“I Always Considered Myself a Composer First:” An Interview with Franz Nicolay

Franz Nicolay
Do the Struggle
Xtra Mile Recordings

Hardcore troubadour Franz Nicolay is no stranger to the world of indie rock. Having played keyboards and accordion for the Hold Steady and serving more recently as a touring musician with Against Me!, the New York-based multi-instrumentalist is also comfortable in his role as a frequent contributor to the World/Inferno Friendship Society and other punk mainstays around Brooklyn and other parts of New York City.

If you’re new to Nicolay’s solo career, you might be surprised to learn that his latest release, Do the Struggle, is the often-mustachioed musician’s third solo LP. Filled with a wide range of instruments and chock full of references to both literature and punk (take “Frankie Stubbs’ Tears” as a representative example), the record was fan-financed through a Kickstarter campaign. Although the amount Nicolay raised — just over $10,000 — may pale in comparison to the million dollars Amanda Palmer raised to make a record, Do the Struggle is a smooth-sounding rock record with DIY ethos in tow. Recruiting the rhythm section from Guingol (another band Nicolay is known to collaborate with) as well as others to help him record the album, Nicolay offers a complex set of songs that span the spectrum of genres and emotional appeals.

PopMatters caught up with Nicolay on the phone to discuss the stresses involved in asking fans to pitch in before even hearing a record, how he winds up playing with such great bands, and what other political issues musicians should take note of this election season.

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Was it a hard decision to ask your fans to finance your latest album, Do the Struggle?

Well, it’s a little tricky because you have to put yourself out there and make yourself vulnerable. Built into the Kickstarter model is this deadline and if you don’t meet the goal you set for yourself, you don’t get anything. So there’s stress built into it. There’s a difference of opinion about Kickstarter. Some people are totally down with it and some people have issues with it. But, I figured it was worth taking the chance because otherwise there would be no album.

You mention in the FAQ section of your Kickstarter that less commercially successful arts like jazz and classical music get funded with support from public and private institutions. Do you think it is remotely possible to have popular music (and by that, I mean popular music broadly construed) funded by sources of support like those of the “high arts?” If you do think that’s possible, how would that work?

I think that it’s not only possible, but probable that we’re going to move toward a world where that happens. I think you would see if happen in the same ways that you’ve seen it with classical and jazz, both of which were popular music of their time. We’re in a funny situation in the United States. They are certainly countries already that support what we think of broadly as popular music as a broad cultural good. A lot of the punk scene in Germany is supported by the government, by way of these state-funded youth centers that put on the concerts. Sweden has long considered pop music as one of their best-known cultural exports. So, there’s a lot of built-in support for that. For a long time, if you were a teenager in Sweden, you could go down to the city council and register yourself as a band and get a certain amount of free rehearsal space. I know that a lot of the kids who were putting on shows in Germany, I would talk to them about what they were going to do after college and say, “I’m going to move to Sweden because I can make thirty or forty thousand dollars a year putting on rock shows.” You can look in history and see jazz, which was pop music of its day in the ’20s and ’30s, and arguably into the ’40s. Once pop music tastes change, what people consider culturally important in their youth starts to take on a little bit more gravitas as they get older and if they’re in control of the funding and if those in power want to keep supporting it. I think you’ll see this happen going forward. It’s a funny thing to think about because the idea of calling it “popular music” implies that it will be self-supporting because by its very popularity. It’s tricky to call it that since ultimately it’s the market has decide that a large swath of indie rock and punk rock won’t be self-supporting.

You also note in the Kickstarter video that you had the title of the album before you started recording. It refers to a story you heard about a young boy doing a dance called “The Struggle”. That phrase obviously has other meanings, but has the notion of “doing the struggle” changed for you since recording and releasing the album?

No, I don’t think so. I think it’s sort of a universal idea. I think about it a lot when I’m on tour. I think most grown people probably agree that everyday life does feel a little bit like a struggle. You can think about it in personal terms or political terms or in any way that you want, but every new day brings a new problem, I guess.

On the title track, there’s a great lyric: “These days chaos for its own sake is at a premium.” I tend to believe you, but what examples of chaos are you referring to here? And is chaos a personal or political project?

That’s a complicated question. [Laughs]

Well, maybe I should just ask: What are you referring to in that line?

When I was writing that song, it was right around the time the Occupy protests were at their height. What I thought was genius of those protests — and the London riots had just happened — and I think what those things shared was a sense of purposelessness that came out of hopelessness. Right? So, if you’re so frustrated with the system, you feel this need to lash out at it. Sometimes that inchoate lashing out has a message and a purpose in its own right. The power — the serious power of it — comes from the fact that there’s no tangible aim to it. If you have a tangible aim, then it can be co-opted, it can be fulfilled in some way or bought off. If you don’t have a tangible aim, then I think there is a power in that.

The new album has instrumental interludes between each of the proper songs. I noticed that some listeners online who bought the album found them confusing. I happen to think they really make the record cohere a great deal more. I was wondering what you were thinking in including these interludes and what you thought the response might be.

Well, I think the intent was what you were saying. I just felt that it needed something to tie it all together. Both at the same time to tie it all together and to separate it a little bit. When I listened to the tracklisting without them, because they’re so lyric-heavy, because they’re so intense in delivery, I just felt like my ears needed a breather between them—otherwise it was just like having someone yelling at you for 45 minutes. [Laughs] As my friend, Lucky from the World/Inferno [Friendship Society], once said about Crass, “It’s great if you like being yelled at.” But, I had all this extra musical material, some of it is stuff from inside the tracks that I thought would be interesting to highlight. Other stuff is extra musical material that didn’t make it into the tracks. It’s all stuff that’s consciously there to tie one track to the next track. The interlude between the last two tracks, there’s a whole mess of keyboard lines from the chorus, so we pulled those out and octave-dropped them. It’s all connective tissue.

I understand that some people weren’t going to be into that, which is why I made them separate tracks. [Laughs] If you don’t like them, you can just skip over them. Or delete them or eject them from your iTunes. But, it felt important to me to give a little space between the songs. If people don’t have enough attention span, ya know, these are 20- and 30-second snippets. If that bores you, I mean, honestly. [Laughs]

I tend to agree with you. I think they’re pretty great.

I saw someone online who — I forget what the exact quote was. “Is Franz Nicolay trying to farm last.fm [money] by having extra tracks?” Oh, yeah, that’s totally my game! [Laughs] I don’t even know what that means! It’s one of those “you can’t win” sort of situations.

I mean, I think most music fans are essentially more conservative than they think. They want albums that are like 10 to 11 tracks, between 30 and 35 minutes long, and in a format that they’re familiar with. And they want it to arrive out of a black box as if it was magically created and that they can pass judgment on. I appreciate that, but I’m not here to make people feel comfortable every step of the way.

You received a degree in music from NYU, but a lot of your lyrics and song titles are tipping their hats to literary and artistic works that might get referenced in stuffy academic journals. “This is Not a Pipe”, for example, references the Rene Magritte painting that French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote a famous essay on. I imagine that you’d be comfortable in a graduate seminar on art history or literature, but I’m curious as to how much you study other art forms other than music.

I cast a pretty wide net. I’m an auto-didact in that way. I’m always interested to learn new stuff and bring it to bear on what I do, whether it’s listening to a podcast while I’m driving or reading stuff while I’m sitting around. I’m proud of my musical education, but there’s a part of me that would have wanted a full, classical education. Right when I got out of college, I set myself up the project of giving myself that with reading lists and so on. The rock world is a funny world that way because it’s the only cultural world that has such a deep anti-intellectual streak. I was in a band with a guy for a long time — we were playing a bar in South Carolina. I was sitting out back on the hood of a car reading some book or another. He came out and was like, “Man, why are you always reading?” So, I asked him what I should be doing and he said, “Drinking!” [Laughs] “Okay! Sorry I’m wasting this time reading when I could be drinking beer.”

And you could be doing both. It isn’t like one excludes the other.

Oh, I’ve spent a lot of time doing both! [Laughs] They’re certainly not mutually exclusive.

You know, I want to write songs that benefit repeated listening and benefit close listening that have these Easter eggs in them that some people are going to get and some people aren’t. Maybe you won’t get it until you run across the same piece of whatever artwork is referenced and you’ll feel this funny little connection and thrill. A lot of the artists and writers I really respect do stuff like that. Nabokov does that and Borges does that. Not that I’m saying I’m anywhere near that level, but I love that when I have that experience.

I want to ask you about your identity with particular instruments. Was there ever a point where you considered yourself a keyboard player or accordion player because those were the primary instruments in bands that you played with? Or, have you always considered yourself a multi-instrumentalist that refused an identity with a particular instrument?

I always considered myself a composer first—but with a variety of tools. If you have a carpenter, you don’t say, “Do you consider yourself a hammerer or a sawer?” You use a hammer for the things you need a hammer for and a saw for the things you need a saw for. There are songs that I write that I will try out on a couple of different instruments to see which one is going to fit. I might record with the piano as a main instrument, but on tour, it’s the banjo that is the main instrument because I don’t tour with a piano. I would say that most of the bands that I’ve been in where I play piano and accordion is simply a function of there being less piano players. There are less qualified piano players that want to be in rock bands than guitar players. Maybe if there weren’t a glut of guitar players, maybe I would’ve started playing guitar in a band.

You’ve published some of your writing as well. Do you consider yourself a composer who works in multiple mediums or a musician who writes short works on the side?

I’m a musician who dabbles in writing. There are writers who are very particular about their craft and really good at their craft and I’m not one of those. I’m a serious amateur writer.

Shortly after you left the Hold Steady, you joined Against Me! as a touring member. In both bands, you served a utility player role, playing instruments that aren’t typically associated with rock and punk. How do you put yourself to join a band like Against Me! in a capacity like that? Is it because you’re known as being a multi-instrumentalist who can pick up those instruments? Is it because you already have established connections with these other musicians? Or is it because of your mustache?

[Laughs] I think I put myself in a position to join bands simply because I’m around and say yes to everything that I’m asked to do. By the time I joined the Hold Steady, that was pretty much the fourth or fifth full time project that I was involved with in various genres and in various capacities. It was just a matter of wanting to be a full-time musician, and I had to throw everything at the wall and see what stuck. The Hold Steady had happened to be the one that stuck. I met them just from being around. I mean, Lifter Puller [Craig Finn and Tad Kuebler from the Hold Steady’s previous band] was around playing shows with World Inferno and that’s how I knew Craig. He was an A&R guy for the World Inferno live record for our label when he didn’t have a band. To that extent, it was just a matter of being around. The Against Me! guys I had known for about a decade, so it was the same sort of thing. I knew them by reputation. I was a big fan of Reinventing Axl Rose. I ran into them on tour every once in a while. The Hold Steady’s long-time sound guy, after he left us went to go work for them and when I was leaving the Hold Steady, we had coffee and he was like, “Against Me! wants to hire another guy.” And I thought, “Great, because I need a job! Sounds perfect.” [Laughs] It wasn’t like I answered a Craigslist ad.

Do you ever wish you could pack up and do a tour of your solo work with a full band? If that were feasible, who and what instruments would you load in the van with you?

I did do a full band tour when Luck and Courage came out a couple of years ago. It was myself, it was my wife, Maria, playing violin, keyboards and accordion. It was also my friend Jean Cook playing violin. It had Pete Sustarsic, who is now playing with Oberhofer, playing drums and Brad Kemp who was a composer and bass player who has been with Anti-Social Music for a while. Pretty much everybody was singing also. I think I would do it like that again, with John [Bollinger] and George [Rush] who were the rhythm section on the new record. But it’s just not financially feasible. I think if I was opening for a tour that was a bigger band in a big room and the money was right, I could justify doing it. With the financial margins I’m operating at now, I just couldn’t afford it.

What kinds of songwriting tips do you learn from being in a band that tours a ton like some of the bands you’ve been in?

Whether it’s touring or not touring doesn’t really impact the songwriting. Most people I know don’t write songs on tour. The touring life is too full already. You don’t have the mental downtime you need for the most part. In terms of writing songs with different kinds of groups, I’m a role player in that situation. It’s a method-acting type of situation where I’m analyzing what works with that group, what they’re going to be comfortable with, musically speaking. More to the point, it’s about what holes I’m able to fill effectively. Do you know what I mean? For example, when I was in the Hold Steady, they had already staked out their musical landscape. So I thought about the cases where keyboard players have been successful in classic rock bands and why they were successful. Why did it work with Garth Hudson and Richard Bell of the Band and Danny Federici with the E Street Band? Why did it work with the guy who played piano on those ’70s Bowie records? What do those people bring to those situations where it’s basically riffy guitar-rock? And the answer was — especially in the Hold Steady where Craig as a vocalist wasn’t carrying a lot of the melodic weight — there was a real opening for me to be the melodic instrument and write hooks for vocals. I also thought about who in rock history had a limited vocal range and was still able to do it. Like Lou Reed on “Walk on the Wild Side” with the “Doop de doos.” Or hardcore bands with their “woah woah woahs!” Those were basically the two elements I decided I could add to that group. I could play melodic lines as well as provide background vocals.

I’m now itching to ask this next question. You mentioned Springsteen and the E Street Band. Was there any conscious effort to have that Springsteen keyboard sound in the Hold Steady?

I didn’t go in saying, “I’m going to make this band sound like Springsteen.” That’s just a function of the fact Craig’s lyrics already lean in that way anyway. And one of the main touchstones in anthemic rock with keyboards is Springsteen. I was always much more of a fan of The Band than Springsteen, but when you play in that fashion, with the elements we had, it came out sounding like Springsteen. I don’t think it was ever anyone’s conscious thing. Tad, for example, he likes Springsteen, but he certainly didn’t care that much. He wanted the band to sound like AC/DC or Zeppelin.

Any other issues besides healthcare (which is important for many indie musicians without insurance) that are of particular interest to you during this election season?

Yeah. There’s a bunch of copyright issues out there. Particularly, there’s a bill that’s in Congress at the moment dealing with internet radio royalties that’s going to be important to the music community. Because there’s such a skewed rate system if you compare terrestrial radio to streaming radio plays and satellite radio plays. I don’t think it’s any secret that a lot of streaming services are not musician friendly. Spotify pays a fraction of a cent to musicians while at the same time, their users feel like they’re paying for music and their consciences are absolved.

That’s why I have a hard time being a Spotify user. The royalties don’t seem fair at all.

It’s not. Unfortunately, it’s part of the landscape now. I think the only option — it isn’t to convince people not to use Spotify because it pays less, but rather to get them to increase their royalty rates. On the other hand, Pandora pays half of its annual revenue in royalties and it’s threatening to run that company into the ground. That’s a company that I think is much more useful to musicians and important to musicians compared to Spotify since it’s a discovery system. On Pandora, you plug in the one artist you like and it plays for you other artists who are similar and who you may never have heard of and might go explore their music. So, if there’s a solution to equalize the rates where streaming systems like Spotify could pay more and someone like Pandora could pay less, I think those would be important advantages for musicians in terms of policy.

Aside from your job as a musician, what other sorts of issues seem near and dear?

I would say the usual hobby-horses that you’d expect from a left-leaning artist. Particularly, climate change is disgraceful and how it gets dropped into people’s consciousness as this sort of depressing fait accompli that nobody’s going to deal with and can’t deal with as we keep sliding further and further into the toilet.