Leonard Cohen In A Dancefloor Banger: Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos On ‘Always Ascending’

Written by Riley Fitzgerald on March 1, 2018

The Strokes and The White Stripes may have kickstarted rock’s revival, but it was Franz Ferdinand who took it to the dancefloor. More than a decade later, it’s where they’ve stayed. As for their fifth and most recent album? Explaining the record in a fast-moving but mercifully decipherable Scottish accent, Alex Kapranos cases it like this: It’s a record striving to capture the dark beauty of a Leonard Cohen lyric and hurl it headlong into a floor-filling banger.

Dance music with a raging rock ‘n’ roll heart, Always Ascending is proving the group’s resilience if not restating the mission entirely. Continuing to sell for what they’re good for, these icons of indie dance have delivered one of their most consistent albums to date. As much as those counting the years since ‘Take Me Out’ would be pained to admit it, this band’s instincts remain unfettered. They still got it.

Music Feeds: Let’s go back, just for a second, to 2004. I remember listening to your second single ‘Take Me Out’ when I was 15. It absolutely blew my mind. At that point in time, it was probably the most exciting piece of music I had ever heard. Why do you think that song has resonated the way it has?

Franz Ferdinand: Oh gosh! [Laughs] It’s odd! It doesn’t really sound like anything else! Maybe that’s it. It does things that songs aren’t supposed to do, like all of the verses are I the first 60 seconds then it slows down, and then all the choruses are shoved together with a weird riff. I think that’s why it’s appealing, but I don’t know! Something like that. It’s wonky! It’s a really wonky song. That’s why I like it, I don’t know why any other people like it. I still like it because it’s unconventional and weird while also being super catchy. That’s why I’ve still got time for it.

MF: Jumping forward a few years to the new album. You recorded with Phillipe Zdar who is best known for his work with Phoenix and also as part of Cassius. What brought you together? Were you looking to bring in an element of that French electro sound into your own music when you were working with him?

AK: Sure. Well, let’s just go back to where we started. We started to write these songs for this album purely as songs. I was sort of following the model of those songbooks I used to get when I was a kid. Those books you’d get for specific bands, you know?

When I was a kid and learning how to play I’d get The Smiths’ Greatest Hits or The Beatles’ or whatever. In these books they just existed purely as songs and there was something I loved about that purity of ‘just the song’ and it’s up to you how you wanted to play them. When we wrote the songs for this album we weren’t thinking at all about the sound, it was only when we had a bunch of these songs together that we started thinking, “Right! How are we going to deliver them?”

Again, it’s very appealing to me this idea that you can create a song that’s good enough to be performed however you want. A good song you can play as a country song or a lounge jazz song or a heavy rock song or an electro song – whatever you want. It’s just a good song.

And so, when we started getting it more together we realised that we still loved the dancefloor, when we got together as a band we wanted to take people onto the dancefloor in a way that they hadn’t been before. For this record, we thought, “Well yeah! Let’s get back on the dancefloor again, but let’s look for another path this time. Let’s get on the dancefloor and take a different route there.” We wanted people to know it was still Franz Ferdinand, but have the group doing it in a different way. But you’re right! Back to Phillipe. I loved Phillipe’s production. I love the sound of those Cassius records, those Beastie Boys records that he made, and the Phoenix stuff.

But particularly the Cassius stuff. The sound of his production, you can tell that he’s a DJ. You can tell he’s come from that French house scene – those guys are really close and they kind of evolved a sound and a scene of their own. But what else I love about his production is how forward-looking it is. He’s not scared of the past, but he’s always trying to push his sound forward. It always sounds fresh and beyond contemporary to me, which was something we wanted to do with this record. We wanted to make something that sounded like a future, not something of our present or our past or anybody else’s. Phillipe seemed to be the guy who would take us there.

Another thing I like about his production – his whole attitude, his personality and, his character – is that he appreciates instinct. And rawness. What makes a raw rock ‘n’ roll band good! When we started recording he told us, “We’re not doing anything on a click track, there’s going to be nothing on a grid.” For him, his holy grail was this idea of a band performing with all the slip and pull and emotional movement that you have with a band performing but doing it with the aesthetics and dynamics and power of house music I suppose. He really, really brought that together.

The other thing is, I got on with him so fucking well! He’s a good laugh and we hit it off. If you want to make a piece of work with somebody you want to enjoy it. I had a total blast man! He’s a great bloke, a really good friend. It was really wild making this record and I have very good memories of it. I think you can hear it when you listen to the record. It sounds wild to me.

MF: The title track ‘Always Ascending’ leaps out as this big energetic burst. What was running through your mind when you were writing it and then taking it in and recording it?

AK: Well, it went through these two different stages that song. The first part, I wrote the beginning section first, the chord progression at the beginning and the lyric at the beginning. The idea that this piece of music that was literally always ascending. And that’s where the lyrical concept comes from, it comes from this musical-theoretical concept of a chord progression that never resolves, it feels like it’s continually rising.

Originally the idea was that the whole piece was just never going to resolve, remain completely unresolved. One of the things I love about making rules is breaking them! So at the end of the introduction, it completely breaks the principle it was written for. It resolves on this MASSIVE C major chord – that’s the bit where it says, ‘Let go’. [Singing the lyric] “Let goooooo.”

And when it gets to there it’s what you find in classical music, it’s the resolution back to the root major. It’s the holy resolution, it’s like, you know, in classical music where there’s the [singing] “Ahhhhhhhhhhhs” and then the “Erhhhhhhs” and it’s as if you’ve finally reached heaven? You’ve reached the other side! That’s what that piece of music was supposed to be. It was supposed to be this journey of getting through to the other side.

We wrote that and left it hanging. All it was was that. It ended and then there was just a kick drum continuing from that point on. There was nothing but that kick drum. I remember saying to the guys, “From this point on. It’s going to a fucking, massive banger!” It was going to be the biggest banger, ever! It was just going to be such an amazing, uplifting and beautiful but also dark and simultaneously a bit of dance music. So we made that hit and then it was terrifying! We were like, “How are we going to write that!?”

We didn’t actually come back to it for like two or three months. We went away and wrote some other songs and eventually came back to it. The rest of the song was written using this principle that we used on a few of the songs on this record actually, which was that the writing for this part of the song was written using a sequencer. So all the bits, the riffs – the “de de de de de de de de de de de de de de de de de” and all the “ding ding ding cha ding ding deka deka” – all that sort of stuff programmed into a sequencer as you would do if you were writing a piece of techno, a bit or house music, a bit or electro or something like that. And then we took it away and learnt how to play it on our instruments.

We were writing as if we were making a piece of electronic music and then learning how to play it with the band. We took the electronic dance music world and put it into our world. By that point, Julian [Corrie] had joined the band and he’s like a human
arpeggiator anyway. He can play all those parts you would normally program into a sequencer or a synthesiser.

But yeah! It’s just that idea of always ascending or elevating. Coming into that feeling of constantly moving upwards, kind of in a slightly unsettling way as well! Like you know sometimes how a plan goes over a slight bit of turbulence. It felt a bit like that.

MF: Always is very euphoric, it does have that sort of dance element. But it has these dark threads snaking though it as well! Which is a little bit of a recurring theme in all of Franz Ferdinand’s records. How would you characterise the album?

AK: I think all of our records have got dark sides to them. On this record a song like ‘Lois Lane’ for example, it certainly has a dark side to it but there’s humour in it. The coda of ‘Lois Lane’ probably sums up the attitude of the record quite well, this idea of a purgatory of an eternal over ’30s singles night, that you’re damned to. “It’s bleak it’s bleak it’s bleak, see you next week,” at the nightclub.

It is bleak, it’s really, really fuckin’ bleak! But it’s the kind of thing that I find funny, it amuses me while being extremely bleak. So maybe that’s the key to it. There’s humour and darkness in there simultaneously. Songs like ‘Huck and Kim’ are definitely like that too. There’s some pretty shocking, bleak stuff in there but also the idea of going to America to sip ‘40s with Huck and Jim while telling them about the NHS [the U.K.’s National Health Service]. It’s bleak, it’s bleak!

Again I like the idea of writing a song as if you were writing something that would be taken seriously as a piece of music that a certain songwriter would write, that is just purely on its own as a song and then take it from that context and put it onto the
dancefloor. I want the song to have the depth like my favourite artist, someone like Leonard Cohen, I want that kind of depth in a song. But I want it to have the dancefloor impact of [Grandmaster Flashes’] ‘White Lines (Don’t Do It)’ or something like that!

MF: Tell me about ‘Huck And Jim’. It does reference the NHS, is there an element of protest to that or is that more of a throwaway statement?

AK: It’s not a throwaway statement but I wouldn’t say it’s overt protest either. I feel a protest song is a song where the lyrics are… directly speaking to you and saying, “This situation is wrong. You need to do something to change it.” Whereas I would say our lyrics are more like being, “There’s a situation over there! Have a look at it and make your own mind up what to do.”

MF: ‘The Academy Award’ is a bold leap into acoustic and almost balladeering territory. It’s not your typical turn. Were you worried how it might be received?

AK: It just felt like the most natural way to perform that song. That song was the only one that Phillipe and I kind of had different views on. I’d written this huge orchestration for it, it was a really orchestrated song with string sections and nearly a whole orchestra. When I played it Phillipe was like, “I love this song, but man lose all this shit!” He was right! And by taking it down, taking it to a much subtler path, it was really powerful. I wanted the verses to be barely there. I wanted to chorus to have this whole Hollywood bombast thing. But Phillipe in his wisest of judgement reigned it in a bit and I think the song is much more powerful as a result of that.

As for it being different from the rest? I think it’s good! It gives the album a dynamic reach. I don’t want a record to be full-on bangers all the way because it’s just exhausting and there’s not three-dimensional nature to it then. You’ve got to come down a bit before coming up again.

And that’s another good thing about working with Phillipe. He’s a DJ. He really knows how to build stuff up and take it down and build it up again.

MF: With guitarist Nick McCarthy taking a break, Dino [Bardot] has stepped into the role of guitarist and you’ve also brought Julian on keys. What have the pair brought into the group dynamic?

AK: I love it at the moment! They’re both really lovely guys for starters. Great guys to hang out with. I’m having a total laugh on tour, I’m having such a great time on the road. The gigs are all really really good fun. Dino and Julian are quite different personalities. Julian is definitely of the eccentric professor mould. He’s a total musical genius, a real virtuoso player. He has a great optimism and energy about him.

With Dino, it’s like the classic Keith Richards, but 50 years later! He’s just the most classic rock star you could ever come across. Such different personalities, such different characters. Great to have them in the band. Really, really enjoying their

MF: Australia loves Franz Ferdinand. Do you have any plans on coming back Down Under that you can share with us?

AK: We do have plans to come back over. They haven’t been confirmed yet, so I can’t share them with you just now but all I can say is, soon! [Laughs] I don’t think it’s been announced yet! Have you heard anything?

MF: It’s been pretty quiet on that front.

AK: Right OK. There is something definitely happening. All I can say is that it’s really exciting, we can’t wait to do it! But I don’t think I can announce it yet I’m sorry, I know that’s really lame. But yeah! It’s been ages and we didn’t manage to get over with Right Thoughts, Right Words which was such a disappointment. I can’t wait to get back over, it’s going to be a particularly special visit this time. It’s going to be definitely one to remember.

‘Always Ascending’ is out now.

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