Let's talk about the new Hold Steady record, because I'm sure you're not tired of talking about it!
This is the first interview I've done for it, so I don't have all my answers worked out yet, which is a good thing, I think.
Thank God, because now we can call this an "exclusive", right?
There's a bunch of musicians from the World/Inferno Friendship Society on that record, you've got Yula and a couple other people who’s names escape me at the moment...
Almost Killed Me, but that's largely because [Franz smiles] Peter and I are musical life partners in a way. All the projects I've always done, he's been involved in, World/Inferno Friendship Society, The Hold Steady, Anti-Social Music, Guignol, various other session stuff we've done together, so that was easy. There's been a succession of female vocalists on Hold Steady records, there's been a succession of guest vocalists period, but female vocalists in particular because there's a lot of interesting and poignant female characters in Craig's songs. I always had a couple people that I wanted to have sing on a Hold Steady record, because they have so much personality in their voices, of which Yula is one and Emily Brodsky another one, and I was able to get them both on this record.
Is there any relation to Steven Brodsky?
The guy from Cave In and a million other different bands?
I... don't think so. Her dad's a state assemblyman in New York, Richard Brodsky. I'm told there's a distant relationship to the poet Joseph Brodsky, but I don't think a guy from Cave In, as far as I know. The people in World/Inferno are a part of my musical family in New York so for specific guest appearances, I'm going to call on them as they're interested in doing it.
What is the Nitrate Hymnal, and why can't I find it on Lujo's website?
The connection with Lujo is through Bob Massey, who wrote the Nitrate Hymnal, who is in Gena Rowland’s Band and who used to be in Telegraph Melts, who I think was on Secretly Canadian, so that's his connection.
Talk about Anti-Social Music then...
Anti-Social Music is a loose collective, [grins sheepishly] we call it The Blob, there are 10 of us who are core members, and a cloud of other members we've roped in for various activities. Anti-Social Music puts on new music concerts, it's people in the indie rock scene, the punk rock scene and in some cases, the hip-hop scene if you include Dalek in that, who have some sort of classical music training, or new music training or new music background, but don't get to indulge that in their more publicly visible day gigs. We started that in, 2000, I think? We've been doing eight years, we're a non-profit, we put on concerts anywhere from punk clubs in New Jersey to rooftops in Brooklyn...we finally actually did a show at Merkin Hall at Lincoln Center a couple years ago. (We cover the waterfront.) We have two records out, one is Anti-Social Music Sings the Great American Songbook, which is a greatest hits of the composers who are involved, of which I am one, and the Nitrate Hymnal project, which is an indie opera that we produced down in Washington D.C. with some of the members of the indie rock and hardcore scene down there as the orchestra. The next record is one called Anti-Social Music Sleeps Around. It's a commission and collaboration project, where we approach artists whom we respect or are friends of ours who we think might have something interesting to say in the new music vein, but might not necessarily have the technical skills to write for strings for example, for the kinds of instrumentation we have. So we've approached, for example, Dalek and Warren Defever (His Name is Alive), and they've written really long and fascinating pieces for us, it's a true collaboration, it's not like we're giving them any money, we're not commissioning them. We're just saying, if you have, if you feel like you have something to say in this particular medium we can facilitate it.
For example, Dalek wrote a 15-minute electronic piece, ambient, loud, noisy, lots of white noise, then Anti-Social Music as a group went through and transcribed for 15-piece amplified orchestra: amplified tuba, amplified bass, three keyboards, it was a tremendous, menacing noise. We actually got banned from the venue where we performed it. We recorded it with Alap from Dalek -- that should be out pretty soon, we're just looking for a label interested in putting it out, if any of your readers find that appealing they know where to find me...
Speaking of which, don't you have some demos you're looking to record too?
[Laughs] The record's almost done, actually. I did a song called ‘Jeff Penalty’ with Don Fury, the legendary New York Hardcore producer Don Fury, which I think you're legally obligated to put before his name. The rest of the songs, basically, I've had a lot of leftover songs for a long time -- like I wrote a lot of stuff for specifically for World/Inferno or specifically for The Hold Steady, or specifically for Anti-Social Music or Guignol. It doesn't always make the cut, or there's various reasons why it doesn't end up being used, so I've got this giant backlog of songs. So I've put together a band called Major General, Yula playing bass, Yula from World/Inferno, ex-World/Inferno; Brian Viglione from the Dresden Dolls, and Jared Scott from a great New York band called Demander. We did it as a whirlwind project, two days of rehearsal, played a show, then tracked for three days, then I went back in for three days, did some overdubs and it's done.
John Angello who produced the last two Hold Steady record is mixing it, and that'll be wrapped up in a couple weeks. That'll be Franz Nicolay and Major General, it'll be on Fistolo Records, Erik from Mischief Brew’s label, in January.
Who have you seen today?
Well, I just took a shower and...
[Interrupts on a hot day] now you're dressed all in black?
Well, I didn't use to wear all black, then I went on the roads for years and years, then I've got evicted for a couple places, so there were a couple years there where I first started touring with The Hold Steady and going out with World/Inferno a lot too where I was literally living out of a suitcase and I didn't have a home. What are the most efficient clothes I can bring and still look like a reasonably dignified person? You're on the road, you need things you don't have to wash that often, so, black.
Did you pick up the keyboard or accordion first?
Well, I started playing piano when I was six. I started playing accordion, I picked it up in high school because my dad had one around the house that his grandfather had brought him from Germany in the 50 so his grandfather could play him polkas and waltzes. My dad, of course, being a typical 12-year-old American boy, was mortified, so he sliced the bellows of the accordion with a butcher knife so he wouldn't have to go to his lesson. But he kept it with him, to his credit, and 20 or 30 years later, teenage me picked it up. And I've taken it around the world a bunch of times since then. That very same instrument, actually.
The same one he took a butcher knife to?
Well, you can patch up the bellows.
Speaking of which, where are your favorite places in Europe to go?
Favorite places to go or favorite places to play shows becomes the question. Because the shows have been really good in England for The Hold Steady and in Germany for World/Inferno. I've liked going to some of the more exotic places, like, World/Inferno went to Istanbul a couple years ago, which was pretty extraordinary. I went to Norway and Sweden with The Hold Steady last Summer which was absolutely gorgeous, especially Norway. I went traveling in the Ukraine recently, that was not a tour, though I did have my accordion with me and I did some busking and what not. I think I'm going to go back there soon. I want to travel more in Eastern Europe, if possible. I spent my 30th birthday in Zagreb with The Hold Steady after a 24-hour ordeal in which we sat in Luton Airport outside of London for most of the day and by the time they had our plane ready I had gotten drunk and sobered up twice already. And by the time they got us on the plane, the airport in Zagreb was no longer going to be open when we got there, so they announced they were going to fly us to a totally different country. They flew us to Ljubljana in Slovenia, and then put us on an overnight bus, over the mountains under the moonlight, it was actually very gorgeous. But, we left our hotel in London at 7 in the morning but we didn't get to the hotel in Zagreb until 7 the next day only to find they'd given away our rooms, which was when the despair truly set in. It all ended happily, because we ended up playing right before the Stooges, which was really, really great, and then one of my favorite bands, this band from Seattle called Kultur Shock, was playing in another tent, so I stayed up and got drunk watching them, so I had a really awesome time in Zagreb.
Do you like travelling and touring so much?
I guess my stock answer for that is that if you saw my apartment, you'd understand why I like to be out of it. It's a little windowless cubicle, it's a glorified storage space. I don't know. I'm a fidgety guy, like they say about the shark, if it doesn't keep moving forward, it's gonna die. I feel like being involved in a bunch of different projects is important for any musician because it broadens your language and then you can bring the language that you acquire to bear on any of the others. Obviously, there's some scheduling issues that come up and I've gotten better at doing just by setting priorities and having everybody be aware of the priorities, mostly me. There's a limited amount of time in the world to do stuff, and I know this is a simplistic way of putting it and I want to spend time and energy on something that's going to outlast me, if I can help it.
How do different languages of Anti-Social Music or the World/Inferno influence what you do in the Hold Steady, and yes, I know this is the stock question of "how does one band influence another"...
Well, no, it's a good question, and it's not one that gets asked of me that often so I appreciate it. A lot of what I brought to the Hold Steady from World/Inferno was twofold and having a lot to do with the live performance experience. I spent seven years with World/Inferno playing mostly all-ages punk shows, squats, stuff that's really immediate, in-your-face style of performance. In a band of nine people who are such charismatic performers that each one could, and in some cases did, front their own band, there was this attitude of everyone waving their arms around going "look at me look at me look at me." My impression was that when I joined the Hold Steady that was not their performance culture, but that's the kind of thing I was used to doing and I think it upped everyone else's performance to match it, you know, which is what you hope. There's different philosophies about this, some people believe that a band should not distract from it's frontman, [smiles] but I happen to think that there can be a really healthy competition that goes on that benefits an audience.
That's from a performance standpoint. From a musical standpoint, in terms of what comes across musically, what the difference is between making a record and putting on a live show, Craig was already a really good live performer, but at least on the first record, the depth of what he does, which is largely lyrical, doesn't really come across in a live performance because you can't understand what he's saying. There's aspects that you can do musically to engage [the audience] -- if you don't, the result is that the people who come to the shows are the people who are already your fans, and what you need to build a band is to convert people who don't know your band already, and the way you can do that is give people a little sugar with their medicine -- work it into the music, where they can grasp the gestural arc of the performance even if they don't know what the words are yet. For example, big wordless choruses -- those are hooks that everyone can sing along with, right away, or stuff like the melodic hooks in the keyboards.
When I was trying to decide whether I was going to join the band fulltime, one of the big things was that this is a band that thinks of itself, and most people think of, as a guitar band, so if I'm going to de-prioritize World/Inferno, which is a painful decision, what am I going to do here to make it worthwhile for me? Well, the big element that the band was missing. I thought, was the melodic element, so juice the harmony in a way that Craig ends up singing more, do background vocals, sing-along stuff and see if I can put myself in a position where the keyboard can carry a lot of the melodic role.
My next question then, which Hold Steady song did you wish you write, but didn't?
Gimme a second, I'm running down the list of them in my head. Uhhhh, I'm gonna say ‘Slapped Actress’ of the new record, because that's a monster riff and a great sing-along thing and it was all Tad's.
Speaking of the new record, a request. Could you please play ‘Constructive Summer’ today?
That's one of the hits...
That song is one of those songs where, it's the summer, it's a festival and it's fast [so they'll probably play it...]
Well, we were almost finished with the record and the labels were like "yeah, we're probably not going to be able to get it out until August" and we're like "Heeelllll no." This is a summer record, people have to have it, and especially that song, people have to have that song to be listening to in their cars, with their windows rolled down. If we have to release just as an mp3 for free, beforehand, yeah. Summer rockers need that song.
One more thing then, who made the decision to put the three b-sides on the CD?
The label. The record leaked, which is what it is, that's the world we live in, but you still need to sell copies of the CD. And, we had a lot of extra material, there's 11 songs on this record, but we got 19 finished tracks out of the session. So there are eight extra tracks. We don't want to do a double album, but... there's a lot of extra material which I sort of conceptualize as part of the whole project. We had the tracks lying around, it's very easy to do, and I'm glad that they decided to do that.
The next question of course is, which track did they leave off that they shouldn't have?
I have no particular problem with the tracklisting that we ended up with. Honestly, of those 19 songs, we could have picked names out of a hat and I would have been happy with it. There were nine songs which we knew had to be on, so there are really only two slots for wildcard stuff. And they'll all come out eventually, so I'm not concerned about people not hearing them. I'm just saying there are six more equally kickass songs to come from that session.
Are there any World/Inferno b-sides that haven't come out?
Pretty much of everything World/Inferno has done has come out or have been leaked. There were some demos that were leaked, so people got their hands on that. Trains, which was on the vinyl version of ‘Red-Eyed Soul’, it was a big waltzy accordion ballad that I'm really proud of personally, I think it was one of the best songs I've ever written. There is an acapella project that we did a couple years ago called Vox Inferne, this guy that I know through The Dresden Dolls, I think he's their label guy at Roadrunner, I've known him on and off through those guys for a while and I ran into him drunk somewhere, I forget how it came up, but it came up this Dutch millionaire who runs Roadrunner had this idea that what the world needed was an updated, but anacharonistic acapella group. And I was like, "Are you serious?", cause we'd always joked in World/Inferno about starting a barbershop quartet, me, Jack, Peter, Yula or whoever. And he was like, "Well, if you're serious, I'll email him, and see if he's serious." And I said ask him if he's thinking of the Comedian Harmonists, this Weimar-era, 1920s German vocal group, I think they were a 10 or 12 piece and they imitated all the instruments, they were obsessed with American jazz, and they went under with the rise of the Nazis because they loved American jazz and that was unclean music. They're a great group and we've been fans of them in World/Inferno for a very long time.
So I got an email back from this guy saying "He's into it, I got you a demo budget, record three songs, let's do it!" Vox Inferne ended up myself, Jack, Peter Hess and Yula, and two ringers, more professional trained singers, a tenor named George Wright and a bass named Ray Bailey and we recorded three tracks. We did an acapella version of "Paul Robeson" and two original tracks that have never been heard, which me and Peter wrote the music to and Jack wrote the lyrics. So, I don't know... there have been a couple attempts, we've tried to pull it off live at the Halloween shows and it didn't end up happening, because we couldn't find the other singers and then there was an idea of pressing it up and putting it out free at next year's Halloween show. I think they're great tracks, and I'm really excited for them to come out some day.
Two questions long was the Peter Lorre record in the proverbial hopper?
That happened really quickly. It was a concept that had been around since the very early days of the band, since the late ‘90s, Jack actually had the outline of what the 12 songs were going to be dating back to the earliest days of World/Inferno, some of the songs had been written, the "Heart Attack" waltz, the title track "Peter Lorre", "Weimar" had been written. There had always been the idea of eventually doing it...it was supposed to be the follow up to the "Bridgewater Astral League" as the next theatrical concept project, then life gets in the way, it had never been achieved. But we got this offer to do something special at the Spiegeltent, on the South Street Seaport a couple years ago, something other than the average World/Inferno punk rock show experience, so that was a good opportunity for us to put out noses to the grindstone and actually write the damn thing, finally. All the songs were written and recorded really quickly and really successfully, I thought. "Red-Eyed Soul" was five years in the making, a lot of these songs we've been playing for a really, really long time, so there was something really cleansing about writing and recording [the follow-up] really quickly. It made the recording process cleaner, I think. We didn't have time to think up all the overdubs that we ended up doing on "Red-Eyed Soul" and it made the mix a lot cleaner and the songs a lot more immediate.
How does the language in World/Inferno affect the crowd interaction in Guignol or Anti-Social Music?
Well, performance is performance, is the bottom line in all these questions, in at least what I feel like I'm bringing to each of these groups/ Guignol is social music, Guignol is dancing music, Guignol also uses more jazz-based language and open-ended forms, it's like the kind of music it's meant to resemble, Balkan music, klezmer music, circus music, it's *smiles* what the composers used to call music for use, it's music for occasions, it's music for dancing, for bonfires, for sweating and enjoyment. World/Inferno obviously has that aspect, Hold Steady obviously has that populist aspect, and I'd like to think that's what we're trying to do with Anti-Social Music. I think there's a lot of artificial barriers between genres in people's minds, especially between the new music world and the some of the farther reaches of the indie rock world and you can see that on some of the Bang on a Can marathons when they started inviting people like Panda Bear or like Dan Deacon or whatnot. Obviously people are initially going to raise an eyebrow if you put an ensemble with a piccolo, a cello, a accordion and a tuba onstage at a rock club, but if you present it the right way, a lot of these people are going to like it. What I feel is the bottom line that ties all those four major projects together is a sense of intelligent hedonism. Music that's meant to be thought about and has a lot of levels and it's got a lot of subtlety in it, but at the same time it can and it should be enjoyed on a really basic and surface level. Music is...I understand where the philosophy of music as an exclusive event arose in the 20th century, I think in the long term it has a really pernicious effect because music is meant to be consumed by people and while absolutely, there's some music you should have to work for, I feel like the most effective music is the music people can enjoy...with a certain immediacy and then enjoy with increased subtlety on repeated listens. And part of that is presenting it to them in a familiar genre context: Hitchcock made thrillers, Graham Greene wrote detective stories and spy stories, Raymond Chandler too, extraordinary pieces of artwork that can be enjoyed as populist artwork as well.
Oh, and this actually leads into a question which it is meant for. Have you seen the new Batman picture? Apparently the discussion around it is that it's a bunch of very heavy stuff about good and evil but not done in a "oh this is good" way, and it has some nice explosions.
The last movie I saw was Wall-E, which I thought was a great example of that. It's so ambitious what they're trying to do at Pixar, it's really extraordinary. The movie has no dialogue. How do you spend millions and millions of dollars on an animated movie about a couple hunks of metal that don't talk and yet still have it seem so romantic and so far-reaching, it's great, I really liked it.
My question is: how did they sell that to Disney?
I think at this point, Pixar has so many successes that they've got carte blanche, even if it flops, which I don't think it is, they could probably get away with that. That's just another kind of publicity "Ambitious studio goes for something"...but I think they nailed it.
What are you listening to or reading or playing or...
What am I doing?
Well, what media are you consuming currently that you wish to give a shout out to?
Two records which I've enjoyed the most recently are the new Zydepunks record, it's exactly what it sounds like - they're a Cajun/Irish band out of New Orleans, and a crust band from Poland called Post-Regiment. Books, what did I read recently, I've been reading a lot of books, I just read this book called Lost in Translation by Eva Hoffman. It's a memoir from emigrating from Poland to Vancouver in the ‘50s.
At your funeral, which songs that you wrote or or didn't write, would you choose to have played or be played, or fuck it, I can't talk.
Music that's not mine -- I would ask for the first movement of the Charles Ives Fourth Symphony; songs that I wrote probably "We Will Never Run Into One Another On Trains" by World/Inferno and "Salt Chunk Mary Fight Song" by Guignol...Slow sad waltzes on accordion.
*Bottom photo by Allie Greenberg