When the Hold Steady was recording its fourth album, “Stay Positive,” the band members wanted to put some harpsichord lines on one track. But with harpsichords being in short supply these days, the Brooklyn-based indie rock outfit was forced to improvise. Specifically, keyboardist Franz Nicolay sneaked into a music room at Sarah Lawrence College with the help of a friendly accomplice. It was an inside job.
“He knew someone there that kind of unlocked the door for him,” Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn recalled in a phone interview last week from Seattle, another stop on the group’s 19-city co-headlining tour with alt-country cult favorites Drive-By Truckers. The bands close the tour tonight at the Wiltern in Los Angeles. “He went up there on kind of a covert mission with one of the engineers. You know, the mobile unit.”
Such an unauthorized expedition could -- and possibly will -- form the basis of a Hold Steady song, where humor and a lively sense of infraction often meet. With its 2006 critical breakthrough disc, the Springsteen-esque “Boys and Girls in America,” the band became known for stompy, tightly packaged roots rock with a literate edge, what Bob Seger might have sounded like if he had spent a lot of time in graduate-level English seminars.
Finn looks at “Stay Positive” -- and, yes, feel free to take that title as ironic -- as a natural progression, musically.
“Every time we make a record, it’s to do something that’s just more musical, and [it’s] more paying attention, listening more, when we’re playing,” he said. “I say that because only one of us, Franz, is a trained musician. So, there’s stuff like, say, using a harpsichord or maybe [me] singing a little more on the new record, things that I’m not sure we’d have [had] the confidence to do on the first three records. It’s just kind of trying to do something more musical and more ambitious each time, whatever shape that takes.”
So on “One for the Cutters” -- an allusion to the 1979 film “Breaking Away,” about teenage bicyclists coming of age in Indiana -- the decision to use the harpsichord evolved out of what Finn understood as the song’s dark undercurrents about class conflict. “The tone of the song had a little spookiness to it, had sort of ‘The Addams Family’ vibe,” he said.
Lyrically, Finn, a Minneapolis native and veteran of the Twin Cities’ thriving alt-rock scene, remains devoted to creating an ambitious, wry and densely layered take on American 21st century life -- and one that rewards repeated listenings. Which explains why Hold Steady fans can be particularly obsessive.
The new track “Lord I’m Discouraged,” for instance, is ostensibly about losing faith in a loved one’s ability to overcome substance abuse. Only the truly dedicated will realize the title was lifted from an old tune by Delta bluesman Charlie Patton.
“It’s kind of like different parts of the story are revealed at different times,” Finn said of each record. “It’s a conscious thing. In some ways it’s intended to reward the closest listeners. The people who listen to records 75 times and say, ‘God, I didn’t pick up on that before. That’s a reference to this other song on this other record.’ It’s supposed to have these layers that lead to intrigue.”
The Hold Steady/Drive-By Truckers
Where: The Wiltern, 3790 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
When: 9 tonight
Contact: (213) 388-1400