Rank Your Records: Alex Kapranos Contemplatively Ranks Franz Ferdinand’s LPs
The frontman reflects on the band's unexpected breakout success and what it means to "make records that girls can dance to."
In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Perhaps no one was more surprised by the meteoric rise of Franz Ferdinand in 2004 than their own frontman Alex Kapranos. “I had always thought of us as an esoteric band before we had success,” he admits, thinking back to the band’s breakthrough debut album, which sold millions and spawned the colossal hit, the “Weird” Al-covered “Take Me Out.” But practically overnight the Glasgwegian band’s modish art rock was welcomed with open arms by the mainstream across the world. Of all the bands out there combining spiky guitars and 4/4 beats in the early 00s, it was Franz Ferdinand that made it palatable for the masses.
As a result of the adoration, they scooped up the Mercury Prize and a couple of BRIT Awards, but the Scots didn’t let success interfere with their art. Across their next four albums, they continued to dabble with the mainstream, while pushing their music to new levels, including an entire dub version of 2009’s Tonight titled Blood and a full-album collaboration with glam rock eccentrics Sparks under the guise of FFS. However, in 2016, co-founder Nick McCarthy left the band to spend time with his family and pursue other interests, leaving Kapranos, bassist Bob Hardy and drummer Paul Thomson to decide on the future of Franz Ferdinand.
“Before we toured FFS we knew that Nick would leave,” says Kapranos. “At first it was a shock, but then I sat down with Bob and Paul and said, ‘Do you want to continue?’ And once they said yes it was like, ‘Wow, okay. That means we can do whatever we want.’ Not because Nick wasn’t there, but because the roles were no longer as fixed as they had been when he was in the band.”
Franz Ferdinand remained a four-piece, with Julian Corrie replacing McCarthy, but it was this freedom that made their new album, Always Ascending, feel like a fresh take. “[This album] felt liberating, like we could do whatever the hell we wanted to,” he admits. “And then when we finished the record we thought, ‘Well, hell. We’re not even officially a four-piece or anything. We can be whatever we want.” And then we asked Dino [Bardot] to come join the band.”
Now, as a five-piece, Kapranos looks at Always Ascending as a new chapter for Franz Ferdinand. “[2013’s] Right Thoughts was the end of a decade, and this one feels like the start of another decade, which is exciting,” he explains. “We were in Europe doing press recently and this guy said to me, ‘This feels like your second first album.’ I don’t agree with him, but I understand what he means because it’s the first album with this lineup. It has this freshness to it.”
With such a game attitude, Noisey felt it was time to give Kapranos the Rank Your Records challenge, which he accepted, but not without warning us. “Gosh, this is so fucking hard!” he expressed. “I’m just going to completely busk this because I couldn’t come up with an order. I tend not to go back and listen to our albums once we’ve made them. Also I’m not very good at being critical.”
5. You Could Have It So Much Better (2005)
Noisey: Why is this your least favorite?
Alex Kapranos: Even though it’s my favorite record in some ways, it was such a stressful record to make. Some of my favorite songs are on that record. And funny enough, some of my favorite songs are some that we don’t play live at all, like “Fade Together,” which I really love. It’s so different from everything else we’d done to that point; it’s so delicate and introspective. That is maybe the high point.
But when I look back on that record, the image I have in my head is going back to an apple tree in late July/early August, and plucking an apple when it’s fully formed, but it’s a month before it’s ripe. And when you bite into it, you have something that looks like a beautiful apple, but it’s bitter and sour and hard and unpalatable. I think that’s the best metaphor for how I feel about this record. It was good, but it wasn’t ready. It was plucked from the tree too early. That was due to circumstances. We didn’t have enough times to let the songs sit and for us to become comfortable with them and to perform them in a way that was easy and natural. We were going through Epic Records in America at the time, and they were putting a lot of pressure on us to get this record out quickly. But more than anything else, our agent had booked an American tour. Once we started it there would be no chance we could go back and finish the record, plus they wanted the record to start the tour. So there was all this pressure to finish it. My big regret is not standing up to everyone around us and saying, “Look, I just need a bit more time with these songs.” That’s why this is number five.
I remember being very surprised when this album was announced. It came so soon.
We had been writing while we were on tour as well, which we were even playing live on tour in 2004, like “I’m Your Villain.” I’m blaming other people, but it’s also my fault as well. There were artists I admired like Bowie, the Smiths, and the Beatles who would do an album, maybe even more than one a year. I thought, “Why can they do that and we can’t? Of course we can!” What I didn’t take into account was that bands toured in a completely different way back then. They didn’t tour to any degree of intensity that we did. In 2004, we did something like 380 gigs. I know that sounds insane, but some days we were literally playing two gigs a day, like a store matinee and then an evening show. We honestly played more gigs than there were days in the year. And it was incredible. I loved it. Things happened for us instantaneously all over the world, everywhere. But it was exhausting and it really did draw my soul out of me. I should have given myself some space and time to come back to life before we made that record.
You guys were pretty much unknown when you made the first album. How different was this one knowing there were so many people anticipating it?
I tried to remove myself from that, and we went to a very rural location in Scotland, which is where I still have my studio. While the intention was to remove ourselves, that world came into our world. My reticence was too low to build a barrier and repel it. There were journalists coming to the house, and people from the label were hanging out. Those are the types of people you want around you when you’re creating.
You called this “A 3-D version of the last album.” Do you remember what you meant by that?
I have no idea. [Laughs] Well, sonically, we did explore things. I’ve said what was negative about making this album, but there were so many positive things about making it as well. I enjoyed recording with Rich [Costey], and in some ways there are parts of it that sound three-dimensional.
I guess another reason why I’d put it at number five is because everything is played too fast. Because of the intensity of our touring and the way we were playing, everyone was so pumped full of adrenaline. The tempo of everything was just way too fast. When we were recording we played live in the room and without vocals because I didn’t want to knacker my voice like I had knackered it from touring. When you play without the vocal, you tend to play to the tempo that’s cool to play instrumentally. Sometimes when you come back to record the vocal it’s fucking 15 bpm too fast! I couldn’t fit all of the words in. Also the band isn’t responding to the vocal, the vocal is responding to the band, which is the wrong way around.
This album was originally supposed to be self-titled with a different color scheme. What made you go with an actual title?
It was Paul’s idea. I still like that concept and think it would have been good to follow it through. The simplicity of it is appealing. But one day Paul said he liked the title You Could Have It So Much Better, so I said, “Why not?” There was also a perverseness because there were so many expectations upon us at that time. I liked the idea of directing the expectations to a particular place and then confounding them and coming up with something different instead.
4. FFS (2015)
I have to put FFS [at number four], if I’m being honest, because it was a really fun record to make. I liked being in the studio with all of those guys, including John Congleton. John’s a really cool guy and a great producer. But it’s the one I have the least personal connection with. I mean, really it should be number five, but I’m trying to be nice to Ron and Russ.
I can only imagine this scenario was a dream coming true for you guys. But the idea first came up ten years before you made the album?
That’s right, yeah. I really liked Sparks. There are those three early records from the 70s— Kimono My House, Indiscreet and Propaganda—that I loved, as well as the Moroder stuff. When our first record came out, Ron and Russell were into what we were doing and came to some of our gigs. And we were hanging out backstage and they said we should collaborate. Originally it was going to be a seven-inch. We would write a song for them to perform, and they would write one for us to perform. But, going back to 2004, it was too insane and intense. We didn’t have time to do it. And then we were in Montevideo, Uruguay, and I broke my tooth. I hung on until I got back to San Francisco to go see a dentist. I was lost walking up and down this street in San Francisco looking for the dentist and, unknown to me, Ron, Russell and his girlfriend Emmy were watching me from the other side of the road. They had spotted me. And so they came up and tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Alex, what are you doing in San Francisco?” I was like, “I’m going to the dentist and playing a gig.” And they said, “We’re playing a gig too tonight. Why don’t you come down and see us?” So we went down, and backstage at their gig we said, “Why don’t we make this collaboration happen.”
We had been on tour at the time and they were back in Los Angeles so, like a pen pal relationship, we sent songs back and forth to each other via email. And then the record was there. Making the record in RAK was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed that.
Did any of you try and grow a Ron moustache?
At different points of my life I’ve had a moustache, including a pencil moustache, but after collaborating with Ron I don’t think I could go near one again. That’s his territory. I will leave Ron the moustache.
3. Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Actions (2013)
I like this one. It’s a good record. I really enjoyed making it. It also feels like a bookmark, like the end of a decade. And it was the end of Franz Ferdinand Mk 1. It was the last record of that lineup. So I’m fond of it for those reasons. It’s not number one because it’s not as good as the other two. [Laughs] My favorite song on that record is “Stand On The Horizon.” That song does the Holy Grail for me of songs, songwriting and performance, which is melancholic euphoria. It’s funny because when we were working on this new album, that was the working title: Melancholic Euphoria. We had another one too that was Sex & Death, which was because all of the greatest songs are about sex or death or both. And melancholic euphoria is a state you want to achieve in song. I really feel that “Stand On The Horizon” does that. It was a lot of fun to work with Todd Terje on that song as well.
You worked with Joe Goddard and Alexis Taylor from Hot Chip, Todd Terje and Bjorn Yttling. Why so many producers?
I guess we were being greedy. [Laughs] Part greedy, part being practical as well. We started with Joe and Alexis, just before Hot Chip were going to start on a record of their own. So we ended up doing a couple of songs together. It was really fun working with them. I’m a big fan of theirs. They’re so lovely to be in the studio with; such gentle personalities. We recorded those songs and then thought that maybe this was the approach we should take for the entire record was to work with other people. It was nice to also work with Bjorn. He has this great studio in Stockholm. Sadly, the song we both wanted to work on was “Scarlet and Blue,” which was gonna be the big single on that record but we could never capture it properly. We recorded it twice with Bjorn, once with Mark Ralph, and once by ourselves, but somehow we couldn’t capture the essence of the song. It was by far the most powerful song on that record, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to release any of the versions because it wasn’t quite right. I didn’t want to put out an inferior version, which is probably a bit absurd in itself. We talked about recording it again for this album, but it just brought back too many bad memories. Maybe at some point in the future. We’ve played it live quite a bit in 2013.
Nick said after Tonight, “We'd sucked ourselves dry.” Did you feel you needed more time to recuperate before you could make this record?
We definitely took our time in making it. We probably took more time than we needed to. Because when we were making this record, Nick had his first kid and we weren’t as focused as I would have liked to be. When I’m doing something, I like to do it completely. So while I have fond memories of making this record and the way it sounds in the end, it took more years than it should’ve done because of other distractions in people’s lives. There’s nothing you can do about it. That’s just the way fate takes you, and it’s fair enough. I don’t think we were dry. There was an article that came out around the time of that record; it was an interview with either The Guardian or The Observer. During the interview I spoke about how exhausting life in a band can be, but then I went on to say how you have to appreciate following your dream and being able to do what you always imagined you would do, and how that is far outweighed by the opportunity that you have. Y’know, even though it’s exhausting, it feels even more incredible. Anyway, all of the latter part of that was left out of the interview and it ended up sounding like a terrible moan about how bad our lot was. Yes, the power of the editorial is quite distinct, but I’m not complaining. And the way we found out was while we were doing the photos for the article, the photographer said, “You’re looking very smiley. Can we take a few where you’re looking sadder? I’ve just had the editor saying that he wants you to look sad.” [Laughs] I was feeling really good about life at that moment!
2. Franz Ferdinand (2004)
Why is this one your second favorite?
Because I like Tonight more. [Laughs] I love this record. It’s what broke us as a band and introduced us to the world. A lot of people know us through this record, so of course I love it. It was also an accumulation of a lot of years of thoughts and writing coming together to make the record.
I believe the goal with the album was to “make records that girls can dance to and to cut through postured crap.” Was that a reaction to something else you were witnessing in music?
Yes. [Laughs] Totally. I was half-joking when I said that. Actually, no—I was totally being serious. At the time I was going to gigs in Glasgow and something I noticed was that 94 percent of the audience was male. And they’d just stand there and sway and stroke their beard and over-intellectualize music that was quick thick and fucking obvious. It felt pretentious, like it had no life or any sharpness to it. There was none of the energy that I loved. It didn’t make me get up and want to dance, which is what I loved. My ideal for music was something smart that made me want to dance. Also, there was the nature of the gender split of the audience. I remember speaking to my female friends at the time, saying, “Why aren’t you at these gigs?” And they all said the same thing: “Because they’re fucking boring.” And they were totally right.
There is a certain type of mentality that blokes have when it comes to music, which is using music as a tool of intellectual one-upmanship or obscure knowledge one-upmanship. Blokes use different mediums to display that one-upmanship. Music is one of them. What fucking car you have is another one. Like the guys on the sales team of some dull corporation somewhere talk about their cars in the same way that cunts at gigs talk about boring and dreary bands. Sport is another one. Guys who talk about fucking sport statistics and what their teams have been up to. Oh man, I find all of that shit totally repellent and boring. And I despise that way of quantifying music. It was a rejection of that. It was, “No, I want to take it back to something that is more primal and embracing the dumbness of making a statement like that. Of course saying something like “I’m going to make records that girls can dance to” is taking it back to the most basic element of pop music. Like, at the very beginning of pop music with Buddy Holly was music to make girls dance. As soon as you cut through all of that pretension, then you can open it up and explore whatever you want. Then it became very exciting.
Did it feel like you were onto something special when you first played back the record?
Yeah. I didn’t know it was going to connect with people. I knew that when we first played gigs in Glasgow that something was happening, just because of the way people were reacting to it. We didn’t sound like other bands at that time. We were different. And they were good songs. I knew that. The energy was good and honest. The record itself was actually a pain in the arse to make in many ways. And I’m glad that it was a pain in the arse to make because it focused us. The producers for all of the other records I got on with really well, and it was a joy to work with them. But Tore Johansson was a first-prize pain in the fucking arse! Producers fall into two categories: those who get to their goal by becoming part of the gang, encouraging you and leading you on to create something great, and then you have those who try to achieve the same goals through confrontation. I’d say Phil Spector is in that second category. Or Bob Ezrin in the studio with Lou Reed making Berlin. That was the category that Tore Johansson was in. We didn’t get on. I remember him pulling me into the control room one day and saying [in a Swedish accent], “One of us is going to leave this studio in tears.” And I was like, “That’s not fucking gonna be me! I know exactly what I’ve got to do.” And it was good, because he had very different ideas of what our record should be. When you have somebody challenging your ideas, it either destroys your ideas or it makes them stronger. You have to defend your ideas, and if it’s a good one it stands up. But if it’s a shit idea it crumbles straight away. So it was cool having that challenge. His idea for the album was to make this extremely lush, layered record with many textures and parts. And I said to him, “Look, you can put whatever you want on the record. But when it comes to mix I’m gonna take it right off.” And that’s exactly what happened. Somewhere there is a hard drive containing a very different version of our first record. But I didn’t want to make a record like that. I wanted it to be stark, bare, with no frills or decorations to it. Everything was the sound of this band playing. And the conflict between me and Tore made something really bold. We were reacting against each other, and ended up making a very cool record.
What do you remember about winning the Mercury Prize?
It was a real bizarre and surreal evening when it all got announced. I presumed, even until moments after it was read aloud, that we weren’t going to win because normally the bands that won were at the more esoteric end of the nominations. I just expected it to be someone much further from mainstream success than we had been. Interestingly enough, I had always thought of us as an esoteric band before we had success. Not coming for the mainstream or from the mainstream but from another place. I felt we couldn’t have won that prize with our mainstream success. When it happened, yeah, it just seemed bizarre. I remember Brian Eno being there, which was bizarre. The whole thing was bizarre. All of those prizes are bizarre, because you don’t think of any of that shit when you’re making records. It’s great. I was thinking about it the other day. All of those prizes, like the Mercury, the Brits, the Ivor Novellos, platinum discs, I always give those to my mum. They’re a little bit embarrassing. I think of them like compliments. It’s a very Glasgow attitude towards compliments. If people give Glaswegians compliments, they feel embarrassed. They can’t take it. Of course, it’s great to get one, but it’s hard to handle it. I still feel like that when I receive a compliment or a prize. I’d rather my mum got them. She deserves them.
1. Tonight: Franz Ferdinand (2009)
Why is this your favorite?
In some ways it was a pain in the arse to make. There were difficulties in the band. But I love how wild and free that record was. I probably wouldn’t have put Tonight at number one until I’d spoken to Julian [Corrie] about it. When he joined the band, we didn’t really talk about our back catalog until he’d been in the band for about six months or so, and then we started rehearsing for live shows. It was when we were rehearsing “Ulysses” when he said, “Oh man, I love this song. It’s such a weird, weird song.” To which I said, “Yeah, I guess it is. It’s not a conventional pop song by any means.” And then he admitted, “ Tonight is by far my favorite record that you’ve done.” And talking to him about why he liked that record over the other ones really made me reassess that record and think about it more. I think he’s right. Up until now, I think Tonight is when we were at our most adventurous. I don’t think we were ever a conventional band, but I do think this was our most unconventional record. It goes to some pretty bizarre places.
The sound of the record is beautiful as well. I love what Dan Carey did. But also I think I love it because it appeals to my sense of contrariness. When I’m talking about making music to make girls dance, at the heart of that is a sense of contrariness. When we released Tonight, a lot of people were confused by it and not expecting it. That brought me a lot of joy because the worst thing in life is to be predictable, isn’t it?
You’ve described it as “very much a nighttime record.”
Oh, I have no idea what I meant by that. You see, when you make a record then you have talk about it afterwards. You come up with these phrases that sum it up. It was a nighttime record in some way. But it’s not like every song is about the night. I know that when we were sequencing it, we were trying to give it some sort of feel you get from a night out. That was part of it, I suppose. The studio we had in Govan, we had to block out all of the windows, so it felt permanently like nighttime. Maybe also the time of year we were making it was dark. Glasgow can be pretty fucking dark in the winter.
You guys originally had Brian Higgins of Xenomania (S Club, Girls Aloud, Kylie Minogue) in mind to produce this. What happened there?
It didn’t work out. We were completely unsuited to work with each other. Brian Higgins is in the same category as Tore Johansson, but not in a good way. [Laughs] Or rather, not in a way that worked for us, to be fair to Brian. Because it has worked for him with other acts. He’s used to telling people what they need to do, like what songs to sing and how they should do it.
I love what he did with Girls Aloud.
Yeah! His work with Girls Aloud is what drew us to him. He has a team of people around him that have done some really great things. I love that. At that time, the way I saw it was for us to work with Brian would have been like why John Lennon found it appealing to work with Phil Spector, which was because he was at the height of the pop game at that time. And that’s what Brian was then: the master of pop. It would have gone completely down to the pistol beside the head had we continued. It just wasn’t a good match.
You also released a dub version of the album called Blood. Where did that idea come from?
That’s Dan Carey. To jump from one extreme to the other. In fact, if I could, I would rank Blood as my favorite record. Because Blood and Tonight are the same record… but they’re not. Tonight is a wild and adventurous record, but Blood is that same record taken to its most wild and adventurous extreme. That was Dan taking what we’d done and going fucking nuts with it by dubbing it up and making it sound like something we’d never done before. So my favorite versions of some of those songs are on Blood.
Cam Lindsay is on Twitter.