Photo: James Goodwin
Bonny Light Horseman's New Album 'Rolling Golden Holy' Is The Voltron Of Folk Music
Folk supergroup Bonny Light Horseman's ambitious new album, 'Rolling Golden Holy,' is out Oct. 7. Anaïs Mitchell, Eric D. Johnson and Josh Kaufman spoke with GRAMMY.com about mining the breadth of folk music and harnessing their collective superpowers.
"Form feet and legs! Form arms and torso! And I'll form the head!"
That line of dialogue frequently appeared in ‘80s kids cartoon "Voltron," where Voltron Lions created the giant robot Voltron. For musical supergroup Bonny Light Horseman — the trio of Anaïs Mitchell, Eric D. Johnson (Fruit Bats) and Josh Kaufman (Muzz, Craig Finn, the National) — songwriting is not too different. They especially used that collaborative method while writing their sophomore album, Rolling Golden Holy, which is out Oct. 7.
"We form the Voltron robot with each of our individual strengths," says Johnson during a recent interview with Mitchell and Kaufman. "Voltron is a mega robot that was formed by smaller, powerful robots."
"We’re certainly not a baseball team," he continues, citing Holy's "Summer Dream." "We don't have defined roles in how we collaborate on a song, but that song was one where I think we each did our thing. That is, we were like 'Here's my superpower.'"
The song is hypnotizing with a jazzy, breezy melody, and reflects the album’s contemplative themes of looking back, looking forward and longing for something. Mitchell recalls Kaufman playing it on the piano at Aaron Dessner’s Long Pond studio and later returning to "Summer Dream," hoping to work on it in a different way.
"With this one, we just were throwing lyric lines out there on the floor at the recording room, and then singing them, and it got just right. There couldn't be any other word," Mitchell says of their sessions at Hudson, NY-based Long Pond studio and at Dreamland Recording, an old church in Hurley, NY. "We really all were in there imaginatively, even in some of those lyrics.
Produced by Kaufman, Rolling Golden Holy follows their 2020 self-titled debut, which was nominated for Best Folk Album and Best American Roots Performance at the 63rd GRAMMY Awards.
Unlike that album, which pulls from folk music’s rich history, the new material are all originals that pay homage to traditional folk while expanding and building the genre in new directions. Bonny Light Horseman also kept collaboration with others minimal, only featuring drummer JT Bates and bassist/saxophonist Mike Lewis.
GRAMMY caught up with the trio to learn about their eventful year, and how their growth as individuals and as a band helped lead them through new — but still familiar — folk terrain.
The band has had a busy year so far. What's one of your favorite stories of late from touring?
ANAÏS MITCHELL: We got to open a whole tour for Bon Iver in June, basically like a month run. That was fun to just hang out with that band and it felt really fun to play on their stages. I had my little 2-year-old along on this. She loved the band. But she loved Eric and Josh. She always asks about them. We actually had a pretty epic time together.
ERIC D. JOHNSON: Josh K, when we saw Rosetta in the UK, she was very confused that you weren't there, but I was. I think she thinks that we live together like Bert and Ernie.
JOSH KAUFMAN: Oh, I love that. We started our June tour with a bunch of traveling COVID cancellation things. A bunch of drama happened. Our first bassist got COVID. Then it was also my wife. And then our friend Michael Mendes, who was going to come and sub for her, travel got messed up and he couldn't get up in time.
Then we had to have a third bassist, this guy Jake Silver come in, and it was just kind of frantic, fun energy of trying to cram all this music into his head right before we went on stage.
It was at Levon Helm's Barn, and if you're going to have a moment like that, I hope you're in a space that feels that relaxed and cool and welcoming. It ended up being really joyful and cool and just an awesome show the first night of the tour where everything kind of "went wrong" but then flipped and went so right.
It sounds like the writing and recording of the album was much more collaborative compared to the band’s debut. How did the tighter chemistry and increased confidence help you explore folk music?
MITCHELL: I don't think this record is more collaborative, it's just different in that we were relying on a lot of traditional material the first time around, and this one is an original record. It was a lot more us dreaming things up together.
KAUFMAN: From a recording aspect…we were with our rhythm section, JT Bates and Mike Lewis. It was just the five of us, whereas the first record was a much different environment; it was like at our first residence in Berlin where there were like lots of people to pull in and collaborate with. This was a much more sort of closed setting and that probably is the biggest difference in recording.
Everyone in the group helped push each other out of their comfort zones to some degree. Why was that an important process?
JOHNSON: I wouldn't even call it a comfort zone, but I think [it's] almost better described as bringing different things out of each other. When you're just going at it alone, you have your method. It’s just we all three are really hard workers and each have a completely different style, as just anybody would. The cliched answer is we're learning from each other, but it's totally true.
"Gone by Fall," I'd never written a song like that. If I was writing that song by myself and not the three of us, I wouldn't have done it that way. We refer to it as improv comedy. It’s like you answer, "Yes," and then say, "and let's try this, too." But I've never felt outside of my comfort zone because this is just a comfortable band, but maybe outside of my normal zone, I guess you could say.
MITCHELL: I feel emboldened. I think we all trust each other's instincts a lot and it means a lot. With this band, I started to play my guitar in an open tuning. I never really had done that, but Josh Kaufman showed me how, and there's a lot of times where Josh will come up with a rhythm guitar part, but he'll want to be free to improvise so he's like, "Anais, play this." And I'm like, "I can't play that." And he's like, "Actually, you can." [Laughs]
And then it turns out I can. This is just another way of saying it's not where I would intuitively go, but it's totally within the wheelhouse.
There's a dulcimer on this record, which was an inspiration. I'm not sure whose idea it was but we all had to play dulcimer on this record at some point. I'd never picked up a dulcimer in my life, but I felt emboldened by the guys encouraging us all to do it.
KAUFMAN: It's interesting because it's not an instrument that I necessarily see us touring with, the bass dulcimer but it is a really nice metaphor for the center of the sort of creative process of this band. It's like, "No, no, you can get in on this." [Laughs]
You just have to come with your experiences almost, you know, and it's folk music, so don't sweat it. It's not a lot of chords and you can just hop in any old way. And I say that because this instrument is tuned modally, and it's tuned diatonically to another key the song is in, so you're safe. All rivers lead to the same place, which is you're making a cool, zingy sound in a song. The three of us found a different way into this instrument and used it as a textural expander on the record.
Anais, you mentioned in your previous interview with GRAMMY that one of the biggest goals for the album was not to overthink things. Why was that important and how have recent projects factored into that mindset?
MITCHELL: It’s interesting because this is our second record and the first record we made we almost didn't know we were making it. [Laughs]
It was almost a field recording. And then we put it out there in the universe not knowing if anyone would respond to it, and we were pretty surprised and really grateful for the people who actually gave a s— about the music that we were making.
We just want to stay in the flow and that's what this record really is. We love to think that we made it in the pandemic. We weren't touring the songs; we weren't testing stuff out on the road. We just kind of went in a new direction and laid this stuff down.
JOHNSON: Josh's production style has a minimalist, maximalist process a little bit. He finds the thing and…he’s thinking very hard about it, but he makes it feel like we're not when we're in there. He finds the thing and he's like, "Here's the thing. Go chase that thing."
You can cross the threshold where you're trying so hard that you're trying to try. You're in your head and you can really spend a lot of time in a studio in that environment if you don't steer around those things, so a lot of it is like navigating things.
Josh, as a producer, it seems like one of the things you strove for was giving enough sonic space for all the different elements to breathe naturally. Why is it important, that process?
KAUFMAN: It’s kind of getting the lighting right and the feeling in the room right. That room is something that you're going to then take with you everywhere you listen to that, so it's like a movable venue. I think of this as a new kind of vocal music and even though there's quite a bit of space between the vocals.
A lot of it is framing that stuff, and often Eric and Anais are singing together in the room live, so there's getting that balance right. I feel like the sort of charm of the blend is the fact that they're not too altered and they're just two lead vocals, basically.
MITCHELL: This music is different [from] what I would do on other projects in that it's committed to a kind of impressionism lyrically. Equally important is the brass and the bass to process those images in, not silence, but to be carried on this river of music, and not to fill all the spaces to tell the truth. I love that this band prioritizes that kind of space.
The music is deceptively simple, and it creates this [space] that a lot of exploring can happen, and that that can be different every night, and that's what keeps it feeling alive.
The creation of the song "California" was quite a journey. What was it like seeing that song change so drastically from inception to finished product?
JOHNSON: It started off as a little bit more like a modal folk tune…It was almost like a banjo or fiddle song. It had this very modal, sort of Dock Boggs spooky folk music vibe to it. We worked on that for a good long while and it wasn't bad sounding, but it was just one of those where you're just like, "I don't know why, but this isn't it."
It was crooked. Rhythmically, too crooked, and then melodically and tonally, a little too... not dark, but emotionally ambiguous. We usually like emotionally ambiguous, but it was too emotionally ambiguous. And then maybe 75 percent the way through, we added these major key chords…It was the kind of thing where I think if we'd started with those big, bold simple major chords, I don't know if we would have [gone in that direction.]
JOHNSON: I feel like the breakthrough happened when we hit those chords and then the lyrics were just written that afternoon, too. Once we had the breakthrough with those chords, then lyrically it was a little bit of a roadmap.
Speaking of lyrical roadmap, "California" is a bit of a thematic detour. What was the inspiration for that one?
JOHNSON: So many songs are about heading west and this myth of the wagons heading west riding into the sunset, and the song is a little bit like the opposite. It's leaving the west, leaving this land of promise for the old world.
The lyrics are meaningful, but there's impressionistic aspects to them too, where you could apply your own meaning. We've introduced the new world a little bit into it, but also we're questioning our place in the new world or something like that.
Another thoughtful song is "Summer Dream," where the band explores this theme of the ghost of summer. What about that theme fascinated you?
KAUFMAN: It’s like a thing that you maybe didn't even want but you can't stop thinking about it. And it keeps on coming back.
MITCHELL: There's that amazing Leonard Cohen song, "Chelsea Hotel," where he sings this entire song about this woman. Then he's like, "That's all. I don't even think of you that often." It's like, "Okay, but you did write an entire song about her."
JOHNSON: That's one of the favorite love songs where he's just like, "See if I care." And he's like, "Yeah, but I just wrote a whole song about it."
Beyond this upcoming tour, what goals do you have for the band?
JOHNSON: Touring has been so crazy this year. We're planning the tours and we're excited about that, presenting the songs. But I think we're always just working towards "hey, let's do this so we can keep doing more, keep making more music." We're excited to get going again.
MITCHELL: I'm excited for us to just surprise ourselves. I have no idea what our third record would be. I'm excited to surprise ourselves.
Photo: Kelly Samson, Gallery Photography
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016
Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.
Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.
A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.
This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system.
"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."
He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.
"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.
To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood."
Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at GRAMMY.com every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes.
Photo: Chantal Anderson
Fruit Bats' Eric D. Johnson On New Album 'A River Running To Your Heart' & His Career Of "Small Victories"
With each new album by Fruit Bats, the trope of the precocious, tortured artist loses more credibility. Almost 25 years after Eric D. Johnson started the project, he's arguably on his hottest streak.
Which musical epoch do Fruit Bats belong to?
It's not quite the '90s, even though that's when Eric D. Johnson started the project; he wouldn't release his first album until 2001, nor sign to Sub Pop until the following year. But Fruit Bats aren't exactly an early-aughts phenomenon, either.
"I felt like I was watching it from the sidelines and hoping I might get thrown a bone," Johnson recalls of the Meet Me in the Bathroom era to GRAMMY.com. "But it was more like my friends got really big and I was sort of the perpetual opening act for the next 10 years."
Johnson readily says that's the paradigm that produced him. But as he remains an extremely active artist, it would be unfair to seal him off there as a remnant of the past. Perhaps the trajectory is best seen as an arrow gradually trending upward. And, in 2018, shooting upward.
That was the year that two magnitudinous events happened: One was that he formed Bonny Light Horseman, his celebrated folk trio with Anaïs Mitchell and Josh Kaufman. Another is that he signed to the prestigious indie label Merge.
Since then, Johnson has received long-overdue plaudits, and produced some of his finest work: 2019's Gold Past Life, a 2020 full-album cover of Smashing Pumpkins' classic Siamese Dream, and 2021's The Pet Parade.
Now, he's out with A River Running to Your Heart, out April 14. True to the album title, Johnson feels like the warmth and camaraderie he enjoys with Mitchell and Kaufman flows directly into the heart of this new Fruit Bats. "It's hard not to be totally inspired by them." he says, calling both projects "interwoven" and" inspirational."
Partly as a result of this, mellow, sophisticated songs like "Rushin' River Valley," "We Used to Live Here" and "Sick of This Feeling" have a special patina to them: they feel connected to Fruit Bats' past while reflecting the creative universe Johnson inhabits.
In that way, A River Running to Your Heart proves that Fruit Bats aren't the province of a decade — or two — ago. Rather, they're a band for right now. Read on for an in-depth interview with Johnson about the genesis of Fruit Bats, the road to the new album, and the nuts and bolts of his recording process.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Tell me about your creative path over the past few years, leading to A River Running to Your Heart.
My perspective on it is weird. I've been doing this for a really, really long time, and it was kind of like this slow, slightly bumpy, very gradual first 16 years — which is [itself] a really long time.
Then, things kind of happened, but then slowed down again. Then, in 2019, I signed with Merge, made that Gold Past Life record, and then the [2020 debut] Bonny Light Horseman record came out during the pandemic. I think you either were or you weren't extra-productive during that 2020-and-2021 time.
So, it's felt like a bit of a blur. But all I know is that last year, I played 113 shows with both bands, and we've been kind of going full tilt with both bands. It's been kind of a weird few years of craziness, basically.
You've had hills and valleys in your long career, but this must feel like a boom period to you.
It is. My glass-half-empty person is like, "Why couldn't I be 30 when this happened?" With lots more physical energy and everything like that. But also, oh my god, this is incredible that this is happening to me, because it took me a really, really long time.
I have musician friends in their thirties and forties who are on hot streaks after years of nonstarter projects. I think the notion of the 22-year-old genius as the platonic ideal — think Brian Wilson making Pet Sounds — is revealing itself to be nonsense.
It's nonsense. I think the median age has gone up. I'm almost hesitant to talk about it because it feels so weird. But I use age 30 as an example, because I remember back to that year, being like "Ugh," and feeling like, "I'm an old codger at this point!"
I'm 30, and a musician. I feel that way.
Yeah, but that's 16 years ago. I feel fine still, and I'm still doing stuff, and things are going well. But also, it's exciting to have a long history and everything, and be appreciated for that. But of course, I'm always like, I don't want to just be an old-timer talking about how great it is to be an old-timer.
In that timespan, guitars and singing have gone in and out of vogue. Was there ever a point where you felt like the indie train had left the station?
It may have already left the station. I don't know. Its death has been announced many times.
I come from a weird era, too, because I had friends 10 years older than me who were from the '90s indie times. I wasn't old enough to have experienced that. I maybe caught the tail end. I always describe that as a beautiful time of very low stakes. It truly was DIY, and there was no notion of success in it. It was underground music, truly.
I remember being in Chicago, being an indie-rock fan, young. It was before I was really doing bands in earnest, and it would be Tuesday night at Lounge Ax or something. The biggest indie band would come through, and that's 200 tickets or something like that — where you're just like, Wow!
Then, there was that early 2000s boom, which I had a front-row seat to but didn't get [chuckles] swept up in either.
Now, it's something else. I don't even know what. There's so much thinkpiece-y stuff you could say about it now. I don't have a good perspective on what's going on with indie music.
It seems like you don't consider yourself to be of any era or ilk. You're just a person making music, and whatever people want to lump you into is none of your business.
Yeah. I feel very connected to the roots of independent music — I really do. I admire it so much. I'm on a venerable indie label that I was a huge fan of when I was young, and I got to be on Sub Pop at one point, too.
I think when indie became this buzzy, big business in the aughts — again, I was there, but I didn't reap any benefits from that [at the time]. I didn't make it big until after that was over. I don't even know if I've made it big yet, either.
But basically, what I'm trying to say is that I've lived in a lot of eras and weathered a lot of storms, and you never have any perspective on it when you're inside of it at the moment.
During lean times for this kind of music, how did you maintain your fire and inspiration?
I think I've always had small victories and been OK with that. I think there's a certain kind of fortitude that certain people have or don't have. I'm OK with being told no, and I'm OK with embracing one inch forward or something like that. So, I think that kept me going.
But also, I remember running into some friend who was like, "I remember you saying 'I'm quitting.'" So, I don't even know. Sometimes I forget that I probably was much more negative-seeming back then, but I managed to not quit and just keep going, for whatever reason.
Bonny Light Horseman was a watershed for your artistry? How would you characterize that triangulation?
It's the first band I've ever had, really, since my first pretty short-lived indie rock band in the '90s. This is the first time I've been in a democratic band where it wasn't just my own nom de plume.
I guess the easy paraphrase is we have complementary skillsets, but we also have a deeply equal level of respect for each other, too. There's sort of a deference there. There's a balance there that's not a balancing act. When we got together, it worked.
I was just listening to A River Running to Your Heart through a Todd Rundgren lens, thinking about how he built those arrangements like towers. Tell me how you built these songs from the grooves up.
I'm glad you asked about the grooves, because there's actually a couple of songs where we did something really unique: "Rushin' River Valley" and "Waking Up in Los Angeles."
Actually, "See the World by Night," too, where I had written these things on a drum machine. Josh Adams, who's been my longtime drummer, came in and we were sort of messing around.
He's like, "Why don't I just perform the drum machine? Why don't we make a drum machine out of me, so it's kind of these short loops based on a drum machine, but where we took it and created our own organic [sound]?"
Plenty of people do that — looping and Pro Tools, or something. But we actually built it almost like it was a sequencer. Rather than just looping him playing, we actually modularly built these grooves, and some of them kind of skip the one and stuff.
So the beat turns around a little bit, and that was just sort of a happy accident. I'm not a singer/songwriter that sits with an acoustic guitar or something, writes an acoustic song, and then we go work it out.
Nothing against that either; we actually do that with Bonny Light Horseman. But with Fruit Bats, I'm hyper-cognizant about tempo and how it relates to a lyric, or possible lyric, or melody, or something like that. Because I'm a singer first and foremost. That's the thing that's always going to be at the center of it for me.
So, everything is usually built off a drum machine and groove of some kind. Writing and demoing are kind of one and the same. So, it's kind of one big process, but it always starts with that tempo thing. That makes me happy.
When learning a digital audio workstation for the first time, one struggle I had was to get out of the grid. The click track is necessary, but it can also box you in and make the music inorganic. How do you avoid that sense of boxiness?
I find that I slowly drift out of the grid and forget it's there. Unless you're going to make some kind of major structural change to the session or something — which I do sometimes — but that's usually fine too. But you start with the grid and then you forget about it.
Josh Adams is one of the greatest play-to-the-click or play-around-the-click drummers, too, where he can stay on the grid and yet also play off it too. You could kind of start with the grid and then continue to add human elements.
Unless you need to make some kind of major structural chop, the grid becomes totally irrelevant after a few more tracks that you've added.
What are your favorite subliminal — or even accidental — aspects of A River Running to Your Heart?
There's a nice moment in "The Deep Well" where there's an iPhone recording of me and my friend Andy Cabic from Vetiver walking in New Orleans, and there was some kind of boat with a pump organ on it, or something. I was just getting a little field recording, and I said, "Do you want to walk towards it?"
There's something about the capture of that line, which is completely off-the-cuff and natural. That's an interesting line — what does that mean, exactly? Do you want to go explore something? I don't know exactly what yet.
Eric D. Johnson. Photo: Chantal Anderson
In 2023, where does the onus for music-making lie? Is it making ear-catching records? Tightening up as a touring act? Just writing great songs?
In a way, it's like we're back to the '60s where you're going to top-load a record with the jams. I don't really know. I am personally always trying to make super-connective music, and I think that [had to do with] kind of getting out of lo-fi when I did go into a bigger studio.
I did realize I'm still a child of '80s radio, and I was actually interested in blasting out of your speakers. But I was coming from this lo-fi background, too, so you could kind of hear that on the first few Fruit Bats records. It's like this lo-fi attempt at making hi-fi music.
Then, later, I got better at hi-fi music in general. I think the [debut] Bonny Light Horseman record was super-connective, and obviously has great fidelity and everything, too. It's not a lo-fi record, but "Deep in Love," that was a single take at 1:00 in the morning. That's still one of my biggest songs I've ever been involved with.
So, I think there was an emotional chord of that song that somehow was connected. There's a little bit of fairy dust involved, too, or there's really good engineering. I've been revisiting INXS…
Underrated, and then you're like, "This sounds expensive," when you hear that, but you're also like, "It was worth every penny." Then, there's some cool lo-fi song that was just totally off the cuff, but has an emotional core.
I think there still isn't a rhyme or reason for it. If you hear music that's very cynically engineered to be as hard-hitting as possible, you can kind of hear that. It sounds corny, but it it's coming from the heart, then it means something to someone.
Photo: Shervin Lainez
The Hold Steady's Craig Finn On New Album 'The Price Of Progress,' The Band At 20 & His Constant Search For New Stories
For singer Craig Finn, modern life is endlessly fascinating. And his characters in the Hold Steady's new album, 'The Price of Progress,' grapple with it in all its disorienting dimensions.
For most of their two-decade career, the Hold Steady have traveled in a bus, not a van. But just a few weeks ago, with their hardest-touring days behind them, the cult rock band found themselves back in a six-seater, like the old days — in England, for a string of Rough Trade in-stores.
While packed like sardines, their brainy yet utterly unpretentious leader, Craig Finn, had something of an epiphany. "I was looking around, and there were three of us this way, and then three of them facing this way, and I'm like: Here it is. We're still in the van; we're still enjoying each other," he tells GRAMMY.com.
"As we turn 20 — which is this year," he continues, "I think one of the most beautiful things is that the friendships are still intact."
Indeed, the Hold Steady have crossed an impressive rubicon. They've made it to two decades together, happy, fruitful and energized — and with an upcoming oral-history book, The Gospel of the Hold Steady: How a Resurrection Really Feels, out Jul. 25, to mark this milestone.
Catch any night of any residency, and it's still guaranteed to be a rowdy lovefest, a feedback loop between the galvanized band and their beery disciples. Riveting storytelling, bar-band bonhomie, Midwestern boys who landed like space invaders in Meet Me in the Bathroom-era Brooklyn: that's the Hold Steady for you.
And after nine albums as a unit, including five acclaimed solo records, Finn is not even close to running out of stories to tell. The band's inspired latest LP, The Price of Progress, out Mar. 31, finds Finn's characters flailing through life in contemporary Western society, in all of its boundless access, convenience-on-steroids and spiritual unmooredness.
In "Grand Junction," a couple driving through the expanse of Colorado battles over the woman's Amazon wishlist, frequented by creepy strangers. In "Sixers," another woman watches NBA replays alone while flying on stimulants. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.
"I think a lot of it is how the advances in technology have made us so efficient — as a society and in business and all that — that it's kind of left us reeling in a million different ways," Finn describes. Rarely does that inertia feel so crackling and alive.
Read on for an interview with Finn about The Price of Progress, how he avoids repeating himself or losing inspiration, and the rare feat of keeping a rock band together for 20 years — with more of a rabid, grassroots following than ever.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
What fascinates you about the experience of living through this particular time in human history, in Western society?
The Hold Steady's been pretty prolific — nine records in 20 years. And then I've got the solo records — five of those. I'm constantly writing songs; there are songs coming out all the time. It's not like, "Oh, I pulled this one back from 2009." These are always fairly fresh. So, they're always being written under the influence of whatever's happening in the world.
But I've been doing this podcast ["That's How I Remember It"] and I had George Saunders on, the writer. I thought in his newest book [2022's Liberation Day], the sort of late-stage capitalism backdrop had moved up a few steps.
That's very much what I feel about this record. I think a lot of it is how the advances in technology have made us so efficient — as a society and in business and all that — that it's kind of left us reeling in a million different ways. That sort of adjustment is what we're going through now — the sensation of reeling.
And that's where these characters find themselves. They're a little older than the ones I started my career writing about, and they're being affected in different ways.
Before we continue to unpack The Price of Progress, how would you draw a conceptual thread between this album and its predecessors?
[2019's] Thrashing Thru the Passion, which was the first album we did with Josh Kaufman producing, was kind of a collection of songs we recorded a little bit piecemeal. But [2021's] Open Door Policy was the first album we made with Josh where it was like: This is going to be an album.
The Price of Progress is the continuation of that. There's a comfort in working with Josh; we went to the same studio, same producer, same engineer. It was like, We know this works, and there are going to be no surprises. Like Open Door Policy, a lot of the songs talk about people — their work, how they survive, how they get by.
Those are two threads that definitely connect the last two records. I think they speak to each other in that way.
And as far as making it: a) because we're older, b) because we don't live in the same exact place anymore — a couple of us live in Brooklyn; one lives in Manhattan; two are upstate, and one's in Memphis — there's a lot more trading files leading into it, where people are sending stuff around, sending ideas, and I'm writing lyrics to different ideas people are sending me.
And then, we go through a period where we all get in the same room, physically, and play these songs — try to build them into songs. Then, there's a third part where Josh, the producer, comes in and says, "What if we tried this? What if we tried this?" We kind of put him through those stages and ended up with the record we have.
How do you keep your storytelling sharp so you don't end up repeating yourself or losing impact?
But he talked about taking things in. If I'm feeling stuck or feeling like I'm doing the same thing again, I like to just stop and read something. Or watch a film, or something. Make sure I'm taking other stories in and thinking about how other stories are told. Thinking about how I relate to my own stories. That really helps me.
What have you been reading, listening to or watching lately that's been inspiring you?
I've been reading the new Bret Easton Ellis book <a href="https://www.npr.org/2023/01/19/1149929589/bret-easton-ellis-first-novel-in-more-than-a-decade-the-shards-is-worth-the-wait">2023's [The Shards], which I love. It's really hard to tell what is him, because it's set in his high school and he's the lead character, but it's a novel. So, as far as storytelling, it's kind of confusing in a good way. I've really been enjoying that; I'm about halfway through.
When I'm playing shows, sometimes I can't read anything of much depth except for rock bios. So, we were in Rough Trade in England the other day, and I picked up a biography of Fat White Family, who are totally insane, and that was very entertaining. I read that in, like, a sitting.
The last thing I watched that I really liked was "Industry," the British finance drama — which seems pretty lurid, and probably a little more sex-and-drugs than working in finance in London, but who's to say? I don't know.
I forgot they worked with him! That book is harrowing. All I could think about, as a 51-year-old man, is how hungover I would be. It's like: How are you walking around? How bad do you feel? But I guess youth is different.
Can you talk about your specific inspirations for the characters in The Price of Progress? Are they wholesale inventions? Amalgamations of real people? Reflections of your past or present?
All of the above.
For instance, the first song on the record, "Grand Junction," talks about a couple that's driving out west. I've done that this year; I bought a car in Arizona and drove back. So, there's some me in that, but in the story, it's a couple; I was just with a platonic dude friend.
But the couple was fighting, because the woman, she's got an Amazon wishlist, and strange dudes she talks to online are sending her presents, and the dude — her partner — is not that into it, so they're fighting about that.
So, you know, I did drive through Grand Junction, Colorado, and I thought that'd be a good place for a song, but then I made up the rest. I was thinking about people who ask for presents on Amazon, and how that's sort of a modern thing that didn't exist 10, 15, 20 years ago.
It seems like you guys are growing more and more ambitious as per how the music can reflect these stories in a way that transcends simple rock songs; the arrangements and production are growing more ornate. How do you conceptualize and execute these musical backdrops?
I think part of that is thinking about it ahead of time and reflecting it in the demos we're passing around. Some of that is also Josh Kaufman.
We've kind of had three periods of the Hold Steady. 1.0 would be, like, up to [2008's] Stay Positive, and then [keyboardist] Franz [Nicolay] leaves, and then [guitarist] Steve [Selvidge] comes in. That's kind of 2.0, and we made two records that way, and then Franz came back in 2016 and we made three.
In this 3.0, I think a big part of the story is how Franz and Steve have learned to play together — against each other, with each other — because they are the two people who, up until fairly recently, haven't been in the band together. So, in some sense, that's allowed us to expand a lot.
Also, now that there's six of us, I think Josh Kaufman does a good job of directing traffic. Just because there are more people there doesn't necessarily mean it's going to sound bigger. It could sound smaller if everyone's playing at once.
So, creating space with everyone and making sure everyone's got their space — I think Josh does a great job of that, and I think that's led to a more expansive sound on these records.
On that tip, I tend to be more interested in asking about moments on records than songs. Would you like to shout out any MVP moments from your bandmates on this album?
I think the rhythm section had a particularly great showing on this record. When I listened to it most recently, that was what stuck out to me. There's a drum fill on the first song, "Grand Junction," that blows my mind.
But what's especially interesting is: on the fourth song, called "Understudies," it's really somewhere we haven't gone. There's strings; it's almost got, like, a disco thing. It might be like our "Miss You," like when all rock bands made disco songs.
In the third verse, there's a bass thing that's panning back and forth. It's a real funky [Mimics a syncopated bass line] and it's going back and forth in a Nile Rodgers sort of situation.
I was out of the room in the studio, on the phone or something, and I came back, and Josh and [bassist] Galen [Polivka] were working on that, and I was like [Mimics mind-blown gesture] Wow! That is awesome, and that has absolutely never been done on a Hold Steady record before.
I've always thought of the Hold Steady as existing in a similar realm as other bands I adore, like Drive-By Truckers and Guided by Voices. These acts aren't necessarily chasing hits or trends; they're just consistently productive and excellent — almost meekly so. Can you talk about how your various personalities merged to create a well-oiled machine — one that's built a following on a local, grassroots level?
It's funny, because when [guitarist] Tad [Kubler], Galen and I started the band, we weirdly talked about wanting to have a band that people felt part of. I really experienced that from hardcore, mainly; I didn't want to be in a hardcore band, but I was like, What if we had a rock 'n' roll band people felt that away [about]?
From what I've read of the Clash — and Mott the Hoople also — their followers really felt part of it. They sort of had this army marching with them. I'm not exactly sure how we did it, but there is a community, now, around this band that feels supercharged. Just getting back from London, where we do these weekends every year, there are people from all around the world, and they all see each other that weekend, and they all plan on it.
When we were right about to start, I saw the Drive-By Truckers at Bowery Ballroom. I wasn't sure I wanted to be in a band; I'd been in a band in my 20s in Minneapolis. But when I saw that show, I was like, This is my model, sort of. They're never going to be of the exact moment, because they're timeless, you know? But they shouldn't go wildly out of style, either, because there's always a place for it.
I guess that's what we tried to do. I definitely think of them as peers — friends and peers, because before too long, we were touring with them, and we got along like wildfire.
Any great rock 'n' roll band should become better than the sum of its parts, and there's something about getting on stage; everyone plays their role. There has to be an understanding that six people are going to have to move around.
To turn the clock back once again: when the band's stature and fanbase were precipitously growing, and you were on late-night TV and all that stuff, how did you nurture and engender that cult following?
I think one thing that makes it easier — or less difficult — is that this band started when I was 31. I think I had some perspective as to what it's like to be in a band that's not working.
So, I think we still have a lot of gratitude. We're grateful for the things we get to do. I say it jokingly, but also very truly: it's the best job that I've ever had. I think we all take it very seriously and know that we have to respect it and remain in gratitude.
I remember interviewing Jay Farrar of Son Volt about that band's early days; he told me stories about doing "crazy things" like hooking a U-Haul to a Honda Civic and bankrolling studio time on his girlfriend's credit card. In the early days of the Hold Steady, what did you guys do that would make you cringe today?
We had this box truck that we bought. It was a windowless box truck, and it was converted by these guys. Someone connected it to the Bouncing Souls, but it wasn't them. At the time, we thought it was f—ing amazing. You went in, and there was a cab up front, and there was one seat behind, but then you entered a door into this windowless box.
There was a couch that was not bolted down. There was a TV; you could play video games. There was a loft; the merch lived up there. If you were really tired, you could go up there and sleep among the merch, but every time the brakes hit hard, the merch box would fly off and become like a missile. We thought it was amazing, and now, I'm just so thankful that we didn't die in that.
One time, we did a western Canadian leg of a tour, and we drove over the Canadian Rockies in Banff. It was raining, and there were tiny roads; I remember that it was white-knuckled, and, like, please let us get to the end of that. I remember coming around one corner, and there were mountain goats all up the side of this very sheer-looking face. It was beautiful, but it was terrifying.
I don't know how Drive-By Truckers made it through those hard-drinking, hard-touring days intact.
You know, I asked them about that. I asked who drove, and I guess [co-leader Mike] Cooley drove. He was the late-night driver. I was fascinated by that, because by the time we met them, they were on a bus. Actually, so were we.
Twenty years in, I've really come to like the van better than I like a tour bus due to sunlight — seeing sunlight more often. A tour bus can make me and a lot of other people pretty depressed. I don't think that's talked about enough. We talk about mental health in rock, but we put people in these submarines, basically, and they go from town to town.
My biggest example is — because I just did a solo tour in a van — when you drive from Portland to Seattle, it's so beautiful. But if you're in a tour bus, you're in, like: downtown Portland, ehh, and then you go in the bus and you go to downtown Seattle, ehh, and you see none of it. It's disorienting, in some way.
Craig Finn performing with the Hold Steady in 2006. Photo: Ken Hively/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Speaking of that solo tour, you've built an acclaimed body of work on your own, in parallel to this cult rock 'n' roll band where energy keeps flowing between yourselves and your audience. How do you conceptualize your solo work versus the Hold Steady? Do some stories seem more appropriate to tell on your own?
In some ways, it's pretty easy, because in the Hold Steady, I pretty much just write the lyrics. People are giving me the music, and I'm writing the lyrics to it.
For the solo stuff, I'm either here with my piano or an acoustic guitar figuring out very basic chords. Josh Kaufman, who also produces the solo stuff, does a little more co-writing on [that]. But when I do that, the stories in those songs tend to be smaller.
I have this joke that in the Hold Steady, someone's always falling off the roof or getting shot. In the solo stuff, they might just be sitting in a supermarket parking lot, wondering what happened with their life.
So, it's maybe a little less dramatic, but maybe a little more vulnerable, and probably a little closer to my own life.