Franz Nicolay – quite possibly the busiest musician working today – is no stranger to genre hopping. Since he left The Hold Steady early this year, he’s put out a 7-inch with World/Inferno Friendship Society, a second solo record (Luck and Courage), produced an album for the Debutante Hour and joined Against Me! as a touring musician.
Oh, and with the remaining few days left in the year, when he’s not on stage or in a recording studio, he’s started work as an extra for TV shows.
Nicolay (God knows when he found the time) chatted with Innocent Words about Luck and Courage.
Innocent Words: What can you tell me about the characters and the story of Luck and Courage?
Franz Nicolay: It’s loosely based on these two characters, Felix and Adelita. Felix, in Latin, means luck; and Adelita is an iconic woman warrior in Mexican folklore, an embodiment of courage. The characters are two not-exactly drifters, but people who have chosen their freedom over the difficult joys of love; and what happens when their feelings force them to reconsider the possibility that they could have something they’d long since written off for themselves. Overlaid on that – in “Mother Night,” Kurt Vonnegut coined the term “a nation of two” to describe that stage of love in which a couple seems to be creating their own self-contained world, with its own language and culture. So, there’s a parallel narrative of a Cormac McCarthy-esque borderland country, the country of Felix and Adelita’s tenuous relationship, that’s plague-ridden and falling apart at the seams. Basically it’s a record about the tensions between domesticity and the urge to keep moving.
IW: In your bio, you mentioned that you looked to Lyle Lovett’s I Love Everybody as a template of sorts. Where else did you look for inspiration?
Nicolay: I really loved Nico Muhly and Shahzad Ismaily’s orchestrations and arrangements on the recent Sam Amidon record, so I was thinking about that a lot on, for example, “James Ensor Redeemed.” There’s also some 16 Horsepower, Nabokov, and a 19th-century preacher by the name of Spurgeon. I don’t want to give it all away.
IW: Did you use the same musicians you used on the last solo record?
Nicolay: Mostly – Brian Viglione of the Dresden Dolls and Yula Be’eri from World/Inferno were the rhythm section on both records. There’s less of guitarist Jared Scott, but he’s on two tracks. Maria Sonevytsky plays almost all the piano on it.
IW: You have got to be one of the busiest musicians working today. Aside from your solo work, what other bands are you still involved with?
Nicolay: Well, I played with World/Inferno Friendship Society for the first time in four years recently – on a bill with Mischief Brew and Hard Skin. Fat Bob from Hard Skin said, “Sorry we had to go on between the Pogues and Dexys Midnight Runners. Didn’t realize Americans had run out of their own ideas.” Guignol is always a bit of a project band, so we play when everyone’s free or when we get a good offer. Aside from solo stuff, right now I’ve been doing a lot of work for Anti-Social Music. We have our tenth anniversary season coming up and a new record, Anti-Social Music Is The Future Of Everything, coming out. The group is on tour in Ukraine right now, actually.
IW: Do you find it difficult to be involved in some many different genres at one time?
Nicolay: No, a genre is an artificial and relatively arbitrary demarcation that is more useful to music fans than musicians, and frankly shouldn’t be that useful to anyone, except maybe as a shorthand for what you like “best.” It’s all the same 11-plus notes, just a matter of how you use them. And if one manner of using them bleeds into another, it makes both more interesting.
Nicolay: That’s not really true – I’ve only been a hired gun for Against Me! this summer. I do studio sessions or one-off guest appearances sometimes, but that’s a different beast. Last time I was the “new guy” was when I joined The Hold Steady six years ago, and it was a little like being the anthropologist parachuted onto the South Sea Island – you have to learn the language and the customs.
IW: So, what’s next for you?
Nicolay: I’m going to the UK on a package tour with myself, Jack Terricloth (World/Inferno) and Dave Hause (The Loved Ones). Then I have two big semi-theatrical projects I have to hunker down and write, both based on graphic sources, which will be an interesting challenge. One is a song-cycle based on the “Peops” series by the illustrator Fly; and the next is an adaptation of “Flood” by Eric Drooker, who did the animations for the recent “Howl” movie.
IW: Do you have anything you want to add?
Nicolay: This is just a sort of curiosity, but I’ve been working as a TV extra when I’m home for spare cash, so if you see me in the background of “Nurse Jackie” next season making fake conversation with a desk nurse, you’re not imagining it! And I play a villainous ringmaster (typecasting alert) in the video trailer for the new Salman Rushdie book. So, that’s a new wrinkle.