I think my favourite moment of that whole night in Dundee with Franz Nicolay, Frank Turner and Ben Marwood the other week was when I introduced the former to my husband. “Hi,” he said, reaching out his hand with a big smile on his face. “I’m Franz.”
As if he wasn’t going to know. As if that wasn’t us standing in front of his keyboard, Valentine’s Day 2007, when his former band The Hold Steady played their first Scottish show. As if we weren’t under his spell from then. “This is a little surreal,” I’d said to the moustached multi-instrumentalist earlier. We were sitting downstairs in the world’s least green ‘green room’, while upstairs Frank Turner soundchecked with his shock of hair hidden under a baseball cap. “I’m hanging out a guy who used to play with a band I loved so much I have their lyrics tattooed on my back.”
I never claimed to be cool, and he had the good grace not to laugh. You get the impression that, to Franz Nicolay, every stranger is a friend he hasn’t met yet or, better still, a potential musical collaborator.
“I feel it was something I was always doing – I just ended up getting stuck with a band longer than I intended and it took up more of my time than I intended,” he says, when I point out that for a solo artist he’s never really out on his own. “But that was how [my involvement with the Hold Steady] started, you know – Tad [Kubler, Hold Steady guitarist] saying hey, do you want to help write some songs for the new record… do you want to join the band?
“If it was up to me? I would collaborate all the time. I don’t think any person’s vision is so absolute that it can’t be improved by bouncing it off somebody else.”
Appropriately enough, given his touring partner for these twenty or so dates through a bunch of places the Brooklyn native has never heard of (and in those exhaustive years with The Hold Steady, it’s surprising he hasn’t seen every little place a band can play, Franz Nicolay’s accordion will next be heard on Frank Turner’s England Keep My Bones, which hits next month. “I knew Frank by reputation for a couple of years, and then we played a show together in San Francisco last year and hit it off,” he says. “He came out to my London show in January and I knew he was working on the record, and he asked if I had a day off.
“And I said, well, I could come in in the morning…”He’ll next be working with New York street artist Fly, who he describes a “lower East side squatter-anarchist-illustrator”, on a song series based on her long-running portrait series and now book of the same name, Peops. “It’s a chamber music project [performer collective] for Anti-Social Music,” he explains. “Fly draws these little head shots of people she runs into on her travels – activists and musicians and squatters – and she interviews them while she’s drawing and then transcribes the interview into the negative space around the head. What I’m doing is going through those, and editing down some of their words into lyrics.”
It’s the sort of project you’d only really expect to hear from the mouth of Franz Nicolay. “I’m just trying not to write songs that have been written before, and there are a lot of topics that have already been covered,” he explains when I question him about some of his more unusual creative projects. “I say this as a gross generalisation but I think a lot of people, when you decide you want to be a songwriter – well, you write a hundred songs about your feelings, and then fifty songs about shit that happened to you and shit that happened to your friends. Eventually, you have to start writing fiction.”
While he jokes about ‘not being that busy’ for the next couple of months, until his next solo US tour, it’s a certainty he’ll find plenty to keep him busy in the form of the next record. “I’m at a point, right now, where I’m more interested in the words than the music,” he says. “About ten years ago, my writing process was really different – I would write all this music and hear these melodies and fit vowel sounds to them and write the lyrics that way; as a functional thing to hang a melody on.
“This last set of songs, and the new ones, have been the other way around – I’ll write a set of lyrics first and then try to piece it together with mysic that I’ve written separately or written specifically for that. Which leads to songs that you can pack more detail and wordplay into, but the flipside of that is that they’re simpler, musically.
“It’s a little too early in the process to make any generalisations about the next set of songs, but they’re more in the vein of a song like ‘Luck and Courage’ than a song like… I don’t know… ‘Note on a Subway Wall’.”
“One of the things that I’ve always wanted that I haven’t gotten to do so far on my solo records is to have a really strong producer,” he says. “I’ve had good people engineering and mixing them, but not, you know, another musical mind to bounce it off. That’s what I want to do for this next record: to say to somebody else whose opinions I respect – and who is a great musician in their own right – here’s what I got, hit it back at me.”
Of course, this being Franz Nicolay the next thing we hear might be something completely different. “I have this whole set of songs that are piano ballads, like early Tom Waits kinda things, that I wrote years ago when I was playing more jazz,” he says. “Either I’m going to write lurics for them or Dave Dondero’s going to write lyrics for them. Muted trumpet, the whole Chet Baker thing.
“If I could collaborate with anyone it would be Tom Waits, but I don’t see that happening.”
Of course, we couldn’t let the chance to talk to one of our idols pass without sneaking in a Stringer style bonus question, so – Franz Nicolay, your top five moustaches?
“Um… I don’t know… I’m not really a moustache enthusiast, I just have one,” he says. “Frankly I don’t think moustaches look good on most people who have them. John Waters has a great moustache, I really like that style. And William Powell, from the old screwball comedies. So that’s two…
“I stole this look from the guy in Moulin Rouge, so that’s something I guess. There’s three. Will that do?”