The changes that mark the Hold Steady's new album are many.
Starting out its second decade, the band added a new lead guitarist in Steve Selvidge. Singer Craig Finn left behind many of his signature lyrical elements. The band recorded with a new producer, Nick Raskulinecz (Foo Fighters, Deftones) in a new city, Franklin, Tennessee. And then there's the new record label, the band's own Positive Jams.
But nothing in the process leading up to Teeth Dreams, the Hold Steady's sixth album and first in four years, was change for the sake of change. Wrapped up by a new creative energy, the band cranked up the guitars for a rowdier sound and labored longer writing songs, says guitarist Tad Kubler.
"The one thing I think that I was maybe overly conscious of was just really trying to make sure that we continued to grow, creatively as players and as songwriters," Kubler says. "I wanted to make sure that we didn't make a record that we've done before or that felt too similar."
The Hold Steady -- Kubler, Finn, Selvidge, drummer Bobby Drake, and bassist Galen Polivka -- separated the music from Finn's lyrics more than ever before, leading to a modified, heavier sound that pulls its essence from the relationship between Kubler's and Selvidge's guitars.
"One of the things that people point to initially is Steve. He's been in the band for almost four years leading up to that, but this is the first record that we've done with Steve in the band," Kubler says. "Musically, it wasn't anything that was terribly deliberate. Steve played an enormous part in that. Steve brings a certain caliber of musicianship. He's that kind of player. He not only really challenged me and pushed me to play better, but he did that with the rest of the band."
Born on the exact same day, the guitarists share a wide slate of influences, but Kubler's Wisconsin upbringing and Selvidge's Memphis roots are reflected in different yet perfectly compatible styles.
"Right off the bat when I met him, I realized we had a lot of similar inspirations, but our styles are so different by nature of where and how he grew up," Kubler says. "Steve is a better guitar player than I am. That's just what it is. That's nice because it really allowed me to focus on the songs and the songwriting as opposed to coming up with interesting or cool or flashy guitar parts. It felt like it allowed me to have that focus that was bigger-picture thinking."
More comfortable in the studio than ever, Kubler spent extra time writing and demoing songs, taking his own first version to the band to flesh out before recording another demo version, which Finn approached fresh to work out lyrics.
"Craig didn't want to come in with a lot of notebooks full of lyrics or words or stories. He wanted the music to really inform where the narrative was coming from," Kubler says. "Craig wanted them to get less specific. He wanted people to be able to put themselves into the song and the situation. He didn't want to use a lot of proper nouns, like Holly or Charlemagne. That was very deliberate on his part. Craig is very revered for what he does, and I think he wanted to try to see how far he could stray from that and still keep people's attention."
After meeting producer Raskulinecz in Los Angeles last year, Kubler felt a connection with a kindred musical spirit, even though the producer admitted he knew very little about the Hold Steady.
"I actually thought that was perfect and that was what was needed because we'd had so many expectations or ideas about what kind of record we should make or what kind of record we shouldn't make," he says. "For myself, working with Nick was something that I really surrendered to. Working with a producer, there has to be a certain amount of trust there, and just in the conversation Nick and I had leading up to going into the studio, everything he said was very much in line with what I think about making records. So I could let him do his thing."
Confident with Teeth Dreams -- a record that has been earning far better critical reception than 2010's Heaven Is Whenever -- the Hold Steady now is in the midst of a heavy year of touring.
"The studio is the creativity in a sense, that's the artifact and without that you don't really have the touring at all," Kubler says. "But getting out and playing night after night and stretching out a different sort of muscle, the songs start to transform a little bit, too, and it's exciting to watch that happen."
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