My interview with funky dance-punkers Franz Ferdinand. Emerging at a time that coincided with me reaching legal drinking age, I’ve been a fan of the band since their wild grooves packed Dublin’s dance floors as late bars relied on indie music to get crowds moving in a way that’s just not prevalent anymore. So it was a thrill to speak to frontman Alex Kapranos and bass player Bob Hardy in length of their new record, song-writing process and career disappointments in an open and candid manner. A slightly sub-edited version of this article appears in issue 36 of Ghettoblaster magazine.
It’s been almost a decade since debonair Glasgow four-piece Franz Ferdinand successfully mated disco and rock on their dazzling self-titled debut record, spawning a sound that grooved with such flamboyance that it catapulted them to the top of the exploding UK indie scene and went a long way toward making the often maligned dance-punk revival actually sound relevant. Ten years together practically makes them veterans of the increasingly fickle indie scene and the band can now boast outlasting their contemporaries not only in terms of lifespan, but quality of output, which has remained consistently high throughout their career.
Having cut two records of crunching guitar riffs, funky basslines and infectious melodies practically back-to-back in 2005 and 2006 (albums that were punctuated with mammoth singles like “Dark of the Matinee”, “Do You Want To” and “Take Me Out”), their third full-length release Tonight proved a change of pace as the band experimented with new sounds, concepts and production methods. Released in 2009, Tonight played more like a think-tank of ideas than their previous records. Loaded with Cream-esque hard rock jams, three-minute electro workouts and other sonic surprises, its fractured nature reflected the method in which it was created. Rather than stepping into the studio armed with an array of pop songs ready to record, Franz Ferdinand had entered with elements of tracks – a riff here, a melody there – testing as they went, assembling each song piece by piece. To the band, the process was less satisfying and, after touring the record, they took an indefinite break.
“When we came off the road after our third album, there weren’t any plans to meet up and make a record. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh let’s have 12 months off and then meet up’. It was more like, ‘See ya later’, and we didn’t really speak for a year because we just needed our own time,” says bass player Bob Hardy, speaking over the phone from Los Angeles. “I wouldn’t have put money on there being a fourth Franz Ferdinand album. But, after having a break from each other, we had a meet up and talked it through and remembered why we were doing it in the first place, and we got excited about it.”
New album Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action arrives four-and-a-half years after Tonight - the band’s longest ever interval between releases. Refreshed from time apart and hungry to make more music together, Hardy reunited with frontman Alex Kapranos, guitarist Nick McCarthy and drummer Paul Thomson with the strict intention of creating an old-fashioned Franz Ferdinand record. Before a single note was written, Hardy and Kapranos met on Orkney – a cluster of islands situated 10 kilometres off the north-east tip of the Scottish mainland – laying down certain rules that would be strictly adhered to. “We didn’t have an idea of what the completed album was going to be, but we had some strong ideas about how we wanted to make the process or how we wanted to change the process of creating it,” says Kapranos, one of the band’s most prominent songwriters.
That final process would be to revert to the methods used to create their earlier albums, as Hardy explains: “When we first started the band, Alex and I got it together in the first place and we’d sit and talk about what we were going to write about and what the songs would be and, like, a bigger idea of what we were trying to do. That was definitely characterized in the first album. Going into the second album, that was a very fast process – going into that and recording it straight away – but there was some remnants still of, y’know, ‘Oh this song will be about this’, or whatever, to some extent. By the time we finished touring that second album we were so drained and pretty much sick of each other, to be honest, we went into the third album without having any kind of conversation. It was a bit of a drag.”
Tonight may have been a testing experience to create but, critically and commercially, it was no dud. It debuted at number two on the UK Album Chart and received solid write-ups pretty much universally (Billboard described the record as having “plenty of adrenaline, pheromones and stealthy sophistication”). Still, Hardy was determined not to repeat what he considered to be mistakes in its construction. “Basically the biggest thing was not arriving into the studio without songs,” he affirms. “On the third record it was all ass-backwards. We were coming up with, like, ‘Oh that’s a cool sound, let’s make it into a song’, and then the last thing that happened was ‘what’s it going to be about’ which just seemed completely wrong.”
Hardy is unreservedly outspoken about his displeasure with the Tonight sessions, going so far as to describe the band as not being in a great place mentally for making the record. “It was like just something we were doing because we were in band,” he asserts. “This time around it felt like we’d had a break from each other and we kind of remembered why we were in a band in the first place. Why we were friends. It felt like a positive thing. Like we want to make a record because we have something we want to write songs about.”
Reverting to tactics that served the band so well on their earlier recordings gives Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action the feel of a more direct follow-up to sophomore effort You Could Have it So Much Better than to Tonight. In that respect, it’s reminiscent of The Strokes’ 2011 reunion record, Angles,which drew much more from the band’s traditional sound than had their super jacked-up previous album, First Impressions of Earth (Tonight is an infinitely better set than First Impressions, but you know what I’m saying).
“I think it definitely had something to do with it. Yeah, that’s totally at the root with it,” says Kapranos when presented with the theory that the album’s creative course gave it a similar flavour to earlier Franz Ferdinand music. “It’s probably got more in common with the first record in terms of the mood of the band and the way that we performed. It’s funny; I don’t think the last record is particularly more left field than this record because there’s some pretty out there sounds and some kind of odd things. A song like ‘Stand on the Horizon’ – a really weird song. It doesn’t have a conventional song structure. It kind of goes to some pretty off places, but it’s still enjoyable to listen to, whereas I think there were moments on our last record that were probably more difficult than any of our other records. It wasn’t a very friendly record, whereas I think this record – just because we were having a laugh, enjoying ourselves when we were in the room together – it usually makes for a more inviting record. If you’re listening to something and you get the sense that the people who made it were glad to be in that room together, then you kind of want to be in that room with them when you’re listening to it.”
Despite the frustrations of its creation, Kapranos stands by Tonight, believing Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action owes much to the learning curve he underwent back in 2009. “A lot of the experimentation that we did while making that record didn’t actually make it onto the record itself,” he reveals. “I guess that was the period where we really learned what the studio was and what we could do with the studio and how to not approach the studio in a conventional way.”
Titling the album Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action reflects the positivity surrounding the band as they created the record. Scratching around their lyrics sheets as the sessions neared their conclusion, the expression just stood out. “At one point we considered calling it ‘The Universe Expanded’ or ‘Evil Eye’, but Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action kind of jumped out as being [a] very positive statement and quite a reflection of how we were feeling about the album and about the band really,” explains Hardy. “We feel like we’re in quite a good place mentally.”
“It’s funny, like. It’s only at [the final] stage that you properly understand what the mood of the record is,” adds Kapranos. “This time around it did just seem to have this positivity. It felt good to be making this music together. [The title] seemed to sum it up – just going the right way (laughs). We couldn’t express it better. So yeah, it’s a pretty good title.”
“Right thoughts, right words, right action,” began as a lyric taken from lead-off track and first single “Right Action” – a customary Franz Ferdinand stomper. It was a song Kapranos was inspired to write after coming across a postcard that featured what would later become the song’s opening lyrics– “Come home, practically all is nearly forgiven”. The expression inspired him to load the track with phrases commonly penned onto postcards.
“It just captures so much about what a human relationship is because there seems to be forgiveness and suggestion of all these characters,” says Kapranos of the expression. “You didn’t know who it was who was being forgiving or had been forgiven, and of course they hadn’t been completely forgiven. If I had got that postcard saying ‘Come back, practically all is nearly forgiven’, I’m not sure I would’ve wanted to go home. It was evocative. It made you interested in who these people might have been. And I love the tension within it. Yeah, it was like so many relationships that we come across in our lives. And it was cool to then write the [next] verse in the type of language that you would find in a postcard. I love doing that as well – taking the language you would use in one context and put it into the context of a pop song. Bob and I were talking about this as well – using language like ‘weather permitting’. It’s a very British phrase. It’s the kind of shit that people always write on their postcards. And also the brevity of a postcard. I love how concise a postcard message is.”
Spending more time on the song writing led to some of the most focused pieces Kapranos has ever penned, from the unusual to the highly personal. In the case of “The Universe Expanded”, he wryly explored the appeal of time travel to the heartbroken lover. Chatting about the idea with Hardy before transforming the concept into a song, Kapranos conceived a scenario where the universe expands to its furthest point before starting to contract, causing time to move backwards.
“So this great device we used to – somebody will find solace at the catastrophic end of a love affair. They’ll find solace in the idea that one day they would get to live this failed love affair backwards to the point where they meet again for the first time and then suddenly all memory is gone and everything is clear again and you’re back into the void,” explains Kapranos. “It seemed like a powerful and poignant idea. It’s funny – a song like that, you can get so much personal expression across in an abstract idea and that really appealed to us. And at the same time, still trying to retain a sense of humour. Like sticking in lines about taking the dog back to the RSPCA and that sort of thing.”
In contrast to “The Universe Expanded”’s somewhat quirky subject matter, the lyrics of “Stand on the Horizon” rank among the most personal Kapranos has ever written. Much of his childhood was spent in the north-east of England – where his mother’s family is from – and he draws upon local attraction the Marsden Rock as a symbol of his own development. “During the 19th century, the temperance movement [a lobby group that supported the banning of alcohol] used to climb up to the top of it, up these kind of rough steps that were [constructed] out of the rock, and they would stand there, like, sing there, unaccompanied hymns into the howling winds of the north sea,” says Kapranos dramatically. “And it was always this dramatic place. It was always this huge landmark in my life, y’know, this very recognizable landmark.”
In 1996, the Marsden Rock partially collapsed, splitting into two separate stacks. For Kapranos, the permanent damage suffered by a landmark so important to him acted as a metaphor for all the relationships he had forged with people, events or place. “We only really take stock of where we are in our lives when those landmarks are damaged or disappear or are destroyed in some sort of way,” he ponders. “Yeah, I like singing that song because it makes me think about a place that meant so much to me in my life.”
Armed with an impressive new set, the band will spend the rest of the year touring and promoting Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action before perhaps taking a break again – something to which Hardy attributes the longevity of the four friends’ relationship. “That’s what it comes down to – enjoying each other’s company. And having a break from each other between these records.”
While there are no plans to disband, Hardy can foresee a time when Franz Ferdinand comes to a permanent end. And he has no plans on continuing a musical career, joking that, “When Franz Ferdinand ends, I’m going to have my bass made into a coffee table”.
Kapranos, on the other hand, will likely always be a player in the UK indie scene, having already racked up production credits with The Cribs, Citizens! and RM Hubbert outside of his work with Franz Ferdinand. Very much a fulltime musician, when asked if the industry has changed since the group first exploded in 2004, he’s unsurprisingly thoughtful. “I think the primary desire to listen to music is exactly the same as it’s been for thousands of years. Ever since humans first learned how to bang things together to make a note or a rhythm there’s always been a desire to have music in our lives and, just because the container in which it arrives to our ears has possibly changed a little bit, it doesn’t change that desire to have it in our lives.”
Right now, though, after a decade of filling dance floors, the Franz Ferdinand frontman is content to make music that sounds like Franz Ferdinand.
“I was a little disillusioned with what was going on certainly in the UK and around about it,” he says thinking back to his more experimental period. “It felt like there was a certain phase of guitar bands – some good ones, some not so good ones – it felt like the music around us was beginning to become a little predictable. I know that within the band we didn’t want to get caught up in that. We wanted to strike away and do something different. Now I think we’re at a stage where we feel comfortable enough in our own identities just to get in there and do it.”