We roasters at Make That A Take have long been fans of Franz Nicolay and we’re very proud be putting out his Double A-Side 7″ single on the eve of this UK Tour. I first met Franz when he came to play Book Yer Ane Fest V whilst on tour with Chris T-T and we had the pleasure of introducing him to Frankie Stubbs. We’ve also had the pleasure of putting Franz on a couple more times over the years, developing friendship along the way, and we are very pleased to be welcoming him back to Scotland for four shows starting in Perth next Friday (13th March). Cheap e-tickets are available for the “official” record launch show at Buskers, Dundee with Broken Stories, Billy Liar and Jon Shoe (The Cut Ups) on Saturday 14th March here.
It is with great excitement that we present the stream and pre-order of the new Franz Nicolay 7″, produced by J. Robbins and featuring Andrew Seward (Against Me), Yoni Gordon and Ara Babajian (The Slackers/Leftover Crack). The record is limited to 300 copies and is “officially” released on Monday 9th March 2015. Thanks to Punktastic for premiering the stream on Monday.
On the eve of the record release and tour, I asked Barry “The” Kydd if he’d like to conduct an interview with Franz for WYAZ. He duly agreed so I put them in touch. This interview took place over email. Thank you to both Barry and Franz for taking the time for do this exclusive interview.
B : I’d like to start fairly early if possible. What was your local music scene like when you were growing up, and how did you come about to find yourself a wielder of such an array of instruments?
F: There wasn’t any. I grew up in a town of nine hundred in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire, in the pre-internet era. I got my music information from the mainstream music press. I was into Pearl Jam and U2. The nearest thing to a local music scene was a handful of jam bands in Portsmouth, about an hour and a half away on the seacoast. There was one called Thanks To Gravity I liked. I was really a rube, musically and otherwise, when I went to New York for college. I consciously scrubbed some of the real New England locutions from my vocabulary after people noticed.
Curiousity, really. I started playing violin at four or five after seeing Yitzhak Perlman on Sesame Street, then piano a year or so later. I wanted to play trombone in elementary school band–as a not particularly manly kid, I was obsessed with low instruments–but my arms were too short to reach seventh position, so they gave me a French horn. I played that from fourth through ninth grade, when, of course, I got a guitar. I got really into The Basement Tapes in high school, hence mandolin and accordion. The mandolin was my graduation present to myself. Etcetera, etcetera. I find the process of learning a new instrument conducive to writing – the process of figuring out the new dialect of a familiar language leads you down some interesting roads.
B :Yeah, I can certainly see the logic in that. In terms or writing, do you find its the music first, or words? Have you followed a process throughout your career or do you take each one as it comes?
F: I used to do music first, when I was a teenager up until I stopped writing my own songs for a while. I would sing a dummy melody and hang words on the vowels. Now I’m more interested in the words, and more likely to have chunks of music and chunks of words and move them around against each other to see what fits. The words usually get precedence, which is why my songs have such odd forms these days.
B: I kinda love the subject matter of most of your songs, and how you tend to approach it. I remember probably the 2nd last time I saw you, which I’m guessing was almost 2 years ago now, the song from To Us, The Beautiful – “Marfa Lights”, was already in your set, so much so we asked you about it afterwards. Have you been writing this new record that whole time? Are you pleased with how it’s turned out?
F : Yeah, “Marfa Lights” had been percolating since 2012, when my wife and I played in Marfa. I had the chorus right away. Then some of the elements of the verses are from my UK tour the previous year with Chris T-T. So yeah, that was the first song I wrote of this batch and had been around for a while. The others were mostly all written in the first half of 2013, either in my wintry apartment in Toronto or in Virginia waiting for my daughter to arrive.
I usually stockpile lyric ideas while I’m on the road, and it’s just a matter of waiting until I have a sustained period of time at my desk to assemble the pieces. And sometimes I’ll go over discarded leftovers from past projects to see if there’s anything I missed. “Shallow Water” was a banjo riff from when I was writing the songs on “Do The Struggle,” that’s why it’s the only non-guitar song on this record, it’s an older part. I scavenged the bridge lyrics for “Open With The Wrestlers” for some lyrics I wrote for a one-off performance of a song by my friends the avant-jazz band Gutbucket from almost twenty years ago. The music for “Pilot Inside” was actually a demo I did for a TV advert for a large internet company which shall go unnamed. They rejected it, so, whatever dudes, I think it’s catchy, I’m keeping it. But mostly everything was written in one burst in the first half of 2013. Then it was a matter of convincing myself it was worth all the stupid effort to make another stupid record. Sigh.
B : Haha, I think the new record is absolutely great, your efforts are fully justified in my eyes. I reckon the sound you achieved this time is far more, accessible, shall we say, and I think the whole record benefits from that shift. On the arrival of your daughter, (congratulations) do you now feel as though the reasons you have to write and indeed sell your music have changed? Has your whole outlook altered?
F: It’s hard for me to pick apart what’s changed about my outlook towards music and my outlook in general. The major effect in terms of how I think of myself as a musician was I had to come off the road, because while I could support myself touring, I’d never reached the level that some people do where they can fund their year on just a couple months of tour. So then I was just an unemployed dad in his late thirties with no way of supporting a family. And that dredged up all kinds of resentments, some justified, some not, about the idea that you could have a decent career and some success and still never be able to make a humane living and just have to start from scratch. I’m no rock and roll martyr.
B : I can imagine it being very difficult. Did you see that documentary – “The Other F Word?” All about punk rock dads trying to find that balance between staying relevant yet needing to feed and keep a household. Really interesting and not something a lot of folk would consider. How long is this current stretch of touring? Do you have any coping mechanisms for being away from your family?
F : No, I haven’t seen it. This tour will be two weeks. That’s about the maximum my wife can conceive of looking after our daughter on her own, for the time being. She’s still young enough that she doesn’t really notice if one of us is away. And as any dad reading this knows, the thing you want more than anything else is just a little quiet alone time, so from that standpoint, a little bit of driving around by myself is a wonderful thing.
B: As a band member, session musician and now into the solo career you have embarked on, has been incredibly impressive in terms of the quality you consistently produce. Do you have a favourite song or project from anywhere your whole career that you are especially proud of?
F: How about if I pick one from each period? I’m a sucker for the expansive, wide-screen songs, so I love World/Inferno’s “We Will Never Run Into One Another On Trains,” The Hold Steady’s “First Night,” my own “Joy.” “Agada” and “Sugar Park Tavern Death Song” from Guignol. I think “Do The Struggle” is my best set of lyrics. “This Is Not A Pipe” has the best balance between how much people like it and how I never get sick of playing it, which is rare, really.
If I had to pick a starter box set for someone who had never heard anything I’ve done, I would do W/IFS “Red-Eyed Soul,” THS “Boys And Girls In America,” Guignol & Mischief Brew “Fight Dirty” (which has the highest ration between how good I think it is and how few people own it) and my “Do The Struggle.”
B: Excellent, expansive answer. You are good at this interview game!
F: Most people have strong opinions about themselves.
B: Haha, I reckon the appeal to both you, and the audience with “This is Not a Pipe” for example, is the way you can alter and vary the methods of delivering each line so well, to keep people’s attention, and to keep it fresh for you. I don’t think I’ve ever seen another artist who can make a whole room just shut the fuck up and listen better than yourself. It’s quite a talent. Who would you say, if anyone, helped you to define your onstage persona?
F: Maybe, but I do that with lots of the songs, that’s just the one that the most people connect with so they notice it more. Anyway, I don’t know, I just study showmanship and pick up ideas where I can. The vaudevillian aspect of the way I present gives me cover to have a wider emotional range, and a show is all about managing the dynamic–offset a sad song with a one-liner, suddenly slow down a fast song–and the wider the range the more I can do. People have short attention spans. One of the reasons I’m ambivalent about guitar songs and playing with a band is it severely limits what I can do with the show. Can’t spend a lot of time chatting at the crowd, or stop the song in the middle and make a joke, if you have other people onstage.
B: Yeah I would certainly agree with that. Watching you is very much a show experience, not just watching a band or singer songwriter.
B: Ok, speaking of short attention spans, I should maybe start wrapping this up with a few quick fire fun ones. What’s the weirdest place you ever played? (Apart from Dundee)
F: Ulan Bataar, Mongolia. I was travelling through and posted on a bunch of expat blogs, ended up at a faux-Irish pub frequented by Australian and New Zealander mining executives and managed by a gay Belgian who’d fallen in love with a member of the Mongolian national ballet and emigrated.
B: Sounds like absolutely your perfect scenario to play in. What will be on the stereo as you drive around the UK next month?
F: I got this amazing trove of Prince demos going back to the mid-seventies, when he was a teenager with a four-track rocking the George Benson sing-along-to-your-fusion-jazz solos style. Still got 600 tracks to get through.
B: Ha. That does sound amazing. Have you performed any marriage ceremonies lately? 🙂
F: Not a one. 😦
B: I suppose those requests are few and far between. Quality, not quantity.
If you could only play 3 more shows in the remainder of your career, who would you want on the bill with you? and where would you want to play?
F: Jeez, I don’t know. On the one hand, it’s a free shot to dish out some compliments; on the other to answer it would involve some touchy alpha ranking assumptions about who would support whom. I’ll take a pass. I love everybody. I would want to play a proscenium stage with those bare lightbulbs around the edge, and thick red curtains.
B: I cannot argue with that. Is there a song that exists that you wish you had written?
F: Many, but the first one that jumps to mind is “Johnny Mathis’ Feet” by American Music Club. Recent songs, Dave Dondero’s “This Guitar” and Bill Callahan’s “Small Plane.”
B: What’s next for you after this UK tour? I noticed you have a book coming out, that’s pretty interesting.
F: I’ll be doing two weeks of festivals and club shows with the band in Europe in August. Maria and Lesia and I will be travelling most of the summer, in St. Petersburg, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. And yeah, the book – “The Humorless Ladies of Border Patrol,” on The New Press sometime early next year. It’s about DIY touring in the former Communist world, from Belgrade to Beijing, with portraits of some of the characters who constitute the local scenes and some deep dives into the history of punk and politics in Russia and China. It’s been a long time in the making and I’m more than a little amazed I’ve been able to find a good home for it.
B: The New Press will certainly be a great home for it. Look forward to picking that up, sounds fascinating. On the east coast of Scotland, there is a certain trend for yelling bizarre heckles that are intended to humour rather than offend anyone, it’s ran for as long as I can remember. What’s the strangest/best heckle anyone’s ever yelled at you?
F: I can’t remember anything specific – but when I’m in the audience, I’m a big fan of “That was a really good song!” It confuses people. Oh, I just remembered one – in Donetsk, Ukraine (which is now the hub of the war) a guy said, “I don’t like USA, but I like you!” So that was…nice.
B: Haha, Constructive heckles are great, we will try to entertain you as much as you entertain us when we see you. Franz, it’s been a pleasure bouncing questions back and forth, thanks so much for taking the time to respond. Very excited about MTAT’s involvement in the 7″ release and the numerous Scottish dates coming up, travel safe and I will see you soon.
F: Yessir! See you in a couple weeks.
Thank you so much to Barry and Franz for taking the time to do this interview, much appreciated gentlemen.
Franz will play an intimate in-store show at Groucho’s, Dundee from 2pm on Saturday 14th March before the record launch show in the evening. It’s a free show so come down and enjoy a unique performance, have some banter and maybe get your 7″ signed!
Thanks to everyone for reading. Do please grab a copy of what is a little gem of a record!
See ye at the shows!