ANY BAND THAT CAN INTERTWINE LYRICAL THEMES SUCH as the 1972 suicide of poet John Berryman with musings on the vacuity of contemporary Minneapolis youth culture (“Stuck Between Stations”), or craft a rousing sing-along out of a weekend- gone-wrong tale told from a police interview room (“Sequestered In Memphis”)—and set it all to some of the world’s most infectious garage-rock anthems—has got a good thing going on. The Hold Steady has all that and then some.
On the backs of their stand-out tracks—bolstered by multiple late-night TV appearances and seemingly endless touring—the Hold Steady forged a reputation that found them acclaimed by several critics and countless fans as “the best rock band in America.” Then, in 2010, during the recording of the Brooklyn-based band’s fourth studio album, Heaven Is Whenever, it all lurched sideways a little with the departure of charismatic keyboard player and backing vocalist Franz Nicolay. A regrouping was in order.
In hiring a second guitarist to repopulate the touring ensemble (or a third, if you count singer Craig Finn’s coupla’-chords-and-done antics), Hold Steady lead-guitarist and co-founder Tad Kubler didn’t go the route that most might have taken—signing up a journeyman rhythm player to hang at the back of the stage and chunk it out without crowding the spotlight. Instead, Kubler, Finn, bassist Galen Polivka, and drummer Bobby Drake welcomed aboard ace sideman Steve Selvidge, formerly of Lucero, the Secret Service, Big Ass Truck, and others. The new configuration quickly coalesced into a harder, edgier live experience, and a more guitar-driven sound from a band already known for its memorable riffs.
Now, after nearly four years on the road, the Hold Steady has emerged from Rock Falcon Studios in Franklin, Tennessee, to present their long-awaited sixth album, Teeth Dreams [Razor & Tie]. Somewhat denser, perhaps even darker, and certainly more foreboding than most of their work to date, the set is also rife with scorching twin-guitar work, juicy tones, and the unflappable sense that guitar rock—done right—can still put a beaming smile on your face.
Teeth Dreams displays bigger, lusher production than we’ve heard from the Hold Steady in the past. Was that a definite goal?
Kubler: Yeah. As somebody who does a fair amount of recording and producing on a different level, I’m always pretty involved in the production of our records. But, that said, with this one it was the first time we’d worked with Nick Raskulinecz [producer of Foo Fighters, Superdrag, Rush, Deftones, Alice In Chains]. I knew who he was from the Foo Fighters and Superdrag stuff. I saw him in the Sound City documentary, and there’s a point where he breaks down a little bit—where, literally, and he’s going to kill me for saying this, he’s in tears. And I was like, “That’s the guy! There’s somebody who is so intense.”
From the sound of it, the collaboration went well.
Kubler: I think there was a lot of stuff where Nick and I had very similar opinions and ideas about how things should sound. But, also, it was really the first time I have totally surrendered to the process. I was just like, “Tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.” It was nice, because he didn’t have any expectations or preconceived notions about what we’d done before, or what kind of record we “should” make. It was just here’s the bar, if it’s not this good, it’s not getting on there. As far as it goes sonically, Nick is a rock and roll guy, and he’s definitely a guitar guy. That said, I think the drums sound so amazing on this album. So I think Nick’s sensibility just fit very well with what we do. There are a lot of people I’ve talked about the record with, and they say, “This is a very guitar-centric record.” I guess when they say that I think, “When have we not made a guitar-heavy record? What did I miss?”
There were obviously more keyboards in the past, with Franz’s involvement, but big, seductive guitar riffs have always been at the core of the band’s sound.
Kubler: Yeah. Although I do think one thing that is obviously different about this record is Steve’s involvement—not just as part of the recording, but as part of the writing process. It was really great to show him ideas. Because he lives in Memphis, I would record things and send them off to him, and then kind of see where he took those things, or what his interpretation was.
It seems like the two of you really hit it off musically.
Selvidge: It all came pretty much effortlessly—whether it was parts meshing together well, or just inspiration. When we were writing “On With The Business” at my place in Memphis, Tad had the chorus, I and brought in the verse. Then, I had to take my sister-in-law someplace because she didn’t have her car, and when I came back, Tad had written the bridge. And the moment I heard it, I picked up the guitar, and, literally, the first thing I played was the melody that you hear on the bridge of that song. I mean, to the note.
Kubler: During the recording, at one point I mentioned to Nick, “This is the first record Steve and I have ever done together.” And he said, “You’ve got to be kidding me? I thought you guys had been playing together for years.” I think that speaks to the relationship I have with Steve. While, esthetically, we come from very similar places, stylistically he’s a much different guitar player than I am, and we’re able to cover a lot of ground on the neck because of that. By the way, Steve and I were born on the same day—we’re a couple hours apart. We never had to deliberately sit down and say, “Okay, what are you going to play here?” I would play what I play, and Steve—partially instinctually and partly thanks to his skill level as a player—just knew where to go. I always kind of explain it that I’m more straight-up-the-middle, and Steve covers more of the sparkly bits.
Tell me a little more about the recording process this time around, and how you tracked the guitars in particular.
Selvidge: We did the drums first, and then the guitars. It sounds big, but there’s really not that much going on in terms of overdubs and stuff. Almost 100 percent of what you’re hearing is Tad and I doing our guitar overdubs together, standing next to each other at the console. It was just like, “Okay, we’re doing this song. You have your part. Let’s play it.” And we would just run it down—doing however many takes it took until we locked in and grooved with each other. What you hear is us in real time, playing off one another.
I think you hear that in the results—in the convergent opening riffs of “Wait a While,” which then split into their own complementary rhythm parts. Or, on “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You,” where you get the interlacing verse parts, and then the edgy twinned riffs that punctuate lines in the chorus. Throughout, it seems entirely Hold Steady to me—which is to say, a band with plenty of punk-fueled street cred, but one that still gets away with big solos and fat classic-rock tone.
Kubler: You know, the thing about growing up and having punk rock be a part of your life is a blessing and a curse. I think it’s great in a way, because it informs how you make decisions, and how you conduct yourself. But, as a songwriter, it can be a little bit of a curse, because you tend to avoid anything that sounds too “obvious,” whereas sometimes you have to let the song go where it wants to. And, definitely there is a tendency to avoid big guitar solos in punk rock. But the soloing thing is something that we wanted to do—partly because I was able to, I guess. But, in some ways, it was like, “Man, this is gonna bum everybody out. People are going to laugh about it.” But we’ve always done stuff that we enjoyed—or that we liked and thought was cool—knowing that it wasn’t always going to be super popular.
More often than not, that’s where great music comes from—not following the rulebook.
Kubler: Well, I hope that’s what happened!
THE HOLD STEADY GEAR
Kubler: Gibson Memphis Reissue ES-335, ES-345, and ES-355, Gibson Custom Shop Les Pauls.
Selvidge: Gibson Custom Shop ’54 and ’58 Les Paul Reissues, Firebird III, Explorer.
Kubler: Vintage ’57 Fender Deluxe combo and 2x12 Bob Amp combo (a hand-wired “Marshall/Vox hybrid” with two EL84s built by Hold Steady soundman Bob Strakele).
Selvidge: Either a Marshall Plexi 50-watter or a pair of Bob Amps (see above)— one with two EL84s, and one switchable between EL84s and 6V6s.
Note: In the studio, Kubler and Selvidge also used vintage Orange, Park, Hiwatt, Supro, and Danelectro amps, as well as a Vox AC30, and a silverface Fender Deluxe Reverb, among others.
Kubler: Bob Bradshaw board loaded with a Union Tube & Transistor More booster, Strymon Mobius, Boss RE-20 Space Echo, and several other Boss pedals.
Selvidge: Bob Bradshaw board loaded with an Xotic EP-Booster, a Robert Keeley modded Boss Tremolo, Boss RE-20 Space Echo, Boss PH-1r Phaser, Boss BF-2 Flanger, and a handful of others.