In Gimme Songs, musician Mark Mallman talks songwriting with his peers and heroes. This week, the Hold Steady's Craig Finn.
Hold Steady fans rejoice! The long-awaited Teeth Dreams is released today. So how exactly does one write about anxiety and fear without drowning in it, themselves? Songwriter Craig Finn and I weighed some options.
Mark Mallman: It's interesting that Teeth Dreams is about anxiety and fear. Last summer, I'd been having anxiety like crazy. I went to the doctor convinced I had high blood pressure. She told me, "You're having anxiety."
Craig Finn: When we started this record, I met this general practitioner at a party. He was telling me that over half the people coming to his office had something to do with anxiety. Usually they think they have something that they don't. Once I started paying attention, I realized things like The New York Times having an anxiety column. Then I was in Oslo at the Munch museum, and I saw that painting, "The Scream." Munch was moved to paint it about the general anxiety surrounding industrialism in the 1900s. So I thought, "Are we living in anxious times, or is this just part of being a human being?"
It's heavy stuff to write about because you're not making rainbows, you're making monsters. It can be dangerous to write about the darkness, because it's been known to destroy certain artists. How does a songwriter walk that line?
I think there's a dark humor that sort of comes out. We have a song called "Party Pit" that is a really sad song. It's about seeing a girl that you know who's really gone downhill, but the chorus is "We're going to walk around and drink some more." It takes on its own thing live, and like it or not, you sometimes get separated from the song. To me, calling the new album Teeth Dreams is saying "Hey man, we all have these anxieties. We're all in this together."
Sometimes I wonder, "If Kurt Cobain wouldn't have written so many dark songs, would he have survived?" But he created an anxiety mantra for himself, and then every night had to sing it. After years of yelling, "There's something in the way," one day he just broke.
The people with the sad songs, Elliott Smith or Nick Drake, they don't have a good track record. I really do believe there's something else out there. I think that while the tortured artist is an archetype, a full range of human experience can be experienced in songs. They can also be experienced in life as an artist too. You can say "Yeah, I'm sad sometimes, but I'm also happy sometimes."
I haven't figured that one out yet. I don't know how to figure out life. But, I often quote a song of yours in my head when stuff's going bad. Stay Positive helps me. A popular band has this megaphone that reaches to all these people. But, when you go into this idea of negativity and fear, do you worry it could push someone in the wrong direction?
I've honestly had moments in my life where people close to me have had bad things happen. I think maybe it's a karmic payback somehow. With "Stay Positive," in some ways that's the darkest song. It's not "Don't worry, be happy" it's, "Stay positive because everything's fucked up." As an audience member, when it hits the jackpot is when you say, "I've felt that same way too."
I agree. I just wonder, does an anxiety song reinforce the anxiety, or is it a cure?
It's both. I remember calling a friend, and she was like, "You can come over, but I just broke up with my boyfriend. So don't come over with your god-damned positivity." Some people need to feel bad for a while. Play a really sad song live, and everybody sings along. Then it becomes an acknowledgment that we've all been sad.[page]
The magic of writing a tune is that it can bring people back from the dead. As a songwriter, there is this kind of journey to Valhalla that we go through in the creative process. After I saw you play "Rented Room" in West Hollywood a couple years back, I asked how you were able to write something that openly. You said, "Sometimes you gotta bleed to get the good shit." I loved that.
That was my mom's favorite song on my solo record. It's funny. I said, "Mom, that's great, I'm glad you like the song. But you know that actually happened to me, right?" That song is about roommates, and not the fun roommates. That said, I don't think I could have written that song while I was living in that room.
When life gets really shitty, people assume it's easiest to write. But hard times make songwriting even harder. When you're writing, and it gets to that point, are there songwriters that you turn to? When I heard Teeth Dreams, I started thinking about "Waves of Fear" by Lou Reed.
Lou Reed is one for me. He definitely hits you with the anxiety thing. I've been really into these live bootlegs of Lou from '78. All the songwriters I've always loved have their own version of it. Even Springsteen, even Dylan.
I get caught in a moment on a song, and I think "How would Joni do this? How would Bowie do this?" It always comes down to pulling the bullshit away.
When I started talking about anxiety and fear, I was thinking how we are in this real anxious, scary time. But then I thought, ya know, "David Bowie felt the same thing in '75."
And especially in '95 on the Outside album. On the recent, The Next Day too. I guess, Bowie is an example of someone who's always writing about fear and anxiety. So, maybe all this cultural tension is not the end of the world, but just a coming of age?
We're just super self-obsessed. One of my favorite songs on our new record is called, "On With the Business." It's about consumerism, how someone goes out and buys things to feel better, like a pair of shoes. David Foster Wallace talks about it as a particular kind of "American sadness." It's the realization that no matter what we buy, it can't help us. No matter how many shoes you buy, or what sports car, or whatever, it doesn't matter. You're still you. So, I think there's something there.
You're a perfect person to deconstruct this idea, because things that happen in your lyrics don't happen in a normal rock song. In a Hold Steady song, things happen like going with a woman back to the place where she's cat sitting. It's not mythological, at least it appears to have the veneer of truth. How do you do it in a song, without naming names and finding a razor blade in your pizza one night?
One of the potential titles for this record was "Technically True." Which I thought of like a joke. Because a lot of the minor details might not happen, but it's important to be emotionally true. You can write a song about being someone who had to escape the country to get away from the law. Now that's never happened to me, I've never written a song about that either, but what I have felt is weightlessness. I've felt detachment. I've felt loneliness. When you're trying to convey those emotions, you just gotta try to be true.
Something like your lyric, where the hipster says "I'm not going to do anything sexual, I'm kind of saving myself for the scene." I know that type of awful, ugly person.
Yeah. Simple truths can, maybe, take our pride out of the game.
GIMME NOISE'S GREATEST HITS
Teeth Dreams is available today on Washington Square/Razor and Tie. Stream the whole album on iTunes radio.
Danny Brown's Triple Rock show sparks unseemly oral sex controversy
Brother Ali: My fans are kicking the sh*t out of me over Trayvon Martin
Top 20 best Minnesota musicians: The complete list