Vulture

Skip to content, or skip to search.

chat room

Craig Finn of the Hold Steady and Lifter Puller on the Stories Behind His Old Songs

Way back in the late nineties Craig Finn and Tad Kubler of the Hold Steady played in a Minneapolis band that was every bit as loved, if not as commercially successful, as their current outfit: The name was Lifter Puller, and in certain circles, it is legend. This month the band gets the retrospective treatment, with a digital reissue of its entire catalogue and the photo-anthology/oral-history Lifter Puller Vs. the End Of. We got Finn on the phone for a look back of our own, throwing references and songs from the Lifter Puller catalogue at him and asking for the stories behind them. We also talked about that time Lifter Puller played The Jenny Jones Show.

“There’s always chicks throwing up in my car” from “The Gin and Sour Defeat”
I came up with that line because Steve [Barone], our guitar player, met some girl at a bar, and she was going to drive him to our place. She threw up before she drove him to our place. I said, “Steve, if anyone ever vomits before they take the wheel ... ” They made it safe and sound. But it was really in her car.

“New Bedford, Mass, won’t you hit me with a little amnesty” from “Math is Money”
A friend of mine went out there after school, and he wanted to be a crime reporter. He landed a job in New Bedford, which is good, because for a small town it has lots of crime. I think there’s some smuggling kind of things that come into New Bedford, kind of a tough fishing port. It seemed like a shady kind of place where you could get into trouble.

“Nassau Coliseum”
All those places [mentioned at the end of the song] were places I had friends that were living after college. So I say Costa Rica, I had a friend down there, and Alaska. It was kind of like a roll call to all the people that were probably the only people who were gonna hear that song when it first came out.

“Sherman City”
That’s not a real place — there’s a term, “sherm”? I think it’s, you might have to look it up, I think it’s a laced joint. If someone slipped you a sherm, it would be a bad scene. So it’s ripping on that slang, which came up at a party. I remember hearing about sherms when I was young, but I hadn’t heard about it in a long time when it came up again. I thought it was a funny term, and I thought of Sherman City, a place where every joint was a sherm.

“Lake Street Is for Lovers”
Lake Street runs all through Minneapolis, from the really nice parts to the lousy parts. That was just sort of a joke — Patrick Costello from Dillinger Four was in the studio when we did that one, and he said, “You should call this ‘Lake Street Is for Lovers.’

“Mono”
When I was at Boston College I got mono, and I went to the infirmary, and while I was there I caught the chicken pox. I’d never had it before. So I spent like 25–30 days my junior year of college in the infirmary, and they quarantined me. They let me go for mono for two days and then all of a sudden I started getting covered with spots. I gave so many people it, though. There were all these people that caught it from me.

Do you know how you got mono?
I was in San Diego on spring break and I came home and I got really sick. So probably just from partying.

“Lie Down in Lansdowne”
Lansdowne [Street, in Boston] was just where we’d go out when we were at school. It always seemed so ugly when the bars all got out. There’s always fights, and a girl with one shoe, and girls crying ... just chaos. I always thought, lie down on Landsdowne; it’d be lying down in defeat.

“Kool NYC”
We went out touring and we played out here at Brownie’s in New York City, and the deli across the street at that time, probably delis across New York, was selling Kool cigarettes that were specially branded for New York. So it was Kool NYC. I just sort of liked the imagery, Kool NYC.

“Roaming the Foam”
I lived with Steve, and we saw a television program on foam dancing. I’d never heard of it before. It’s when they spray the club, like, with soap suds, but it goes up really high, maybe to your shoulders. And you can’t really see what people are doing underneath the foam? It’s pretty weird: It’s very dirty, but then all the suds sort of make you think you’re taking a bath. I was fascinated by that. I think you can still go foam dancing. I’ve never seen it in person.

“Katrina and the K-Hole”
Right around Fiestas and Fiascos I got really into — kind of like with the foam dancing but I followed into it more — I got really into raves. You know, people who go to raves. So I went to a couple of raves. And I was totally into them, you know? Being pretty firmly in the rock camp at that time, most people looked down on ravers. I went to it, and I was blown away. The one thing that I was blown away by was the sound systems are so insane: They would shake your whole body. And that’s one of those songs from that period that deals with the rave thing.

Did you start dressing the part?
No [laughs]. Well, you know what I started doing is, I started wearing a whistle around my neck. I’m serious. There’s a lot of Lifter Puller photos, when we played live I wore a whistle around my neck, 'cause I was really into raves. That was my nod to raves.

This isn’t something from a Lifter Puller song, but you were on The Jenny Jones Show during a “Good Strippers versus Bad Strippers” episode. How the hell did that happen?
That was crazy. This kid we knew, who went to my high school, he was younger than me, and he was like “yeah, I book the music.” He said he could get us on Jenny Jones, and I’m not sure if I believed him. It seemed like it was by the seat of his pants. But then he absolutely did. We wanted to play one song, and I can’t remember which one it was, and they asked for something else. They said [the original] song was too hard, so then we played “The Bears” which was totally just the same, and actually with more subversive lyrics. They were just like, “okay, it’s not gonna get much lighter. Just play it. You’re here.”

They had these strippers, you know, and they were screaming at each other. They had problems with each other. And it was all really small, way smaller in person, so we’re kind of right near the stage, and all these strippers are screaming at each other. By the end of it I had a huge headache and stomachache 'cause it was all so disturbing. It was pretty intense.

Photo: Wikipedia