Always Ascending may be the fifth album from Alex Kapranos and Co, but as he and Bob Hardy tell Fiona Shepherd, they feel like a new band these days thanks to the creative possibilities opened up by two new recruits
Alex Kapranos and Bob Hardy, respectively frontman and bassist in Franz Ferdinand, are reflecting on what they were looking for when recruiting new members for the first time in their 15 years as Scotland’s most genius pop band.
“Someone Glasgow-based who has made music and has their own ideas and confidence,” offers Hardy.
“Fresh, adventurous, good sense of humour, cat lover…,” says Kapranos, only half-joking.
The catalyst for this change of line-up was the departure in 2016 of founding guitarist Nick McCarthy, a huge presence in the band, to concentrate on family life and other musical projects, including his wife Manuela’s eponymous outfit. But when Kapranos began soliciting recommendations from musical peers such as Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite and former Delgados Emma Pollock and Paul Savage, the same name kept coming up – Julian Corrie. A veritable one-man band who has already recorded a couple of synth pop albums in his solo guise as Miaoux Miaoux, he ticked all their dating requirements, as well as bringing the keyboard skills the band were looking to develop and unlocking unexpected vocal possibilities.
“He can hit those high, pure falsetto notes and so it’s allowed me to go into the deeper end of my range and have the contrast between the two,” says Kapranos. “And since Dino’s joined us, we’re now doing four-piece harmony parts – in the rehearsal room yesterday, it sounded like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.”
Dino is their new guitarist Dino Bardot, formerly of indie pop trio 1990s, completing a revved-up five-piece line-up who announce their arrival with Always Ascending, an album instantly recognisable as Franz Ferdinand, thanks to its irresistible hooks and grooves and lyrical quirks, but with the expanded arrangement palette brought by Corrie (Bardot joined after work on Always Ascending was complete but will be on the next album, which Kapranos reckons “will not be so long in the future”).
“Rather than working on the fifth album, it felt like the early days of a band, like something new,” says Hardy who notes that, much like their breakthrough self-titled debut album, Always Ascending was written at leisure, rehearsed intensively and then captured in a six days of studio time. “It felt light, in the moment, like you were having a party in the studio and recording as you go along.”
Helping to facilitate that geared-up party atmosphere was the album’s Parisian producer Philippe Zdar, best known for his work in crossover dance band Cassius. “We bonded over this desire to make dance music as a live band,” says Kapranos. “When you listen to music that’s coming from that programmed world, it covers frequencies that are wider than a rock band are capable of playing. We wanted to go to that world but keep it raw and keep it live.”
Zdar used tracks from Kapranos’s B-52s and Violent Femmes albums with their unfettered, accidentally accelerating tempos as examples of how a live band cannot be tamed.
“It’s the kind of thing we’ve been trying to correct for the last 20 years, but that’s the s*** we should be embracing,” says Kapranos. “You can’t programme that excitement into a track, you can only get that from people playing in the room. It’s very reassuring to have a producer that appreciates that side of a band performance because so many records you hear nowadays, you’re not hearing a band playing, you’re hearing an engineer’s mouse putting those notes in to the “correct” place.
“And I guess with Nick leaving, there were no rules as to what Franz Ferdinand had to be. Of course the atmosphere is different – we played with Nick for ten years, so it was good to start a new decade and feel we’ve still got the identity of the band but doing something new.”
Sandwiched between these two eras of Franz Ferdinand were a couple of years recording and playing with their musical heroes Sparks as FFS, a mutual appreciation society of smart art pop practitioners, which provided a bridge between the old and new line-ups of the band. The positives of that collaboration have rubbed off on both acts – Sparks scored their first major label deal in decades, released Hippopotamus, their first top ten album in more than 40 years, and the Mael brothers headed out on tour backed by younger musicians from another respected indie band, Mini Mansions.
Franz Ferdinand, meanwhile, were able to approach their first ever change of personnel with a confidence boost, while the influence of Ron Mael’s idiosyncratic approach to songwriting can be heard on the likes of The Academy Award, Lois Lane and Huck & Jim, where familiar cultural references are deployed in quirky, imaginative ways. The latter is a classic time signature-shifting Franz stomper with the hookline “we’re going to America, we’re going to tell them about the NHS”. The band have already been to America to perform said song to favourable reaction, but stopped short of their proposed wheeze to make up badges saying “Franz Ferdinand tell me about the NHS”.
Until 2016, Franz Ferdinand had never written an openly political song but their non-album track, Demagogue – itself an ideological descendant of the FFS number Dictator’s Son – was written and recorded for writer Dave Eggers’ 30 Days, 30 Songs anti-Trump project – which went on to become the 1000 Days, 1000 Songs project, rather bolstering Marilyn Manson’s thesis that repressive regimes are ultimately fertile ground for artistic kickback.
Always Ascending is a largely upbeat electronic pop/rock collection but a number of the songs have a party’s-over darkness to the lyrics, which evoke rather than directly reference the turbulent political times.
However, drummer Paul Thomson quite deliberately wore a t-shirt bearing the NHS logo for the band’s recent appearance on The Andrew Marr Show when they learned that Theresa May was to be featured on the same edition. Sadly, her interview was taped so they were deprived of the opportunity to play to the Prime Minister on the studio couch. “We were a little frustrated she wasn’t going to be on live,” says Kapranos. “There were alternate lyrics that were possibly going to happen….”
Always Ascending is released by Domino Records on 9 February. Franz Ferdinand play the Academy, Glasgow on 17 February, franzferdinand.com