Artists in the Office: Franz Nicolay
Published: Wednesday, April 25, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, April 25, 2012 00:04
Franz Nicolay leads a double life as a musician — performing both as a solo folk troubadour and a member of some of the world’s biggest independent bands.
He has played in groups such as The Hold Steady, as well as held stints with the Dresden Dolls and Against Me! Yet he has also released two solo albums, “Major General” and “Luck and Courage,” that hew closer to his own folk vaudeville sensibilities.
Nicolay will be performing as the latter tonight during two free sets at New World Brewery from 7 to 9 as part of the venue’s BBQ Night, and spoke with The Oracle beforehand.
The multi-instrumentalist, mustachioed musician has created a distinctive style for himself, with an operatic voice that can be heard in the backing vocals of “Stuck Between Stations” and his song “World/Inferno vs. the End of the Evening.” Nicolay plays piano, organ, accordion, banjo and guitar — a diversity that represents his career’s musical possibilities.
“The goal was always to be a musician, even from the time I was 5 or 6 years old,” he said. “The details and specifics have changed along the way. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a classical composer.”
The first band Nicolay ever played in was as a guitarist for a band that played covers of “U2, Pearl Jam and Lenny Kravitz — whatever the songs of the day were in 1993.”
Yet the first band Nicolay played in that anyone cared about, he said, was the Brooklyn punk cabaret group The World/Inferno Friendship Society. He joined the band when he was subletting an apartment room from the girlfriend of leader Jack Terricloth, who has a similar style to Nicolay in his affinity for suits and vintage microphones.
Despite the large number of band members, Nicolay said The World/Inferno Friendship Society was a formative experience for his solo career because it encouraged songwriting and creating finely tuned songs.
“It’s a band that’s nine people where at least seven of them were songwriters in our own rights,” he said. “I guess what I always say about it is when you have that many people with that many opinions, it was really slow to write any songs. But by the time any song got past everyone’s ‘this sucks’ filter, it was bussed to a fine sheen.”
Nicolay was also asked by frontman Craig Finn to play piano and other instruments for The Hold Steady as a smaller rock band, even opening for World/Inferno Friendship Society. But by their third album “Boys and Girls in America,” the band struck it big — playing late night shows, festivals and a Bruce Springsteen tribute show at Carnegie Hall where Springsteen played with them and gave them roses.
In five years of playing with The Hold Steady, Nicolay said his two most memorable shows were playing with Springsteen and an Irving Plaza show on the eve of their “Boys and Girls in America” tour.
“We had this sense it was going to be a big deal; the record was going to be a big deal,” he said. “There was a two-page article in the Sunday Times that morning. After slogging through the ditches for a bunch of years, the feeling of saying, ‘Wow, we’re playing the biggest rock show in New York tonight’… it felt like an arrival point.”
Nicolay left the band in 2010 and continued pursuing a solo career with his second album “Luck and Courage.” He said “Luck and Courage” was a fully realized album following the two characters, Felix and Adelita, while his debut was more of a loose collection of songs.
“That was sort of like an emptying of the desk drawers of all the songs I have lying around,” he said. “Some of them were 10 years old and some of them had been written right before the recording session. Whereas ‘Luck and Courage’ was actually songs that were all written as part of the same writing process.”
“Luck and Courage” is also partially based on the idea of “a nation of two” in love that Kurt Vonnegut devised in “Mother Night,” and Nicolay’s literary style translates to both his music and short stories, he said.
“There were certain stories I knew I wanted to tell, and it was just a matter of figuring out whether it’d work in song form or prose form,” he said.
Nicolay is currently working on a third album called “Do the Struggle,” which he said will be an album recorded like an Americana album and mixed like an electronic record.
And though Nicolay toured with Against Me! during one summer, which was “nice because I didn’t know if I was ever going to play in a rock band again,” he said he is currently happy with the freedom his solo career provides him.
“Just today, I confirmed a show in Ulan Bataar, Mongolia, and then we’re going to play in Beijing,” he said. “That’s the kind of thing you can’t really do with a band and a bunch of gear, but you can with just a banjo on your back.”