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Bonnaroo Q&A: The Hold Steady almost kill themselves, and they do it for you

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Holdsteady_lComing up on the end of our Bonnaroo coverage here, PopWatchers, but first, the long-awaited Hold Steady post. Am I setting this band apart because they took 5 minutes out of their busy ‘Roo schedule to chat with me, or because they are, hands down, my favorite group of the moment? A little of both, frankly. But had you been at their Saturday afternoon show (pictured)– which kicked off with my current indie-rock boyfriend Craig Finn informing the crowd that “fist-pumping is always cooler than that dance the hippies do”– you might very well love them, too. As guitarist Tad Kubler laid into the classic opening chords to “Stuck Between Stations,” I could feel the dusty farm transforming into an east coast bar, the camera in my hand becoming a bottle of Bud, and the words to every song about the Mississippi River exploding out of my throat. I jumped, I screamed, I played air piano like a tool. (TOOL!) That’s the power of rock n’ roll, kids. And that’s the power of the Hold Steady.

I’m not the only one: Traveling through the last two days of the festival, more strangers told me the Hold Steady were their favorite new discovery of the weekend than any other band. Is it the group hug that lives in the “whoa-oh”s of songs like “Massive Nights”? The dramatic mustache of keyboardist Franz Nicolay? Craig’s adorably odd habit of pulling away from the mic between lines and mouthing nonsense into the front rows? The lyrics that create worlds in your imagination? Maybe it was all of the above, plus the fact that “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” is still the best song of the last 2 years (put that on your list and smoke it, Kirschling), and after a slew of preciously-constructed ‘Roo performances, the band’s utter lack of pretension was like an ice cube down the spine.

This was the last stop on the band’s American tour; they’re off to play European festivals now, so book those tickets. After the jump, our quick sit-down, in which I shall reveal the only thing capable of bringing the irrepressible Craig to his knees.

addCredit(“Hold Steady: Whitney Pastorek”)

Behind the tent where they played, the Hold Steady crowded into their closet-sized dressing room to catch their breath before golf-carting across the grounds for a billion more obligations. All post-show exhaustion aside, Tad was still kind enough to offer me a Michelob from their ice chest– which I politely declined, citing professional reasons. “I don’t blame you,” he sighed, then showed me the tips of his left hand, calloused and grey from laying down licks for the last hour and a half. “Have your fingers ever looked like this?” he asked. Not really, I said, and resisted the urge to reach over and pat his disheveled head. Frankly, the rest of the band looked beat: Craig was hunched down on the ice chest, his shirt soaked through; Franz appeared to be trying to stare a hole through the back wall of the room. They had just given us so much, and now they had nothing left! I wanted to hug every last one of them. (This is, apparently, a common response: at their recent El Rey show in L.A., these two skinhead dudes kept climbing on stage and running towards Craig, arms outstretched.) Instead, I pulled out the tape recorder, and pestered them for as long as I felt was polite. Which wasn’t long… but it made my day, at least. Thanks, guys.

Entertainment Weekly: So you’re about to head for Europe and play a zillion festivals over there—this must have been a nice warmup for you guys.
Tad Kubler: I like festivals. You get it out of the way really quick, and then you have the rest of the day to do whatever.

EW: How did you feel about today’s Bonnaroo crowd?
Craig Finn: It was super fun! They were pumped! I can’t believe they were so pumped in that heat. There’s pacing issues. If I was in the crowd, I’d be like, Look, I’m gonna take it easy. Any big rock concert, part of the deal is sort of timing your blowouts. You know? [pause] It looks like there’s a lot of people peaking early.

EW: I think a lot of people peaked last night. So, what did you learn about festivals today?
TK: Well, we did Lollapalooza last year…
CF: But this one seems way more immense. I think Lollapalooza’s just like 60 thousand people. This seems way bigger… but it also seems pretty good.
TK: I guess this is kind of boot camp for us. We’re doing Glastonbury [in the U.K.], and from what I can gather, that’s enormous. Like hundreds of thousands of people. And it’s hard, because you don’t get to load in and do a sound check… but in a weird way, it’s kind of back to how we started doing shows in the first place. You throw your s— up on stage, you make sure the sound guy is ready to go, and then you just play.

EW: The first time I ever saw you guys was an acoustic show in a coffee shop behind a record store in Williamsburg. The intimacy sucked me in immediately. Do you find you can still make that kind of connection on this larger scale?
CF: It’s a challenge. It’s certainly a challenge. Today, we kind of wanted to meet you halfway.

EW: The people in the back can’t really see what you’re saying when you talk off-mic…
CF: [sly smile] I like to think that encourages them to move up front.
TK: The other thing is, too, I think the 5 of us have such a good time on stage, whether you’re in front of 30 people or 30 thousand, people can connect with the great time that we have together. That’s always gonna work to our benefit.
Franz Nicolay: It’s not that hard to communicate joy.

EW: You guys also communicate these characters that people really grow attached to, have individual responses to. Dare I say you’re almost like superheroes?
ALL: [cackle]
FN: [mysteriously] I do have powers.
ALL: [cackle]
CF: [staring rather ruefully at the floor] My enemy is gravity. That’s my arch-enemy.