Man, if money didn’t matter then I might tell you something new

You can’t tell people what they want to hear if you also want to tell the truth.

The Hold Steady “Soft In The Center”

Let’s be clear about one thing right out of the gate, I’m a fan of The Hold Steady, but that’s not the only reason why I sought out Tad Kubler to judge this year’s Figment Album Cover Design Contest.  No, I sought him out because in addition to being a great musician, he’s also a very good designer and photographer.  His work adorns the covers of several of his band’s album covers and he’s actively involved in every creative aspect of his band.  He’s also one of the most straightforward musicians I’ve ever had the pleasure to interact with, as evidenced by his initial reaction to our offer to be this year’s judge:

“Ok, so forgive the comparison, but this is like Dungeons and Dragons for record collectors, right? Am I understanding this correctly? And that’s not anything but a compliment.

I don’t know why anybody would want to run their own label in this day and age of what the music industry has become. I sometimes wonder why anybody would want to be in a fucking band, for that matter…”

It was that kind of honesty that made it imperative that we get him to be this year’s judge and thankfully he took us up on our offer.  Better yet, he agreed to talk with us about his music, photography and design work.

We mix our own mythologies, we push them through PA systems.

We dictate our doxologies and try to get sleeping kids to sit up and listen.

I’m not saying we could save you

But we could put you in a place where you could save yourself.

If you don’t get born again, at least you’ll get high as hell.

The Hold Steady “Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night”

Figment News:  What it’s like being in a working band these days?

Tad Kubler:  It’s a very interesting time to be involved in the music industry. I wish there were a way to sum this up quickly and briefly. Because it’s a conversation I have to be part of frequently.  Probably more often than I care to be.

You have the paradigm under which the music business operates. And then you have the pace of technology. And in between both of those is the consumer AND the “artist”, for lack of a better word.  It’s a mess, quite frankly. But we’ll see. In some ways it effects what we do and how we do it. I may be acting naïve, but I prefer to operate under the assumption that we do this because we love music. And the rest of it, isn’t all that important. That said, we are running a business. We have people that work for us. There are contracts and business managers and lawyers and health insurance plans and all the other things that can distract you from the joy of rock & roll (there is indeed “so much joy”). But when it’s all said and done, being in front of a room full of people doing what you love with people you love, just staying in the moment and being present to experience that joy… It doesn’t get any better than that.

FN:  Did you always know you wanted to play music for a living or was it something that started out as a hobby and grew into a profession?

Tad:  For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to be in a rock band. AC/DC. Kiss. Van Halen. Led Zeppelin. That’s what I wanted. I never thought it would happen. Maybe I did, actually. But it was never something I counted on.

FN:  You and Craig Finn were in a band together prior to The Hold Steady called Lifter Puller.  What did you learn from that experience that helped you when you formed The Hold Steady?

Tad:  There are so many differences between both bands that it would be hard to compare the experience. I think if anything, it created a level of trust and friendship between Craig and myself. And because The Hold Steady began really as a means for all of us to hang out and have fun together, anything else that came after that was a pleasant surprise. Obviously, that’s changed over time. I think as the band has grown, so have our expectations. But I really believe that enjoying ourselves has always been the most important thing. Craig and I have an interesting relationship. When we’re off the road, we can go weeks without ever speaking or seeing each other. And there isn’t anybody in the world that can push my buttons the way that guy can. And quite frankly, I’m not even sure he’s aware of it. But making music with that guy and getting on stage with him most nights has been one of the best things that has ever happened to me. I have such a tremendous amount of respect for Craig and all the guys in the band. It’s a pretty wonderful thing. You can take it for granted at times. But sometimes when we’re playing on stage, I just look around and take it all in and think to myself, “We fucking did this. Holy shit!”

She said I just can’t sympathize

With your rock n’ roll problems.

Isn’t that what we wanted?

Some major rock n’ roll problems.

The Hold Steady “Rock Problems”

FN:  What’s it like being a thirtysomething rock star?

Tad:  If I see one, I’ll ask them and let you know…

FN:  It’s my understanding that Craig Finn writes most of the lyrics and you write the music.  Is that correct?

It is. But I think it’s more accurate to say that I bring in ideas. I suppose there are times when I’ve brought in a song that was complete from start to finish. And it’s not as though I come in and say, “I wrote a song, guys; here’s how it goes”. We always work things through as a band. But I think we work best as a band when we work through ideas together. Bobby, Galen and I spend a lot of time just playing together. And Finn brings a lot to the table in the songwriting process. Craig has a great ear and has such a love for music. He listens to so many different things. So his contributions to the songwriting process is invaluable. I enjoy getting everyone in a room together and being creative.

FN:  How do you guys collaborate on songs?  Do you work on stuff alone, demo it and then bring it to the band or do you work together on songs?

Tad:  We don’t have one specific way we work. I’m always doing demos. Sometimes I’ll bring in a few different parts that I think work well together and we’ll just start to play. Other times, Craig and I get together and I’ll sit down with a guitar and he’ll have his notebooks and we’ll start to throw around ideas. Craig and I have recorded songs on the back of the bus and made rough versions to put on everyone’s ipod so they can come up with ideas. Sometimes we sit in my living room and write. Or in his kitchen. I’ll sit at the table with a guitar and he’ll pace back and forth singing to himself. I actually write in front of the television a lot. Watching basketball or Law & Order, Friday Night Lights, Californication, Discovery channel… It sometimes feels like when I’m not paying attention to what I’m doing, or just letting my mind drift when I have a guitar in my hands, that’s when things just come up. That sounds idiotic. But it’s true.

Don’t bother talking to the guys with their hot soft eyes

You know they’re already taken.

Don’t even speak to all those sequencer and beats boys

When they kiss they spit white noise.

The Hold Steady “First Night”

FN:  When I think of your band’s music I think arena rock riffs mixed with punk energy.  How would you describe The Hold Steady’s sound?

Tad:  Rock & Roll. I think if I have to spend any more time describing it than that, we’re missing the point. Jeff Tweedy said something really brilliant: people spend a lot of time talking about music. But music happens in the moment. And that’s what it’s about. The moment. Anything beyond that, you’re really just trying to catch up to it.

FN:  All of your band’s albums are on independent labels. French Kiss and Vagrant Records in the U.S. and Rough Trade in Europe.  Was that a conscious decision?

Tad:  I’m not sure what that means. It was a deliberate decision on who we chose to put out our records. But we didn’t deliberately choose independent labels.

FN:  What do you think the future holds for major and independent labels?

Tad:  I don’t know. As I’ve said, there are a lot of people talking about what a shit state of affairs the music business is in. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. It seems to me that most labels, indy or major, have a difficult time keeping up with technology and therefore the consumer. I think the industry is becoming leaner and meaner. Maybe that’s a good thing.

FN:  Clearly bands have to work a lot harder these days to get their music heard.  How important is marketing to a band’s success, and how involved do you have to be in the band’s promotion?

Tad:  I don’t think that’s true. I think technology has made it ridiculously easy to get your music heard. The internet is humming with new bands. There’s enough technology out there to broadcast your every thought and every word. And I think that may be problematic. I hear people talk about posting on someone’s wall and YouTube hits and Facebook me and tweet it and all kinds of things. Everyone has a voice. Everyone can be heard. There’s no quality control anymore. Some would argue that it’s helped level the playing field. I don’t know if I agree with that. Not to be a dick, but I don’t know that everyone should be able to broadcast every thought that tumbles through their head…

Shoes and socks baby, socks and shoes.

We spent the night last night in Newport News.

This chick she looked just like Elizabeth Shue.

We got bruised.

The Hold Steady “The Swish”

FN:  You’ve helped design a number of your band’s album covers.  What is that process like?

Tad:  That would be an awful lot of typing. I come from a visually creative background with photography, so that’s obviously helpful. I feel for me it’s really important to be involved in anything the band does creatively. I like to realize the finish product in it’s entirety. And it’s also a great learning experience. I’ve always felt that playing in a band doesn’t end at the songwriting process. I really enjoy being a part of all the creative output.

FN:  What do you look for in an album cover design?

Tad:  I think what I myself look for, or what anyone looks for is something that resonates with them. Right? I sometimes hear people talk about their relation to the band or artist. And I often hear people talk about looking for things that may indicate the people or person playing the music is somebody like them. You know, a lot of people talk about our band and say, “They look like regular guys”. Sometimes that works. Sometimes it doesn’t. I think it’s fantastic on a level of making it easy to connect to the music and the songs. But I don’t feel that way about bands and artists I enjoy. For myself, I sometimes look for some kind of exaltation. And perhaps subconsciously I believe that I may not get that from somebody that looks like me, acts like me, thinks like me… I don’t know that I feel it necessary to connect with somebody like me. So for that, I want to look outside myself. So I may not want someone just like me to get me there. I know me. That’s boring. I need a certain amount of mystery. I want to make up my own version of the person playing the song. I want to make them more than human. Growing up, rock stars were from a different planet. Bowie, T. Rex, Bob Dylan, Kiss, Led Zeppelin – these people were deified. For good reason, I believe. And it was awesome. It gave me hope. Hope that there was something different than what I was seeing and experiencing. I want my rock stars held sacred. I want to listen to the music and hold the album cover and stare at it and imagine what kind world they live in.

FN:  Are there any designers or album covers that have inspired you over the years?

Tad:  Oh, shit. A lot. Stones – Exile,  Beatles – White Album,  Sex Pistols, Ramones, Fugazi, I could give you the laundry list.

FN:  You work as a photographer when you’re not recording or touring with The Hold Steady.  How did you get involved in photography?

Tad:  Weird story: I’ve always been interested in photography. Then, in about ’96 when I was living in Minneapolis, Bobby and I became friends. He introduced me to his sister and we started dating. She’s incredibly talented. And an amazing photographer. She got me into photography. So I took some classes and learned how to print. Then got into some of the physics of it – properties of light, etc. And started assisting. Kinda just grew from there. I’ve been working on a book for the last couple years that I’d really like to have out by the end of the year. It’s a major undertaking. I certainly bit off more than I could chew. Per usual.  And I still have a major crush on Bob’s sister… So Kris, if you’re reading, marry me?

FN:  Do you primarily photograph bands or do you shoot other subjects as well?

Tad:  I like to do portraits. Bands are hard to shoot do well. To be able to get 4 + people to all look interesting at once – very tricky. I’ve done editorial stuff. Music. Fashion. I love all of it.

FN:  Do you shoot your band’s promotional photos?

Tad:  I have in the past. But not so much now. No. I have a lot of friends that are photographers. Just call in some favors.

And when we hit the Twin Cities I didn’t know that much about it.

I knew Mary Tyler Moore and I knew Profane Existence.

I was keyed up.  Keys jangled in the stalls.

They counted money in the motels.  They mostly sold it in the malls.

And the carpet at the Thunderbird has a burn for every cowboy that got fenced in.

The Hold Steady “Stevie Nix”

FN:  All of The Hold Steady album covers are photographs.  Were you the photographer or did you conceptualize the cover and work with another photographer to actually shoot it?

Tad:  I shot the first two and did the layout with Seth and Tim (Les Savy Fav). The third and fourth I basically just art directed and had friends shoot.  And Finn is also involved in that creative process. It’s sometimes important to connect that lyrical narrative to the artwork in some way. He has a really great eye. I’m always blown away when I look at some of his photos from the road. And then the last album Finn and I let go of almost entirely. I’m not unhappy with how it came out. But I enjoy doing it too much to do that again.

FN:  I know from following your Twitter feed that you are an avid NY Knicks fan, so that begs the question…Carmelo Anthony trade…good or bad?  And since the Knicks’ season is over who do you think will win the NBA Title this year?

Tad:  I wasn’t into the trade. I think we lost our ass. And I don’t think Anthony is used to playing D’Antoni’s style of ball. And Billups has maybe two seasons left in him. Maybe. The only thing it will do is attract other players like Chris Paul or Dwight Howard.

I like the Bulls for the Eastern Conference. Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final was incredible. The Bulls are a very young, athletic team. I don’t think Miami was prepared for that. Miami thought once they got past the Celtics it would be smooth sailing. Not at all the case. I think Dirk and the Mavs really want a championship. But again, OKC is a young, athletic team. Dallas’ starting lineup are almost all 30 years old. We’ve got a lot of basketball left to play. And I think it’s going to be fantastic.

In bar light she looked alright.

In daylight she looked desperate.

That’s alright, I was desperate too.

I’m getting pretty sick of this interview.

The Hold Steady “Sequestered in Memphis”

Listen to The Hold Steady

Check out Tad’s Photography

Catch The Hold Steady on Tour

One Response to “In The Moment With Tad Kubler”

  1. theHoseman Says:

    Loved the interview Eric! They’re always fun, but this one especially, as I too, am a big fan of the Hold Steady (& Lifter Puller).

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