Monthly Archives: June 2008

An interview with The Hold Steady

The Hold Steady

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?”

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…

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An interview with Muse

Muse

This interview took place in May 2006 – just as Muse launched their spectacular Black Holes and Revelations album. I was holed up in a Soho hotel bar for two hours with about twenty other journalists hailing from The Times to the NME. It was the first time anyone not involved with the band had heard Black Holes… They piped it through the speakers of the hotel bar on repeat as we gorged ourselves on free food and drink, trying to make ourselves comfortable with this bombastic aural assault. The initial shock at the departure and progginess of their new material hadn’t subsided by the time I was marched up to a modest suite on the third floor to confront the architects. The results are below.

Things are getting curiouser and curiouser…

Muse have never been the cheeriest band in the world. The gargantuan and exhausting effort that was ‘Absolution’ foretold impending doom (as I meet drummer Dominic Howard in a Soho hotel room, he concedes it was “a little chaotic and apocalyptic”). Seemingly this forecast was a little premature. We are, after all, still here. As are Muse. And whilst they await their demise, the trio have taken the time to construct another album that couples crippling paranoia and muscular bass lines with the ease most folk would associate with the union of strawberries and cream. ‘So,’ I hear you ask, ‘is the end nigh-er?’ The answer would appear to be “no.”

The immediate clues are in the song names. Whereas ‘Absolution’ groaned with titles such as Thoughts of a Dying Atheist and Apocalypse Please, ‘Black Holes and Revelations’ comes fully loaded with tags like Invincible and Assassin (“shoot your leaders down and join forces underground”), suggesting the Devon boys are all set to lay siege on the Four Horsemen head on. ‘Black Holes…’ is something of a call to arms. The problems have not gone away. It is up to us to solve them. Talkin’ about a revolution? Muse are.

The trio are not renowned for their love of the current political state. Sycophants, they are not. The War on Terror’, is dismissed as an attempt by the regime to increase Marshall Law. “You can feel it happening around you.” Matt Bellamy’s fascination with conspiracy theories has only heightened these feelings of claustrophobia. His suspicions stretch to the media who he is convinced “are tools to familiarise us with being photographed. The popularity of Big Brother is making us comfortable with it… before you know it; we’re just being filmed all the time.” What would Orwell think?

“He’d say ‘this is it… we’re there.’ It’s a drip drip way of doing it, very gradual, but we’re getting there.” Bellamy takes great satisfaction in relating an incident in Norway when the band had been queuing for passport control for an hour. A man strolled straight past them to the front of the line and had “like an eye scan” and ambled on through. A subliminal attempt to make us conform? “Well you either choose between standing in a queue for an hour or scan your eyeball.” The decision is yours.

Part of Bellamy’s fixation with all things offbeat may well be related to his long term partner’s work as a trainee psychologist in Italy, where the couple have set up home. “She treats schizophrenics in Milan who believe these stories. It’s interesting to see how people are taken over by these insane ideas about the end of the world” he quips. “I’m lucky to be with her to keep them at bay!” he throws in, with his tongue pressed firmly against his cheek. So just how much of this interest equates belief? Shall we anticipate a nod toward David Icke’s revelations that the reptilian bloodline is ruling the human race? “Well I don’t believe the lizards bit… that’s a bit far fetched. But it’s a slippery slope!”

One listen to the now bulging Muse back catalogue will tell a soul that this ‘interesting’ preoccupation with the arcane is not exclusively terrestrial. From ‘Origin of Symmetry’: we have Space Dementia and Shrinking Universe appears on ‘Hullabaloo’. ‘Black Holes and Revelations’? Bassist Chris Wolstenholme deduces; “well the black holes bit is a reference to a self destructive planet.”

The tunes themselves tell a more detailed story. Take Knights of Cydonia. “Cydonia is the region on Mars where they think there are structures and possibly could have been civilisation. Once Mars was the same distance from the sun as Earth so there could have been civilisation. I’ve always found that very interesting,” Matt, erm, muses. Exo- Politics is another that surveys the outer realms of our universe and perhaps explores the possibility of alien incursion. “Paul Hellyer used to be Canadian Defence Minister and he made a speech about the US building space weapons. That’s going on at the moment. Are they hiding an invasion? Or maybe they’re setting up some orchestrated crazy space kind of war!” Just don’t tell Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry.

With all this gloom and guesswork, one gets the impression that Muse are quite a serious bunch. Au contraire. Further questioning reveals a lighter side. Indeed, it comes to light that the Teignmouth bunch are quite the jokers and have found the time to devise some treasure hunts that make Anneka Rice look like Mr Magoo, Matt explains, “fans kept collecting our setlists when we’d have working titles down, like ‘Des Change the Keyboard Patch’ (a reference to Muse’s keyboard tech Des). They’d think Des was an acronym for Dead End Street or something crazy like that.”

That doesn’t sound all that strange?

“So I thought I’d see how far they go and put down anagrams and things which were cracked really quickly. So I made it complicated by putting down enigma codes and secret email addresses which led to a treasure hunt.”

That’s more like it. And the treasure?

“Well it was a bunch of crap bikes we’d bought in Walmart to keep fit when we were touring the States. It wasn’t really that exciting in the end… but it’s the hunt that counts!” So you can add GSOH to political activism and ET fancying in your thumbnail sketch of Muse.

Things may well be getting curiouser and curiouser in the home camp, but that’s no reason to entertain the ludicrous idea that the music would suffer as a consequence. ‘Black Holes and Revelations’ certainly spills the beans on a musical side of Muse we perhaps weren’t aware of (see the single Supermassive Black Hole) but hey, change is good. Let’s just hope the end of the world holds off long enough for us to hear a little more.

Wilkommen


Surprisingly for someone who spends so much time hammering away on a typewriter (ok, it’s a keyboard), this is my first real foray into the world of blogging. Scrawls and Brawls is a collection of thoughts, opinions, observations and conversations. Some of it will be work I’ve had published which I will update regularly. I’ll also backdate the blog with anything from my shady past I think may be worth a butcher’s – feel free to comment.