IN CONVERSATION – Craig Finn

IN CONVERSATION – Craig Finn

I don’t see how I could possibly say no to an invitation like that?

Craig Finn is considering the question, which my seven year old son asked me to put to him – “Will you join my band, Mun-key Muc-Noodle And The Lamb Shank He Ate, which I am going to form in ten years time when I am 17?” – clearly the man knows an opportunity when he hears one! It’s turning into something of a supergroup now, with Alynda Segarro from Hurray For The Riff Raff also since having jumped on board. That’s some coup, as those two individuals have made arguably the finest pair of long players of 2017 to date. You can read Alynda’s retrospective look back at her albums already on these pages, and now, with We All Want The Same Things set to hit stores in March, God Is In The TV caught up with the Hold Steady man to talk about ageing, Game Of Thrones and Nick Cave‘s comedic skills…

More and more with your solo work, I am getting the feeling that it is your Better Call Saul to The Hold Steady’s Breaking Bad. What I mean by that is you have certain phrases or passages that imply maybe tenuous connections to situations that the likes of Holly or Gideon (chief protagonists in The Hold Steady’s work) may have found themselves in. It’s like a spin-off. For example there’s a line in ‘Ninety Bucks‘ where you sing “I’m sick of all this wilderness / the businessmen on business trips“, which harks back to the end of ‘Sequestered In Memphis‘ and the repeated line “I went there on business“…

Craig Finn: Well there probably ARE similar phrases and passages between The Hold Steady and my solo work, because it all comes from the same place – namely me! There is a kind of link though, I guess, and I was thinking about this just the other day: my first band, Lifter Puller, most of those songs were just about going out getting wasted. Then The Hold Steady, a lot of the characters in those ones we were seeing as being more hung over. And now, a lot of my newer characters are getting older and it’s more about being stuck in some way. People who have hit a certain age and all gone off to different places, but who are just trying to figure out exactly where they fit in the world today. So I guess in that respect, it is kinda like a spin-off or sequel. I didn’t consciously write that connection with business trips. A business trip can mean so many things to different people – you’ve got the businessman using the trip to hide his affair from his wife, or the guy who uses it to just let his hair down, get drunk and party – a way for average people to do things they wouldn’t normally get up to, and I’ve always found that intriguing.

Listening to ‘God In Chicago‘, it made me wonder if there is a frustrated movie director in there just begging to be unleashed?

Funnily enough, we have just made a short film about that song. It turned out really beautiful, but you know, I’m always trying to create something cinematic with my music. I guess my favourites are The Coen Brothers – just this incredible imagery, like with Fargo, and all the snow and cold, the greyness. That’s something I’m always trying to convey in my writing. I wouldn’t want to be a director though, I’ve always been more of an ideas man!

Birds Trapped In The Airport‘ is possibly the most heartfelt, romantic song you have put out to date. It features what seems to be your first openly gay character too…

It’s funny because I thought it was that at first when I wrote it, but now I’m not sure. Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. But there’s definitely an element of that. It’s more to do with the affection you feel when someone close to you almost dies. It’s about that love, that bond, not necessarily even a sexual love, when you realise how lucky and how grateful you are to still have that person around. And it’s about that feeling when someone has a near death experience and afterwards realises how short and precious life is. Then they decide to stop eating cruelly and quit smoking but of course they don’t, because the people around them want them to stay just the way they were before. That’s why it’s called ‘Birds Trapped In The Airport‘.

For me it had added significance, and an added romance, because the chorus goes “James, I want you to dance with me“, and my friend and colleague, Steve, who is gay himself, married his partner James last year…

Oh wow, that’s amazing. Tell him congratulations, and tell him this song’s for them. I guess the song is a little ambiguous but that is the great thing about music. With a novel or a movie, your opinion is largely decided for you, but with a song, people make up their own minds about what it means.

The guitar sound on ‘Jester And June‘ is reminiscent of the solo on ‘Joke About Jamaica‘, which makes me think you must have Tad (Kubler) on this album…

He IS on it, but he’s not on that track! He’s on four songs, but not that one!

(laughs) Oh the irony. Ok, well, ‘Tangletown‘ has a brief passage about “when the sun comes up” that reminded me a little of Fred Neil‘s ‘Everybody’s Talkin”, so what WERE you taking your main inspiration from here?

The main idea I had for it was that a lot of these songs are about people partnering up in some way, sometimes in love, but not too cynical a version of it, I hope. I would like to think the listener would be able to find some beauty in it. ‘We All Want The Same Things’ – I was really pleased with the symmetry in that. You now, maybe this girl has found a guy, an older guy, so she’s more financially secure, and she’s maybe younger and prettier, so they’re both getting something out of the relationship but perhaps neither of them are feeling necessarily truly satisfied, and they have to decide whether it’s really worth continuing.

My favourite album from last year was Drive-By Truckers’ fiercely political American Band. Though your two bands share a kind of kinship, politics have never featured too noticeably in your own compositions. Is that something you’ve deliberately steered clear of?

Yeah, I think I probably have, although I suspect some of the characters I write would NOT have voted the same way as I did. American Band – I loved that album too, but I was surprised at some of the negative feedback they were getting from certain sections of their fans, who weren’t too happy. I found that backlash astonishing, because throughout the whole of their career, they’ve been a political band, and never left you in a any doubt which side they were on, and I was like, “Well, if you’re only just NOW figuring out their political stance…

It’s happened to so many artists – Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen…

Exactly. You know, I was talking to the Seth Meyers just the other day, and he said to me “In hindsight, we should never have called Mitt Romney racist“, and I kinda agree with that. I don’t necessarily agree with Romney’s politics, but so many people have felt pushed to the brink, people who felt there was nobody who spoke for them, and that’s how we’ve ended up where we are now.
As soon as I saw the result of the UK’s referendum, the Brexit thing, I must admit I thought “Uh oh“, because that just seems to be the way the world’s going right now. I’m sure a big part of Trump’s successful campaign was when he started to hold these huge rallies. Just the energy of being in the same space as each other is something that can’t be underestimated, and I think a lot of the momentum gained was through doing that. You know, perhaps we ought to look at doing something like that properly ourselves.

There is a lot of humour in your lyrics…
Humour is very important to me, because when I’m writing, I’m trying to entertain myself, first and foremost. And when you look back at the entire history of rock ‘n’ roll, there’s so MUCH humour to be found in just about ALL of the great artists. People like Dylan, Springsteen, Nick Cave, all of them have written some really funny lyrics. I actually got into an argument with a guy at a bar a while back when I said Cave was humorous. The guy just wouldn’t have it, and could only pin him as a deep, dark, tortured artist. Then like the next day, I saw Nick Cave being interviewed on a TV show, and he said “I hope people can see the humour in what I do”. I was like “YES!”

I used to have similar arguments with people about Morrissey, when they said The Smiths were ‘miserable’…

No way man! Morrissey is hilarious! Still, it’s a good job I wasn’t trying to argue about Hüsker Dü though, who were one of my all time favourite bands, because there’s pretty much NO humour there throughout their entire career!

Something I found amusing not so long ago was when I was watching Game Of Thrones, and a song by The Hold Steady was featured at the end of one episode…

Yeah, that’s ’cause the guys who ran the show were fans. I have to be honest, I’ve never seen the show, but we knew it was too good an opportunity to miss. That was a good indication of how much bigger TV is than music! My phone rang off the hook for weeks after that! It was constant.

Finally, the last time I spoke to you, you told me there was “probably a little bit” of yourself in all the characters you write. Are there ever any moments where you have to reel yourself in, and think “Whoa! I’m baring a little TOO much of my soul here”?

Yeah, probably. Or sometimes if it feels too self indulgent. Like I’ll be writing “in character” and then realise it’s actually me. Sometimes it IS about me. ‘Preludes‘ for instance is very much about me around 1994, coming back from college, trying to figure out who I was and where I was going to fit into life. Much like most of the characters on the new album, in fact!

Craig Finn’s excellent new album, We All Want The Same Things is released in March.

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