“Listening again to everything The Hold Steady recorded. Is this the greatest American band now? They just got me through a rough month.” Bret Easton Ellis, Twitter Nov 2009.
Twitter is hardly, and should never be considered, the barometer of cool. No matter who you are, twitter props amount to nothing more than a brief fart in a swift breeze — you’re unlikely to hear it and it sure ain’t gonna stick around long enough for you to smell it. And Easton Ellis old chap, what have you done lately? Record company press releases make me laugh. Sometimes they do a band the greatest injustice and then sometimes I’m just too lazy to rewrite them.
Lauded by fans, critics and other creative minds for the “scope, depth, truth and heart” (I believe in music circles they call it “Blue Collar Rock”) that they bring to chronicling the American rock myth, The Hold Steady recently put the finishing touches on the follow-up to 2008’s twitter-approved Stay Positive, titled Heaven Is Whenever. Produced by Dean Baltulonis, who engineered the band’s debut Almost Killed Me and produced their second album Separation Sunday, Heaven is Whenever finds The Hold Steady soldiering on in ever familiar ground. Singer Craig Finn revealing that the album is about “embracing suffering and finding reward in our everyday lives” (really, Craig? Really?).
Recorded in several smaller sessions spread out over a long period of time, the songs on Heaven Is Whenever received the benefit of being road-tested on the band’s recent tours including the UK shows last September. As Finn says this allowed them to “see what was working and what wasn’t. I believe this record benefits from us working at a more deliberate pace.” Following the release of 2008’s critically acclaimed Stay Positive which gave the band it’s highest Billboard chart position to date, and a Top 15 album in the UK, The Hold Steady toured relentlessly, playing to some of their biggest audiences to date.
Speaking via the wonders of the impersonal record company Q&A, this is what Tad Kubler and Craig Finn had to say about the forthcoming album.
How is the new record different from ‘Stay Positive’?
Tad: I think this is a much more dynamic record than anything we’ve done. I feel as though the last four records, with the exception of the odd track here and there, have been pretty much loud rock albums. This album is sonically more diverse. And I really believe it exposes new elements of the band that we hinted at on other records but weren’t able to fully realize until this one. Rather than just concentrate on changes in instrumentation, we made changes to the song writing process. And this helped everyone to experiment not only with their own instrument and where they should play, but where they shouldn’t. This record doesn’t feel as dense. It feels more spacial. We weren’t trying to get a dozen different ideas on a song.
Craig: I think Heaven is Whenever has a bit more open space. I see it as being less anthemic and more complex. Each time we make a record, I think it gets more musical. We have had the opportunity to grow as musicians and performers.
We understand you had a sonic vision for making this record. What was that vision and how do you feel you and Dean made that come to fruition?
Tad: I wanted to see if we could accomplish a couple things on this record. The main objective being not to make the same record as the one previous. I love Boys and Girls and Stay Positive. But they have a very similar feel and sound. I wanted to make sure this one was not only unique, but that it seemed the next logical step in the progression of the band.
One thing we’ve never really tried was writing in the studio and using the studio itself as an instrument. In the spring of 2009 I started to compose this score for a film a friend of mine was doing. He gave me a couple of scenes to work from and I built music around the dialogue and mood of what was happening on the screen. As I was creating these big soundscapes, it occurred to me that given the cinematic scope of Craig’s lyrics, I could apply what I was doing for the film to my songwriting for the band. So rather than simply come up with cool guitar riffs as I had in the past, I’d need to start thinking on a much larger scale. Dean was the conduit between me and the technology and he was incredibly patient. I came up with a handful of songs, writing mostly on piano and guitar. Then had Bobby come in and play some drums. Galen came in and played some bass. Then while we were on tour, Craig started to put lyrics down as quickly as he was writing them. We turned the back lounge of the bus into a make shift vocal booth where we could also overdub guitars. These songs gradually became the demos for the new record. And we continued writing. It allowed us to work at a pace that was dictated almost solely by our creative output. We just hit record whenever we thought we had something worth putting down. So when we wrapped up our touring commitments for Stay Positive, the process began. The wonderful part about working with Dean is that we both like to construct songs and take chances in search of what works and what doesn’t. Start off with a solid foundation or skeleton for the song, and then continue to build on that. We called it rock legos.
What are the album’s main lyrical themes? Do any of the old characters show up?
Craig: The lyrics speak a lot about struggle and reward. Its about embracing suffering and understanding its place in a joyful life. I think that some of the characters from old records are there, but I don’t name them by name. I think it continues to examine the highs and lows that we’ve looked at on previous records.
Musically speaking, what do you feel the overall sound of the new record is? How does it differ from past releases?
Tad: I feel like this record is pretty evocative from a musical standpoint. There’s a lot more melody. It’s more sonically diverse and dynamically expansive than any of our previous records.
Would you say this is an especially guitar heavy record?
Tad: Kind of. I think this is a guitar heavy record. But I would NOT say this is a heavy guitar record. There are a lot of guitar tracks on this album. But I tried to vary the way I played each take. Switch up the amp/guitar combination. Change the tone somewhat drastically. Use a capo to alternate chord structures. Use alternate tunings. I wrote a lot on piano for this record and that helped me think of ways to play things differently on guitar. And rather than turn everything up, I had a tendency to turn things down. I played a lot of acoustic guitar on this record. Sometimes it’s nice combined with an overdriven electric track. Adds some depth and warmth to the tone.
What were your biggest inspirations, musical or otherwise, on the album?
Tad: I listened to a lot of musical scores for inspiration on this album. I’ve become an enormous fan of Gustavo Santaolalla. Terence Blanchard, who you’ll know from Spike Lee’s films, has such an amazing way of creating tension through music. I love Jon Brion’s stuff. I’m always swept off my feet when I listen to a Calexico records. Joey and John are such incredibly talented people. I read an article on Tuscon’s Wavelab Studios recently and was so impressed by the enormous sounds they get out of that place with very little gear. While making a record, it’s easy to get caught up in “We need this piece of gear” or “These guys used this on their album”. I feel like the most interesting sounding records are made by using what you know and knowing how to use what you have. It’s not just about capturing a performance. I like to hear the character of the recording come through in the songs themselves.
One thing I was really conscience about during the recording and especially mixing, I wanted this album to sound more contemporary than our previous records. If for no other reason than it would be different. But being a band that has a very traditional sound, I thought this album could benefit by using some methods that weren’t around when many of the people that inspired us were making records. I wasn’t concerned about keeping within some of those traditional recording methods.
Craig: I think my biggest inspirations are traveling and walking. That’s where I get a lot of stuff. I really like walking around new places.
Is there a specific story running through the album?
Craig: No, there isn’t. Its more like an overall theme.
Were songs fully formed when you went into the studio or did a lot of writing take place as the recording went along?
Tad: I had the idea very early to write and record in short bursts. Let our creative output determine the pace at which we worked. I wanted to try and be recording all the time as we were writing. That way we could go back and listen to see if we had stumbled across something we may have missed while we were just playing. You also hear certain things when you listen in a different context. I came up with “Our Whole Lives” by listening back to a guitar track just a few seconds at a time.
I didn’t want to be overly rehearsed going in. I wanted everyone to be open to trying anything at any time and I felt the best way to accomplish that was to not let anybody get too comfortable with the arrangement or structure of the songs. (“The Weekender” is a perfect example of this – it was really difficult to get any kind of handle on that track until we did a rough mix). We even changed the keys of songs pretty frequently, which constantly opened up options for different chord voicings. And because we really only loosely rehearsed what would be the skeleton of the song, the possibilities were limitless in terms of what the track would sound like when it was finished. We never got too used to hearing something one particular way. We continued to track and build on what we initially had until Dean and I thought the song sounded complete.
Craig: We mostly had things fully formed when we hit the studio. But Tad had done a lot of demo recordings and we recorded a lot in the space. We definitely recorded way more music for this record than for any previous records. There are some songs that came easy and others that we did a lot of re-working.
What’s the significance of the title “Heaven Is Whenever”?
Craig: It comes from a line “Heaven is Whenever/We Can Get Together”. I think it has to do with the way that love can help us rise above our modern struggles. It also speaks to how I feel about our shows, the communal aspect of the audience and performer. Making the album taughts us all that patience and hard work is reward in the end.
Craig’s mentioned in the past that making an album teaches you something about yourself, what did making Heaven Is Whenever teach you?
Tad: Because we recorded this record over the course of six months, I don’t know if I can even begin to explain what occurred in that period of time. Personally, I could squeeze a novel out of it. Or at least a screenplay. And if I think of it in terms from when I first wrote the music for what would eventually become “Sweet Part of the City” to the time we finished mixing “Slight Discomfort”… You’ve got to be kidding… It would have seemed so much more appropriate to title this fifth album Almost Killed Me.
How do you think these new songs will translate live?
Tad: I think it will be great. I never get too concerned with that. I think regardless of the decisions we make in the studio, we love playing music and that translates above all else. You get a bunch of people together at a rock concert looking to have a good time, the rest takes care of itself.
Craig: I think they will go over great. Its always exciting to play the new ones for people just as they are hearing the new record. I am really looking forward to touring.
Heaven is Whenever is due for release May 3 on Rough Trade in the UK and May 4 in the USA on Vagrant Records with select UK dates already announced for June.