Recording Journal: Franz Nicolay’s “Do the Struggle”

Franz NicolayI wanted to work with someone with a muscular aesthetic of their own. Most of the songs — “Hearts of Boston,” “Did Your Broken Heart,” “Frankie Stubbs,” “Cuckoo,” — had been in the set for almost a year, and I knew they worked on their own terms. Some of the other songs hadn’t been road-tested, and I needed someone to bounce them off who could help wrestle them into fighting shape. Some — “Do The Struggle,” “Joy” — were more lyrically obtuse and needed a widescreen enhancement.

Neither Alap nor I wanted to make a straight-up folk-punk or alt-country record. As he put it, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot came out, what, fifteen years ago? Fuck a Wilco. This is gonna be the new alt-country.” We’d first worked together on the dälek/Anti-Social Music orchestral collaboration that appears on “Anti-Social Music Sleeps Around,” and I knew we shared an interest in, for lack of a better term, noise. And in my case, I’m always fascinated with records in which (relatively) straightforward song form is subverted and surrounded and reconstructed, like latter-day Scott Walker, or Arthur Russell’s post-disco classicism.

Alap is an enthusiast by nature. I’d sent him solo demos of the sixteen songs I wanted to record, then went out to his production room in Union City, New Jersey to talk about the project. It was two hours later, after being treated to a hyperactive monologue punctuated by “listen to this, listen to this” that I knew I had my guy. It was, essentially, a lecture on the history and evolution of production techniques, culminating with the theory that in a post-J. Dilla world, instrumentalists were obsolete — or, at least, just the first step, providing the raw material for the producer to “play” as his instrument. How, he said, can we take the production innovations of the last few years, in which young producers have been brought up with the whole of recorded music at their fingertips, in which the aural signifiers of previous decades can be combined in one track — ’80s drums with ’70s Fender bass with ’50s slap-back guitar — how can we take the innovations of a Flying Lotus or the Weeknd or Rhythm & Sound and apply them to a record of relatively straightforward songwriting?

The answer lies in the fact that all pop records, regardless of genre, tend to share generic elemental layers — rhythm, bass, harmonic pad, lead. Production-wise, however, there are genre-specific conventions regarding how to treat them, that tend not to cross genre lines. What if, then, we took the sonic conventions of hip-hop and Berlin club tracks and applied them to the Americana basic tracks — EQ the tuba or upright bass like an 808, the banjos like arpeggiated synths, accordions like saw-tooth pads, side-chaining them so they pulse with the kick drum like a club track.

Indeed, most of the sounds on the record, even the ones that sound artificial, are acoustic. The pad that opens “The Hearts Of Boston” is left-hand accordion chord buttons with an EQ sweep. The one arpeggiated synth (actually an iPad instrument app), that bubbles up in the intro and halfway through the second verse, mimics the banjo picking that enters just seconds later. The rest of the track couldn’t be more straightforward: drums, upright bass, acoustic guitar, banjo, two vocals, a tambourine, and a fiddle. At the 2:30 mark in the bridge, you can hear a rising loop: this is an extraordinary 1960s Italian organ called a Cordovox, made by an accordion manufacturer with a mysterious relationship to the Farfisa company, and one model of which contained a mini-Moog synthesizer. This particular instrument had a knob labelled only “Astro Sound,” and whatever the intent was, it’s this effect you hear in this section – and isolated in the first interlude [1]. The farther you turned the “Astro Sound” knob, the deeper the swoop into the actual chord you played on the keyboard.

Franz Nicolay Do the Struggle cover“Do The Struggle” was not just the lyrical heart of the record and the title track, but the most extreme example of the raison of the album, that the songs should embody the idea of the quotidian struggle in the sense of themselves struggling against their context in the same way that individuals struggle against theirs. In the same way that no-one is born into and lives in a state of perfect harmony with their environment and ideal interaction with their surroundings, neither should a song necessarily exist in its ur-production. This song, in its basic track, is simply a nearly seven-minute folk-rock nothing — it sounds like Donovan at his more pretentious. And there is very little more in the final version: acoustic guitar doubled on a Stratocaster; a chunky electric guitar, upright bass, drums. There are some high, verbed-out piano chords in the first couple verses. The long, dissonant drones are an out-of-tune Farfisa organ through a small Princeton guitar amp (which was one of the stars of the session for me). You can hear the side-chain (a production technique in which the attack of one instrument, in this case the kick drum, triggers the compression to lower the volume of another, whether the first instrument is present in the mix or not) pulsing the organ around the 2:30 mark. Also in the 2:30 verse, Maria Sonevytsky and Emily Hope Price sing wordless, dissonant “oo”s glissing upwards almost two octaves. At the bridge, Ezra Kire played some guitar distortion, but basically it’s all the Farfisa. The real driver of the dynamic on this song, what makes it more than just a song with seven long verses, is the story of the drum tracks, now heard through a concrete wall, now an echoing backbeat, now dissolved into their component parts. (The opening verses also take place in the same physical world as “Felix & Adelia” and “Luck & Courage” off the last record, a product of driving in the American Southwest on tour with Dave Dondero and writing down a string of especially evocative place-names as we passed or stopped at them.)

“Did Your Broken Heart Make You Who You Are?” is, in part, a song about records and the way they function the way some couples communicate — the “does listening to sad pop songs make you a sad person” debate — so it made sense that it sound like it begins in an AM radio. It began its life as a Billy Joel-style piano riff, of which all that remains is the ascending bass line in the second verse. Jean Cook impersonates the orchestra. On a non-album track, “I Had A Good Time Tonight,” I asked her to “be the community orchestra that a second-rate Nashville producer hires on the cheap,” and she went so far as to make sure her bowing on the overdubs don’t match up, like an amateur orchestra’s wouldn’t.

“Frankie Stubbs’ Tears” not only references a Billy Bragg song but in the demo version I did it “Bragg-style,” unaccompanied Strat through spring reverb. When I was writing it I imagined it sung in Frankie Stubbs’ growl, and tracked it on an SG through a half-stack. Frankie had said he would sing on it — as had Against Me’s (now) Laura Jane Grace and James Bowman, the latter of whom I’ve always thought has an angelic voice and I’ve been trying to get on a record forever — but all three never responded after I sent them tracks, so I’ll just choose to believe it fell through the cracks rather than that they didn’t like the tune. No matter — Ezra took it to another level with the guitar “answers” in the verses and the soaring counter-vocals in the outro, which I can’t sing live and always miss. It’s an old bridge, salvaged and re-purposed.

“You Don’t Know I’m Here” was consciously the simplest production — the reference was Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers.” I had finally cracked the code of clawhammer banjo, and, as usual when I learn a new instrument or a new style, had come up with a couple riffs. I was also playing around with a Boss PS-3 Pitch Shift/Delay pedal on the recommendation of Sxip Shirey, who plays harmonicas through them. They’re capable of so much more than I’m doing on this track, but banjo through a delay set at the same rhythm of the clawhammer is pretty neat. I know Maria wanted to sing harmonies on this but I thought to have more than one person on a track called “You Don’t Know I’m Here” is conceptually discontinuous. The opening lyrical gambit came from a description of the amazing Ukrainian singer Mariana Sadovska, with whom Maria & I stayed in Koln on a European tour, and who described a project she was working on that included a Ukrainian folk song which, in translation, was more or less this opening verse. The “red turns into blue” in the sense of anger fading into sadness is, I believe, borrowed from a half-remembered Ani DiFranco song.

“Take No Prisoners” – What Alap likes to call “ghosts” are most prominent on this track, by which he means high, nearly subliminal drones and effects that flutter by your peripheral aural “vision.” Emilyn Brodsky and I have always written together rather well — she co-wrote the lyrics of “The Last Words Of Gene Autry” on the last record, among other things — and she had started a project where she got together with various songwriter friends for focused songwriting sessions. We wrote this and another song, “Functional Alcoholic.” (Based on something I once heard my friend the writer Emily Weinstein say: “I keep thinking I’ve met my soulmate, and then it turns out it’s just another alcoholic who’s good in bed.”) I think the initial idea, especially in the overlapping vocals of the outro, was more of a musical-theater showstopper than the country ballad it ended up as, and I think Emilyn herself would have mixed it a little cleaner, but I like the Lee-and-Nancy/Cowboy Junkies vibe.

“The Migration Of The Cuckoo” is a tricky one to track and mix because it’s essentially in three sections with entirely different feels and tempos. This is one I’m still not 100% sure we got right — there’s something about the drum mix in the chorus, especially the chorus, that makes it feel rushed. I love Maria Sonevytsky’s accordion part, whether or not you can identify it as such.

I had the idea for the banjo riff for “Live Free” before I had the technique to play it: I had written it as a fingerpicked thing but knew it should be clawhammer. It wasn’t until I had the summer off to woodshed clawhammer and learned the “mountain minor” tuning that I really cracked it. I’m pretty sure the last verse came from the tour I did with Frank Turner, listening to him doing his song “I Still Believe” every night and pondering what I believed with that kind of fervency. I know the bridge came from that tour — I was getting dressed, somewhat creakily, backstage in Scotland, when he came in saying, “How’s it going Franz?” “Oh, you know, the usual, suck in your gut, blow out your voice.” “Shit, we should write that song!” Sorry Frank, went ahead without you! (Then we did a shot of Jameson, hence the rest.)

We tracked for three days at Jesse Cannon’s place in an old factory building with space heaters and questionable wiring. I’d met Jesse when I played on Leftover Crack’s “Fuck World Trade,” again when he produced Emilyn’s record, and this live room had been Alap’s before he sold it to Jesse, so it was all in the family. We’d tracked this on the first day with a somewhat more conventional two-step country-rock feel, but Alap came in the next day shaking his head. “That bassline, it’s not happening.” “I think it’s ok…and we’re on kind of a tight schedule…” “No, no way, we gotta get George back on that when he gets in.” Duly it was done, and we ended up with this more Latiny feel. Dammit he was right again. Once again, the pulsing side-chained accordion pad. And what we came to call the “circling birds of prey” electric-guitar chimes. They took me a minute to wrap my head around since they don’t follow the changes exactly, but Alap convinced me that it’s the looping quality that matters more.

“How are you at love, art, and crime?” is a quote from the last World/Inferno album, I think from “They Talk Of Nora’s Badness.” I was very taken with that song for a while, especially the mesmerizing clarinet part, and the opening of “Migration Of The Cuckoo” was initially an attempt at a similar vibe, though ultimately it went in a different direction. I’ve always admired Jack’s lyrics, and if there’s one thing I learned from him it’s that it’s no crime to borrow one if you like it, and transform it. We don’t get to hang out as much as we used to, so I sometimes I like the idea of “conversing” from album to album, so “three for three if you ask me” is my cocky answer to his hypothetical answer.

In general “Live Free” is a cocky number. I used the “St. Sebastian of the Short Stage” line as an EP title before I’d used it in a lyric, but it’s my version of a rapper’s brag line — the short stage being the little six-inch job in the corner of the room, that singer-songwriters always end up on, and that I can “take upon myself the slings and arrows aimed at lesser singers.” So there.

“The Day All The Leaves Came Down” was the last song I wrote, just days before the session. I’d bought a used Epiphone hollow-body ’cause I knew I’d want it for the recording, and as usually happens when I get something new I got a song out of it. I’d had the chorus kicking around for a while, inspired by “The Last Leaf On The Tree” off the last Tom Waits record. The rest is basically a character study. For a while in the session this song was neglected, because it’s such a straight-ahead guitar-trio song, in essence, but if I left it that way it wouldn’t fit with the rest of the album. So there are a couple production elements of note. There was a Juno keyboard in the studio that I had a lot of fun with. Most of it ended up on “Bad Advice” and other outtakes, but it came to good use here in the instrumental section around 2:30 and the outro: on the demo, I had an electric guitar doing the melody, but I already had a guitar solo coming up. So there ends up being a really cool four-part keyboard interaction between the melody, the organ countermelody, and the half-time backing vocal part (with a Leslie effect) — this, soloed and dropped an octave and a half-step, is interlude 9. And Ezra came up with the harmonized guitar solo.

At the end of the day, this is the song I’m least comfortable with on the album, if maybe only because I’m never quite comfortable with guitar songs — I feel like they make my singing sound more Meatloaf-y than in more unconventional contexts. But there you go. We thickened it up on this song with sotto voce doubling at the low octave, which Alap maintains I should make my “sound” on future recordings, like Elliot Smith. We’ll see about that. This song does have the trickiest vocal harmonies.

“Joy” is maybe my favorite recording on any of my solo records, the culmination of an idea about production that started with “Have Mercy” off the last record. The initial demo was Maria on accordion and me on banjo singing into Garageband in an apartment in Kiev — she was essentially improvising an accordion part, which I transcribed when it came time for pre-production, and I was just playing a single looping part. It’s about twice as fast as the album version. For pre-production, bassist George Rush, drummer John Bollinger, and I did three three-hour rehearsals in Brooklyn, with Alap sitting in and focussing on the feel — ultimately I don’t think Alap cares one way or another about lyrics, song form, or anything besides the groove and the “vibe.” (The Hold Steady, in a weird coincidence, were rehearsing right across the hallway all three days. They popped in and said hello.) So I give him full credit for the majestic, dubbed-out funeral-march of the final version, George Rush gets credit for the massive tuba part, and Jean Cook for the close-miked violin harmonic cloud and choral part that dominate the outro lock-groove. There are also, if you have subwoofers, some awesome sub-bass hits at the end of this and “Frankie Stubbs,” one of the several ways in which I came finally to appreciate the usefulness of the iPad as a virtual instrument.

I realize that the interludes on the album are somewhat divisive (literally). That’s why I made them separate tracks: If I’d left them attached to the previous tracks, they’d make the tracks off-puttingly long. This way you can skip or delete them if you care to (and isn’t the whole line on the iTunes/iPod era of music listening that no-one listens to full albums anyway?) But when I sequenced the record, my overwhelming impression was that it was just too much: too hectoring, too yelly, too many high-intensity-delivery words in a row if there wasn’t a break. Like resetting the stage set between theatrical scenes; and in some cases, managing the modulation between keys — I hate albums where everything is in the same key, which this isn’t, but if you can sew it together harmonically speaking it creates the effect of a unified piece of work, which I wanted. [1] is, like I said, warming up the Cordovox. [4] exploits an effect I’ve always loved about air organs, which is that you can combine to chord buttons to simultaneously make more complicated chords and reduce the overall volume, since the air is dispersed more widely — this one I played live. [6] is an extracted excerpt of side-chained Farfisa part from “Do The Struggle.” [8] is a looped bar from “Live Free,” in which you can hear the pulsing accordion part, the kick drum, the chiming “circling birds” guitar, and then an added 808 hat. [9] is, like I said before, the four Juno parts from the out-chorus of “Leaves,” soloed and dropped 13 half-steps (to match the key of “Joy” – we had a version that was dropped an extra octave, which sounded like Sunn 0))), but it was just too much for the context.) I love how you can actually hear the oscillators in action. See if you can pick out the actual melody of the chorus.

And [2], [5], [7] are iPhone memo recordings of an old upright piano, and my accordion, in a house outside Manchester, England. For decades, a woman named Bernie ran a legendary band crash-pad in a row house with a basement carpeted with twin mattresses and walls papered with old show posters. I had a day off there on the tour I did with Mark Eitzel and wrote most of “Luck & Courage.” These were unused piano and accordion bits leftover from that, which I ran through some Ableton processing and key-matched.

It was an intense process, just the three rehearsals with the rhythm section, three long days of basic tracking, a couple days where I took the tracks to James Frazee’s ad hoc studio for the lead vocal overdubs and some keyboards, and then almost three weeks of 12-hour days essentially with Alap and I holed up in his production room with a mic in the back corner. It took a while for me to get all my overdubs down, then Alap said, “OK, give me two days to basically puke all over the tracks. I need you to not freak out, I’m going to put down a bunch of stuff and then we’ll pare it back.”

There’s a lot more to say about these sessions, especially about the half a dozen tracks that were ultimately cut from the final record, but I’ll put them out next year and we can take it up then. But enough for now.


Buy Do the Struggle


Franz Nicolay Franz Nicolay

Franz Nicolay is a musician.

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