Finn (left) and Nicolay (Photo illustration by Joelle McKenna)
Mar 1, 2021
The Hold Steady: Rocking on as the world ‘simmers into a boil’
The Hold Steady's Criag Finn and Franz Nicolay discuss their new album, 'Open Door Policy,' a year of lockdown and, well, holding steady
Hard as it is to believe, The Hold Steady have been holding steady since 2003 at this point.
This month, the Brooklyn-based indie rock band released its eighth studio album, “Open Door Policy,” recorded before the end of 2019 and subsequently mixed and hashed out over Zoom. It is a true-to-form lyrical tour de force, obsessed as ever with the everyman and underdog. Dense and melancholy at times, it is maybe a little darker than a typical Hold Steady record, in spite of the addition of a two-man horn section.
Despite the material being at least a year old at this point, “it’s aged well in some way,” says Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn. “A lot of the stuff that I thought the lyrics were about—mental health, technology, late stage capitalism, that kind of thing—those things seemed to simmer into a boil during 2020.”
Finn and keyboardist Franz Nicolay are guests on this week’s episode of “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast.” The two joined me in a conversation days after the release of “Open Door Policy,” where songs like “Family Farm” specifically lean into the mental health and technology themes: Its protagonist has checked into a hospital and can’t use his phone to contact anyone on the outside—and the nurse’s own ringtone is a Van Halen riff. The song also features Stuart Bogie and Jordan McLean on horns, both of whom are alumni of US Afrobeat collective Antibalas.
“That song, as it was written, felt immediately like a Hold Steady song,” says Finn on the podcast. “If an alien came to Earth and said, ‘What does a Hold Steady song sound like?’ You would put those two things: The driving Tad Kubler [guitar] riff and the scene-change Franz piano break.”
Finn and Nicolay are speaking in the days before two live shows the Hold Steady will be playing two live shows at an empty Brooklyn Bowl and live-streaming them around the world on March 5 and 6. The concerts are meant to take the place of the Hold Steady’s annual London pilgrimage, which the bad calls The Weekender. The 3 p.m. show times are U.K. friendly, but since time has no meaning any more, anyone with an internet connection is encouraged to buy a ticket. If their last run of virtual live shows from the Brooklyn Bowl in December are any indication, expect raucous, inclusive and interactive affairs.
Finn is one of the more compelling lyricists working in rock right now. We talk about that, and his influences a bit, plus that Van Halen Easter Egg.
“People often compare the Hold Steady to Bruce Springsteen or the Replacements or whatever,” says Finn. “But Van Halen is a template, in some way, of one guy playing a lot of guitar solos and another guy talking and then yelling.”
We also discuss how Finn and Nicolay—whose side project, a novel called “Someone Should Pay For Your Pain,” is coming out this spring—feel about having themselves gone from underdogs to winners (The Hold Steady played themselves on a third-season episode of “The Billions”).
“You sit around the bar and you argue about best second album ever, best debut album, best third album. There’s no conversations about best eighth album,” says Finn. “I really do believe the music we’re doing won’t ever be of-the-minute necessarily, but we won’t ever be hopelessly out of style, hopefully. It’s a classic sound. In that way, that was a good horse to bet on. We have quote-unquote ‘held steady’.”
Check out the podcast (you subscribe, don’t you?) for all that and more, plus a pop quiz on the twentieth century geopolitical “Open Door Policy.” You might learn something.
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