There were times, in the dark and desperate days before Franz Ferdinand, when Alex Kapranos went full Leatherface. “I had to dress up in an orange American prisoner outfit with a muzzle on my face, holding a chainsaw with the chain taken off it,” the Franz singer says, recalling his strangest pre-fame job as an interactive actor in a “static ghost train” in Glasgow called Terror Under the Arches. “I’d start it up and chase terrified Glaswegians out of the arches. For the first couple of months or so it was the most amazing job I’d ever had, I was getting paid money to chase folk with a chainsaw.”
Sitting in a clinically chic bedroom in a Hackney hotel, somehow maintaining his air of urbane geniality while scoffing down a late breakfast of tea and toast (“Is this peanut?” he asks, sniffing a pot of brown puree, wary of an allergy that saw medics at UCL hospital “save my life” in 2019), it seems inconceivable that this bequiffed indie sophisticate, 20 years into a career in erudite art rock, ever had an ounce of psychopath in him. Bereft of bloodlust, he’s charming company, all anecdote and countercultural fervour, and his band is a byword for intelligent and articulate guitar pop, as well as meteoric success.
When Franz Ferdinand emerged from the Glasgow alt-rock scene in 2003 as the suave, strutting Scottish wing of a UK indie rock explosion set off by the arrival of The Strokes, they swiftly bagged a Mercury prize with their eponymous, 3 million-selling 2004 debut album, while raunchy dancefloor destroyers such as “Take Me Out”, “Do You Want to” and “No You Girls” shot them to chart fame in Europe and America. Blending lascivious sexuality, Russian avant-garde references, effervescent punk-funk and an air of educated sophistication, they came across as the blazer-clad rock prefects crashing the A-list frat party. At the height of their success, Kapranos even wrote a regular on-tour food column for The Guardian.
“You had these bizarre moments like walking up the… it was actually a green carpet, to the Grammys, behind James Brown and in front of Hulk Hogan,” Kapranos chuckles, masterfully navigating the potential pitfalls of designer cowboy shirt and jam compote. “That’s my role in life, somewhere between James Brown and Hulk Hogan. I can wrestle like James Brown and sing like Hulk Hogan!”
Another time, at Usher’s MTV Awards aftershow in Rome, he found himself walking into an R&B Tiger King. “Usher’s quite a wee guy, and the party was literally just people walking into this room at some fancy mansion somewhere, and he was standing on a pedestal with two tiger cubs in his hand. He’d obviously put the call in to have some ‘hot babes’ around him, and whoever had been assigned to hire these people had hired the most experienced street workers they possibly could. That was a bit bizarre.”
Then there was his flight in Karl Lagerfeld’s private jet. “He photographed us for a German magazine and we were going to this gig and he said, ‘Oh, you know, my private plane’s just at the airport there, why don’t you just take that back?’ So I rode in Karl Lagerfeld’s private plane. But generally it’s Vueling or easyJet.”
Now Franz’s two uncompromising decades are being celebrated with a greatest hits collection, Hits to the Head, something of a tribute to the Bowie and Motown comps that made up Alex’s parents’ record collection. There’s some frustration that the project has been delayed by the pandemic; he was expecting to be releasing Franz’s sixth album by now. “I like looking forwards,” he says, determined not to let the compilation consign Franz to history as firmly as their namesake, the archduke of Austria. “But I understand the importance of a retrospective. It’s like climbing a hill to glance back and see where you are. But I’d rather it was a quick glance back and then carry on walking up.”
To which end the album is introduced with a modernist, glam new song called “Billy Goodbye”, about the bittersweet end of a friendship. “There’s very few songs about friendships,” Alex says. “That song ‘Sunny’ by Bobby Hebb, I absolutely love that song. It’s so poignant. Really, really, really powerful… Sonically I wanted it to feel as if it was almost existing in parallel times. Feeling like it could be 1972, the year I was born, 2002 when we got together, and 2022 simultaneously – elements of the sound that could only happen now. It’s as if they’re all existing simultaneously in my fevered mind right this minute.”
The accompanying black and white video, of inelegantly wasted fashion freaks rampaging around a warehouse space during a Franz gig, interspersed with Daliesque shots of Alex with a burst eyeball, is a homage to the Chateau, the dilapidated five-storey industrial building that the fledgling Franz and their artist friends turned into Glasgow’s equivalent of Warhol’s Factory in the early Noughties.
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“It’s maybe not quite as anarchic as the Chateau was,” Kapranos laughs. “The Chateau was pretty f***ed up. The first gig we did, it was absolutely rammed full of people and there was an old industrial sprinkler system in the roof. This guy in a balaclava was swinging around the whole room while we were playing. I was watching it thinking: ‘That’s gonna f***ing go any minute now. This whole room is going to be totally covered in water,’ and part of me was like, ‘I’m quite excited to see that happening.’ That whole experience did feel like we were pushing it as far as we could, to see the limits of the anarchy.”
Franz’s Chateau era was inauspicious. As an eccentric outsider on the Glasgow scene for several years – and having failed to get his previous post-Britpop band The Karelia off the ground (“I went as far down a bizarre tributary of Noel Coward and Bonzo Dog Band as I possibly could, and the resulting album sold 27 copies”) – Kapranos had largely given up his dreams of making a living from music, and took on an array of jobs to fund his indie rock sideline. He was a club promoter at the 13th Note bar, a chef, an assistant teacher, a barman, a welder and, at one point, worked the pneumatic presses in a circuit-breaker factory in Clydebank, a job so tedious he’d sneak a finger under the safety guard “just to get some degree of adrenaline”.
When Franz’s fame hit, and the lads who used to throw Buckfast bottles at his head in the streets of east Glasgow started asking for his autograph instead, Alex was already pushing 30 and was somewhat immune to the headspin. For years he kept hold of his knackered old £250 Merc – the queue outside Franz’s first sold-out Glasgow Barrowlands show had to give him a push-start one night – and the idea of riding a Harley through an LA hotel foyer lost its appeal after a palm reading in Hong Kong. “He took one look at my hand and went: ‘Big break in the lifeline. Before your 34th birthday you’re gonna have a big accident. Probably something to do with a motorbike.’ So I gave my Lambretta to the Transport Museum in Glasgow, and it’s still there.”
Alex Kapranos: ‘Were The Rolling Stones still The Rolling Stones after Brian [Jones] left? In my heart, I know it’s Franz Ferdinand’ (Donald Milne)
Are there any secret rehabs in Franz’s history? “None I’m gonna tell you about,” Alex grins. “Everybody in the band had a good time. Sometimes too much of a good time. I just never wanted to be a d***. I didn’t want to behave like an a*******. There were some cliches of the rock’n’roll existence which I found really tiring when people were trying to live up to them. Trying to prove their worth by meeting the expectations of a stereotype. That’s boring. I don’t want to do that. [And] when you hear the stories of Keith Moon and Vivian Stanshall having jousting matches with JCBs in their country houses, I’m like, ‘F***, we never had money like that!’”
Did any egos balloon? “Oh my God, every band is full of egos. If you didn’t have major egos in a band, it’d be a s*** band. The ego is what makes it good, and ultimately self-destructive as well, and exciting. You’ve got to have a pretty healthy ego to get on stage in the first place, balanced out with some degree of self-loathing and trauma. And that is true for every artist. When I meet other musicians and singers, I always try to work out ‘What are the events that happened in your life that made you end up here?’”
Franz certainly haven’t been without their public issues, though. In 2016, guitarist Nick McCarthy quit to concentrate on his family, and Franz Ferdinand expanded to a five-piece, adding guitarist Dino Bardot of The 1990s and Julian Corrie on keyboards. Then, in May last year, drummer Paul Thomson also unexpectedly left the band: “He was having panic attacks,” Alex explains. Having broken his hand in Morocco in 2019 in a freak accident when a piece of hotel artwork fell off a wall and “totally pulverised” his finger, Thomson returned from months of recuperation to find himself terrified of going onstage in front of 150,000 people at the peak of a South American tour.
Lockdown isolation only intensified Paul’s problems, but on the day that rehearsals became too much, Franz found an instant replacement. “The day he left, after [the remaining band] had that conversation, ‘Do you want to keep going? Are you still excited about this?’, and everybody was extremely positive, I said: ‘Right… who’s the best drummer in Glasgow?’ In the morning, Paul had kicked over his drums, and Audrey [Tait] was sitting behind them at six in the evening.”
Alex Kapranos performing with Nick McCarthy and Robert Hardy in 2004 (Getty)
Alex finds it “instinctive” playing with his newer bandmates, but is it still Franz Ferdinand? “Oh yes, it definitely is. Would you ask that question of Fleetwood Mac? When they made Rumours, were they still Fleetwood Mac? Were The Rolling Stones still The Rolling Stones after Brian [Jones] left?… In my heart, I know it’s Franz Ferdinand, and if you in your heart don’t believe it’s Franz Ferdinand, well f*** off and listen to the old records, I don’t care!”
Looking back at the tunes collected on Hits to the Head, including seven UK top 10 singles, Alex concludes: “They’re bangers… and aren’t I jammy to have them?” Yet alternative music in the Noughties has come in for a bad rap over the years. “In the Eighties, the Seventies got a terrible rap,” Alex argues. “And in the Nineties, the Eighties got a terrible rap. That’s what humans do. They s*** on the thing that just went before. Anyone with half a brain can see what’s going to happen. But also you can see that it’s not going to stay [that way] forever, either.”
Since Noughties rock fell from critical favour, “We didn’t play the Grammys again”, but Franz have maintained respect thanks to a smart, arty collaboration with Sparks (as FFS in 2015) and forward-thinking records such as 2018’s Always Ascending, featuring a title track based around the auditory illusion of a continually rising Shepard tone. Now, cyclical as culture is, some elements of the Noughties scene are being celebrated on social media platforms, rebranded as ‘indie sleaze’.
What sets my hackles up a little bit in the post-#MeToo environment, the idea of something being considered as sleaze… is that the right way to consider that era? Alex Kapranos
“I don’t like this name,” Alex says. “Now we’re into the 2020s, of course we’re going to be reassessing 20 years ago as something that was actually pretty cool. It really started with Lizzy Goodman’s book Meet Me in the Bathroom. I guess I just didn’t feel particularly sleazy at the time.” What about “Michael”? “Dark of the Matinee”? “I was just being perfectly natural! What sets my hackles up a little bit in the post-#MeToo environment, the idea of something being considered as sleaze… is that the right way to consider that era? It just feels dodgy.”
I suggest that the intention is just to celebrate the sexy stuff and forget about the lad rock. Alex warms to the idea. “I mean, it was genuinely like that, and I do feel the last decade has been particularly anodyne and sexless and, quite frankly, boring. It certainly didn’t feel boring [in the Noughties]. There are great things that are happening now, but it does feel like the last decade has been increasingly a celebration of the sexless. And I wonder if there’s going to be a reaction against that.”
As we delve into the consequences of alternative music being pushed back underground by the mathematics of streaming, Alex becomes increasingly riled. “That Pitchfork mentality and the desire to please that Pitchfork mentality is what has f***ed the alternative scene,” he argues. “We have to make music that’s as difficult as will please a Pitchfork writer. That is what has completely hollowed it out; it’s why the alternative scene has been cast further and further into the obscure edges of disappearing up one’s own a*******. It feels like people who have wanted to make bands have wanted to drive themselves away from the idea of pop music as far as they can. They want to make music as difficult as they can.”
It reminds Alex of the Glasgow indie attitude he formed Franz in order to kick back against in the first place. “I f***ing hated it. I still hate it, that kind of, ‘I’m proving to you my intelligence by how difficult my music is’. F*** off.” He cites Adam and the Ants’ “Kings of the Wild Frontier” as the perfect example of how transgressive music can also be fun. “It’s three and a half minutes of feedback and tribal drums and chanting. It’s amazing. And he was a pop star! I love that, bringing your out-there ideas and sticking it in there and smashing it in their faces. To me that’s appealing, rather than apologetically playing your difficult music to 30 people in a bar. F*** off.”
As he approaches 50, Kapranos has lost none of his youthful punk radicalism. He rails against Trump and the “racial purity bull**** [that] seems to be sweeping across the planet”. Although he hasn’t followed Neil Young off Spotify, out of respect for his long-term label Domino, he believes communal action is the only way musicians will overthrow a streaming system stacked so heavily against them. “The only thing that could make them change their minds and distribute things differently is if everybody at once said, ‘F*** you, you’re not having it,’” he says. “The problem with most musicians is they can’t organise anything. They’re useless, disorganised cretins, and I put myself at the top of that list.”
How does he intend to stay stylish into his sixth decade? “The secret is being unafraid of your own eccentricities,” he smiles, having learnt a major life lesson from the master, Sparks’ Ron Mael. “As you become older it’s tempting to tone things down, and you don’t really have to.”
‘Hits to the Head’ is out on 11 March