While it feels strange to be talking about a band of men well into their 40s as having finally ‘grown up’, that’s just the nature of The Hold Steady. They’ve always sounded like the best bar band in the world; a hard-rocking soundtrack to the parties, drug trips and near-death experiences of your wayward youth. But on their sixth album,Teeth Dreams, there are plenty of changes afoot.
Not only has the band added an extra guitarist in Steve Selvidge, but it seems to have matured significantly in the four years since its last album. The lyrics of lead singer Craig Finn are as brilliant as ever, but there is a weariness to them and the parties just don’t seem as fun anymore. Having previously played alongside Finn in Lifter Puller and then founded The Hold Steady with him, lead guitarist Tad Kubler has never seen his bandmate open up like this.
“To me, having been in a couple of bands now with Craig for, shit, almost fucking two decades, it’s one of the most personal performances I’ve heard from him,” says Kubler. “I feel with Craig, more so than any other record, the one thing I can hear in his delivery is – as opposed to before, where he’s a narrator and storyteller – it feels like he’s more connected to these songs emotionally, in a way that you can hear empathy or compassion in these songs. And I don’t really know that I could hear that on previous records.”
While much of The Hold Steady’s lyrical themes are the same as ever as Finn sings about doomed relationships and bad parties, the drama feels more real on Teeth Dreams. There are no murders or police interrogations here, and the subjects of Finn’s lyrics feel like regular people rather than movie characters. Gone is the recurring cast of characters that made previous albums feel conceptual, and Kubler puts it down to a growing maturity from Finn.
“I know that he deliberately wanted to stay away from the finer details in terms of the characters. It’s a lot of ‘he’ and ‘she’ as opposed to Charlemagne and Gideon and Holly, and I think he wanted to make it more general so people could see themselves, or put themselves into, the material.”
Another change for Teeth Dreams was the introduction of producer Nick Raskulinecz (Foo Fighters, Alice In Chains, Deftones). Having discovered Raskulinecz while watching Dave Grohl’s Sound City documentary, Kubler was after a producer who could give the band a fresh start, and was delighted when Raskulinecz admitted he’d never heard The Hold Steady play before.
“I thought, ‘That’s perfect, that’s what we need here actually,’” Kubler says. “Somebody that doesn’t have any expectations or preconceived idea about what kind of record we should make, or what we should do, or anything like that. And I really like what Nick does sonically, so I thought that was great.”
Teeth Dreams also marks the first time The Hold Steady have recorded with an additional guitarist in Selvidge, formerly of country rock band Lucero. Despite having joined the band as a touring member nearly four years ago, this is the first record Selvidge has played on, and Kubler says the inclusion of another guitarist was liberating for his own guitar playing. “Steve is such a great guitar player, it allowed me to really work on the songs as songs and allowed me to leave some of the more technical guitar stuff to Steve. Which is super nice – he’s a better guitar player than I am anyway!”
Rather than feel threatened by the presence of another guitarist, Kubler enjoys the influence Selvidge is having on both him and the rest of the band. It also doesn’t hurt that the two guitarists have long been very close friends and were indeed even born on the exact same day. “Guitar players have big egos and I think that Steve and I are close enough, both as friends and as having enough respect for each other as people and as guitar players and musicians, that it’s not an issue.
“We’re inspired by a lot of the same things, but playing-wise, like I said, he’s a much better guitar player than I am and he can do everything, really melodic solos and stuff like that to total shredding,” says Kubler. “And it really forced me to think about how I approach things, and it forced me to elevate what I brought to the table in terms of the guitar playing, because he is a calibre of musician that it’s inspiring to play with.”
In good news for The Hold Steady’s Australian fan base, there are plans in the works for the band to tour the album here in the near future. While nothing is concrete at this stage and the band is still working out logistics, Kubler says it’s just a matter of time.
“I mean, shit, if I had my way, we’d be in Australia three times a year. And I think I speak for everybody in the band when I can say that it’s one of our favourite places to tour. You know, it’s beautiful down there, the weather’s great, the people are fantastic, so I would like to get down sooner [rather] than later.”