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Holding Steady: Craig Finn on Music, Minneapolis, and Headlining Rock the Garden

By Doug Benidt

Hailed as “a born storyteller who’s chosen rock as his medium” (Pitchfork), Craig Finn is many things: Springsteen acolyte, avowed Twins fan, Breck High grad, stand-up guy, and frontman for the Hold Steady. I first met him a dozen years ago when I invited his beloved Lifter Puller to play the Walker’s Summer Music & Movies. Since then, with his lyrically literary songs, distinctive delivery, and driving sounds of the band as a vehicle, he’s gone on to realize some of his dreams as an acclaimed performer and singer-songwriter—a rock star, if you will. As Finn returns to his roots and readies the Hold Steady to headline Rock the Garden on June 16, I took a moment to catch up with him on music, the Twin Cities, and the shape of things to come.

Doug Benidt

I feel that we’re enjoying another golden era in Twin Cities’ music. From Poliça to Rhymesayers to the Trampled by Turtles boys, it’s again a very robust scene. Knowing many of the great US music towns, do you feel this is a nationwide thing or do the elements continue to be just right in Minnesota?

Craig Finn

The Twin Cities has had a great music scene for many years, and can compare to any other US music scene. I believe that having First Avenue, the best club in the country, has given the scene a real strong backbone. Also, the Current radio seems to really have added a lot of energy to the city. Most importantly, there are great musicians and great audiences.

The most exciting thing about today’s Twin Cities music scene for me is the way that artists are succeeding in reaching audiences nationally. There has been a very supportive local environment for quite a while, but in the past it seemed a lot of artists have had difficulty bringing their music to a larger audience beyond Minnesota. Right now, there seem to be more Twin Cities bands than ever making a national splash. I think that is very important.

Benidt

Agreed. And to my ears, this year’s Rock the Garden represents a nice cross-section of the best of what’s happening locally, from bluegrass to hip hop to indie. I realize it’s been quite a while, but many people in town still consider you—even going back to the Lifter Puller days—a local musician. How do you feel about that?

Finn

It feels pretty cool. I’ve been in New York City 11 years now, and pretty much every week I meet someone who assumes I live in Minneapolis. The Twin Cities still is mentioned in a lot of my songs, and it will always have a huge place in my heart. I come home quite a bit, and I wish I could spend even more time in Minneapolis than I do. I really believe it is a special place.

Benidt

You’ve recently unveiled your own Craig Finn’s “Clear Heart” beer. That must’ve prompted a moment of contented repose for you. How’s that all going?

Finn

The beer was mostly a promotional item for my solo record Clear Heart Full Eyes in the UK. It’s been a really fun thing. Basically, I partnered with a small company called Signature Brew and we did a tasting together to determine what kind of flavor, etc. we wanted. We came up with an India Pale Ale that’s pretty low in alcohol content (4.5 percent) so you can have a few without getting too drunk. We had a great kick-off party in London and they are selling them in a few clubs over there. Right now they’re working on getting some over to the US by import. I think it’s a really great beer and I hope some people over here get a chance to taste it.

Benidt

It seems we’re now living in a truly democratic age in terms of music creation and dissemination. Influences, information, and even production tools are now easily accessed by anyone. How do you see that changing the future of music?

Finn

It’s really hard for me to tell. More music in pure quantitative terms isn’t necessarily a better thing, but it is exciting that so many distribution hurdles have been flattened. Also, it’s great that the cost of producing a song or an album is very different than 20 years ago. That said, artists still have to create something that makes a connection with the listener. That much will never change, no matter how easy it is to get your music out there.

Benidt

Right, the swift sweep of digital technology has smoothed geographic and stylistic barriers and increased interest in more types of music—globally. Does this awareness of a larger scope factor into how you create music?

Finn

Not really. When we write songs, the focus is still on writing good songs on the most basic level. That said, it’s interesting how quickly things get out nowadays. If we play a new song live, there is a pretty good chance it will be on the Internet by the morning. So how we unveil new songs is very much affected by this, but not so much the creation.

Benidt

What’s one—OK, two—of your favorite Minnesota music moments?

Finn

I always think about the first few times I saw Atmosphere and the Rhymesayers collective in the late ’90s. There was something really exciting about those shows, and I just sort of knew that it was special to be seeing them those first few years before they blew up over the rest of the world. Sean (Slug) has been a super magnetic performer from day one. Also, the Dillinger Four/Lifter Puller show on a riverboat in the Mississippi River is a great memory that I was proud to be a part of. It was a great party.

Benidt

I remember hearing about that riverboat gig. Was it so memorable because of the synergy and sounds, or did the Coast Guard need to get involved somehow?

Finn

It just felt like the culmination of something and the beginning of something else. It was a moment that I felt a part of something that was really exciting. Dillinger Four was celebrating the release of a record (Midwestern Songs of the Americas) that still holds up as a classic. Also, Minneapolis looks amazing from the middle of the river.

Benidt

You grew up in town watching bands you revered—bands that helped form the musical legacy of the Twin Cities. How does it feel to now be referenced in the same breath as some of your musical heroes?

Finn

Well, I still don’t feel like a peer to my musical heroes, but it is extremely flattering to see the comparisons. I can’t overestimate how much the local scene of the 1980s influenced me and my love of music. To be able to count the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, and Soul Asylum as some of the first bands I saw up close seems very lucky. It’s definitely a feeling of being in the right place at the right time. I’m glad my parents moved to Twin Cities!

Benidt

Tell me about your songwriting discipline, or lack of, if you prefer. Are you more productive in the spontaneity of the moment or are you more dogmatic in your craft?

Finn

It can happen either way. For years it was more of a spontaneous thing, but lately I’ve been punching the clock and putting more disciplined time into songwriting. I think that a lot of good things come from editing, so getting something down and continuing to work on improving the song brings the best results. Walking away from something and coming back to it often brings a fresh perspective.

Benidt

That makes me think of the old adage from artist Chuck Close: “Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.” As a maturing songwriter and rock biz success, what insight would you share with the up-and-coming generations of inspired musicians?

Finn

A lot of newer and younger musicians spent too much time and energy on promotion and the business part of the process. I really think a newer band or musician should spend 99 percent of their time on songwriting and rehearsing. In my experience, when a band is ready to get bigger, the rest follows.

Benidt

You’ve lived in New York for a number of years now. How has that changed your perception of Minneapolis?

Finn

Living in New York for the past 11 years has really made me appreciate how unique Minneapolis is. When I come back to visit, I’m always reminded of how accessible things are in the Twin Cities: music, art, culture, food as well as the outdoors. People really live in and interface with the city of Minneapolis, as opposed to New York where a lot of people live in the shadow of the city. I always miss that first great day of spring in Minneapolis, the best day of the year!

Benidt

At Rock the Garden, you’ll be performing in front of a cheering and singing audience of 10,000, a feeling that very few people ever get to experience. What goes through your head at moments like that?

Finn

Usually I try not to think about things like that and concentrate on my performance until the last song of the show, when I try to let a little bit soak in. We came up playing small clubs, so playing the big shows presents its own set of challenges, but they are exciting challenges. We feel honored to be able to do what we do, so in the end it’s really being thankful that so many people care to join us and celebrate when we play rock music.

The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn

Photo: The Q, Flickr, used under Creative Commons license

The Hold Steady

Craig Finn, Galen Polivka, Tad Kubler, and Bobby Drake

Photo: Mark Seliger