Even though Brooklyn-based multi-instrumentalist Franz Nicolay spends most of his time playing on the sidelines of The Hold Steady and World/Inferno Friendship Society, he’s hard to miss. He’s known for his Dali moustache, wine-swilling stage theatrics, and boogie piano lines. But after the release of his first solo album, Major General, he’s been exposed as something those in the know had long suspected: a chameleonic songwriter and a hilarious frontman. Prior to his performance tonight at The Black Cat, Nicolay spoke with The A.V. Club about his upcoming 10-inch vinyl EP, writing accessible music, and his book club.
The A.V. Club: Each band you play with seems to get the same Franz Nicolay. Why are the stage theatrics so integral to your persona?
Franz Nicolay: One of the things that entertains me the most about the genre colloquially known as indie rock is this sort of anti-performance. I don’t know when that started, but this idea that if you look like you’re actively seducing an audience, it somehow gives discredit to your authenticity. I think that’s a shame. It shows a little disrespect for the audience to seem like you don’t care that they’re there.
AVC: Does this go along with your complaints about the indie-rock community thinking it's too inaccessible?
FN: I think a lot of indie thinks that it is way more inaccessible than it is. A lot of it is super-accessible. The indie-rock community thinks that it’s not mainstream pop, and I think that’s a hard position to sustain. If the predominant strain of your audience is people who listen to The Beach Boys, then you’re making really accessible music—regardless of how many overdubs you’re doing.
AVC: You’re rumored to be a book aficionado—do you load up while you’re on tour?
FN: Especially if we’re in Portland. The Crystal Ballroom is right next to Powell’s—the greatest bookstore I’ve ever been to. I’ll set aside a $100 of my per diem, because I know I’m going to buy 15 books. There’s nothing worse than looking down the barrel of a nine-hour drive and not having a book.
AVC: Do you get any songwriting inspiration from your book consumption?
FN: This past year, I’ve been involved with a songwriter collective called the Bushwick Book Club, which gets together at a club called the Goodbye Blue Monday in Bushwick. We all choose a book and read it and write songs about the book. We come together the first Tuesday of each month and perform those songs. It’s a cool songwriting exercise. It’s useful in terms of thinking of character and thinking about narrative. There are so many ways to attack a book in songwriting form. You can write in the voice of the character, you can write about what you didn’t like about the book and why.
AVC: Will any of these songs find their way onto a record?
FN: One of the songs will be on the new record St. Sebastian Of The Short Stage. I did a song about the graphic novel Watchman—the song came out really well, “The Ballad Of Hollis J. Mason.” It ended up on a couple of blogs and I had to record it. We’re doing a big compilation at the end of the year, an MP3 CD of the couple hundred songs, and I’ll record the rest for that.
AVC: How do you control your creativity process between the three different bands?
FN: I just write a lot of music and pitch it to all of them and see what sticks. There’s not any pecking order. If one of my songs becomes a Hold Steady song, there’s a potential of making more money on it, but I know a lot of the stuff I write is a lot different than their sensibilities.
AVC: A lot of the songs on Major General came from a back catalogue of songs you had written earlier in your life—is that true for the next album?
FN: The next record will be all new material. There were just half a dozen songs from the earlier part of my musical life that I still felt were worthwhile. Some of them I had repurposed as Hold Steady songs and a couple as Inferno songs, and I sort of felt like I needed to clean out the back of that drawer before I could start working on completely new songs. Not to say that there aren’t new songs on Major General, but I have finally emptied out that drawer. I think.