a challenge I have to face.
Planning on being one of the great ones?
Yeah, that'd be good! It's weird, I'm 36 but I'm just kind of getting started. We're doing it for the first time with a manager and a booking agent and... fans. That's a big step! One thing that's great is that no matter how few people bought the first Lifter Puller record, it still exists. That's kind of heartening. I was just in Minneapolis and I ran into all these kids and they'd be like, "Excuse me, are you Craig Finn? I loved Lifter Puller." But they wouldn't say anything about the Hold Steady.
Did you take that as an insult?
I kind of think it was. The way they said it, it was definitely, "I like Lifter Puller but not the Hold Steady." I was thinking about bands like the Sex Pistols, the Replacements, the Clash, maybe Pavement, and Nirvana, and not that I would say that Lifter Puller was a part of those, but we were out of control. There should be 10 books on it. We were rock 'n' roll. We were into girls and drugs and the things that Mötley Crüe's into. But we'd play with the Dismemberment Plan, who are into cardigan sweaters and reading books. Now with the Hold Steady, we just go back to the hotel room and go to sleep.