It's 8 A.M. in Tucson,
Arizona, and I've just woken
up the lead guitarist of The Hold Steady.
In New York, it's 11 A.M., and I have a phone pressed to my ear during a break
between classes. Tad Kubler is on the line, and we're talking about the
blissfully badly-behaved concert crowds of Minneapolis. His slight Midwestern
accent is clouded by sleep, but we're chatting away like old friends, so I don't
pick up on it.
Ten minutes later, the blood drains from my face. I have just checked time zone
differences on my cell phone. I apologize madly, and Tad starts laughing warmly.
Not only is he not upset, but he thanks me for waking him up because he needs to
pick up lead singer/lyricist Craig Finn at the airport at 10 A.M., and run some
errands before that, which include buying a new pair of sneakers ("My shoes
smell so bad I don't even want 'em in my hotel room. I put them outside in hopes
that somebody steals them").
I'm still apologizing, and Tad cuts me off: "Here's the thing. I could have been
a total asshole about it. I'll tell you what. If this is the worst thing that
happens to me all day, I have nothing to complain about."
We've been on the phone only a few minutes, and my bi-coastal blunder has
already confirmed my guess. "Laid back" is the phrase of the hour for The Hold
Steady, the band that will toss you a beer and remind you how to kick back.
There's a musical void long left vacant by the likes of Bruce Springsteen and
Led Zeppelin, who exist only in the occasional Top 40 rundown. Kids, the time
has come to touch that dial. The Hold Steady will take over from here and remind
us just why that kind of music feels so good, sans a speck of irony.
"There are people right now that are like, 'Wait a minute! Rock 'n' roll's not a
guilty pleasure,'" says lead guitarist Tad Kubler. "People" (plural noun) =
college kids who won't take The Killers for an answer, the new moms & dads who
might still blend in (but if they don't, no big), and the late-twenty something
suits nostalgic for their old tattoos. Just some sweet people looking for a
genuine rock and roll show, where it's no crime to cut loose.
"I ran into this guy in the airport this morning, and he was like, 'Coming to
your show in a few weeks, already got the sitter, already took the next day off
work.' And I was like, 'Awesome.'" I'm talking to Craig, who's sitting in a
coffee shop, and he's just ordered an iced Americano with three shots of
espresso instead of the regulation four ("I thought I'd spare my band that much
talking"). "You know, if you're taking the next day off work, you're not even
lying to yourself."
Lying to yourself about getting there in one piece, that is. It may sound like a
Hold Steady concert is one big excuse to get wasted and forget your problems,
and... well, it is for some, but there's one big difference: The bar band is a
million times better, and they're glad you came. The second you buy that ticket,
you've granted yourself admission to a party celebrating every guitar solo and
bassline that ever existed in rock and roll. The kicker: it's a rager they can't
have without you.
thousands of great bands out there that will never get out of their basement in
Iowa. This is a privilege, you know?"
Let's say you saw The Hold
Steady last night, drank until you dreamed, and screamed every lyric louder than
Craig, leaving you exhausted and exhilarated for the train ride home. Enter the
one good reason for the existence of MySpace: Tad reads every message he
receives on The Hold Steady's official page, so you'd better go ahead and tell
him about your night. The Hold Steady were featured as MySpace Band of the Week
in October; both a blessing and a curse. "I had like, 530 emails from people,"
says Tad, "and it got to the point where it was so overwhelming that after sound
check, I'd be like, 'I have to go back to the hotel 'cause I have to use my
So, why not have someone else do it? "If somebody's going to take the time to
sit down and send us an e-mail about how they really enjoy what we do, dude, if
we don't have the time to at least write them back... that sucks! You know,
'Thanks a lot! The Hold Steady appreciate it very much.'" The form-letter jab
has a root in a yarn he shared that, in all honesty, deserves its own article.
Long story short: Billy Joel didn't appreciate it when his 2-page fan letter to
The Beatles yielded nothing but glossy 8x10s, and Tad wouldn't have been too
pumped about it either.
And would you believe it! These boys are fans like you and me! Tad shoots off a
list of who he's digging right now, starting off with alt-country whiskey grits
Lucero; a band esteemed in the Hold Steady's MySpace Top 8, so you know these
guys are bros. He also names John Darnielle from The Mountain Goats, Ted Leo &
the Pharmacists, and The Drive-by Truckers. "There's music right now that makes
me really happy that we're playing music right now, too," he says. And Craig is
well aware that true peers are hard to find... a fan's words broke it down
perfectly: "This kid came up to me and he said something totally amazing. He
said 'You know, I go to shows all the time, and you guys, and the Drive-by
Truckers are the only two bands that smile when you play. And I was like, 'Yeah
... there's maybe something wrong with that.'"
The power chords and Kerouac-esque tales of druggy Catholic kids make for an
awkward fit among the pages of indie rock mags. No one knows that better than
The Hold Steady, which is why their recent presence on a rather well-known
independent music site has left them baffled, but grateful.
"I wasn't aware of how huge Pitchfork was," says Tad, sounding amazed. "I
had no idea. And then when they reviewed [Boys and Girls in America],
people just went nuts." "It's the highest album rating they've given all year,
actually," I noted, and laughing, Tad answered, "See, I don't know that. Dude, I
play guitar. I listen to Led Zeppelin, hang out with my daughter, and drink beer
with my friends."
But Craig Finn reads Pitchfork. He's definitely appreciative of the
raves, and as for the backlash: "People take Pitchfork and other sites as
the only thing in the world. If I was to read a newspaper, for instance, The
New York Post, and they didn't talk about the Twins, they only talk about
the Yankees, would I stop reading the sports section of The New York Post?
I don't know... but I think it's pretty obvious that they're an influential
music pub, so I'm just excited..."
Despite star treatment from The Indie Rock Mag, the Hold Steady have very little
to do with that scene. "Regardless of how we decide to do business or conduct
ourselves, we're not an indie rock band," Tad insists, using R.E.M. to
illustrate the evolution of the term. "People said, 'Oh, they're really big on
college radio.' But no one called them 'indie rock.' Independent labels like Sub
Pop started popping up and becoming more predominant in the late '80s and early
'90s... people didn't call it 'indie rock' then. They called it 'grunge.'"
Point taken, but that won't help the critics who haven't taken the time to
"You know, if you're taking the next day off work, you're not
even lying to yourself."
"So, what are your
Though he doesn't say so, I can tell this is one of the worst questions that
Craig has ever been asked. Fortunately, it didn't come from me.
"Do people not even listen to you and then talk to you?" I asked. Laughing
ruefully, he replied, "That's what I'm wondering."
Take a quick listen to any Hold Steady album. From their whiskey-soaked 2004
debut Almost Killed Me, the rescue and resurrection of a hoodrat named
Hallelujah that is 2005's Separation Sunday, or this year's catharsis,
Boys and Girls in America; it ain't no rocket science to decipher that these
dudes harbor some big love for everything from the Boss to Jim Carroll to The
Replacements. Please recognize, the mere existence of a band naming Bruce
Springsteen as a major influence sets 'em apart from The Arcade Fires and Belle
& Sebastians who held their headline spot in the past. A whole new crowd is
coming forward, and they're prepared to defend The Hold Steady right up until
"It seems like the people that do like The Hold Steady, really like The
Hold Steady," said Tad, after I mentioned the cult status of Hold Steady fandom.
"It seems like the people that wanna come see us are like... it's kinda like
fever pitch for them."
So, is this a good thing? "People... either hate us or love us... is that ever
gonna translate to us really being a big presence in the marketplace, as they
say? We'll see. Obviously, we'd like to become a bigger band, and be on tour all
the time, and just bring the party to more people, but you know, we'll see if
Craig shared a story with me about one of his favorite clambakes in western
Massachusetts; one that prompted him to change the lyrics of "Chillout Tent" on
Boys and Girls in America from "Colgate" to "Bowdoin": a college in the
area. The kids threw a Hold Steady-themed party before the show, and came
to the venue covered in Hold Steady lyrics, written in Sharpie. "After the
show, they threw us a party... usually; we try to stay away from college
parties. But these kids were really, really sincere, and what I really liked
about them was that they were so nice to each other, and kids aren't always nice
to each other... and I just sort of fell in love with all of them at once."
There's that dirty S-word. Inspired by a joke that the band should just get a
jet to beat the day-long drive into Denver, Tad somehow read my mind and started
talking about writer/director Cameron Crowe's autobiographical film Almost
Famous, which follows a young rock journalist's tour journey with a rock
band on the cusp of fame. I'd watched it recently and had the near-death plane
scene on the brain. The band watched the film on their haul from Texas to
Arizona, and Tad told me about what it's come to mean for them. "It's not about
the love story between Kate Hudson and the kid and Billy Crudup or anything like
that. It's about [Cameron Crowe's] love affair with music. As an aspiring writer
and an aspiring journalist, he didn't do it because he thought he was gonna get
rich. He did it because he loved the music. I mean, that's what the whole thing
was about, and that's what's so cool. Our band — it's like, this is our life.
This is what we do.
"Do we expect to be rich? Fuck no, man. But we've been doing this for so long
and sleeping next to peoples' litter boxes... There are thousands of great bands
out there that will never get out of their basement in Iowa. This is a
privilege, you know?"
I know. I knew it last month at Irving
in New York, and I'll remember it next month at the Warsaw in Brooklyn, because
Tad has insisted that I don't miss the show, though according to Almost
Famous, I'm technically "The Enemy." But I'm also a fan; making me every bit
as important to this band as the Bud cans they crack open in between songs.