This interview was originally published by Stereokill on February 16, 2009
I love The Hold Steady I really bloody do. So I was pretty darn excited to contact Franz Nicolay, the band’s eccentric keyboard player, to discuss his debut solo album, Major General, The Hold Steady, and his other musical ventures.
Besides The Hold Steady, Nicolay has played with the circus-punk collective World/Inferno Friendship Society, recorded with The Dresden Dolls (Brian Viglione of The Dresden Dolls is a member Nicolay’s touring band), founded New York’s Anti-Social Music, and also plays in Guignol, his “Balkan/klezmer/circus band.”
How would you describe Major General?
It’s a songwriters’ scrapbook: A disparate set of rockers, weepers, epics, and sketches; with an open heart and an outstretched hand.
What influenced your decision to release a solo album?
I get bored when I have any time off. I’m a little neurotic that way. Plus if you saw my apartment, you’d know why I don’t like to spend that much time there. I write a lot of music and not all of it fits into other projects, especially the Hold Steady, where I’m sort of the George Harrison or John Paul Jones of the thing: a couple tracks on each record and a lot of b-sides (for various reasons). Anyway, I didn’t want to be financially tied or publicly associated with just one project, I’ve never liked being tied down that way.
Do you forsee more solo releases in the future?
Yes, actually I just made plans for a 10″ vinyl EP this summer, and I should have another full-length next year, and so on and so on. I don’t ever start a project assuming it’ll be a one-off, and the idea is to build this as a sustainable and separate entity.
Who are your biggest musical influences?
Charles Ives, American Music Club, Scott Walker, the Muppets, Tom Waits, Jimmy Durante, The Band. Melodramatic music with its eyes in the clouds and toes in the dirt.
With the release of Stay Positive, a whole lot of touring, and the recording of Major General, 2008 was clearly a busy year for you. What are your plans for 2009?
It looks like it’ll be just as busy. I’m doing more Hold Steady touring of course; and solo touring around that, including a West Coast swing in April, with the great Swedish artist Moneybrother, and I’m guest-curating and MCing a weekly salon in the East Village next month.
Guignol, my Balkan/klezmer/circus band with Balkan Beat Box’s Peter Hess, is just finishing a full-length collaboration with Philly-area, folk-punk hero Mischief Brew: seven Mischief Brew songs with Guignol as backing band; six Guignol songs with Erik [Peterson] on guitar, a Django Reinhardt cover, and a barn-burning take on Iron Maiden’s “Hallowed Be Thy Name”. That’ll be out this summer and hopefully we can play some shows behind that.
I’m producing a new Anti-Social Music record, and I’ve commissioned a series of videos for Major General songs from local artists, and those will trickle out over the next few months.
The Hold Steady are one of most acclaimed bands recording today. How does it feel, for you personally, to receive such warm praise from critics and fans, and how does it feel, to experience a constantly growing interest in the band?
It’s great, of course. What else can one say?
Of the four Hold Steady studio albums released to date, which is your favourite and why?
Stay Positive. Doesn’t every band always say their new record is the best? But to expand on that, I prefer the fuller sound of Boys and Girls in America and Stay Positive to the earlier records, and I think Stay Positive is a more - how shall I say - integrated, nuanced, less hectic distillation of that sound. I realize this is a controversial opinion.
What can fans expect from the upcoming Hold Steady documentary and live album, A Positive Rage?
I have no idea. I have neither seen the cut, nor heard the mix. I imagine drinking will be involved. It was an exciting time. The live record is taken from the very end of two years of touring behind Boys and Girls in America, and I’m glad we recorded then, because it’s the real peak of the band as a performing unit.
What do you make of the current state of the music industry?
I think musicians had two business models for thousands of years: 'The Troubadour', where you had to travel from town to town and sing for your supper, or 'The Patron', where you courted the favour and worked at the pleasure of the idle rich. There was a magical interregnum of about a century in which it was possible to make a living as a recording artist. That time appears to have passed, and it seems we’re back to the original two models.
Are there plans for another World/Inferno Friendship Society release?
In a vague and shadowy way. I’m only peripherally involved in the band at this time, but I did have one writing session with Jack [Terricloth, vocals] a while ago. He’s working on another theatre project at the moment. I wouldn’t expect new recordings until 2010.
What can you tell our readers about Anti-Social Music?
Anti-Social Music is a non-profit, composer-performer collective, made up of people with classical training who thought chamber music concerts were not incompatible with heavy drinking and basement shows.
Are there any up-and-coming bands that you think our readers should listen to?
Emilyn Brodsky, if you like ukuleles, feelings, and the Mountain Goats. Emily Hope Price, if you like cellos and loops. Nanunchka, if you like fiery Israelis and Kate Bush. The Dogwoods, if you think toothless squatters and toothless Southerners have more in common than they know. Psalters, for two concepts that seem impossible to combine: an otherworldly, deserts-and-miracles tinged spirituality, with bearded, ashen-faced dumpster divers.
What were your favourite albums of 2008?
Emilyn Brodsky - Greatest Tits, Billy Bragg - Mr. Love & Justice, Black Mountain - In The Future, Constantines - Kensington Heights, Tim Fite - Fair Ain’t Fair, Max Levine Ensemble - OK Smartypants
And what is your favourite album of all time?
The most influential albums on me were American Music Club’s Mercury and The Band’s self-titled second record. My favorite changes from month to month…
Finally, can you tell our readers a story from the road?
The really good ones can’t possibly be told. You know that!
Interview by Andrew Lindsay, February 2009