Conversation: Franz Nicolay

It seems safe to say that The Hold Steady are the greatest American rock n’ roll band right now. Craig Finn and his Springsteen-esque observations on the punks and fuck-ups are a third of the holy trinity of rock scribes, along with John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats) and Will Sheff (Okkervil River) in the renaissance of hyper-literate song-crafting.

However, I am sure there is an old adage that goes something like, behind every great songwriter is, well . . . a few more great songwriters. Franz Nicolay has spent the last few years establishing himself as one of the most well-known session men in not only his full-time gig as keyboardist in The Hold Steady, but also his time spent in The World/Inferno Friendship Society and collaborating with The Dresden Dolls. His resume is beyond impressive and has led him to his current incarnation: solo artist. On his first outing, Major General, Nicolay shows the maturity it takes to strike out on his own but also shows a willingness to put forth an album full of songs that sound less like they were written with barrooms in mind. The songs are more akin with the works created by the minds behind the Tin Pan Alley pop that had such an influence on songwriters from McCartney to Stepehen Merritt.

Franz met up with us at Kill Devil Hill General Store in Greenpoint and discussed his personal offering of tunes that deserve to be added to the great American songbook immediately.

What Instruments do you Play
Lately I’m a piano guy, my job is as a piano player. My identity is as an accordion player. If asked, I say I am an accordion player.
I play a little mandolin, a lot of banjo recently, played guitar since I was a teenager. I started playing saw a few years ago. I played French horn as a kid, I can still do some simple arrangements.

How many languages do you speak?
I speak a little bit of Spanish, a little bit of Italian and a little bit of Ukrainian.

You are a pretty well-versed fellow.
I get bored easily. The thing is with the instruments was that I kinda figured that I knew I wanted to be a professional musician and I wanted to move to New York and do that kind of thing and that I realized pretty quickly that I wasn’t going to be the best piano player in town, nobody necessarily is, but if you can bring a little more to mix then all of a sudden you become the leatherman of session guys.

You came to New York, from where?
I grew up in New Hampshire, in a town called Sandwich, about 900 people. It was pretty rustic.
My parents were pretty back to nature artists, and they raised sheep, my dad was a potter, mom was a photographer, and they bought fifty acres of forrest, cleared it themselves and put up a two room cabin, a downstairs and an upstairs. No electricity, no running water, no plumbing.
It was me and my two sisters, and we kind of lived that way for several years in a little house in the big woods.

Did you spend a lot of time playing music growing up?
Yeh, I saw Itzhak Perlman on Sesame Street at a friends house when I was five years old and I said I want to play the violin, my parents said okay, let’s find you a violin. SO we did that, and then I started to play piano.
I had a box set of cassettes of Lives of the Great Composers. I would listen to those obsessively, these live narration’s on the lives of Beethoven, Motzart, the great composers, interspersed with snippets of their greatest hits.
So that was it, when I was in elementary school I said I wanted to be a great composed, capitol G, capitol C, so I always wanted to be a musician.

So you spent time in World/Inferno Friendship Society.
Yeh, that was my project for a couple of years. Then there was a cross fade. Craig was working for this company that did broadcasts from rock clubs and they wanted to get into live records so I first got to know him as the A and R guy for the World/Inferno live record, and he was like “yeh I’m getting this other band together, i don’t know if it’s going to do anything, but we are going to make a record, and if you wanna come over and play some piano on it…”
I said absolutely.

So you joined The Hold Steady as a side thing?
Originally World/Inferno was going to be my main priority and I was going to do The Hold Steady when I could but it just became an upward thing.

Were you surprised when it became what it did?
A little bit. You always hope for success.

Does working with a lyric writer like Craig (Finn of The Hold Steady) have any influence on the way you write your lyrics?
I don’t think so. Most of those songs are true stories. I’m not exactly a gifted fiction writer. I can’t make stuff up.
Luckily I have been able to live life in such a way that I have stories to tell, so those are true stories.

So did you see yourself becoming the frontman?
Bands inevitably become defines by their iconic frontmen, but sometimes that takes away from the accomplishments of the musicians that sometimes write the music. Obviously as a musician this is something I think a lot about, and so what happens to this great band if the iconic frontman doesn’t want to play with them anymore? Do they have to stop playing music?

What made you want to come out with a solo album now? Did you feel the time was just right?
I feel the time is right to start setting the groundwork. Before joining World/Inferno I had fronted my own band, but I was having no success, nobody cared. So when I joined World/Inferno and it was a band that actually had fans I was like “thank god!” I just sort of put that part of myself aside for five or six years, but I knew it was something I was going to turn to, and one of the benefits of being in World/Inferno was that I had been that I was able to do a lot of different projects and one of the things I was missing in the intense and steady touring process was the opportunity to do different kinds of music. I was afraid of getting re-defined as a piano player in a rock band.
While I do a certain amount of songwriting in The Hold Steady Im sort of the John Paul Jones or George Harrison of the group.

The silent one???
No, the guy who gets one or two tracks on the records and does some multi-instrument stuff. But having a lot of music leftover…I like writing music as an assignment. Like here is a Hold Steady song, here is a World/Inferno song or sometimes I just have songs Ill just throw against the wall and see who bites.
After a couple of years I had this backlog of songs that in the dead letter file, so I had the time off, I had the songs and I wanted to start setting the groundwork in case there is an inevitable Craig Finn solo record or for whatever reason The Hold Steady slows it’s schedule, I wanna be in a position where I can still just go on tour.

Something that Hold Steady and World/Inferno seem to have in common is that they both have this fanatical following and they both have somewhat unorthodox approaches to their respective styles, now you have Major General coming out, where do you think that fits in the mix?

I think it’s probably not punk enough for World/Inferno fans and not rock enough for Hold Steady fans. I would like to think they are interested, but there are a lot of reasons people become fans of bands that doesn’t have to do with the music. They have to do with the style or the identity. Obviously I hope that the people who like both of those bands would give it a shot, but it’s a different kind of record.
If somebody goes into it thinking they are going to hear a Hold Steady record, that wasn’t the intent. The intent was to make another project. This one focused on song-writing and sort of vaudevillian story-telling.

I notices the way you sing is in an almost balladeering sort of way, who are you influenced by?
I like old style crooning. Gene Pitney or Scott Walker, Neil Hannon from Divine Comedy. I like big, sweeping, melodramatic stuff. From my vocal point of view, one of pet peeves of indie rock is this fetishisation for male voices, the sort of under your breath, under your breath, looking at your shoes type singing.

Any examples?
That Bon Iver record for example. It’s a passive-aggressive style at best. It’s the kind of singing that doesn’t look you in the eye. I like a song from a performing standpoint that will grab you by the collar and say “here is what I wanna tell ya.”
That is a style that has gone out of fashion.

Why do you think that is?
Because in the post-Dylan era, there was a fetish of singer-songwriters who wrote their own material, which is fine, but a lot of people just aren’t good at both.

So do you essentially like to put yourself inside a box with song writing?
I’m finding my way out of it. I think you put yourself in the narrative of a continuing stream. I think if you understand where you are coming from, you have a better understanding of where you can take it, and if you think you are creating something that has never been created before you are probably diluting yourself.

You are in a successful band, and you are about to release a solo album, is this like all your dreams coming true?
That depends. You don’t want to say that because then where do you go?

Where do you go?
I think that’s part of why I put out this album. It would be easy for me to say “okay, I’m in a successful band and I can relax now. Im a professional musician.”
But then I get restless. So I put this record out there and see how people react to that. I guess it’s another sounding board.