Franz Nicolay reboots

 Lone troubadour
By BARRY THOMPSON  |  November 30, 2010

ROCK, RINSE, REPEAT: “At a certain point, I stopped believing in this idea of rock-and-roll bands as a transformative experience of freedom, liberation, community, and gang.”

I’m a little worried that this interview could kill Franz Nicolay.

As the ubiquitous Brooklyn multi-instrumentalist with the world-famous moustache takes questions while speeding across a Midwestern freeway en route to Pittsburgh, I’m wondering, “Isn’t talking on the phone and driving at the same time kind of dangerous?”

“These giant interstates are straight ahead for a hundred miles, so I can set the cruise control and talk,” he explains, probably unaware that the metallic voice of his GPS will order him onto an exit ramp mid conversation.

I have no real reason to fret over Nicolay, who stops by T.T. the Bear’s on Friday — he’s made a career out of multi-tasking. Coming off half a decade as keyboardist for indie-rock dignitaries the Hold Steady while pulling full-time duty in the lawless klezmer-punk faction World/Inferno Friendship Society, he’s also maintained a Gypsy side project dubbed Guignol, and he serves as president of the Anti-Social Music chamber collective. During his travels, he’s collaborated and/or performed with enough who’s-whos that music nerds can play Five Degrees of Franz Nicolay. His website sports a sundry list of 31 past co-conspirators that includes Bruce Springsteen, Star Fucking Hipsters, Bomb the Music Industry!, and the Dresden Dolls. Of late, he’s spent his summer vacation freelancing as an auxiliary touring member of Against Me!

No longer Holding Steady (long story short: he got bored and quit, Craig Finn and company wished him well, several rock bloggers shat themselves) or fanning the flames of the World/Inferno, Nicolay has rebooted himself as a lone troubadour. Sometimes, as he will at T.T.’s, he brings along a backing band. Sometimes, he’s all alone.

“At a certain point, I stopped believing in this idea of rock-and-roll bands as a transformative experience of freedom, liberation, community, and gang, because I stopped experiencing it that way,” he says when asked what was on his mind when he penned “Rock, Rinse, Repeat,” the slow-burning anthemic bonus track off his latest solo full-length, Luck & Courage. “But I wasn’t quite ready to let go of that idea. I completely devoted my life to it, made a lot of sacrifices for it, and on a basic level, it’s what I’m best at. But it’s something that felt to me, at the time of writing that song, exhausting and not spiritually enriching. Yet I’m still clinging to the idea of it.”

If a band-centric lifestyle left him disillusioned, Nicolay has certainly been productive in his post–Hold/Inferno existence. Luck & Courage builds on his splendid debut solo effort, 2009’s Major General. (Boston expatriate and Dresden Doll Brian Viglione tendered his illustrious drumming on both albums.) Here he adopts a tender, expansive, folkish style that dips into cabaret, bluegrass, and good ’ol indie rock as he loosely documents the far-flung romance of fictional paramours Felix and Adelita. Like Nicolay himself, the songs don’t fasten themselves to genre conventions, or use the same instruments over and over again. “Picking up a new instrument is a really good songwriting tool for me, because I wouldn’t necessarily write a song that goes G to C on piano, because that’s too familiar. Since I’m more technically constrained on the banjo, I can rediscover how G to C works. It’s like learning to express simple sentiments in a foreign language. The constriction on the subtlety of your language can be a benefit in saying simple things.”

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