On Friday, Jan. 13, author, musician and “professional traveler” Franz Nicolay will speak with fellow author Cari Luna at Powell’s City of Books in Portland. Nicolay is best known as the sharply-dressed multi-instrumentalist for bands such as The Hold Steady, The World/Inferno Friendship Society and Against Me!, but he recently released his first book The Humorless Ladies of Border Control: Touring the Punk Underground from Belgrade to Ulaanbaatar. Armed with an accordion, a banjo, a guitar and a suitcase of merchandise, Nicolay and his wife Maria played for audiences across the former Communist world that often did not speak the same language as him.
The Emerald spoke to Nicolay about his experience traveling, rejoining the Hold Steady, and Nicolay’s future plans ahead of Friday’s book talk.
Emerald: Has traveling always been something that interests you?
Nicolay: Absolutely. I mean, I grew up in a really small rural town in northern New Hampshire, and we didn’t get out much. So basically I moved to New York when I was 17, which at that point was about as far away as I could get psychologically without getting too far physically, just in case something went terribly wrong.
E: A lot of The Humorless Ladies seems to talk about how you see the world differently after traveling. Do you think travel is something that makes us rethink how we view the world?
N: Oh absolutely. I mean any time you can get outside, especially when you’re talking about the way in which you see your own country, any time you can get outside, perspective is absolutely invaluable. That’s the biggest thing I think about some of the reactionary voices we hear in American politics now is that there’s no sense of what America looks like from the outside.
E: So obviously a few years ago you left the Hold Steady, which has an incredibly passionate fan base. In the book you said you wanted to go play for people who might not even speak the same language as you. That seems like the ultimate musical challenge, so what made you want to do that?
N: I needed another challenge as a performer … If you’re playing for people who already know and love the band, the fix is this: Even if you play a shitty show, they’re probably going to love it. So in a way you’re not just stripping away the rest of the band, you’re stripping away the volume and the noise, but also stripping away having fans in a lot of cases…
It seemed like the next logical step to push myself was to strip away all that stuff that was artificially propping up my idea of myself as a performer, so strip away all the volume, strip away the pomp and circumstance of a rock show, even strip away an audience that had any idea of who I was or why I was there.
E: So then how did that compare to when you rejoined the Hold Steady in December for the 10th anniversary of Boy and Girls In America? What did it feel like to go back into that band where the fans know every word to every song?
N: Well it’s a lot of fun, of course. It didn’t seem as weird as I thought it would. It felt like slipping into comfortable shoes. It didn’t feel entirely like just rehashing all the old stuff because Steve Selvidge [guitar] was there. And so there was all this new stuff that we could figure out how to play. It wasn’t exactly everything that I did 10 years ago. It’s music that I’m proud of, and it’s super fun, and I was glad to have a chance to roll it out again and have that feeling again.
E: Does the Hold Steady have any future plans that you might be a part of?
N: I mean at this point we were just focusing on enjoying that weekend, that’s all I can say. There’s literally nothing else on the calendar. We’ll see where it goes. Nothing on the calendar, but nothing ruled out either. There haven’t been any conversations of any sort.
E: Do you have any projects you’re currently working on?
N: I’m writing a novel. I have two more book projects in the works. So those are the action items right now. New projects always present themselves. I can never let a project just go by the wayside once I’ve thought of it.
E: What’s the novel about?
N: I’d prefer not to say, lest I jinx its completion