Most people know Franz Nicolay as the mustachioed guy who plays keyboards for the Hold Steady, but his musical resume is even more impressive than his well-groomed facial hair. Nicolay is also a member of the cabaret-punk group World/Inferno Friendship Society and the klezmer act Guignol. In his younger days, the New Hampshire native earned some serious musical cred as composer-in-residence at New York University (his alma mater).
On Jan. 13, Nicolay releases his first solo record, Major General, on Philadelphia-based Fistolo Records. The eclectic disc touches on everything from punk rock to art song and features a core band of musicians with similarly varying influences. They include Dresden Dolls drummer Brian Viglione, former World/Inferno bassist Yula Be’eri and Demander guitarist Jared Scott. Nicolay starts a solo tour in January, after which he’ll go back on the road with the Hold Steady and then break again to perform solo at SXSW.
Do you consider this your debut solo album, or do you count Black Rose Paladins, which had a limited release?
That was the demos for this record. I was playing solo shows starting around last fall. I figured I ought to have something to sell in addition to having something to give to the players, who were gonna do the Major General record. So I pressed up about 50 copies and handmade sleeves for them, just to have a piece of merch.
Was the audience response positive?
It was. I was keeping it deliberately low-key, because I hadn’t done solo shows in many years. I used to do it a lot, before I joined World/Inferno, and that took up most of my time. I hadn’t played solo in six or seven years at that point, so I didn’t want to make a big deal of it until I knew how it was going to go.
Can you tell me about your musical background?
When I was 5 years old, I’m told I saw (violinist) Itzhak Perlman on Sesame Street and demanded a violin. I don’t remember this — my parents told me. And so they indulged me and found me a violin at a pawn shop in New Hampshire. So I started playing really early. I started playing piano the next year, at age 6, and picked up French horn at nine or so, so I could have something to play in the elementary school band. Then I started playing guitar when I was 15, as people do, and so on from there.
When did you first start playing professionally?
It depends on what you mean by professionally. I was playing paying gigs in high school and I put a band together as soon as I got to New York, in about 1995, when I was 17 or so. And I did that for five or six years. But I went to NYU as a music student, so the intent was always to be a professional musician. So I was picking up gigs wherever I could as soon as I got to New York.
Can you describe your musical approach on Major General? I’ve heard it termed “punk cabaret.”
I knew that I wanted to work with Brian Viglione, the drummer from Dresden Dolls, and Yula, the bass player from World/Inferno. They were sort of my dream rhythm section — just two of the most intuitive and natural musicians I’ve ever met. Jared, the guitar player, was sort of an X factor. I knew him personally, but I’d never worked with him. I knew there was a limited amount of time to do things in terms of everyone’s schedules, so I wanted to make that work for me as a process. So the idea was to do it as quickly as possible and as intensely as possible, and try and hit that sweet spot where really good musicians are just starting to learn the song and just starting to figure out their part before they feel really comfortable with it.
In the event, the way we did it was essentially a five-day process. We rehearsed for two days, played a show at this warehouse space in Brooklyn, and then recorded for three days at a place out in Hoboken, where they have an apartment above the studio so we could stay out there and sleep out there and have it sort of be this intensive process. So we did 12-hour days and cooked family-style dinners and banged it out. I came back a couple of months later and did the vocals and some of the overdubs.
I enjoyed the Broadway and jazz elements in songs like “Note on a Subway Wall” and “Do We Not Live in Dreams.” What influenced songs like that?
Those date to a period when I was listening to a lot of what you would call jazz-art song. I was listening to a lot of Brazilian music, particularly [Antonio Carlos] Jobim and bossa nova and stuff, and figuring out those chords on guitar.
You’re involved in several bands and projects. How do you decide what song goes where?
Sometimes I treat it like an assignment. You know, I’ll sit down and say “OK, now is the time when I have to write six Hold Steady songs. Maybe two of them will make it on the record. They usually present themselves and it’s pretty obvious, because each of the groups has a fairly well-defined musical signature. I know right away that if I write an accordion waltz that chances are it’s gonna be a Guignol song and not a Hold Steady song.
There are a couple of songs that have crossed over. “Quiet Where I Lie” on the Major General record I had pitched to World/Inferno and they didn’t bite. I pitched it to the Hold Steady and it ended up being a B-side, which we never played live. I thought it was too good a riff to just lie fallow, and so I took it back and wrote lyrics and put it on the Major General record also. So some of them have multiple lives like that.
Does this ever cause conflicts? Like do the Hold Steady ever say, “Hey, dude, why didn’t you give us a rocking song like "This World is an Open Door?’ "
I never pitched that one to them actually, it never came up. It might have, had I not done it on the new record. I mean, there are all kinds of factors that go into it, you know? I could potentially make more money from it if it becomes a Hold Steady song, because I’ll get a bigger publishing advance or publishing royalties because of the visibility of the Hold Steady. But some things you can tell aren’t gonna have that life. So rather than have something be a B-side or an extra track, maybe I’d prefer to keep it and have it be part of the main repertoire for me.
How is it making the transition from playing keyboards to being a frontman?
I had been a front man in a band before I joined World/Inferno. In fact, I had never played keyboards in a band before I joined World/Inferno. I had always played guitar and sang. And so I came in with that sensibility. There are different schools of thought on that: some people feel that sidemen should be sidemen and frontmen should be frontmen and never the twain shall meet. But from a showmanship point of view it creates a healthy dynamic if a lot of people are vying for the attention of the audience. One of the things I always enjoyed about playing with World/Inferno is that is was nine people, each of whom was treating the stage as if it was their stage and was treating the band as if they were the front person.
When you tour for Major General, will you bring along the musicians who played on the album?
When I do this tour, I’ll be coming myself. To be honest, I don’t know who is gonna care, necessarily.
Finally, I have to ask you: Now that Brad Pitt is making moustaches popular, will you go with something different in terms of facial hair? Like mutton-chop sideburns?
I wasn’t aware that Brad Pitt was making moustaches popular. There was sort of an explosion of handlebar moustaches in the indie-rock world in the last couple of years. But I think that will pass. I had a moustache before it was cool and I’ll probably have a moustache after it’s cool.