By looking at the diverse list of bands Franz Nicolay has played in or with, you can understand immediately why he despises the concept of “genre.” It has nothing to do with music and everything to do with people who use music as an accessory or a marketing tool,” admits Nicolay. As confident on accordion, saw and banjo as he is on keyboard or guitar; Nicolay’s music fuses elements of all his influences through literature, music, film and travel, but on his Kickstarter-funded third release Do the Struggle he goes to even darker places courtesy of industrial beats and an overall incensed theme.
The multi-instrumentalist and former member of World/Inferno Friendship Society, Hold Steady, Balkan-jazz carnies Guigno and former touring member of Against Me!, has played a variety of roles and instruments in his various creative endeavors, but it’s the one as solo artist that speaks closes to his heart – even the small business part. This time he teamed up with producer Oktopus, who remembers: “We went in with the idea of taking classic Americana instrumentation/songwriting and treating it with a more club/techno/bass sonic vibe. Banjos were treated like arpeggiated synth lines, accordions like saw-tooth pads, tuba like 808 crunk bass, and so on. To me this record was a perfect way to start looking at the relationship between traditional acoustic music and more futuristic electronic music."
Nicolay has progressed beyond the singer-songwriter sound world to create a dark, explosive, and cinematic opus of personal and political anger. Do The Struggle is about balancing the impulse to run away from trouble and the reality that it is the terrible things that happen to us that shape our personalities. Following a recent world tour, we had the opportunity to speak with Nicolay about Kickstarter economics, New Hampshire rock stars and this engaging new album.
You recently completed a six month tour including 110 shows, 21 countries and almost 50,000 miles travelled. How do you feel right now? Tired, invigorated, inspired?
All of the above, I'd say. It was especially disorienting since I wasn't coming back to my home in New York, but immediately to a sublet outside Boston, where my wife is doing post-graduate work. I thought I had handled jetlag and re-assimilation pretty well, but as soon as we'd moved in there, I had a week of really drastic mood swings - lethargic depression for a couple days, then manic energy - before leveling out again to the point where I could start working. Inertia is a powerful thing, and it takes as much energy to stop moving as it does to start.
Can you talk about your background a bit – your music and accomplishments are worldly but most people would be surprised to find out you're from New Hampshire of all places – what was your first instrument and what was your first band?
I started playing violin at five, piano at six, french horn at nine, guitar at 15, mandolin at 17, accordion at 22, banjo about three years ago. I played rhythm guitar in a band that did mostly covers - Pearl Jam and U2 and so on - and a couple of originals. I had a training-wheels band in college in which I played guitar and sang. Then I joined World/Inferno in 2000 and that's when things really got going.
New Hampshire is less rock-ribbed than the political news would lead you to believe, though it's certainly no Vermont in that regard. The community I grew up in was very much artists and home-schoolers and certainly quite rural - wood heat, outhouses, and moose. But there is something about growing up in relative cultural isolation that can create a real idealism - I spent so much time imagining what it would be like to move to New York and be a musician that the reality of it has never quite managed to take the shine off.
It's a motley crew, pop musicians from New Hampshire - Joe Perry and Steven Tyler, Jon Spencer, Lisa Suckdog, and of course GG Allin and the Shaggs. Do The Struggle is said to be about balancing the impulse to run away from trouble and the reality of trouble and its related circumstances. What brought about this theme for you – was it something autobiographical or historical or observational or something else? Did the writing for this album come very simply and easily in one writing session?
It's one of those things where I had a lot of disconnected material percolating (including a half-dozen completed songs I'd been playing live), so that when I finally stopped moving - I had most of last summer off of touring - it just spilled out and coalesced and I wrote the other ten songs all in a row. Sometimes things just need to percolate.
I don't think it's a particularly specific theme - or if it is, only in the sense that the songs address individual ways in which life can feel like a daily battle. That year, in addition, seemed like a particularly sclerotic political moment in ways that made it impossible to pick up a newspaper without getting stutteringly angry. Add to that the London riots and the Occupy explosion and it just seemed like the injustice and the frustration of modern life were coming to a kind of anarchic head, and in a way that seemed like the only logical response. Clearly nothing could be resolved through the existing system, so it was best to not even engage with it.
Do The Struggle speaks narratives of geographical places like Boston and the southwest which immediately grabs listeners of identifying a particular place with the music. How do you see your progress and development as a lyricist versus your earlier work? What songwriters most inspire you and what themes (protest/disappoint/political, etc?) most resonate with you?
As you might expect, it's taken a little while to figure out my focus on the solo stuff - the first album was literally a grab-bag of songs in various styles, some new, some quite old. It was the last few songs I wrote for "Luck And Courage" - the title track and "Felix & Adelita" in particular - that set the direction, lyrically, for the next set of songs: hyperverbal, narrative, oblique, more literary. And "Have Mercy" off the same album gave me a sense of how I could explode the soundtrack - instead of having this song be the rock song, this song be the country song, this song be the jazzy nightclub song, I could make them indescribable. "Do The Struggle" and "Joy" are the direct descendants of that approach.
The emotional tone I'm trying to strike is both complicated and specific, a bittersweet worldliness that strikes an unusual emotional chord, a sort of "Why We Fight" for the daily battle and the larger war at the risk of sounding pretentious.
"Hell Broke Luce" off the last Tom Waits record was a real inspiration - it's unlike anything he's ever done, personal, political, angry, subversive, narrative - with a track that's also cinematic and impossible to pigeonhole.
Oktopus’ production plays a major part in this release – what did he bring forth to the sessions and what type of exact impact did he have on the sound? Are the results what you imagined prior to writing/recording?
What I wanted was to not know what was going to come out the other end - I wanted a collaborator with a strong aesthetic vision of their own that would surprise me and fight me if necessary. There are certain things - overdubs, lyrics, sticking to the chord changes - that I care a lot about that he couldn't give two shits; and some things - rhythm section parts and groove - that he would stop a session in its tracks if they didn't feel right, or if the tempo was two clicks slow. So he played a big role in the pre-production working with John and George to get the feels right; then I think I could have done all the vocals and overdubs somewhere else and brought it back to him for the mix.
I don't want to speak to definitely for him, but I've heard him say something to the effect of one of the post-hiphop music world is that instrumentalists' work can just be the raw material for a producer to remake. What is the role of an instrumentalist in a world in which J. Dilla, legendary producer, employs only existing records for his tracks? So octopus' approach to "Do The Struggle" was to record tracks that he'd want to sample, and then do to them what he'd do to that sample.
Most people previously know you as the former keyboardist for the Hold Steady, but you’ve been a bandleader for quite some years now – would you say that you are more comfortable in the role of band leader and composer/multi-instrumentalist ? What parts come most easy for you and what is still a challenge?
I don't know if that's strictly true - there is a whole set of people who think of me as the guy from World/Inferno; or, particularly in England, "guy that Frank Turner likes" - but I'll accept the basic premise! The biggest challenge is the people who come to my recent albums only through the lens of the bands I've been in before and judge them on the extent to which they are or are not like Hold Steady records (or whatever their lens happens to be).
I'm comfortable in any role. I would still join a band as a sideman, just nobody's asked. I've always wanted to live a full and diverse life as a musician and performer, and if in a few years I look back and have only played solo shows, I'd be disappointed. Making a living is always a challenge, but it has always been a challenge, I went into this lifestyle expecting it to be a challenge, and there's a certain part of me that enjoys the intellectual effort of analyzing the economics and running a small business.
You funded Do The Struggle through Kickstarter with 195 backers. How much of a challenge was it for you to reach your goal and would you consider doing it again for your next album?
I would like to be thought of someone unironically trying to create art, popular art, with an integrity of ambition; and I'll hustle, beg, borrow or steal to make that happen.
Speaking of begging and borrowing: Kickstarter has stress built into its model - you have to reach a goal within a constrained time period or you get nothing. So the last 24 hours or so are meant to be a challenge. But ultimately I was able to make a record that otherwise would not have been made, so any other qualifications are secondary.
I think I wouldn't want to go back to that well quite so soon, though I reserve the right to change my mind if I can't fund the next record! There are a couple tricky things about Kickstarter, too: in my case, Amazon and Kickstarter take 10% of the total, another 15% went to the costs of fulfilling the rewards, and, since it's taxable income, another 30% goes to the government. So although I raised $11,283 on Kickstarter and spent $11,861.80 on recording costs; ultimately about half of that is still out of pocket - so much for the "mooching artists" narrative.
Not to get too deep in the financial weeds of it all, but there's also an interesting story to be told about the contradictions between the wide but shallow base of small donors and the smaller but deeper large donors. The bottom level of donation ($10, $25, $50, $75) constituted 80% of the donors (157 of 295) but only 36% of the total money raised. The top 32 donors ($250 or more) constituted 59% of the total donation the top 9 ($250 or more) 23%; and more important, since their rewards were non-tangible (cover songs, house concerts) and cost nothing to fulfill, the $25-$75 donors netted me (after the cost of fulfillment) 73%; vs. the top donors' 98%!
Which seems to indicate that it's more efficient to offer more personal and intangible rewards at a higher donor level at the expense of a broad base of small donors. However, although the bottom 30% of donors don't combine to equal one of the top 3%, there is a public-relations advantage to broadening the small-donor base - call it the "Obama method" of small-donor fundraising vs. the Citizens United method - in terms of encouraging people to feel invested in the project. Interesting, anyway. Any good stories from any of the private house concerts for the generous Kickstarter donors you’d like to share?
Everyone's been quite pleasant and hospitable. I played a Super Bowl halftime show up in Nova Scotia in the middle of winter, that was pretty fun. And winter never really came to New York last year, so the New Englander in me appreciated the chance to go to where real winter was still happening.