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Start a rock band and rule the world. It’s an ambition at the heart of music in the 21st Century and it’s a reality for which many aim but few have seen. Among those few are Alex Kapranos, lead singer and guitarist of Glasgow rock band Franz Ferdinand, whose ubiquitous 2004 single ‘Take Me Out’ launched the band into the stratosphere, pushing their debut self-titled album to No. 3 on the UK charts, No. 32 in America, and No. 12 in Australia. Then came the awards, the Mercury Music Prize, the Ivor Novello Award, two BRIT Awards and…well, what does it really matter?
“I just think of it as another song we wrote,” says Kapranos when asked about the effect “Take Me Out” had on his career. “I’m very happy that it allowed me to buy everything that is in my studio, but beyond that, it’s just a song.” It’s a pragmatic response that is not so surprising when fitted into the front man’s apparent high ambitions.
He explains, “I reckon that with a band, you should aspire to be a similar pivotal point [as the assassination of their namesake, Franz Ferdinand] – that before your band, things were never quite the same as they were after them. I’m not talking about a wider global context, necessarily, but what’s around you. I don’t know if we got there, that’s not for us to decide, but it’s a pretty good aspiration to have.”
Kapranos, successful in his own eyes or not, has crossed an undeniable line of exposure. So we spoke with him on the build-up to Franz Ferdinand’s upcoming album, Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action (Domino Records) to learn how to piece together a record when everyone is watching…without getting twisted.
Lesson one for Franz? Don’t talk about it.
Until now, the band has been relatively mum on the build-up to this new release, wanting to avoid the pitfalls of the PR hype machine that they felt weighed down their previous effort, Tonight: Franz Ferdinand. Or in Kapranos’ succinct words, it was “tainted by bullshit.” So they began small in February of 2010 with a brief mention that the band had begun working on a new album. Since then, previews of the upcoming material were trickled out only in direct-to-fan transmissions at live shows. It wasn’t until the official album announcement three years later that the band opened the door to the media, and began discussing the direction of their new record. Perhaps ironically, or perhaps fittingly, their few words were almost immediately misconstrued.
“It’s always a form of Chinese whispers where a quote gets taken out of context to undermine its original meaning,” laments Kapranos on the results of a recent interview that has since become the foundation to the entry for Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action on Franz Ferdinand’s Wikipedia page. “I used an Alasdair Gray novel as an example of emotional vulnerability that I appreciated. Then it became misquoted as if we had written an album inspired by the bookЕeach song is about something different from varied sources of inspiration. There wasn’t a unifying concept that the songs were written to, but a couple of themes do appear across the LP, such as the desire for spiritual answers in a secular age or emotional paradoxes.”
When asked about the album title, Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action, an apparent allusion to the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path, Kapranos says, “Yes, it is [a nod to the Eightfold Path]. In the context of the song ‘Right Action,’ it felt like a good response to the emotional dissonance of the verses. I am not a Buddhist myself, and none of the band are, but what I love about the expression is that it is not an answer, but something that provokes you into working out what the answers may be yourself. There’s an underlying quiet positivity in those words that seemed to sum up the mood of the LP quite well.”
Kapranos: “As for the music, there were a couple of simple principles. We wanted it to sound like Franz Ferdinand, but new simultaneously. We have a strong personality as a band and I feel that’s something to be embraced. That personality comes from the way we play together as four individuals in a room together, so we recorded all the songs live in the studio and no ‘correction’ in Pro Tools. By live, I mean that there was no construction of songs where the drums go down first, then the bass, then the guitars, etc – it’s the sound of us together and all of the irregularities you find there. To me it’s the difference between a photograph and an image that has been touched up in Photoshop. The latter looks perfect, but bland – the opposite of what music should be. The other principle was the order in which we approached the writing: ideas-songs-performance-recording. I know that probably sounds obvious, but it’s not the way we made the last LP, which came about through the assembling of fragmented melodic and rhythmic ideas, then the overlaying of a lyric at the end. Same elements, different order: makes for a very different result.”
The result for Franz Ferdinand is a record stuffed with their distinct, slinky, brutish grooves and brushed with their signature hooks, elegant and undeniable in their simplicity. The musical arc of the record touches on a broad range of influences beyond the already expansive sonic quilt of their Glasgow rock forbearers. The stand out track is “Evil Eye,” the likely-to-be follow up single to the current anthemic lead, “Right Action,” features a bouncy yet brutal beat, pumping a groove with an oddball spookiness reminiscent of “Thriller.”
Choosing a single stand-out is, of course, a challenge for Kapranos, as he admits, “I like ‘Evil Eye’ for its bold pop oddness, but it’s maybe some of the more emotional songs that mean more to me, like ‘Stand On The Horizon,’ ‘Fresh Strawberries’ or ‘The Universe Expanded.’ Why? It’s just the way they make me feel. Ach, it changes every time I hear it back.”
Another defining component of Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action for Franz Ferdinand is the amount of collaboration on the record.
When asked how they went about choosing their co-conspirators, Kapranos gives us what is perhaps lesson three in making an album when everyone is watching: Collaborate.
“[We chose] people who we felt were our peers, but approaching what they made in a different way from us. Alexis and Joe of Hot Chip and Terje are coming from the electronic world, while Bjorn has that pure Scandinavian sense of pop,” explains Kapranos. “But all of them, including Mark Ralph the engineer, were people we wanted to hang out with and spend time with. All of them make music that has a distinctly human quality to it. There’s that irregularity and soul that I was talking about earlier. We have a pretty good idea of what we like sonically, but it was cool to go in some different directions in places, like the end of ‘Stand On The Horizon,’ which we worked on with Terje. It enters this lush pastoral disco world that sounds like neither of us and both of us simultaneously which, to me, is the point of a collaboration.”
With Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action out now, Franz Ferdinand will be embarking on a worldwide to support the release.
NORTH ARMERICAN FALL DATES
Song craft aside, we wanted to know what Kapranos feels about music today from his perspective in the rarified air of International Notoriety. So we asked him a simple question: What needs to change to in the music industry today and what needs to be celebrated? His answer, untainted and in its original context:
“Celebrate the music, not the container it arrives in. What needs to change? If you could remove avarice, greed and cocaine, the music industry would be a much better place. We are now in an age where people don’t expect to pay for recorded music. There is a sense of entitlement in the consumer: ‘I can have it for free, so I will.’ Well, the result is that payment is made in different ways, notably through corporate sponsorship. I see banners for baseball boots, soft drinks and shitty whisky in places I’d never have seen them fifteen years ago. It wasn’t my choice, but I make no judgment. It’s just the way it now is.”
photos by Andy Knowles