Monday, July 12, 2010

The Modern Suburbanite Interview: Franz Nicolay

Franz Nicolay is a man of many talents, indeed- the New England-raised, New York-based singer/songwriter/composer/author is a co-founder of Anti-Social Music, a member of the anarchist-cabaret troupe World/Inferno Friendship Society, a member of The Hold Steady from Separation Sunday through Stay Positive and its supporting tour, and a collaborator with Mischief Brew and Guignol. In addition to preparing for an upcoming wedding, he has contributed to The Bushwick Book Club and is readying a followup to Major General, his 2009 solo release.

"Jeff Penalty" (with Demander, from Major General)

Franz is presently on tour with Against Me!, playing keyboards and providing vocals. He took some time out of his (very, very busy) schedule to answer some questions for Modern Suburbanite.

You’ve achieved two very iconic things this summer: you’ve played The Tonight Show and you signed the Green Monster at Fenway. What is it like now that you’re a part of a couple of bona fide cultural institutions?

FN: I can pretty much hang it up now, huh? My favorite thing about the Fenway trip was noticing that the Sox bullpen has a Jolly Roger hung on the inside of the centerfield wall. I figure that's got to be a Papelbon thing. (Ed note: the Sox relievers have had a "pirate" theme, complete with flag and parrot. More in this ESPN column.) I got my hands on the ballpark organ, too - but it's a little electric job stuck in the corner of the corporate suite bar. He can't even watch the game, he has a little black-and-white TV screen. Typical. 

I read the interview you did with Peter Bognanni for InDigest and was kind of struck by how, though we grew up in drastically different situations (I’m from a fairly conservative suburb of Oklahoma City), we both were kind of late to delve into punk rock. Do you think that it’s possible for an older listener to process punk the same way as, say, a fourteen year old might?

Of course not, but the benefit is you're more likely to have a lasting relationship with it. You can absorb the useful parts and ignore the ridiculous parts. The average 15-year-old has a three-year relationship with punk rock and then rejects it halfway through their freshman year of college for "experimental" indie. 

"I Was a Teenage Anarchist" (Against Me! live on The Tonight Show)

When the previous Against Me! album was released, one of the loudest criticisms was that they had sold out their previous punk credibility. Does it seem like there’s still a sense of that at the shows supporting this record, or does it seem like the audience has made its peace with everything?

Most of this tour is supporting Silversun Pickups, who have a pretty big production and a $35 ticket price, so mostly Against Me fans don't come. Judging from some of the other shows, I would say that there's a contingent of their fans that are still pissed. And I understand that. Honestly, when I heard "Teenage Anarchist" for the first time I had a negative reaction as well. But I appreciate aggressive songwriting, and I think anyone that is blindly upset by that song is missing an opportunity to consider the very real and relevant point that Tom's making about the reactionary closed-mindedness of most music scenes, one that's especially ironic in the context of a belief system that's theoretically about doing whatever the fuck you want whenever the fuck you want and not having to answer to anyone. I think you have to consider the possibility that any band that manages to piss off so many people might really be on to something. I think they've been very true to their experience - which would be  the bigger betrayal of themselves: to continue to document their life honestly and openly, or to write sloganeering songs about cops for the rest of their lives? Songs are meant to stake out desciptions of the undescribed, not to retread well-worn ground. I happen to think Against Me having stayed true to a commitment to an honesty to tell their own stories and stake out a career independent of a variety of pressures, which takes a great deal of bravery. 

You’ve mentioned that there’s been progress on the follow-up to Major General. Will there be an accompanying tour with a tour-specific look, like the white suit during the previous tour?

Well, the white suit wasn't a conscious "tour look" - I just go through phases of feeling more comfortable in one outfit or another. Right now I'm back on the black-vest thing for the Against Me tour. But, I'm getting married in October, and I think I'm getting a custom suit made, so I'll be hard-pressed to resist wearing that if it turns out nice!

"There Will Be Violins" (live 1/14/09)

Any idea on a possible release date for the follow-up?

October 12, more or less; with a month-long tour planned for November.

The “Old Testament” aspect you’ve mentioned is interesting to me.

Thanks. It's rare that I feel a starkness of right and wrong about a situation, but I find I am full of the feeling that some people need to be judged. 

Interpunk lists Fight Dirty as being sold out- are there any plans for another run?

That just means Fistolo hasn't restocked Interpunk - it is far from sold out! (Ed. Note: Here's Amazon.)

The last time you played a date in Oklahoma (to my knowledge) was with the Hold Steady in 2007- you described Norman as being out of a film like The Last Picture Show or The Outsiders. Tuesday’s Against Me! show is actually in Tulsa, the town where The Outsiders was set (and, I believe, filmed), as was fellow accordion enthusiast Al Yankovic’s masterpiece, UHF. Have you given any thought to your return to the Sooner State?

Against Me's lighting guy, whose name is John Paul and thus goes by Pope, is from Oklahoma City and some of his people are coming out. This is a guy who went on the road with the Flaming Lips as a teenager and has "Satan" tattooed on his neck. So I'm curious to see what kind of people he comes from!

I read the interview you did with Karan Kanan Correa for Largehearted Boy, and I thought the anecdote about “bands that only talk about movies” was funny, but your response reminded me of the key conversation in Field of Dreams, about how there was always baseball. In a lot of situations, it seems that kids who gravitate toward music and bands don’t always have a sports vocabulary, but often have a film vocabulary in common. Do you think that perhaps that’s what the movie talk is used for- to build a common vocabulary?

I think it speaks to the larger question of what men talk about with each other, and that they are ways of filling conversational space with conversation that's not really about anything in particular. Not everyone likes sports - or admits to it, in rock world - or books - but everybody's got opinions on movies. 

You also mentioned the relationship between keeping pigeons and men who are isolated. Tesla kept pigeons and, according to some reports, had a favorite that, when it died, he claimed creativity had left him. When I read “Little Hobbes in the Big Woods” I found it surprisingly affecting, considering that pigeons aren’t thought very highly of, even around here (Oklahoma City is actually home to the American Racing Pigeon Union.) 

Pigeons are mysterious creatures, a combination of the filthy-mundane "winged rat" and the slightly magical. I'm pretty sure that what I once heard, that they actually contain some kind of magnetically-responsive stone or gland in their pea-brains, is false, but imagine if it wasn't - that all the dead pigeons on New York city streets would decompose leaving a small black bean with mystical powers. 

Franz Nicolay performs with Against Me! at The Marquee in Tulsa, OK, on Tuesday, 7/13. Tickets are available here. All ages.

Against Me!'s new album, White Crosses, is available now.

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