Interview by Brendan Hilliard
Editorial Assistance by John Nagle
obviate spoke to The Hold Steady’s Tad Kubler last week just as the band was about to play their first-ever Alaskan tour and first full-scale tour of Canada. The band is currently winding down promotion and touring of 2008’s Stay Positive, and preparing to enter the studio to record their fifth album.
You guys are touring Canada for the first time extensively. What was the impetus to go there now and not schedule a full scale tour before?
Well, I guess, the way we kind of planned out our year was to sort of wrap up touring and then get home and take a little bit of time off to get ourselves together physically and emotionally and do a little bit of recording. We’ve really been technically working on material since last fall. We went to this house down south when I got out of the hospital and holed up there about ten days and did some writing and rehearsing and some recording. Then we obviously did a lot more touring throughout that year and earlier this year.
The UK thing came up pretty quickly. We’ve had a couple of offers to do Alaska over the last few years. I guess finally we were able to put something together that made sense for us to come up here. We haven’t spent any time in Canada other than the coastal cities Toronto – which is close to New York, Montreal, and we’ve fit Vancouver into a couple of west coast tours. We’ve never toured through Canada. Now that the Alaska thing came up, it allowed us to be this far north and west and then start in Vancouver and make our way back to New York.
To be honest – border crossing with Canada can be really difficult on bands. I don’t know why it’s been so hard, but it’s been kind of a chore for us. It’s hard to go up just for a show here and there, just because it takes so much time at the border.
Do they just want to go through the bus and search the trailer and stuff?
Yeah, and they tax you. I don’t want to say they intentionally fuck with bands, but it almost seems that way sometimes. So, we figured if we’re going to be up here, let’s spend a little bit of time once we actually get across the border. We’ve always treated touring as a supply and demand thing and it got to the point where we hadn’t spent any time here yet and there’s obviously a demand for it so we thought we’d do it.
Now, have you spent any time in Alaska before or across Canada for that matter – other than the coastal cities?
None of us have ever been here before.
Where are you? In Anchorage?
Yeah we’re in Anchorage. We’re in a crappy part of town. I don’t know where the theater is that we’re playing tomorrow – actually, we get another day off. We were going to go home initially after this UK run. But, it would have just been home for roughly 24 hours, and we thought “Well, fuck it, if we’re already out in and in that mode of traveling”, that we’d just bite the bullet and do the long flight here and just spend a couple days off resting and readjusting to the clock.
Do you know if the show’s sold out or anything or if there’s going to be a big turnout?
To be honest, I have no idea. I haven’t even checked. That would be something I used to check in with, keep in touch with our booking agent, and talk to Q (Craig McQuiston), our touring manager and stuff. But i just kind of try to take myself out of that aspect of the business and try to do a good show.
I guess that kind of makes me think of something when you said that. For a while there, you definitely had more of an internet presence, especially on the message boards. Now, was there any particular reason why you said ‘no more’?
Time was obviously an issue. That’s a hard question to answer. It’s just something I didn’t have time to do anymore. It didn’t seem like the best way for me to spend my time.
You know, with everything that’s been going on, “Well shit, if I spend two hours answering emails and trying to get back to people, that’s two hours I technically could be writing songs.” And also, you know I won’t lie, it was a bit of a privacy thing too. Sort of an availability thing. You get to the point where you can’t really please everybody all the time. I just felt it was time to step back from a little bit. It wasn’t like there was anything that happened, an incident or anything. With our schedule it just got to be too much.
Yeah, I guess you guys started to get a reputation for being particularly accessible in certain ways and I think that obviously made sense to step back from.
I’d hate to give the impression that we’re not that way, or that wasn’t the case. It really just became a matter of how I was managing my time. Also, to be honest, the message board in particular is a forum for people to kind of talk about the band and it’s a community that surrounds the band, and I didn’t want people to think like I was checking in or patrolling that in some sort of way, where people couldn’t really say what they wanted to.
So, more or less not being there promotes people being able to say whatever they wanted to talk about.
It started out as this core of twenty people you’d see at a lot of the shows and become friends with and you kind of got to know. It grew to something that people were finding the band for the first time and that was sort of a different perspective.
You don’t want to read about yourself all the time, that’s not healthy.
Are you actively now recording the new album?
We’ve been spending time in our practice space, which has kind of become a studio for us, recording ideas and stuff like that. We have spent a little bit of time, and the bulk of it will be when we get back – we’re looking at a couple of different studios where we can go in and start to record and do it at our own pace.
I guess it’s not like the earlier years when you guys just started out – you were putting out a record every year. You’re definitely not writing at that kind of pace anymore.
Well, we still work pretty quickly. At this point, the time we spend on the road won’t allow us to do a record every year. I think we’d still like to, obviously for us to do what we do, which is touring, we need to be able to tour behind a record, so we like to get them out as quickly as we can. I don’t know if is so much “Let’s put out a record so we can go on tour,” but “Let’s record because we write songs, it’s our livelihood, it’s what we do.” So, if we’re not going to be on tour, let’s get back in the studio.
When would you like to have it out?
I mean, obviously, I’d like to have a record out early next year, but there’s a lot of other variables that are involved in putting out records. There will be a lot of things that will depend on when we can release it and when it’s finished. We’ve always sort of put a deadline of when we’d want to have a record out or a record finished. This one I’d like to be at a little more relaxed pace rather than block off two months in the studio and saying “Alright, this is the time we have to do the record, this is when we’re in the studio, this when we’re finished with it.” We just kind of want to go in and record without a real deliberate date in mind for when things need to be wrapped up.
Even if it’s still early in the process, do you have a direction or a certain sound you’re going with on this record?
No, we’ve just been writing it. I think that sort of presents itself when you get in the studio. For me, in terms of writing songs I’d like to try to have a little bit of a different approach to what we’ve done in the past. Try and to go into the studio not as rehearsed as we’ve been before and see what happens and maybe use the studio as a little bit more of a tool in creating a record as opposed to having songs going in and just playing them together as a band and compiling twelve songs or whatever into an album.
Are you working with anyone in particular on the new record?
I think Dean (Baltulonis, Separation Sunday co-producer) is going be involved in it. In kind of listening back to the record’s we’ve made, I kind of always liked working with Dean. He’s done so much stuff since we did Separation Sunday with him. I think he’s in a really good place. He and I worked on a bunch of the stuff for a soundtrack I worked on earlier this year around February. We had a really good time together kind of creating stuff in the studio. That was sort of my impetus for how I wanted to approach this next record.
Going into the next year, are you guys going to be on the road again still or is it solely dedicated to recording?
We’ll, we’ll see what happens. I mean, it’s September now, so we’ve still got a lot of time this year to be writing and recording. When we feel we’ve got enough stuff together for an album, and then set down and then listen to everything and see where we’re at. I guess if there’s any real deliberate idea, it’s not really having a deliberate idea.
Do you guys plan on sticking with Vagrant for the next record or are you looking for something else?
We’re still under contract by Vagrant. They’ll put out this record. I’ve been really happy with Vagrant. They’ve been good to us.
What are you listening to lately?
Not a lot. When I start writing and start coming up with ideas for songs, I try not to listen to a lot of anything because you really tend to repeat what you hear. Whatever goes in, comes out eventually, so I try to be real cautious of that. I guess any time I’m in the writing process, most of the stuff I listen to is older records that had a real impact on me. Or, if there’s something that will catch my ear. Maybe I’ll hear something on a Calexico record that I love, and then I’ll listen to nothing but Calexico for three weeks. Or, I’ll hear an old Stones record and go “God, the drums sound good on this album!” and then I’ll spend the next month listening to nothing but the Rolling Stones. Maybe somebody will play a Kinks song and I’ll go “God, I forgot how good that record was!”, and I’ll go back then I’ll go obsess over that for weeks at a time.
So, your said on Twitter that you had an incident with a guitar and the airlines? What happened?
Yeah, you know, to be honest, I’m kind of surprised it hasn’t happened sooner. You know, we got into the airport last night after a totally grueling day of traveling and Dustin’s (Miller, The Hold Steady’s guitar tech) pulling stuff out of oversized baggage and he’s like ‘Uh-oh’, and I’m like “Oh, don’t say that, what happened?” and he opened the case and one of my guitars had been smashed from being mishandled. That was kind of a drag. But, we remedied that pretty quickly. For as much time as we spend in airports and throwing gear around and traveling with gear, it was bound to happen sooner or later. I have never had anything lost or stolen yet, thank God. Thank God it wasn’t a guitar that can’t be replaced. It was a newer one at least and not one of my older ones.
Do you have a particular favorite you play that you’re always bringing out on the road?
No, that switches up a lot. I’ve got a couple of old ’60’s Gibson’s that are my go-to guitars when we’re recording, especially when I’m writing. I like to get new stuff all of the time. Guitars are like anything else, they can be inspirational and forcing you to approach things differently. Maybe a particular guitar will play a certain way and it kind of takes you out of that comfort level a little bit where you have to think a little bit more about what you are doing. I mean, it’s always an excuse for me to go out and buy new shit.
How do you get the names for your guitars with? People I’ve been in the crowd with have always remarked that you see names like “Eat It!” and “WMD” (on the set lists). Are those just inside jokes?
Yeah, Dustin and I usually come up with those. I don’t know, it’s just stupid little things. I have so many guitars that are similar models, so if I were to write the model or the year down, it could be one of a handful of different guitars. We name them to avoid any confusion.
Makes sense. It just seemed kind of funny.
Most of them are just stupid inside jokes. There’s no real method to it.
I figured as much. You guys have been on the road most of the year, is there a favorite gig you’ve played this year, or really, one overall that stands out?
Oh god, the End of the Road Festival was really great just because of the people that were there, and the overall setting of the festival was so fantastic. Obviously that’s fresh in my mind because it was just a couple days ago. The shows in New York were fun, it was good to be home, the show in LA was really great that we played with The Bronx, those guys have become good friends of ours. It was nice to see them and hang out with them. It’s different from show to show. You remember different gigs for different reasons.
Is there anybody you haven’t toured with that you’d like to get on the road with?
There’s a handful of bands that we’d like to go out with. We haven’t done a whole lot of support gigs until this year, and going out and being able to play arenas and bigger venues was fun. The Counting Crows and Dave Matthews Band were great, but it would be nice to go out with a band that maybe suited our style, something that’s a little closer to us stylistically that we listened to more. The support gigs are always interesting because you never know what you’re going to get in terms of the audience and it makes you work a little bit harder.
How did those DMB shows go from your perspective? I mean, playing to a group of people that may not be so familiar with the kind of music you guys play?
You know, they were okay. It’s always interesting seeing how the other half lives, kind of. For us, it was more than awareness campaign than anything else. Dave Matthews, at the time, had the number one record record in the U.S. He’s somebody who sells millions of records and has such an enormously high profile. It’s weird, because it seems a lot of the people who go to his shows maybe go to one or two concerts a year. To play in front of a crowd like that was interesting.
Now, did he pick you guys personally, or was that through management? Because I hear he picks a lot of the bands he plays with. I wasn’t sure if you guys were one he was aware of.
Yeah, he definitely expressed that he was a fan and watched our set on a nightly basis. I think that he’s involved in a lot of those decisions. But in the end, it’s got to make sense on paper and numbers wise for everybody, so that’s when you get booking agents and managements involved. It seemed to work, it wasn’t something we’d done before, so we’d thought we’d give it a shot.
I know you did photography before you were in the group and I know you’ve done a little bit (since then), and you have a book that you’re doing?
Yeah, that’s been, once again, me totally biting off more than I can chew. Craig and I get approached a lot to write different stuff. Craig, especially because he’s the literary one and the lyricist and his craft is words – but I did a piece on Jimmy Page for a Led Zeppelin book that came out last year, and after that they asked if I had any interest in doing a Hold Steady book. I thought it was a little premature to be writing a book on our band, but they do a lot of real graphic stuff, and I said “Hey, would you want to do a photography book that would be kind of loosely based around my life in the band?” I guess I conned my way into that and they said yes.
So, I’ve been working on that and going through just thousands and thousands of photos I’ve had from the road over the years, trying to put something together somewhat interesting and hopefully unique. But yeah, that’s been a major undertaking.
Do you know when that’s coming out, or is that way too early?
I’ve got to have turned in around Halloween. Turn around times are a little bit longer than something like an album, which I’m a little bit more used to how that works. So that will probably come out sometime next spring.
How was it taking a picture of Leonard Cohen? Did you get any time to talk to him? (Tad photographed him for a Rolling Stone piece earlier this spring.)
I had about two and a half minutes with him.
He was really nice. In doing stuff like that – I’ve worked for celebrity photographers over the years living in New York – it really depends on the day and somebody’s like that – it can be hard to get someone to cooperate.
Have you shot anyone else since then?
I shot the Arctic Monkeys six weeks ago. That was a decent shoot. Our relationship with Rolling Stone has always been really good, so it’s always been an easy thing to transition to – shooting for them, it’s been great.
Have any other publications approached you to do anything else?
No, there’s so many photographers and it’s such a competitive industry, it’s not unlike playing in a band that way. Obviously, with the profile of the band the way it is, it’s been easier for me, but I haven’t tried to hustle any work because I’m not around enough. If and when we have some more time off, that’s something I’ll peruse more. Until then, it’ll probably stay focused on taking portraits on the road and stuff.
Okay, if you had to pick one or the other, being a full time photographer, or being in the rock band…which one would you choose?
Oh, being in a rock band! You don’t get up in front of thousands of people and take photos. The performance element I think is something i’ve always loved to do. It’s like a drug. There’s nothing comparable to walking up on stage having thousands of people shout the lyrics back at you.
Are you a person that likes being on the road, or are you a homebody, or what? I know there’s some musicians that hate it but do it anyways.
Yeah, no I mean, it’s funny how many people that you meet that really just can’t stand being out on the road and away from home. There are times when it’s obviously harder, but for the most part – the travel is nice – we’ve gotten to a level as a band where the traveling has become comfortable and easier for us to enjoy things.
Yeah, you’re not traveling in a truck anymore, right?
God no. It’s a miracle that none of us had a serious accident or were hurt in that. We really lucked out.
Yeah, I think one of the first times I saw you guys you were still in that. It was like one of the first tours I saw you guys and you were playing Milwaukee at the Miramar Theatre and Franz stepped out of the truck and we were like “Whoa, that’s a little truck..with a lot of people in it.”
Yeah. It was really good to us. it was a great way to tour at that point in time. It really got to the point it wasn’t safe anymore and it wasn’t big enough and it wasn’t a good way to travel.
Is there any place you haven’t performed that you’d like to perform?
I’d like to go to Greece, I’d love to go to Italy, I’d love to go to South America, we haven’t played Hawaii yet, it would be the last of the fifty states we haven’t played – we’d hopefully be getting there on this next record. Japan is definitely somewhere we’d like to travel to. We’ve done some shows in Eastern Europe, we’d like to move further east – we’ll see what happens on this next record.
Is it hard for you to adjust to home life when you’re not on tour?
It used to be a lot harder. The way that we tour now, it is more comfortable so you’re not quite as spent and exhausted when you get home. There is that period of adjustment, obviously. You’re kind of this little gang on the road all the time. You’ve got your little clique and all the little inside jokes and mannerisms and stuff that you do. Then you get home and it takes a while to shift out of that mode and get back into being a dad – my daughter started school last week, so when I get home I’ll go to PTA meetings and stuff like that, obviously that’ll be a big change for me.