Singer-songwriter Craig Finn and guitarist Tad Kubler were both over 30 — well past the age when rock stars are usually made — before they made the recordings that finally brought them success. But with 2006's Boys and Girls in America, their band The Hold Steady found its place as one of the best straight-up rock 'n' roll bands in the U.S.
"We just thought starting a band would give us an excuse to get together a couple times a week and hang out and enjoy music again," Kubler says. "And the next thing you know, we're in an airport in London with a 14-hour delayed flight to Croatia to go play with the Stooges."
The Hold Steady's somewhat delayed success affects its new album, Stay Positive: Finn sings of people who've been around a few years, and who suffer for it. Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep spoke with Kubler and Finn about the origins of the new record.
Growing Up In Minnesota
Though they now reside in Brooklyn, N.Y., several of the band's five members, including Finn, came out of the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.
"I think that when you get some distance [from] the place you're from, you can see the unique things about it," says Finn, whose lyrics, as in the song "Sequestered in Memphis," often mark time along the river he remembers from growing up in Minnesota.
The Mississippi River "is sort of the lifeblood of America," Finn says, "and it runs between Minneapolis and St. Paul. You don't think about it that often when you're living there, but having some distance from it, looking back, you see this romantic, huge body of water."
Finn says there's no personal, true story behind the song. "That was just sort of a story I thought up," he says. "As I got to the chorus, the 'subpoenaed in Texas, sequestered in Memphis,' I had to call a friend of ours who's a lawyer to make sure I was using the words correctly."
Several songs on the record feature the point of view of downtrodden characters.
"I'm sort of fascinated by people who are smart enough to make good decisions but continue to make bad decisions," Finn says.
Finn says that, as he's gotten older, he's gained a better perspective on the characters and people he writes about.
"I think that when you're 36, like I am, you look back at people who are 19 and 20," Finn says. "You see this great age of having a car, maybe a little money, but still you're not as smart as you think you are. And that's where a lot of the roots of the behavior that my songs talk about come from."
Finding Redemption in Music
Songs on Stay Positive, such as "Lord, I'm Discouraged," include recurring references to sin, crucifixion, loss and attempts at recovery. Finn attributes these themes of redemption to his Catholic upbringing and the many hours spent in church as a kid.
"I was raised Catholic," Finn says. "I don't go to church regularly, although I'm going more lately. But the beauty in forgiveness and redemption, especially in regards to the Catholic Church, [is] interesting to me."
Instead of singing as the person driven into the gutter, in "Lord, I'm Discouraged" Finn changes the point of view to that of observer.
"Obviously, we write a lot about drugs and alcohol, celebration, as well as hangovers," Finn says. "But I think that that's the first song that I think really talked about how alcoholism and drug addiction can really rip apart not just people, but the people close to them."
Stay Positive is not the first Hold Steady album to address themes of religion and spirituality. Separation Sunday, the band's second record, was "I guess a prodigal-daughter story," Finn says. It was about "a girl who grew up in a religious background and goes off to try to find something bigger, better, or something she's missing. And [she] has a lot of experiences and ends up coming back, not only to her family and to her town, but to her church."
Finn says that he and his band don't worry much about their music becoming too religious or alienating fans.
"I think I'm more religious than spiritual," Finn says. "I don't know if I'm that spiritual a person; I just like going to church. I wonder if I might [be] the opposite of Cat Stevens and then be too normal and end up watching too many baseball games and eating too many wings."