In 2004, it was hard to conceive of a band more out of step with what was currently fashionable in indie rock than The Hold Steady. Founded by former Lifter Puller members Craig Finn and Tad Kubler, The Hold Steady was in fact inspired by their shared dissatisfaction with the prevailing trends of the time. As post-punk throwbacks and danceable grooves were captivating critics, The Hold Steady emerged with riff-heavy, piano-accented anthems that drew on Finn’s youthful, Middle American misadventures. Right when everyone else was enraptured with leather jackets and Duran Duran, The Hold Steady waved the flag for cheap beer and Bob Seger.
As the decade progressed, The Hold Steady somehow become one of indie’s most acclaimed and popular acts, not bad for what was initially looked at even by the band members as a lark that likely wouldn’t go far. But then, as they entered the 2010s, the fairy tale turned sour. Over time, a band that once commented on classic-rock clichés with wit and insight now seemed to embody them. There was in-fighting, health scares, indifferently received mid-period albums, and failed reboots. By the mid-2010s, they were teetering on the edge of a break-up.
And yet, in the manner of all rousing rock ‘n’ roll comeback stories, The Hold Steady weathered the storm and came out stronger on the other side. Thrashing Thru The Passion, their 2019 album featuring the return of prodigal keyboardist Franz Nicolay, was The Hold Steady’s most loved LP in years. Now, they’re prepping for the Feb. 19 release of Open Door Policy, an album that integrates the more layered production of Finn’s solo records (steered by excellent indie producer of the moment Josh Kaufman) into The Hold Steady’s bedrock, rough-and-tumble sound. The result suits this battle-scarred though ultimately lovable band — it’s their most mature record and one of their darkest, but it also evinces the genuine joy that’s enabled them to endure.
To trace their path to Open Door Policy, Finn and Kubler looked back on their catalogue, and spoke candidly about The Hold Steady’s myriad highs and lows over the course of more than 15 years and eight albums.
Almost Killed Me (2004)
Tad Kubler: Look, I’m not going to lie to you: We were very, very aware that what we were doing was not at all popular, you know? But I think we tried to celebrate that.
Craig Finn: In 2002, I went to see the Drive-By Truckers at Bowery Ballroom and I was like, “Oh, I want to be in a band again.” Just straight ahead, telling stories and playing guitars.
TK: I guess the thing that I remember most is writing that record in Craig’s kitchen. I would be sitting at his table with just an electric guitar not even plugged into an amp playing along, and he would be pacing back and forth in his kitchen writing down lyrics and singing.
CF: I was a little burnt on indie rock. In Lifter Puller, we started to like rock ‘n’ roll more than indie rock. What we listened to in the van was AC/DC. Back then, you could go into a record store and find a used copy of Let It Bleed, pay $3 for it, and come home and be like, “Wow.”
TK: I was listening to a lot of Led Zeppelin, and especially on the first record I was listening to a lot of Rolling Stones. Classic rock is very much where I come from growing up in Wisconsin with some of the older kids in the neighborhood. When I was 11 or 12 years old, Eric and Tony Goth, they had a band called Holy Terror and they used to rehearse in their basement. And it was everything from Judas Priest to Black Sabbath to Van Halen, and I just used to go over and watch them play. And then as I got into junior high and discovered the Clash and the Sex Pistols and Circle Jerks, stuff like that.
CF: I moved to New York in 2000. In those three years, we found a really cool group of people that we were having a lot of fun with and that’s the album cover, all our friends. Towards the end, we found a clubhouse, which was HiFi on Avenue A. We were just having a lot of fun. I think that that really shines through on that record.
TK: We weren’t sure if we were going to play shows or if we were even going to put music out. I tend to just stumble into things and am very fortunate that way, where Craig has more of a vision and can kind of see the bigger picture.
CF: When that record was recorded, the expectations were minor. I don’t know that we totally even knew we were making a record. We had six songs and we recorded those. Then a few months later, we had six more. We went in and recorded those. It was two different weekends. We hadn’t really started touring heavily and all that. We all had other jobs. There was a real party atmosphere in the studio. There was a looseness to it that I really love.
TK: I remember being in the studio and making overdub decisions, and Craig and I were kind of smiling and laughing with Dean [Baltulonis, the album’s producer] saying, “Oh man, if or when people hear this, this is going to bum everybody out.”
CF: Everything else culturally was bands with tight pants and making indie rockers dance again, that kind of thing. We were like, “What if we bummed everyone out?”
TK: You know, like the absurdly long solo at the end of “Most People Are DJs.” There was a lot of me doing guitar overdubs after many, many, many beers, and Craig and Dean egging me on a little bit.
CF: Something that was smart was releasing it on Frenchkiss. They were a label known for Les Savy Fav and a lot of the artsy punk stuff. To come out with a down-in-the-middle rock record, I think people looked at it in a certain way that ended up being really helpful. In our first bio, I wrote that we were a bar band and that’s been repeated ad naseum.
Separation Sunday (2005)
CF: For a lot of people that that’s still their favorite record. It’s certainly very Minneapolis-centric and has the characters, which people always want to know more about. I came up with the overarching concept, which I had done before a little bit on the last Lifter Puller record, so I knew we could pull it off. I felt like even though I’m making up these stories, there’s some way to keep them honest just by setting them in someplace I know about. In New York, you can feel like you’re living in the shadow of it a little bit if you’re not going to the Met Ball or whatever. You’re just getting by in the city. I felt like I had that distance from Minneapolis and I could see it clearly. I remember at the time really not wanting to be the Midwestern guy that moves to New York and then three minutes is a Yankees fan. A lot of people do reinvent themselves when they’re here. I started wanting to do the opposite of that.
TK: That was the first time I felt like, “Oh wow, we came up with this. We wrote this.” It felt like we were starting to develop a sound that was ours. Where honestly Almost Killed Me seemed less of that and more like just pulling pretty heavily from influences.
CF: Both Rolling Stone and Spin called Almost Killed Me “the best album you didn’t hear this year.” When we sat down to start on Separation Sunday, I remember saying, “Let’s make a record that people do hear.” Franz joined at that point. Although we had most of the songs already written. He ended up playing on top of us.
TK: We had known Franz from World/Inferno Friendship Society and we had him come in and play piano on a handful of tracks on Almost Killed Me. The piano just added so much drama and Franz was easy to be around. And he was a caliber of musician that I really admired and respected and wanted to become, and I felt like we kind of tricked him into being in the band.
CF: I think he played a saw on that record. He could do a lot of things and expand our palate.
TK: Franz was really busy with other projects. I remember Craig and I sitting down with him at a bar and being like, “No, it’s not going to be a big-time commitment. I don’t know whether we’re going to tour that much at all. We’ll do the record and we’ll see what happens.” And I believed that!
CF: It felt good in the studio. I thought people were going to like it and then it came out and there was just a lot of really good press. We decided to do the record release show at Bowery Ballroom, but it was a little bit of a stretch. We were like, “Everyone has to get really aggressive to invite a lot of people from their work.” Then The Village Voice article came out. We were on the cover and the show sold out immediately, and just the whole thing became different.
Boys And Girls In America (2006)
TK: My daughter was born right before we started working on Separation Sunday. For Boys And Girls, it was a lot of me getting up super early and then walking over to Franz’s place. Franz lived two blocks from me at that time, and I would walk over there in the morning and he had this little piano in his bedroom, and he and I would work on songs for four, five hours every day. It was a real honeymoon phase for Franz and I specifically. It felt like the songs and stuff and the ideas were being realized in a way they hadn’t been before.
CF: We started working with John Agnello on that one. It was a huge thing to bring in a producer and he made it awesome and became a good friend of the band and brought out a lot of good things. One thing that impressed me was John pulled out a calendar and he said, “These are the days we’re going to work, and these are the days you have off.” I’d never been in a situation that was so pro.
TK: It was exciting. Things happened so quickly, so the songs came really easy. The writing went really fast.
CF: We were able to create some of the dynamics right off the bat with “Stuck Between Stations.” It goes down to just a pure piano break, and we were playing with dynamics that way.
TK: Franz and I actually didn’t talk about this until we were working on songs for Thrashing Thru The Passion, but for Franz and I, the honeymoon would eventually end. Franz said, “You know, I came into this band that was this guitar band, and as a piano player, I felt I had to really plant my flag.” And I felt like I had to make sure that we didn’t become a piano band. That kind of started … I don’t want to say a struggle because I think some of that struggle was what made the songs great.
CF: You don’t work necessarily harder on these records that really connect, but it felt like the audience met in the middle because people were ready for it. People were open to it. Everything just felt big. The rooms were bigger. We played with Springsteen at Carnegie Hall. Our first two records didn’t come out in Europe and that one did with the new label and it exploded over there. Before we were touring pretty heavily in the States. Now we had two areas to cover. We spent a lot of time in the U.K. where things went really well. We still have a great audience there and a lot of fun over there.
TK: It was kind of like waking up every day and having your dreams come true. I don’t want to sound corny about it but it was just like, “Fuck, are you kidding me?”
Stay Positive (2008)
TK: I can’t really differentiate Stay Positive from Boys And Girls. I know that Craig said this too probably because he and I talked about it.
CF: I get them confused because we had the same producer in the same studio and it was pretty quick. When we wrote a lot of those songs, we realized we wanted to keep the momentum going, but we didn’t have much time off, so a lot of the songs were written in hotel rooms or backstage. Things like “Joke About Jamaica,” there’s this idea of rock ‘n’ roll creeping in, which seems to happen with any band that tours a lot, for better or worse.
TK: Stay Positive was the beginning of something I think every band that starts to have a little bit of success goes through. It’s growing pains or whatever you want to call them. There were a lot of opinions about what we should be doing. There were just sort of whispers at that point, but I do remember talk about a single and I was just like, “A single? What? First of all, we don’t have that kind of money, to do some kind of radio campaign. And we’re not really that band.”
CF: When we were writing “Stay Positive,” the song, we were pretty aware that the “whoa-oh-oh” part was going to go over with the audience. It was an ethos. From the top, we talked about creating a band that had a community, which seems weird, that we talked about that, but we were able to do it.
Heaven Is Whenever (2010)
TK: Well, obviously a lot happens between the time Stay Positive comes out and Heaven Is Whenever. Obviously one of the big ones is Franz leaves.
CF: That was a blow, but I feel like if anything, we were a little bit too cocky, like, “We’ll be fine.”
TK: At the time it seemed like that relationship just didn’t seem sustainable, and I think Franz had become kind of frustrated with him having to try and manage his time. And then I got sick and ended up in the hospital before a pretty serious European tour that we had to cancel, which I think was hard for everybody. And then, I was sick enough to the point where they weren’t sure that I was going to make it.
CF: We were pretty tired, pretty fried. There was certainly the sense of, “We’ve got to go make a record because that’s what we do. We make records and go on tour.” Also, we had this idea that we were going to scale back on the producer.We were trying to make it with Dean Baltulonis, who made the first two with us, but he was such a good friend and a peer. Even though I think he’s a brilliant guy, he didn’t have the levity of Agnello. He wasn’t scary in any way. He was just more of this dude we hung out with.
TK: With Franz departing, a lot of the weight of bringing ideas in for songs kind of landed solely with me. Craig always brings in music, too, but Franz and I were coming up with the lion’s share of the music.
CF: I have a lot of thoughts about this record because we reissued it recently and I had to go through it all. When I went through it all and saw all the B-sides and everything, I was pleasantly surprised that even though I don’t think it’s our best record, we put a lot of work into it.
TK: We had a shitload of songs for that album.
CF: That record could have been better in maybe two different ways. One is if we would have either stayed with Agnello or even gotten another producer. Production is often leadership. We didn’t have a strong leader at that moment. It wasn’t me. It wasn’t anyone. I think that that might have helped if we had someone to say, “No, let’s just work on these 10 songs. We’ve got to work harder. This is flat.”
TK: I thought we should use Dean for Heaven Is Whenever because it felt like we had created a lot of expectations and pressure that didn’t need to be there. I thought, “If we can go back to working with Dean, we can go back to kind of having fun in a way that we did on those first two records.” Unfortunately, it didn’t really work out like that.
CF: I wonder, since we recorded so much music, if it could’ve been a double album. I’m thinking about records like Exile On Main St. or London Calling — not to say that it could have been as good as any of those records, but they’re letting you behind the scenes, where you put out a lot of music and some of it’s really well-considered and some of it is off-the-cuff, but it shows a lot of the personality of the band. I think maybe in my mind, that’s what we were supposed to do, but then we got scared and it ended up sounding too slick. I was there for all of it and I signed off on all of it, so it wasn’t like someone did this to me. But 10 years on, I look back and I think those are the mistakes that were made.
TK: I think that that’s one of those records where I can kind of see the end zone, but I just can’t ever quite get there. And again, the one thing that I would say about this record is I think there were these expectations that had been created, or we were getting all this input on what we should be doing, instead of just doing what had worked for us in the past, which is we did what we wanted to do and we had fun.
CF: When I went back for the reissue, I was like, “I don’t know why we didn’t put ‘Beer On The Bedstand‘ on the record.” Tad had some health problems and we left the studio quickly, let’s say that. I think that at the time, we thought that song was unfinished. I can’t even tell you that 100 percent, but that’s my memory.
Teeth Dreams (2014)
TK: We did that with Nick Raskulinecz, who’d done Rush and Mastodon and the Foo Fighters, you know, kind of these hard rock bands.
CF: Heaven was a little tough, I wanted to do my own records, so I went down to Austin and did the first solo record.
TK: We did a lot of the writing without him. And between Steve and I, we can fill up a lot of fucking space with guitars. In fact, if you let us, we will fill up every single little nook and cranny and corner. By the time Craig came in he was like, “Where the fuck are the vocals going to go?”
CF: It was so intense. I remember having a hard time finding my spot because of the two guitars. Also, in 2013 my mom passed away. I don’t know that I ever got my head around a lyrical thing. It seemed to be a lot about anxiety, but I don’t know if it was as well-defined as some of the other stuff.
TK: I think it was hard for Craig to feel a part of what was happening, which is absurd since he’s one of the most important parts if not the most important part of what’s happening on a Hold Steady record. But that said, I think he still killed it. “Oaks,” I still say, maybe even to this day, is the only time I’ve had an idea for a song and how it sounds recorded is exactly how I heard it in my head.
CF: I think I missed the piano, the dynamic of going down to just a piano and being able to build things up. There’s not a lot of variance on Teeth Dreams.
TK: One thing I did hear about, was people saying, “Oh, it’s over-compressed.” You know what, you have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about. Okay, so tell me what you mean by over-compressed, because if you want to have a conversation about the dynamic range of that record we can, but I’m not sure that you’re going to have anything intelligent to say about that. I think what people are really saying is it sounds slick. It sounds like a sparkly big rock record, which I fucking love. Is it right for the Hold Steady? Probably not.
Thrashing Thru The Passion (2019)
TK: I was convinced the band was done. I didn’t want to do it anymore. I was just like, fuck this, man.
CF: We had taken a good year-and-a-half break.
TF: And then Craig and I started hanging out again and we went to go see some shows.
CF: We were going to do a Boys And Girls In America 10-year anniversary show. I was like, “If we’re going to do this, we should call Franz.”
TK: I said, “If Franz doesn’t want to do it, I’m a lot less interested in the whole thing.”
CF: We offered it to him to do it and he said, “Yeah, I’ll do it, cool.”
TK: Total typical fucking Franz.
CF: We did it and it was a lot of fun.
TK: I feel like Franz and I were able to work through some shit without doing it deliberately. It just sort of happened. To this day that guy is one of my favorite people.
CF: We booked another weekend in Chicago. We thought it would be fun for the fans if we learned a cover of a song by a band from Chicago that we played in the encore each night. I think the first night, we did “Southern Girls” by Cheap Trick. The next night we did “I’m the Man Who Loves You” by Wilco. Then the third night we did “Too Much Time On My Hands” by Styx. While we were learning the Styx song, which was harder than I thought it was going to be, I was like, “We could totally be using this time to write new songs.” Pretty soon, we went in the studio. We recorded “Entitlement Crew” and we started putting out songs as we released them. There was a return to Almost Killed Me‘s level of low-pressure expectations.
As the industry changes, consuming music changes. I think the thought was, “Do we need to go and make an album and then wait six months for it to come out?” I was really excited. I thought the music we were writing was really cool. “Entitlement Crew,” when we play it live, that’s a classic Hold Steady song. At this point, that one gets the crowd as much up as “Chips Ahoy” or “Stuck Between Stations.”
Eventually, the five songs we recorded sounded like a side of an album. I was like, “Let’s make this the first side and put some of the other songs on the B side and call it an album.”
Open Door Policy (2021)
CF: We did decide early on we were going to make an album. When you’re just recording songs and putting them out, you’re swinging for the fences at all times. With this record, this song sets up that song, and maybe the lyrics can be a little more referential. It was cool to think that way again.
TK: I think that we’ve managed to get back to making decisions that are maybe a little out there, because we think they’re going to be funny.
CF: I’m super excited about it, but I’ve struggled to tell people what’s different about it. I think there’s been a continuation of figuring out this six-piece line-up and where everything goes and I think that that’s a huge part of the story. It’s allowed us to be more expansive musically than maybe we have in the past. There’s maybe a little bit more of headphone moments. There’s this weird scraping of guitars, some weird little noises that brought something we haven’t done before.
TK: I think it is Craig’s best record. Lyrically, it is a fucking slam dunk. I mean, there’s some shit on there that he says that I’m just like, “Whoa! Like, hold on a second. What the fuck is going on with you right now?” And I can really hear everybody in it, too. I can hear Galen and I can hear Bobby and I hear Franz and I can hear Steve.
CF: We recorded it in two sessions, which was like Almost Killed Me.
TK: I’m just so happy that I get to do this with those guys. Obviously, with the way things have gone over the past year, I’m sure everybody is taking stock in some way or another. But I still can’t believe that this is what we get to do.
CF: It feels good, really good, internally. It’s a blast. Somehow, The Hold Steady just does better if we’re all having the maximum amount of fun.
Open Door Policy is out on February 19 via Positive Jams. Get it here.