An Honest Conversation With Craig Finn

Craig Finn

An Honest Conversation with Craig Finn

Boston-born and Minneapolis-raised musician Craig Finn just began touring his latest album titled “I Need a New War” with his band The Uptown Controllers. The front man of The Hold Steady stopped by Evanston's SPACE on June 6th as one of two Chicago-area shows of the tour. With this show being a hometown show for the multi-instrumentalist collaborator Stuart Bogie, Bogie opened the show with his own ensamble: Bogie, Bitney, and Lux. Post soundcheck, and before the pre-show pizza and drinks, former Production Director Lily Shallow and myself sat in the green room with Craig to talk about the new album.

 

Paul:
There's something really cool at our radio station that I wanted to show you back from the good old Lifter Puller days.


Craig:
Wow.

Paul:
It's a promotional copy of the clean edits.


Craig:
Amazing, you know, actually this is worth talking about. "Here's a clean copy of our new CD, we'll have to come down and be on air before September 4th show at the Bottle. I'll call. That's funny. Oh Matt. I wonder who Matt is.

Paul:
I'm probably assuming like a former music director that we had.


Craig:
But this seems like a little bit informal unless the label like coached me on how to write this. And even my phone number doesn't look from there. Well, here's the deal. Okay. It says radio edits - clean. Yeah. Okay. Well these are, I think we must have made a clean copy of this. Um, or, or someone, is it possible the station did?

Paul:
I don't know.


Craig:
The release before this one, we, there was a lot of swearing and they made me go and actually made me go beep out all the words. And largely since then I've never written songs with offensive words, ever again because it was too much work. So, I just started ended up self-editing a lot. So, this is a definitely of an era. I'm surprised, I guess there must be some swearing on this. I guess I didn't totally tone it down, but it was the release before that was really bad. And then I ended up having to do so much work on it. It's changed my songwriting forever.

Paul:
On the songwriting aspect, I want to talk a lot about the new record that you just put out about almost a month and a half ago now.


Craig:
Yeah. April 26th.

Paul:
The songwriting on the album, there's a lot of talks about anxiety or being anxious in certain situations. So, with this album, how is the songwriting different from previous albums, either with other projects or other solo albums?


Craig:
I think with anything, your perspective changes with age, you know. It's me, at a different point in my life. That is the easy answer, but I think one of the things that's really telling or sort of thematic about this record is for one, I guess I'm very conscious of the world being this ever changing thing and, feeling like there's a lot of people today that are not changing fast enough or having a hard time changing fast enough and with the way that technology works and everything else and our capitalism, etc. That it's hard. There's a lot of people that are having a hard time keeping up and you know, in The Hold Steady, I've written a lot of songs about people who are kind of actively misbehaving and I'm making bad decisions and pursuing bad decisions. What I think like in the solo work and especially this record, there's a lot of people who are trying to do the right thing and still maybe not being able to keep up and still having a hard time keeping their head above water. Also, I sort of feel like I tend to write songs looking backwards 10 or 15 years and you know, to get some perspective on that age. And I think that, 47 now, I've lived in New York for 19 years. And so, if I look back 15 years, I was still in New York. So, this year, this record, more than anything I've done, I think pertains to New York City. Not so much as like in the rom-com sense, like New York is another character in this movie, but New York is sort of a microcosm, as a place like all big cities are. But some, you know, are ever changing. And if you just kind of like sit there and wait for it, it will grind you up, you know? Your rent will get a lot more expensive, so you better start making more money. That starts today. It's always a ticking stopwatch. And so, if you're not changing at this pace of the city's changing, it can kind of grind you up. And that happens to a number of characters in the record. And, so those, I think, are some of the differences.

Paul:
With the new record, you guys just started tour yesterday on it, and this is a brand-new ensemble for you?


Craig:
Yeah, I've got a great, great new band together. I'm more expanded than I've ever toured with on the solo stuff. So, it's Will Berman plays bass and Falcon Valdez plays drums. They been with me for a while and The Uptown Controllers. The new guitarist is James Richardson who plays also in MGMT. Stuart Bogie, from here in Evanston, Illinois is the saxophone player. This is his homecoming show tonight. And then Parker Shper plays piano and keys and he's from Montreal. And so, we played our first show last night. It was fantastic. It went really well. We were in St Louis and, going to try for number two, two in a row tonight. But it's feeling, it's nice to have one under our belt, you know, it's, it feels like, it feels like we can do it now.

Paul:
Speaking of a large ensemble, you also had like a lot of collaborators on the record.


Craig:
Yeah. I mean it's been kind of a lot of these last three records, which I kind of see as a trilogy, they introduced me to a whole new group of people. Joe Russo, Josh Kaufman has produced and plays a lot of the instruments. Stewart flute and plays horns on the records. Cassandra Jenkins who sang on it. There's a lot of people coming and going. I feel like humans are the thing that makes it all sound interesting. So, having different people come in and even if they're playing the same instrument, you know, you get a different feel and a different look at and stuff. So, I like that approach. I like, you know, bringing in talented people and sort of letting them have space. I feel like everyone's got their own way of playing. If you say like play A D and E, they have their own way of phrasing the chord or even their own way of playing the strings, how much they had to attack with the right hand and how much they hold with their left hand. Everyone brings their own little thing. And I think when you get a bunch of, like, the thing I love about having a bigger band is even when you're not playing much, there's sometimes four or five people restraining - showing restraint and that's its own personality of things, you know, that's its own energy and its own vibe of people. Five people being quiet, which is harder than one person being quiet, you know? And so you get this sort of like, wow, they're being really quiet, you know, kind of thing.

Lily:
But with regards to, you said you write a lot of your songs, looking back 10 or 15 years, with regards to your storytelling, it seems like a new refer to them as characters in your songs. They seem personal and real, right? How is that looking back 10 years from now? Do you have people come out of the blue like, "Hey, that was my life"?


Craig:
Yeah. No, I mean a lot of these, they are fictitious characters, but they are, you know, based on people I know. I mean, it's inevitable and I'm guessing every writer has the same thing. I think John Gregory Dunne says the first character in every novel is the novelist. And so, yeah, these characters are fictitious, but the songs are supposed to be honest. So, on that you're trying to create characters that are as believable as possible. And so, you definitely borrow things from your own life. But I've never had anyone accurately come up and say, "that was me". I've had a few people say, "that was me", but they were always way off. Like that was absolutely not you. I would borrow a little detail, but I would never base something 100% on someone.

Paul:
Going with more of the storytelling aspect and these stories you're telling are about many different places and things. And one thing I really appreciate your website is the interactive map on it that fans are able to explore.


Craig:
Yeah. That was something that we came up with. A guy named Matt, who's actually going to be at the show tonight. He's from around here. He was doing that for The Hold Steady stuff. He put together a map and then we, for this record, we were like, that'd be really cool thing for the fans. And we kind of expand on the idea and I, uh, you know, got on the phone with him and we talked through and because some of the references, he was like, "I don't know what that is, what that means", you know, and I'm like, "oh, it's this, this, this". So, it was a fun way for people, for the listeners. It's a map. You can find it at craigfinn.net. You can kind of click through and it'll show you the reference that appears on the song that it appears on the line. Well, there's a song called Holyoke, which refers to Holyoke, Massachusetts. If you click on that, you'll find Holyoke. And then some of them, I even editorialized, and you know, said a story about that song where like, for instance, Holyoke is near where my parents grew up. And it's an area that I go up to, to visit family sometimes. So, that song kind of came from that. It allows you to enter into the world of the record through all these different places. I've always loved geography. I always loved maps. Looking at things. And as a kid I was obsessed with maps. I like details, I like concrete details and songs. So, when I started writing songs, there's a lot of places in them, and people seem to get that, not just because people love it when you mention their city in a song, but also just cause I think it brings the story into focus.

Lily:
I kind of wanted to go into, which this is weird for college radio, but sports section. Because you were born in Boston. Went to Boston College. So, are you a Boston fan?


Craig:
I am. Well, I grew up in Minneapolis, so I'm Twins, all Minnesota Sports, but Boston College over the Gophers, you know. But, like right now hockey's happening. I'm rooting for St. Louis because I know, I feel like the Boston has won a lot in sports lately. I don't really feel like they need much. Yeah. I feel like they can give up hockey, and still have baseball, and football and you know, those are pretty good. I love sports. I always have, but through touring, I have this weird hierarchy of who I like. Last night we had a really great show in St Louis. I'm feeling the Blues right now. You know, you can kind of get these little allegiances going. But I don't feel strongly either way. The only team I really don't like is probably, well, I don't love the Yankees, but even I don't dislike him as much, now. This is a nice, much gentler Yankees team then. I don't like the Dallas Stars in hockey because they took the Minnesota North Stars away from me and I can never forgive them for that. That's probably my least favorite sports team.

Lily:
I'm from Philly. So, like I wonder how much you hate the Eagles.


Craig:
I don't hate the Eagles at all. I mean, I didn't appreciate them beating the Vikings in the NFC championship, but they beat 'em by so much that it didn't hurt. Like when you lose a close, close game, you know. By the first half, I knew it was over. It's like easy to deal with in the second.

Lily:
You said you loved maps growing up, geography. Is there like a city that, whether it's like from, you know, pointing it out on a map as a kid and you were like, one day I want to go here. Is there a place that you're like, just totally amazed by or love to go on tour?


Craig:
Well, I mean, there's a lot of places that I always wanted to go on tour and then got there. There are just places I wouldn't have gone too. There's place you might have gone too, but you maybe wouldn't have ended up in Gainesville, Florida. It's not by the beach. But that's a cool place that I got to, and I like going there. Memphis. I love Memphis. So that's like a great music town. So I was excited to go there, but a lot of places, you know, I mean, it's funny, like I've been touring for so long and now and it's like you have little spots like, "oh, we should go to that one restaurant" or "let's go to that bar after the show." I will say that European stuff is, I never went really traveled before we had the band, that's all very exciting to me. I was just in Lisbon for a little bit. That was really cool. I was just there. I had to kill time between shows, and I went to Lisbon for four days by myself. That was probably the coolest adventure of this year.

Paul:
What'd you do on that adventure?


Craig:
I was kind of recovering from a long tour. I drank a lot of wine and walked around and read books. You know, it was like kind of like: have a glass of wine, read a book for an hour, and then walk. And you are always walking uphill somehow in Lisbon. So like it always felt like you're burning it off and after another hour you could definitely sit down for more food, more wine.

Lily:
That sounds like a good four days.


Craig:
Yeah, it was really nice. Yeah, absolutely.

Paul:
Being back in Evanston tonight and then Chicago tomorrow, is there anything you're looking forward to doing?


Craig:
Seeing friends is the big thing. I have a lot of friends here. Chicago is so big. Chicago it's what's by the club or what's in the general vicinity. Cause we have to play the show and do soundcheck and all that. So, there's probably only X amount of free hours. But, um, I think just seeing friends is the big one, you know, tonight and tomorrow night.

"I Need a New War" is out now on Partisan Records

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