After fifteen years in the music business, performing first with World/Inferno Society and Guignol, and then finding huge audiences with the likes of The Hold Steady and Against Me!, Franz Nicolay is on the verge of calling it quits. First though, there’s the matter of his remarkable new album, To Us The Beautiful! Franz talked frankly to God Is In The TV Zine, about this work of art, former bandmates and a particularly mischievous rodent…
To Us, The Beautiful! is a huge sounding record, arguably your most epic release to date. It’s also a very angry album, if I’ve interpreted its meaning correctly. Was there a conscious decision to hike up and intensify the drama as much as possible?
I think all of my records been pretty dramatic – that’s just the pitch I operate at. You may well notice some frustration in it though. I wrote most of the songs at a time when it seemed like my career as a musician was over. I’d made what I considered my best record, but meanwhile I couldn’t draw anyone to a show in my own country. I started getting touchy and thin-skinned at shows, and I felt like I was losing my mojo as a performer. I’d had a baby, so I couldn’t tour full-time anymore, so I was functionally unemployed, and moving around besides. I was facing reinventing myself and starting over at the age of thirty-six, and working as a part-time flower delivery guy and piano tuner.
“Well, you had a good run”, someone said to me, but that was no particular solace. It is one of the signal injustices of the music business that you’re expected to give your life over to it when you’re young, but if you don’t make an early fortune, you’ve gotta start from scratch in middle-age while your peers have been building careers. That’s the line in ‘Porta Fenestella’ – “I was too young to quit when I was too old for this”. I felt washed up. I could feel myself becoming the aging, bitter crank I’d met so many times on tour, and I wanted to get out before that happened, but didn’t want to let go, either. So “fuck it”, I thought, “I’ll get out. Let me just bang out one more quick record. It’s all guitar tunes, it’ll be cheap to make and then I can fucking move on”.
It’s not all doom and gloom though, is it? Some of the lyrics made me laugh. For instance, there’s a line “A rat ate my t-shirt while I slept, that’s fine, I’ve got too many black t-shirts. A white rat can have one and play like Chaplin for his rat friends”…“
I was staying at a guy’s house in Southampton, and unbeknownst to me, he’d draped my t-shirt over his pet rat’s cage. In the morning, I couldn’t find my shirt, until after some searching I saw a few remaining scraps of cloth in the corner of the cage, half buried under the sawdust. Then I amused myself imagining what use a white rat could have for a black t-shirt. Classic film charades, perhaps!
Another lyric that tickled my earlobes was “The only thing sadder than an old hippie is a young hippie“. Why?
‘Cause when something’s gone, it’s gone!
I was astonished to realise that it’s now five years since you left The Hold Steady. I was quite gutted at the time, to be honest with you, as you’d been a major player on what is feasibly my favourite album of all time (‘Stay Positive’), but you have both proved more than capable of releasing consistently excellent material ever since. Was it a wrench to leave? And how did the guys take it?
To be honest, this is something that is always tricky for me to talk about, not because I have any problem with it, but because people are always trying to read stuff into what i say that isn’t there. It was a frustrating time in the band for everyone, and I left, because life is short, and I wasn’t ready to settle into a sinecure. As a friend of mine said, when you’re on a train and you realise you don’t want to go where the train is going, the only thing to do is jump off. You don’t know when you’re going to stop rolling, and you’ll probably get a little banged up, but the train isn’t going to go off the tracks. Nobody seemed shocked or dismayed, or frankly said anything about it.
Do you still see anyone from the band? Followed their progress?
I see Bobby (Drake) from time to time – we were the youngest guys in the band and road roommates. They asked me – through Bob, I guess he’s the designated Franz-whisperer – to open for their shows in Toronto a few months ago, but that didn’t seem like a good idea. I went to see them in Toronto last winter when I was living there. I figured, five years had passed, it was time to check back in. It was very cleansing for me – I felt like I got some closure, that I hadn’t been missing out on anything.
I’ve checked out the records. If I was writing reviews of them, I do have some specific criticisms, not as a former member, just as an interested party who knows their work as well as anyone. I think the doubling down on guitars is neither here nor there. I’m not sure you’d find the person who’d say “The real problem with The Hold Steady is there’s just not enough guitars”. It’s important to remember that there were almost as many people who thought keyboards ruined the band as people who missed them when they were gone. I think there was a shift in Craig (Finn)’s lyrics, to their detriment, from relatively neutral, even amused, narration of peoples’ bad behaviour – we’re all glorious fuckups – to dispenser of paternalistic advice and moralistic judgment. I am surprised when I see him getting patted on the back for writing female characters. Sure, Holly (though that’s a pretty familiar romanticization of the old Madonna/whore thing), but especially on the last record there’s an uncomfortable amount of frankly condescending and not a little contradictory (“It’s a big city, there’s a lot of love/you gotta get back out there“) versus “I’m sorry, but there’s other words than yes/why don’t you wait a while?” attitudes toward the women in the songs. It’s a problem.
You were a touring member of Against Me! for a while, and Andrew Seward helped out on the new record, along with Leftover Crack’s Ara Babajian. What drew you to these two musicians in particular and what
qualities did they bring to the recording process?
The way I heard most of the songs were like an early 80’s power-pop record, the post-punk guitar pop like Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Marshall Crenshaw, Paul Weller – Ted Leo is the best example of that these days. So I wanted to put together a band of old pros at hard-edged guitar-pop songs. Yoni, the guitarist, has been around the block too – in addition to his own band, he was a touring and recording member of the Swedish band Moneybrother, and did some great playing on their last record, the kind of unshowy but melodic parts that are crucial to guitar-pop. Also, we shared the experience of being touring vets with experience in bands with a lot of melodrama involved, and so the experience of making a quick and painless record was, I think, refreshing for everyone.
You’ve now put out 4 albums in the last 5 years, amongst a plethora of other releases, yet you don’t seem to be showing any sign of slowing down! How do you manage it, and furthermore, how do you relax, if, indeed, you ever do?
Well I feel like I’m slowing down. I’m looking after a baby most of the time, so I’ve got about fifteen hours a week to do anything, which includes working out, answering emails, and taking a nap. Which I suppose is a decent amount, I’m just used to being able to work on several projects at once. So actually to me it feels like I’m not working most of the time. But I do find that with a kid around I’m actually more efficient with the less time I have. So, a few years ago, if I had all day to work, I might get two hours of work done. Now if I only have two hours I get that same two hours of work. Other than that, I don’t know, I read, I try to run, I bartend a couple nights a week, which gets me out of the house.
What are your favourite memories from each period of your career?
Oh. I don’t always love to go mentally revisiting the past. I had wonderful times, but nostalgia is a slippery slope into a wallow of complicated emotions. It’s like re-watching a movie – it’ll never be as thrilling since you know how it ends. I’d rather watch a new movie, you know?
What are the immediate plans now for Franz Nicolay, and what would be the ultimate goal you’d like to achieve now?
I wrote a book about DIY and punk in the former Communist world, which should be coming out at some point in the next year. I have another book idea that I’ve started work on. There’s a song cycle I’ve had to put off working on for three years now. I’ve got all kinds of projects, it’s just a matter of finding time to work on them. Probably I’m going to focus on writing for now.
I still kind of feel like this will be my last record for a while. It’s too hard to try and raise money to make them, and too sad when they disappear into the void. If I’m not trying to make a living as a musician anymore, I have the freedom to only play the good shows and none of the depressing filler.
Franz Nicolay Live dates:
13 – Perth @ The Twa Tams (w/ Jon Shoe, Broken Stories)
14 – Dundee @ Buskers (w/ Jon Shoe, Broken Stories)
15 – Glasgow @ 13th Note (w/ Broken Stories)
16 – Belfast @ The Bar With No Name
17 – Edinburgh @ Banshee Labyrinth (w/ Broken Stories)
18 – Huddersfield @ HDM Beer Shop
19 – Leicester – Soundhouse
20 – Manchester @ Star and Garter
21 – Peterborough @ Met Lounge
22 – Norwich @ Owl Sanctuary
23 – Plymouth @ Underground
24 – London @ Brixton Windmill (w/ Jon Shoe)
25 – Exeter @ The Cavern (w/ Jon Shoe)
26 – Bristol @ The Exchange (w/ Jon Shoe)
27 – Southampton @ Joiners (w/ Jon Shoe)