The specifics will remain a secret. But the last time that the Hold Steady passed through Vancouver, frontman Craig Finn got himself into something shady.
“I got in a car with this dude that I probably shouldn’t have,” the singer-songwriter tells the Straight from his home in Brooklyn, New York. “And we ended up in some area that was bad. I can’t remember. What was it again, Main?”
It could have been somewhere on Main Street, the Straight affirms. So Finn continues to recount the evening in only the vaguest of terms.
“It’s a long story and I don’t want to give it all away in print,” he says.
Fair enough. And considering Finn’s proclivity for turning real-life incidents into art, there’s a good chance he’s stockpiled the details for a future Hold Steady song.
On the band’s latest release, Heaven is Whenever, the singer and his bandmates—guitarist Tad Kubler, bassist Galen Polivka, and drummer Bobby Drake—jump up a couple of rungs on fame’s ladder. Since 2006, the American barroom rockers have gained notoriety with each album they’ve released. Most recently the Hold Steady made a rare musical appearance on the hugely popular The Colbert Report, granting the irreverent host’s request to “rock us out and hip us to your spiritual vision”.
And, yes, there is a prayer’s worth of Catholicism on Heaven is Whenever. But Christianity is not as big a part of the the Hold Steady as Stephen Colbert made it out to be.
“I am kind of like a part-time Catholic but everyone else is not at all,” he says. And aside from the album’s title, there’s little on Heaven is Whenever that screams ”˜Give me an amen!’ ”
The Hold Steady perform "Rock Problems".
Hookups and beer bottles litter the record like the wreckage from an epic house party, with Finn’s whiskey-soaked couplets weaving lyrical stories of “pretty crass propositions” and evenings spent hanging out at the reservoir. Look to “The Weekenders” for a hint of where those nights may have ended, as Finn confides: “In the end only the girls know the whole truth/In the end I bet no one learns a lesson.”
Musically, the heavy guitar riffs on “The Smidge” and “Our Whole Lives” keep things rooted in jukebox rock made for the local blue-collar watering hole. Meanwhile, the departure of long-time keyboardist Franz Nicolay makes for a record that’s noticeably more guitar-heavy than past releases. Taking another step away from earlier outings, Finn makes an effort to, in his own words, “sing a lot more...rather than sort of rant and talk on top of the band.”
And while tales of debauchery are there, Heaven is Whenever sees those stories toned down, or more often delivered in the past tense. It’s a collection of tracks that aging legend Bruce Springsteen—an influence the band wears on its sleeve—is likely tapping his boot to somewhere.
“There is a bit of nostalgia on there, but I think there is also some parting wisdom, taking the role of a cool older brother,” Finn says. “It’s wanting to come off honestly, from the voice of being a 38-year-old.”
The sort of wild evenings that begin with a round of Jack are still happening, Finn concedes, though not as often as they used to.
“We were just in Europe and we had a really great night in Spain,” he gives as an example. “And I wasn’t out with the guys but they got wrapped up partying with some Basque separatists.”
In the vain of Public Enemy's Chuck D, Finn elaborates on the Euskadi nationalists’ apparent propensity to drink with rock stars: “You got to party for your right to fight.”
And that night in Vancouver unfit for print? Fans may never know what transpired. But even though the whole tale is yet to be told, the experience did earn the city a small shout out on the new record”˜s “The Smidge”. (“We used to lie to each other about using computers/When we couldn’t get it here we used to cruise to Vancouver.”)
“There is obviously a presence of vice on the streets of Vancouver,” Finn carefully allows. “There is trouble to be had in Vancouver, it always seems when I visit. So I thought I would throw it in there.”
“But mainly,” he adds, laughing, “it rhymes.”
The Hold Steady play the Vogue Theatre on Thursday (August 19).
You can follow Travis Lupick on Twitter at twitter.com/tlupick.