In his eight years with the Hold Steady, Craig Finn and his band have earned a reputation for putting on a relentlessly energetic and cathartic show.
In his review of a performance at the Bottleneck in 2006, Star critic Bill Brownlee wrote: “It was a massive night. The Hold Steady presided over a beer-soaked and life-affirming communal celebration of the transcendent power of rock ’n’ roll.”
In 2012, for the first time in eight years, Finn is on the road without his band, showcasing songs from his brand-new solo album, “Clear Heart Full Eyes.” On Saturday night, with a band of backing musicians from Austin, Texas, Finn will headline a show at the RecordBar.
He recently talked to The Star about the dramatic difference between his solo record and solo tour and the manic ways of the Hold Steady.
Q. What did you have in mind when you went into the studio to record “Clear Heart”?
Well, the Hold Steady took a break for four or five months in 2011, and I had a few songs I’d been working on. With the Hold Steady I only did the lyrics and the vocals. So I’d started writing quieter songs on my own, more in the singer/songwriter tradition. More like Townes Van Zandt and Warren Zevon, Randy Newman, as well as Neil Young or Bob Dylan. I wanted to write something where the lyrics weren’t competing for space and volume, like with the Hold Steady. I had the time, and I decided I was going to try it.
So I got in touch with Mike McCarthy, the producer, who I’d met about a year before, and talked to him about it. He said, “Come to Austin. I’ll put together a band.” That seemed like a good way to do it. I sent him 24 songs, mostly just me on vocals and acoustic guitar. He cut the list to 14 songs he wanted to work on. I went down to Austin and went into the studio on a Monday morning and we got to work right away. We spent a good five days recording and got 14 songs tracked.
I wanted to do something that challenged me and kind of made me feel uncomfortable. The Hold Steady did five records in eight years. We’re great friends; we know each other really well. But we have habits. Good or bad, we have habits. I wanted to get a perspective on making a record in a different way. Obviously these songs have more space in them, which allows for more of the storytelling to come through.
I think the tour is about that, too. It’s not exactly everyone who played on the record, but it’s some of them, and some other people out of Austin, so it’s people I’ve never traveled with before. So it’s about getting out of the comfort zone and learning something from it.
Did anything revelatory happen in the studio?
We did everything in the studio live. I even sang the vocals live, while the music was being captured. On most records the vocals are done separately, even the Hold Steady records. They’re pieced together; you keep the best parts from several different takes. On this, we captured the whole thing, so if I screwed up a vocal and everything else was good, we just kept it.
I think there’s something to that, something I liked. When you play at a louder volume, maybe it isn’t possible. There’s something about capturing something quickly and as a whole that I thought really kept it emotionally together.
But the big picture, I think, was about any time you challenge yourself and make yourself uncomfortable and you push through it and create something you like, it gives you a lot of confidence.
How did you prepare for this tour, given how different it is from a Hold Steady tour?
I went down to Austin in December and we rehearsed with these guys for a bit. Then we played one show. The idea was to keep it loose. A couple days ago, we went to a hole-in-the-wall club in Austin after a rehearsal and played an early set. And that’s been about it. It’s a much looser thing.
I feel like we have the songs pretty well down. It’s very loose. I guess that’s the best word for it. Not so much improvised, but loose, laid-back. But it is just getting underway.How did the first two shows go?
We played in Dallas last night. It was a great show. Lots of fun.
Have the crowds been prepared for what they’re getting and not getting?
Yeah, I think so. The crowd last night seemed pretty excited. The one thing I’ve been asked is if we’ll do any Hold Steady songs, and we won’t be doing any. I don’t think that would be respectful to the Hold Steady dudes. But there’s quite a different energy at these shows. That’s part of the challenge, too. It’s quieter. People are listening instead of climbing on top of each other. I’m more subdued myself. With the Hold Steady we never deal with chatter in the bar because the volume won’t allow it.
Do you do just the album and throw in some covers or songs that didn’t make the album?
We do some songs didn’t make the record. And there’s a part where I play a few songs on stage alone; then the band comes back. We have been working different things in each night to keep each show different.
What have you learned during your eight years with the Hold Steady?
How much a family we have become. It’s pretty amazing, the language and the camaraderie and the things we’re accustomed to. Because we were a little older when we started the Hold Steady, I don’t think we take anything for granted. But I think we appreciate what we have and what we’ve built. I think we all have a good perspective on that.
In the early 1990s, you worked at Red Decibel Records. One of its bands was Season to Risk, which included someone who co-owns the club you’ll be playing in here in Kansas City.
Yeah, Steve Tulipana. I’ve known them forever, since like 1991. I remember going to see Season to Risk. I was helping my friend Jake who owned the label. I had like a summer internship. I remember of all the bands on that label, Season to Risk was the band whose music I was more into. They were less metal and more punk, more alternative.
And they were such a great performing band. I saw them for the first time in Madison (Wisc.), when I happened to be visiting a friend. Then it might have been one of their first shows in New York, I saw them. I was living in Boston, and I went down to see them. I have really good memories of all those people. Super smart, really sharp and a really exciting band to watch.