For nearly two decades, Craig Finn has sought comfort amid cranked amps and heavy riffs. First, here in the Twin Cities to cult acclaim as frontman of ahead-of-their-time skewed-punk pranksters Lifter Puller, and then on to global accolades as head poet of classic-rock revivalists the Hold Steady in Brooklyn. Seeking to reinvent himself away from the roaring rock 'n' roll din for the first time, Finn turned a five-month break from the Hold Steady in early 2011 into a launching pad for a solo career pitched at distinctly lower decibels than he's ever embraced before.
The resulting record, Clear Heart Full Eyes, comes off like hard-boiled Americana. Here, Finn's distinctive bark is slowed down and surprisingly dulcet as he leads a crack band of Austin musicians through a set of songs that recall his prior work only on rare occasions. Thankfully, Finn is focused more on reinvention than recreation, and the bulk of the album presses forward impressively into previously foreign terrain made up of jaunty, honky-tonk numbers and fragile, finger-picked weepers.
Prior to his long sold-out Twin Cities return at the Triple Rock Social Club, Finn took time out to talk with City Pages.
City Pages: The Hold Steady kept a breakneck pace between 2003 and 2010, releasing five records in that time. Last year was the band's first quiet year on the touring and recording front. Why the break?
Craig Finn: We felt we would all benefit from taking a break for five months and trying something new. The solo record was a way to try and get better at what I do, or at least get some fresh perspective on it. The Hold Steady has habits—they aren't necessarily bad habits, but they're habits. I was trying to break through them to get at something new. The solo record was an itch I always wanted to scratch. It was nice doing something at a lower volume that didn't make my voice hurt.
In Lifter Puller and the Hold Steady, I always played down-tuned guitars, and on this solo record I was writing in standard tuning. It got my hands doing different things. I was hearing different parts of the chords. Those kinds of changes are helpful. I left to make the solo album on July 5 and I remember coming home from a July 4 party and kind of freaking out thinking, "Shit, what have I got myself into?"
CP: Are you anxious at all how these gentler songs will be received on tour by boisterous Hold Steady fans?
Finn: We did one show in Austin and that was interesting because I remember getting off stage and being like, "Did we just play a show? We can't have. I'm not dripping sweat. I don't feel terrible [laughs]." There was certainly a different energy to that show; no one was climbing on top of each other or throwing beer in the air, but it's one I appreciate. The challenge with quieter music is to engage everyone so you don't have to compete with background chatter. I'm in awe of how a band like Low can make that many people so quiet. That's something I aspire to.
CP: Part of why your fans are so passionate is that it feels like a reciprocated love affair. Is maintaining that sense of joy difficult now that making music is your full-time job?
Finn: It's a little easier for me than a lot of other people, because we didn't get to this place career-wise until I was in my mid-30s. I have a lot of years to draw back on from before that time, so I know that this is way better than that [laughs]. If we had some sort of big success when I was 21 years old, I'm sure I would be a completely different person. That being said, you have to make conscious decisions to keep it manageable and fun. Do we really want to do Tulsa and Toledo on this run of the tour, or just stick to Chicago and Minneapolis?
CP: Speaking of Minneapolis, you moved away in 2000, but the place still keeps rearing its head in your songs. Will the Twin Cities always feature in at least one song on your albums? [Editor's note: The Clear Heart Full Eyes' song "No Future" features the lyrical refrain "The devil's a person, I met him at the Riverside Perkins."]
Finn: I think there probably always will be at least one song with a Twin Cities reference on there. My teens and my 20s happened in Minneapolis, and that's a time I draw on for writing about certain types of things. The Riverside Perkins just felt like an appropriately godless place in the context of "No Future" [laughs]. I've been in New York 11 years. I was talking with a friend the other day about how crazy it is to actually have decade-old memories from my time here. Both places are in my heart, but I think there will always be some part of Minneapolis in my songs. I still have a hard time writing songs about New York. That feels like something I should leave to Lou Reed [laughs].