There’s something quite old school about Franz Nicolay; a rebellious grafter, he’s been a member of and written with a staggering array of artists, from The Hold Steady to Against Me! He’s also recorded with the likes of Frank Turner, The Living End and The Dresden Dolls; he’s a professional musician whose influence is in demand.
As a solo artist too, he’s prolific, but his most recent album, To Us, The Beautiful!, stands out as some of his best work yet. His most accessible record to date, it’s full of catchy yet literary guitar-pop gems which provide the perfect backdrop to his warm but acerbic voice. It flits between the exhilarating rabble cries he’s best known for and more sentimental, campfire sing-alongs – and remarkably, it took just six days of rehearsal and recording.
We caught up with him to find out more about the record ahead of his fifth trip to the Windmill in Brixton, on 24 March and the launch of his new book on punk in the former communist world…
This feels like your most accessible album to date. Did you make a conscious effort to make it so?
No, I think that’s just the nature of making a guitar-centric album. I could write the poppiest Max Martin song in the world and if I play it on the accordion people will be like “it’s so quirky and eccentric.” Guitar is comfort food.
You spent just six days rehearsing and recording the record. Why the rush?
That’s all the money I had. Luckily everyone involved is a total pro and that’s all the time we needed.
I hear the album’s title has an interesting origin. Can you tell us about it?
I heard a western Ukrainian toast that went: “To us, the beautiful – and to those who disagree, may their eyes fall out.” I thought, ‘These songs write themselves.’
You’re touring without a band this time around; how does that change your tour experience, both on and off stage? What do you prefer?
Each has its benefits. Performing with a band is more relaxing in that I don’t have to work as hard to keep an audience’s attention – volume can do the heavy lifting for me. But it’s a lot cheaper to tour solo. And I have more control over the dynamic of the show. I don’t have to use a set list. I can have more songs available to me on any given night.
You’ve packed in a lot throughout your career. What are you most proud of?
That I don’t have a lot of work that I’m embarrassed of. As the song says: “I’ve always had a good sense for when it’s time to get gone.” If you never make a lot of money, there’s never so much on the table that you can’t walk away.
The accordion isn’t the most likely of instruments. How did you come about it and learn to play?
My dad had one around. His German grandfather had brought him one from Germany so his grandson could play him polkas and waltzes. My dad, a good child of the ’50s and ’60s, hated it, and sliced the bellows once with a knife so he wouldn’t have to go to his lesson. But he kept it around, and I took it to New York when I left home. I joined World/Inferno as a keyboard player, but after a rehearsal or two, I said: “You know, I have an accordion at home. Should I bring it in?” They said: “Yeah!” I couldn’t really play at that point, but I didn’t have a good amplification system yet either, so by the time I got a decent pickup and was loud enough that they could hear me, I’d figured out how to play it.
Has becoming a father changed your approach to your work?
I’d like to think I’m more efficient with my time, since I have less of it. If I had a whole day to work before, now I may have two hours, but in that whole day, I’d probably get two hours of work done. Also more focused – I have to work on one project at a time until it’s done before I move on.
By our reckoning this is your third show at The Windmill in London. What keeps bringing you back?
Actually my fifth, plus one more guesting with my wife’s old band. I just like it there. It’s comfortable. Tim is cool and has good taste. There’s good vegetarian Jamaican food around the corner. Ample and convenient parking. Cheap beer. Really what else can you ask? It’s all been golden once I realized the address wasn’t the other 22 Blenheim Gardens in London.
What’s next for you?
I have a book coming out on The New Press, it’s called The Humorless Ladies of Border Patrol. It’s about punk and DIY in the former Communist world.
Franz Nicolay’s album To Us, The Beautiful! is out now through Xtra Mile, and he plays the Windmill in London on 24 March 2015. Tour dates and further information can be found here.