Franz Ferdinand frontman Alex Kapranos spills the beans on the quartet’s stellar fourth album, his Irish literary inspiration and why his band will never be the showbiz types
It doesn’t matter what your age, or how big an international rock star you are: there’s nothing quite like going home to your mum’s for a cuppa. It’s a sunny summer’s day in Glasgow, and Alex Kapranos is sprawled on his mum’s settee, mug in hand, looking out the window while he settles in for an afternoon of interviews. The affable Franz Ferdinand frontman sounds more upbeat than most musicians would when faced with the prospect of hours of promo, but then again, it has been four years since he has had a new album to wax lyrical about.
Home was where the heart was when it came to making Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action, too: their fourth album was recorded primarily in Kapranos’s studio – a former artist’s studio in the Scottish countryside – and guitarist Nick McCarthy’s tiny Sausage Studios in London. The lengthy gap between albums is not a signifier of a difficult process, though. Kapranos says that the process was “a lot of fun”, and intermittent touring over the past few years – including an ‘intimate’ tour of Irish venues last summer – meant that it was the first time they had played a batch of songs live regularly before recording them for an album. The album was recorded in “short bursts” over the past year and a half – but why the long gap?
“It just happened that way, y’know?” he replies with a good-natured groan, his Scottish burr retaining traces of the English accent of his childhood.
“After we released Tonight, we toured it for a while, and we were still doing other stuff during that period; we did a song for [Tim Burton’s] Alice in Wonderland soundtrack, we did something with Marion Cotillard [who sang new song The Eyes of Mars for a Dior fashion campaign], so there were little things here and there. It was about two years ago when we first started talking about working on the record, but to me, that felt like a very natural timespan. It didn’t feel forced, and it didn’t feel rushed, and it didn’t feel selfindulgent or that we were taking too long. It just felt right.”
In any case, as he points out himself, time is never really a concern in the Franz Ferdinand camp. Kapranos was 32 when the band released their first album; last year, he turned 40. Worrying about their fan base becoming bored or impatient wasn’t really an issue. “Thirty-two years is a lot worse than four years, so I felt if I could deal with that one, I was gonna be alright after four,” he says with a hearty laugh. “I know the music industry moves fast, but it has always moved fast; it moved as fast in 1953 as it does in 2013. I think what you have to do is not pay too much attention to what’s going on around you, and not try to compete with the sounds that are already out there. If you do what feels good to you instinctively, you’ll be fine. Just write good songs. I know that sounds really stupid and really simple and obvious, but sometimes the most obvious things are the best things to do.”
And it’s not like the band have been twiddling their thumbs for the past four years, either. Guitarist Nick McCarthy has been busy with his side project Box Codax, and became a father in 2011. Kapranos turned his hand to production, overseeing albums by indie rockers The Cribs and Citizens! as well as Scottish artist RM Hubbert. The skills that he picked up served him well as he produced most of the new album, with a little help from some friends. Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard of Hot Chip oversaw vibrant opener Right Action, while Björn Yttling (Peter, Björn and John) and Norwegian DJ and producer Todd Terje also chipped in.
“I think after making our last record, we really properly understood what we were capable of doing in the studio,” he says. “I think we wouldn’t have been able to make this one if we hadn’t made the last record the way we did. And also, spending all that time with great producers in the past – like Dan Carey and Rich Costey, who are very generous, giving characters and are very willing to talk about what they’re doing while they’re doing it – helped.
“This time, instead of going to an outside producer who’s going to guide the process, we looked more to find people who were more our peers; musicians who were interested in production themselves, like Alexis and Joe, or Björn and Todd Terje. I think sometimes a big producer will have a sort of ruthlessness – a sort of ‘right, this is how you get to the charts’ sort of thing. All these characters that we worked with are maybe a little bit more quirky and have more personality about them.”
The album is certainly packed with personality, but there is also a sense that the foursome have returned to what they are good at – making indie songs to dance to – after perhaps becoming caught up in the rock bombast and big-time show phase that megahit Take Me Out initiated in the mid-noughties. Guitarist McCarthy recently spoke of the band’s desire to revert to a “really skinny, stripped-down dance thing”, and that approach is audible in songs like the lean, urgent beat-pop of Love Illumination and the nervous energy of Bullet. In other places, such as on harmony-laden standout Fresh Strawberries, they try something completely new. Some of their musical influences this time around came from unlikely sources, explains Kapranos.
“I wouldn’t say there was anything that played a huge role; there’s lots of little snippets that you can hear here and there,” he says. “Like, I remember being in Berlin and there’s this big Turkish population there, and a lot of the guys that drive taxis and have the falafel places listen to this Turkish pop music. It’s somewhere between Turkish music and Eurodance, and it has this very particular beat to it – I don’t even know how to describe it. But I remember that beat being in my head when we were working on the song Goodbye Lovers and Friends, and while the song sounds nothing like that sort of music, it was like ‘Oh aye, maybe if we try that kind of beat from that Turkish music here, it’ll work’.
“On Brief Encounters, we’d been listening to a lot of cumbia, this Latin American dance music, so for that we thought ‘Let’s just try that rhythm’. But although we were playing those rhythms, we always get it slightly wrong and it always ends up sounding like Franz Ferdinand. That’s the way it goes.”
When it came to lyrics, the literary-minded frontman drew from another unusual well, Irish writer William Trevor.
“To me, he was the master of the short story,” he enthuses. “He wrote about very ordinary, slightly shabby lives that had a very touching melancholia about them. I was writing Brief Encounters around the time I was reading a lot of William Trevor, and while I wasn’t trying to write a William Trevor short story, that sort of approach to personality definitely came through. Rather than writing about huge, strong, powerful heroes, I was more drawn to the small suburban antiheros. That’s what I grew up amongst, I guess – so maybe that’s why I like William Trevor, because I can see the people that I saw around about me as I grew up. I didn’t grow up in a showbiz, jet-setting family, so it’s ordinary lives that probably mean more to me.”
The modest Kapranos may not be the showbiz type – the closest his personal life came to tabloid fodder was during his relationship with Fiery Furnaces’ frontwoman Eleanor Friedberger – but there is no question about his band’s pulling power. After 11 years, millions of albums sales, Grammy nominations and the security of an excellent fourth album that should reinstate them as indie-rock kingpins, what keeps the Franz fire burning?
“I vaguely knew what the Grammys were when we were forming a band, but I never really had any ambitions for that sort of thing,” he laughs. “I think the reason you do it stays the same – or it should stay the same – which is that I’m with my three best friends, and we like hanging out with each other, we like writing songs and playing them together. That sounds really simple, but it’s at the core of it. If that ain’t right, then nothing’s gonna be right. If I’m ever at an awards ceremony or one of these showbiz things, I always feel like an observer, an outsider having a look – I don’t really feel part of that world. When I’m playing with my friends, or I’m on stage, or in the studio or the rehearsal room, I feel like I’m in the most natural place in the world. And I think that’s a healthy way to look at it. If we can keep things like that, I think we’ll be alright.”