Album of the Week: The Hold Steady, 'Open Door Policy'

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The Hold Steady, 'Open Door Policy'
The Hold Steady, 'Open Door Policy' (Courtesy of Artist)

The Hold Steady return with their eighth studio album 'Open Door Policy,' recorded with producer Josh Kaufman. Jill Riley connected with Craig Finn and Franz Nicolay to talk about the new record--the three discussed navigating album release cycles in quarantine, how the sound of Lifter Puller came through on this record, the "Hold Steady 3.0" lineup, and how they're keeping band traditions alive in 2021.

Watch the complete interview in the video player above, and read a full transcript of Jill Riley's interview below.

Interview Transcription

Edited for clarity and length.

JILL RIILEY: Hey, I'm Jill Riley from The Current's Morning Show. And I'm really excited to have a couple of guests, not just one member, but two members from The Hold Steady as a new record, Open Door Policy is upon us. And this is really exciting. I was kind of doing the math on it and counting--the eighth studio album, and I think the kind of fun thing about that, for me, is when I was doing college radio, that was one of the years that I was doing college radio is when the first Hold Steady record came out. And then when Separation Sunday came out, that was the first year that I worked for The Current. And so I don't know, I've just been kind of like following your guys's path as I've been doing radio. So it's really great to have another record here. So hello, I would like to welcome Craig Finn and Franz Nicolay. How are you guys doing?

CRAIG FINN: Doing great. Thanks for having us.

JILL: All right, so you are in two separate spaces right now. So Craig, where are you?

CRAIG: I am in Brooklyn, New York. In my office. Here in my apartment.

Okay, Franz. Where are you at?

FRANZ NICOLAY: I'm in the Bay Area. Also in the office in my house.

Okay. Excellent. All right. So you know, Franz? I'm used to seeing you with like a little mustache, but you're kind of you're hitting that pandemic beard pretty hard. I like to see it.

FRANZ: The mustache went to ground about 10 years ago, but yeah, the winter of our discontent needed a discontent beard.

[laughs] Well, that's--if you got rid of that mustache 10 years ago, apparently, I was in denial about it. Because that's what I picture whenever I see your name. Well, congratulations, you guys. Open Door Policy--I guess my first question about the record: Has it been done for a long time? And you guys have just been kind of sitting and waiting on it?

CRAIG: Yeah, it was most almost all done in December 2019, I guess it had to be mixed. But I think probably like a lot of artists you are going to talk to, we sat there and said, when are we going to put this out? Like, you always want to time it for some shows? And when are we going to play these shows that will be the record release show and all this--and play, you know, play some dates around it. And those never came, right? So it felt like it might have dragged out a little bit because of that, because we were kind of waiting to see what was going to happen. And eventually it was like, it's getting a little old. Let's just put it out. And here we are. So it'll be great to have it out. It's been--it was recorded in two sessions in 2019. And hopefully it's aged like a fine wine.

Well, and that's the thing, too. And I've been talking to artists that I mean, that is a kind of a common thread right now. It's like, well we've been sitting on this album for a while and we're not gonna be able to tour yet. We might as well get it out. And then there's kind of that worry, well, we've been sitting with this album for a year, but it's going to be new to people, but yet, we've been sitting on it for a year. So I'm sure it's one thing to kind of live with an album on a regular cycle. But then just to kind of have the whole thing extended out like this.

CRAIG: Yeah, yeah. I mean, on the positive of that--we haven't, like, gone out and played a ton of shows and played the songs into the, you know, into the ground. So I think that it still feels a little fresh. I haven't been like listening to it over and over my apartment, I'm mixing you always get a little more of it than you then you want. But we mixed it last summer, so I think it's gonna feel fresh when it comes out.

Yeah. And of course, Craig Finn is going to stay on the positive side of things, which, you know what, I should be doing more often. Okay, so the record Open Door Policy. Well, the song that we've been playing on The Current is Family Farm, the the first single. And I wonder if you guys could kind of talk about this song, how did this one start? Where did it come in the songwriting process? Franz, I'd love to have you jump in on this as well.

FRANZ: Sure, this was I think, I forget which of the two sessions it was, but it was Tad [Kubler] sent me a demo that he had of basically the guitars for the first couple sections, and I kind of chopped it up and added the piano and bells parts and, and the horn idea. And, and it seemed like, I mean, it's one of those ones that you hear right away, and you say, oh this is gonna work. Not only is it gonna work, but I know exactly how it's gonna work.

CRAIG: I would also say that this is a, you know, Franz came back to the band in 2016. This is like, and we've been kind of releasing singles, mostly ever since. And in 2019 we compiled them to make Thrashing Through The Passion, a collection, but this is maybe the first, in some respects, album that we've recorded as this new six piece lineup or Hold Steady 3.0, however you want to say it. And I would say that this is to me a classic Hold Steady song, if you think a driving Tad Kubler riff, a sort of scene change piano break from Franz. It kind of ticks all the boxes of a Hold Steady song.

That was my exact reaction. Craig, when I heard it, I went this sounds like The Hold Steady. I mean, this is what I expect the hold steady to sound like but like you said, kind of in this 3.0 fashion. Well, I know that you guys have put some videos together for us. So we're gonna be able to hear these songs during this session, which is great. So let's, let's check out the video for Family Farm as we're doing a Current session with Craig and Franz from The Hold Steady.

[music: "Family Farm" by The Hold Steady]

So the videos that you guys cut to send over to The Current for our interview today, you guys recorded this stuff at Brooklyn Bowl?

CRAIG: Yeah, we do a--it was our fifth year this year of the Brooklyn Bowl. We do four nights at the Bowl every year we call it Massive Nights and it's become kind of the centerpiece of our year. It's the always the weekend after Thanksgiving. And it's as I call it the most wonderful time of the year. And this year we had to you know, improvise a little and we played an empty club. But we had video monitors around the club, and we could see through the sort of Zoom technology, people, the people in their living rooms watching us or wherever they were watching from. And that made it a lot easier and really gave a sense of the community that's around the band. It ended up being, I guess, a lot better than I thought it was. Even kind of emotional to see people around the world in different time zones holding up signs from where they were, holding up their pets, etc. So, yeah, we hope next year will be an in-person, Brooklyn Bowl, but you know, knock on wood.

Alright, what did it feel like to be on stage together? I mean, just to like, even do it in that capacity, and almost have that virtual audience. But you were still inside of a venue? I mean, you know, how did that feel to be on stage together?

FRANZ: I got a little emotional just seeing people set up the stage and putting up microphones. People getting to do the job that they're good at.

CRAIG: Yeah, it was--because like Franz, and Steve, live in California and Memphis, respectively. It was the first time we'd seen each other personally, you know, and there was something emotional about just seeing the people. And we've done a lot of Zoom things. We talked about mixing the record through zoom. But you know, to see people in person, and there's something about just hearing the kick drum in live, you know, something that kind of hits your chest. That was something I didn't know, I was missing quite as much as I was, but that felt really good to hear the buzz of an AMP or the kick drum, etc.

FRANZ: Yeah, and it's still gonna be--sorry.

No, no, go ahead.

FRANZ: It's still gonna be something the first time we get to do it in a room full of people. Yeah, for sure. I don't know if I'm really prepared for that.

Yeah, I wonder what that--how the energy is gonna feel from the audience. I mean, I have no idea what to expect as an audience member of how I'm going to react in the moment when a band that I've been just itching to see takes the stage. But I'm also a crier, so I have a feeling that it's gonna be like, ohhhhh [mimics crying]--

CRAIG: Yeah. I'm a crier, too. So I worry about our first time back.

Maybe it'll almost be like a good group therapy for everyone. Like, okay, we got through this thing together. And maybe instead of talking it out, you know, we'll just enjoy the music together. The Hold Steady, Open Door Policy. Again, we've been playing the song Family Farm. And, you know, we talked a little bit about how, you know, that song is like, that's a classic hold steady song. It really has that sound. What was kind of the overall theme that you guys were going for, for this new record?

CRAIG: I think that, you know, to me that the thing about this new record is, you know, Franz was not in the band for a little while, he came back. And we came kind of--in his absence, we had Steve Selvidge. When we came back, we became kind of The Super Steady. We got--we have Franz and Steve, you know, sort of like when The E Street Band came back, and they had Nils and Little Steven, I don't know, who gets to be who in that equation. But I think that, you know, it was really awesome in watching Steve and Franz, kind of figure out where, you know, where the room for each other was, you know, physically on stage, but also, you know, especially musically, and I think that sort of, as I say, The Hold Steady 3.0. And this record, in some ways, is defined by the way they're playing with each other, and playing against each other, and created, I think, you know, an update of our sound, in some ways. And I think that that, to me, is the story of the record, musically.

How about for you, Franz?

FRANZ: Yeah, I totally agree. I mean, there was the on the like, The Boys And Girls and Stay Positive--there was, you could almost always listen to the song and be like, oh this, this was a song was built around Tads riff and then there's the piano line, or these sort of two cogs working together. And on the stuff that we've had with the three of us, it's never quite that clear cut. It's always it's just the sort of the parts are always melding together and has this real tapestry quality to it.

Franz it feels pretty good--it feels pretty good to be back in the band, doesn't it?

FRANZ: Awesome. Awesome. Yeah then every step of the way is there's been these, there's been these moments of new appreciation for it, you know, like getting the streaming shows in December, and yeah, new levels of appreciation at every step.

Sure. Yeah. Good. Craig, what were you gonna jump in?

CRAIG: I was saying that, you know, I think that partially due to the guys producing the records, Josh Kaufman, but I think personally just to where our headspace is--all the recordings and really all the shows we've done are very fun. And I sort of feel like when The Hold Steady is having fun, it gets contagious. And I think we make our best music and that sort of celebratory vibe comes out. And I feel like in both of these last recording, so you can you can hear the joy that is part of the band right now.

The Hold Steady--the new record is Open Door Policy. And we want to spice in another video here that was recorded live from the Brooklyn Bowl. And the next song is called Spices. Do you guys want to help me set this one up? Kind of give me a little backstory on this song?

CRAIG: Yeah, I think that Spices is interesting in The Hold Steady catalog, because to me, it's The Hold Steady song that sounds most like Lifter Puller. My old band that Tad was in too. So I think, you know, it's not exactly but I feel like it's maybe a little throwback to Lifter Puller in my mind.

Where do you think that came from? Just naturally or?

CRAIG: Well, you know, it's funny. The producer of record, Josh Kaufman, who I mentioned was a Lifter Puller fan. In fact, I think when we started getting together he knew possibly Lifter Puller more than The Hold Steady. And so I think there was some encouragement on when that riff came in to make it head in that direction. But you know, I think there's also there's two members of Lifter Puller in the studio, so it can go that way sometimes.

Sure. Well, alright, so I guess we'll leave it up to the Lifter Puller fans here in Minnesota. See if you can hear it in this one. And again, performance from the Brooklyn Bowl. The Hold Steady, another new one called Spices.

[Music: "Spices" by The Hold Steady]

Well, that was a performance of Spices from The Hold Steady live from the Brooklyn Bowl, you know, playing in an actual venue, on a stage with the band together, you'd almost think that it was a regular show. And then you look out into the audience, and maybe some people working on the tech side out there, but really, it's just kind of like a virtual audience, but really great to see--just really great to see you guys back on stage together to be able to just get a look at what that--it's almost like a preview of what we're gonna get to see someday.

CRAIG: I hope so.

Well Craig, the last time I talked to you, I was checking in with a bunch of musicians on the phone and just to think that that was probably almost a year ago, when I was just calling people or having them call me and we were just kind of having this, like, "How are you doing?" You know, it was so early into the pandemic, and it was just kind of doing this check in, and maybe I should have kept doing them throughout the year. But I mean, at this point, I know that it feels good to have a new record. And probably feels good to get this record out into the world and to think about what, what touring will look like, eventually. But, how are you guys doing? I mean, how are you feeling about all this?

CRAIG: Franz?

FRANZ: Yeah I feel like it, over the past year, everybody's gone through all the different stages. And now it's just sort of leaning into the slog, honestly, is how I feel about it right now. It's nice to have this this process of the record coming out as a kind of distraction.

CRAIG: Yeah, when we were, like I said, we do the Brooklyn Bowl in December every year. But we also do a weekend in London, the first weekend of every March. And those are the last shows we played live. And we really got right in under the wire. I mean, I think our last show was about March 8 in London. And I felt like when we landed in the States, the pandemic was ON, you know? Yeah, I think that we Monday is when we landed, and then that Wednesday is when they started calling off the NBA games and all that and it sort of felt like, here we go. So we're coming up on a year of it, it feels like an anniversary. We're actually going to do some shows from the Brooklyn Bowl that weekend. We call it The Weekender, but we're going to go on stage at 3pm, New York time to kind of time it for the people in the UK that we'd normally be playing with. So that's another kind of bittersweet thing. We're excited for that. But it feels like wow, we've gone a full year around the clock here. And I do remember talking to you and feeling like we'll we got a couple months. And someone pointed out the other day to me--or that I saw on social media--remember when the celebrities sang Imagine? That was like the week end of the pandemic that was...

I had completely forgotten about that.

CRAIG: Yeah. And that was like, I mean, that was like a week or two in. They could have held off on that one a little longer.

Yeah, I think like, we all got on board with this "we're all in this together" thing really early. And then it was like, before we even really needed our spirits lifted we were having our spirits lifted. And yeah, Franz I agree that, that I'm in this kind of slog, and I don't do well, when I don't feel like I'm in control. Which is something I'm working out, but you know, I really just feel out of control. Because I like to know, when the end date is I like to know when the start date is. And this kind of this slog or this feeling that like maybe time is being stolen from us or something? I don't know. Is that something that crosses your guys's mind?

FRANZ: No question--I think everybody's developed their own coping mechanisms, which may have legs now if this is going to go on for however longer it's going to go on but in the absence of a unified story of someone in the government saying, here's what everybody has to do to get through this, you know, we just have this patchwork of individual coping mechanisms that were sort of cobbled together. And I guess that's how it's gonna be.

CRAIG: I bought a new guitar the other day, just because--I'm not a gear person, but I feel like I've hit the, like, bored shopping part of the pandemic, which is way outside of my personality. But it's just like, oh this will give me pleasure for a day or two.

Oh I hear you on that. It's like, I just want something to just make me feel good, even if it's for a couple of weeks, you know? Yeah. And I think that's, I mean, that's a relatable thing with just about anybody just to find something to kind of take the place. Although, you know, when, when you do you--when you have an instrument, and you're actually going to play it, that's a helpful thing. But, you know, I don't know the exact like data on it, or I haven't seen the statistics, but I gotta wonder how many instruments were sold in the last year.

FRANZ: I saw an article saying that they sold a lot of guitars this year, for sure. Plus just frivolous internet shopping, then you have the mail to look forward to for a couple of days, like oh, maybe it's coming today! Give yourself a little gold.

Give yourself a little break. Give yourself a little gold. Craig Finn and Franz Nicolay from The Hold Steady, where we've just been chatting about the new record Open Door Policy, but you know, also kind of reflecting on the past year. And, you know, I do I do feel, though, that we are over some kind of hump. You know, we're over some kind of hump. There's a light there. It's dim. But I'm, I really am--I feel like I'm at least starting to see it. And maybe that's because sometimes I maybe I have a toxic positivity about myself, or I'm just trying to look on the bright side too much. But I think that's kind of at the point where I feel like we're at and I can tell you that we're just--here in the Twin Cities, all over the country all over the world. People are just looking forward to having their their favorite band back on the road. And I'm sure that you're hearing that from Hold Steady fans that they can't wait to see your next concert.

FRANZ: Yeah, I'm hearing it from my own brain.

Yeah right. Well congratulations on the new record. Yeah. What were you gonna say, Craig?

CRAIG: I'm saying it about my favorite bands. Like I can't wait to be an audience member as well. A performer as well as an audience member. You know, I think that, a live in-person baseball game, and a beer on a barstool is--are like my three very simple goals, but I hope I get to do some of them soon.

I hope so too. Well, before I let you guys go on, I know that we have another video live from Brooklyn Bowl and another song to talk about and I wonder if you could tell me about Heavy Covenant before we wrap up.

FRANZ: Heavy Covenant was--there were two different demos that I made when we were down in Nashville last year, in our hotel room and Craig and Josh said, what if we just splice them together? And it worked. That's basically the story.

CRAIG: Yeah, it worked. And it's a song that kind of, like a few of them, deals with technology and how we kind of use our phones to be different people, to connect with people, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. And that's something that comes up on a few songs on the record and this is one of them.

All right, well, let's take a listen. And let's take a look.

[music: "Heavy Covenant" by The Hold Steady]

All right, another new song from The Hold Steady, "Heavy Covenant". And I just want to say thank you again to Franz Nicolay and Craig Finn of The Hold Steady for joining me today here on The Current to talk about the new record Open Door Policy, which is out today, by the way, so congratulations on this record and number eight--I mean that's that's pretty incredible.

CRAIG: Thank you. It feels great. I feel like Paul Stanley comes out after every Kiss record gets released and said it's the best Kiss ever but I really am feeling that way about this Hold Steady record. So it's it's feeling really good.

Excellent. Franz, do you have any final thoughts? Any burning desires before I let you go?

FRANZ: I second everything that Craig says.

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