Q&A: The Hold Steady's Craig Finn On The First Time He Heard The Replacements, And Which Bands Are Carrying On The 'Mats Legacy In 2011

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Mark Seliger
In the new documentary Color Me Obsessed: A Film About The Replacements, you'll find a wildly diverse array of witnesses, all in thrall to the ragged glory that was The Mats in their prime. Included among these friends, admirers, whack jobs, rackjobbers, rock critics and record execs, are musicians like Craig Finn of The Hold Steady. Although his raging rock poetry is a bit wordier than Paul Westerberg's, Finn (whose first solo album Clear Heart Full Eyes comes out January 24) seems to have inherited the guy's mantle as the bard of the woeful, hopeful, strung-out ones—those regular Joes whose lives The Replacements' leader also chronicled. Finn spoke with the Voice about Gorman Bechard's poignant new film, and what it was about those brilliant Minneapolis brats that left such a mark on him.

Can you remember the first time you heard The Replacements? And what you felt and thought?

I was playing tennis with a friend. He said his sister knew this guy in the band The Replacements and he thought I would like them. I was in 7th Grade. I got Hootenanny and it really connected with me. They were instantly my favorite band.

What was the best Mats show you ever saw? And what made it so special?

I think the one I saw in the First Avenue Mainroom, just after they had done Saturday Night Live, I think. It felt like they were conquering heroes. I may be messing up the timing though. Maybe it was just before SNL.

How about the worst?

I never saw them do a bad show. But I enjoyed it less as the shows got bigger. The one I saw in Roy Wilkins Auditorium in St. Paul was probably the least memorable, although they did do a great version of The Who's "I Can See for Miles" at that one.

On the surface, your writing, though just as detailed, is a bit grander, more epic than Paul Westerberg's. Still, what is it about Westerberg's writing that you like?

I love Paul's grip on melancholy. He writes songs that are super real in their sadness.

Did The Replacements have an impact on your aims with The Hold Steady? From presentation to record making?

I think they mostly inspired me to think that you can have great guitars and great lyrics in the same band. You don't have to choose one or the other.

The movie Color Me Obsessed: A Film About The Replacements has a bunch of fans (including you) talking about the band. But no Mats or their music. How do you feel the approach works—this "Rashomon"-style filmmaking?

Well, I think it's interesting because of how many people I meet who say The Replacements are their favorite band. All of art is about connection and The Mats have really connected with people for decades now.

Have you ever met Paul or Tommy? And if so, what did you talk about?

I've met them both. Mostly small talk although I told both of them how much their music meant to me and how it literally changed my life. For the better, of course.

There are usually two camps: people who feel the band didn't totally fulfill their potential, at least commercially, and folks who think The Replacements did exactly what they were supposed to do: if they're not famous, they're definitely legendary. Where do you stand?

I think they did exactly what they were supposed to do. The fact that people are making movies about their fans in 2011 makes me think they were pretty successful in a lot of ways.

The Replacements were a real rock and roll band, loose, sloppy, unpretentious, romantic. Currently, there don't seem to be too many of those. Do you think they've had any long-lasting influence?

They've had a big legacy, it might all not be in the sloppy presentation. But a lot of new bands from Titus Andronicus to Deer Tick carry a pretty big 'Mats influence. I think they will continue to be pertinent.

The Hold Steady are, as usual, touring their asses off. What's the state of the next record? And what can your audience expect after the taut, focused Heaven Is Whenever?

We are just starting to write it, so I can't say exactly yet. We'll see where it goes. Hopefully we get into the studio before too long.

Craig Finn performs at Bowery Electric tonight and tomorrow as part of "Mats City: A Tribute Concert to The Replacements"; those shows will be preceded by screenings of Color Me Obsessed.

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