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June 30, 2010

Karen Kanan Correa Interviews Franz Nicolay

In the "Largehearted Boy Cross-Media Cultural Exchange Program" series (thanks to Jami Attenberg for the title), authors interview musicians (and vice versa).

Karen Kanan Correa sings and plays bass in the NYC band Demander. The band's latest album Future Brite was released earlier this year.

Franz Nicolay's debut solo album Major General was released last year, and this year he is publishing three chapbooks of fiction and observations through Julius Singer Press, followed by a novel. The first chapbook in the series, Complicated Gardening Techniques, quickly sold out its first edition.

Karen Kanan Correa interviews Franz Nicolay:

I. Complicated Gardening Techniques

Karan Kanan Correa: There's this story I read in the Slow Food magazine a few years ago where the author, Fabrizia Morandi, is talking about finding a "lump of snail, sliced with surgical precision" in her salad. She writes: "'There's a snail in my salad,' I said. 'Eat it up, it's tuna,' came the reply. But the tuna on my plate had two horns. With the deepest respect for every form of diversity." Do you think slugs and snails are destined to end up drowned in beer or sliced up in our salads, or can we learn to be friends?

Franz Nicolay: I've been a life-long vegetarian, and sometimes people say, "Aren't you curious to have a steak?" The answer is that since I've literally never looked at meat as potential food, a piece of chicken looks about as mouth-watering as a cardboard box. But from that vantage point, a snail doesn't seem particularly less appetizing than, say, a raw oyster.

Karan Kanan Correa: Not too long ago, my friend Chris Hunt and I agreed that "loam" is a fantastic and under-appreciated word. Is there a reason it pops up in your stories so much?

Franz Nicolay: Some words just feel good in your mouth. I heard a poem once where the poet, I forget who, imagined that she got sexual pleasure from certain words, and sort of regretted that she didn't. "Loam" is a word that evokes that combination of protein smell, chocolatey moisture, and lushness that touches some kind of ancestral nerve that's got something to do with fertility and plenty - the black earth. Which has something to do with the kind of world I'm trying to evoke in a lot of these stories: an old world of superstition and subsistence.

Karan Kanan Correaa: The slug and beer scenario seems like it could be an analogy for love: "The slug smells the beer, then falls in and drowns, or gets too drunk to get out, or one then the other." What do you think?

Franz Nicolay: Ha! That's great...I mean, I totally did that on purpose. At least that'll be my story from now on. The gross mushy bits as the individual slug disintegrates can be part of it too.

II. Paraska Mikhailivna is a Witch

Karan Kanan Correa: If, as you say, Hutsul songs give people an "alternate story" to follow - one where life is meaningful and not just unpredictable and unfair - do you think you have written any songs that would make the Huculi proud? (I had to look up the plural version of Hutsul....what I really wanted to ask was if you had written songs that would make Hutsulian songwriters proud but decided it was too risky to write Hutsulian considering I know nothing about them and would almost certainly get that word wrong.)

Franz Nicolay: I should say, first, that when I say that, it's not backed up in any musicological or ethnographic way...

It took me a few minutes to think about this, because I guess a lot more of my songs are about the essentially unscripted - un-fated - nature of life in all its messiness. The songs themselves are a post-facto frame, trying to find a narrative or some kind of meaning.

That said, "Note On A Subway Wall," from Major General, could be read as implying a fatality, or at least meaningful coincidence. Of course, I didn't write the lyrics for that one. My upcoming record deals a lot in a sense of Old Testament plague and moral judgment, and a lot of that ancient morality stems from trying to make sense of the insensate, trying to figure out why bad things happen to good people. I have a song called "Job 35:10," speaking of the most iconic story of an inexplicable God. That passage refers to God as the one who "giveth songs in the night," and a well-known commentary on that passage by a Rev. Spurgeon, which explicitly identifies music as a metaphor for the need for faith in hard times: "Any man can sing in the day. When the cup is full, man draws inspiration from it...It is easy enough for an Aeolian harp to whisper music when the winds blow; the difficulty is for music to swell forth when no wind is stirring...Then, since our Maker gives songs in the night, let us wait upon Him for the music. O Thou chief musician, let us not remain songless because affliction is upon us, but tune Thou our lips to the melody of thanksgiving."

Karan Kanan Correa: Doesn't that song "Shady Grove" just drive you crazy? Cause it makes me insane.

Franz Nicolay: Really? It's one of my favorite songs. When I picked up the banjo, my first goal was to learn to play "Shady Grove." My first concert ever was an outdoor bluegrass festival in New Hampshire. I was five, and fell asleep on a picnic blanket while Doc Watson played. His best-of was one of the dozen or so CDs my parents had around.

III. Send a Salami to Your Boy in the Army

Karan Kanan Correa: You wrote the most fantastic thing: "Be inconspicuous all day, except for the thirty minutes on stage, when you must be the most conspicuous person in the room." I've learned that even if your show is a train wreck (actually, a truly horrific train wreck can be a big winner) people have to be drawn in over and over and playing a show is undoubtedly a battle of wills. As you say, "They want to be entertained, but they don't want it actively; you must both convince them of their need and then fulfill it." Do you think the battle is worthwhile? Is live music even going to survive considering that so many people enjoy the predictability and convenience of recorded music?

Franz Nicolay: You're right that audiences don't mind seeing a trainwreck. Catpower and Brian Jonestown have built their reputations on them. The only show I ever saw that was so uncomfortable that no-one was entertained was Lisa Germano at Brownies in the late '90s - it wasn't clear that either the band or she knew the songs, and it was clear that she didn't want to sing them.

The battle is worthwhile - inevitable even - if the performer wants to have a career making music! And there are still enough bands who have trouble translating a spectacular live show to record that people are still aware of the fact that live music can be meaningfully different. I like to embrace the difference, and make records that I know full well I'm never going to re-create regularly live: I've got this one chance, basically, to make the Platonic ideal version of this song, and if that means strings, a saw solo, a pedal steel, and bass choir, I'm going to do it; and then find a totally different version of the song that I can take on the road. It's a chance to take apart the same material from two angles.

IV. Little Hobbes in the Big Woods

Karan Kanan Correa: Pigeons. Sorry, I can't think of anything to ask about the pigeons because living in New York has really made me pigeon-averse. Maybe you want to say something in defense of pigeons for those of us in pigeon-heavy urban settings?

Franz Nicolay: I think it's interesting that keeping pigeons, especially in urban settings, is so closely associated with lonely, isolated men. I don't have a theory about why that is, I'm just putting it out there.

V. His Dad's Balls

Karan Kanan Correa: Parking tickets! The scourge of New York bands. In my old band, we toured in the UK using mainly public transportation or lifts from friends. Do you think there's any hope for touring musicians who want to be socially and environmentally responsible?

Franz Nicolay: No! It's frustrating, but no. I mean, let's just start with the pallets of tiny water bottles that you get backstage. You can ask for gallons of water, but it's inconvenient 'cause they have the little guys around for the bar, and they have to take a separate trip to the store, and so on. Then fuel-guzzling minivans and Econolines, not to mention tourbuses, which (at least in the US) stay running 24 hours a day to power the generator to keep the AC and electricity on. Then there's the carbon-footprint disaster of international touring, which is getting more and more expensive every season: musicians are crushingly affected by baggage charges, since you have to check everything. On my last tour, baggage fees cost more than the plane ticket. I can't even travel with a keyboard at all since 9/11, since the weight limit is often 50 pounds and a keyboard in a flight case weighs 80. Gripe, gripe.

Karan Kanan Correa: My good friend Alec told me that when his house in Denver was overrun with squirrels (eating out of the pantry, hanging out in the kitchen, etc) he once woke up from a nap with a squirrel curled up on top of him. Granted, he's a very heavy sleeper, and yes, they were both shocked when he woke up, but don't you think we'd be better off learning to respect the squirrel sleeping in our crotch instead of shooting it in the eye and making it into a beer cozy?

Franz Nicolay: Darwinism acts in unpredictable ways. Perhaps the squirrel in Alec's crotch was a sleeper cell, if you will, aimed at eliminating the reproductive capacities of Coloradan males? I think they call it asymmetric warfare.

Karan Kanan Correa: I've always suspected that guys don't talk when they hang out. I mean, they bullshit a lot, but they don't talk about anything. What do guys talk about when they're touring and trapped in a van for weeks on end? I'm guessing movies.

Franz Nicolay: Apparently, before I signed on for this Against Me touring, they auditioned a girl who asked, "You're not one of those bands that only talks about movies, are you?" Cue awkward silence.

The answer is often nothing, not even bullshit. Movie chatter, sexual bragging, complaint, and so on, is a way of saying "I've got nothing in particular to say, but it doesn't mean I'm angry or upset." It's always been one of the most interesting things for me as a sort of anthropologist of the rock world - I grew up in a family with four women, and touring with World/Inferno was a lady-heavy experience, so some of my more recent touring has really been fascinating in that sense of the ways in which it can be like being a pro athlete, or in the military. The ways men communicate with each other are like a code where only every third letter is included, and you have to fill in the blanks. Or a series of highly scripted call-and-responses and passwords that indicate "friend" or "foe." I'm not excluding myself from this - it's still stressful for me to contemplate a night hanging out one-on-one with some of my oldest friends.

A couple of extra questions:

Karan Kanan Correa: Even though your life seems divided into two distinct periods - the pigeon, firewood, ceramics and slug-heavy formative years and the performance, bar and tour-heavy adulthood - you write about both with the same sense of appreciation and richness so that they don't seem disjointed. Was that something that always felt natural or something you had to construct when writing these stories?

Franz Nicolay: Of course it feels natural to me in that I experienced both of them. In another sense it was a conscious reinvention - aware that I was a sheltered rural kid, I wanted to become a worldy and slightly dissolute urbanite. Not to get too heavy, but one wants to have a life with a full range of human experience, and in some detail. And then describe it.

Karan Kanan Correa: What can we expect from the next set of stories? Please no more pigeons.

Franz Nicolay: How do you feel about magicians? And moose? In all seriousness - I'm trying to connect the two worlds you refer to in the previous question. Since "CGT" is the first in a series of chapbooks, there's more material in that vein. I guess I've reached a point where I've been doing what I consider my life's work in a meaningful and semi-public way for ten years, and if I wanted to, I could reasonably try and do something else. Since I'm choosing not to do that, it's an opportunity to take a breath, now that I'm not in constant, scrambling motion, and see how it all went down and if there's any lessons to be learned. It's tough: I'd like to try to process my time with World/Inferno, but I'm having a surprisingly hard time even describing the basic events. Like they say about the 60s, if you claim to remember them, you weren't there.

Karen Kanan Correa and Demander links and free and legal mp3 downloads:

Demander website
Demander MySpace page

Karen Kanan Correa's Largehearted Boy interview with author Joshua Henkin

Demander: "Math" [mp3] from Future Brite

Franz Nicolay links and free and legal mp3 downloads:

Franz Nicolay's website
Franz Nicolay's Wikipedia entry
Franz Nicolay's MySpace page

Franz Nicolay: "World/Inferno Vs. the End of the Evening" [mp3] from Major General

also at Largehearted Boy:

other musician/author interviews

Antiheroines (Jami Attenberg interviews comics artists)
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
guest book reviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (directors and composers discuss their film's soundtracks)