The Hold Steady’s Tab Kubler on “Teeth Dreams” and “Game of Thrones”

With so much as a sardonic muttering of the phrase “Twin Cities,” from where The Hold Steady  originally hails, and riffs so automotive they could have been on Born to Run, vocalist Craig Finn and guitarist Tad Kubler regularly evoke a late August evening in the waning summer.

You remember all the late nights you didn’t have, the camping trips you didn’t take, the friends you didn’t fall in love with. The hours you slaughtered from a useless barstool perch. The summer you didn’t have.

Since 1994, when Finn and Kubler began playing together in Lifter Puller, there’s been something captivatingly American to the music that populates their nine total albums — three from Lifter Puller and six from The Hold Steady.

It’s in the mundane, daily tragedies where Finn’s characters often find themselves the butt, somewhere out in the middle of the country tripping on crappy drugs and failed connections; the fast cars and open roads that don’t do anything for an empty heart.

It’s an existential, unfair sadness.

“American sadness,” Finn calls it on “On with the Business,” a track driven by stretching guitars from The Hold Steady’s March release Teeth Dreams. It’s the band’s first album since 2010’s Heaven is Whenever, after releasing five records in six years.

“Playing in a rock band is one of those things where you really have to suspend rational thinking and reasonable thought.” 

Kubler’s guitar work on Teeth Dreams is as sprawling as the American west and the depths that he churns are, perhaps for the first time on an album from the band, as resonant, as astoundingly nostalgic, original and troubling as Finn’s lyrics.

Kubler chatted with Hear Nebraska — looking forward to The Hold Steady’s Thursday night show at the Waiting Room in Omaha — about the unique advantages to being in a veteran rock band, taking responsibility for his role in the band’s trajectory, the challenges of creating and maintaining momentum after a hiatus and the strangeness of the lifestyle. That sometimes means covering a fictional song for an HBO hit series.

“It was such a weird thing. Every morning I kind of wake up and I’m like, ‘This is my life,’” Kubler says of the experiences and opportunities The Hold Steady has allowed him.

Find the full Q&A with Kubler below.

Hear Nebraska: It’s been about four years since you guys released an album. What were you guys up to between Teeth Dreams and Heaven is Whenever?

Tad Kubler: Aside from really taking a much-needed and deserved break, I think everybody wanted to go off and do some other things. When you work at the pace that we did for the first six or seven years, it got to the point where it was like, “You know what? Maybe this isn’t all going to end tomorrow. “

The break lasted longer than we intended, but that’s not a bad thing. I went off and did some scoring for films and TV shows and stuff, still writing. I don’t really ever write songs for a record. On the good days, it just always happens, there isn’t really a beginning or end. (Drummer) Bobby (Drake) opened a bar with a couple of other music people, guys from Spoon. Craig did a solo record. (Guitarist) Steve Selvidge does a lot of other things musically. Stuff like that, just life. You get to a certain point or certain age, you have girlfriends and wives and kids and families. Your life gets a little bit bigger. You’re not holed up in a rehearsal space 10 hours a day.

HN: You said you did some scoring (theme songs for Enlisted and The Awesomes), how long have you been interested in that?

TK: Since I’ve been watching movies and playing music I’m sure, but it wasn’t anything that had occurred to me that I might be able to do until The Hold Steady reached a level where I was talking to people who were doing things like that. It was something that I really loved and with the photography background I have, pairing images and music together was always a very … I don’t want to say “obvious” … but something to me that seemed like a really wonderful combination of things I love to do.

HN: It seems like a very different writing exercise than sitting down and writing a song. More like a prompt.

TK: Yeah, it is, and that’s one thing I like about it, that it’s more of a collaborative process. There are so many people involved [in film and TV] and all those people have an idea of what they’d like to hear or what should be there. It’s working with those people and really understanding vocabulary, not just how to articulate or discuss sound, but also to translate or transfer that for people [who] don’t necessarily play music or understand.

I’ve been playing music with Craig for so long, obviously his lyrics and the narrative in The Hold Steady is really cinematic. Parts of it seemed very different or maybe the approach or parts of the process are different, but a lot of it felt really natural.

HN: Coming back from the break, was that an opportunity to recalibrate for the new album?

TK: Absolutely. People were excited, reinvigorated to get back to it. Steve has been in the band for the last five years but Teeth Dreams is really the first record he was part of making with us. That was a really nice shot in the arm. I would also say we had so much momentum that carried us up to Heaven is Whenever. That record came out and we finished that touring cycle, we stepped away from The Hold Steady for a little bit. When we came back to it, it was, I don’t want to say more difficult, but getting that momentum back, in a lot of different ways…takes a while.

That’s not something that occurred to us at the time, that it might be tough to do. It’s always been so natural. There isn’t anything really deliberate about how we work. In a way it was nice because we had to stop and think about things a little bit: “OK, how do we want to do this? Why do we want to do this?”

HN: That’s sort of a unique position for a veteran band. A band just starting out kind of doesn’t have to face those questions because there’s nothing at stake.

TK: Yeah, absolutely. And that is a wonderful place to be because you don’t have expectations on yourself, really, that exist in the band, and you don’t have any external expectations on you. That was one part of making this record where personally I was really aware … that I wanted to try and avoid it. That was one of the big reasons we worked with (producer) Nick Raskulinecz, because he wasn’t that familiar with our band. I thought, “This is great, we can work with someone who doesn’t have any kind of preconceived notion of what we should or shouldn’t be doing other than just making a good record.”

HN: With that in mind, how do you compare the last couple albums, Heaven is Whenever and Stay Positive, to this new one?

TK: Stay Positive seemed like an extension of Boys and Girls, almost like a companion piece in a way. Heaven is Whenever was, I hate to say this, but in a way it seemed like really a transitional record. Heaven is Whenever is a record that people have a lot of strong opinions about. I really like it. I like it a lot more now that we’ve done Teeth Dreams. I can listen to it and look back on it and really hear what we were trying to do or where it was going. For a lot of different reasons we weren’t able to realize it at the time. I think I can take a fair share of responsibility for that.

HN: I always thought of that record more like a period at the end of a sentence.

TK: I can understand that, too, and I think depending on the day or who I’m talking to, I’m sure I could give you a few different answers. When you say that, that makes perfect sense, too. It’s one of those things I don’t think about a ton, and I know it comes up a lot because people have strong feelings about that record one way or the other. For me it’s like, “OK, that was interesting. Moving on.” I kind of feel that way about all of our records … just kind of a snapshot of the band at that point. Even the songs, as we play them more and more live every night, even the songs start to transform a little bit too.

HN: So how do you do that?

TK: Part of it is rotating the set list. I usually write the setlist between soundcheck and when we go on. I think the other part of it is taking a fresh look at some of the songs we’ve been playing for ten years. It’s something we haven’t played around with until now. In terms of how it works? I’m not sure yet [laughs]. I’d like to take some more chances live. I feel like we can risk a little bit more and try things that might not work. We might fall on our ass and it might feel silly. But we need to try it and have moments like that. Those are special moments too. It’s a really human thing to do.

HN: And if you can put out a record you’re happy with, that’s kind of what live performance is for, since it’s so impermanent.

TK: It’s interesting you say that, because I think this day and age in the music industry … touring is such an important part of it because nobody sells records. To me, that said, the record, that’s still the statement. That’s the artifact, that’s what’s kinda gonna be around forever. Ask five people about the show and you’re going to get five different things. I love making records. It’s such a fun part of it.

HN: When you were first starting out, did you feel that way about making records?

TK: In a way, no. Like what we were talking about earlier, I probably didn’t think the same way about it because I didn’t think anybody was going to hear it. When you first start out, you have kind of high ambitions or aspirations. But there’s always that thing in the back of your mind like, “Is anybody going to hear this?” And I think you get more comfortable, more used to being in the studio. At that same time, that can be hard, like I said, the expectations can be a real killer.

Playing in a rock band is one of those things where you really have to suspend rational thinking and reasonable thought. If you didn’t, you’d wake up every morning and just think that this is impossible. It’s just such a weird way to live. Completely bizarre.

HN: Sure. I think I’ve got time for one more and I wanted to ask you if you’re a Game of Thrones fan.

TK: Absolutely.

HN: I wondered who was responsible for “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” song.

TK: It was a cover, you know. David (Benioff) and Dan (Weiss), the main producers, came to us and asked if we wanted to do it. I said, “absolutely.” You know George Martin wrote the lyrics and the main composer on the show had done a version of it. And they kind of wanted the punk rock version of it. When they came and asked I thought it was the coolest thing ever, to be able to work with people where you love what they do so much.

HN: It’s kind of weird to play a song that exists in a fictional universe and bringing it into reality.

TK: Yeah, totally. They kind of explained how they wanted to use it and they sent me that last scene in the episode that it’s used in and told me what it was going to be like. It was such a weird thing. Every morning I kind of wake up and I’m like, “This is my life.”