Creativity isn’t something you can simply turn on and off – it takes effort to keep that muscle functioning. Some 16 years into their career, The Hold Steady have settled on a new workout.
Skipping a lengthy writing process and hunkered-down period of studio experimentation, their new record was assembled on the fly at a handful of short sessions. They cooked up new jams as they went along, achieving a sort of songwriting critical mass before tracking Thrashing Thru The Passion.
“It keeps you being creative perpetually, instead of weird chunks where you try to exercise that creativity,” guitarist Tad Kubler says. “You wouldn’t throw on a pair of sneakers and step up to the starting line of the New York Marathon – you’d never fuckin’ finish the race. Making music is the same, you have to keep mentally, physically and emotionally fit in order to bring your best to the process.”
To hear a member of The Hold Steady – rock ’n’ roll lifers, the kings of booze-sodden bar-band blowouts – talk about keeping fit is a little odd. But Thrashing Thru The Passion bears out Kubler’s theory. Its songs, many of which made scattered bows during the past few years whenever the band suited up for one of their weekend-long live engagements, remain packed with the usual deadbeats and ne’er-do-wells, but are almost escapist in their melodic vigour. Touring in the traditional sense is out. Record release cycles are out. Rapid bursts of new music – and euphoric shows as and when they please – are in.
“You can call it convenience,” guitarist Steve Selvidge says. “It’s provided us with a framework. I’m not saying everybody should do it. It’s what’s working for us. If I had to, I would get on a bus and go for weeks on end. But I feel this works better, we all do. I’m not going to begrudge a good time and this is guaranteed fun – go see your friends, hang out, rehearse, talk, catch up, play some big rock shows, come home and you’ve paid your bills.”
Thrashing Thru The Passion is also the first Hold Steady record to feature Kubler, Selvidge and pianist Franz Nicolay in harness. In 2010, prior to the release of Heaven Is Whenever, Nicolay took his leave. Soon after, the Memphis-based Selvidge entered and for a time, the band was a three-guitar live proposition (frontman Craig Finn plays sporadically, with the enthusiasm of a true rock nerd and the attention span of a born lyricist).
In this configuration, the band cut 2014’s Teeth Dreams, before Nicolay returned with a flourish two years later to join the live celebrations for the 10-year anniversary of Boys And Girls In America.
“Franz and I have had this conversation since he’s been back – he came in playing piano in a very guitar-heavy band,” Kubler admits. “He really wanted to plant his flag, stake out his claim. I think I was… not having it. Like, ‘This is a fuckin’ guitar band’ and this and that. As much as I love Franz and as well as he and I write together, I know that caused problems for us and he would tell you the same thing. So Franz exits. I instantly made the room for Steve that I should have made for Franz.”
Finding your space
Selvidge spent his early years in the band darting between existing overdubs and solo lines from the band’s records, while sticking plasters over the gouges left by the absence of Nicolay’s expressive playing. Over time, he worked out his own language with Kubler. When Nicolay stepped back into the fray, the dynamic shifted again to incorporate a third perspective, mending any earlier damage in the process. The result on Thrashing Thru The Passion is a heady brew of riffs, counter-riffs, snaking melodies and breezy call and response.
“There were times when I was trying to mimic Franz’s part or play something that would fill that hole. When he came back, it was really nice to not have to do it,” Selvidge says. “It wasn’t a burden, but it freed me up. I like to listen and I like that conversation and Franz is another voice that you can play off.
“We always talk about this at the soundcheck jams – on something like The Weekenders or Heaven Is Whenever, that was right when I came in so that was an instance of, ‘I’m just gonna make up a part for this.’ In Franz came and he hadn’t played on that song either, so he was responding to what we were playing live – it just evolved like that.”
The task of harnessing this chemistry on Thrashing Thru The Passion fell to producer Josh Kaufman and engineer D James Goodwin at Isokon in Woodstock, New York. Kubler and Finn first met Kaufman at a bash for Jerry Garcia’s 75th birthday at Bob Weir’s place in Marin County. Soon after, they rolled up at his studio in the Brooklyn district of Dumbo to work on Teeth Dreams. Since then, Kaufman has been a guiding hand in Finn’s riveting solo career and he seemed a natural fit to step in and guide this latest iteration of The Hold Steady.
“Josh is a fuckin’ monster guitar player, fuckin’ ridiculous,” Kubler says. “He’s a lot of fun to be creative with, because he can sit down at the piano and we can work stuff out. He’s kind of crazy and neurotic enough for me to feel a kinship with him, but he’s also level headed and has enough of a vision to tell me when it’s done.”
Kaufman has drawn excellent performances from the band’s guitarists. The tones here have plenty of pop and chime and Kubler has backed off the gain without sacrificing the muscularity that’s always characterised his playing. “Josh’s like, ‘Listen man, you’re a decent enough guitar player that you don’t need it,’” he says. Selvidge, meanwhile, is the perfect foil, dropping in with nimble fretwork and punchy leads at every turn.
“Steve is a much more dextrous guitar player than I am,” Kubler laughs. “He’s more technically proficient, he’s just better than I am. In fact, if I was to compare myself to Steve, I’m not sure I could. I’d say I was a songwriter and Steve was a guitar player. I try and take up as much space as I can. Did you see that Stooges documentary? When Iggy’s talking about the difference between Ron [Asheton] and James Williamson, he’s like ‘James is like a rabid animal who gets into a room and gets into every little corner.’ I play guitar like that.
“Any time I can leave a string open and droning, I will. Any time I can play all the way across the neck, I do. Steve is much more tasteful. I always call it ‘the sprinkles’. He’s definitely inspired me to try and play more like that, in a less-is-more kind of way. If we’re working on a song that he’s brought in, where he’s holding down the main rhythm part, I literally try to approach it in terms of ‘What would Steve do?’”
Their styles may differ, but one thing that united Kubler and Selvidge during the sessions was a desire to leave their gear at home and play what they found waiting for them at Isokon. Both travelled light, with Kubler bringing along a gnarly Gibson ES-135 with P-90s and his ES-335. Selvidge retrieved his ’99 Telecaster Thinline from the band’s Brooklyn lockup, plus his 2007 Les Paul True Historic ’58, complete with Mark Stow OX4 pickups, and his own 335.
Otherwise, they were out to meet some new people upstate – Kubler went leftfield with a Nacho Guitars Nachocaster borrowed from a friend, Selvidge leaned into offsets and played a Jazzmaster with Gold Foil pickups on one track. “It was definitely a departure. If I’m in town and I do a session, I bring the armada of guitars and pedals and everything,” Selvidge says. “For this, I had to disconnect a little bit and use it as sort of a zen exercise. It’s like when you’re in a nice restaurant and your waiter knows what they’re doing. You just say: ‘In terms of wine, I’m saying I’m in your hands.’”
Kubler ties this pared-back approach to the fast-moving philosophy the band is reaping rewards from. “There wasn’t time to overthink it,” he says. “It wasn’t like some of the records we’ve done where we spent a whole fuckin’ afternoon getting guitar tones and different amps and bullshit. In fact, I’m sure guitar players are going to bristle at this or whatever, but I try to take as little equipment as possible. I prefer to use whatever is there and make it work. It’s like, ‘We’ve got this Alamo amp, and a Tele, and you know what? I bet we can get that to sound awesome.’”
Finn puts it more succinctly on Thrashing Thru The Passion’s massive closer, Confusion In The Marketplace: “I don’t wanna dick around, I just wanna devastate.” These days, that’s The Hold Steady all over.
Thrashing Thru The Passion is out now on Frenchkiss Records.