The Hold Steady wowed North American audiences for years now – both in their former guise as Lifter Puller and with their earlier albums, The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me and Separation Sunday. But when Boys and Girls in America hit these shores about six months after it’s US release, it blew collective minds and established The Hold Steady as one of the greatest rock n roll bands in the world today. Singing songs about getting high, drinking beer and, eh, getting high may not sound like Mensa bothering material, but somehow, Craig Finn’s songwriting prowess moulded these tales (cos that’s what they are) of excess into a supremely intelligent album, referencing both Jack Kerouac and John Berryman extensively. The alcoholic Aesop of our times? Maybe so…
Just after the album made such a huge splash in the UK music press, I spoke to lead guitarist Tad Kubler on the telephone as he sat at home on his couch playing with his dog, trying to work out how the fuck they had found themselves in such a position. And then he got angry.
The Hold Steady – They Might Get Rich, They Might Get Busted
It’s sometimes difficult for people in the States to differentiate between Scottish
and English music, you know?
Just when you thought the music press had exhausted its list of silly genre names with the particularly poor “new rave,” another one rolls off the conveyor belt. Behold “blue collar rock,” so called because of its traditional storytelling values and honest to goodness guitar riff ethos. Harking back to original purveyors of music for the masses in the ilk of Bruce Springsteen, The Hold Steady have been charged with spearheading this latest uprising and have assumed the mantle with exceptional style. I caught up with guitarist and founder member Tad Kubler, relaxing Stateside, to find out just what has been behind the massive and sudden success of third album, Boys and Girls in America.
“The album title is taken from a line in Kerouac’s On The Road. Craig (Finn – lead singer) read that book back in high school and he just didn’t get it. Then he read it again when we were touring and all of a sudden it made sense. There’s one line when the male character leans into kiss the girl and gets knocked back. He says “boys and girls in America have such a sad time together,” and goes on to explain the culture of going straight to sex without questioning it or having any measure of conversation. No matter what age you are: 13, 23, 33, this silly teenage concept always stays the same. This was just so crystal clear to Craig when he read that book again and it’s completely typical of American society.”
The album itself, despite not being overtly political, is steeped in such references to their home country. But at a stage when bands are often so readily associated with, and pushed onto, the nearest passing bandwagon, are The Hold Steady conscious of using their music as a vehicle for any particular agenda?
“I don’t particularly think bands should be used as tools to broadcast your political beliefs and that’s not what The Hold Steady is about, but you know what?”
“It doesn’t pain me to say that the whole fuckin’ world’s going down the tubes. Really, especially America. The current administration is absolutely ridiculous and it makes me sick. This is a country that’s supposed to be a beacon of light for the rest of the world and look how it’s being run.”
Admirable, then, that with such vehement personal opining, their music has been left without a trace of a soapbox. The conversation then turns to everybody’s favourite non elected politician, Bono. As easy and predictable a target as ever, U2’s head honcho succeeds in attracting extolment and criticism in equally hefty measures in Tad’s opinion.
“Sometimes I think you have to question Bono’s motives. Sure he’s putting himself on a pedestal and in the firing line a lot, which is admirable I guess. But why does he do it? Like I said, I don’t think bands should be political tools. I know some people that know him and they’ve told me he’s a good guy, which I’m not questioning but I think ‘what is he really trying to do?'”
Back in their own realm, aside from the obvious themes and incumbent ideologies there is something truly indigenous about the Hold Steady’s music. Shying away from the likes of The Killers, who at first sought to ape Oasis and New Order before returning themselves to the bosom of Americana, Boys and Girls appropriately enough appears light years away from anything produced on these shores, but does that equate to a complete detachment from British, nay, Scottish music? It appears that the answer is a resounding “yes.”
“We see most of it as ‘British music’. It’s sometimes difficult for people in the States to differentiate between Scottish and English music, you know? I mean one of my all time heroes is Brian Robertson from Thin Lizzy. He’s Scottish, right? Nowadays… hmm… are The Arctic Monkeys Scottish? They made quite a splash in America. No? Oh okay. Who then? Oh Franz Ferdinand… yeah, uh… they’re pretty big.”
Boys and Girls in America, despite being unquestionably derivative, continues to pick up plaudits from various quarters as a potential album of the year. Kubler admits to being equal parts shell-shocked and humbled, a charming feature in a musician in this day and age. Coupled with their incontestable musical quality, I think we can let Kubler’s bad geography slide then, right? Just this once…