Exclusive: Franz Nicolay Speaks (EP, Too)

 

Hold Steady mainstay follows
up
Major General with 10″ EP – read
the Blurt interview, conducted by A.D. Amorosi, below.

 

 

By Blurt Staff

 

Hold Steady and World / Inferno Friendship Society member Franz Nicolay will
begin a two-week tour of Germany
and Austria tomorrow with Sweden’s Moneybrother. The mustachioed
multi-instrumentalist is playing shows in support of his new solo offering, St. Sebastian of the Short Stage, issued
by Team Science.

 

The four-song EP is available in both 10-inch vinyl and
digital formats. The label has pressed 500 copies (200 clear, 300 black) and
each record includes a free mp3 download for all the songs, plus a pullout
poster insert and an exclusive new short story by Nicolay entitled
“Paraska Mikhailivna Is A Witch.” To grab a copy of the 10-inch, go here.
Or if you prefer mp3s, you can take a quick trip to iTunes for a digital version of the EP.

 

Featuring artwork by Nicholas Gazin, St. Sebastian Of The
Short Stage
comes on the heels of Nicolay’s acclaimed solo debut, Major
General
. The four brand new tracks include a collaboration with the Dresden
Dolls on a cover of Jonathan Richman’s “New England,”
a Watchmen-inspired tribute to a retired superhero, and two songs
self-described as “bleeding heart weepies.”

 

Nicolay is currently streaming two songs from the EP on his Myspace page.
You can check out tour dates there too.

 

 

Meanwhile, about a year ago prior to the release of Major General in the December 2008
digital-only issue of BLURT, we ran an interview with Nicolay. For your reading
pleasure, we repeat it (this time, in vastly expanded format) below. Enjoy!

 

***

 

Franz Nicolay’s Words
of Wisdom

 

By A.D. Amorosi

 

Franz Nicolay isn’t just another pretty face with a handlebar mustache
that happens to play the accordion. (Franz plays the accordion. Not the
mustache.) He’s the most debonair multi-instrumental Brooklyn-based composer
famous for playing tickling ivories for his pals in the frenetic cabaret act
The World/Inferno Friendship Society and the equally fevered-but-poppier The
Hold Steady. Plus Nicolay’s played a bunch with The Dresden Dolls, recently co-founded the
Anti-Social Music (an avant-garde composer/performer collective) and become
part of the gypsy-klezmer outfit, Guignol. But Nicolay isn’t so busy that he
can’t finish the solo cycle he demo-ed on his show-sold 2007 CD
Black Rose
Paladins. Nicolay then dropped Major
General on Pennsylvania’s
Fistolo label with Dresden
Doll drummer Brian Viglione and pals from Demander, Nanuchka, and World/Inferno
assisting.

 

NICOLAY: I picked up the accordion after my father’s German
grandfather brought him one from the homeland in the early 50s so grandson
could play him polkas and waltzes. As a good child of his times, my dad
rebelled – to the point where he sliced the bellows with a butcher knife to
keep from going to lessons. To his credit, he kept the thing around, and I
picked it up in high school when I got obsessed with (Dylan’s) Basement Tapes.

 

I never really had an opportunity to play the accordion in a
band until I joined World/Inferno in 2001. I joined as a keyboard player, but
after two rehearsals, I thought, “You know, this is the kind of band that
could really use an accordion”. They said yes immediately and then I faked
it until I could play it for real.

 

Most bands, I find, don’t know that they need an accordion
until they hear it on their songs, then they crave it everywhere.

 

What kind of man does it take to grow my sort of a mustache?
One very secure in his self-image. Who’d’ve guessed Greg Norton was the
straight guy in Husker Du? The mistake most hipster-come-latelys to the
handlebar scene make is that you can’t just grow it, you have to organize your
whole wardrobe around it. It doesn’t work with Converse. I’m looking at you,
Nick Gazin.

 

My brand of moustache wax is Cowboy Stache Wax from Montana. I had been
experimenting with brands for years – regular pomade; Clubman the name brand
you could find it in old-school drug stores. The problem with them, for a
performer, is that once you started to get hot and sweaty, they’d melt. My
then-girlfriend vacationed at her family’s ranch in Montana and picked up a tin at this car dealership-slash-saddle
store somewhere in the middle of nowhere and brought it back for me to try.
I’ve been ordering it from them online ever since.

 

There is virtually nothing that I wouldn’t do. As the great
John Barrymore once said, “A man is not old until regrets take the place
of dreams.” And I’ve made a life where all my regrets are ones of action,
not inaction.

 

I co-founded Anti-Social Music. No. It’s not so doggone
anti-social. The idea is that the music we’re playing – new chamber music – has
a reputation as a room-clearing racket. We thought, metal, free jazz, all this
extreme music has lost its cachet as parent- and friend-alienator, what if you
showed up at your holiday party and put on Diamanda Galas? Or Xenakis? And,
while you’re at it, come to our show and have a drink or ten.

 

Our meetings are productive at the beginning and
increasingly less productive as they continue – they tend to trail off toward
the end. A good meeting – World/Inferno rehearsals used to be like this too –
is more like a scheduled drinking bout with friends you’d just as soon be
hanging out with anyway, with the added benefit of you occasionally get some
work done. Jean Cook is the most likely to bring cake. Pat Muchmore is the most
likely to bring a pint of Jack. Andrea La Rose is the most likely to bring
ocarinas in five keys.

 

I don’t have the foggiest idea what the The Hold Steady boys
or World Inferno think of my solo stuff. They came to see one show I did in Hoboken while we were
making Stay Positive but never said
word one about the record. One guy just got stumbling drunk and told my friend
he was the most famous guy in her cell phone. Not the most communicative bunch,
those boys. Terricloth said he always gets emotional when he hears other people
singing his lyrics. Hess said he only wanted to hear “World/Inferno”
once through, which I said was sort of the point.

 

I’m not afraid of losing 
the momentum THS garnered in 2008. We took a step back already when Tad
got sick in October. But I don’t think this will affect THS touring and
scheduling in the slightest – I’m small potatoes in that organization. I just
told our booking agent to go ahead and assume that I’ll tour whenever the Hold
Steady is off. It’s not like I’m the main story in the Hold Steady novel, you
know?

 

The biggest shock regarding how big Hold Steady was came
when I got the text from Tad that we’d be opening for the Rolling Stones. They
are one of the small handful of bands that still have that “wow”
factor.

 

I was a strange little child – I grew up in almost complete
cultural isolation, in a mountain cabin in New Hampshire with no electricity or
plumbing. I really didn’t hear pop music until about 1989 or so.

 

I had cassette series of “Lives of the Great
Composers” – narrated biographies interspersed with clips of the greatest
hits – that I listened to obsessively, and decided I’d grow up to be a Great
Composer, capital G, capital C. I’d cover my ears when my dad put classic rock
radio on. “Ow, Dad, this is too loud.” “Someday, son, I bet
you’ll like rock music.” “No way, Dad!”

 

I think you’re exaggerating how many opening dates we do,
but the reality is, being a full-time musician really means FULL TIME. You
gotta keep working. It’s a strange lifestyle that operates somewhere at the
nexus of art, craft, and factory job. You can be precious about it, but you
still gotta show up.

 

I missed the shows where THS opened for the Get Up Kids. I
hear that was a culture clash. I’d have to say the Kings of Leon in London was a difficult
band to open for – for a band whose press styled them as
straight-outta-the-hills Southern boys they sure had the most rock-star
attitude of anyone I’ve ever dealt with. Their security team – they had a
bodyguard for each band member – locked us in our dressing room because
“The band needs the stairs”. And their front row was all bored
models. Not very rock, boys.

 

I’m not surprised theater festival organizations like the
Fringe Festival love us. How many nascent theatrical productions can promise an
instant crowd of hundreds of teenagers? On the other hand, though, what do you
do with hundreds of drunk teenagers in a seated theatre – they don’t always
think as hard about that.

 

I believe Major
General
me fresh perspectives on what I do with THS and W/IFS. And I don’t
care if it does or doesn’t. And I am being selfish. I think it’ll help me blow
off some steam. I think it’ll keep me from playing live with Inferno, probably,
this year, just for scheduling reasons. It’s frustrating being sort of the
George Harrison of the Hold Steady, especially when it’s become such an
all-consuming time commitment, so it’s already good to have another outlet for
my songs, which, let’s face it, are not always in the main stream of the Hold
Steady river. I may have to count the first THS B-sides collection as a Franz
Nicolay record.

 

I never wake in a cold sweat trying to figure out which of
my ideas fit what ensemble. It’s usually pretty obvious. And sometimes I can
treat it like a project, like, “Ok, time to sit down and write three songs
for the new Hold Steady record. Oh, only two make it? OK, let me see if I can
re-purpose that one and see if someone else will bite. No song left
behind!” In theory, it’s ideal to have multiple outlets and die with every
(decent) note recorded.

 

I was a average-to-mediocre baseball player and skiier until
I moved to New York.
I’ll kill you at ping-pong.

 

Dresden
Dolls? We’ve been friends for an awfully long time – I think I saw their
second-ever show in New York, at a cabaret night my friend Professor Jef used
to run, for maybe thirty people, then my girlfriend hit on Amanda – or was it
vice-versa? – and it was buddies thereafter. We share an aesthetic, musically
and sartorially. They’re serious and focused people. And I think sometimes it
helps them to have a neutral third party as a foil. One time I flew to Paris
with them to play one song on one show, a showcase for European promoters –
their label boss had happened to see me do the Jacques Brel song
“Amsterdam” with them at a coffeeshop at Bennington College, and
said, “Bring the accordion guy. I’ll pay for it.” Same guy who funded
the Inferno acapella project, incidentally. I shared a bottle of champagne with
their manager and never really got on top of the jetlag.

 

Viglione is someone I always knew wanted to do a record or
six with. He and Yula are the greatest rhythm section that never happened in a
regular band. Both of them are among the most extraordinary musicians I’ve ever
met – on any instrument, without obvious effort, and with an unerring
generosity and fierce drive for perfection regardless of circumstance. We would
watch the Dolls and wonder if Amanda knew what she had in Brian. Still
sometimes do.

 

One singularity I wish someone had on tape was myself,
Terricloth, and the Dolls doing Kurt Weill’s “Tango Ballad” at Bowery
Ballroom five years or so ago. What a performance. Jack and Amanda were born to
do that song.

 

The last book that inspired me to madness was Good Night, Sweet Prince, a biography of
John Barrymore by his boon friend, my favorite writer, the fantastically purple
Gene Fowler.

 

The biggest differences sonically and spiritually between Black Rose Paladins and Major General is that Paladins is demos for the record:
one-take solo run-throughs of the songs so I’d have something to give the band,
and something to sell at the shows. Major
General
is the proper record. That said, I’m keeping BRP available in digital form because there are a few songs that
didn’t make it on Major General, and
because I’ll be touring without a band and maybe people who see that would want
to hear the songs done that way.

 

I knew I wanted to start doing solo shows again – if only so
I’d never have to turn down a gig again.

 

I knew that if I ever did a record my dream band included
Brian Viglione and Yula. Jared was kind of the x-factor; I knew him from
Demander but I knew his band mates way better, and it wasn’t until we did
“Jeff Penalty” that I realized the kind of spark he could be. A very
strange fellow.

 

In regard to “Jeff Penalty” – sometimes a great band is
about more than who’s standing the front of it.

 

Major General. I
knew I had limited time to make a record, and wanted to turn that into a virtue
by trying to capture that elusive moment when really talented musicians are
just figuring out their part on a song they don’t know very well, but before
it’s really crystallized. We did two day-long rehearsals, a chaotic show at the
Brooklyn DIY warehouse Death By Audio, and
three days of tracking and feasting – the studio has an apartment upstairs, so
we could stay and cook a proper family-style dinner each night. And mostly, we
got it.

 

In the future, Major General will be a signifier – if it’s
Franz Nicolay, it’s just me; if it’s Franz and Major General, I’m bringing a band. I can’t promise Brian, Jared,
and Yula; everyone’s got a lot on their plates. But it might be a woodwind
quintet. Or barbershop. Don’t assume I’m kidding – you should hear my demo for
“Two-Handed Handshake”.

 

Everyone always likes the pre-reknown band better, you know,
“Oh you like The Hold Steady? Lifter
Puller
There’s always a reason one band succeeds in one way while other
bands succeed in others. Nothing ever burns down by itself. Every fire needs a
little bit of help.

 

On “Do We Not Live in Dreams” I think this might be cribbed
from Wordsworth. I was on a Brazilian music kick when I wrote this; I was
learning all those Jobim chords.

 

You can be whoever you want to be, sure, but some roles fit
better than others. Excess is not excessive when it is conceived in principle.
Except when it gets excessive. That’s “Confessions of an Ineffective Casanova.”

 

“Note on a Subway Wall” is the saddest story ever told. We
will never run into one another on trains.

 

Dexys Midnight Runners is one of the great underrated bands
of their generation. My string parts are my homage to “Celtic Soul
Brothers”.

 

Some of these songs were old songs that I rewrote the lyrics
to, because as a 31-year-old sometimes you can’t sing the lyrics you wrote as a
22-year-old. This one I felt I had to leave alone in deference to the old me who
took himself so seriously. You can’t get that back, you know?

 

“This World Is an Open Door” is a reminder to myself.
Somebody once said ‘I don’t get it, what’s so special about hardwood
floors?” Clearly you’ve never gone apartment-hunting in New York.

 

Am I really “Done Singing”? Not ‘til they pry the banjo from
my frozen claws.

 

My last words for 2008? Why is there so much month left at
the end of the money?

 

 

 

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