Craig Finn is a Midwestern guy in a New York town, and that suits him just fine. As the main songwriter for Big Apple-based rock band the Hold Steady, the singer/guitarist has a genius for hooky melodies and lyrics inspired by painful and beautiful life experiences. As a bandmate, he strikes a balance between the gritty work ethic of his hometown of Minneapolis and a rare but genuine big-city optimism typical of his current Brooklyn digs.
"Minnesota is absolutely a part of the band," Finn says. "When we started out, I just wanted to have a straight rock 'n' roll band with big guitars and smart lyrics. I think of the Replacements [a Minneapolis based band] when I think of that."
While Replacements frontman Paul Westerberg's boozy swagger and deliberate, drink-fueled dumbness amused Finn at a young age, the Mats' natural rock leanings made a huge impression on him.
"They were my favorite band of all time, and probably one of the big reasons why I did what I do," Finn says. "It was just rock 'n' roll in a way, but they did things with an honesty and sort of a spirit that made it all their own. It was so exciting to be around.
"They were more on the fringes," he adds. "We're more traditional. I like baseball, and I went to college. We drink beer like normal people; it's not pure and utter alcoholism, like with those guys."
Fans of the Hold Steady's guitar-driven rock anthems could easily offer similar praise to the band's gutsy studio work and their raw and powerful live performances.
Finn formed the Hold Steady with guitarist Tad Kubler (a previous bandmate in Lifter Puller) in New York after relocating from Minneapolis in 2000. Drummer Judd Counsel and bassist Galen Polivka joined in for the band's 2004 debut, Almost Killed Me. Keyboardist Franz Nicolay (of the World/Inferno Friendship Society) and drummer Bobby Drake came aboard in time for 2006's Boys and Girls in America.
The critically acclaimed Stay Positive gave the band its highest Billboard chart position to date in 2008 — propelled by the minor hit and fan favorite "Sequestered in Memphis."
Considering their recent success, it's impressive that the Hold Steady is still playing the traditional rock clubs like the Pour House (where did performed a super-sweaty, sold-out show two summers ago) and the Music Farm, where they perform this week.
"To be honest, I think the best place to see the Hold Steady is in those types of venues," says Finn. "Real rock clubs, you know? We try to do our best at the theaters and festivals, but for the type of band we are, it just fits to play a rock club."
The Hold Steady's latest collection, a 10-song winner called Heaven is Whenever, came out in May on the Vagrant label. It earned positive reviews and terrific fan reaction. As with Stay Positive, Finn's emotive singing and personalized lyrics soar over an onslaught of big-rock guitar sounds and a steadily pounding rhythm section.
"It might be a stretch to call it a concept album, but I grew up listening to albums rather than downloaded tracks," Finn says. "We asked ourselves, 'What do we want to say with the whole thing?' Thematically, I was thinking a lot about struggle and reward. I was thinking that the Christian version of heaven is this great payoff, but my deal was like, 'Well, we have to experience all of it to have the reward.' It's all of the parts of the ritual that I love."
Painful life experiences and lessons are prevalent on Heaven is Whenever. But the agony, anguish, and frustration are vital elements of a bigger picture for Finn.
"It's not just about doing a show, playing your hit, and having people go crazy," he says. "Every moment of this is something to enjoy, all of the ups and downs. It's all part of the whole thing. Life is like that, too. There's emulation and tragedy, but it's all wrapped up. It's the art of the human experience."
Studio veteran Dean Baltulonis produced Heaven is Whenever at Dreamland Recording Studios in upstate N.Y. and at Wild Arctic Studios in Queens.
"We took a longer time and we were more deliberate with this," Finn says of the new collection. "Franz had left the band, and we were trying to figure what was next. We made all of the other records the same way, so we wanted to do things differently. I was also kind of hyper-aware of the fact that this was our fifth record — and a lot of my favorite bands never made it to their fifth record."
Finn and his bandmates made two major adjustments to their lineup this year. After five years in the group, Nicolay decided to move on to new artistic endeavors. The band replaced him with keyboard player Dan Neustadt.
"Franz was such an ambitious guy, and he had a lot of other projects," says Finn. "People ask about him a lot. Some of the things we were trying to do started getting in the way of the things we were trying to do."
Finn and company have added a third guitarist, Steve Selvidge, for the current tours. Like the new songs on Heaven is Whenever, the pianos and keys tend to take a backseat to the muscular frontline of guitars.
"Having three guitars on stage allows us to stretch out a bit," says Finn. "It adds a lot of new life to things. Tad and Steve play against and with each other in exciting ways. We're trying to make sure it's not just a big wall of sound coming at you. Steve is such a tasteful player, things stay dynamic and work well."
The extra-strength aesthetic suits the hearty themes of Finn's latest songs. Heaven is Whenever fits into the Hold Steady's body of work; it offers a sense of mutual support and respect between the band and their fans — and between Finn and his rock heroes.
The surviving Replacements should be proud of them.