Timeless Gent: Franz Nicolay headlines New World March 8 (with video)

CL: Tell us about your last time in Tampa.



It was at Pre-Fest at the Skatepark of Tampa’s Transitions Art Gallery, November 2010. … I got a really great white guayabera and a black hat with a brim — and a tattoo! Actually, I’ve done pretty well in Tampa. We ended up having some good friends in the area.


Your new album tells the love story of Felix (luck) and Adelita (courage). Did you write the songs with the characters in mind?


It’s more of a theme record than a concept record, the theme being the back-and-forth between domesticity and wanderlust. You know, basically, it’s not like I came up with the story and wrote a bunch of songs. I had already written a bunch of songs and noticed that they had these themes running through them, and then I wrote the opening track, “Felix and Adelita,” and noticed I could tie them all together with that song by actually embodying those ideas. Then I went back to the older songs and rewrote some parts to make it all coherent. The idea is that it’s this extended metaphor, this idea that a relationship is a country unto itself (inspired by the “nation of two” passage in Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night) — if the relationship isn’t working, it can feel like a whole society coming apart.


… They are the people who’ve had some trouble in their lives and maybe in their romantic lives. They were at the end of some particularly traumatic period and said, “You know, maybe love is not going to be for me,” and made a comfortable life without that, and so when they find (someone) they have to make the decision whether they’re going to take another shot at love, given they’ve made a stable existence by themselves.



Explain your old-fashioned aesthetic. Some people might call it steampunk. What’s your story?


I just call it a look. I’m not trying to make a statement. I had the mustache long before I heard the term steampunk. There are two aspects to it: I like the process of dressing up for a show. It appeals to my sense of an old-fashioned work ethic about show business. A show should be an event, and you should dress up for it — the same way you would dress up for a party or for a dinner. It shows respect for the audience and respect for the craft.


There is also a psychological aspect of it that helps you get into character, like Superman in the phone booth. Then the other aspect is if you’re going to be onstage, it can be hard to figure out what to wear. There’s nothing more embarrassing than when people wear one thing and then look back on it 10 years later with horror. A suit and tie is a pretty safe way to go (laughs). It’s time-tested and proven. You’re never going be embarrassed by it and you can have the same look when you’re 22 as you do when you’re 52. If you want to age gracefully in show business, that’s a great way to do it.


When you write, you inhabit characters more often than writing from the first person. To do so, you must make a lot of observations about people in your everyday life.


Yeah, I love listening to the way people talk (laughs), if you know what I mean. People are always expressing things that they’re not actually saying. The ways in which that happens is always fascinating to me. I’m always writing down dialogue I overhear, most of which is hard to fit into song form but that doesn’t mean I don’t try to shoehorn it in there.


Who have you worked with lately who’s made an impression on you?


There’s a woman named Emily Hope Price here in New York who’s a cellist and songwriter I really enjoy working with. She sings a duet with me on Luck and Courage (“Z for Zachariah”). She’s also involved in a band called Pearl in the Beard. I produced a track of hers for an EP of theirs last year, which led into my producing their new full-length.


You must be really good at working with others, given your many collaborations.


Like any sort of interpersonal relationships, you find your own level. You always meet people of incredibly varied temperaments in the art world and the performance world. (Laughs) People be crazy — it’s not the deepest way to put it. People of like temperaments you’re going to gravitate towards each other. People you don’t get along with — you’re probably not going to do more than a couple of chores with. There’s no way to sort it out better than to put a bunch of people in a cramped van and giving them a bunch of booze and nowhere to sleep for a month, then you figure it out pretty quickly.


Video for "Jeff Penalty":


Don’t let the curly mustache fool you. Singer-songwriter  Franz Nicolay is no out-of-touch throwback.

The former keyboardist of the Hold Steady — whose second album Luck and Courage was released in October 2010 (on Team Science Records) — looks to the past, but his tinkering with the old-timey has less to do with nostalgia. It’s more about recognizing what’s made to last — the tried and true.

Nicolay is a 33-year-old multi-instrumentalist-wordsmith-bookworm who uses his literary flair and romance for days gone by to inform his impassioned elixir of folk, punk and rock. He subtly adds tintype elegance to his storytelling, conjuring gypsy rebellion and parlor-room atmospherics with accordions, banjos and piano. He’s even been known to tap dance during shows.

The NYU grad acquired his many influences by collaborating with countless musicians. Nicolay has inserted his nimble fingers into many a musical pie as a band member, soloist, producer and arranger. His resume includes stints with the Dresden Dolls and Against Me! as well as being a member of the World/Inferno Friendship Society and co-founding the Balkan-klezmer band Guignol. He also founded the Anti-Social Music collective in New York.

Nicolay brings his solo vaudeville punk show to New World Brewery on Tues., March 8, when he and tourmate David Dondero perform in a one-man-showcase with the equally formidable Will Quinlan from Tampa — a show that has all the makings of a Top 10 of ’11 New Granada concert.

It won’t be Nicolay’s first time in Tampa. If you’re a fan of the Hold Steady, that’s a given (Ybor City has been name-checked in Hold Steady songs and the band has played here several times). He shares with CL some info about his new record and other choice tidbits during a recent phone interview.

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