Now, the Hold Steady has traded its old frenetic schedule for these kinds of semiregular residencies — festival-like happenings held in a handful of cities a year that draw fans from several states (or countries) away and build community as well as boost merchandise sales. They’re not just lucrative, but they’re also a heck a lot easier on a cadre of road-weary musicians now well past the age of 40. Plus, “it’s better for the environment,” said guitarist Steve Selvidge. “We’re not using so much diesel fuel.”
It’s just one of several new tactics the recently reinvigorated band is experimenting with at a time when even much younger artists are struggling to keep up with an industry rapidly transformed by streaming, social media and other forces. In doing so, the Hold Steady has also made a startling break with the conventions of crafting albums as a way to get new music to the public. In other words, after 16 years, this old band learned some new tricks.
So, the days before the mid-August release of their new “Thrashing Thru the Passion” found the band in an unlikely place — back in the studio, recording new music that may never end up on an album, rather than revving up the promotional machine.
At the Clubhouse, a home-turned-studio atop a hill in Upstate New York’s Hudson Valley, band members were smoking cigarettes, debating the best po’ boy in New Orleans and chatting about Led Zeppelin. Finn pulled up Spotify to play the terrifically bizarre “Toolmaster of Brainerd” by the obscure ’80s Minneapolis band Trip Shakespeare. Guitarist Tad Kubler worked on a broken volume pedal. Bassist Galen Polivka prepared beer brats for dinner. Bobby Drake laid down some drum fills with direction from producer Josh Kaufman and engineer D. James Goodwin on a new, untitled song the band had formed from scattered parts that very day.
“Soup to nuts, five hours,” keyboardist and pianist Franz Nicolay said of the process.
The band occasionally stopped futzing around to fine-tune the song. It is archetypal Hold Steady. Big classic-rock riff? Check. Propulsive, E Street-style piano? Check. Sad/funny lyrics (about moving to California just to find it’s all “disinterested kissing”)? Check.
In the past, a song like this might have become the centerpiece of a novelistic Hold Steady album, telling the story of a lost hoodrat girl, burned out on Catholicism but burned by the scene, filled with throwback singalongs that sound like the inebriated offspring of Bruce Springsteen and the Replacements.
This song, though? “We’ll determine that at a later date,” Selvidge said. “Right now, we’re just recording.”
In late 2017, the band began releasing surprise singles on Bandcamp and other streaming services with “suggested donation” pricetags that went to charity — a way to release new music without “the promotional obligations that come with releasing a full LP,” the band explained in a recent email to fans.
The rise of streaming services and social media has shaken so many aspects of the music industry, from the meaning of an album to the mechanics of the charts to the way songs are disseminated to the public. The Hold Steady, however, may have figured out how to navigate those turbulent waters.
“How much they’re going to make from streaming is pretty limited,” said Jeff Dorenfeld, former manager of the rock band Boston and a business professor at the Berklee College of Music, but it’s “one more tool” to help a band pinpoint clusters of fans and sell tickets for a show. “If you go back to the ’70s, it was the other way around. You toured and your tickets were 10 bucks, but the records were selling and [bands] made money from them.”
When the Hold Steady burst out of the Brooklyn scene in 2003, the band had no intentions of changing an industry, just of sharing joyful rock music with beer-drinking fans — something Finn made explicit on “Positive Jam,” the first song of their first album in 2004: I got bored when I didn’t have a band, and so I started a band, man / We’re gonna start it with a positive jam / Hold steady.
Most members of the band were already entering their 30s when they formed, after Finn and Kubler moved to New York City from Minneapolis following the disbandment of their former art-rock group Lifter Puller. It was the age of the New York City rock revival, featuring the Strokes, Interpol and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Much ado was made about how out-of-place-and-time every aspect of the Hold Steady seemed, from Finn’s non-skinny jeans and talk-sing delivery to Kubler’s Thin Lizzy-esque riffs. The band averaged nearly one album release a year from 2004 to 2008 while touring extensively and exhaustingly. It was a rock-and-roll dream, including an opening-act stint for the Rolling Stones in 2007. (For all that, their music probably made its biggest mainstream splash with “The Bear and the Maiden Fair,” a beer-hall anthem recorded for “Game of Thrones.”)
It took a toll. After releasing a Nicolay-less album, “Teeth Dreams,” in 2014, the band went mostly silent. Years passed with only occasional shows and no new music, save for three solo records from Finn.
It was during that silence that the band began thinking of new ways to do things — prompted in part by the Toronto and Chicago residencies. In the Windy City, they decided to learn some songs by local bands (Styx, Wilco, Cheap Trick), which got Finn thinking, “This would be time much better spent for us to have some new songs.” He and Kubler began collaborating again, but with no particular schedule. “It was very much like how the band started: There were no expectations, there wasn’t a lot of pressure,” Kubler said. “It was just about making something.”
The band members set up a Dropbox to share ideas from their far-flung homes (New York, Memphis, Berkeley), and eventually started getting together every few months in the studio, coming up with four or five songs at a time.
“Initially, it was like, ‘Well, maybe we release these digitally so people can hear them,’ ” Kubler said. “We’re a band and we write songs and that’s what we do.”
The business of being in a band, however, had changed since 2003. “It felt like some of the norms — be it through touring or releasing music — were worth examining,” Finn said. “So it’s worth saying, ‘Is this working? Is this tradition worth upholding?’ ”
Take the concept of an album, for example. The band’s sophomore effort “Separation Sunday” — 11 songs loosely tracing the travails of a young girl named Hallelujah (“but the kids, they called her Holly”) through the dark underworld of Minneapolis, replete with nitrous oxide-aided baptisms in the Mississippi River, a drug dealer in sweatpants named Charlemagne and a crew that hangs out in the ER drinking gin from jam jars — is often cited as the band’s masterpiece.
The new record also tells the tale of down-on-their-luck characters, such as a dude shaving his head at the airport (“Denver Haircut”), the girl “on the pay phone with an angle on some Western states,” and the titular “Blackout Sam.” It feels more like a collection of short stories than a novel; that’s because the songs were recorded individually, over the past two years — as opposed to during one concentrated studio stint — and some have already been released on streaming for several months.
“It’s funny, people’s attachments to the idea of an album,” Nicolay said. “The average working band, let’s say, who puts out an record every two to three years, writes 10 to 15 songs in those two to three years and releases them all at once. We have those same 10 to 15 songs, and we just sort of release them as we have them, but it’s not like the workflow is any slower.” What’s the point, he added, of “keeping them secret for three years so [fans] can have the moment of hearing them all at once.”
Kubler said he prefers the new method to toiling over a passel of songs for an intense six weeks in the studio. Being creative is “a lot like running a marathon. You wouldn’t just put on a pair of sneakers and roll up to the starting line. You’d never make it. When you keep yourself in shape creatively, things tend to gather momentum.”
Plus, as he pointed out, a steady stream of music can do a better job of keeping listeners engaged these days than an album, which can seemingly disappear overnight into the swell of the Internet.
The Hold Steady isn’t the first band to try the residency model of touring — the Allman Brothers were legendary for playing multiple nights at New York City’s Beacon Theatre. Dorenfeld thinks more bands might start replicating the Hold Steady’s new model.
“The community part of it is the really exciting thing. . . . You get people all in one city, and they start talking, having pre- and after-parties. People meeting in Philly and the next time you see them, they’re sharing an Airbnb in San Francisco,” Finn said.
“We figured out the things we liked and things we didn’t like about the business of being a band, and then we sort of just had fun,” he added. “My hope is more of this. Just making music and playing shows for the fans. We don’t have a grand plan beyond that.”