Franz Nicolay Talks Tap Dancing, Vaudeville and Why He Left The Hold Steady

Franz Nicolay
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[Photo by Jon Gitchoff]

Franz Nicolay, energetic keyboardist and backing vocalist for Paste cover alums The Hold Steady, announced via his website last week that, after five successful years, he was leaving the band.

“In The Hold Steady, I was kind of a fox in a hedgehog band,” Nicolay tells Paste. “The Isaiah Berlin thing about the hedgehogs who have one defining idea and the foxes who have a lot of different ideas. So this is going to let me indulge a lot of those different ideas.”

The need for a change, Nicolay says, is about ambition. “They have their one big idea—making literate, wordy lyrics over big anthemic rock—and the last two records were about as good as I felt like I could do with that idea.”

Although Nicolay spent some time recording The Hold Steady’s next album in September, he says the sessions have been scrapped and re-recorded with another keyboardist.

Now, Nicolay’s near future finds him following a vaudevillian trajectory, starting with some solo tour dates in New England and the U.K. in late winter. Nicolay’s interest in vaudeville began while he was on the road with The Hold Steady. Struggling to carve space in his life for himself amid a grueling touring regimen, the keyboardist cast about for some historical antecedent to the road-warrior lifestyle. What he found were the multi-talented entertainers of America’s early twentieth century. “I’m appealed to by the vaudeville tradition because I think it’s the tradition in American popular music that’s really strong and really unique to American history and a little bit forgotten,” Nicolay elaborates. “These multi-talented performers who were on the road for 300 days a year and they could do a little tap-dancing and they could do a little singing and they knew a couple jokes…toward the end of whatever works, whatever entertains, whatever gets them over.”

“Whatever works” is an apt way to describe Nicolay’s approach to making art. Bored easily, he always seems to thrust himself into four or five projects at once. At present, he’s anticipating the release of his upcoming book of short stories, producing a record from Brooklyn’s The Debutante Hour, promoting his klezmer/punk band Guignol’s Fight Dirty and his own solo EP, St. Sebastian of the Short Stage, gearing up for his solo tour and fielding questions about his departure from The Hold Steady. Phew.

“I’m not 100% confident that any one thing that I do has a universal appeal,” Nicolay admits. “And I am basically an entertainer: I want people to be a little challenged, but also a little entertained.”

While the solo tour is partly a function of logistics, it’s also a way for him to test the ideas he’s developed about vaudeville performance. “I want to explore this vaudeville troubadour idea of going out there all over the world and seeing if I can walk into a room of strangers and entertain them,” Nicolay says. “I think part of the problem of being known as a member of other bands is, if I walk into a room with my name over the door, no one really knows what to expect. I have, in a lot of ways, a blank slate to see what works.”

One thing audiences might be able to expect is tap dancing. “I’ve been taking lessons,” Nicolay reveals. “I’ve wanted to for years, and that was my Christmas present from my girlfriend.” No word yet on whether Nicolay’s tour will feature any time steps, though. “It’s only week three,” he laughs. “There’s gonna be two levels of it; there’s the level of learning the steps, and there’s the level of actually being able to execute the steps with a 15-pound banjo hanging from my neck.”

In the meantime, as Nicolay works on integrating the banjo into his tap routine, there are two things he would like to clear up. “The mustache is not ironic,” he says. And? “The harpsichord was Tad’s idea.”