The exuberance displayed by the Canadian-American group, who’d previously been most famous for backing Bob Dylan on his 1965-66 world tour, made a deep impression. “They were celebrating the sheer joy of playing music – and that’s what we’ve tried to do,” he said, referring to his current group, the Hold Steady.
The film sparked Finn’s creative rebirth. He’d been a fixture on the Minneapolis music scene for several years but when his first band Lifter Puller broke up in 2000, he moved to Brooklyn.
“I didn’t think I was going to play music, actually,” he said. “Something like writing or comedy, but really didn’t do much of anything for two years.
“And then a friend of mine moved into town and we started playing music, really with no ambition. We just wanted to get together a couple of times a week I guess,” he recalled.
Eventually, Finn, ex-band mate Tad Kubler and some others played an engagement. “People liked it and we played again and it sort of snowballed to where it is right now,” he said.
That first gig was in early 2003; by May 2005, the Hold Steady had landed itself on the cover of the Village Voice, the first rock band to do so in 15 years.
But perhaps a band knows it has arrived when a first-rank novelist praises its lyrics in the New York Times. And “Election” and “Little Children” author Tom Perotta, in the Times’ “Playlist” column on Sept. 12, also compared the Hold Steady to Bruce Springsteen, as many others have done before him.
The group is now much in demand, not least in Europe. It has made several transatlantic trips in 2007 alone. Last month, it supported the Rolling Stones at Slane. The Times of London said that the Hold Steady’s contribution at Glastonbury in June was the highlight of the three-day festival there. The Guardian enthusiastically agreed, giving it 10 out of 10. If there was a downside to the gig, the paper said, it was that it had to end.
In much the same vein, an American rock blogger said about this summer’s Lollapalooza held in Chicago: “The Hold Steady stole yet another festival with its trademark sweaty, blazing performances.”
The press is fascinated by the rapid ascent of a band of 30-somethings in an industry where people usually make it big in their late teens or early 20s. Finn, said the Guardian, comes across as an “overenthusiastic geography teacher.” The Sunday Mirror said the band members “look like supply [substitute] teachers gone to seed.”
But, in the same piece, the Mirror referred to the seal of approval given to Finn’s five-person outfit by the lead star of the “Harry Potter” movies. The paper said: “Daniel Radcliffe knows and lives his indie rock and the fact that he named the Hold Steady as his new favorite band speaks volumes not just about this young man’s taste, but how far this band has come.”
“There was no one creative in my family as far as anyone can figure out,” Finn told the Echo. “It’s surprising to everyone the way it all turned out.”
Finn is sometimes referred to as being from an Irish-American Catholic family, and his parents are now regular visitors to Ireland, but growing up there was rather more emphasis put “on the Catholic part of it than the Irish part of it,” he said.
His father, a native of Northampton, Mass., went to Notre Dame and eventually became a chief financial officer. His mother, whose roots are Ukrainian and Polish, was a microbiologist but gave up that career after his birth in Boston almost 36 years ago. The family – he has a younger sister — moved to the Minneapolis area when he was a small child.
Finn had an uneventful suburban childhood until he began 7th grade at Valley View junior high. Up to that point, he has written, he was friends with everyone: “Not the first to be picked for a baseball game, but also not the last, and certainly not an outcast. But over the summer, as if it had been decided in a forum I hadn’t attended, I was deemed a ‘loser.'” The school, he recalled, was dominated by the jocks whose main interests were “sadistic acts of terror and spitting.”
Finn retreated into music and began playing the guitar he was given on his 12th birthday. Eventually he fell in with some like minds; they thought heavy metal was “silly,” really liked the Ramones and loved the Replacements, who were based in Minneapolis and remain a huge influence on his work.
The bigger picture
Finn went through what he called the “American teenage experience” and mines it for his songs. It involves, he said, a lot of driving around and killing time and a “mass of highs and lows.” Not being invited to that one party can be a crushing blow, he added. At 35, it can seem amusing and ridiculous – but “17 isn’t always funny when you’re 17.”
Added Finn, a graduate of Boston College: “There’s this age between 17 and 23 when you think you know everything, but you really don’t know that much.”
Confidence, mobility and a little money make young people a good subject, he argued. “They can get themselves somewhere but they tend to make bad decisions,” said the Hold Steady’s front man.
Religion is another important point of reference in Finn’s songs, but particularly in the band’s second album, “Separation Sunday,” which is about a “prodigal daughter.”
Finn said: “It was a story of someone who went off to try to find something and ends up having experiences and then coming back to the church.
“There was a lot going on in all of our lives with family things, birth and death; it got me thinking about the bigger picture,” he said, putting the 2005 album in context.
“Lapsed or not, it’s something that affects who I am. I believe a lot of it,” said Finn, whose parents are practicing Catholics. “I don’t go to Mass, but if I was to describe what I believe it would be Catholic.
“The mystery and the rituals of Catholicism have always been interesting to me and I think that’s why they end up in the songs,” Finn added.
Even back have in his Lifter Puller days – the group had four albums — Finn’s words attracted attention. “As a music listener, as a music lover, I’ve always been obsessed with lyrics,” he said.
And he hasn’t been afraid to criticize bad lyrics, even those from the mouths and pens of icons. He described a Jim Morrison line from “Riders on the Storm” as the worst line in rock ‘n roll history. “‘There’s a killer on the road/ His brain is squirming like a toad,'” Finn told one newspaper, “gave the green light to generations of pseuds.”
From the beginning, the Hold Steady wanted to be a “smart” band. “Straightforward rock and roll with hopefully good lyrics,” is his reply to anyone – from his mom’s friends to music critics – who ask him to categorize the band’s music.
Inevitably, the influence of Springsteen, Dylan, the Replacements, Thin Lizzy, Van Morrison, the Ramones, the Rolling Stones and numerous others can be heard also. Of course, the Hold Steady owes a good deal, too, to the Band, who “looked as if they were having fun” on stage.
“The music that we do never tries to be weird or artsy or anything — just tries to be honest, and you know, somewhat simple,” Finn said.
“What’s surprising is how many people, I think, were looking for that,” he added.