Q&A: Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos Talks Whiskey, Songwriting, Early Days and the Band’s New Greatest Hits LP

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Formally formed in 2001 in Glasgow, Scotland, the indie rock band Franz Ferdinand has made a global name for itself after some humble, chummy beginnings.

And this month, the band released its first greatest hits album, Hits To The Head, which boasts some 20 of its biggest songs—though, admittedly, it could even stand to include a few more (as you will see below). The new album also features two new tracks from the popular band, “Curious” and “Billy Goodbye.”

We caught up with the band’s frontman, Alex Kapranos, to talk about how he first came to enjoy music, how his father impacted his early years in the art form, how Franz Ferdinand got together (hint: it includes a bottle of whiskey) and how the group came to write some of the biggest songs of this century.

In addition, Franz Ferdinand just announced a big summer tour (see the full list of dates below). Strap in for this thorough, wide-ranging conversation music fans.

American Songwriter: When did you first find music, when did it first enter your life in a significant way as a young person?

Alex Kapranos: Well, I guess, like for most people, the music I discovered was the music that was brought to me by my family. And specifically, my parents. My dad’s Greek and he used to sing me a lot of Greek songs when I was a kid. So, I was always aware of them and those Greek melodies and Greek kid’s songs.

I also have a very, very vivid memory of being on my father’s shoulders, being spun around the living room, listening to music by a guy called Yannis Markopoulos. And it’s very hypnotic dance music from Crete. When I hear it now, I get brought straight back to that place. Then there was the music they both loved, like the Beatles. They were huge. My mum adored the Beatles. Bowie. Queen. Roy Orbison. A lot of rock and roll.

Then there was the music that my dad played, as well. My dad played guitar. He used to play in Beat groups in working man’s clubs around South Shields and the Northeast of England in the 60s. So, he used to like playing Bo Diddley and Buddy Holly and that kind of thing. Yeah, that’s my first experience of it all, that kind of stuff.

AS: From there, how did you improve, how did you get better and how did you think about your singing voice?

AK: Well, you know, I guess my dad having a guitar was a big privilege for me as a kid, and seeing him sit there and make music. Because if you have somebody around you as a kid that plays music, you realize that music isn’t just something that comes out of the speaker, which is mysteriously just there. It’s like having somebody that cooks in the house—you know that food’s not something you just buy at the supermarket shelf. You can create it yourself, you can make things yourself.

So, that was there. And I loved it. I always loved music and I wanted to play. I wanted to play the guitar and I guess initially I wanted to play songs that other people had written. I just wanted to be able to do that, myself. And then after a while, I realized I wanted to write, as well. That was my main drive, was writing music. There was quite a—my friend Andrew and I used to walk to school together. And we both started playing guitar about the same time.

I remember we both tried to play Beatles songs from this songbook called The Compleat Beatles. And my girlfriend had it recently, I found it on the shelf of her flat. And I said, “Oh, this is the book that Andrew and I used to try and play the songs from.” And that book had a big impact on us because we couldn’t play the songs. We could work out the chords but when we tried to play along with the records, it just sounded completely wrong.

I remember saying to Andrew, “Listen, we can’t play these Beatles songs. But let’s just take the chords we know and we’ll make our own songs because then nobody can tell us we don’t sound right.” The funny thing is when I went back to that book and I picked it up a year ago, or whatever, I realized all of the transcriptions are totally wrong. They’re in the wrong keys for the original songs.

So, I’m really thankful for that book because it did drive us on to write our own songs. It was one of those things that just clicked really quickly really, really early on. And I was always more interested in writing songs than I was in being a virtuoso guitarist or being a virtuoso singer, or anything like that, you know? I just wanted to be able to express myself and learn enough guitar to do what I wanted to do.

I had pals who were incredible guitarists who could move their fingers fantastically quickly up and down the fretboard. But I was never impressed by that stuff, I didn’t really care. It was: am I communicating the thing I want to communicate? Is there a good tune there? The same with the voice, as well. It was just about expressing the ideas and the melody being good, rather than necessity complex. It was all about songwriting in the beginning.

AS: What do you remember about the early days of the band, how you got together?

AK: Well, you know, the band was very much, I guess like a lot of bands are, a social experience as much as anything else. I’d been playing in bands since I was in my late teens. So, in the very early 2000s. That’s when I was first playing gigs and things. So when what was to become Franz Ferdinand got together, I’d been in loads of bands. I’d also got to the point in my life—you know, I was in my late 20s by this point—and I’d pretty much accepted the fact that I was never going to have a career in music. I was never going to pay the rent from the music that I made or played.

So, everything I did in music—yeah, I had lofty artistic ideas. But I never saw it as something that was going to give me any cash! So, with Bob [Hardy] in the beginning. We were both friends. We worked together in a kitchen. I was a common chef, he was a dishwasher. And one day I said to him, “Listen, my pal Mick’s given me a bass guitar. Do you want to come over to the flat? I bought a bottle of whiskey. We’ll sit down, enjoy a few drinks of whisky and I’ll show you how to play the bass.”

And that’s kind of how it started. It was just an excuse to hang out, have a drink and socialize, have a laugh. Then we met Nick [McCarthy], who was like, “I’ve got some ideas.” We were looking for someone to play drums and we were like, “Oh, yeah, let’s come have a laugh!” And then Paul [Thompson] joined us. It was all about hanging out, writing songs. Because it’s a good laugh to write songs. It was really fun to do this.

Then it was like yeah let’s play, let’s play for our friends because it’s a great social activity, that’s a good thing to do. So, that’s my memories of the band in the beginning. It was just a shared experience with your friends. A way to express yourself. I’ve always felt that with art, as well. The desire to do it is overwhelming. And when you do it with your friends, it’s a truly, truly joyous experience.

AS: From those early days of jamming and feeling it out, how did you and the band land on the sound? That guitar-driven music with your powerful, deep voice—did it feel organic or more planned?

AK: I wouldn’t, it was either organically or planned out. I would use a different term because it kind of entails a little of both. I would say it comes through instinctively. You instinctively know what you love and what you don’t love. And because you know instinctively what you love and don’t love, you talk about it. And so you talk about it with your pals. And you say, “Damn!”

I remember Bob and I having all these conversations and saying, “Man, I hate it when a band goes on stage and just stares at their feet for the entire set.” You know, I love dance music. And I want this music to make me feel like I can move my feet! At the same time, I want to feel it in my heart. And I want to feel it in my head, as well. I want to be engaged. I want to think about this! Or, I want the music, I want the lyrics to be deeper than some random noises to a dance beat. You know, dance music can have depth to it as well as moving your feet.

Also, I want to be, as a band, I want to walk on stage and be unafraid of the audience and look at them in the eyes. And we talked about the music that we liked. With Paul, I would talk about this is our favorite reggae music and listen to the bassline on that, listen to the high-hat on that, listen to what’s happening in that Daft Punk track. Then listen to what Philippe Zdar is doing with Cassius there—that’s amazing.

Then listen to the guitar on this, and I’d say to Nick, look at how Howlin’ Wolf and Hubert Sumlin are answering the vocal with that. We could do that! That’s how “Take Me Out” came about, talking about that sort of stuff. And there were so many inspirations that came from so many different places. But what makes it into something new is your personal instinctive reaction to it and what you love about it. And what you hate about it as well. You know, you define yourself by what you hate as much as by what you love.

So, these conversations and just playing it as well. Instinctively, too. The way I play guitar, I don’t play guitar like you’re supposed to. I hold it the wrong way, my thumb hangs over the top of the neck. And both Nick and I at the beginning, neither of us wanted to be a lead guitarist. We didn’t want to do those self-indulgent, virtuosic, look at me, look at my technical abilities. It was more, play the melody but play it more like a percussive instrument.

I love the idea that every instrument in the band was percussive, that it was all part of the rhythm, and all of the melodies are part of the rhythm, as well. I also love the idea of being smart in a way that people didn’t notice. I wanted to do things that were revolutionary and did things that were theoretically unusual. But do it in a way that you wouldn’t notice when you’re listening.

To me, just over the years of listening to other musicians—that’s what I always loved. I loved listening to something like a Kinks song, listening to something like “Autumn Almanac” by Ray Davies. And looking at how he progressed in the chords and going like, “Man, he is modulating every fifth bar.” It’s totally screwed up and mental the way he’s writing it. But you don’t notice when you’re listening to it because it just sounds good. And I didn’t want to be one of those bands that tried to prove to the world their intellectual worth by the difficult nature of their music. I wanted to be smart, but I wanted nobody to notice, you know what I mean?

I would listen to somebody like Queen and I would think the same thing, as well. Man, those rhythmic shifts, those radical ideas you’d have in those songs—yet, they sound like total bangers. That was my inspiration! It was to have an intellectual engagement but deliver it as a dumb ass, you know? I love that. And there were so many other people that I admired and looked up to who had that attitude. Even, say, like Iggy Pop and Bowie, they had that to them, as well. They had the intellectual inspirations but damn they would deliver it in the bassist form possible if that’s what the song needed.

So, I would look to literature for my inspiration, I would be unafraid of that. Or I would look to art forms for my inspiration or my favorite film directors and sometimes that could be like the dumbest execution in the world. So, I guess it’s a mixture of that. And yes, that’s actually an interesting point. Looking to other art forms for inspiration I think is very powerful. Seeing the attitude of how a director might cut a film or understanding—a big thing for me was DADA.

I love the art movement of DADA and, particularly, I loved the cut and paste, where they would take one image and literally hack it out with a knife and place it on another and show very little respect of context. I love doing that with my own songwriting. Hacking sections from one place and placing them on top of another. That happens in lots of our songs in things like “Jacqueline” or “Darts Of Please” on our first record or “No You Girls” later on or even “Always Ascending” on our last record.

A lot of that comes from that approach, that non-precious approach to songwriting. I always hate the idea that if a song comes out as a complete unit because you’re the perfect artist. And it always comes out—Nah, damnit, slash it with a scalpel! Cut it up and take things out of context and put them on top of each other. That can be shocking and brutal and beautiful.

AS: It’s funny, in a way, hearing you talk about these big artistic ideas after also talking about the origins of the band as the members just want to hang out and have a drink and a laugh. Do you think about this idea of evolution much today?

AK: I think my favorite artists, they all loved a good drink. If you were hanging out in SOHO in the 1950s, man, there would have been a lot of whiskey drunk then and some pretty highfalutin ideas. Like, be unafraid of bringing those things together.

AS: And you’ve had a lot of success writing music, of course. With songs like “Take Me Out” and “Lucid Dreams” and “Outsiders.” These songs appear on your new greatest hits album—though others I personally love like “Jacqueline” or “Katherine Kiss Me” don’t. But what do you want to say about the origins of the new record?

AK: Those are two of my favorite songs, as well. It’s funny; putting a record like this together, you realize that it’s not necessarily your personal favorites that you’re putting on—maybe I should do a record like that. A record like my personal favorites of my band. But when you do a record like this, it really is the bangers that you’re putting on there.

The way we approached it was as if we were headlining a festival, what are the songs that we’d play? The songs that have a universal appeal that maybe folks who don’t know the band, as well as some super fans, do, that these are songs they might have heard played in clubs or parties or in a café or on the radio or on MTV or whatever. So, yeah, it’s a collection of the bangers.

And the success over the years—it’s crazy. It’s crazy what happened to the band. I wasn’t expecting that stuff. Like I said at the beginning, we were just making music to entertain our pals in Glasgow, Scotland. But I’ve enjoyed it. I love it. When I was a teenager in my early teens, when I first realized I could write songs, I’d found my thing! The thing that I knew I could do in life, my reason for being. And I’m so fortunate. I love it. The fact that I can still do it is astonishing.

But getting the record together, it’s been great. I really enjoyed putting it together. I think also I’ve got a soft spot for these kinds of records because I grew up with them. My parents didn’t have a lot of money to spend on records, so they would buy greatest hits records. And also they were all they needed in many ways, as well. My mum loved David Bowie but she didn’t really want much more than “Changes.” She just wanted to hear the bangs, that’s it.

Even though I must admit, I used to be a bit snobby about them when I was maybe in my early 20s. But now I’ve always tried to have an egalitarian approach to putting out music, an inclusive approach. To say that yes there are some people who are like me who want to go into the deepest detail of a band and that do want to hear that B-side that was on your third single, whatever. But equally there are people who just want to hear the hits and they should be able to exercise that.

AS: And the new album has two totally new tracks on it, “Curious” and “Billy Goodbye.” What would you like to say about those new songs?

AK: Well, if you do a retrospective, no matter what your medium is, if you’re a painter or a filmmaker or a writer or a musician, the great thing about doing it while you’re still a living artist is that you get to show the path you’ve taken, the route you’ve taken from the beginning to the present day.

It would feel kind of absurd for us to put this out starting at the very beginning back in 2003 with “Darts of Pleasure” and not put something out from where we are now. So, during the craziness of lockdown and everything of the past few years, of course, I’d still been writing. And as soon as we could get together, we recorded a bunch of songs, and the songs that we felt most belonged on this record were “Curious” and “Billy Goodbye.”

So, we felt they really belonged here. We recorded them in my place in Scotland and we sent them off to be mixed by Stewart Price and he added some extra stuff, some amazing bubbling sounds—and yeah they were cool! It made me eager to get on with the next record and start on volume two. And also play them live, as well. So, we will be playing live too, which I’m looking forward to.

AS: When you say “volume two” what do you mean?

AK: Well, volume two as in I want to start working on volume two of Hits To The Head. You know, and also the next album, of course, as well. Because also when you sit down to write a song—I’ve never sat down and said, “I’m going to write a hit now.” It’s always like, “I want to write a song.” I like writing songs.

Of course, some songs aren’t as immediate as those songs. Like “Katherine Kiss Me” is definitely not an immediate kind of song. It’s maybe a bit more emotionally fragile than maybe some of the other songs there. But I love writing them, as well. So, yeah, I can’t wait to bring them all out [live again].

AS: How about the future?

AK: The future feels really good at the moment, considering what’s been going on in the world. I feel strange talking about the future. I feel constantly anxious, seeing events that I never thought would happen in my lifetime unfold. In that sense, I’m anxious about the future. But as an artist, I feel good about the future. Or, rather, I want to step into the future.

It’s funny, unintentionally, both “Billy Goodbye” and “Curious” talk about the future. In “Billy Goodbye” I talk about walking into the future. And in “Curious” I sing, “Are we the future? I’m curious.” Even though the context—in those songs, I’m not talking about the future of the band. That is kind of how I feel. I do want to walk into the future and I’m curious as to what the future is going to be, yeah. I don’t want to live in the past, I want to walk into the future.

AS: What do you love most about music?

AK: What do I love most about music? That’s like saying what do I love most about life? Because I’d probably say that the two are parallel. Music is the reason for life and life is the reason for music. What do I love most about it? Everything. It lets me know what it is to be a human. It lets me know what it is to be alive.

It communicates the things that I cannot communicate verbally alone. It allows me to understand emotions that I can’t understand in other ways. It lets the blood pump through my veins in a way that nothing else can. It allows me to share experiences with other human beings. It shows solidarity, it brings me close to the people around me and close to people I will never meet in other parts of the world. I love everything about it.

ALL FRANZ FERDINAND TOUR DATES:

8/4: House of Blues – Dallas, TX

8/5: White Oak Music Hall – Houston, TX 

8/6: Stubb’s – Austin, TX

8/8: Tabernacle – Atlanta, GA

8/10: 9:30 Club – Washington, DC

8/11: 9:30 Club – Washington, DC

8/12: The Fillmore – Philadelphia, PA

8/13: Pier 17 – New York, NY

8/15: House of Blues – Boston, MA

8/16: M Telus – Montreal, QC

8/17: History – Toronto, ON

8/19: The Riv – Chicago, IL

8/20: The Fillmore – Minneapolis, MN

8/22: Ogden – Denver, CO 

8/23: Union Event Center – Salt Lake City, UT

8/25: Showbox SODO – Seattle, WA

8/26: Orpheum – Vancouver, BC

8/27: Grand Lodge – Portland, OR

8/30: Fox Theatre – San Francisco, CA

9/1: The Shrine – Los Angeles, CA

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