Q&A: Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos on ‘Always Ascending’ and the Band’s Evolution

Q&A: Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos on ‘Always Ascending’ and the Band’s Evolution

Franz Ferdinand came on like gangbusters in 2004 with its excellent, acclaimed self-titled debut album, which went platinum in America and spawned two Top 20 singles at alternative radio (the gold-certified “Take Me Out,” “This Fire”).

The indie rockers’ initial success was magnified at home in the U.K., where they snagged Brit, Mercury Music Prize and Ivor Novello Awards. In ‘05, the Glasgow-based band followed up with a moderately successful You Could Have it So Much Better and another U.S. hit, “Do You Want To?”

A decade later, Franz Ferdinand teamed up with Sparks for the solid FFS album/tour. Last year, front man Alex Kapranos also contributed to his second modern rock supergroup BNQT, alongside Band of Horses, Travis, Grandaddy and Midlake members. After founding guitarist/singer Nick McCarthy decided to exit Franz Ferdinand in 2016 to spend more time with family, Julian Corrie was recruited on keyboards/synth/guitar/backing vocals. Then Dino Bardot was added on guitar/backing vocals.

Kapranos checked in with Rock Cellar from New York City to discuss the group’s recent changes, portraying a preacher in a music video and the wonders of drinking Whiskey Sours with a French producer.

Rock Cellar: The first two music videos you’re released from Always Ascending are intriguing in their own way. How was experience making them, particularly “Feel the Love Go,” with director Diane Martel, who previously helmed your “Do You Want To?” and “Evil Eye” clips?

Alex Kapranos: They’re quite different from each other. “Always Ascending” is really cool and has this beautiful aesthetic to it. The one with Diane is totally crazy. She’s such a good laugh to make videos with. I love doing stuff with her.

Rock Cellar: And you get to portray a preacher in her video.

Alex Kapranos: Yeah. My God, it’s the part I was born to play! [laughs]

Rock Cellar: For the new album, you worked with Frenchman Philippe Zdar of Cassius, whose production/mixing credits include Phoenix, The Rapture and the final Beastie Boys album. How did you come to that decision?

Alex Kapranos: I first met him when he was doing the Beastie Boys record and we were making the last Franz record. Laurence [Bell] from Domino [Records] put us in touch with each other because he thought we’d get on. It was supposed to be like a five-minute chat just to say ‘hi.’ We ended up on the phone for about an hour and a half.

You know when you connect with somebody straight off and you realize you share a lot of the same tastes? He was an inspiring guy. When we were making this record, we knew that it was heading toward the dancefloor but in a way that we hadn’t done before. We didn’t want to go to somebody who was used to working primarily with electronic music because we still wanted to keep the identity of a raw rock ‘n’ roll band at the heart of it. So, it had to be somebody that appreciated a live performance but embraced the sonics of tomorrow. Phillippe was the obvious choice. I can’t think of anybody that would’ve done a better job. It was a real joy to make the record with him. He’s a very large, positive personality and a generous, warm guy.

Rock Cellar: In a behind-the-scenes video from the new album’s sessions, you are seen laying down a vocal, while Phillippe is jumping up and down. Was he that excitable all the time?

Alex Kapranos: Totally. He’s an irrepressible personality. If you’re a performer, [you] like an audience. If you’re performing in the studio and you get no feedback about what you’re doing, it can really screw it up and kill the vibe something rotten. To have somebody like Phillippe in the room with you and get a response off this person, you feed off it.

Also, you know it’s honest because if he didn’t like it, he’d make it just as clear. I believe that’s one of the greatest roles of a producer. There’s understanding the sonics. How to craft the sound is essential too, but you’re as much of a director and a performer as a producer too. He’s also an amazing mixer on another level.

Every year, I don’t drink between Jan. 1 and my birthday, March 20. We were in the studio at RAK [in London last March]. Phillippe is really into whiskey sours. He makes the most incredible ones. That was the first drink I had last year. My God, it was mind-blowing!

Rock Cellar: In that same clip, I saw a lava lamp and other decorations around the studio. Did you try and create a distinct vibe there?

Alex Kapranos: You want it to feel like you’re at a good party – like you’ve had a really great night out, come back and it’s the coolest place to hang out. When we were writing this record, we did it in my studio in a quite rural part of Scotland, which was a great way to detach ourselves from the world. One thing we agreed on straight away with Phillippe was to go to an urban environment and change the atmosphere. That’s why we went to London and Paris to mix it afterwards. Your environment has an impact on the way you perform. All of it does.

Rock Cellar: Two standouts on the album are slower tempo tracks like “The Academy Award” that could be on some old film noir soundtrack and “Slow, Don’t Kill Me Slow,” which reminded me a bit of Jarvis Cocker and Pulp.

Alex Kapranos: I think those two songs are possibly my favorite songs on the record as well. Maybe it’s because I’ve always loved the comedown at the end of a night out. Maybe even more than the night out itself. Those songs fulfill that purpose on the record. Each one is at the end of either side [of the LP format]. The atmosphere of those songs – I get a chill right up my back as I imagine recording ‘Slow, Don’t Kill Me Slow.’ I’ve never known the band to perform as [we did] on that. Everybody played beautifully. It’s funny you mentioned Pulp. There wasn’t a desire to emulate [them, but] I do love late-period Pulp, that sort of dark stuff on ‘This is Hardcore.’

Rock Cellar: Is that a Theremin sound I hear on “Slow, Don’t Kill Me Slow?”

Alex Kapranos: No. I’m playing this bizarre old relic of a guitar synthesizer that was made by Roland in the ‘70s [Note: it’s likely the GR-500 model]. You can switch between the octaves and oscillator by using your foot. As I’m playing, I switch it and that’s what gives you that rising sort of feel. It’s a very odd instrument. You play it like a guitar, but it doesn’t sound anything like a guitar. You don’t play it like a normal synthesizer. It’s good for forcing you into things you normally wouldn’t do. Very atmospheric.

Rock Cellar: There’s a jaunty sax solo by Terry Edwards at the end of “Feel the Love Go.” I’ve enjoyed his work with Robyn Hitchcock, Billy Bragg, Madness and others over the years. How did he end up on the album?

Alex Kapranos: He’s such a great musician. He played with us before when we did “Love Illumination” on Later…with Jools Holland. I’ve played with him a couple times over the last couple years, doing part of a live show with music from Jim Jarmusch films. Terry had been part of that. He’s incredible. The best sax player I know. The stuff he does with PJ Harvey – that’s amazing.

Rock Cellar: Since the last Franz Ferdinand album came out, you also completed the FFS and BNQT side projects. Did they have any effect on how you approached Always Ascending?

Alex Kapranos: Singing with Russell [Mael] on the ‘FFS’ record sort of opened me up to exploring the lower range of my voice. He’s singing so high that I felt like I didn’t have to cover those notes. I definitely explored some of the deep part of my range, which comes through on this record a lot more.

Julian really covers that high end – some of those sweet high notes you hear on this record – that’s Julian singing. And BNQT? With both those records, the idea of stepping outside an established creative dynamic of people and realize you could do something with other people probably was a good preparation for this record. It made me feel more confident collaborating with people I hadn’t worked with before. I loved making the BNQT record. I was fortunate to play live with most of the guys earlier this year. What great musicians they are. Incredible.

Photo: Cara Robbins

Rock Cellar: What has the addition of Julian and Dino brought to the Franz Ferdinand sound? Is there a renewed sense of excitement now?

Alex Kapranos: Yeah! Julian was an integral part of this record’s sound. He plays [unlike anybody] I’ve played with before. When we started writing the songs on this record, we were aiming for something we could only execute with Julian. This idea of making dance music that you could play live without programming it. He’s like a human arpeggiator. The kind of stuff you’d normally put to a sequencer to play, he’ll play on the synthesizer live. That was quite a revolutionary experience. I love what he does.

Also, his voice and his perspective is different. As for Dino: he’s the greatest rock star to ever come out of Glasgow. He’s got that vibe about him. I’m so happy to have both of them in the band…it’s freed me up as a front man. I feel so comfortable being onstage with them. They’ve just got everything covered. I know they’ve got it locked in. It allows me space to perform in a way I haven’t before. I really appreciate that.

Rock Cellar: You’ve said that some of the new song lyrics use characters similar to that on Franz Ferdinand; “Huck & Jim” and “Lois Lane” being two examples. What was the inspiration for the upbeat latter song with the line “because journalism could change the world”?

Alex Kapranos: On the first album, every song is either about people that we knew or is from personal experience. That’s the way [bassist] Bob [Hardy] and I were collaborating. A song like ‘Matinee’ was from our personal experiences. While we were writing this record, we tried something we hadn’t done before, which is to create purely fictional characters in the same way you would if you were writing a short story, a screenplay or novel. You create characters and the situation in which they collide with each other.

For “Lois Lane,” we sat down and imagined these two people: one’s essentially an optimist and one’s a pessimist. The guy believes altruism is selfishness; you’re motivated by the buzz of getting the reward, whereas she is the optimist who believes journalism can change the world. I’ve known characters like that in my life. I’ve never had them both summed up in a song in that particular way. I don’t think I’m either of those particular characters myself. Neither does Bob. It’s great to make characters believable and feel that you are in their world. That was new for us.

Rock Cellar: American news reporters have sort of been under siege the past few years.

Alex Kapranos: Not just in America – everywhere. Good old investigative journalism has brought down a president before, maybe it can do it again.

Rock Cellar: Then on the dense, synth-laden “Huck & Jim,” you sing, “we’re going to America and tell them about the NHS.” Britain’s National Health Service has been in the news quite a bit lately.

Alex Kapranos: It gives me the opportunity these days to tell people about the NHS – why I love it and how I’m heartbroken by the government we have at the moment that is trying to dismantle it by the back door. Trying to sell it off surreptitiously without announcing it. That’s heartbreaking to me because it has literally saved my life personally on three or four occasions.

It’s not just how I feel about it, [but] the principle that if you measure a civilization on how it looks after the weak, the sick and the poor and how it educates people, I believe those are universal rights we all have no matter what your financial circumstances are personally. We look after ourselves. Of course, it was particularly pertinent while we were writing that song because it was a time when the introduction of the Affordable Care Act seemed like America was moving toward that direction where you look after everybody and then it was dismantled. It’s under attack.

That kind of small-minded conservatism, the idea that you don’t care for anybody else and you don’t contribute toward anybody else’s well being is so disappointing and depressing. Human beings are better than that; aren’t they? I’d like to think so. Wouldn’t you?

Rock Cellar: Definitely. Switching gears, now that the band has been together 15+ years, how do you think your music has evolved?

Alex Kapranos: The holy grail of what you aim for as an artist or musician is to remain true to your identity. Your integrity. And yet feel that you’re doing something fresh and new each time. That’s the goal. I hope when somebody gets this record, they put the needle on [the vinyl] and within two seconds they know it’s Franz Ferdinand, but think, ‘wow, that sounds like no Franz Ferdinand I’ve heard before.’

Whether we get there, that’s not something for me to judge – that’s for you, the critics, the fans and the casual listeners to judge…I guess we’re fortunate if we can’t be anything but ourselves. I think it comes partly from an early laziness.

When I was first learning to play the guitar, I learned a bunch of chords and tried other people’s songs. Then I realized I didn’t have enough chords to learn how to play The Smiths or Beatles songs. So, I started writing my own songs instead. If I hadn’t been that lazy as a 14-year-old, I probably wouldn’t be doing what I do right now.

That’s also a theme I celebrate on ‘Lazy Boy.’ I like to work hard, but my God, I love being lazy when it is time to be lazy as well!

Franz Ferdinand – U.S. Tour Dates         

April 10 House of Blues – Boston, MA

April 11 9:30 Club – Washington, DC

April 13 The Fillmore – Philadelphia, PA

April 15-16 Brooklyn Steel – Brooklyn, NY

April 27 First Avenue – Minneapolis, MN

April 28 The Truman – Kansas City, MO

April 30 The Rave – Milwaukee, WI

May 2 The Pageant – St. Louis, MO

May 4 Shaky Knees Festival – Atlanta, GA

May 7 House of Blues – Dallas, TX

May 8 White Oak Music Hall – Houston, TX

May 9 Emo’s – Austin, TX

May 11 The Van Buren – Phoenix, AZ

May 12 Observatory – Santa Ana, CA

May 13 North Park @Observatory – San Diego, CA

May 15 The Wiltern – Los Angeles, CA

May 17 Fox Theatre – Oakland, CA

 


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