The Underbellies of Punk Through the Eyes of a Major General: An Interview with Franz Nicolay

by | Feb 11, 2010 | MUSIC

Do you remember the days gone past
And how we always wanted the good times to last
The time we spent hanging out
Is how we learned what life is about

-The Bouncing Souls “87”

Franz Nicolay is a disciple of the church of punk rock. He is well known for his infamous mustache and as a multi-instrumental player for musical outfits the World/Inferno Friendship Society and the Hold Steady. Last year, he unleashed his debut solo record entitled Major General. The record is a testament to the slums, barrooms and basements that punk inhabits. It also acts as a powerful display of his prowess as a musical linguist.

Do you remember the days gone past
And how we always wanted the good times to last
The time we spent hanging out
Is how we learned what life is about

-The Bouncing Souls “87”

Franz Nicolay is a disciple of the church of punk rock. He is well known for his infamous mustache and as a multi-instrumental player for musical outfits the World/Inferno Friendship Society and the Hold Steady. Last year, he unleashed his debut solo record entitled Major General. The record is a testament to the slums, barrooms and basements that punk inhabits. It also acts as a powerful display of his prowess as a musical linguist.

With his energies now fully focused on this project, Nicolay embarks on yet another national tour that will bring him to Richmond, Virginia. Over the course of a short conversation, we discussed the demands of a life onstage and how that evidently affects one’s life offstage, as well as the perspectives he offers regarding punk as a political, ethical and intellectual stance to maintain.

What were your initial introductions to music? Which instruments were you first drawn to? At what point did the more experimental facets of music start to become appealing to you?

I started playing violin when I was five because I saw Yitzhak Perlman on Sesame Street and demanded one of my parents. I started on piano at six or so, French horn when I was nine (I wanted to play trombone, but my arms weren’t long enough to reach seventh position), guitar at fifteen of course; bought myself a mandolin as a high-school graduation present, and brought my dad’s childhood accordion to New York when I moved there.

I learned backwards in some ways: In part because my parents were sixties and seventies-era artists, who weren’t musicians themselves, I learned an ethos of experimentation almost before I learned conventional technique. I read John Cage’s “Silence” in elementary school. In my first violin recital, when I was seven or less, the first piece I played was one of my own.

I had a set of cassettes, “The Lives of the Great Composers,” which were biographical narrations interspersed with musical excerpts that I listened to obsessively. When my dad would put rock radio on in the truck, I’d cover my ears and complain. “I bet someday you’re going to like this stuff,” he said. “No way, Dad!” He got the last laugh on that one.

That’s not to say that all of the music I’ve made in my adult life has been uncompromising or “experimental” by any means. But it means that I’ve got a lot of different musical languages available to me, and that my preference is always to combine the familiar with the unexpected.

How did growing up in the Northeast influence your perspective on music scenes and perhaps punk rock in general?

Very little. There wasn’t what you’d call a “music scene” at all in New Hampshire when I was a teenager – there was a small collection of jammy bands in Portsmouth, but that was two hours south of where I’m from. It gave me a powerful incentive to get to where the action was, and gave me that “small town kid goes to the city to make it” level of ambition. I didn’t get into punk rock until I got to New York, and then with the fervor of a late convert.

How important is the collaborative process to your craft? You’ve been involved in numerous projects and each end result is always an impressive feat.

I think very few peoples’ vision is so absolute and compelling in its pure form that it doesn’t benefit from another perspective. That is to say I almost always prefer to work with collaborators, even if and especially when they have a strong and stubborn viewpoint of their own. The more peoples’ “This sucks” filter a piece of work passes through, the more confident you can be of its quality. Up to a point.

This also requires collaborators who are both secure in their vision and not too precious about it, which can be elusive.

With your experiences in the Hold Steady, how has that affected your views on the world of music and existing as a performing artist? I imagine up to this point in your musical career, your time spent with that group is the largest (as far as exposure is concerned) band you have been involved with.

It made me think a lot about how the more time you spend onstage, the more protective you have to be of the integrity of your life offstage. Which is to say, when I was in World/Inferno, there was less of a separation between who I was onstage and who I was off, but at that point I wasn’t onstage 300 nights a year. I started exploring the history of individual lives in popular performance, going back to blue-collar vaudeville performers, for clues on how to construct and maintain a livable life in show business. I started to learn how to figure out how to balance the mundane, daily demands of the job, the sometimes ecstatic benefits, and the conflict between what was sometimes the drudgery of it and the continuing desire to make some kind of art, or at least fine craft. Rock and roll may be a kind of lunch-counter art; but then, art is so vague, and lunch so real.

By taking what you learned from your experiences in World/Inferno Friendship Society and the Hold Steady, how did that help shape the sound that would emanate from your solo debut Major General?

Mostly it helped in very practical ways, like how to work efficiently in the studio to make a big-sounding record in relatively little time. And how to strike that elusive balance between enough pre-production so that the band knows the songs and the arrangements are worked out, but not so much that they know them so well that you’re not capturing the sound of parts being discovered.

I learned a lot about making records from two producers, one from each band. Don Fury, the hardcore producer who worked on the last two World/Inferno records, made – makes – impatience a virtue. He likes to work quickly and distrusts any more than two, or at most three takes. He doesn’t believe in “fixing it in the mix” and records to an anachronistic hard-disk recorder, not ProTools, so you can’t micromanage your editing, and so the record is almost completely “mixed” by the time you finish tracking. It brings a real immediacy and “liveness” to the record.

From John Agnello, I learned the importance of people-management in the studio, of creating an environment where people feel so comfortable that making a record feels like hanging out, making music with a few bottles of wine, rather than the stressful twelve-hour days it can easily be. Sometimes a producer has done his job best when you can’t say exactly what it is he did.

Are there any plans in store for World/Inferno Friendship Society?

Yes, but it’s not my place to talk about them right now. We are releasing an older project from the archives, a set of Ink Spots-style vocal-group recordings we called “Vox Inferne.” It’s a Valentine’s Day 7” release on Team Science Records.

Major General has several wonderful perspectives about punk rock in general. I wonder what influenced that? Is it primarily taken from your own experiences, or were there outside musical or literary forces that helped form the narratives that exist in your songs?

I think the ethos of punk as a political, ethical, and intellectual stance is still the most compelling, inclusive and useful explanation for the world that I’ve found; I think that many people who define themselves first and foremost as “punks” are some of the most conservative and reactionary I know; and that the ironic discrepancy therein is endlessly entertaining and instructive. The most punk people I know aren’t the ones with the most patches and 7”s. This applies to all self-defining and exclusive organizations, political movements, and intellectual factions.

I know that the Hold Steady had played Richmond a few years back along with Art Brut at Toad’s Place. Was that your first experience playing in this city? If that wasn’t the case, do you have any experiences that stick out to you in regards to Richmond?

For a long time Inferno would come through and play to nobody. In particular I remember one tour where we had a spectacularly incompetent booking agent who’d done a month-long American tour for us which had been, largely, a disaster, and the Richmond show was toward the end. The club owner had, apparently, never wanted to do the show to begin with and had tried to cancel it; which our booker had dealt with by never responding to him. So we pull up and he’s grudgingly opened the club, but there are no other bands, he didn’t list the show, and he refused to turn on the air conditioning. In July. In Richmond.

So, against all odds, a dozen or so punks showed up and we played the show. Some friends had taken us out for Mexican food across the street and I’d stupidly ordered a giant enchilada drowned in melted cheese; then put on a three-piece wool suit to play a punk show in an un-air-conditioned club in midsummer. I made it to the point where I was walking down the stage steps at the end of the set before vomiting into the black trash bin. Then one of the fans decided, during the encore, that he wanted to mosh with a trash bin on his head.

As we packed up, Benji went to settle. He sat down at the bar with the owner, who ran down the underwhelming numbers for that night. “So,” the owner concluded, “how’s $200 sound?”

“Great!” said Ben, pleasantly surprised that we would walk away with anything.

There was an awkward silence for a few moments. “Well,” said the owner, “How do you want to pay? Cash or check?”

I was reading up a bit about the collective Anti-Social Music. How did this collective come about and what are some of the highest achievements you have been able to accomplish with this project?

Anti-Social Music is, rather incredibly, about to celebrate our tenth anniversary. It was created by myself and a crew of recent-grad musicians and composers to apply what we knew about putting on punk shows to what is euphemistically called “new chamber music”. It’s become a kind of umbrella organization for strange and unique projects that call for a classical performance and orchestration chops and a punk rock attitude. We’ve played everywhere from Bushwick rooftops to Merkin Hall at Lincoln Center. We produced an opera, The Nitrate Hymnal, at the Masonic Hall in Washington with an orchestra of Dischord/DC indie rockers. We commissioned and collaborated with His Name Is Alive and Dalek, and cost the stage manager at the Flea Theater his job after we got noise complaints for a rafter-rattling concert. We’re going to Ukraine in the fall for an ASM Tenth Anniversary Exotic Locales Tour.

When listening to Major General, especially given the narrative context of the songs, it felt incredibly cinematic at times. Was this something you were hoping to accomplish, and if your music were the soundtrack to a perfect film in your eyes, what would that be?

It’s not consciously cinematic except in the sense that they are consciously narrative and that translates as cinematic if you include certain scene-setting details. The classic example is Springsteen’s “The screen door slams/Mary’s dress waves,” which is not the main thrust of the song but is a classic establishing shot. A common mistake of the novice songwriter is to think that you can write a song just about a feeling, when you have to give the feeling some context. In terms of the family of narrative genres, in most cases a song has less in common with a poem than it does with a short story, or a movie treatment. It’s just enough detail to tell the story without spelling it all out.

Lastly, what does 2010 have in store for Franz Nicolay?

The longer-term project is a series of story collections I’ll be releasing as chapbooks over the course of the year on Julius Singer Press. The first, Complicated Gardening Techniques, you can get now at www.vol1brooklyn.com/shop; the others will be out sometime around May and September, and then we’ll anthologize with more material around the new year. So I’ll be writing constantly for that.

Guignol is going to write and perform a live score to a silent film for the Diaspora Series in Philadelphia. I’m just wrapping up producing a full-length from the Brooklyn trio The Debutante Hour, which is sort of Andrews Sisters do American Gothic. I’m starting to demo the follow-up to Major General next week. And, of course, oodles of touring.

Franz Nicolay will be appearing at the Camel on February 22nd, 2010 along with Phil Gray, Prabir Mehta and Ben Shepherd.

Interview by Shannon Cleary

For more information about Franz Nicolay, please visit www.franznicolay.com

For more information about Anti-Social Music, please visit www.antisocialmusic.com

WNRN appearance:
http://www.wnrn.org/2010/01/franz-nicolay-comes-to-ska-punks/

RVA Staff

RVA Staff

Since 2005, the dedicated team at RVA Magazine, known as RVA Staff, has been delivering the cultural news that matters in Richmond, VA. This talented group of professionals is committed to keeping you informed about the events and happenings in the city.




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