The Hold Steady - Biography
The Hold Steady began as a cluster of slightly jaded, beaten, thirty-something musicians who had seen their fair share of rock & roll dreams deferred. Lead singer and guitarist Craig Finn assembled a group of experienced players in 2002 and they agreed to keep their sights low, planning to not even release an album. Instead, they are four albums into their burgeoning career, achieving the status of critical darlings every time one of their LPs hits the shelves, the fourth of which has also hit number 30 on the charts. Not bad for a band whose singer thought his days of playing music were long behind him. In a sense, the Hold Steady are like the 2004 Detroit Pistons, a team of veterans who, having little or no success in their prior individual attempts at greatness, came together and won a championship through hard work and raw talent. The difference is that, unlike that all-dominating team, the Hold Steady never wanted to be champions (or so they say).
In 2000, Minneapolis art-punk band Lifter Puller, which featured singer/guitarist Craig Finn and then-bassist Tad Kubler, released their second and final album, Fiestas and Fiascos. Upon the band's subsequent demise, Finn found himself living in Brooklyn, working in an office at the age of thirty-one. Deciding that these were not the most desirable of circumstances, he and Kubler got to talking in 2002 and decided to reunite under a very specific, though modest, blueprint. The band would be called the Hold Steady; they would play straight, Springsteen-esque rock & roll, and not worry about being artsy or groundbreaking; they would play only local shows, and there would be no touring. Kubler was now Finn's lead guitarist, and they acquired drummer Judd Kounsel and bassist Gavin Bolivka to round out their line-up.
Following the initial writing and rehearsing stages, the Hold Steady played their first show at North Six, a decent-sized venue in the Williamsburg/Brooklyn area. After being greeted with a warm reception and being surprised by the turnout, the band began to break one band-rule after another. They played a second show in Baltimore, and before they knew it, they were writing and recording an album. They signed to New York-based record label Frenchkiss and released their debut, ...Almost Killed Me, in 2004. A sprawling and poignant mess of thrashing guitar and gruffly poetic lyricisms, ...Almost Killed Me grabbed the attention and received the praise of just about every working rock critic. Detractors of the band, few though there were, cited Finn's growling sing-speak as a constant annoyance, but for the most part, the album was hailed as nothing short of a beer-soaked masterpiece.
The group didn't slow down a bit. They went through a line-up change in 2005, losing drummer Kounsel, and bringing two more members into the fold. Franz Nicolay, a former member of ska/gospel/punk collective the World/Inferno Friendship Society, was brought into the band as a keyboardist and drummer Bobby Drake (of both End Transmission and Arm) was also hired. Now a five-piece, the Hold Steady set about the writing and recording of their next album. They worked with two producers, Dave Gardener and Dean Botuloni, to make Separation Sunday, released in 2005 on Frenchkiss. The fact that the album came out only a year after their debut was certainly impressive, especially considering that it was a step forward in every way possible. Finn's lyrics were sharper and and more vivid, and he crafted an album-long tale out of his beat-like literary style. The LP was met with another enormous wave of enthusiastic reviews and Finn was quickly emerging as the poet laureate of rock & roll.
All of the critical success was great for the Hold Steady, a band that never thought they would be in a position to be reviewed by anyone in the first place. Their fanbase had grown larger, and they were no longer the bar band they had envisioned themselves to be. The group singed to Vagrant Records and by 2006, it was already time for another album. They hired producer John Agnello and achieved a more polished, yet still brashly rollicking sound. On October 3rd, 2006, they released Boys and Girls in America (Vagrant), and not only were the reviews better than any previous Hold Steady album, but its sheer appeal gained them a spot on the Billboard 200, peaking at number 124. What's more is that the band were able to tour the world throughout most of 2007, a year in which they played well over 200 shows. That summer, they had the privilege of opening for the Rolling Stones at a show in Ireland. They could have chosen to ride the success of Boys and Girls in America for another year and take a break. But instead, the band spent time on their tour writing songs for their next album.
Again working with producer John Agnello, the group started recording in January, 2008, at Water Music in Hoboken, New Jersey, and later moved to Queens, New York to record at Wild Arctic Studios. Further mixing was done at the Magic Shop in Soho and the album was a finished product by February. Stay Positive was released on Vagrant Records on July 15th, 2008. The group added more instrumentation for their fourth album, including harpsichord and talkbox, and Finn seemed to be taking his role as singer more seriously, having undergone vocal lessons prior to the recording sessions. As far as lyrics go, he was more in command of his craft than ever before, churning out the same sad types of characters, but granting them all more hope than before. The LP's praise was even higher than Boys and Girls in America, a feat that didn't seem possible, and the band made an impressive leap in the charts, peaking at number 30.
In November, 2008, the Hold Steady embarked on a tour, co-headlined by their friends and peers, Drive-by Truckers, called “Rock and Roll Means Well.” If the title of that tour speaks the truth, a new Hold Steady album can't be far behind.