The Hold Steady Deny That They’re The Best Rock Band In America

'I'm pretty much amazed on a daily basis,' frontman Craig Finn says of group's critical, commercial success.

Here’s the backstory on the Hold Steady: They are five decidedly average dudes, they play straightforward, fist-pumping rock and roll, they tour like maniacs and they may very well be the best band in America.

That seems to be the general consensus about the hard-charging, harder-partying, Brooklyn-via-Minneapolis quintet these days, especially in the wake of their latest release, the thoroughly throttling Stay Positive, which yours truly dubbed “the best album of 2008 (so far)” a few months back.

Yes, the accolades are certainly coming fast and furious for the Steady, and while the praise is flattering, the guys in the band will be the first ones to admit that things may have gotten a bit out of hand. Especially all that “best band” talk.

“I feel like it’s better not for us to dwell on that type of thing — it could only go wrong,” frontman Craig Finn laughed. “We’ve all been playing in bands for a very long time, with little or no success, depending on how you define that. But the fact is that we went into this with only one ambition: to have a good time. And for us, being able to still do that is really all that’s important.”

“We do like the thought of trying to be the best band in America,” pianist Franz Nicolay added. “I mean, who really knows who the best band is? I don’t, that’s for sure. So for us, striving to be really good at what we do and trying to have a good time, that’s the fun part. Everything else is just a little beyond us.”

While they continue to commit themselves to good times and great shows, everywhere they look, there are signs of change. Though their legendary live sets are still as beery and cheery as ever (“On a good night, we move more alcohol than most bands do in a week,” Finn laughed), there are a few noticeable differences in the crowds they attract. First and foremost, there are actually girls in the audience this time around.

“When we first started out, our audiences were maybe a little reflection of us, you know? People in their later 20s, early 30s and predominately dudes, guys who buy records and watch sports and a smattering of angry girlfriends,” Finn said. “I think as the band’s audience has grown, we’ve actually expanded younger. And there are a lot more girls coming to the shows and a lot of girls making their presence more upfront, and that’s just amazing.”

Any great rock-and-roll revolution needs an army, which brings us to the second difference between the Hold Steady of 2008 and the glorified bar band of a few years back: They now command a host of loyal subjects, foot soldiers who don T-shirts and follow them from city to city, sort of like the
Grateful Dead’s fans, only with less tie-dye.

“One of the coolest things I see now is fathers and sons coming to the show together,” Finn said. “We’re kind of a classic-rock band, and people who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s even can probably relate to us as much as a 21-year-old kid now. There’s also a really interesting sense of community with the fans — there’s a particular group called the Unified Scene who wear matching T-shirts and form these bonds through the shows. And I never thought we’d see that.”

So that’s where the Hold Steady find themselves today: still partying hard, still touring even harder, but in front of audiences that now include dads and daughters. It’s the kind of landscape shift they can deal with. After all, change is a constant when you’re the best band in America. Or something like that.

“It’s really exciting to think about where this band has been and where we’re going,” Finn said. “When we started, we wanted to play a show and drink some beer, and then last summer we opened for the
Rolling Stones and played Glastonbury, and we opened for the Stooges in Croatia. This band has really taken us around the world, and it’s allowed all of us to see so much. I’m pretty much amazed on a daily basis.”

“Like on this tour, all of a sudden, we have a barrier in front of the stage — that was weird at first, but we’ve grown to embrace it,” guitarist Tad Kubler added. “But then you realize that it stops the people, but it doesn’t stop the beer from raining down on the stage, so it’s sort of like old times.”