Franz Nicolay: Interview

    The indelible image most music fans have of Franz Nicolay is holding court with Craig Finn at one of the Hold Steady’s frenetic happenings, equal parts court jester and pure rock god. The band’s success was the ultimate triumph of the music geeks over the cool kids, and though Finn was the unquestioned voice of the the Hold Steady, Nicolay was its most recognizable member. It came as a shock to many of the band’s fans that, just as excitement started to build for the follow-up to Stay Positive, Nicolay announced his departure, saying that “five years seemed like a nice round number” and not much else.

    Though there is always a desire for favorite bands to stay together forever, Nicolay had a number of side projects during his years with the Hold Steady and had released a solo record, Major General, in 2009. He fronts a gypsy punk band, Guignol & Mischief Brew, and he released a series of short stories, Complicated Gardening Techniques. Drama might have occurred that led to Nicolay leaving the band, but that would be seeking sensationalism in the face of a pretty obvious case of being spread too thin. He reopened speculation, however, when instead of focusing solely on his existing projects, Nicolay joined Florida punk band Against Me! as a touring member. A small collection of Internet cognoscenti pilloried this as a blatant cash grab, especially after Nicolay insinuated that he wanted a more varied solo career.


    This interview was conducted over e-mail, and Nicolay was submitted a list of numbered questions via a P.R. representative for Against Me!. The e-mail he returned omitted responses to questions 5-11. I replied to his initial e-mail with a request that he either offer answers to the questions or an explanation as to why he didn’t respond to them. He did not respond to this request.

    Though I was initially a little put out that Nicolay didn’t want to speak about his departure from the Hold Steady or the band’s new album, which reviewers have remarked is sorely missing his presence, he is under no obligation to share the details of his professional life. Though writers and fans will doubtless speculate about the reasons that Nicolay and the Hold Steady parted ways, it is not information we have any real right to; the document of his time with the band will be the four albums and many tours where he appeared as a member of the band.


    How did you hook up with Against Me! for the tour? Why was the band recruiting?
    We’ve been friends for almost 10 years. We’ve crossed paths at everything from outdoor punk shows, when I was with World/Inferno and Guignol, to festivals, when I was with the Hold Steady. And I’ve been a fan for years. The first fan letter I ever wrote in my adult life was to Against Me! c/o No Idea Records after I’d spent a year listening to “Reinventing Axl Rose” almost every day, so I knew the catalog really well already. They were looking for a touring member to fill out the bigger sound of “White Crosses” and the timing was right. I’d just finished recording my new solo record and had the summer free. It’s a very uncomplicated story.

    How do you define your role as a “touring member” of the band?
    As exactly that. The songs are written and recorded, so I can sit back and bang away at the piano. It’s been tremendous fun so far and very relaxing. And I’ve got my days free for writing.

    What will you bring to an Against Me! live set?
    Hopefully I can communicate the amount of fun it is. Which is what I’ve always tried to do. As much as I try to connect with audiences, ultimately it’s a deeply personal experience — sweating, pounding, yelling at the top of one’s lungs.


    How has your particular brand of musicianship been integrated into the band?
    Well, there’s at least 100 percent more accordion than previously. The band was great; they basically said, “Just come down and do what you do.” Though I haven’t found any good place for banjo…. It’s always interesting to spend an intense amount of time with one songwriter’s work — I learned 45 AM songs in a week — and see their patterns and their tendencies, and I think it’s interesting for the other guys to hear the older material in a new light.

    What will the kids in the audience make of Franz Nicolay? How will hipsters avoid getting beaten to death?
    [Mr. Nicolay declined to answer this question.]


    Why go out with an established band so soon after leaving the Hold Steady?
    [Mr. Nicolay declined to answer this question.]


    What precipitated your departure from the band? You’ve talked about “five years being a nice number,” but many fans are still really up in the air about you leaving.
    [Mr. Nicolay declined to answer this question.]


    Have you listened to Heaven Is Whenever? What’s your opinion?
    [Mr. Nicolay declined to answer this question.]


    Did you take all the fun with you when you left?
    [Mr. Nicolay declined to answer this question.]


    Is this some “time away” or “I’ve left the band forever”?
    [Mr. Nicolay declined to answer this question.]

    What is next for Franz Nicolay?
    The future is a complicated and mysterious place, but I just finished my next solo full-length, which should be out in the fall. I worked with a lot of great musicians on that, including my long-time collaborators Brian Viglione and Yula Be’eri and new friends like the Debutante Hour, Emily Hope Price, and Son Volt pedal-steeler Mark Spencer. So that’s the next big event. And I do owe Julius Singer Press a few more sets of stories, and I’m looking forward to working on that this summer.