The Hold Steady is currently on tour to promote their new Boys & Girls in America album. Pianist Franz Nicolay took some time out of his busy schedule to chat with Daze.
DAZE: How did everyone in the band meet?
Franz Nicolay: Well, Bobby [Drake, drums] and Craig [Finn, frontman] grew up in Minneapolis and Tad [Kubler, lead guitar] and Galen [Polivka, bass guitar] spent time there. Craig used to be in a band called Lifter Puller that was pretty big locally in Minneapolis, but not much happened with that and they broke up. Galen had already moved to New York, but I guess that’s obvious for now. He and Craig met at a bar; they knew each other from Minneapolis but they were hanging out and started talking about getting a band together.
I met them because I was in a band called World/Inferno Friendship Society that had played some shows with Lifter Puller, and Craig was working at a record company that was doing a live record and he approached us about doing a live record. So that’s how I met Craig, and through that I met Tad. And they asked me to play on the first Hold Steady record, which they were just about to record. And one thing led to another and I ended up joining before the second record. Bobby was doing tours because the original drummer [Judd Counsell] couldn’t do that — he didn’t want to tour that much. Bobby had come out to do a tour or two, and then he also ended up joining right before the second record.
DAZE: You guys are featured on the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie soundtrack. How do you feel about the show?
F.N.: They just asked us. The people were fans, and when they were putting together the soundtrack, they asked, ‘Who do you want to be on the soundtrack?’ and they probably said The Hold Steady. It just happened.
DAZE: What about Jack Kerouac’s works inspired you guys to name the latest album from one of his lines?
F.N.: Craig had read the book [On the Road] recently. He read it during the touring part of Separation Sunday, and he had read it before when he was a teenager, but he didn’t really get it. He read it was way more interesting and funny, but in a way that he could understand. He’d underlined that line and thought that he could make that a theme for the new record.
DAZE: Where did the name of the band come from?
F.N.: It came from one of the songs on the first record [“Most People Are DJs” off of Almost Killed Me] that starts “Hold steady Ybor City.” We were trying to come up with a name for the band, and we liked the idea of having a band name as an imperative, like telling you to do something: hold steady.
DAZE: How did you guys come to the instrumental form that you have now?
F.N.: It’s pretty basic, in that it started out as two guitars, bass and drums. Craig was playing rhythm and Tad was playing lead, pretty straightforward rock ’n roll combo. I guess that they asked me to come and play piano on the first record, and we did a couple live shows. For a year after that, I would come up and guest on four songs whenever they were in town. I guess they were talking about adding a guitar player, but hearing what it sounded like with a piano, they decided that might be the direction they wanted. It gives it a little more dynamic range than a lot of layered guitars, and a little more options in terms of melody and letting guitars take a different role.
DAZE: What’s the writing process like for the group? Who is the main writer of the music and how much collaboration is there?
F.N.: Me and Tad have written most of the music but we’ll bring in two thirds of the song — a verse and a chorus — and then we’ll work together. A lot of the songs on the new record were me and Tad sitting down at a guitar and a piano, that sort of process. But a lot of the arrangements get worked out collaboratively in the rehearsal space with everybody.
DAZE: How has your music evolved since Almost Killed Me? In what ways has it stayed the same?
F.N.: It stayed the same, I’d say, in the sense that it’s still classic American rock ’n roll, with Craig doing his thing, what he does over the top of it. I think the music in a lot of ways is sort of comfort for people who have been into punk rock, been into indie rock, been into hip hop or all that stuff and are looking for music that doesn’t spend a lot of time worried about whether or not people think its cool and a lot more time worried about whether people are going to have a good time with it.
The ways in which its evolved: I think we’ve added a lot more melody to it. That was something that I personally tried to bring to the new record. We added a background vocal; the pianos have a more prominent place. I think its become a little more theatrical, more dramatic. The first record is more guitar riffs and Craig sort of yelling over the top — which works, absolutely, but there’s so much more to be done with it. I think we’ve worked a lot on integrating what Craig does more into the band, successfully, I think. We’ve concentrated a lot on writing more choruses. There’s a freedom in that Craig doing what he does can work in just about any context so given that sort of freedom we can do a lot underneath it and around it.
DAZE: What are your top five albums right now?
F.N.: The records that get the most play in the van are probably the Constantines’ Tournament of Hearts. That gets a lot of action. The new Thermals record. The last Oranges Band, The World and Everything in It, gets played a lot. The Mountain Goats, Sunset Tree. And then just a lot of classic rock favorites: Zeppelin, Springsteen, AC/DC, a lot of Thin Lizzy.
For me personally, American Music Club: Mercury, the new Tom Waits, anything by the Pogues. I’ve been listening a lot to the first Dexy’s Midnight Runners record, Searching for the Young Soul Rebels.
DAZE: What’s your favorite thing about playing a college show?
F.N.: It’s earlier; that’s one. It’s cleaner; backstage tends to be sanitary [chuckles.] Sometimes it’s less boozy, which is sort of counter-intuitive. Sometimes they don’t give you booze because of the campus rules so that affects it. But having a younger crowd, there’s a lot more excitement usually. There are people who are so excited about going to shows.
DAZE: What are your favorite songs to play live and why?
F.N.: I really like “First Night.” It’s a really interesting song in terms of what it is emotionally.
DAZE: What’s up next for The Hold Steady?
F.N.: Well, we’ve got the rest of this tour to get through. I think we’re home for two weeks, hopefully, and then we’re going back to England for a couple weeks to do a theater tour, and then there’s a summer tour in the U.S. So pretty much we’re on the road from now until the end of the summer.
DAZE: What would surprise people to find out about you guys?
F.N.: [Chuckles] We’re pretty open books. Craig’s a big Grateful Dead fan; the rest of us are furious about that.
DAZE: As experts, you can surely tell me what is the very best thing about Minnesota?
F.N.: Well you’re talking to the wrong guy because I’m the one guy who has no Minneapolis roots! Hang on [grabs Galen,] Hey Galen — what’s the best thing about Minnesota?
Galen Polivka: Not the weather!
The Hold Steady will be playing at Syracuse University Wednesday, March 21. Their album Boys & Girls in America is available on iTunes, Amazon.com and in many music outlets. Visit www.theholdsteady.com for more information.