Interview: The Hold Steady

Photo Credit: Danny Clinch
Photo Credit: Danny Clinch

Brooklyn rockers The Hold Steady are celebrating their tenth anniversary as a band in a big way. First they commemorated the milestone in February at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. Then came their sixth studio album, Teeth Dreams, received with the usual acclaim from critics and fans alike. Now the band plans to spread the love even further on a country-wide concert run this summer. As the “Nights Go On Forever” tour kicks off on Friday at the Stone Pony Summerstage (click here for tickets), Senior Writer Nick Porcaro took a moment to discuss the band’s past, present and future with Hold Steady co-founder, guitarist and songwriter Tad Kubler. What follows is an eye-opening look into the creative process fueling one of our last bastions of classic rock glory.

Pop-Break: It’s been a crazy period of activity for you guys! You’re on a new label, you just put out Teeth Dreams, and now you’re getting ready to hit the road yet again—how are you doing?

Tad Kubler: It’s going great! It’s nice to be back at it. It was nice to have a break, which was much needed. I think it’s good it went for as long as it did because everybody’s excited to be back. Initially we just planned to take six months off, maybe a year tops, but that turned into a lot longer than we’d expected, so it’s nice to be back and working.

PB: With your earlier records, you did Almost Killed Me, Separation Sunday and Boys and Girls in America in the span of three years, which blows my mind.

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TK: The first five records all came out within about seven years. Boys and Girls was the first record where we started to play overseas, and we weren’t able to keep up that pace. Geographically, we were gone longer because we were covering more areas.

PB: I saw you guys back at the Trocadero a few years back, and the band has a reputation for being a really raucous live act. You really put it all out there on stage. Now that the tour’s coming up, how do you prep for that?

TK: That’s a hard question to answer because I don’t know that it’s ever really the same. The focus for me now is getting up and playing. We’ve got six records plus B-sides, and different released tracks here and there to choose from…that’s like 100 songs! For us to just get up and play 25 songs well—or even great for that matter—doesn’t necessarily seem like enough anymore. So I’ve been trying to figure out how we can really put together an evening or a show that’s going to be the best that it can be. I don’t know what that’s going to be, exactly, but it’s always something we work on because obviously the live rock concert is one of the best ways to experience music. For us to put together an evening that people want to come out to and be a part of is important.

PB: And that sense of community is a big thing with your fanbase, where people feel like they’re part of the Unified Scene or what have you.

TK:
One of the things I started noticing a while ago was people coming to the show alone. It didn’t seem daunting to come to a Hold Steady show by yourself because you knew you’d be around a bunch of people you were gonna have a good time with. That’s one of the best things I can think of about playing in a band.

PB: I know you guys are good friends with Drive By Truckers, and you’re playing two dates together in New Jersey and New York this summer. How’d that get set up? Was it more of a coincidence, or were you thinking about doing this for a while?

TK: With knowing that we were gonna have a release at the same time, I was talking to Patterson [Hood] and we’re always trying to do shows together whenever possible. I think our inspiration comes from a similar place, and having a night out is always something we’re trying to achieve. We check in with them and talk “What are you doing then?” We can make that happen when we try to do it, because it’s also fun for us to get together with those guys.

PB: You’re also playing with Lucero and The Replacements in St. Paul. How does that feel?

Photo Credit: Danny Clinch
Photo Credit: Danny Clinch

TK: It should be a blast. The Lucero thing comes up a lot but Steve [Selvidge] was only playing guitar in the band for about six weeks. He was subbing for Brian [Venable]. It wasn’t meant to be a permanent thing, but because we’re in a similar traditional rock vein that comes up a lot. That’s an easy connection to make because we’re all friends but he was only in Lucero for a little bit.

That should be interesting, in Minneapolis especially. That will be an event, and I’m glad that we’re gonna be there to see that to unfold. With things like that, while the focus is to go kick ass and play a great show, I almost feel like a spectator a little bit. I’m glad I’ll be able to do that.

PB: This year also marks the tenth anniversary of your first record, Almost Killed Me, and you played a couple of shows in the spring to commemorate that. The tenth anniversaries of Separation Sunday and Boys and Girls in America are also coming up, and it seems to be a trend as of late for bands to do album tours. Have you ever thought about doing that?

TK: It’s certainly something that has come up, but we would have to come up with a great, unique way to do that. It doesn’t seem like that would be that exciting of a show. I generally write the setlist in between soundcheck and when we go on stage every night and try to change it up as much as possible, rotating different songs in the setlist, so I think going on tour and playing the album front to back every night would be fucking horribly dull for me.

I’ve already been thinking about different things we can do with the live show from the last tour, because, by the end of it it, we’ve played these songs a lot. It’s more fun if we all stay engaged, so I think it’s important for us to think of different ways to do that. I hope nobody gets pissed at me because I think it wouldn’t be super exciting—some people might have a blast and it might be great.

You know, it might be more fun to have everybody that comes to the show throw a song in a hat and pass it around stage and have each member take turns and pull a song out of a hat and then we have to start the song somehow like musical Pictionary. I don’t know. I went to see Cheap Trick at First Avenue [in Minneapolis] three nights in a row, and they did Cheap Trick, then Heaven Tonight, then In Color, and it was awesome. It’s kind of fun to know what song comes next and that anticipation. While I like watching those shows, if we were to do that we’d have to think of a unique way to do that. Having some kind of spontaneity to the live shows is important.



PB:
What songs from the new album have gone over well with live audiences, and what do you enjoy playing the most from Teeth Dreams?

TK: “On With the Business” is incredibly fun to play. “Oaks” is one that’s very tricky to pull off live, and I think we’re looking forward to getting that fine-tuned. The dynamics are so crucial to that one. It’s not one of those songs you can play and plow through—you have to be engaged with what’s going on, so that one’s really fun to play, albeit it’s a trickier kind of thing to navigate.

All the songs are really fun! “Spinners” is fun to play. I feel like the relationship between Steve and I and how he and I play off of each other has been incredibly fun and exciting.

PB: So let’s discuss Teeth Dreams in particular. You told Rolling Stone that you were looking to make “a big rock record”, but I feel like all of your albums are big rock records. How do you view this one differently?

TK: I think Craig [Finn] said that he wanted to make a big rock record, and my reaction was similar to yours—“Which ones aren’t big rock records?” This is the first record that Steve was a part of making, so in that way it’s different. Because of the way Steve and I play together it seems people are responding to the record as “a big guitar record”. Yes, I guess it is more so than previous records because Steve’s on there and he’s an incredible player. Steve’s helped raise the bar for me, personally, and also the whole band. He’s a great musician, and he invigorated everybody in a different way than on previous records. That’s really kind of what we needed.

Photo Credit: Danny Clinch
Photo Credit: Danny Clinch

PB: Part of what people may be responding to is that, in the mix, the guitars are the most up front they’ve ever been on your albums. You worked with producers Dean Baltulonis and John Agnello on your earlier records and now you’re working with Nick Raskulinecz. Dean’s sound seems to be very crisp and precise, John’s sound is more live and raw, and Nick’s sound is more polished and big. Let’s talk about those experiences.

TK: With Dean, in a lot of ways it didn’t really feel like we were working or making a record. It was more of having a good time. With John, it was really exciting because it was the first time we worked with somebody where I had listened to the records he made as a fan. Whether it was the Chavez records or the Dinosaur Jr. records or the Sonic Youth records, I was working with somebody whose records I love to listen to. And while it was still fun, it felt exciting in a different way.

With Nick, it’s hard to explain but it was a different experience altogether. Because a lot of the songs start with the music, I’m always pretty involved with what’s happening in terms of production and the studio. Some of the first couple of meetings I had with Nick, right away it felt like we had the same idea. While I was familiar with some of his records with the Foo Fighters and Deftones, I didn’t know how he worked, and I was able to surrender to what he suggested. If he told me to do it, that was what I was gonna do, or if he thought it should go this way, I didn’t argue. I knew to take myself out of the equation because I don’t always know.

In that way, it was a really different experience. It was the first time where the songs turned out like how I was hearing them, and often times that doesn’t happen. They usually grow or evolve or transform. That just speaks to how well Nick understood things. One of the reasons I wanted to work with Nick was that he never really heard our band before. He wasn’t familiar with the albums we had done. I thought that was great because being around for ten years and making our sixth record you can get into the whole “This is the kind of record we think we should make” or “This is the kind of record people think we should make” pattern. He was able to take that off the table and say “We’re gonna make a good record” and that’s that. He didn’t have a lot of preconceived ideas about what we should or shouldn’t do. That was one of the most important things, and that allowed us to try and make a great record.

PB: It seems like the band’s opinion on Heaven is Whenever is mixed, but I was a big fan of the “sparkly bits” of the record—as you’ve referred to them in the past—like how there are some 12-string guitars in there and the way the keyboards are mixed in. Some of that lush, romantic sound carried over to the Teeth Dreams track “On With the Business”. What sort of lessons were learned from the last record that you brought to this one?

TK: The last record…that’s the record I’m going to be defending for a long time. I think I was misquoted—I actually like that record immensely. One of the issues was that I had an idea of what I wanted to do, and I didn’t really share it with anybody else in a way that anybody else could understand. That’s part of where I was at personally, and there was such a disconnect there that I think it was hard for Craig to really get inspired and feel connected to what was happening. I think there are some really great moments on the record—and I learned a lot, thank god—but I learned that the song has to have a journey of some kind. It has to evolve. You don’t just come up with an idea and then record it and it’s awesome.

Very few times have I come in with nothing and been able to have one of those moments on the spot. On the new record, “Wait a While” came out very quickly. From the time I came up with the opening riff to the time the song was done was about 30 minutes. There’s probably one of those on each record — “You Can Make Him Like You” was another one—but you can’t do a whole record like that. You get to have those moments every now and then but those won’t sustain a whole album. The inspiration just doesn’t come that way, unfortunately. It was a great learning experience for me in how to try to communicate ideas to people.

Photo Credit: Rich Tarbell
Photo Credit: Rich Tarbell

When you have an idea, or a vision, or are inspired, how you convey that to somebody else is crucial. If you do it poorly, or if you don’t take the time to do it in a way that somebody else understands, then you’re screwed and it’s kinda on you. You have to understand and learn how everybody is a little bit different. What works for somebody in the band might not work for somebody else. Figuring out how everyone communicates and taking the time to make sure that everybody is on the same page is an important part about playing music with people, and I don’t know if I had figured that out until after we did Heaven is Whenever. If I can walk away with something from that record, it’s that how you creatively communicate with people is a really important part of playing in a band.

PB: You’ve talked about how you feel there’s a greater cohesion between music and message on this album, but there are a few spots where the conflict or dissonance between those elements is heightened. Lyrically, “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You” ends with lingering tension between the protagonist and his friend, but it resolves to a major chord. Can you talk about what went into that?

TK: I’m probably gonna bum you out right now. Craig and I never talk about the relationship between the music and the lyrics. It just sort of happens. When we first started writing this record, Steve was really beside himself. He was like “So you guys don’t ever sit down and talk about how things are gonna go?” I said “No, and as soon as we do, it doesn’t happen in the creative space.” It’ll happen when Craig and I are on the subway or if I bump into him at the coffee shop. It’ll present itself in moments like that. But I would say that by saying that there isn’t anything that’s intentional wouldn’t be accurate either. For as long as Craig and I have been playing music together, there’s a tremendous amount of trust and respect, and it happens in different ways than us sitting down and talking about it.

We took a break: Craig went off to do his solo record and went on tour, while I continued to write songs and got together with Steve and Bobby [Drake] and Galen [Polivka]. I really wanted to inspire Craig when he came back. We’ve been playing together for what, 15 or 16 years now? I wanted to try and surprise him. I didn’t want him to come back and listen to the stuff we worked on and feel like it was what he expected. I felt like it would yield better results for him to come back surprised. Very seldom do we sit down and discuss what’s going to happen.

On previous records, as the music started to come together Craig would go to notebooks or his laptop and piece together the story or narrative. On this album, he came in with a total blank page. He wanted to come in without anything and let the music influence where the story was gonna go. There is thought put into it—there are certain things that are deliberate—but it happens in a different sort of way.

If you talk about the writing process, there isn’t any one specific way we do things, and I don’t really write for a record. I’m always working on stuff. It eventually evolves, and it’ll find its way into The Hold Steady or something else.

Craig called me the other day and he was like “What if I picked a key and just recorded a vocal track to a click and you could do the music under it?” and I said “That’d be fucking awesome!” I’ve kind of been waiting for him to do that and I’ve asked him a couple of times. We haven’t gotten around to it because of time, but I thought of that while watching that Jeff Lynne documentary. There was a song they had and a vocal Roy Orbison did. Jeff Lynne was never really satisfied with the song so he ripped the whole thing apart. He kept the drum track and the vocal track and rewrote everything else, and I thought “Dude, that’s fucking amazing!”

PB: Keeping with discussing the songwriting on the new record, I know “Slapped Actress” [from Stay Positive] came from all the way back when Separation Sunday was in progress. Are there any really old ideas on Teeth Dreams that have been kicking around for years or did they all come together in the same time frame?

Photo Credit: Rich Tarbell
Photo Credit: Rich Tarbell

TK: That’s a good question. “The Only Thing” was a song that I’ve had for quite a few years. I want to say that one came together right before we did Heaven is Whenever, and so did “Oaks”. Those have existed in some kind of demo form or another for a while. In fact, those two songs were acoustic guitar demos I did with John Agnello four years ago. Those were kind of the first versions of the songs that evolved and became something else. “Big Cig” was a really early demo that was totally different, and that was one that I sent to Steve. It didn’t have a drum track or a click so he didn’t know where the “one” was, and I tend to play on the “and” a lot. He redid a demo of it with a click and the “one” was in a totally different place and I was like “Oh, that’s kinda fucking awesome!”

That’s what I’m talking about—when a song has kind of a journey. It sounds silly or overly important, considering we’re talking about rock music, but the song has to evolve somehow. Bearing witness to that shit will always be the exciting part of the creative process for me. Especially on this record, because we probably did more demos than on any of the previous albums combined. If I came up with a quick demo I’d send it to Steve or get together with Bobby or the four of us would get together, and then we’d work through the arrangement and do another demo. Craig would put lyrics to it and then we’d do another demo. By the time a lot of these songs got to Nick, we’d already done three or four demos. I’d get to the point where I was like ‘I don’t even know if this is any good anymore.” That was the difficult part, and that’s why you have somebody there like Nick.

PB: There are some really intricate arrangements on the album. “Spinners” immediately comes to mind, as I can hear a bit of strings on that one. Is that what I’m hearing?

TK: That’s actually a mellotron, but thank you. I knew that intro needed something else, and I hemmed and hawed and stomped around for 48 hours and pulled my hair out. We wanted to do strings but we didn’t really have the time to do it, so Nick had a mellotron and he was able to mix it so it sounds like that.

That’s also a weird one, too, as the intro is in 3/4 and then it goes to 4/4. Part of that came about because there’s one demo of that song that’s all in 3/4, and then I did another demo later that was all in 4 because I couldn’t remember what I did the first time. Listening to both of them, I thought the intro sounded better in 3, but the chorus and the verse sounded better in 4 so we combined them.

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PB: It’s definitely a cool approach on that song and it works. You guys did a bit of rhythmic displacement on Heaven is Whenever, too, with the way “Hurricane J” and “Our Whole Lives” start on the off-beat.

TK: Bobby [the drummer] fuckin’ yells at me all the time because I’ll be playing something and he’ll start to play along to it and I’ll tell him it’s on the “and.” I don’t know why but I have a tendency to do that. When Franz [Nicolay] was in the band he pointed it out a lot and a lot of times we’d change it to the “one.”

PB: One more thing to wrap things up—what’s next after this tour? The band’s hitting Europe in the fall, and I’m sure it’s way too early to talk about the next record, but what will you be doing, personally, as well as the band?

TK: I think that, hopefully, it’s not [too early to talk about the new record]. We’d like to get back to the pace we were working at. With the way technology is and how things are working within the music industry, I feel like there’s all these ways to release music or to reach people. My goal is to try to be creating something all the time because it seems like there’s ways to have people hear it, or see it, or what have you. I want to try and figure out a way to do that.

I would love to make more videos—that, to me, is kind of an exciting part of the process of making a record, which we haven’t done in the past. I always think they’re really interesting. It’s nothing we’ve really explored before. For The Hold Steady it’s difficult because the lyrics are so literal. I feel like you can either do a literal interpretation of the narrative or you have to go completely the the other way, and it’s hard to know where to take that but I’d love to try to figure that out. Other than that, it’s just writing more music, playing shows. I guess we’ll see what happens in the next few months, but I would say we’ll get back into the studio probably pretty shortly after we’re off the road.

Author’s Note: It’s rare to see any rock band keep on fighting the good fight after ten years of rapid-fire studio sessions, world tours and plenty of partying, but The Hold Steady continues to age with grace. If Tad is serious about heading back to the pace of the band’s first three releases, we’re in for another exciting decade of ranting and riffing. Trends come and go, but The Hold Steady springs eternal.

The Hold Steady performs at The Stone Pony Summer Stage along with Drive-By Truckers. Click here for tickets.

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