The Hold Steady
The Hold Steady was born out of some loose talk in my Boreum Hill apartment in 2002. I had moved to Brooklyn about two years earlier. I was thirty-one years old, and the other dudes were about my same age. Our concept was to start a straight rock band, with low aspirations. Just local shows, no touring, and most likely, no real records. We practiced for a while and then played our first show in January 2003 at North Six, in Williamsburg. I was surprised at how many people showed up.
The show went well. It reminded us, all veterans of hard luck bands, that music can be fun. We played our second show in Baltimore, and it sort of becomes a blur after that. We quickly broke our rules about no touring and records, and released three records in three years. We lost one member and added two others. The most recent record, 2006’s Boys & Girls in America, was successful enough to get us in a bunch of magazines and take us pretty much around the world. It was, to be honest, pretty ironic – the band that set out to do nothing became a critics favorite and a touring machine. The Hold Steady had become our lives.
Thus, when we began talking about a new record, it became obvious that in order to keep up our schedule of releases, we would have to start writing on the road. We hadn’t done a lot of this previously. Ideas started taking shape in hotel rooms while we played European festivals in Summer 2007. Laptop demos were recorded and shared. I remember Tad coming up with the title track, “Stay Positive”, backstage at Manchester Academy. The music from “Lord, I’m Discouraged” had its genesis partly in Milan and partly in Hamburg. We couldn’t slow down, but we could get ready.
When the touring wrapped up, we went straight into rehearsals and fleshed out the ideas that were banging around. As with each record, there was a desire to make it more musical than the last one. In this case, more musical meant an attempt at more dynamics, different instrumentation, more complex arrangements, and not always hiding behind raw volume. The songs came together quickly, but were painstakingly rehearsed and reviewed, with many minor changes made along the way.
Finally, in early January 2008, we showed up at Water Music in Hoboken NJ to record our fourth record. We worked with John Agnello again, as we had developed a great sense of trust with him during the Boys & Girls sessions. When John says something sucks, it probably sucks.
We recorded basics for nineteen songs. Everyone was very excited with the progress. Everyone played to their utmost potential. Lyrically, I had an idea of what I was trying to say much earlier in the process than on our previous records. Spirits were high.
We moved on to Wild Arctic Studios in Queens for vocals and overdubs and then to the Magic Shop in Soho for mixing We got some of our most favorite rock musicians to sing and play on it. We had some minor struggles, and a bunch of really good times. Finally, in mid-February, it was done.
It’s always interesting how a record reveals itself to you. You can go in with the best-laid plans, but there is always a fair amount of uncertainty. Late night brainstorms become defining moments. Accidents become choruses. You might write the record, but it ends up teaching you something about yourself.
We kick off this record with “Constructive Summer”, a driving song about trying harder. “Navy Sheets” features a guest harmony vocal by Patterson Hood from the Drive-By Truckers, who have been a modern day inspiration to us. “Both Crosses” was a live in the studio experiment that ended up working. The record ends with “Slapped Actress”, which combines a mammoth Tad Kubler riff with a lyric inspired by the John Cassavetes movie Opening Night.
I think this record, musically and lyrically, is about the attempt to age gracefully. This is no easy feat, especially in rock and roll. I am now 36, and will be 37 shortly after this record is released. At the age of 30 I was working in an office, thinking my rock band days were behind me. This last summer we opened for the Rolling Stones in Ireland. We have met many of our musical heroes.
Meanwhile, in the five years since forming, the guys in the band have gone through a bunch of typical thirty something stuff- babies born, family members dying, relationships started, relationships ended, health problems, joy, struggle, life, etc.
But possibly the most exciting aspect of our band is the community of fans that have followed us around the country. In talking to them, we have found that no matter their ages, they are so much like us as people, that they seem at times an extension of the music. A great American philosopher named D. Boon once said “Our band could be your life”. I think that is true. But “Your Life could be Our Band” is also a true statement. I know this because we have lived it.
These are our lives. These are your lives. This is our fourth record. Stay Positive.