After the release of 2008's Stay Positive, the Hold Steady became critics' darlings and made the move from small clubs to slightly larger clubs. In fact, the group even played the 1,200-capacity House of Blues here in 2011 when it came through town as part of a high-profile tour sponsored by Jim Beam. But to hear guitarist Tad Kubler tell it, the indie rock band was popular here well before it broke big throughout the States, something we can take as a sign of the city's collective good taste in music.
"We've always had a blast at the Beachland, even though the first few shows were on the tavern side," Kubler says via phone. "There were a handful that I don't think were greatly attended. We still had a blast. It was because guys like [Death of Samantha/Guided by Voices' guitarist] Doug Gillard would come down, and the people at Beachland have been great to us. We kept hitting Cleveland. We quickly went from playing to fuck-all in the tavern to playing to a full house at the ballroom. We were like, 'Shit. Where did all these people come from?' Cleveland is a great city, obviously, so I don't know why I would expect anything other than great shows. When you play in a band, you come to know the geography by major metropolitan areas where you tour and things get dodgy when you get outside of the major cities and play anything smaller than cities like Chicago."
So it shouldn't be a surprise that the group, just off a hiatus from touring and recording, would include Cleveland on its short warm-up tour in advance of the release of its new album Teeth Dreams, due out in March. Given the band's rather whimsical start (and the fact that Kubler admits that, when it comes to those early tours, "none of us remember much of anything"), it's a wonder the guys are still together after a decade. And yet, as the gritty Teeth Dreams suggests, the band isn't just still plugging along. It's running on all cylinders.
As the story goes, Kubler and singer Craig Finn had put their previous band, Lifter Puller, to rest and were just hanging out watching The Last Waltz, the concert film/documentary that captures the Band's final show.
"Yeah, there are a couple of versions of that story," Kubler says when asked to verify that particular account of the band's formation. "One of the reasons that story comes up a lot is because it's Craig and I trying to sort of relay how we can came together to play music again. When Lifter Puller dissolved, I didn't want to get involved in another band with this guy. He had pulled the plug on the last one. I was a little reluctant, to be honest. It happened over a weird period of my life. It was one of those things. I wish we had made more deliberate decisions but I didn't think that story would be very deliberate so what does that tell you about how we operate?"
In fact, Kubler had always been the frontman prior to joining Lifter Puller. He said it took him a minute to adjust to Finn's style. Finn, who writes Springsteen-like narratives and possesses a hoarse voice that almost makes it sound as if he's wheezing when he sings, certainly has a distinctive approach.
"When the Hold Steady started, we didn't talk about how we were going to work," Kubler says. "It just worked out that I would write the music, and he would write the lyrics. Craig wrote a lot for a long time. For the past couple of records, the music exists for a long while before there are lyrics. That's just partly because of the pace we work at. I have 40 other songs we didn't use on this record. Now, I'll have to figure out what to do with those. We never ever talk about the creative process. Craig and I — I don't mean this in a way that's adversarial — rarely talk about anything. We're Midwestern men. We suffer in silence and celebrate in silence. Craig lives less than a block from me in Brooklyn, and we don't see each other. [Guitarist] Steve [Selvidge] lives in Memphis, and we talk every day. That's the kind of relationship we have. One isn't better than the other."
And yet from what Kubler tells us, a bit of tension emerged after the release of 2010's Heaven is Whenever. Burned out from a steady diet of touring and recording, the band decided to take a step back.
"From Stay Positive's 2008 release until we wrapped up touring for Heaven is Whenever was a difficult time for the band," Kubler says. "It was a difficult time for me personally. I had a lot of stuff going on. I was kind of a mess. That was hard on Craig in particular. The one thing about the Hold Steady and how it works, especially the relationship that Craig and I have, is that if I were to drop dead tomorrow, he'd be fucked."
With the band's blessing, Finn released his first solo album, Clear Heart Full Eyes, in 2012 and embarked on a short tour.
"But when he got back from that [tour], he was exhausted and spun out and we were ready to start a record," Kubler says. "He wasn't ready to do that. It took us another year to regroup and get that together and that was a tough time. We didn't know what was going to happen. We thought, 'Shit, we're going to make this record in fall of 2012.' That turned into winter of 2012 which turned into spring of 2013 which turned into summer of 2013. After sitting down with Craig when he got back from his solo thing, I told him he had to be exhausted. I just told him that we should chill out for a bit."
While "chilling out," Kubler went to L.A. and met with producer Nick Raskulinecz, whom he recruited to turn the knobs on Teeth Dreams. He also wrote a few new songs for the album. So by the time the group sat down to record the album, band members were definitely ready to lay down the tracks. The disc opens with the raw "I Hope This Whole Thing Didn't Frighten You," a foreboding track that really turns up the guitar heat and makes references to "World War IV." It's a noisy tune that sets the tone for the 10-track album that comes to a close with the dirge "Oaks," a pensive number that hearkens to the band's roots-rock interests.
"The new album exceeded any expectations that I had, and Craig really outdid himself," Kubler says. "I'm just excited for people to hear it."
And given the tumultous past couple of years, he's even more grateful that the band is still going strong.
"I am incredibly grateful to be in a pretty small minority of people who are able to play music and do it at the level we've been able to do it," he says. "At the same time, I just wish I would have maybe gotten some more sleep or gone to bed earlier. You can only say things like this in hindsight. We had such a great deal of momentum that carried us for a really long time. It allowed us to not make a lot of decisions about what was happening. It was us trying to keep up with what was going on. That was a luxury but it felt like things didn't happen as deliberately as they could have at times. I'm just thankful that we play in a rock band and we're making our sixth record and I'm still alive."