Q&A: Franz Ferdinand Discuss The Making Of Their New Album, Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action
It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than four years since Franz Ferdinand released an album. It seems even harder to believe that it’s been nearly a decade now since the Scottish band turned the world on its ear with the release of their eponymous debut album. The landscape of popular music has changed pretty radically since the days when “Take Me Out” was one of the most seemingly ubiquitous songs on the planet, but somehow Franz — while only releasing two more albums (2005’s You Could Have It So Much Better and 2009’s Tonight: Franz Ferdinand) over the next many years — managed to maintain a foothold in a world where many of their peers from the early 2000s painfully fizzled. Next week the band will release their fourth studio album — Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action — an offering that rightfully recaptures much of the punchiness and manic energy that people loved so much about Franz Ferdinand back in 2004. I sat down with Alex and Bob to talk about how the new record was made and how things have changed for the band over the past few years.
STEREOGUM: After that long touring cycle for your last album ended, did you guys take some time off, or just give yourselves some space away from each other for a while?
ALEX KAPRANOS: Well, we weren’t doing nothing. We were still doing our own things, but nothing really connected to the band or directly to the music industry. I don’t know if isolated is the right word, but we removed ourselves from the outside world and the outside gaze. It’s always…you just feel more comfortable if you’re not feeling observed while you’re making music. When got back together to work on things we kept it really quiet.
STEREOGUM: Was that a different approach from how you made the previous album?
ALEX KAPRANOS: Yeah. On the first album we obviously felt like that because nobody knew who the hell we were while we were making that record. For the second and third records we were constantly under observation. You become kind of defensive when that’s the situation because you feel like every little something you do is under scrutiny. So yeah, for this one we tried to act as if we didn’t exist to the outside world and we could just make whatever we want and have our own world in which to live in and to work in. And it worked, I think. We really enjoyed making the record. And um, Domino, our label in the UK and in the States now, they are amazing. When we need their help — like, they’ll put us in touch with the people we wanna get in touch with — but beyond that, they leave us be.
STEREOGUM: That’s nice. And probably kind of rare.
ALEX KAPRANOS: Yeah, it’s really cool. We’re very lucky. So we have to appreciate the faith that they have in us.
STEREOGUM: I never really knew that was still a real thing — that label folks would come visit you in the studio and want to have input into the creative process — until I talked to bands that would complain about it. It’s hard enough to make a good record…even harder when some person — often not a musician at all — is telling you that they need to hear more hits!
ALEX KAPRANOS: Well, we felt like that happened to us with major labels in the past; it was a little bit like that. It’s just that culture, you know? For example, I know that in the pop music world it often works like that — you have people who make top lines and then you have people who write beats and then you’ll have people who have a slang vocabulary that they’ll bring to the top line writers and say, “Here’s your choice of current hip vocabulary to use for your lyrics.” It’s a crazy world.
STEREOGUM: Pop songs get market researched and audience tested the same way Hollywood movies do. It’s wild.
BOB HARDY: Fucking hell. Everything’s tested! I read a good quote about testing recently, it was something that Henry Ford said. He said, “If I had gone by public opinion, I would’ve invented a horse and cart that went faster.” I think that that sums up a lot of the flaws of testing. If you depended on testing, all you’re meeting is people’s expectations, rather than doing something beyond people’s expectations…which is surely the point.
STEREOGUM: I remember seeing you guys play back in 2004. It was around the same time I was first actually being paid to write about music and I was seeing bands play four or five nights a week. The shows you were playing just before the release of Franz Ferdinand…it was one of the first times I really experienced that kind of frenzy — not just among other music journalists, but also among the kids at the show. People were freaking out trying to get into the shows even though a lot of people didn’t even know your music at all…there was just the feeling that something big was happening and your band was at the center of it. It must have been surreal to be on the receiving end of that.
ALEX KAPRANOS: You feel very detached from it. You don’t feel like it has anything to do with you. And, in a way, it doesn’t because that kind of frenzy isn’t whipped up by you. It certainly wasn’t by us. We just made a record. You know, people get excited about things, and … that’s the way that whole world works, isn’t it? If one person sees another person getting excited, they go, “Well, I have to be excited too.” And uh, you know, it’s quite funny to watch it from the eye of the storm. But, you do feel like you’re in a strange little pocket while craziness was going on about you.
STEREOGUM: When it comes to stepping outside of that and just getting back to the business of making music — particularly for the second and third record — was it a difficult thing to do?
ALEX KAPRANOS: Yeah, because as you go into the studio to make that second record it’s as if the storm is dying down and suddenly you can see all this wreckage that the storm has left behind that you couldn’t really see before. I don’t think it’s a particularly natural or healthy environment to be in, creatively. Which probably is why, well, it’s not probably, it is why we chose to make this record in the way we did.
STEREOGUM: Has your way of working — they way the band writes songs — changed much since you first started?
BOB HARDY: It changed over the different records, sure, but I think it probably got a little less collaborative on the second record. Mainly because we were so much in each other’s company all the time before then. We just didn’t naturally talk to each other as much for a while because we had just spent so much time with each other. We wanted a break. I know that the third record, I think the major difference there was we went into the studio and actually wrote in the studio, so, and we started off with rhythms and then added melodies to rhythms, and then added lyrics to the melodies…it was a different way of working.
ALEX KAPRANOS: It was almost like we were doing our own mini pop factory.
BOB HARDY: Yeah, everything was quite segmented. Somebody had told us, “Oh, I don’t make music until I’ve got so many riffs piled up, then I go in and start writing the songs…”
ALEX KAPRANOS: Yeah, and I — looking back, it wasn’t a healthy way for us to write. And we kicked against that quite radically when we were making this record. We had a lot of discussion before we made this record….and in a way we worked the same way we did when we formed the band. We talked about the principles of what makes a band good, and what makes a record work, what makes music work…
BOB HARDY: And why you wanna be in a band.
ALEX KAPRANOS: And why, yeah, what is the purpose of all this? And one of the conclusions that we came up with was the order in which you do things. And this probably sounds incredibly obvious, but it’s so obvious you can miss it quite easily, and that’s you start with an idea, and if you’ve got idea then you’ve got a good premise for the lyrics, and if you’ve got a good premise for the lyrics, then you can write a good melody and song. And if you’ve got a great song, then you can perform as a band, and if you can perform as a band, then you can perform in the studio and record it. And that’s the order in which you should do it, which is actually the exact opposite order that we were making the songs in the studio last time. And, maybe that other order works for other people but it’s not so comfortable for us. I think we make our strongest material this way … and it’s more fun, it’s more enjoyable. You just feel so much more focused when you know exactly what it is you’re actually communicating and why you’re doing it.
STEREOGUM: It’s tricky — the balance between wanting to mix things up and keep it interesting or just creating weird parameters for no real reason. Like, this time we’re not gonna use any computers and we’re only gonna do things this way and this way It can be interesting, but it can be so arbitrary.
ALEX KAPRANOS: Yes. I mean I think it’s good to give yourself parameters sometimes, but I know what you mean…and sometimes you can get caught up in the mythology that you hear about other people. I remember hearing about how Captain Beefheart made Trout Mask Replica, and everybody was locked away in his house, and they couldn’t leave, and they barely ate while they were there. And you think, “Oh that’s how they created that masterpiece? By making their lives living hell?” I mean, I do think parameters are good, and I know that there were certain parameters we had on this record, but they came about from observing what was good for us, and avoiding what I felt didn’t work on other records that I hear around about me. You mentioned computers there, and when I’ve been producing records over the last couple of years, I came up with this no-notes rule. It’s a thing that you have in Pro-Tools that you hear in so many records nowadays, because in Pro-Tools it’s so easy to take a piece of music, of recorded music in Logic, and that music’s sort of just…Logic is always sort of in time, so that all the beats are perfectly on the grid.
BOB HARDY: Precisely.
ALEX KAPRANOS: Yeah, exactly in time, like not just in time with something else but just all to a grid, and I feel like over the last decade we’ve heard all these records that, they sound both perfect and boring — like a photoshopped image on the front of a magazine.
BOB HARDY: It dehumanizes it.
ALEX KAPRANOS: Totally. And I think it’s important to embrace technology, to love technology if you see something like computer based recording, and to see how great it is to record so quickly and so clearly, and to capture the sound of people in a room…but not get caught up in the ability to wipe clean the character, and the personality, and the flaws of a performance. So yeah, I think parameters like that are healthy, but it’s when you set parameters that affect your mental well being, that’s when you’ve got a problem.
STEREOGUM: How long did the process take to make this record?
ALEX KAPRANOS: Well I guess we started…hmm, about 2 years ago wasn’t it?
BOB HARDY: Oh…yeah.
ALEX KAPRANOS: I guess maybe Nick and I met up a little bit before. Actually it’s probably about a year and a half altogether of making the record. That’s from starting to write songs to finishing the recording.
STEREOGUM: Does everybody live near each other?
BOB HARDY: Not so much anymore, um, like … Paul and I live in Glasgow, quite close, you know, I can walk to his house sort of, but um, and then Alex lives just a drive, a short drive really, south of Glasgow.
ALEX KAPRANOS: And Nick’s in London. But, you know, it’s not that hard to get to, it’s what, like 3 hours on the train? In a way, it’s kind of easier to get to each other and spend time with each other now than it would’ve been when we formed as a band, back when you might’ve had a part-time job, or somebody was working at a bar, or whatever, and you know, it’s kind of harder to get time together in those circumstances really than it is when you have the privilege of time and no day job. We try to do everything in short bursts as well, because it’s easy, especially later on your career, to spend long, long periods working on something where it can feel like it could become a drudge, you know, when you’re in the same place for a long time it can feel claustrophobic. So we would deliberately only spend a couple of days writing, then I’d go off and do something else, and then maybe two weeks maximum in the studio, and only two or three songs at a time, and we’d try to finish it in that session as well. And so, in a way, making this record felt like we were going through a series of EPs and picking the songs that we felt worked best from those EPs to make the body of work…rather than planning that body of work in advance and then going into record it. It allows you a little bit more agility to sort of try different ideas and go to different places without getting caught out and losing your sense of direction.
STEREOGUM: I’ve had the record for a while — a week or so — so I’ve been listening to it a lot.
ALEX KAPRANOS: Now that’s amazing in contemporary terms. [Laughs]. A whole week!
STEREOGUM: There’s a remarkably unfussy quality about this record that I really like.
ALEX KAPRANOS: Oh, good, good.
STEREOGUM: I don’t know if it’s because the technology makes it so easy, but “unfussy” is a pretty rare quality in a lot of music I am sent on daily basis…
ALEX KAPRANOS: That’s what I was gonna say — its a little bit of the horrors of Pro Tools. It’s so easy to stack layers upon layers upon layers. I think it’s often what happens when people feel, “Oh, I don’t have a particularly strong melody here, uh, so, I’ll put another melody that’s not particularly strong on top of that one, and so maybe together that’ll be good…” — when what really needs to happen is that you take away all that stuff and put one strong melody on there instead. And I think our process of arrangement is based upon reduction, you know? Like, even if you have a chord sequence behind a song, we always try to remove the chords and have a counter melody and melodies that imply the chords rather than having them in there. We had this principle of early on of no guitar solos — and there is actually a guitar solo on the record — but you know, no areas of showing off or anything like that. So, reduction was quite an important principle in the process for us.
STEREOGUM: It’s rare. It’s like that old adage about getting dressed up to go out — -look at yourself in the mirror and take off two things, then you’re ready.
ALEX KAPRANOS: Yeah. [laughs]. It’s funny isn’t it? To be able to make a record — or have a band — you have to have a certain degree of self-belief…but that self-belief can often distract you into believing that everything you make is wonderful. That’s poison for a band. You’ve got to — it’s strange, it’s like you use two completely different sides of your creative personality, you have this free side from which everything pours out and then you have this really brutal side to add and cut away and say “No, that’s not good enough, that’s not gonna stay.” And even when we were putting together the record at the end, it was hard. It was hard deciding to put only ten songs on because it was only those ten songs together which felt concise and coherent and put across everything that we needed to say.
STEREOGUM: How many songs did you have to cut?
ALEX KAPRANOS: Umm, well were gonna have 11 of them, but we had a bank of about 20.
BOB HARDY: Yeah, about 20 recorded.
ALEX KAPRANOS: Yeah.
BOB HARDY: Yeah but until the eleventh hour.
ALEX KAPRANOS: Until the mastering actually. It’s funny though the song that we cut was this song “Scarlet And Blue,” which we always thought was a key song for the record. And it was a key song for the development of the record, because it lead to all these other things. And then the reason that we knew it wasn’t right was because when we were putting the running order together, we couldn’t place it. It was like, “It doesn’t really fit after that one, and if you put it here, then the one after it doesn’t sound quite right,” you know like if you put a mixtape together for somebody. It was that awkward song that you want your pal to hear but it’s just not right for that compilation…and that’s what happened with that song. It takes a certain amount of, what is it, brutality, or strength? I don’t know, it’s hard to let them go sometimes. No matter how much you like it, it can’t fit if it just doesn’t work…even if you want it to.
STEREOGUM: Your last record — Tonight: Franz Ferdinand — was a successful record by the standards of almost any band. Still, I felt like that album kind of suffered in people perception simply because….well, because you were no longer a new band. And you are competing with all this other NEW music. For a lot of bands, coming to terms with no longer being the cool new thing can really do their head in.
ALEX KAPRANOS: Yeah, I think it’s probably the most difficult period for a band, definitely. Yeah, because you don’t have the impact of the new. You also start to feel a certain amount of exhaustion as a band around that time as well. That comes not so much from your creative side but just from the way things are set up — bands pay their rent by touring nowadays, and there’s so much touring. Bands tour probably about 500% more than bands would’ve ten or twenty years go. And the more and more I think about it, the more I think it’s a terrible evolution; it’s had a terrible effect of the evolution of bands. Think of the output of bands in the ’80s — like The Smiths — they were doing an album every two years and it’s because they would only really go on tour for three weeks. Then they would maybe do another weeklong tour of Germany, or something like that, and then go, “Alright! Lets go back into the studio!” In a way, I’m a little envious of that. That would be a great privilege.
BOB HARDY: Especially, for our first record — which was written in 2002, or partly even in 2001 — and then we recorded 2003. And then you go on tour forever and you have to really plan when you can go back into the studio and there’s no time to simply live life and write songs the way you did before…suddenly your entire life has changed.
STEREOGUM: Like they always say — you have your whole life to make your first record, you have six months to make your second one…if you’re lucky.
ALEX KAPRANOS: It wasn’t even six months for us; it was like straight in the studio from tour. Yeah, I think that space is a good thing, and that’s what we tried to do with this one. Well no, we didn’t try to do that, we did do that…we deliberately gave ourselves that space to allow it to form rather than force it into being.
STEREOGUM: That’s smart.
ALEX KAPRANOS: It just seemed right. And this came about from that conversation that Bob and I had about why we wanted to make the record and how we should make the record. In talking about it you just suddenly see all those obvious things that you knew before you were even in a band what you loved about music and…well, you know.
STEREOGUM: That’s good. I feel like the culture doesn’t allow for a lot of people to pause and rethink things in that way. Maybe it’s because of the pressure to make money or the pervasive feeling like everything has to do at least as good as the last record or perform a little bit better than the thing they did before…or it’s a failure.
ALEX KAPRANOS: I’m not talking about Domino or anything like that, but often the label is concerned with continuing that sort of commercial success rather than allowing a natural creative evolution. And yeah, that can often kill things.
STEREOGUM: For what it’s worth, I really love the mellow songs on the record.
ALEX KAPRANOS: On this new record? Oh, like “Stand On The Horizon” and “The Universe Expanded”?
STEREOGUM: Yeah, yeah.
ALEX KAPRANOS: Yeah, “The Universe Expanded” and “Stand On The Horizon” are maybe my two favorite songs on it.
STEREOGUM: They’re beautiful.
ALEX KAPRANOS: Yeah, they’re … um, yeah, I’ve got to thank Bob though for songs like those because Bob is doing the vocals, Bob was a great help with me in sort of guiding those into being…
BOB HARDY: Me being brilliant [laughs]
STEREOGUM: What will the rest of this year be like for you guys? Do you anticipate touring a ton for this record?
ALEX KAPRANOS: I would hope that we could not tour as intensively as we’ve done before, just to leave that space for creating, you know, making more, and keeping your sanity and keeping your perspective. That’s probably more important than going out there on the road continuously.
STEREOGUM: Do you enjoy playing live? It always appears that way.
ALEX KAPRANOS: I do, I love it. It’s amazing. It’s such an intense feeling, but um, it’s very different from the reward you get from actually creating it. I’d say the reward for creating it is a much deeper reward.
BOB HARDY: It’s weird, but when you start a band, you don’t assume you’re gonna actually make a record; you’re only doing it so you can play live.
ALEX KAPRANOS: Yes, that’s right.
BOB HARDY: So when some actually says, “Oh, you know, you have to actually put your record out now” then it becomes a different thing.
STEREOGUM: Different people have such different perspectives on it. Talking to someone like Trent Reznor — a total studio obsessive who is trying to make this thing be as perfect as it can be, in a very almost ’70s Pink Floyd-y kind of way — is very different than talking to a young garage rock band who just want to document the songs really quickly in order to go play them live.
ALEX KAPRANOS: Yeah, yeah, I like a little bit of both. I like the idea of a document, and in a way it feels like you are curating your own work when you make a record. You’re sort of deciding, “Well, this is what we represent right now and what we’ve done for this period of time.” And I do like that side of things as well — working on the sonics of the songs and trying to be as creative in the studio as you would be with your songwriting. But, for me, for us, we place the importance more on the songwriting. Especially for this record. I think for the last record it was the other way around, everything was placed upon the sonics first, and then the songwriting. For this record it was the songs have to be there before we record a single sound. I mean, I do love playing around in the studio, and as we’ve gone on as a band the production has played a much bigger part as well. And I don’t think we could’ve made this record if we hadn’t done a lot of the experimentation that we did on the last record. Everything — good or bad — is a lesson in how to do things and how to make things better. We’re always interested in that — in trying to figure out what is the best possible way to make the best songs we possibly can.
Franz Ferdinand’s Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action will be released by Domino on August 27.