Franz Nicolay has had it with the stress. His previous records were massive, time consuming endeavors where he fretted over every note, every lyric and every nuance -- and yet, he still had trouble finding a label. Well, screw that. On his brand new album, To Us, The Beautiful!, he assembled the A-Team of NYC musicians and just banged out a record.
Itâ€™s guitar based. It references Neo-Nazis, Van Halen and Egyptian curses. It rocks man, and frankly, Nicolay seems conflicted about it. He might love the subtle, intricate ballad, but people just want to kick out the jams. So then, what does this new, accessible record represent? Is it Nicolay expressing the range of his talent, or is it it him giving the people what they want?
To get the scoop behind the new LP, features Editor John Gentile spoke to Nicolay about the new tunes, Keith Richards and whether or not its ok to ask God to kill on your behalf.
How did you come to pick up the accordion to begin with?
My dad had one around. His German grandfather had brought him one from Germany so his grandson could play him polkas and waltzes. My dad, a good child of the '50s and '60s, hated it, and sliced the bellows once with a knife so he wouldn't have to go to his lesson. But he kept it around, and I took it to New York when I left home. I joined World/Inferno as a keyboard player, but after a rehearsal or two, I said, "You know, I have an accordion at home. Should I bring it in?" They said, "Yeah!" I couldn't really play at that point, but I didn't have a good amplification system yet either, so by the time I got a decent pickup and was loud enough that they could hear me, I'd figured out how to play it.
I love the title track, â€œTo Us the Beautiful.â€ However, it has the curse, â€œTo those who disagree, may their eyes fall out.â€ Modern beliefs systems generally hold that it is bad mojo to ask a deity to strike wrath on your behalf. But, ancient cultures, such as the Romans and Egyptians, felt that it was perfectly acceptable to ask God to do your warring for you. Where do you stand?
Color me old fashioned, then. What's the use of a God who won't strike a little vengeance when you need it? I ask you.
You picked one heck of a crack crew for this record -- Ara Babajian, Andrew Seward and Yoni Gordon. Why did you assemble this crew specifically?
The songs were almost all guitar songs. I was thinking of the record in terms of guitar-based power-pop in the Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, The Jam, Ted Leo vein. And I needed to get it done quickly and relatively cheaply. So I put together a bunch of pros who knew how to do poppy punk (as opposed to pop-punk).
Also, this wasn't part of the plan, but everyone involved had also been in other bands in which recording was a difficult process that involved a lot of melodrama, so I think it was refreshing to everyone how smooth and easy the process was. We had a few rehearsal days planned, but after one day, I called J. and said, "I think we're ready, let's just go ahead and roll tape."
When talking about this album, you stated that it deals with being trapped in a path and trying to find oneâ€™s way out. How did you feel trapped? How are you working you way out?
By letting go, in a way. I just felt like I was beating my head against a wall, that it was just one tour after another and the shows never getting any bigger, and I felt broken as a performer. I just didn't have the energy to go out and try and make some people like me who weren't gonna. My last record, I raised what was for me a lot of money to make it, it took a long time to make, I still think I probably won't write better songs than that, it was really a culmination of a lot of effort. And I couldn't find anyone to release it in my own country. And then time passes, and it was like, do I really want to do this all again? It's frustrating and humiliating, the whole process. I felt tired and washed up and I hated the feeling. But I still had a handful of songs. So I thought, fuck it, I'll record these as quickly, cheaply and with as little stress as possible, and put them out, but I'm just not going to try so hard this time. If people like it, fine. If they don't, fine. If it's the last record I make, that's fine too. If I write any more songs I'll just record solo versions of them and put them on Bandcamp. Or just make a different kind of record. I still basically feel that way.
I wrote that feeling of circularity into the songs. "Bright White" is a circular form. "Jerusalem Against Athens," "Everything Is Going According To Plan" are circular forms. "Porta Fenestella" is, and is the most explicit about the feeling of having lost your map and needing to find a new way of thinking to get out. Make windows where there once were walls. Make a way out of no way. Let fortune in.
Along those lines, you stated that â€œpeople basically like guitar-pop records.â€ How should I take that statement? Are you saying people should expand their tastes? Are you saying that the guitar-pop record is so cherished because it is a divine sound?
I've spent years raging against guitar chauvinists. As I've said before: it's like the American flag -- some people look at it and see a symbol of freedom and possibility, and others see a cultural hegemony. I love guitars, I love "guitar records," but there are other instruments, for God's sake! But I'm tired of fighting that particular righteous fight. At the end of the day, I'm in the popular music business, and what is popular, generally speaking, is guitars. So FUCKING FINE, I'LL MAKE A GUITAR RECORD! And of course, people are all, "He's still weird and eccentric but he finally made an accessible record, probably his best yet." I get it, y'all. Loud and clear.
DAVID LEE ROTH. You reference Diamond Dave on the new album. Please tell me that you a pro-DLR.
David Lee Roth is the platonic ideal of the (classic) rock frontman, and Crazy From The Heat is one of the great rock memoirs. The gems just drip from his mouth. I read a recent interview in which he said, about being inside your own skin and having to interact with other people, "The stars in their eyes are for the uniform, not the pilot inside." I think most people can identify with that.
Also, please tell us about the Mongolian Neo-Nazis.
I was on a long tour a few years ago on the other side of the world and stopped in Mongolia on the way between Siberia and China. I managed to book a show at an expat bar in Mongolia (for a bunch of Australian mining executives, as it turned out). We -- my wife Maria and I -- happened to be there for what was colloquially called the "Nomad Olympics," which celebrated the "three manly sports" -- horse racing, wrestling and archery. We got tickets for the opening ceremony, in the local football stadium, in what was obviously designated the foreigners' section.
Maria nudged me and pointed. Two young Mongolian men were parading around the stadium, one in a standard boots-and-braces skinhead outfit, the other in a perfect SS uniform, armband and all. They were daring anyone to notice them and start something, and nobody did. I looked it up later -- Neo-Nazism in Mongolia is essentially ethnic xenophobia aimed at the Chinese. Beating up Mongolian girls with Chinese boyfriends, and so on. The manager at the bar we played was gay, and he had a bodyguard accompany him between his apartment and his job, because his friend had been hospitalized by them. In the song â€œOpen With The Wrestlers," the metaphor is about those times when, in a relationship or a society, everyone can feel that something is deeply wrong, like tremors before an earthquake, but no one feels they can do anything about it, that it's inevitable, like a judgment.
â€œImperfect Rhymeâ€ is a love song. I think love songs are great. Yet, in both punk rock and indie rock, the straight-up love tune is often scoffed at for being â€œtoo hokey.â€ How can one write a love tune without seeming cheesy or disingenuous?
I reject the premise! Punks are romantic as shit. You can't be an idealist without being a romantic. How many people have that Aaron Cometbus "Punk Love Isâ€¦" thing on their wall? As far as "Imperfect Rhyme," my wife said when she heard it, "That's a really romantic sentiment. I would love to have that song written about me. And then you threw in that incredibly mean line" -- she meant "If we're the company we keep, I must be stupid and cheap." My thought was, the central idea of the song is about imperfection. Imperfect loves, which is all of them, necessarily include moments where we lash out at each other. The song itself had to contain a flaw, it couldn't just be a love song.
You mention the Egyptian Book of the Dead on the new album. Let us discuss. Those texts are mostly a collection of spells to protect Pharaoh on his astral journey. Are you an amateur archeologist or Egyptian scholar?
I'm on a long-term project of giving myself the classical education. I went to music school, and we were openly discouraged from taking non-music courses. I did anyway, but I still felt like, life is long, and the entire Western intellectual heritage is there for the taking, and people used to read this stuff in middle school. So I have a lifetime reading list that I'm working through, from the Greeks on. There's no way to talk about this without it sounding pretentious, but there it is. It's something I'm doing for myself.
"Fish talk to him in shallow water" is from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. I thought that was a wonderful image for a drowned body bobbing at the edge of a river, and wrote a supernatural murder ballad around it. I'm a scavenger for lyric ideas -- stuff people say, stuff I find in books, misheard things off the radio. You strike sparks where you can.
You have a tendency to walk away from well received bands: World/Inferno, Hold Steady. Why? Is it the old Keith Richards adage, â€œIâ€™m gonna walk before they make me run?â€
Because Keith Richards is a great authority on getting out at your peak! [[Edâ€™s Note- ZING!] No, because it's not like I was going to get fired. More like, "I'm gonna jump off the path, because if I don't I'll be walking past this same dry shrub and scrap of litter every day for the rest of my life." I just love the feeling of building something, of the upward slope and the excitement, not the plateau. Life is short. If I wanted to do the same thing every day for the next 20 years I'd get a desk job. People say just be grateful for what you have, it's unrealistic to expect things to always be new and exciting. But that's the privilege you gain when you trade away security and the comfort of a predictable life: you trade it for the right to hold and try to fulfill high expectations about trying to make, for lack of a better word, art.
Now, for the record, I never wanted to leave World/Inferno. At the time, I wanted to be in World/Inferno until the end of my days. But, it got to the point, trying to split time with the Hold Steady for a year or two, where I had to make a choice. It wasn't fair to anyone involved if I constantly had to be subbing out. In the final analysis, it came down to the same premise: I always want to try the new thing. I'd been in World/Inferno for seven years, and it was already a great band, we'd built it from playing for fifty people at Brownies to a thousand at Warsaw. There were already some cracks in that great lineup, Yula and Dan Bailey had left. I thought, â€œthey'll be fine. Let me get on this other ride and see where it goes.â€ Some of them were mad, though, and I was sad about that. For some reason I hadn't expected it. I had this idea that because we had this gang and family feeling, they'd be, like, go, good luck, we're happy for you. But of course that's not how people are. It was naive and self-serving of me to expect that.
Frankly, you have a lot of extremely interesting facets. Where most rock and rollers can barely show one unique thing, you have many -- the accordion, the care given to the concept of the ballad, the extremely nuanced lyrics, the facial hair. Because you have so many unique attributes, it seems to me that people try to pigeonhole you into those few attributes. Do you agree? If How do you deal with these perceptions?
Well thank you for that. But that's just showbiz, right? People only have the mental space for one or two distinguishing characteristics. "Oh X, he's the guy with the Y. Z, yeah, married to A, right?" I get this in reviews and interviews a lot: "You're probably best known for [insert band]." To you, maybe. All you can do is keep doing your things and hope each of them matter to somebody. I love to be the guy that is the gateway to something you'd never heard before, like, you like one of my records, maybe check out something else I worked on, and it leads you down a rabbit hole to a totally different genre.
You recently became a father not too long ago. How has it changed you as a person?
A big question. It's like stepping through a black hole, you don't know what's on the other side and you don't get to go back. I had a major identity crisis. I liked my old life. I liked being able to call myself a full-time musician, and was proud of having worked hard to get to a point where I could support myself without answering to anyone. But the reality is I could make about enough to support my half of a marriage, and that's only by being away for months at a time, so that's over for me. And then all of a sudden I'm just an unemployed guy in his late thirties with a wife and kid.
But it's an investment in future happiness. I've met a lot of guys who made a different choice, and stayed on the road in their forties and fifties, playing $100 gigs in Tulsa to ten people, living out of their car. It didn't look like that felt good, either. I'd rather give up on some touring for now, in return for having a wife and family and a home when I'm 50, 60, 70. I don't mind to just play the 50 good gigs a year, instead of those 50 surrounded by 150 depressing filler shows.
So I'm working on adjusting my expectations. The people I know who make records who are the happiest are the ones for whom it's not their primary thing, so they can still enjoy it. It looks like that's how the business will be, going forward: an industry of hobbyists, with a class of professional middlemen. I'm more efficient with my time now: probably, in the past, if I had a full day to work, I might get two real hours of work done. Now if I have two hours to myself I damn well get those two hours of work in. That's a lot about me, but that's what you asked.
And she's a sweet kid, and funny, and annoying, and boring, and exhausting, and smart and all the other things you can say about kids. I just try and keep her fed and help her figure out how to do the things she's interested in.
What is your preferred designation from your daughter? Daddy? Pops? The old man?
She goes with "dada" for now.