Make no mistake, THE HOLD STEADY have written and pieced together “a big rock record”. With Teeth Dreams, out March 25th on Washington Square, the Brooklyn outfit welcomed new friends (guitarist Steve Selvidge) and a new focus, both of which enabled them to rip through the classics so they could establish a new context. The age on their new material instills life in the term “Dad rock” but it is a disservice to just give it a label. Teeth Dreams found its legs in both New York and Tennessee, putting Heaven Is Whenever in the backseat so it could tap into guitar affairs and the kind of heart-draining narratives that start in a garage and grow to burn like illegal moonshine. With SXSW sets and a North American tour run on their to-do list, we spoke to singer Craig Finn about their return, living in “super anxious times”, and why there’s a struggle to stay relevant when you’re not in the big pop picture.
What are your feelings on the statement: “Rock ‘n’ roll is a narcissistic hero fantasy”.
What are my feelings… (laughs). Well, I think in a lot cases it can be true. For me, rock ‘n’ roll is sort of about the community. We are now allowed to stay at home more and we can talk to each other on Facebook or Twitter, or Skype or whatever, and it’s become more and more important for us to have these gatherings where we all get together in a room. To me, that continues to be one of the most exciting things about rock ‘n’ roll because you can get a bunch of people together in a room, share an interest, spill beer, see friends, and sing along et cetera.
The title of your latest album Teeth Dreams refers to a common nightmare of sorts; what’s the craziest dream you’ve ever had that you can recall?
I have a hard time remembering them… I do know that I’ve had a fair amount of dreams. I’ve had a few teeth dreams which are pretty common anxiety dreams and musicians tend to have one where you get on stage and you don’t know the songs. Or you’re called to try to fill in for something and you don’t know it. Those tend to be my most common dreams. I don’t know how crazy they are but I guess they are kind of crazy because a lot of the time it’ll be me playing with a band that I’m not in. I’ve definitely had dreams where I had to fill in for a member of KISS.
Did you have to wear makeup in those dreams?
Yeah, I mean I don’t remember ever putting it on but they were in makeup so it would stand the reason. It was more about coming in and trying to pull off a show as a member of KISS.
As you mentioned, “teeth dreams” do have a relationship with anxiety. Is that a state you have to cope with as a musician from time to time?
I think we all have some anxieties. I don’t know if I have a lot compared to other people I know. I was talking to this doctor at a party when we first started writing the record and he was telling me that over half of the people that come into his office have anxiety or symptoms that aren’t really happening. It made me wonder about anxiety and if we’re living in super anxious times, and that helped me write a lot of the songs that are on the new record.
How did that relate to what you discovered in the book Infinite Jest?
That book does have a lot of stuff in it that kind of relates. I read Infinite Jest while touring around the last record, Heaven Is Whenever, and then just this past summer, I read it again with an Internet group where there were assignments to kind of help you digest everything a little bit better. It’s just so dense, like you could read it five times, but in particular there’s this one scene in the book where the two brothers are talking and one is telling the other that he’s having these dreams about teeth and the only thing that’s strange is it’s someone else’s teeth and not his. That kind of stuck with me when we started writing and recording.
What became the most difficult subject write about during the recording process?
That’s a good question. I mean, I think in some ways… well for one thing, there’s a song on the album called “On With The Business”. It might be something else that came from Infinite Jest or some of the ideas in that book where we have to try to make our self feel good in modern society by acquiring stuff, like consumer goods. I think that song is the first one I wrote that kind of deals with consumerism and I think it might be my favourite song from the new record because it was something sort of fresh for me.
Well, as a critically acclaimed rock band that’s kept quiet over the past few years, do you find there’s a struggle to stay relevant in this industry?
Yeah, I mean on some level rock music when seen in the big picture is probably not at its peak right now, you know? Rock music, at least in the mainstream, is barely there but you can’t really think that way because you have to go out, make your songs, and play them for the people, and that in some way makes you relevant enough. We did have a pretty big break between these last two albums just because we were working so hard before that. We were touring so much for like five records in six years or whatever and we became fatigued. We just needed a break.
From your point of view, what bands out there are helping the state of rock music?
There’s a lot of bands I love. I love bigger bands like Gaslight Anthem, Deer Tick, and Titus Andronicus. I like The Front Bottoms a lot. I love The War On Drugs. These are just off the top of my head but what’s interesting is if you watched the American Music Awards or the Grammys ten years ago, you usually use to see a rock band perform. It would have probably been U2 or Aerosmith or something but nowadays you’ll watch those award shows and there’s like barely any rock music being represented. That’s why it seems like it’s really fallen off in the big pop picture.
Is there hope for it or are we going down a bad path?
I think rock is always going to be there. In two years, there’s going to be some really good-looking 19-year-old with a guitar and everyone’s going to say “rock is back”. But as I see it on tour all the time, there are many, many, absolutely crazy rock fans. I don’t think that will ever stop. It might change its relationship to be more mainstream but that’s it.
Do you think the intimacy of your upcoming shows at SXSW will take fans aside and sort of show them who you are today and not who you used to be?
I think so. We also had a slight lineup change a little while ago and Teeth Dreams was the first record where we had Steve Selvidge with us while we were writing and recording. The new songs really kind of highlight the two guitar thing – like the back and forth between two guitars – and that will be the first thing someone notices if they haven’t seen us play in five years. I think we’re playing really strong and I’m excited to perform down there.
This year is actually going to be my first time in Austin.
Oh, wow (laughs). Well, we’re going for six days so we’ll have it well covered. It’s a lot of fun. I don’t drink during Lent and SXSW is always during Lent, and people get so drunk down there so I always equate it to talking to drunk people. For advice, I’d say just pace yourself and let it all happen (laughs).
You’ve been known as a party band and rock pioneers before, but how would you classify the group that has invested their time and passion into a record like Teeth Dreams?
Well, I still think we’re just a rock band, you know? Because of our age and how long we’ve been around, we may sort of be elder statesmen now but in the end, when you plug in the amps and turn on the microphones, we’re just a rock a band. In some ways it’s as simple as that. Like people do ask me what kind of band we think we are and I’ll say “rock ‘n’ roll” because that’s just about it.
Do you feel like you have anything else left to prove to yourself?
I don’t think we have to prove anything but you’re always trying to find growth in yourself and in the band. That may be through writing better songs or taking the band and touring new places and doing things that are new to you. That said, I certainly hope we continue to find growth in different areas.