Great lyricists are a rare breed amongst the modern alt-rock pantheon and it’s an even smaller collective of these who are immune to clamming up in interview. With a brand new solo album to promote, Craig Finn lacks the opportunity to ‘do a Turner’ and let his drummer do the talking but we suspect this Boston-born motormouth is rarely short of a word or two.
Clear Heart Full Eyes is the bastard offspring of a five-month break in touring duties for The Hold Steady frontman and it’s a pet project he’s evidently chuffed to talk about. While leaning on his trusty themes of downtrodden romanticism and wavering faith, Finn jumped at the opportunity to strip away the familiar bombast of his full-time employers giving us plenty to chat about on a crisp January afternoon in London.
Read onwards for an evangelical lowdown on why one of our favourite frontmen continues to buy his own records through Amazon, thinks the ‘Guitar is dead’ bluster is a load of “shit” and hopes never to be a tax accountant again.
Q: How’s London today?
It’s going pretty good. I’m doing some interviews and we’ve got this in-store at Rough Trade East later so it’s all good.
Q: Your experience of coming over to the UK must have changed a bit since your early days with The Hold Steady?
I think the biggest difference is now I have a bunch of friends over here so I’m always excited to come back and hang in places I know with people I know. It used to be an unknown thing, I’m pretty used to it now. I always go up with my friend to a place called Quinn’s in Kentish Town.
Q: I always think if I had an album out with my name on it I’d go and buy it in a record store. Have you done this?
[Chuckles] I have not, maybe today when we’re over at Rough Trade but I wanna do it a little more covert. There’s plenty of time but I haven’t yet.
Q: Have you ever done it?
I’ve never bought a Hold Steady record... Well no, you know what? Sometimes people will be like, ‘You’ve gotta send me a copy of your record?’ Then rather than dealing with it through the label and waiting, I’ll buy it through Amazon and send it to them’.
Q: You recorded Clear Heart Full Eyes in a break during your touring with The Hold Steady. Was it a spur of the moment decision?
Well, when we decided to take a break I knew I needed to do something to keep me busy and I had the songs or at least part of them. So when the break came I was like, ‘I’m at least going to try this. Let’s do this.’
I had some songs. As it turns out the majority of the songs that made the record, I wrote leading into the record but I did have songs before the break which maybe inspired me to do a solo record.
Q: So was it a long-standing ambition to make a solo album?
I definitely wanted to do something that was quieter, The Hold Steady are a really loud band. I don’t really write any music for The Hold Steady, just the lyrics, so I was thinking ‘I’d like to do something where I know I’m being heard and my lyrics get up above everything’. So I was looking forward to doing something like that and I’d been thinking about it for a while.
Q: It sounds like you never had to decide whether something was a Hold Steady song or a solo song?
Yeah with The Hold Steady stuff, Tad [Kubler] and the group write the music and I put lyrics to that. For this I came up with music and lyrics, so the practice was a little different. A Hold Steady song really starts with a Tad riff, so me writing the music for The Hold Steady doesn’t really work because I’m not good enough with a guitar.
Q: So how did you write the music for this?
Well, I just wrote really basic chords, just like the most basic chords to go with the lyrics and the melodies. So I sent those to the producer [Mike McCarthy] and then we talked about what we were hearing. Like, ‘I would like a pedal steel on this. I would like two guitars on this or whatever.’ Then the producer put together the band, so that’s when the musicians came in and heard the real basic skeleton and then they kind of played what they saw with a little direction from me and a lot more direction from the producer.
Q: Did you have to intervene much in how it went?
No, not much. It went pretty quickly. I met those guys in the studio on a Monday morning and by Friday night we had 14 songs recorded. We really figured out how to play the songs and then recorded them. It all happened pretty naturally, that was the exciting thing about it.
Q: Had you met any of the guys before?
No, I literally met them all for the first time and half an hour later we were trying to record a song. That was the interesting part of it. I was kind of looking to do something uncomfortable. To get through the way I’ve been doing things.
Q: Did you do anything to break the ice after meeting the guys?
Well I’d seen some of them in other bands and we knew some of the same people so there was a bit of that. Josh [Block] was in White Denim and I’d seen him play before and we had some mutual friends so we talked about that. As the week went on we had more mutual friends, more things in common. So it was stuff like that but we got going pretty quick.
Q: Have you stayed in touch with the band?
Well, Ricky [Ray Jackson from the Happen-Ins] the pedal steel player is going to be in the touring band and he’s here in London doing the in-stores with me. I think the pedal steel is a crazy cool instrument, everything you say, if it plays on top of you, just sounds sadder and prettier. So I really like having him there. The other guys I’ve also kept in touch with.
Q: You’ve said before that if you wrote about your life it would be boring but if you lived out your songs you’d be miserable. Why are you attracted to that tragic hero vibe?
Well, I think a lot of the people in my songs are kind of broken and life didn’t work out for them. I always feel like they’re one or two bad decisions away from where I’m at. I think in every one of us, there are anxieties about things not working out. I think everyone knows people they grew up with who got to a less positive place and aren't that far off from us.
Q: You must feel pretty lucky in that regard?
Yeah it’s funny, considering none of it happened until I was 33 years old. You know I really thought I was done with that. I always say, this is a joke but it’s very true, but this is the best job I’ve ever had. I find it pretty easy to get excited because it is a pretty amazing thing to ever happen.
Q: What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
Oh I worked in a financial company during the tax season, it was really crazy busy with really angry people all of the time. Also, it was in Minnesota so it was so cold and dark all the time. I remember those years as the hardest.
Q: You reference loads of things in your lyrics. I found a Wiki dedicated to the band which has 775 different articles in it. Do you think people read too much into your songs?
I think it’s cool that people look into things but sometimes people want answers. It’s like that thing of ‘What does this mean?’ It could mean a lot of things. There’s a certain type of person who gets really obsessed and needs to know what this is and how it’s going to be resolved or whatever. There’s a certain point when you should just enjoy it.
As a music fan I would always trying to figure things out, going over things with a fine-tooth comb but when you start writing songs, you end up writing songs you’d want to hear yourself so in some ways I very much understand it.
Q: Religion comes up a lot on the solo album and with The Hold Steady. Do you get different attitudes to those songs in different parts of the world?
Yeah! I was just thinking about this. One thing I was thinking is that I mention a lot of Jesus and a lot of faith in my songs but also a lot of drinking and drug use so maybe people don’t think like I’m trying to convert them. I think that helps. I don’t think people are as suspicious about it as they might be with some other bands maybe.
Q: Why do you thinking religion is still such a defining characteristic of American life, especially politically?
I don’t know, it’s really weird, a lot of that comes from states that I haven’t lived in. It’s kind of crazy when you think about how John Huntsman [former Republican Presidential candidate] was the only one who really believed in science. He believed in dinosaurs and that’s a little scary for me because, I have religious beliefs but I certainly believe in science. I don’t know, it’s one of those things that makes America unique.
Q: You’ve always been extremely deferential to the indie rock cannon, especially bands like The Replacements and Hüsker Dü, but now you’re a part of gang. That must be a strange realisation?
It’s very strange when I think about it. Sometimes we’ll play a show and I’ll be like ‘Man I saw this band there’. In Minneapolis where I grew up and I went to Boston for college I’ll be like, ‘I saw The Replacements at this place’.
So yeah it’s a strange thing but then again, I am like 40 years old so I’ve had a lot of time to get there. I think because nothing really happened musically for me until I was in my 30s it seems like ‘Wow!’ Then I realised I’m probably quite a bit older right now than The Replacements were when they broke up.
Q: Also, all those bands tended to burn out at some point whereas both you and The Hold Steady keep churning out records?
Well I think again because we’re a little older we might be a little wiser. When The Hold Steady started touring it was definitely crazier, there was more drinking and all that but eventually it was like ‘If we’re gonna keep doing this, we’re gonna have to take a little better care of ourselves’. So there’s a level of professionalism that has maybe kept us around.
Q: How unprofessional did it get in the early days?
Well, [laughs] I certainly had shows where we definitely played... There was one show where we did like... [Apologetically] The thing was they were small shows and the crowd was in on it as well but at the beginning I was like. ‘If we can play our first seven songs good then I’m cool and then whatever happens from there happens’.
Q: How’s the new Hold Steady album going? Have you started writing it?
Yeah we’ve got 11 songs so far, it’s going a little... I don’t wanna say ‘slower’ but we have to plan a little more because we have Steve Selvidge on guitar and he lives in Memphis. We really want to write the album with him so we kind of have to plan, ‘Steve’s gonna be here this week, we gotta get him up from Memphis.’ I’d like to think we’ll have a record out in 2012. That’s not 100 per cent within my own control but I think we’ll record early summer and hopefully have a record out in the fall.
Q: You’re quite prolific really...
Well seeing as this is my job I feel like I should go to work. I’ve really come round to the idea that songs don’t necessarily hit you, you have to go out and get them. If you put four hours of your day into writing songs, then you’ll have more songs than if you were waiting around for a song to come.
Q: When I listen to some of the album’s lyrics some of them really stand out. Especially, “Stephanie was long on looks and short on mental health, she said depression is an ocean, and it’s prone to tidal swells” from ‘Jackson’. Is that the same when you write them?
Well, sometimes I’ll hear something or think of a line and then start the song. Sometimes you’ll be writing a song and it’ll be that next line. Sometimes, you know you’ll be walking around and you think ‘You know what? That’ll actually be a better line than the one I wrote’.
So I’m always changing things right up until recording them, some will come really quickly and some will take a lot of work to get them right. There’s this moment where it’s like, ‘Okay I changed that last line and now it’s right where it needs to be’. It’s almost like you get it perfectly balanced or something.
Q: Is there an average time it takes to write lyrics or more of a constant flow?
It’s kind of a constant flow. When we go to write a song with The Hold Steady, it’s like we have the idea of ‘We’re gonna go in and rehearse for an afternoon and get a song done by the end of the day’. That’s if I have all the lyrics.
It’s usually a matter of how quickly they were written before we recorded them. If they were written directly before we recorded, I might change the lyrics a bunch of times.
Q: You’ve managed to achieve longevity because you honed your craft over time and built up momentum, in comparison to acts like Lana Del Rey who are suddenly thrust into the spotlight. Do you think you could have coped with that much attention so early on in your career?
It would have been really hard to deal with. A lot of people who get that have it at a really young age. Lana Del Rey? What is she like 22? [She’s actually 25] That’s a tough thing to be dealing with at that age.
I think the cool thing about The Hold Steady is that we built something that’s pretty real. It doesn’t really matter what happens in the press or in the blogs, our fans will still come and see us and they can’t take that away from us.
Q: I don’t know if you’ve been following the UK press but there’s been endless commentary on whether guitar music is dead or whether it’s not where it should be. What do you think about that?
I feel like they’re writing that it’s dead and in another three to five years they’ll be writing that it’s back. There are all these pages that people have to fill up with shit you know? They’ve gotta write something.
Q; What are your plans for the rest of the year, excluding The Hold Steady stuff?
I don’t know. I just want to keep doing things that are artistically exciting for me. All I try to do is keep busy and then do things which feel right. The rest is just crossing your fingers and hoping.
Clear Heart Full Eyes is available to buy now through Full Time Hobby.