Music Features

The Hold Steady (Interview)

I met Franz Nicolay (the guy with the moustache) in what has to be the cleanest bar of all time. The Music Mill is a venue for yuppies, built by yuppies, one that stands in the yuppie part of Indianapolis. Excuse me for saying this, but The Hold Steady felt a little bit out place here. But throughout fifteen minutes, the disarming keyboardist for the Springsteen aping rock and roll group established why The Hold Steady remain both a divisive and engaging force in indie rock.

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No Ripcord: I'm really fond of the piano on Boys and Girls in America, which seem much more pronounced than on past records. Was this a natural progression or a sudden change?

Franz Nicolay: It was a little of both. I played on Separation Sunday, but I didn't really join the band until later. I joined the band about six weeks before the sessions were booked, so a lot of the material was already written. With Separation Sunday, it was a little bit of an adjustment, in terms of the band's expectations - for the first time there was another element in play - there are so much more options for drama and dynamics. So the writing on Boys and Girls in America was based on Separation Sunday.

NR: You just got back from a tour from Europe. How did fans in Europe react to Craig's lyrics, which are really regionally-based?

FN: I think that it's no different - speaking in terms of the UK - I don't think it's any different than when British bands use a lot of British references. If you listen to The Clash, you don't know what Hammersmith Palais is; you don't know what 999 is. You don't what Brighton is; you don't know what Sheffield is. You don't know what Manchester meant to people like Morrissey. In a Shane McGowan song, you don't know how to respond to Irish history, but you sort of understand the song and what it's trying to say.

I think that analogy applies. You don't have to be from Minneapolis to understand what we're trying to say - I'm not from Minneapolis, but I know the kind of people we're singing about...It's like writing a play, it's like writing a movie - you have to set of a place and a time.

NR: I've seen several interviews where Craig mentioned that the band felt really separate from the dance-punk NYC music scene. Why did the band choose to move to a local scene that is so out-of-step with its sound?

FN: I don't think it had anything to do with the music scene. Craig and Tad's band (Lifter Puller) had just broken up and Craig wasn't sure if he was going to be doing music anymore. He was sick of it and he was tired and he had some friends in New York so he decided to move there.

NR: In what kind of way does New York City influence the bands sound?

FN: I think it gives it an urgency, especially from the live aspect of it. When you go to New York, there's the one or two most ambitious people from every small town in the country - if not the world. The pace of life is so fast that it forces you to really kind of put up or shut up. I mean it's easy to be a big fish in a small city. I think that affects any band that comes to New York - you're automatically operating on a higher level, with a higher urgency.

NR: How do your side-projects, particularly Guignol influence The Hold Steady, if at all?

FN: Well I think all of them influence each other in that I'm having these vastly different experiences...Playing with World/Inferno taught me how to put on a show, how to dress, how to play to a crowd without embarrassing myself. Guignol is a great example of how to combine really top-flight musicianship with attitude - how to throw a party but still be operating with a high level of professionalism.

The Hold Steady taught me not to reject something just because you think it's too easy... how to put on the big rock gestures. There's a reason why people keep doing it - and to not do it just because you say, 'well that's not cool,' that's not a good enough reason to not do it.

NR: Do you think that those big rock gestures feed into why The Hold Steady continue to be really divisive among indie music?

FN: I think people are still too embarrassed to come out of themselves to say they like this kind of music. I think part of it is a showmanship issue. I think a lot of bands choose to react to that by saying 'instead of doing the big rock gestures and coming up with our own moves, we're just not going to do anything at all. We're not going say anything, we're not going to look at you, we're not going to acknowledge you at all,' and I think that's total bullshit. You're not just a musician when you get onstage. In a larger sense, you're an entertainer. I think that's a huge weakness in indie music right now.

NR: I just saw TV on the Radio and they were great musicians but they didn't have great showmanship.

FN: That's one thing that I feel like ties all the projects that I'm involved with together - is that appreciation for the delicate balance of musicianship and showmanship. I mean, when people come to see your band, they're doing you a favor; you're not doing them a favor. You owe it to them to prove why you're worth the time and money.