Franz Nicolay Profile Page
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Here's my conversation with Franz. T.O. Snob: First I'd like to congratulate you on an incredible 2008 with The Hold Steady. At Snob's Music we named Stay Positive our #3 album of the year and "Sequestered In Memphis" the #2 song. Franz Nicolay: Thanks, I'll be sure to take every bit of credit for that!
T.O. Snob: My wife loves you by the way. FN: Please don't hold it against me...
T.O. Snob: I'll try not to. You've got your first solo album Major General coming out on January 13th. With Stay Positive being released and all the touring in support of that album, where did you find the time to write and record your album? FN: I've always had a lot more material written than could ever make it onto any Hold Steady record or fit on release schedules, so it was just a matter of finding time to make the record. Basically I did it right on the heels of the recording of "Stay Positive", in the lull between mixing and the release. I wanted to turn adversity into advantage and capture that elusive moment where really talented musicians figure out their part but before it gets calcified or over-thought. So we practiced two days, played a show, and banged out the basic tracks in three days of cooking, drinking, and playing.
T.O. Snob: What should fans expect from Major General?
FN: Scott Walker singing over the exit music to an MGM musical. As performed by the Attractions.
T.O. Snob: To me your record sounds more nuanced and diverse that The Hold Steady's material. Did you make a conscious effort to try to distinguish your solo material from the band's output? FN: I didn't have to - my sensibility has always been pretty distinct from that of the band as a whole. In it, but not of it, you know? I joined the band like an anthropologist parachuting into an island culture and trying to learn their customs and teach them some of mine. Some of them took - big choruses, melodramatic orchestration - some didn't. And I learned how to play in E major. But 'Major General" actually has more in common with The Hold Steady than some other stuff I've done like Guignol or Anti-Social Music.
T.O. Snob: I have to admit when I first heard your vocals on "Hey Dad" I was surprised at how powerful a singer you are. Where and how did you develop your vocal style? FN: Thanks. To be honest it's not such a good thing for a guy who spends most of his time doing background vocals - I actually had to start doing vocal exercises to learn how to project less. Or turn toward the wall. Galen asked me once, "How the hell did you get to singing so loud?", and I said, "Seven years, no monitors." That is, years of yelling as loud as I could, in tune, just hear myself over the rest of the band. Which became a band in-joke for all the skills you acquire during the rough years of touring with your first band or two. Like, "How can you sleep in that filthy corner like that?" "Seven years, no monitors, dude." The other answer is, singing along to American Music Club and Divine Comedy records when I was a teenager. I've always been attracted to that theatrical, full-throated style, going back though Jacques Brel, Gene Pitney, Al Jolson, and so on. Actually, that pre-amplification vaudeville howling is the original "seven years, no monitors".
T.O. Snob: You've done a lot of work with members of The Dresden Dolls, including on this album. Who would you most like to work with in the future? FN: I've known the Dolls dating back to their first shows in New York, and obviously we share a sensibility, both musically and aesthetically. Brian was someone I've wanted to work with for a very long time - he and Yula are two of the greatest natural musicians I've ever met. In the future? I'm already planning the next record, and I think I'll take the solo demos and give it to various people to fill out the arrangements - woodwind quartets, bluegrass string bands, harmonica ensembles - I'm not sure yet. I'd love to do something with the great circus composer and raconteur Sxip Shirey. And I've always loved Joe Henry's productions - listening to them is like curling up on a giant, overstuffed suede couch with a comforter. Like that Alice In Chains song "Angry Chair", but, like, "Melancholy Chair".
T.O. Snob: Much like The Dresden Dolls, your songs have a very dramatic, theatrical flair to them. In fact, "Confessions of an Ineffective Casanova" and "Nightratsong" reminded me of Queen at their rock opera peak. What or who do you attribute that influence to? Have you ever thought about acting?
FN: Really, those two? Interesting. I think of "Nightratsong" - especially the strings - as a Dexys Midnight Runners homage. Specifically "Celtic Soul Brothers". Yeah, I'm theatrical. I'm a ham, even. Music is theatrical by it's nature, and performing music is Performance with a capital "P", whether some musicians want to admit that or not. I think often it's an issue of vulnerability; how much you're willing to make yourself emotionally available in your songs and onstage. Music by its nature gives you access to more heightened and embarrassing feelings than non-performative arts, and if you don't avail yourself of that, you're missing one of the most distinctive and effective tools in your art. I'm hard to shame, and I'll go as far as an audience is willing to go with me. I act every day of my life. Sure, I'd do it on film too. It's not something I have time to actuvely pursue right now, I'd have to be asked. Any takers out there?
T.O. Snob: I know you have some solo dates scheduled in support of the album and I noticed you're coming to Buffalo but there's no Toronto date. What gives? FN: Ever tried to get a Canadian work permit?
T.O. Snob: Can't say I have. What are your guiltiest musical pleasures? FN: There's no guilt, only pleasure. Why would one be ashamed of something one likes?
T.O. Snob: Have you ever heard a song and said "damn I wish I wrote that"? FN: All the time. That's the best feeling. "I Drink" by Charles Aznavour. "Johnny Mathis' Feet" by American Music Club. "No Children" by the Mountain Goats. "Don't Let Us Get Sick" by Warren Zevon. "Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo" by Jimmy Durante. "Once I Loved", Jobim. "The Frog Princess", Divine Comedy. The list goes on, endlessly.
T.O. Snob: If you don't mind I'd like to do a quick word association game with you. I'll give you a word and you tell me what comes to mind: Canada? FN: "Sir, you're inadmissable." T.O. Snob: Touring? FN: Time to turn off your brain. T.O. Snob: Craig Finn? FN: Needs a new belt. T.O. Snob: Moustaches? FN: The best career move I ever made. T.O. Snob: Cabaret? FN: There can be more truth in charade than in authenticity. You can de-personalize it and it's easier to play night after night.
T.O. Snob: Is there anything you'd like to say to your fans in Toronto? FN: That show I played up there with Horsey Craze was one of the physically hottest ever. How'd you do that? Oh, and thanks for the Constantines.
T.O. Snob: Thanks for taking the time to do this for us. Congratulations on a fantastic 2008 and all our best for 2009.