Ask Craig Finn, leader of The Hold Steady, about the secret behind his unusual singing style and he’ll tell you there isn’t one.
“I don’t really sing,” said Finn with a laugh. “It’s pretty much just me talking amplified. I want it to be conversational. It’s sort of like creating this idea of a guy talking or yelling in your ear at a club.”
Think Bruce Springsteen shout-singing “Glory Days” and you’ve pretty much nailed how Finn delivers his words. In fact, comparisons between Finn and the Boss have been constant since The Hold Steady’s 2004 debut, “Almost Killed Me.” It can be heard on any song with Finn’s vocal stamp.
“I can see where the comparisons are valid,” Finn said during a phone interview from Raleigh, N.C. “He’s a vivid storyteller with a really good rock ‘n’ roll band behind him, and that’s something I hope we are, too.”
Labeled “America’s bar band” by critics and fans alike, The Hold Steady specializes in songs that feature themes of religion, partying, love and more partying in a world filled with compelling characters.
“People always think that songwriting should be a confessional kind of thing, and I see it as more of a cinematic pursuit,” Finn said. “Using characters allows me to paint a big picture and tell a story without necessarily commenting on myself. ”
Gideon, Holly and Charlemagne are a few of the characters who populate The Hold Steady’s universe. Finn writes tales about the aforementioned trio that are interesting enough to pull you in, but is careful about the details he weaves in: “I think there is a little bit of everyone in those characters, and I think everyone can see themselves in my songs and these characters. The more you firm them up with more and more details, the more you exclude people from relating to the stories.”
The group’s newest album, this year’s “Stay Positive,” reduces Finn’s typical cast of characters to cameo roles. Finn said that while the album strays from his formula, he isn’t necessarily done with Holly, Gideon and Charlemagne.
Taken as a whole, “Stay Positive” is about aging gracefully, and the band’s maturity can be heard on the harpsichord-driven “One for the Cutters” and “Slapped Actresses.” The latter is about an aging actor while the former is a gripping murder mystery.
“On the new record, I had older characters in mind who were facing adult drama more than young-adult problems,” said Finn, who is 37. “Right now, I am keeping it open to whether I want to come back to those younger characters.”
The Hold Steady begins a two-night stand at The Showbox SoDo on Thursday with tour mates Drive-By Truckers as part of the Rock and Roll Means Well tour. The groups are alternating headlining slots with The Hold Steady headlining Thursday.
“Touring with the Truckers has been great,” Finn said. “They are a band we’ve respected for quite a while, and we’ve been ending shows playing encores together.”
The encores have consisted of covers of AC/DC’s “Ride On” and Blue Oyster Cult’s “Burning for You.” For a band that wrote a record about aging gracefully, playing covers by venerable classic rock icons is an appropriate course of action.
“Really, we enjoy making music and telling stories,” Finn said of his band’s career. “So far, The Hold Steady has been real lucky to be able to age gracefully. … Hopefully that’s something we’ll be able to continue doing.”
This interview was originally published in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on Nov. 18, 2008.