Interview with Franz Nicolay: By John Miskelly and Leo Stamps

Franz Nicolay is not one to be reduced to the peripherals. Even without strictly “fronting” any of the numerous bands he’s worked with, his flamboyance, theatrical charisma, sharp fashion sense, and musical talent can’t help but attract attention. As admirable as the sheer presence he exudes, is his musical diversity. From the circus punk of The World Inferno Friendship Society to the melancholy, joyous bar rock of The Hold Steady, Franz has poured his heart and soul into each project and cameo he’s been a part of. One may not like all the bands he’s contributed to, but that is beside the point. It’s his “sure, why not?” attitude and the degrees of separation it creates that helps make punk such an interesting and incestuous web of intrigue. This interview took place at The 10 Foot Tall bar and venue, Cardiff, Wales, England in March 2010 while Franz toured as a solo artist.

Photo taken at Spillers Records, Cardiff (the oldest record store in the world!)

John: How are you handling the roundabouts over here?

Franz: It’s really fine. It’s not a stress.

Leo: A lot of Americans I speak to actually say they’re quite fun.

Franz: It is! You don’t have to stop and start. It’s like bumper cars! I have some observations about the driving over here. I mean, I’ve been a New York driver for my entire adult life, so it’s not that intimidating to drive in London except for the fact that, apparently, there’s no jay walking law. So people are constantly darting out from between parked cars and every which way. I feel like the truck driver in Frogger, trying not to run over these people in black hoodies who I see out of the corner of my eye.

Leo: The ones you’ve gotta look out for are the groups of young and tipsy women on a Friday night who have no concept of traffic!

Franz: Well, last time I was here in Cardiff was in April of last year. I was with The Hold Steady when we were supporting Counting Crows for a month. We did the arena show, but then the singer got sick so we had to cancel a bunch of shows. So we were here for three days: Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. It’s a beautiful town. I love it. I had a great time walking round the park and everything, but when the sun went down it was like a Roman orgy! The gangs of young women with the skirts up to here and the high heels clawing at each other. It’s like “Whao!”

John: You mentioned in Spillers (record store, where Franz did a mini set that afternoon) some kind of Brooklyn-based, song-writing collective. Could you explain that again?

Franz: It’s an open collective of songwriters—it’s not exclusive or anything—run by a woman called Susan Hwang. And she assigns everyone a book every month and we read it and write a song or two. The first Tuesday of every month, at a club called Goodbye Blue Monday in Bushwick, everybody comes together and performs them. It’s neat because you get a real combination of people who are professional songwriters, like Jeffery Lewis and myself, and some people who are just starting out. It has an evening effect because everyone’s debuting their material. In a lot of cases they wrote it that day, so the quality can really vary. But that’s the excitement of it.

John: So do you get a good turnout when you perform the songs?

Franz: Well it’s not a very big club, so it doesn’t take a lot to make it look full.

John: Is that a unique thing, then? Are there any other towns that have that song writing collective idea?

Franz: That’s unique. That’s Susan’s idea. She has actually started franchising it out to some other cities.

Leo: Why is Brooklyn such a creative hub at the moment, do you think?

Franz: Well, I guess New York’s always been a creative hub; it has that destination quality. There are some cities that are not just cities, they’re cities of the world: London, Berlin. The one most ambitious kid from every little town goes there. All those people need a place to live and Brooklyn, right now, is the place. It sort of occupies that perfect medium between not too far away from city centers and services but far enough out so that people can still afford to live there who are in my business.

Leo: Do you think that it’s kind of like the new Greenwich Village?

Franz: Well, yeah. These things move every decade. It was Greenwich Village in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Soho in the ‘70s, EastVillage up through the ‘80s, Williamsburg in the ‘90s, and now Bushwick. Every ten years it travels one or two more subway stops down the line.

John: Are there any particular bands that we should be looking out for out of Brooklyn?

Franz: There’s a band called Demander that I’ve been a fan of for a long time. They played on one track of my album. There’s a band called Pearl And The Beard that I really like. There’s a band that I just produced a record for called the Debutant Hour. They tour England from time to time. There’s also a band called Yoni Gordan And The Goods, sort of a Ted Leo sounding thing.

John: You did—I think—one song with The Star Fucking Hipsters…

Franz: I did a bunch of stuff on the first record. I did all the keyboard stuff on Until We’re Dead. I performed with them a couple of times.

John: Do they reflect your own politics?

Franz: I’m not unsympathetic to their politics, but I’m not a radical. I don’t advocate the overthrow of the government! But Stza’s a friend. I’ve played with Leftover Crack a few times and Choking Victim a couple of times. I played accordion then. I think his politics—such as he presents them on record—are, to a large extent, exaggerated. I don’t know anyone much older than sixteen or seventeen who genuinely thinks that cops should be killed or that 9/11 was a conspiracy.

Leo: Do you think then that punk has a role to kind of play devil’s advocate, politically?

Franz: Absolutely. I think there’s an aspect of it where, if you’re gonna make a political statement in a song, you can’t be very subtle about it because most people don’t read the lyrics. In a musical context and especially in a punk context, it’s sloganeering. You have to say something pithy, catchy—something that people who have never heard the song before can sing along to that, if they don’t know by the first chorus, can sing along to in the second chorus.

John: Listening to your solo stuff, I was wondering if you contributed any lyrics to any Hold Steady songs?

Franz: No, that’s entirely Craig.

John: I just saw some similarities in the way you use characters and stories.

Franz: Well, song writing is storytelling. Craig doesn’t have a monopoly on that! Ideally, if you’re not sloganeering then you are storytelling!

John: While we’re on the subject, why did you leave The Hold Steady?

Franz: The usual boring combination of personal and artistic differences. I could go on for about an hour about specifics, but I don’t think anybody wants or needs to know that.

John: Did you contribute stuff to the album that’s coming out this year?

Franz: No, but I have a couple of songwriting credits on it. Actually, I’m a co-writer on the single. I just found out last night, which is a little bit funny to me. I did the first session and then I left the band. They wiped those parts and re-recorded them.

Leo: At the risk of dwelling on it, do you see a lot of guys who, just after they get huge or as they’re getting big, decide to leave a band? How does it feel to leave a band that has a big following already and go out and do your own thing?

Franz: Well, it’s not the first popular band that I’ve left. I left World Inferno (Friendship Society) to join The Hold Steady and they were bigger than The Hold Steady at that time.

John: So you weren’t in those two bands at the same time?

Franz: There was a crossover. There was a two-year period when I was trying to do both. Then it became unsustainable.

John: Was it too tough juggling those two bands?

Franz: It was because World Inferno was already pretty big and The Hold Steady were on a real upward trajectory, but neither of them was quite big enough when put together for me to make a living. But I was such a true believer in World Inferno that I wanted to make it work and not admit to myself that I would have to leave the band. So, I was constantly leap frogging between two tours, with the result of it not really working for anyone. I was sick and exhausted and I didn’t really make any money. I lost my job and I got evicted from my apartment, so I was like, “I’ve gotta do the one thing that’s gonna allow me to make a living for a little while.” I never really left World Inferno in the fact that I did tour with them again and I stayed involved. I did some songwriting with them and we’ve talked about doing stuff with them again. It’s just the timing of things didn’t really work out. It doesn’t make sense for me to go back and be a full-time member if only because I don’t really like taking steps backwards. I’ve done that. What I hadn’t done for a long time was go out on my own and sort of try and remove the parenthesis from the end of my name, so that instead of “Franz Nicolay member of The Hold Steady or World Inferno.”

Leo: Yeah, even the poster today at Spillers was like, “Franz Nicolay from The Hold Steady!”

Franz: I’m not trying to escape or run away from it. I’m very proud of what I did with both of those bands, Leftover Crack, and all those other bands. But… a band is a beautiful dream and a really delicate thing. I want to be in a position where I can do this for the rest of my life. And the only way to ensure that that’s true is to not have to be relying on a bunch of other people. The parenthesis is still there tonight because I’ve only really been doing this for not very long. That’s always gonna be there in some peoples’ minds, but not for everybody and not eventually.

John: After fifteen years, is it possible to pinpoint a particular highlight in your career in music?

Franz: I wouldn’t pick any one. It’s all part of a spectrum of highlights and lowlights. That’s the experience as a whole. Even the really bad stuff is all part of “the thing.” But that’s what I wanted. I didn’t want just success.

Leo: Can you pinpoint exactly where the happiness in what you do comes from?

Franz: [long pause] Not exactly. I love travelling because I like seeing how other people live and also how other people don’t live. This actually comes back to why I like travelling around by myself instead of with a band, which I have enjoyed, but it’s not something I really want to do a lot of. I really like the feeling of actually having a craft and working for a living. If I’m driving myself and loading the gear and selling the merch and playing the show, then I feel that I’ve done a full day’s work and, at the end, I physically have the cash in my hand. That’s a really visceral sense for someone who’s not a carpenter or a mill worker or working on a train, which are all romantic jobs in terms of making a living where you can travel anywhere. But this happens to be what I do and it gives me that feeling of daily accomplishment. If I’ve gone to a strange town and played to a bunch of people who I don’t know, it’s a real mental challenge. Going out and getting on a tour bus, waking up in some city, playing for a thousand people the same set that you’ve just played for the last thirty nights; that’s no challenge. That’s a slam-dunk before you’ve even gotten out of bed. I had to do a lot to get to that point, but once you’re there, I think the fun for me was over. The fun for me was in the building.

John: Is fashion quite important to you? You’re always very well turned out.

Franz: I think that a show should be a special occasion. People have left their homes and paid money to come and see it. I think you owe them that respect to put a little effort into it.

John: Does the name Lenny Henry mean anything to you?

Franz [slightly confused]: Umm…No!

John: It’s just a couple of years ago you played that Jools Holland (British musical maestro and TV presenter with an annual New Years Eve TV music special) show on the BBC…

Leo: Lenny Henry, by the way, is a famous black comedian over here…

Franz: Oh, that guy! Oh yeah. Well, I shook his hand and said “Hi.”

John: Well, because I’m really cool, I was sitting at home with my mum watching TV on New Years and suddenly there was The Hold Steady on the BBC. Then there was a moment when they spoke to Lenny Henry and he complimented the band and, in particular, your moustache. It was one of those worlds colliding moments.

Franz: Well, the two things that I most remember about that TV show was that I drank an entire bottle of champagne during the filming, so I was completely hammered by the time it came for us to play our song. Also, they had a harmonica quartet called Sväng that I was totally mesmerised by. They were basically the only non-famous band on the whole thing, but they were fantastic. They were Scandinavian in someway. I bought both their records on iTunes straight away and later found out they’d done the soundtrack for Howl’s Moving Castle, the animated film. They were the novelty act, but that’s my sensibility. That’s what appeals to me.

Leo: I think novelty in music does help when there are so many bands that sound the same…

Franz: Well, a “novelty act” is a pejorative but, linguistically, it means something new and surprising and different, so what it should be is a compliment. I think people in that genre are underrated. It’s like children’s music; it’s harder than it looks to do. Look at a band like They Might Be Giants. They’ve been around for thirty years successfully and it’s not as easy as it looks. Or something like The Muppets, which are actually a huge inspiration on me for a whole bunch of reasons. The scale of ambition there is really high and they achieved a combination of high ambition and widespread appeal that is incredibly difficult to achieve and maintain. The only other examples I can think of are the Pixar movies from the last couple of years.