Even after sixteen years, there’s still a certain amount of glamour attached to Franz Ferdinand. “I’ll be with you in a moment, I just have to choose something to wear tonight,” says singer Alex Kapranos standing in front of a large, portable wardrobe. Its contents would be familiar to anyone who’s followed the band’s rise from scratchy art-school upstarts to indie juggernaut; sharply tailored trousers, geometrically patterned shirts, a smattering of leopard skin. He opts for the latter for the second of two shows at Kingston’s Hippodrome, slinking on stage in a fitted bomber jacket and tight black slacks. Together with his new, Max-Zorin-gone-punk bleached blonde hair and a sly grin, it’s a look that screams “mad disco Pied Piper”.
But such sartorial extravagance is entirely fitting for a band enjoying a new lease of life. After the relative disappointment of 2013’s Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Actions and the departure of guitarist Nick McCarthy, many wondered what the future might entail for Kapranos, bassist Bob Hardy, and drummer Paul Thompson. Limping sadly onwards in the face of increasing irrelevance is a fate that’s befallen many critical darlings who shaped the early aughts’ musical landscape; had the fire that raged through their first few records been permanently extinguished?
The answer arrived last October in the form of ‘Always Ascending’, a sleek, euphoric banger built around the Shepard tone and typically arch lyrics. Many bands who lose a member turn inwards, protecting the core, but McCarthy’s departure was a catalyst for expansion; in came guitarist Dino Bardot and keyboardist Julian Corrie, the extra pair of hands adding heft and muscle, while synthpop maestro Philippe Zdar – one-half of Cassius – was drafted in behind the desk to sprinkle some disco glitter on the new material. The result is an album that’s as boisterous as it is fun, from the sparkling, piano-led stomp of ‘Glimpse Of Love’ to the glam-nasty anthem ‘Feel The Love Go’. There’s even a sax solo and something that sounds suspiciously like rapping.
“Good vibes” is how Kapranos describes the making of Always Ascending, and watching the band rip through both hits and the new material, they seem re-born, a band in their element back doing what they love. A long year of touring awaits, but as they munch on some celebratory cupcakes and sip tea between the two shows, they tell me they can’t wait to get started. “I couldn’t want more from the band, so I feel really fortunate,” says Kapranos, the Archduke of high kicks and hip wiggles ready to conquer dancefloors all over again.
DiS: So, two shows in one day to kick things off. That’s quite ambitious.
Alex Kapranos: Yeah. One is quite a short matinee show though. When we launched our first record, in 2004, we would do two shows a day, seven days a week. I was just completely emotionally destroyed by the end of that year. [laughs]
Given the gap between this and your last album, are you refreshed and raring to go?
I feel very excited about it. I enjoyed making the record, and I think it’s good. The band feels really good too and I love the way all the guys are playing; it’s just good vibes.
Did you have any kind of inkling that Nick was thinking of leaving? Were there signs?
Oh yeah, I knew for years. As soon as his first kid was born, I knew it was going to happen at some point. He didn’t vocalise it until much later, but you could see that he was finding it more and more difficult.
You know, guys and bands, when they have kids they go one way or another; they either see touring as a great excuse to leave their family behind and have a wild time, or they feel terrible about being away from their family. Nick was in the latter category, and I was aware that his years of being a rock star were over. He still wants to make music, but he also wants to make sure he can pick the kids up from school.
It must be quite hard as you get older, as a band and as individuals, trying to juggle that whole rock & roll ideal with various family commitments. It’s like two poles pulling you in different ways, and sooner or later it seems that people need to make that choice.
It depends on what your personal hierarchy of needs is. Fortunately, or maybe, unfortunately, music has always been at the top of my hierarchy, ever since I was fourteen and first started writing songs. It’s been the one thing that I’ve always been completely obsessed with and has completely dominated my life for better or for worse.
But, not even from a rock & roll cliché point of view – just long tours and campaigns, and the travel, and being away a lot. That must be physically and emotionally draining anyway, doubly so if you have a family as well.
Well, it is and it isn’t. You know, I used to work as a chef years ago, and that was a lot more physically draining than being in a band. Sometimes when I hear guys in bands complaining about their lives, I don’t buy it; OK, it is unusual hours and physically quite hard work but fuck it, there are a lot of occupations that other people have that are a lot more tiring. I’ve got friends who work as doctors and nurses and their lives, their occupations, their calling is a lot more demanding on a family than any sort of rock & roll lifestyle. So, no complaints from me.
Given that you were such a tight-knit group – not just as a band, but as friends as well – were there ever any moments of doubt? Like: “OK, if Nick is leaving should we call it a day?”
When Nick left we had to ask the question; you can’t just presume that you’re going to continue. Paul, Bob and I met up, but the answer was very short and that was “Yeah! Of course we want to keep on doing it.” But we had to ask it, and we had to know that everybody felt the same way.
When a lot of bands that have been going for a long time and have a legacy lose a member they tend to stay small or stay compact, but you’ve gone the other way. You’ve expanded.
I’ve seen that in some of my contemporaries, like when Carlos left Interpol.
And The Killers are now essentially a duo now.
That’s right, they are, aren’t they? But then I think of bands like Fleetwood Mac or AC/DC…I always like it when a band embraces its new members. You’re not trying to “replace” an old member, it’s an opportunity for a new member to come in and bring their personality into it. When you hear this record, that’s exactly what’s going on; Julian will be Julian and Dino will be Dino. Of course, the core of the band is still the same, but I don’t want them to dress head to foot in black like a roadie and have them hanging around out of the spotlight at the back of the stage. If I am inviting them, I want them to feel like they belong, you know?
Yeah. Not like one bus for us and one bus for them?
Fuck no! I feel like that with the crew as well; these are guys that you live with and see every day, you want to hang out with them.
Does it give you more scope to be a bit more bold and inventive on stage, having an extra member?
Yeah. A couple of experiences really informed how I wanted to perform, both on the making of this record and in live performances. It was while we were doing the FFS touring, and also when we took part in this production for Jim Jarmusch films; that was a band made up of Terry Edwards who plays sax on the album, guys from The Invisible, and a whole bunch of really great musicians.
In both of those environments I was purely a singer and wasn’t playing the guitar and singing, and I found myself singing in a completely different way. Before, my singing had been more like another instrument in the band; the guitar, the vocal, the bass, they are all doing different parts of a whole. While that melodic sound has stayed, once I dropped my guitar I found I was able to perform in the way you would if you were acting; taking on a character, taking on a role.
When this band first started, Michael Kasparis was supposed to be the guitarist – the first gig we played, he was on guitar – but then he didn’t want to be in the band; he wanted to do something else. That’s when I picked up my guitar. So I guess I’m going back to doing what I originally intended to do, not playing the guitar so much and being a performer. I always had a love for those guys like Jacques Dutronc and Scott Walker, the sort of performer who loses themselves in a part.
There’s that Noel Gallagher quote where he talks about feeling naked without a guitar, like it’s a comfort blanket, and how he never wanted to be the singer in a band; only a guitarist. He really had to fight to deal with the whole: “Oh shit, now it’s just me” feeling.
You can hear that because he sounds frightened when he sings; he sounds like he’s doing something that he’s not really comfortable doing. He’s obviously a very confident songwriter, but I don’t think he is a confident singer in the way that his brother is. There’s a certain amount of fear you have to overcome, to completely drop your instrument, and he’s right; for a lot of people, the guitar is a shield that you hide behind. It can be a physical barrier between you and the audience. But you have strengths through your vulnerability; once you accept your vulnerability then you immediately become closer to the audience and I love that. I love that opening up.
Do you find that after so many years of playing the guitar and the muscle memory, that you wonder what to do with your hands?
No! There are loads of things you can do. That’s one thing that I have really enjoyed, the expressiveness that not holding onto a bit of wood in your hands brings. You can communicate with the audience in a completely different way; point at things, wave, all sorts of shit [laughs].
I read a quote saying that album was “futuristic, naturalistic.” What does that mean?
I don’t know, I was trying to sum up what the attitude of making the record was. “Futuristic” as in: “Why don’t we make music of the future?” Looking for a sound that’s new to us and our ears, new to your ears, new to anyone’s ears. Not the future of 2000 years but the future of two years; so, we are in 2016, trying to think of the music of 2017, 2018, or 2019. That means we aren’t trying to do what we’re hearing around us at that time, or trying to repeat that past; that is futurism in the most basic sense.
Naturalistic? You’re meant to perform as humans. I love embracing technology and seeing how you can sculpt sound in a way that you haven’t heard it before, using tools that weren’t available to you two years ago. I love that. What I don’t like about…I was going to say the “contemporary recording studio” but it’s not contemporary, it’s been like this for twenty-five years. It’s the way that with most music that you actually hear, you aren’t hearing the performance of a band, you are hearing the clicks of an engineer’s mouse. In other words, a band will do a performance, or do a take that is built up track by track, and then the engineer comes through and selects every note and puts it into the “right” place. I don’t like that.
I love it when it is deliberately machine music, you know? I like electronic music; I like techno, I like house music, I like music that is generated by machines, but I’m supposed to be hearing the sound of humans and it’s not. I find it frustrating; it’s like when you type your name into a word processor and it corrects it into the wrong word; that’s what it feels like to my ears, what I’m hearing in these corrected records.
When I say “naturalistic” I mean just a pure sound of the four of us playing in a room, and that is what it is. The record was recorded in six days, tracking two or three takes a song, and there you go.
So do you record to tape?
Why would you record to tape?
Because then you wouldn’t have the option of having an engineer going in to digitally fix it.
Engineers do that anyway; you put it onto tape, you put it into the computer, and then they fiddle around with it. Lots of bands do that still.
No, I mean you could ask them not to do that. Like the Jack White approach.
You mean completely stay on tape, stay in the analogue world? I don’t get that either. I don’t get the deliberate Luddite approach. I like looking at a studio and saying: “OK, that tape machine sounds good because it’s compressing the sound of the drums in a particular way,” but I don’t want to do it just for the sake of it. I don’t want to pretend it’s 1968 or any of that bullshit. I don’t think there was a “Golden Era” when music sounded the best it is ever going to sound; that’s bullshit.
Wasn’t that 1971 or something? Somebody worked it out.
Well, they worked it out wrong [laughs]. I love using old gear as much as new gear, and if you’ve got a guitar from 1932 and it sounds perfect for what you want to do then use it. If you’ve got a brand new one that you picked up from the shop around the corner and it sounds better or just as good; fucking use that instead. Your ears and your taste are what matters, not some mythical legend of perfection from a previous era.
I know you’re not a fan of music journalists coming up with genres for Franz Ferdinand. Like “art punk” or “rock”.
Yeah, we’re not a rock band!
But what’s the worst genre description you’ve heard applied to the band, the one you hated the most.
I hate all of them equally! My biggest regret is not having come up with a genre; at least then we could have claimed some kind of ownership over it, you know? I never felt “indie”, other than being on an independent label and having an independent outlook. But then “indie” ceased to mean “indie” after a while; most of the supposed “indie” bands were with major labels anyway.
“Alternative”? What is that meant to mean? Alternative to what?
You should come up with something now. Art wave? Punk core? Anarcho disco?
I quite like that. Of all the shit you’ve said so far, that’s my favourite one.
No, anarcho disco-wave, that’s what it is.
Yeah, why not, that’ll do! The other one that really annoyed me was the “post-punk revival” thing; that fucking got under my skin. I wasn’t trying to revive anything and I wasn’t trying to be any band from the past, I was trying to look to the future! Also, any association with Gang of Four, that really fucking annoyed me as well; I was very clear about the bands I loved and admired, and Gang of Four wasn’t one of them! It just so happened that there were a few journalists of an age where we reminded them of their favourite band from their youth, and that association stuck.
Is your ultimate aim still to make records that girls can dance to?
Of course. Why else would you want to make a record? [Laughs]
‘Lois Lane’ has a very interesting message in the lyrics. Do you think that journalism can still “change the world”? The media is in quite a mess at the moment.
I believe it can, yeah. Do you? You’re the journalist, you tell me!
I would hope that it could if used in the right way, but I’m not sure enough people are using it in the right way.
It can change the world for the worse as well, and it has done. We just need to look around us and see what is going on. In that song though, we were deliberately trying not to send a message because we created two characters with two quite opposing belief systems who were friends. You know, when you are in early adulthood you can be very close to people who have completely different belief systems from you and yet still be very, very close. Whereas the further you go through life, it happens less and less. If somebody tells you that they voted for Donald Trump, you’re probably not going to want to pursue a conversation with them, but if you’d gone to school with them and been friends, you’d probably stay friends with them. Does that make sense?
It makes perfect sense. My perception is also that in the recent past political differences were more nuanced, whereas now we’re back to arguing about fundamentals like women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, racism and so on. The political poles have become so far apart.
It’s more like 1938 now, isn’t it? I think you’re completely right; twenty years ago the differences in political opinion were bland and I can see it in the sense of humour of my contemporaries. In the 90s they would make jokes about subjects that were taboo; there were jokes about the Nazi’s and things like that because everybody in my social group knew that nobody would be a real, proper Nazi. Now you’re not so sure, so nobody would ever make a joke about them. That changes things.
I really like ‘Huck And Jim’ too. When you started out, did you ever imagine that you would be rapping on your fifth album, in the year 2018?
See, I don’t think of it as rapping. It’s more like talking rhythmically or something like that. It isn’t really rapping.
Isn’t “talking rhythmically” the very definition of rapping?
Rapping is talking rhythmically, but not all talking rhythmically is rapping. Look at The B-52’s; you know Fred’s parts? Is that rapping?
Maybe getting close.
It’s not rapping, it’s rhythmic talking, because I think it’s coming from a slightly different place culturally. So in ‘Huck And Jim’ it’s not rapping it’s something else…I don’t know what it is [laughs].
Whatever it is, it’s quite a departure.
It was fun. When we were doing the music for that section of the song, we were trying to do something like a Motown-type of thing. Even that high hat pattern; we were trying to do like a trap sort of thing. You know when you’ve got the drum machine, and you're switching the swing setting; you're switching to triplets and eight-beat kind of stuff? We wanted to get that because you hear it in so many songs, but I’ve never heard a drummer playing it. So I said: “Right Paul, can you play that, rather than have it programmed?”
What do you think the Americans could learn from the DSS?
Well, the DSS and the NHS are two of the three tenets of civilisation.
What’s the third one?
Education. I measure a civilisation by how it looks after its sick, its weak or poor, and how it educates itself. I believe that civilisation understands that these are rights of every citizen, whether you can afford it or not. As I was growing up, I had my life saved by the NHS, I spent years supported by the DSS in one way or another, and I was educated. I was always fortunate enough to have a good state school education, and when I talk to my friends in America they are jealous of what we have over here; particularly health care. So many friends of mine, in bands over in America, just don’t have healthcare because they can’t afford it. Then in the UK, we're in this shocking situation where we have a government that’s trying to dismantle this wonderful institution and sell it off surreptitiously, thinking that we aren’t noticing. Saying we have “a winter crisis” when we have a funding crisis.
It’s interesting that on the face of it it’s one of your more overtly political songs, yet it’s also one of the most fun.
When I was writing the chorus, I was jumping between the absurd and something that I took extremely seriously. Also, with “Huck” and “Jim”, I wanted to pick a character that was a great representative of America, someone that summed up American culture. When I was a kid my Dad read Huckleberry Finn to me; I was about seven years old, and it was probably one of my first memorable encounters with a figure from American literature. I had very good memories of the adventures of that story, but then I started thinking about how Jim would be as an adult in the 21st century.
There was a revelationary poignancy to those characters; once you get over the shocking language and the racial slurs in just about every conversation, it’s a really good read, but some of those stories about the Prince and the Duke – they are hucksters and total conmen. America has this tradition of being duped by conmen, and they are being duped by the biggest conman of them all right now. You just read this book and think: “Fuck, it’s just so embedded in their history over there.”
I love the Terry Edwards sax solo on ‘Feel The Love Go’ too. Is this the year that sax comes back?
I don’t know if sax ever went away. I’ve always loved sax since I was a kid, when Madness’ record first came out. I wanted to play the saxophone before I wanted to play the guitar [laughs].
So what happened?
There was a guitar lying around the house and not a saxophone [laughs].
Given everything that you’ve been through as a band and a group of friends, is the Good Ship Franz Ferdinand going to be sailing forever?
Who knows? I’m very bad at making predictions. I know what the next few months hold in store because we’ve got gigs booked up, but beyond that, we will have to wait and see. The band feels really good at the moment, and I’m enjoying playing music with those guys, so I feel really fortunate.
The other thing is if you run out of ideas. If you feel you’ve said everything you want to say, or you just don’t want to tour anymore. REM were like that when they stopped; there was no animosity, no tragedy, they were just like: “Hey, you know what? We’ve done it. We’ve done everything we wanted to do.”
Isn’t there a feeling that REM maybe limped on a little further than they should have?
I don’t want to be judgmental about other bands, no sir. I’m sure their last records were a lot better than many other bands greatest albums.
Of course. But once bands have built up a legacy it seems almost harder to call it a day than to keep going. They’re like: “OK, we’ve been offered this much, or we can tour for another year.” And everyone wants to keep the gravy train running.
You definitely get certain bands that continue to exist in a state of suspended animation, where they look to a golden era of their back catalogue and just exist within that. They keep playing gigs, do the festival circuit, and that’s fine; I’m not going to criticise anyone for that and I’m sure it’s a pretty good life. But it doesn’t really interest me; I’m not a very nostalgic person, and I don’t want to live in the past. I don’t see myself or the band as purely performers; as a performing artist you want to make something new and go somewhere you haven’t been before.
So you can’t you see yourself on stage somewhere in the world playing ‘Take Me Out’ when you are 60?
When I first started playing music, the thought of being in a band over the age of thirty…actually, not even thirty. I remember when I first started putting on bands in The Thirteenth Note; I was nineteen, and most of my pals and a few other folks I knew in Glasgow at the time were all twenty-five. And I used to think: “Fuck, those guys are so fucking old, twenty-five! I wonder if I’m still going to want to be in a band at the age of twenty-five?” So as for being sixty and playing any song? I don’t know; you’ll have to ask the sixty-year-old me that [laughs]. But if it feels right, then I’ll do it, yeah. Why not?
Always Ascending is out now via Domino Records. For more information on Franz Ferdinand, including current UK and EU tour dates, please visit their official website.