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By Liz Tracy
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By Michael E. Miller
The Hold Steady's lead singer/barker, Craig Finn, quits drinking every year for a month and a half for Lent, but he's back to imbibing for the headlining slot at an event in Miami's Design District sponsored by the king of green-bottled beers, Heineken. The group's just-released fifth full-length album, Heaven Is Whenever, retains all of the band's depraved hoodrat characters and bar-rock riffing but boasts less piano after mustached keyboardist Franz Nicolay's departure. Over the course of a phone conversation with New Times, Finn speaks excitedly about the Hold Steady's first South Florida visit since 2007's Langerado Music Festival, shows his knowledge of the area, confirms he's staying off Twitter, and, no shocker here, extols the virtues of beer.
New Times: The band took its longest break ever between last November and the return to the road in April. How does it feel to be back?
Craig Finn: What a rock band does is play rock shows. You don't know what to do with yourself when it's in that waiting time. Once you put on the guitars and turn up the amps, things just kinda work themselves out. It's a simpler life when you're on the road. We've changed up the lineup. Franz left, and we added two people. It's really injected some new life into the whole thing, and it's been a blast so far.
How has the lineup adjustment affected the way you play?
One of the things with Franz not being in the band is there's a lot less piano on the new record. The piano really brings out the E Street sound. These songs breathe a lot more. I don't know if it's a heavy guitar record, but it's definitely more of a guitar record than a guitar-piano record. The Replacements are my favorite band, and I feel like they've always been in our sound, but I think this record probably shows that a little more.
Your songs often explore seedy, drug-addled people, and we have our fair share here in South Florida.
Certainly a lot in the past, we've sung a lot about [Tampa's] Ybor City, which is on the West Coast of Florida. But "Hurricane J" [from Heaven Is Whenever] is right there. Maybe "A Slight Discomfort" is the discomfort of summer down there. A Ponzi scheme is something I've always been super interested in, but it never made it into a Hold Steady song. My other favorite thing is celebrity impersonators. They go to a bar, pretending to be someone not super famous — but just enough to get a bunch of free drinks and some adoration.
Speaking of impersonators, have you spent any time on the FakeCraigFinn Twitter?
I have not seen it. I do know about it because a friend of mine texted me about it. That's the kind of thing, doing what I do in the modern age: If I were to check out that, it would probably drive me nuts. I'm remaining blissfully ignorant on that one. These things like Twitter and blogs or whatever, I feel like I get up on stage quite often. I don't need to be expressing my opinion on everything that comes in front of me. I don't see myself getting involved in something like that. I also think that there's a loss of mystery in the modern times. There's bands I love, but I don't necessarily need to know what they eat for breakfast.
Did you ever hang out down in South Florida?
Yeah, my parents had a place in Captiva Island, which is closer to Fort Myers, and my grandparents were in Pompano Beach. Have you ever read that book called Continental Drift by Russell Banks? It's kinda about the Florida thing. The guy's brother is down there, and he moves down there because things aren't working out in New Hampshire. They kinda get in over their heads trying to start over. It's a quintessential Florida story. For the bad guys, the state gives them a little more room to move around than New York or whatever. A lot of old people and plenty of victims to be had.
That's my favorite band right now. I love that record, and I was really proud to be a part of it. [Frontman Patrick Stickles] cat-sits for me and my girlfriend, and he did a really good job on that too. I'm pretty much pro-Patrick Stickles all around. And he's kind of my neighbor. He's more than ten years younger than me. I really love watching their band, and obviously things are going really well for them.
Titus Andronicus seems like a comparable band to the Hold Steady because of its juxtaposition of thought-provoking lyrics and a wild live experience.
It's very intelligent, but it's kinda rousing. Even if you go to the show and the PA's not great and you can't hear all the lyrics, you can still pump your fist, spill your beer, and put your arm around your buddy. That's something we strive for and something they probably do too. My favorite bands are historically, like the Replacements, bands with great lyrics and also huge guitars.
How about our recent buzz band Surfer Blood?
I love that band. I have their album, and I listen to it at the gym sometimes. I saw them when they played up here in Brooklyn with Art Brut. It was a really cool show. I got the record right after the show.
When you're not performing your own songs, what do you like to do in a karaoke setting?
Like a slower song by the Rolling Stones, "Beast of Burden." That's a good one. Something slow like that. For a while, I was trying to do Janis Joplin, but it didn't sound good. I think it's gotta be something you're really familiar with. The Stones' "Miss You" would be another one. Springsteen seems a little too obvious. The Stones are right in there.
You collaborated with Minneapolis rapper P.O.S. a few years ago, so what about the hip-hop portion of this Heineken event?
I think we played with Wale before at a festival. I'm only mildly familiar with that. My connection with hip-hop is primarily a Minneapolis thing. Just knowing the Rhymesayers people, coming up with Atmosphere at the same time, and knowing Brother Ali really well. That's a pretty good lineup for the Heineken thing then. We've played with Cold War Kids a number of times before, so it'll be fun to see them. Heineken's kinda bringin' it here.
Can I ask you a question comprised only of the word Heineken?
I don't know how to answer that, but I remember when I was younger, before I started drinking, I always thought of Heineken as [pauses] a step above. It's taken a while to get with a beer sponsor, but it's certainly something we can endorse. We are whatever the opposite of a beer snob is. It's like, "Hey, drink this one." OK, fine. There isn't a ton of discrimination.