Franz Ferdinand's Alex Kapranos On The Importance Of Structure
Franz Ferdinand's 2004 debut accomplished two things: a concise introduction to the band in the form of a worldwide hit single, as well as a firm declaration that the angular guitars of post-punk and the stomping rhythms of disco could be natural bedfellows. Nine years after "Take Me Out," the Glasgow group is set to release its fourth album, Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action.
Lead singer and guitarist Alex Kapranos recently spoke with NPR's Jacki Lyden about writing in cafés, the cryptic note that inspired the new album's title, and why he's leery of going into the studio underprepared. Hear the radio version at the audio link and read more of their conversation below.
Did you have a specific mission statement going into the writing and recording of this album?
We decided that we almost wanted to write a songbook — like a collection of songs that were distinct and that would have come from distinct ideas. So we would start off with a really strong idea, then say, "OK, how do we express that with the music? And OK, now we've worked that out, how are we going to perform it?" And then take that performance and put it into the studio. I know that probably sounds like a really obvious way of recording, but it's often forgotten by bands, particularly when they're further into their career. You can get a bit dogged down in the studio approach: sitting around, too much jamming. Too much jamming kills the band.
Your lyrics are always so inventive, and that's true throughout this album. But "Right Action" is actually one of the more straightforward ones: You say, "Come home, practically all is nearly forgiven / Right thoughts, right words, right action." Can you tell me just a little bit about the genesis of this one, since it is the title track?
It came about when, one day, I was in Brick Lane market, which is a flea market in London, and I went to this stall. Quite often in flea markets, you find these estate sales where someone's belongings are sold off after they die. And there was a collection of postcards, and these postcards were all blank apart from this one solitary postcard with this message on it. And in the message field it said those words you said: "Come home, practically all is nearly forgiven." And I loved it. It was so evocative. You thought, "Who are these people? Who is being forgiven? If that was me, would I really want to go home?" Because it seems really welcoming at first — but then you kind of think, well, "Practically all"? "Nearly forgiven"? It's actually quite qualified.
And so I went around to Nick, our other guitarist's flat, and we were trying to work out how to express those mixed emotions. So we tried changing the key between minor and major in this kind of random, unpredictable way. And we thought, "All right, we need a chorus which is going to answer this — like a response to that kind of verse. And I'd overheard this other expression, "Right thoughts, right words, right actions." I thought, "Oh, that's a great response!" It's not an answer; it's a response, which you can maybe come up with your own answers for.
This song also has some really great funk guitar throwback sound to it.
I love things like The J.B.'s and Funkadelic and, I guess, later [examples] like Talking Heads, as well. What they would do is take a song and remove the chords, and everything was reduced to melody and counter-melody. And those melodies were rhythmic melodies. People often ask me and Nick, "So who plays lead and who plays rhythm guitar?" And the answer is neither of us; we play rhythmic melody. That's the way I've always approached it. And I think we always see ourselves as a dance band as much as a rock 'n' roll band, and I think that's probably at the core of it. Every person in the band is part of the rhythm.
And another song I loved was "Evil Eye." This one just explodes.
My dad's Greek, and I would go to Greece a lot when I was a kid; a lot of Greek culture, I feel, is very much a part of my heritage. And in Greece, my grandmother was obsessed with the evil eye and people putting the evil eye on you and different ways you would have to ward off the evil eye. She was also obsessed with predicting the future: She would read the grounds of the coffee cup — so when you drink Greek coffee, like Turkish coffee, you're left with the grounds in the bottom. I would look in and I'd maybe see some squiggles, and with a bit of a push I could maybe imagine seeing some mountains and rivers. But she would just see death and destruction and calamity. I think those kinds of superstitions have stuck with me throughout my life. Even though like I have these intellectual ideas, where I kind of dismiss the majority of religion or whatever ... I've still got a soft spot for all that sort of thing.
When we were writing the record, I'd go around to Nick's studio in London — he's got this little place called Sausage Studios — and there was a café around the corner. And I would sit in the café and whatever thoughts were running through my head that day, I'd be writing them down. ... I was sitting in this café and I was like, "Maybe I've got the evil eye. Maybe I can predict the future." I was closing my eyes and thinking, "What's the color of the next car? It's gonna be red!" And I'd open my eyes and a red car went past and I went, "Yes, red, ya bastard!" And so that's how the song came about.
Do you sketch those ideas out and then add in the music? How does that work?
It's been different for different records, but this is probably a good example of what I was talking about earlier, where [the idea comes first]. It's like, I want to write a song about the evil eye and superstition and these superstitious urges that we have. ... I usually write sheets and sheets of lyrics — not lyrics, but more kind of long-form prose, and then that would be reduced to the lyrics. And then when, you start working on the music, the music influences the rhythm of the words. It's best when it's symbiotic: One affects the other, and you end up with a whole that's interdependent.
Glasgow seems like it's just bursting with creative people right now.
It is, and I think it's disproportionally good at producing musicians. What I love about Glasgow is that the bands that tend to come out of there, while they might have a similar attitude to making their music, they're quite, you know, sort of contrarian and cantankerous and do their own thing. None of them sound like each other; there isn't a Glasgow sound in the way that you maybe have a Liverpool sound or a Manchester sound. So I think of bands from the past like Alex Harvey or Belle & Sebastian or Mogwai, or contemporary bands like Chvrches — they don't really sound anything like each other at all.
Your album ends on this ominous note with the lyrics, "Goodbye lovers and friends / You can laugh as if we're still together / But this really is the end." Should your fans be worried about an impending breakup?
[Laughs.] I don't know; I can't predict the future that well. ... When we were deciding on the running order of the album — it's one of my favorite bits, you know, the bit at the end where you've got this collection of songs. It's like making a compilation for somebody. And so the album opens up with the words, "Come home, practically all is nearly forgiven," and it ends with the words, "But this really is the end." And it just seemed like the perfect way to end an album — maybe not a career, just an album.
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