Interview: Hold Steady! Nicolay breaks out on solo adventures

franznicolayNicolay is frequently called the eccentric character in the rock band The Hold Steady.

Franz Nicolay may be best known for his position in the rock outfit The Hold Steady, but don't jump to conclusions about his musical style. The keyboardist has been praised for being the "secret weapon" of THS's alternative-rock sound– putting a somewhat comical and dramatic character into each and every performance. But what he could be known for is his accordion and piano playing in various gypsy-klezmer ensembles, his founding of a New York City-based composer/performer collective, and a solo album released in early 2009 to mixed critical acclaim.

"It's kind of a blank slate– just me and a steady cast of people I'm working with," Nicolay says of his solo endeavor. "I can do what I want with it."

Sounds general, but in practice, what he wants is as varied and dynamic as the many bands he plays with. For Major General, the songs ranged from dramatic, parlor ballads to intimate lyrical rockers. Critics have slammed Nicolay from experimenting with genre convention too much, with the resulting album suffering from ADHD. But according to the keyboardist, that's just fine with him.

The Hook: A lot of critics have said your solo endeavor "said too much," while others claimed you were merely re-treading old Hold Steady ground. What did you think?
Franz Nicolay: We did it really quickly, a week-long process, so I think it was a good first step– everything I do has a giant mesh of influences. I would rather have the extremes of opinion than everyone in the middle.

The Hook: Some call you the foreigner of The Hold Steady– do you want to be known as the eccentric one?
Franz Nicolay: Whether I like it or not, I am– I get bored really easily, so if I were just playing the organ pads for the last five years, I wouldn't be doing it anymore. Instead I think: what angle can I put on this song that will make it interesting the 500th time I've played it? I do stuff that makes me laugh and challenges me– whether or not the vast majority of people like it isn't on my mind– I'm the one who has to play it.

The Hook: What sparked your interest in sound?
Franz Nicolay: It was really early– my parents said I was singing Sesame Street and demanded to learn the violin at age five. I began playing piano a year after that, then learned the french horn at nine and guitar when I was fifteen.

The Hook: Why did you decide to stick with the piano as your main instrument?
Franz Nicolay: The fact that I ended up making my living as a piano player is because I've been playing it the longest– my heart is in playing the accordian and banjo.

The Hook: Any specific musical interests that prompt your genre experimentation?
Franz Nicolay: I get really excited about what they call the "golden age" of American songwriting, the parlor songs of the '20s and '30s. As Guy Clarke said, the real divide in American pop music isn't in the '50s when rock 'n roll broke onto the scene– it was in the '30s when amplified music took over from parlor songs.

The Hook: Do you ever feel as if your lyrics are overshadowed by [Hold Steady frontman] Craig Finn?
Franz Nicolay: I'm definitely not trying to be Craig. Obviously we're both in The Hold Steady and we're both contributing music to that sound. We share an interest in literate lyrics, but I think that's just lazy criticism based on the fact that I'm in The Hold Steady. I don't think people would say that about the [solo] record if I wasn't in the band.

The Hook: What will we see from your solo work in the future?
Franz Nicolay: My idea for the next record is to do melodramatic orchestral pop, where that crosses over with '60s and '70s country records– big, melodramatic melodies in intimate settings. Guitar, accordion, banjo, drums, with a string quartet– that's the starting point.

The Hook: What about the other groups you're involved in?
Franz Nicolay: With Anti-Social Music [composer/performer collective], I'm giving them an acoustic version of all my solo songs, so they can arrange them any way they want– an experimental remix of the record. I'm also working with the Bushwick Book Club– a songwriters book club in Brooklyn, where we pick a book each month and then write a song about the book. The last one was Watchmen. Then a solo record in 10-inch vinyl release in September.

The Hook: And the live show?
Franz Nicolay: The show I go on the road with is a vaudeville thing– just me, with an accordion. I tell some jokes, play some songs, you'll laugh, you'll cry.

Franz Nicolay performs at the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar on 8/6. $10, 8pm.