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Sat August 24, 2013
Music Interviews

Franz Ferdinand's Alex Kapranos On The Importance Of Structure

Originally published on Sun August 25, 2013 9:17 am

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.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

Once again, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. And it's time now for music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE ME OUT")

FRANZ FERDINAND: (Singing) Take me out...

LYDEN: Nine years ago, this song was a huge hit for the Scottish band Franz Ferdinand, and it started a trend. Bands started popping up all over the place with one foot at Studio 54, and the other one at CBGBs - so half dance, half post-punk. While most of those bands are fading away, Franz Ferdinand is back after a four-year layoff with an album called "Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RIGHT ACTION")

LYDEN: Alex Kapranos is the lead singer and guitarist, and he joins us now from our New York studios. Welcome to the program.

ALEX KAPRANOS: Thank you very much.

LYDEN: You know, this is such a fun album. It just had me dancing as I've been listening to it. And for anybody who's loved your music, you've had this energy from the very beginning. Did you have any kind of a mission statement, going into the writing and recording of this album?

KAPRANOS: Well, you know, I'm really glad to hear that it makes you want to dance because that's something we've always wanted to do with the band. And - I don't know - I just like a record to make you feel uplifted, like the blood runs a little bit faster in your veins.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RIGHT ACTION")

FRANZ FERDINAND: (Singing) But how can we leave you to a Saturday night or a Sunday morning...

LYDEN: Your lyrics are always so inventive, and that's true throughout this album. But "Right Action" is actually one of the more straightforward. 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?

KAPRANOS: Yeah, yeah. Sure. It came about when one day I was in Brick Lane market, which is a flea market in London. And quite often in flea markets, you know, you find these estate sales where somebody'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.

LYDEN: Wow.

KAPRANOS: And I loved it. It was so evocative. You thought: Who are these people? Who is being forgiven? And I was thinking, like, 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?

LYDEN: Nearly? (Laughing)

KAPRANOS: It's actually quite qualified. I'm not sure I really want to go back home.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RIGHT ACTION")

FRANZ FERDINAND: (Singing) Come home, practically all is nearly forgiven...

KAPRANOS: And then we thought, all right, we need a chorus - which was going to answer this; like a response to that kind of a verse. And I'd overheard this other expression: Right thoughts, right words, right actions. I thought, 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RIGHT ACTION")

FRANZ FERDINAND: (Singing) Right thoughts, right words, right actions...

LYDEN: One of the things about your band is that you're as creative verbally as you are musically. And I did think that this song also had, you know, some really great kind of funk guitar throwback sound to it.

KAPRANOS: What I love about funk guitar - and a lot of the bands, you know, I love things like The J.B.'s and Funkadelic and, I guess later, like, Talking Heads as well. What they would do is, they would take a song and remove the chords; and everything was reduced to melody and countermelody. And those melodies were rhythmic melodies. And 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. Like, every person in the band is part of the rhythm.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm. Yeah. And another song I just loved on here, "Evil Eye" - "what's the color of the next car"; well, actually, you guys do it a lot better. We'll just listen to a little bit of it here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVIL EYE")

FRANZ FERDINAND: (Singing) Ooh, what's the color of the next car? Yeah, red, you bastard...

LYDEN: I just love: Yeah, red, you bastard...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVIL EYE")

FRANZ FERDINAND: (Singing) Some people get freaked out on me. Some people can't see that I can. Oh, some people wanna see what I see. Some people put an evil eye on me...

LYDEN: This one - I don't know, this one explodes.

KAPRANOS: Oh, cool. I'm really glad. I'm really glad. Yeah, this one - you see, my dad's Greek, and I would go to Greece a lot when I was a kid. And a lot of Greek culture, I feel, is very much part of my heritage. In Greece, my grandmother was obsessed with the evil eye and people putting the evil eye on you in different ways; you would have to ward off the evil eye. And she was also obsessed with predicting the future as well. And she would read the grounds of the coffee cup.

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. And (foreign language spoken)...

(LAUGHTER)

KAPRANOS: And so you could...

LYDEN: But you could never go wrong with that, you know?

KAPRANOS: No, no, no. Of course. And I think those kind of superstitions have stuck with me throughout my life. And even though - like, I have these intellectual ideas where I kind of dismiss the majority of religion or whatever, and think - but I'm still superstitious at heart. And like, I've still got a soft spot for all that sort of thing.

And I was sitting in this cafe; I'm like, yeah, maybe I've got the evil eye. Maybe I can predict the future. And so I was closing my eyes and like, what's the color of the next car? Well, it's going to be red. I'd open my eyes, and a red car went past. I'm like, yes, red, you bastard. And so that's how the song came about.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVIL EYE")

FRANZ FERDINAND: (Singing) No, no, there's no solution. Some people wanna see what I see. Some people got an evil eye on me...

LYDEN: You know, 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. Gosh, you know, don't scare your fans here. You're not going to break up or anything, are you?

KAPRANOS: I don't know. I can't predict the future that well; that wasn't the intention. And this song was written completely independently. But we decided it would be - well, you know, 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." It just seemed like the perfect way to end an album - maybe not a career, just an album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOODBYE LOVERS AND FRIENDS")

KAPRANOS: (Singing) ...anyway, goodbye lovers and friends. So sad to leave you. When they lie and say this is not the end, you can laugh as if we're still together. You can laugh about it all anyway...

LYDEN: Alex Kapranos is the lead singer with Franz Ferdinand. Their new album comes out Tuesday. It's called "Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action." And for a limited time, you can hear the entire album at nprmusic.org. Alex, thanks so much. Congratulations.

KAPRANOS: Thanks very much, Jacki. Cheers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOODBYE LOVERS & FRIENDS")

FRANZ FERDINAND: (Singing) ...to the ones I love. So goodbye...

LYDEN: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes, or on the NPR smartphone app. Click on Programs; scroll down. We are back on the radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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