Continuously pursuing unconventional artistic modes of expression, multifarious musician, Franz Nicolay, may’ve found underground popularity in topnotch indie rockers, Hold Steady, but he’s also spent ample time in a few interesting lower-profiled Balkan-styled acts. It was during his full time tenure in World/Inferno Friendship Society that Nicolay met rising Minneapolis combo, Lifter Puller, befriending leader Craig Finn, who’d go on to form Hold Steady. But in his own free time, he and clarinetist Peter Hess (Balkan Beat Box and Slavic Soul Party) concentrate more on traditional Balkan folk through ongoing project, Guignol. Furthermore, Nicolay’s unbridled enthusiasm for the performing arts also led to a short-story collection, Complicated Gardening Techniques.
Though he’s sported a waxed Salvador Dali moustache and worn berets, the Brooklyn-dwelling New Hampshire native’s eccentric appearance and frantic keyboard theatrics allow him to express an inner strangeness that contrasts his rather normal bucolic New England upbringing.
“Part of the fun of being in show biz is having people concoct theories about what the performer may be like. Someone once asked Country singer Porter Wagoner why he wore flashy sequined nudie-suits and had a big pompadour. He said, ‘Because I’m an entertainer, that’s why.’ Internet culture removed that mystique,” he claims.
Growing up in the tiny New Hampshire village of Central Sandwich, Nicolay got exposed to various types of music by his parents. He attended New York University and got infatuated by Manhattan’s multi-cultural lifestyle, organizing the non-profit “An Afternoon of Anti-Social Chamber Music” at Columbia University for emerging local composers in 2001. The flourishing Anti-Social Music program went on to premier new works by over one hundred entertainers. He prospered with Hold Steady along the way, seeking solo asylum only after gaining subterranean prominence first.
Hooking up with Dresdon Dolls percussionist, Brian Viglione, Debutante Hour pianist Maria Sonevytsky, fellow World/Friendship associate, Yula Be’eri (drums), and many guests, Nicolay assembled Luck And Courage. A fully formed follow-up to formative 2009 debut, Major General, its allegorical carnival-esque freak shows and anecdotal dramatics combine Klezmer, gypsy folk, Vaudevillian satire, boogie woogie and cabaret in a home-schooled punk-derived do-it-yourself manner.
A couples’ tale concerning contrasting independent spirits, one who ‘came with a purpose/left on a whim,’ and the other only half-interested in long-term commitment, Luck And Courage comes full circle by its banjo-skewed fiddle-doused “Feelin’ Groovy”-sauntered epilogue. The exhilarating narrative involves main characters, “Felix & Adelita,” and reflects upon certain shared instances via historic figures such as surrealist painter James Ensor and Singing Cowboy Gene Autry.
Crosscut fiddle, Mexicali horn and Gregorian-like chanting make strange bedfellows on “Have Mercy,” which Nicolay describes as a “fun arrangement depicting an Ennio Morricone spaghetti western with a Russian Army Choir and Cormac Mc Carthy vibe.” Better still, spry salutary brass spices up drum-beaten guitar-etched organ-droned rocker, “My Criminal Uncle,” the thrilling climactic midpoint. He then finds refuge in splendorous serenade, “Anchorage (New Moon Baby)” and solace in becalmed biblical ballad, “Job 35:10.”
Nicolay recently found himself back in the Granite State on sabbatical, re-igniting Guignol to play a few dates at Dartmouth University and nearby North Adams, Massachusetts. He may no longer be in Hold Steady due to the time constraints of his latest solo endeavor and sundry outside undertakings, but the separation was amicable. Will he rejoin? Who knows? The future’s so bright he better wear shades.
We spoke via phone one late autumn afternoon.
Who were some early influences?
The first concert my folks took me to was Doc Watson, whose bluegrass affected me at five years old. Then I started playing Classical. I had a series of narrative tapes with excerpts from all the great composers. I’ve always had a series of certain enthusiasms. I got into Dylan and The Band, then by high school learned accordion and mandolin. Then I was into Charles Mingus, Charles Ives and Harry Partch’s alternative tunings. After college, I got into Balkan music. I joined World/Inferno Society full-time by 2000, where I met Lifter Puller and began Guignol in ’03.
How does your new album compare to ’09 debut, Major General?
That first solo album was a grab bag done while I was still in Hold Steady. I dumped songs on there that didn’t have a home to introduce myself as a singer-songwriter. They were written over a long period of time. Some are 10 years old, others six months. It’s more rock. Maybe it didn’t hang together as a cohesive record, as some critics claimed.
It’s unclear, to me, if the main characters in Luck And Courage, “Felix & Adelita,” stay together forever. He seems to be a lucky long distance runner and she’s a free-spirited waitress.
I think they don’t stay together. There are hints as early as the first song where they’re sitting in a Tucson hotel and he’s looking out at the highway at a homeless guy and not listening to her. He’s already distracted.
A few banjo tunes, “Anchorage,” “Z For Zachariah” and “This Is Not A Pipe” have a similar feel as the Decemberists and Port O’Brien.
I’m not familiar with the Decemberists, but Port O’Brien I know. Those are all part of my experience of learning a new instrument to compose on and tricking myself into writing simpler songs. The narrator in “Alaska” has been to New York and Charleston, but he’s always away too long. It’s domesticity versus wanderlust. That may be the most autobiographical song on the record, since it could concern my own life on the road.
Has becoming a novelist affected the perspective of Luck And Courage’s songs?
Absolutely. It’s given me more practice writing songs that aren’t specifically about myself – which is a useful perspective.
Is “Criminal Uncle” based upon a crazy New Hampshire relative?
It’s based on a few people. The idea for the story came from Hold Steady’s Galen Polivka. He has a large family in Milwaukee with a black sheep uncle who got drunk, went on a bender and led cops on a slow-speed chase in a duck boat he stole.
Where’d you come up with “James Ensor Redeemed”? You use a Vince Guaraldi piano stroll and full-on brass ensemble to get the message across.
James Ensor was a Belgian Expressionist painter. His paintings revisit similar themes having to do with the idea of death haunting life in the midst of the greatest celebrations. There’s parades of skeletons behind Christ that tie into a metaphorical narrative about a plague-ridden country.
Then you’re home on the range with dusky tumble-weeded piano entreaty, “The Last Words Of Gene Autry.”
“Gene Autry” is about a long-married elderly couple’s romance. What if Felix and Adelita stayed together, had kids and slept in. The song started as a playful joke about the cowboy’s nature in a piano Gospel-Country setting where Gene’s lying in bed with his wife looking back.
How did Jim Keller’s production affect the overall project? He’s worked with Franz Ferdinand and other rockers. Was it difficult for him to work in a Klezmer folk mode?
There’s two Jim Keller’s. The other one did Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309.” I met Jim through Demander, a band I played keyboards in. I was impressed with that power trio’s dynamic sound. He added great textures and made the record I’d always hoped they would. He set up a Bedford-Stuyvesant home studio. We eventually got together and worked on my record. A producer could have a strong voice in arranging or focus on engineering and mixing—which is the relationship we had. I’m relying on him for an audio angle. To bring it full circle, I have these enthusiasms. I want to be part of a lot of different musical people. Every group’s its own culture and society. I like being an anthropologist in an unfamiliar society. I get fidgety. The Western music scale is only eleven notes. There’s a limited number of ways to combine them. But there are stylistic decisions in different contexts bringing different opportunities.
Catch Franz Nikolay at Bowery Ballroom Dec. 2. For more info, go to franznicolay.com.