Scottish indie dance-rockers Franz Ferdinand have recently gone through some internal changes since their last record, but they’re back with a new lease on life with their new album Always Ascending, released today via Domino Records.
Last month I had the honor of meeting up with the band’s Alex Kapranos (vocals and guitar) and Paul Thomson (drums and vocals) at Domino Records in Brooklyn to discuss the new album, their new look and just how they’re kept being so damn cool after all these years. And bassist Bob Hardy even popped in to join the portrait following the talk. This was as engaging and entertaining of a chat that I’ve had with any band in my short time doing interviews and I am excited to share our conversation with you guys below.
Will: You guys are playing Fallon tomorrow night. After all these years do late night TV appearances still excite you?
Alex: Oh, yes. It’s a treat and a real compliment to be asked to do those things, especially someone like Fallon, where the bands that are on that show usually are pretty great. So to be included in that is really good.,
Paul: His music selection is above the other ones we think, and yeah it’s nice to be asked and to be thought of in those terms.
W: How is your relationship with America? You guys are a rare case of a foreign band who broke through America almost instantly.
A: Yeah, we came over to America very early on. I remember coming over and playing in 2003, way before the first album came out and there was the ban on dancing in clubs and bars. For a band that wanted to make dance music, that was a little perplexing. But we’ve loved it here it’s been great. In fact, the first tour we did last year with the new lineup of the band was here in the States. It’s been cool.
W: A lot has changed here in recent years you could say, the last year or so in particular.
A: It’s funny, after the election I thought I would be dreading coming to America because it would be completely changed and unrecognizable but of course that isn’t the case. It’s still exactly the same, people just got a different topic of conversation and fear.
P: I think our agent came back to us the day after the election and said your first show back is in Alabama (laughter).
A: That show was great, everybody there was cool. Of course, America has changed and it is terrifying whats happening.
P: Our favorite show that tour was in Charlottesville.
A: But it was three weeks before all of that kicked off down there.
P: I remember watching the TV and going: “Oh, there’s that venue we were playing.”
A: “Oh there’s a picture of Neo-Nazis walking by that one shop we stopped in..” Yeah, very strange.
W: But it’s not just us here, there’s also the Brexit.
A: Yeah it’s true. British politics are pretty depressing, it’s been pretty depressing for us. Every election feels like the results go the wrong way. Everything from the Scottish Referendum, to Brexit, to our general election, to your election.
P: Brexit now has become this weird cult, you can’t reason with anybody.
W: Sounds just like right here as well.
A: What I particularly hate about it is the divisiveness, the “us vs them,” aspect of it. Because, even 10 years ago, you felt there was a point that even if you disagreed with someone on a particular level, you could still get on with them. You could still converse with them, or socialize with them. Now it feels like that has become less and less possible and I do not like that at all. It makes me very uncomfortable.
W: Well lets shift gears a little. After Nick (McCarthy) left the band, did you guys have a moment of wondering if you should continue on?
A: Very Short
P: About 30 seconds. It’s like shall we continue? You go first! (laughter)
A: I guess we did sort of all meetup and talk about it, the three of us that remained here, and we asked each other if we were up for it. But you have to ask, I think that’s the important thing. And it does have an impact on the way you approach things too because it does make you reassess why you’re doing it and how you’re going to do it in the near future.
P: Nick came to the decision (to leave) on his own and made it very clear and put it out there in the open before we made another record.
W: How long was he feeling this way?
A: We announced it about around this time last year, but we talked about it with Nick probably about this time the year before, about two years ago. It was when we went on tour with FFS, just before the FFS tour started. But we knew for a while before because he’s got young kids and he just wasn’t enjoying going away. There were aspects of the rock and roll lifestyle that he did still enjoy on tour but I think he found it very heartbreaking to be away from his kids.
W: Totally understandable.
A: Yeah, of course, it is.
P: Especially at that age as well, it’s easier when they’re older.
A: (speaking to Paul) It was different for us, when your kids were younger we had more of a period back at home. I think he was away for a different part of it with his kids and I think it didn’t have a great impact on him or his relationship with his wife. I can understand him wanting to keep his marriage together.
W: You guys have since brought in two new members (Julian Corrie and Dino Bardot), how did they impact the recording of Always Ascending?
A: Dino started playing with us after we recorded the record, Julian joined August of last year. So we had written a bunch of songs and then Julien joined, but we didn’t really exist as a band until Julien joined. So it was so exciting the first time we played together in a room, you just know when something is good, you can just feel it. He’s a great player, an absolutely incredible player. I guess with Julien joining, he allowed us to actualize some ambitions that we had. You know, this idea of playing dance music live as a band. We call him the “Human Arpeggiator.” You know the parts that you program into a sequencer, we just program them into Julien instead and he plays them as a human being, rather than a machine.
P: We only have to do it once.
A: (laughter) It’s totally true he’s amazing.
W: This was a fresh start for you guys in many ways. Did this clean slate make it more exciting or more nerve-racking for you?
A: It didn’t feel nerve-racking at all. It was definitely very exciting and invigorating. I think if we had been unsure of the songs it probably would have been a little nerve-racking, but the songs felt good and so did the performances.
W: How did your time spent recording and touring with Sparks as FFS impact how you approached this album and the record making process as a whole?
P: The way we had to make that record was quick because of the distance involved and the cost and all that. So we went to RAK Studios in London and tracked it all in two weeks. So with this record, we went back to RAK again just because we enjoyed the experience of working there, the enginers are great there, the location is great, beautiful studio with a lot of history behind it. We liked the idea of going in there and doing it quickly as well.
W: You guys did it in six days right?
A: For this record, yeah. Six days of tracking. I got a studio is Southwest Scottland where we did a lot of the writing and playing and after going to RAK Studios in London for six days, we went to Philippe Zdar’s studio in Paris for about three weeks altogether there, so a lot longer in Paris mixing than we did in RAK recording. Philippe put so much work into the production and a lot of that was a few weeks afterward of trying to hone the sound and trying to give it that “future sound.” But when you listen to the record, you’re actually hearing very the fast “Take 1” or “Take 2.” That’s essentially what the performances are. That’s because we spent a year writing and rehearsing it. So a lot of preparation for something that happened very quickly.
W: Can you talk about choosing and working with Philippe as your producer?
A: I first spoke to Philippe when we started recording our last Franz record when he was making the record he made with the Beastie Boys at that time. I always loved his stuff, I thought Cassius and Phoenix sounded amazing. But his records always sounded different from each other, like they were pushing the sonic boundaries and sounded really new and fresh. He was also someone who understood the dance aesthetic, the electronic aesthetic, and made beautiful sounding records from that world, coming from the perspective as a DJ as well. Yet he loved a raw rock and roll band and the raw rock and roll band performance.
P: I think the French kind of get what we do as well, in terms of they maybe approach dance music in this sort of dancefloor utility of a dance track, they don’t see it as anything different than a rock band as well. Even the whole aesthetic of Justice or Daft Punk, they don’t consider it just “dance music.”
A: Actually you just hit it completely, that’s what I love about it, there’s none of the exclusivity of genre that you find in other countries. You definitely find it in the U.K. Like, you’re into dance music or rock music and some parts of the States it can be like that. Like the god-awful EDM thing that happened in recent years.
W: It’s dead now, thankfully. (laughter)
A: (laughter) Yeah, it sowed the seed of its own destruction because it set boundaries from the edge of the genre, so it couldn’t expand or morph and transform into something else. Whereas creativity doesn’t have boundaries like that, you draw from everywhere. Yeah, the French dance scene is cool. But then again, I see it with other people as well like James Murphy or back to even Depeche Mode.
W: So while we’re on the topic of genres, what do you think about all the talk of Rock being dead?
P: People have been saying that for years (laughter)
A: What do they mean by rock as well? When you say Rock, do you mean Deep Purple or Korn? I don’t know, yes, we are never going to have an era where a band like Deep Purple is…you know, I’m not even going to say that. There might be, you just don’t know. When people make big claims like that, it usually means the opposite is about to happen. So yeah, let’s just wait and see what happens. Also, you need to look to the underground and see what’s happening there. I don’t know so much about what’s going on in the States, but certainly in Glasgow and in London, there’s a lot of “bands” playing and things rise from the underground.
P: That’s kinda where we came from.
A: Yes, exactly. And so if you’re still into EDM it may seem like Rock is dead. But hey, let’s see what happens. Rock as we knew it in the past is dead, but so is dance music.
W: It’s fitting since we are at Domino Records, but I wanted to talk about your longstanding relationship with them, which is something of a rarity today.
A: They’re cool people, that’s the heart of it. But we had a relationship with a major label, as when our first record came out here it was on Domino for the first six months. At that point, Domino was only Kris Gillespie, Kris Chen and Chris Newmyer. It was the three Chris’ and they were like: “we can’t deal with this anymore,” so we licensed it to Epic. Now while there were some great people at Epic, they didn’t stay there and there was a lot of change going on and it was very different. But we always stayed with Domino in the U.K. right from the beginning and Kris Gillespie was with us right from the very beginning and never left us. But what’s good about them? They just get it.
P: Yeah they let us do what we want, they all have excellent taste as well. They’re folk we hang about with socially. You want to engage with actual people instead of a company. With Epic you know, they were one record to another.
A: The difference between a Major Label and a company like Domino is that creative decisions are made by people who understand it, guys like Laurence Bell or Kris Gillespie, not by accountants. And of course you appreciate the accountants, a label wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the accountants, but at a major label, it’s them that make the decisions, rather than the people who understand what the soul of a label is.
W: A lot of bands who rose up at the same time as you guys aren’t around anymore. What do you guys credit for your longevity?
A: Yeah I guess with a lot of those bands….how can I put this…they just happened to make records at the same time as us. I don’t necessarily feel an affinity with them and certainly didn’t feel a part of a scene. There were bands I liked from that era, bands I’m sad don’t exist like The Futureheads, I thought they were a great band, or Sons and Daughters. They were cool bands. But bands cease to exist for personal reasons.
P: They grow up I guess.
A: Fortunately we’ve never grown up (all of us laugh)
W: So that’s the key to success!?
A: Yes, the key to success! Retaining a sufficient level of immaturity.
P: I mean look at me, I’m 41! (points out his outfit laughing)
A: I think at the heart of it, if I look at other bands that have longevity, I feel maybe the thing that we share with them is the desire to not repeat yourself and to not just live in the initial era in which brought you into the world.
P: We just do what we do and Domino allows us to do that. A lot of bands on Domino have longevity, like Animal Collective. Dominio just tells us to do what you do and we’ll keep putting your records out.
A: Yeah and also the idea that you’re going to be surprised by a band as well. Like I was telling the guys about Julia Holter. I know that the next Julia Holter record will have surprises to it. It’s not going to be like that last one, but it’s still going to be Julia Holter and I can’t wait for that. Yeah, I love sharing a label with these artists.
W: What still surprises you about being in a band and playing live shows?
P: The longer we do it, the more fun it becomes.
A: Yeah, that’s true actually. The greatest surprises come in the writing stages for me. I love it when you have a day where something didn’t exist and then at the end of the day you go: “Fuck, there’s a song! Where did that come from?” Yeah, those are the most rewarding surprises. And I still love meeting people on the road and hearing stories of how the music has soundtracked their lives. That’s what we use music for. We build our memories around the flagpoles of music, that’s how we navigate the memories of our lives, with the music that we listen to. To hear how music has touched people, my god, that’s the most incredible thing you can hear as an artist.
W: So the release date for Always Ascending is the same as your debut 14 years ago…
A: Oh is it?? I did not know that! Maybe they (Domino) deliberately did that.
W: I was going to ask if that was a conscious choice or coincidence but I guess that answers that.
A: That’s ironic as we were doing some interviews in France a little while ago and there was a chap there that said: “This feels like your second first album.” And I found that interesting as it sort of is, being that this is the first album of the new lineup and the new era and decade of the band so why not release it on the release date of the first album? Wow, that’s funny.
W: Let’s take it back a few years to when you guys are just starting the band. Did you ever envision where you are today, with all the success, the world tours, etc?
A: Yes and no. Like yes, the fantasy, that’s what you imagine: “We’re going to sign to a really cool label and tour the world.” But at the same time, we expected to sell only 500 copies of our single if we were lucky.
W: Do you have anything left to prove to yourselves or anyone else?
P: Yes! (laughter)
A: (speaking to Paul) What is it for you?
P: Goals based on willpower. I’ll say no more! (laughter)
A: I sometimes get obsessed with trying to prove things to myself something or achieve certain things, but they can be very trivial things. But it’s kinda like an extra life isn’t it, going from one ambition to another?
P: Trying to prove things to myself, rather than to anybody else.
A: Yeah, because you know the truth.
P: Yes. Only I know!