When the Brooklyn-based rockers Bobby Drake, Craig Finn, Tad Kubler, Franz Nicolay and Galen Polivka of The Hold Steady released their fourth album Stay Positive (on Vagrant), critics lauded it. Of course they did. Since the band's first release in 2004, music critics have been buzzing about this rock quintet. With this new release, the buzz may become a roar.
In addition to a recent rousing performance of the new single, "Sequestered in Memphis," on The Late Show, the New York Times responded to the band with "Unstoppable," Rolling Stone said Stay Positive "shows their loser-outlaw storytelling and class riff propulsion in full flower" and bequeathed it four stars; and The Washington Post wrote, "You won't find many albums in the current realm of rock-and-roll more exciting than The Hold Steady's Stay Positive."
At home in New York for a couple of shows on their co-headlining tour with the Drive By Truckers, guitarist Kubler chatted with BW about critics and fans, the double-edged sword of technology, and what the new album says about The Hold Steady.
Kubler, 34, said the praise that both the band and the album have received is definitely better than the alternative, but neither he nor his bandmates rely on what they read to shape what they do.
"It is what it is," he said. "I'm glad people are excited about the band and excited about what we're doing. Obviously, the Internet is an enormous part of the music industry in everything from message boards and blogs to iTunes and illegal downloads in every respect, both positive and negative. Technology is one of those things; with all of these new inventions comes great responsibility. Who am I to say who should be able to critique music and who shouldn't ... but it doesn't affect the kind of decisions we make."
Throughout its relatively short lifespan, The Hold Steady's music has been described as rock or classic rock, but often attracts a punk label as well. While Stay Positive doesn't exude any traditional punk sound, Kubler was firm that with references to both Youth of Today and 7 Seconds on the album (Iggy Pop is referenced as well), it's a very punk record, just more in terms of concept.
"We all grew up with punk rock. I think it's less so in musical influences than maybe how we conduct ourselves," Kubler said. "This is the longest I've gone in an interview without it coming up, but I don't think we sound that much like the E Street Band [best known for playing with Bruce Springsteen]."
Backing up a bit, Kubler agreed that the music has an E Street ring to it, but said he thinks the similarities come more from The Hold Steady's attitude toward performing.
"People root for us because we're like the working-class underdogs. We don't really look like a rock band."
It's that guys-like-you-and-me quality coupled with an abundant sound and a raconteur's tales that bring praise to the pages, and fans to the shows. But, as far as Kubler is concerned, it's fan response—more than critical acclaim—that's indicative of the band's success.
"It is really the only tangible thing you have to go on," Kubler said, in talking about accomplishment. "The press has been great and we've always been really fortunate, critically," Kubler said. "But the results are hard to see until you get on the road and on tour. You start to see more people coming out to the shows, you start to see your audience broaden in terms of demographics—age and gender and stuff like that. It's nice being on tour in that sense. You realize you're still making progress."
That progress couldn't be clearer than on Stay Positive. From the opening distorted chunky guitar riff in "Constructive Summer," to the harpsichord harmonics in "One for the Cutters" to the Gary Numan-synthesizer sound on "Navy Sheets," and all of the exquisite parts in between, it's a well-crafted work that shows The Hold Steady continues to build momentum.
"You never want to make the same record over and over again," Kubler said. "As a songwriter, I'm always trying to figure out how to do things a little differently. In terms of the music, one of Craig's goals on this record was to use his voice more as an instrument than just the narrative over the music. Lyrically, Craig is trying to expand, too. We've found out what everyone's strengths are, and concentrate on weaker points on our playing as musicians, to see what we can do to improve or try something different."
It's likely that the stronger The Hold Steady stays, the more critics and bloggers will write about them—not that Kubler will be the first to know. He doesn't spend much time on the Internet though, he said, his mom does.
"Anybody that has a blog can write, 'After the show, The Hold Steady went back at the hotel and so-and-so was at the bar for an hour and then went to bed.' My mother just figured out how to use Google alerts. Which is terrifying. She knows my every move."
Wednesday, Nov. 19, with Drive-By Truckers, 8 p.m., $25. Knitting Factory, 416 S. Ninth St.,208-367-1212, bo.knittingfactory.com.