Franz Ferdinand on the Secrets Behind Making Always Ascending
Frontman Alex Kapranos tells Paste how he found new inspiration for the band's fifth studio album, which comes out Friday.Getty Images Music Features Franz Ferdinand
Some artists are understandably cagey about their craft, protective of their trade secrets and composing techniques. Not Alex Kapranos. When it comes to his Scottish alt-rock outfit Franz Ferdinand and their latest inventive outing, Always Ascending, the garrulous Glaswegian holds nothing back, and at a quick prompting will dive into such exhaustive, hair-splitting detail that he can come across like Homer’s rambling old-timer dad, Abe Simpson. Which is refreshing in an era when chart hits are so often designed by committee in far-off Sweden. Finding a songwriter who not only invests his work with heart, soul and meticulous kid-glove care but is more than happy to forensically dissect is a rare thing indeed. And listening to what makes this 17-year-old, Brit Award- and Mercury Prize-winning band tick is truly fascinating.
Always Ascending, out this Friday, is the band’s first album since 2013’s Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action. It also ushers in a new era of Franz Ferdinand. Fresh from his side projects with the sibling duo FFS and the supergroup BNQT (with fellow Scot Fran Healy from Travis, plus Midlake and Grandaddy alums), Kapranos—hampered by the departure of founding guitarist Nick McCarthy, who quit to raise a family in 2016—assembled his core team of bassist Bob Hardy and drummer Paul Thomson in his private studio in rural Southwest Scotland, an hour’s drive from their Glasgow home base. With new axeman Julian Corrie added into the fold, the unit met on a weekly basis and resolved to push itself further than it had ever dared, ever since Franz Ferdinand first hit the UK charts with the kinetic “Take Me Out” from their eponymous 2004 debut. With Philippe Zdar producing, Kapranos and company came up with the rumbling “Lazy Boy,” the Ohio-Players-funky “Paper Cages,” the forlorn organ-underpinned “The Academy Award,” the ‘80s-synth-frothy “Lois Lane,” the vintage Human League-ish “Glimpse of Love,” the John-Cale-funereal “Slow Don’t Kill Me Slow,” the tempo-shifting title track, and the anthemic exploration of America’s seamier side, “Huck and Jim.” Kapranos’s vocals have descended down into the Cale range (“I never ventured into those murky depths before, but now I’m really enjoying it,” he chortles), and his erudite lyrical wordplay shoots with machine-gun velocity and accuracy.
How did the 45-year-old Kapranos achieve all this? Here’s a look at some of the aesthetic bullet points that upped Franz Ferdinand’s game.
Always have a dog around when recording.
The one fact on which Kapranos is not forthcoming is the exact location of his studio retreat. He prefers to keep it private, although he will allow a hint or two. “If you walk out my back door and keep walking, you’ll walk for about 25 miles without hitting another human,” he reveals. “And if you walk in the other direction, you’ll hit a pub in about five minutes, and that’s the perfect balance for me.” For sessions, Hardy always brought his cocker spaniel Alvy, named for Woody Allen’s jittery protagonist in Annie Hall. “And having an animal with you in the studio really draws you out; you don’t get caught up in the trap of being mesmerized by your own work and never seeing daylight, because he was a dog with a lot of energy and you go outside because he needs to walk.” The musicians all bunked together and, since Hardy is vegan, cooked vegan meals together every night, often harvesting the vegetables from Kapranos’s backyard garden. “And living together in the same place was the best way for us to work,” he adds. “I’d always had this romantic notion about working in that way, ever since I read about the way that Can and Captain Beefheart worked. I loved the idea of taking the band out of its environment and making a universe entirely your own.”
Force yourself to try techniques and devices that are unfamiliar.
Approaching each song from its own novel starting point was of paramount importance to the frontman this time out. The Greek-descended former theology student (and ardent bibliophile, who actually penned a food travelogue, 2006’s Sound Bites: Eating on Tour With Franz Ferdinand) didn’t make it easy on himself. One path he pursued was a certain keyboard interface that plugs into a computer that pushed his fingers into new ways of playing. Then he would transfer his abstract melodies back to his main instrument, the guitar, in ways that felt altogether fresh and exciting. Lyrically, he wanted to discard old patterns, too. Initially, Kapranos was obsessed with John Lennon’s first solo album, and the attendant concept that a song’s emotional honesty can only be achieved via the diary-honest poetic confessional. Wanting to disprove this axiom, he and Hardy decided to create characters as vivid as friends they knew, then imbue them with equally colorful emotions that led to unexpected experiences. “So songs like ‘Lois Lane’ and ‘The Academy Award’ came from this approach—finding this emotional truth, this emotional honesty in fictional characters and delivering it with veritas,” he says. “Because you end up feeling that it’s you, until you end up losing yourself. I mean, I’ve written songs from the perspective of characters before, like ‘Jacqueline.’ But they’ve usually been observed characters, and there’s a difference.”
Don’t be afraid to follow your elusive ideas straight down the rabbit hole.
“Huck and Jim,” for example, was never as obvious as it sounds. Musically, it was conceived in three distinct segments, one being decidedly American slacker rock in the vein of Pavement, Superchunk and Weezer. But as Kapranos began intoning its signature line (“We’re going to America”), he considered what that actually meant nowadays. Trump was doing his damnedest to repeal the Affordable Care Act at the time, so the singer returned to books that his father read to him as a child, like Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. He even re-read it before writing the song, and found himself shocked by the antiquated language. “And suddenly the naivety evaporated,” he sighs. “And Huck and Jim seemed to be such a poignant representation of America—Huck at 13, running away from his alcoholic father, who wants to murder him for his money, and Jim the slave, running away from his supposedly benevolent mistress, who just wants to sell him for cash. To understand America now—or any post-colonial society, even the United Kingdom—there is a lot to be learned from that book.”
Always look to other art—not necessarily music—for inspiration.
For one of his BNQT contributions, “Hey Banana,” Kapranos cleverly tapped into one of his favorite scenes in John Cassavettes’s classic, A Woman Under the Influence. “And I loved the idea of taking dialogue from a completely different setting and then putting it into a lyrical context,” he says. “So that led into this idea for ‘Glimpse of Love.’ I’d been fascinated and disgusted in equal parts by the voyeuristic, predatory language that’s used on the sidebar headlines of online tabloids, when they talk about female celebrities. So, apart from the choruses, all the lines in that song are taken from sidebar tabloid headlines.” At first, listeners will hear the track as an upbeat disco thumper, he adds. But on repeated spins its sinister, anti-misogynist edge begins to surface. “Again, we were looking for ways to push ourselves into new lyrical realms,” he says.
Other cultures can be equally influential.
Kapranos was a regular visitor to Ethiopia a few years ago. He adored the music and its unusual scales, which were at odds with Western tones. “I was talking to some musicians over there, and they explained to me that the modes in a lot of Ethiopian music tend to never refer to the root notes of the scale,” he recalls. “So if there’s a chord progression, the root notes are never returned to. So you end up with this musical effect that feels like it’s floating, and you’re never quite resolving it.” This esoteric conceit became the basic for the Always Ascending title cut, accompanied by the lyrical motif of real-life Pathe newsreel footage Kapranos saw of several men attempting to moor a dirigible who were yanked aloft with the wind-buffeted airship instead. It haunted him. When you’re climbing higher and higher, painfully holding on to a rope, when do you let go? he wondered. “You would have completely lost any sense of where you were or what was happening, and you’d be so consumed by fear that you’d probably be at the point of hallucination. So at the moment of letting go, there would hopefully be this minute of beatific release. And that’s the principle the song was based on—not knowing where gravity was, so when you were falling, you were actually ascending.”
All work and no play is—well, just unnatural.
As busy as Franz Ferdinand will be with Always Ascending, Kapranos still just found the time to visit the Northern Scotland studio of his old chum Edwyn Collins—for whom he narrated the 2008 BBC documentary Edwyn Collins: Home Again—to record one of his favorite new singers, Maggie Brown. “Yes, I’m consumed with our new album at the moment,” he cedes. “But I just love what Maggie’s doing. It’s so intense, and her lyrics are so powerful. There’s something really special going on there. So I get to spend my days my days off doing what I love, production, and I get to hang out with Edwyn Collins, as well. So it’s a great project to be involved with, any way you look at it.”