The Hold Steady's Craig Finn: Are we living in anxious times, or is this just being human?

Categories: Gimme Songs
The_Hold_Steady_Danny_Clinch_2014.jpg
Photo by Danny Clinch
L to R: Craig Finn, Bobby Drake, Galen Polivka, Tad Kubler, Steve Selvidge

In Gimme Songs, musician Mark Mallman talks songwriting with his peers and heroes. This week, the Hold Steady's Craig Finn.

Hold Steady fans rejoice! The long-awaited Teeth Dreams is released today. So how exactly does one write about anxiety and fear without drowning in it, themselves? Songwriter Craig Finn and I weighed some options.

Mark Mallman: It's interesting that Teeth Dreams is about anxiety and fear. Last summer, I'd been having anxiety like crazy. I went to the doctor convinced I had high blood pressure. She told me, "You're having anxiety."

Craig Finn: When we started this record, I met this general practitioner at a party. He was telling me that over half the people coming to his office had something to do with anxiety. Usually they think they have something that they don't. Once I started paying attention, I realized things like The New York Times having an anxiety column. Then I was in Oslo at the Munch museum, and I saw that painting, "The Scream." Munch was moved to paint it about the general anxiety surrounding industrialism in the 1900s. So I thought, "Are we living in anxious times, or is this just part of being a human being?"

It's heavy stuff to write about because you're not making rainbows, you're making monsters. It can be dangerous to write about the darkness, because it's been known to destroy certain artists. How does a songwriter walk that line?

I think there's a dark humor that sort of comes out. We have a song called "Party Pit" that is a really sad song. It's about seeing a girl that you know who's really gone downhill, but the chorus is "We're going to walk around and drink some more." It takes on its own thing live, and like it or not, you sometimes get separated from the song. To me, calling the new album Teeth Dreams is saying "Hey man, we all have these anxieties. We're all in this together."

Sometimes I wonder, "If Kurt Cobain wouldn't have written so many dark songs, would he have survived?" But he created an anxiety mantra for himself, and then every night had to sing it. After years of yelling, "There's something in the way," one day he just broke.

The people with the sad songs, Elliott Smith or Nick Drake, they don't have a good track record. I really do believe there's something else out there. I think that while the tortured artist is an archetype, a full range of human experience can be experienced in songs. They can also be experienced in life as an artist too. You can say "Yeah, I'm sad sometimes, but I'm also happy sometimes."

I haven't figured that one out yet. I don't know how to figure out life. But, I often quote a song of yours in my head when stuff's going bad. Stay Positive helps me. A popular band has this megaphone that reaches to all these people. But, when you go into this idea of negativity and fear, do you worry it could push someone in the wrong direction?

I've honestly had moments in my life where people close to me have had bad things happen. I think maybe it's a karmic payback somehow. With "Stay Positive," in some ways that's the darkest song. It's not "Don't worry, be happy" it's, "Stay positive because everything's fucked up." As an audience member, when it hits the jackpot is when you say, "I've felt that same way too."

I agree. I just wonder, does an anxiety song reinforce the anxiety, or is it a cure?

It's both. I remember calling a friend, and she was like, "You can come over, but I just broke up with my boyfriend. So don't come over with your god-damned positivity." Some people need to feel bad for a while. Play a really sad song live, and everybody sings along. Then it becomes an acknowledgment that we've all been sad.

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2 comments
k2yeb
k2yeb topcommenter

I for one can't get past the fact he speaks his lyrics. Its fine on one or two songs, but he needs some vocal ability to be considered a frontman. 

allyourbasearebelong
allyourbasearebelong

@k2yebI never 'got' the Hold Steady.  I find the sing/talking and the tone of his voice just unbearable.  And this is coming from someone who can tolerate Tom Waits and loves Dinosaur Jr.

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