Franz Nicolay’s Creative Populism

Franz Nicolay by Konstantin Sergeyev
Franz Nicolay by Konstantin Sergeyev

The Hold Steady have a new record out this week, and I’m guessing much will be made of the absence of Franz Nicolay, the multi-instrumentalist and touring fixture for the past five years, whose contributions were re-recorded or scrapped following the mutual split last year.

For all the skill, diversity and session work, Nicolay’s been able to straddle mass commercial appeal in such wildly diverse acts as The Hold Steady, World/Inferno Friendship Society, Guignol, Anti-Social Music to name a few, with a creative mission that keeps revolving in tandem. In his own words, when put on the spot no less, it’s creative populism that drives the cause.

“I want to make creative music, but I want to make creative music that’s not elitist,” he says thoughtfully, yet cautiously. “I think there’s always a way where you can make music that’s really ambitious and have an integrity of ambition without loosing people. And I think that’s the thing that’s tied all the projects that I’ve done so far together.”

The Brooklyn-based musician and author’s occasional piano or organ layer that started popping up on 2005’s Separation Sunday turned into stadium-sized bellows by the breakout album Boys and Girls in America the next year, and the results were commercially undeniable. We’ll know soon enough if any of this matters to The Hold Steady loyal, critics included, or if they even care after seeing such an excellent band this far. Yet for as much was made about bringing the bar band back to the bar it never totally rang true for me. It always sounded like a Lifter Puller character joking about his own epitaph, but that’s for another post.

On the contrary, the union just felt right, like honest Minnesota guys running into a Brooklyn fixture and wanting keyboards for a growing live reputation. “Creatively on the inside it’s always the most exciting when people are discovering what it is that they do together,” Nicolay tells me about his time with The Hold Steady or any number of collaborations to date. “The exciting thing for me is building something.”

Nicolay didn’t make The Hold Steady as much as Craig Finn’s lyrics didn’t earn them a support slot to the Dave Matthews Band, so let the debate begin. These are both local artists one should invest in from the very first release and work back, but it just so happens we’re lucky enough that Nicolay is breaking out under his own name now.

I found the latter like a great record, digging through his past and current projects with a genuine curiosity I usually reserve for dense blocks of liner notes. Much has been made of the moustache and showmanship that flow seamlessly between the gypsy punk, 70s rock, Balkan-klezmer genres that have stamped each project since moving to New York from a small New Hampshire town at 17-years old, but I always had the feeling that none of it was tethered too close. I realize I’m saddling the man with more of a burden and symbolism than journalistically appropriate, but it’s worth noting.

I witnessed as much last March when I saw a performance at the Knitting Factory after living with his first solo record on repeat for a solid month. Major General, a head-scratcher in the best possible way, came out of nowhere and received generally positive reviews when released by Fistolo in January 2009. I can’t think of anything more infectious than the apologetic chorus of “Jeff Penalty,” a punk ode to the former lead singer of the Dead Kennedys. Or anything more arresting than final lines of “Note on a Subway Wall” when, after wondering about a certain piece of graffiti, the narrator comes to terms with the fact that “someone left it for someone.” Such a simple sentiment hit like a train out of the tunnel, I thought. And the record goes on in a similar vein — an ambitious collection of pop songs laid out like toys in a vaudevillian big tent, sung in full sentences with a romantic gusto drawing on that old reliable lineage of punk preacher as distilled through Leonard Cohen.

“There’s a lot of information packed into the lyrics and the music ranges,” Nicolay says, almost apologetically, noting berforehand how any performer generally has just ten minutes to win a room. “And if I’m going to sing this music that has a lot of emotional content in it, then I also feel it’s incumbent upon me to temper that, to really balance that out. If I can give people some sugar with the medicine.”

It was precisely that sugar that made me stand there, grinning like an idiot and staring at an empty stage save for a banjo and acoustic guitar and wonder what the hell the rest of Brooklyn would think if confronted with such honesty in the face of every laptop or reverb pedal. I just thought, simply, that I don’t want to this sort of showmanship to ever end.

“He just has this ability to tell stories that I find totally amazing,” says Jason Diamond, founder of Brooklyn’s Julius Singer Press and publisher of Nicolay’s first short story collection Complicated Gardening Techniques released as a trilogy this year. “When he gets up on stage to tell those stories whether its through song or at a reading event, those stories take on a whole different light.”

Franz says he always kept tour diaries, but no one thought to ask until Diamond approached him about a reading event. For better or worse, I’m hoping that’s how people discover his debut album, the pending follow-up or any of the other projects: though a sweeping, maybe passionate, maybe drunken or divisive debate on how another Brooklyn band will ever survive without his services. For Nicolay, it’s the thrill of discovering, inventing, building something in the purest sense; for anyone else who appreciates that artistic ambition, this site included, it’s the joy of discovering an artist with a history and context to make that output so rich.

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