Stomping Grounds: Franz Nicolay (Brooklyn, New York)

Franz Nicolay
People from Brooklyn don’t mess around. And Williamsburg may be known more as hipster central, but it’s for good reason: so many great artists and musicians flocking to one part of New York City seeking community and collaboration. And Franz Nicolay might be considered the chief collaborator; he’s been a member of the Hold Steady, he founded a musicians’ collective called Anti-Social Music and now he’s a touring member of Against Me! and working on releasing Luck & Courage, a new solo album.
We recently caught Nicolay long enough to have him answer a few questions about what it’s like to be a musician in Williamsburg, where to get the best huevos rancheros and why he has Dennis Rodman’s autograph. Read on!
What’s your town’s nickname?
It’s got so many, none of them any good.
What’s your nickname for your town?
Home. Somehow, even though I’ve never lived in any one place for more than two years at a stretch. But I’ve lived in so many neighborhoods now that somehow I have even more emotional ownership of the borough than if I’d just plopped down in Williamsburg ten years ago. (Actually, I spent the year in Jersey City last year and loved it. Don’t tell.)
Why do you live there?
It’s ruined me for any other city. If I leave, it’ll have to be back to the country. It keeps you working, that’s for sure.
Did you grow up there? If not, what brought you there?
No, I grew up in a blinking-red-light crossroads of about 900 people up in New Hampshire. Picturesque, but not the place for an ambitious young wannabe-musician. New York was as far away psychologically as I could get without getting too far physically. Just in case, you know.
What’s the weirdest thing that has ever happened to you there?
Maybe not the weirdest, but the first thing that popped into my mind was being at the beach down at Fort Tilden last summer when this great mass of white, stinking… stuff washed up. It must have been twenty feet across, like an abandoned parachute, dotted with scavenging seagulls. We realized it was the weeks-old rotting corpse of what must have been an enormous sea turtle.
I also got Dennis Rodman’s autograph in Washington Square Park, on a piece of score paper, within a month of arriving here when I was 18. “Oh, is this what it’s going to be like?”
What is your favorite local attraction (monument, park, etc)?
I know this is trite, but Coney Island. In the winter, though. I did a few records at Don Fury’s old place on Surf Ave., all of them in January, and it’s great walking down the boardwalk on those grey days when everything is boarded up and no-one’s out except a few old Russian men, sitting by themselves and staring out at the sea.
What is your favorite local event or festival?
I never know when they’re going to happen, but every once in a while I wake up and hear a brass band outside my window. I think, “Ah, today is the day, finally, when a brass band will follow me everywhere.” But no, it’s one of the Catholic church parades that you get in Hispanic or Italian neighborhoods, for the Holy Virgin of Yo No Se Donde, with a statue on shoulders and hymns I’ve never heard.
What is the best time of year to be there?
Spring, of course. That first day when everyone convinces themselves it’s warm, and the tank-top fairy blesses all the girls.
Who is your favorite local celebrity?
Steve Trimboli at Goodbye Blue Monday. I keep a mental notebook of his wit and wisdom. “I used to be all sensitive and shit when I was an artist. Now I’m not an artist anymore, so I’m just a touchy motherfucker.”
Where is the best place to drink and what’s their specialty or happy hour?
In my current neighborhood, it’s the Canal Bar, a sturdy Gowanus dive with a backyard, a pool table, and a popcorn machine. So cheap ya don’t need specials.
Who has the best jukebox (and what’s in it)?
You know, you can get too clever with a jukebox. Best to stick with the core necessities: Thin Lizzy, Willie Nelson, Motörhead. Everyone always says “Hi-Fi” or one of these massive mp3 jukeboxes, but you end up with some lonely guy spending 20 minutes flipping through all the endless possibilities and then putting on some Dirty Projectors deep cut and you’re just thinking, “Really? Can’t you just put on ‘Ace of Spades’ and be done with it?” I always thought the old Sweetwater Tavern (RIP) jukebox had it just right. Pick one thing that you want the bar to be about — punk, metal, country, whatever; but ONE thing — and give the bartenders absolute veto power. Also, they had my band in there and that was the first time that’d happened!
Do you play music there? If so, where is your favorite place to play?
I like the little places with a vibe — Jalopy in Red Hook, Barbès, Union Pool‘s back room, and especially Goodbye Blue Monday out in Bushwick. I want to see the whites of their eyes.
Does where you live influence your music?
Of course. The thing about New York as a musician is that there are so many people doing so many different kinds of music that it would take an active effort to sequester yourself in only one genre, even if you wanted to. So you end up playing punk rock with someone who plays Balkan music with someone who plays standards with someone who plays with Bang on a Can with someone who makes their on instruments for someone who developed the most amazing MIDI controller.
What is your favorite place to see live music and what was your favorite show there?
Barbès, definitely. It’s a rare place that you can just go without knowing the calendar and trust that there’ll be something cool happening.
What is your favorite local band?
Tim Fite. He looks like an overgrown Tintin figurine and just put out the best protest record I’ve heard about the financial crisis and economic inequality. It’s called Under The Table Tennis. Frankly I’ve only heard two protest records about the last few years. Makes me wonder what all those anarcho-leftist bands are doing with their time. The capitalist implosion of their dreams, happening under their noses!
What is your favorite diner or restaurant and what is their best dish?
Grand Morelos is a 24-hour Mexican diner on Grand Street at the corner of Graham. I don’t think I’ve ever ordered anything there except huevos rancheros and a Corona, and I’ve been there hundreds of times. Equally good at 4:30 am and 2 pm.
What is your favorite record store and what was your best find there?
Anything that’s curated. If I’m looking for a specific record, I’ll order it online; so the best record stores are the ones where I trust I can wander around and find something I didn’t know existed, like Downtown Music Gallery or Other Music. Especially bizarre ethnographic or reissue music compilations, like the Secret Museum of Mankind or Archeophone releases.
What is your favorite local publication (alternative weekly, zine, website or blog)?
Scratchbomb blog, for music, sports, comedy, bile, and frustration. Superlefty has great personal essays.
What is your favorite local shop?
It’s not exactly a shop, but Proteus Gowanus is a building nearby that’s a museum of the neighborhood, art gallery, reading room, workspace, craft store… worth stopping in.
If you could live anywhere else, where would that be?
Like I said, New York ruined me for other cities. Unless it was a really different species of city, like New Orleans, though that’s for later, when I’m done with life and just want to sort of fade out. I don’t know if it’s the heat or the 24-hour bars but that place can look like a black hole of ambition. And I’m on this soapbox about artists moving to Detroit: you can buy houses — houses! — for $10,000. In a picturesquely ruined city with a deep history. Everyone who’s been doing the West Philly or Baltimore thing in the last ten years should look to Detroit. The only difference, I guess, is that Philly and Baltimore have art schools, hence art school kids. But I’m telling you, when that Detroit scene resurgence comes in ten years, it’s gonna be massive.
Write me about it, I’ll be living in Montana.