“If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bull.” – W. C. Fields



THL cover

The Humorless Ladies of Border Control: Touring the Punk Underground from Belgrade to Ulaanbaatar is out now on The New Press!

Order: Directly from me Amazon Powell’s UK

Read reviews or come to events

“The Humorless Ladies” in NYTimes Book Review and again—”Season’s Best Travel Books”

“Franz Nicolay has always been the kind of musician who can sound like he’s roaming the world in the course of a single song. In this amazing road tale he captures how it feels for a wandering artist, scrounging in the underground punk scenes of Russia and the Balkans—sleepless nights and shaky trains, see strong beer and unsavory companions–watching history turn inside out.” – Rob Sheffield (“Love Is A Mixtape,” Rolling Stone)

“If there isn’t already a shelf for Classic Punk Literature, we need to build it and stock it with Franz Nicolay. Part low-budget tour diary and part Slavic history lesson, this book is a love letter to the punk vie boheme; a delicious and hilarious borscht stew of untold histories, literary references, beautiful strangers and backstage vodka.” – Amanda Palmer (musician, “The Art of Asking”)

“Funny and wistful, The Humorless Ladies of Border Control is an engrossing romp that casts fresh eyes on Old World cultures rich in paradox. Franz Nicolay taps into the current cultural zeitgeist in the best travelogue tradition, with vivid scenes capturing the absurdities of daily life in the context of history and a deft reading of some of the most important cultural figures. – Gregory Feifer, NYTimes best-selling author of Russians: The People Behind the Power

“A truly remarkable book. On the surface, it’s a tour diary of shows around the wilder reaches of Eastern Europe and Russia, which would be interesting in itself. In actual fact, however, Franz has written a profound and perceptive travelogue in the vein of Paul Theroux or Rebecca West; like them, he teaches you about the places he visits, about the people he meets, about a forgotten but fascinating corner of world culture, and ultimately, about himself.” – Frank Turner (musician, “The Road Beneath My Feet”)



I have an essay on Dubravka Ugresic’s American Fictionary in the Spring issue of the Threepenny Review.


Hi, here’s the eleventh edition of my dumb little Audio Yearbook, in which I make a mixtape of music that got in my ear this year. In no particular order, best on shuffle.


I participated in a roundtable of writer/musicians at Lithub and a speculation about the “New American Songbook” at Slate.


My story “Non Fui, Fui, Non Sum, Non Curo,” is now online via The Kenyon Review; and I wrote about Charles Aznavour for The Paris Review. (Thanks for the citation in The New Yorker’s Aznavour obit—though I’m not, nor would I claim to be, a musicologist!)


Pleased and a little bemused to say that Guignol and Mischief Brew‘s “Fight Dirty” is in the director’s cut and soundtrack album to “Deadpool 2: Super Duper Cut,” along with other obscure acts like Cher, Dolly Parton, and Celine Dion…


I was tickled rosy to return to the Slate Culture Gabfest, this time as musical guest on their Super Secret Getaway live show. Listen here or wherever you get your podcasts.

I’ve got an essay in the new Threepenny Review on the once-famous writer and roisterer Gene Fowler in particular, and high-style—ok, purple—prose in general. Bonus Jimmy Durante content.


I wrote for Slate about musicians who tour with their children


I like to make an audio yearbook over the course of the year—fiftyish tracks that are a kind of diary of what caught my ear for whatever reason in 2017. Here it is if you’re interested. In no particular order, so I recommend putting it on shuffle.

I talked to the “Going Off Track” podcast, with writer Jonah Bayer, Gaslight Anthem’s Benny Horowitz, and others…


I was delighted and more than a little intimidated to be on the Seminary Co-op Bookstore Open Stacks podcast’s Russia episode, alongside newly-minted National Book Award winner Masha Gessen, Julia Alekseyeva, and U. Chicago’s William Nickell. Listen here or wherever you get your podcasts…


***NEW MUSIC!*** You can now listen to and/or buy my choral song cycle “PEOPSSONGS,” “squatter madrigals” performed and produced by Anti-Social Music, based on the portrait series by Fly.


***NEW MUSIC!*** You can now listen to and/or buy my score for Alison Chase’s multimedia dance-theatre piece “No Plan B,” which premiered over the summer.


I wrote for the LA Review of Books on three recent books about the relationship between popular music and literature.


Since last we spoke…

I reviewed Ann Powers’ Good Booty for The New York Times.

I created the score for No Plan Ban extraordinary evening-length work of dance theater by choreographer Alison Chase which premieres, in a tent with surround sound and projections, in Fort Knox State Park (Prospect, ME) and Thompson’s Point (Portland, ME) between Aug. 23 and Sept. 2. Read a review (“a one-of-a-kind experience, a thought-provoking journey that jumps with exquisite grace from the meditatively peaceful to the shockingly visceral and back again”), the Portland Phoenix cover story, and other features.

I wrote for Slate about the history of the word “sell-out,” and discussed it on the Slate Culture Gabfest.

I reviewed Lizzy Goodman’s book Meet Me In The Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011 for Slate.

I wrote a polemic against graded record reviews for Watt.

I talked about The Humorless Ladies with the “New Books in Music” podcast.

I finally premiered PEOPSSONGS. It’s been recorded and will appear soon.

PEOPSSONGS is an a capella, choral song cycle with texts drawn from a series of portraits by the artist Fly, one of the most prominent graphic artists to come out of the Lower East Side squatter scene, documenting LES characters, musicians and artists, and the drifters, visionaries, and charlatans passing through that world. Her longest-running project is a series called “PEOPS“: single-page, head-and-shoulders portraits of the characters and scenesters she’s met, surrounded by transcriptions of her conversations with them during the sitting. A few are well known – John Perry Barlow, Richard Hell, John Zorn (who says “Her visions should be read every morning instead of your daily newspaper”) – but most are simply members of the transient underground. I went through Fly’s PEOPS archive, selected fifteen of the portraits, and edited their words down to provide the texts for the songs. 

 I wrote for The Talkhouse about the new Jens Lekman record, and talked to the Bowie Book Club podcast about Saul Bellow’s Herzog.

I appeared on Slate’s The Gist podcast with Mike Pesca, talking “The Humorless Ladies” and more. You can listen here or wherever you get your podcasts.

In year-end roundups, Broken Jaw Travel named “The Humorless Ladies #9 travel book of the year, it was a staff favorite at Seminary Co-op Bookstore, the Health Minister of Australia is reading it, it was a fave of the year at Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and The Big Takeover said “Part Paul Theroux and part On The Road…Come on with Volume 2 already!”

I wrote an op-ed at Cash Music about the inevitable institutionalization of rock

The Hold Steady did a podcast series around the vinyl re-releases of “Almost Killed Me” and “Separation Sunday”–in this episode Craig and I talk about the making of those records.




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