Leaving Here: Franz Ferdinand’s New Shade
Moving on after the departure of founding member Nick McCarthy, frontman Alex Kapranos explains how his band invented a fresh identity for Always Ascending.
Franz Ferdinand frontman Alex Kapranos has his eyes trained only ahead when it comes to this next stage of his band following the departure of founding guitarist Nick McCarthy.
“You wouldn’t go on a date and talk about your ex the whole time,” Kapranos says straightforwardly. McCarthy is the ex with whom the band—including drummer Paul Thomson and bassist Bob Hardy—had an amicable split. The guitarist had a wife and children at home, and touring turned into a commitment he could no longer make. He went to his bandmates prior to the release of 2015’s FFS (the collaboration with LA art-pop band Sparks) and let them know his plans. That’s why Franz Ferdinand didn’t hit the road much in 2016. The four friends decided not to announce the departure ahead of time, either; why make fans unnecessarily sad at shows?
McCarthy’s departure placed Kapranos, Thomson, and Hardy at a crossroads. Fifteen years, four LPs (five if you count FFS), and ten million records sold into a career that began hot with crossover hit single “Take Me Out,” the three had to make some choices.
Following the FFS tour, the conversation was brief, Kapranos says. McCarthy was out, but “Bob and Paul were both more enthusiastic than ever.” After talking at length about their options—rebranding under a different banner, retiring the band, or continuing on—the three decided they were still driven, and that they had myriad ideas to contribute to the musical landscape in 2018. “If you feel there is something within you that is worth releasing to the world, it’s the right decision to let it out,” Kapranos says.
Thomson and Hardy gathered with Kapranos to record some demos at his home studio in the country, an hour south of Glasgow, where they lived and wrote for several months. Most of the writing took place around a table in the living room, rather than the studio.
They liked where the music was heading but decided they would need an additional guitar player. The search for one quickly turned inward to Glasgow; it would be easier to write and tour together with someone whom they had more in common with culturally. (The Glaswegian sense of humor can be a little dark and possibly terrifying to an outsider, Kapranos explained.) Guitarist Julian Corrie, known professionally as Miaoux Miaoux, came highly recommended by several friends, including Stuart Braithwaite of Mogwai, and Paul Savage and Emma Pollock of the Delgados. Corrie’s third album, School of Velocity, was nominated for the Scottish Album of the Year Award alongside FFS in 2016.
“If you feel there is something within you that is worth releasing to the world, it’s the right decision to let it out.”
“We hit it off straight away over a curry and a few drinks,” Kapranos says. “Julian is the human arpeggiator. Anything you’d program into a sequencer, he can play better.”
It wasn’t until after recording what would become their fifth proper Franz Ferdinand album, Always Ascending, that the band decided to add longtime friend Dino Bardot (of Glasgow trio 1990s) to the mix as well.
One might presume Kapranos would struggle writing without McCarthy, considering that most Franz Ferdinand songs list both of them as songwriters. But Kapranos says that Thomson and Hardy contributed as much as McCarthy did in the past—that McCarthy had an agreement to always split the writing credit, and that he (Kapranos) was the primary songwriter.
“Nick always got a credit, even if he was just in the room when something was written,” he says. “That’s fair enough. I enjoyed writing songs with him. [But] this LP was very collaborative. The four of us did sit around together and write some of those songs.”
Sonically, the band’s goal was to mix in the old while creating new sounds. That began with incorporating Corrie’s strengths in electronic music, which also happens to be the direction this new incarnation of the band is pursuing. While the signature Franz Ferdinand jagged guitars are plentiful, they’re used differently on Always Ascending, sharing the spotlight with disco-rock, experimental electronica, and synths. The band that helped kick-start the garage rock resurgence of the early aughts was completing a pivot in another direction.
“I remember, as a kid, wanting to invent new colors,” Kapranos says. “Then you’re told there is a finite number of colors. They already exist. Then later in life, you discover [French Nouveau réalisme artist] Yves Klein. [He] didn’t invent blue, but created a shade of it that hadn’t been seen before and was unmistakably his personality. That’s what you’re going for with sound. You take what exists and combine it to make a shade the ear hasn’t heard before.”
If Always Ascending is the beginning of a new Franz Ferdinand phase, the title track is the bridge between the new album and the band’s previous most experimentally electronic song, “Lucid Dreams,” off 2009’s Tonight: Franz Ferdinand. Kapranos acknowledges some of the ideas behind the band’s current direction began on that latter album, and continued with “Stand on the Horizon,” from 2013’s Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action. These ideas are explored in more depth on the new album.
“Yves Klein didn’t invent blue, but created a shade of it that hadn’t been seen before. That’s what you’re going for with sound. You take what exists and make a shade the ear hasn’t heard before.”
Take the title track, for example, which also employs a “Shepard tone”—a sound, or tone, that creates an “aural illusion of an M.C. Escher staircase for the ear.” The song creates the appearance of continually rising in octaves.
“Always and always and always ascending / The opening line leaves an uncertain ending,” Kapranos sings. “Always and always and always ascending / The Shepard misleads so you think you’re transcending.” He clarifies: “Creatively, that’s what you want to be aiming for; to be always ascending.”
There are other experiments, like the unsteady 5/4 beat on “Lazy Boy,” which adds an extra step that’s bound to confuse some dancers, the funk on “Paper Cages,” the New Romantic synths on “Lois Lane,” the disco on “Glimpse of Love,” and the house beats on “Feel the Love Go.”
Lyrically, the band also stepped out of its comfort zone by working together, creating characters with backstories—as if they were going to build a short story. “[On ‘Lois Lane’] we wanted to write in the way you would if creating a screenplay or a novel: inventing characters with a full backstory and personalities, then giving a glimpse of a sliver of their lives through a song,” Kapranos says. “In this case she’s an optimist who believes journalism can change the world. Not a Pollyanna, but a positive realist. She’s a cynic [and] believes the motivation of altruism is selfishness, driven by the desire for the pleasure of the reward.”
But not all of the tracks require that much dissection. Kapranos wrote “Lazy Boy” about lying in his girlfriend’s bed and enjoying being lazy. “Lying in your bed / Thinking of how a lazy boy loves you,” Kapranos sings. “Am I gonna get up? / Am I gonna get up? / Never!”
After Kapranos, Hardy, Thomson, and Corrie were done writing, they sought out Philippe Zdar, of the duo Cassius, to produce. Kapranos had been a fan of Cassius since 1999, but didn’t meet the producer (known for work with Phoenix, Pharrell, Cat Power, and Beastie Boys) until 2013, when Franz Ferdinand was working on Right Thoughts. The two hit it off and agreed to work together some day. When it became clear that Always Ascending would be a dance record of sorts, Kapranos turned to Zdar.
The album was recorded in just six days at RAK Studios in London and finished at Zdar’s studio in Paris. All of the songs were performed completely live, without any programming, despite the heavy electronic presence on the record.
“I like a lot of programmed music,” Kapranos says. “What I find boring is what Philippe and I refer to as ‘Pro-Tools Rock,’ where you don’t hear the sound of a band playing. You hear the clicks of an engineer’s mouse. Every note is tidied and put into the ‘correct’ place.”
He ramps up here: “It is anodyne. Bland. I hate that shit. It sounds like a bad Photoshop touch-up job. Backstreet Botox of your musical personality. Fuck that.” FL