Even in silent, grainy black and white, the scene is infused with impending disaster. An airship, the Akron, descends towards the landing field, hundreds of sea cadets holding tight to the ropes to guide the gas-filled giant into berth. As it approaches ground, it dumps fuel, clearly troubled. The news announcer’s voice turns cold; a gust of wind carries the ship back into the sky. Most of the sea cadets let it go but some cling on, carried hundreds of feet into the air clinging desperately to its ropes.
One by one, tiny specks of ancient celluloid, from out of the sky they drop to earth.
“As I was writing this song I could feel the weightlessness of the music,” Alex Kapranos says, “and I was imagining being in that situation where you have conflicting sensations. An overwhelming sense of fear and terror as you’re trying to hold on but how difficult and painful it is to hold on to a rope, it’s burning your arms and the wind’s blowing around about you and you don’t know which way is up and what’s down. You want to keep holding on but you want to let go at the same time.”
Writing songs takes Alex places. Into pre-war air disasters, classic cult literature and television, long-forgotten art exhibitions. The ever-rising Shepherd tone of 'Always Ascending', the title track from Franz Ferdinand’s art-rock fifth album, transports him back to that clip of Pathe News footage from the early 1930’s of the Akron disaster, which killed more people than the Hindenburg. Writing ‘Paper Cages’ took him back to a project by Chinese artist Tehching Hsieh, in which he sealed himself inside a cage for a full year with just a single sheet of paper – “so many psychological barriers that we place for ourselves are as flimsy as paper and could easily be burst through… a lot of them aren’t there to contain ourselves but to protect ourselves, to stop people getting too close or to preserve our feelings. You can step out of them if you want to, but quite often they’re good to maintain.”
And ‘Huck And Jim’? Why, that had him paddling through the Mississippi heat, mid-19th Century. “I was thinking ‘what’s a really American image? Who would be the most iconic figure that could represent America from film or literature or music or whatever, who’s the most powerful figure?’ Immediately I went back to my childhood. I remember my dad reading me The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and I guess that was probably one of my first experiences of American culture. It was so vivid in my head, I was back there in that adventure. I was on the raft.”
You might think that Alex is keen to escape the real world. The world where major noughties guitar bands like Franz, merely by dint of the singles chart compilers kow-towing to the Sheeran-skewed streaming figures, appear to be sliding into obscurity. Where Trump and Brexit creep into every despairing rock lyric and even his own band is losing limbs – guitarist Nick McCarthy left to avoid spending lengthy tours away from his young family.
But Alex seems unphased and untroubled by such minor tribulations. “At no point was I thinking ‘how do I put these thoughts into the charts?’” he scoffs at the suggestion that rock’s exile from the mainstream had affected the band, “I was in bands for ten years before Franz Ferdinand who had absolutely zero exposure whatsoever, so the fact that we still go on prime time BBC TV, I shouldn’t be complaining just because the singles situation is slightly different.” They had plenty of warning that Nick was planning to depart. “we knew before the FFS record [Franz’s 2015 collaboration with Sparks] came out. That way it meant we could enjoy that FFS tour with Nick and not make it a big deal, enjoy the gigs, it felt very natural. People’s circumstances change in their lives. He’s got a family and he didn’t like being away from it.” He’s “loving” playing with Franz’s two replacement members, Julian Corrie (keyboards) and Dino Bardot (guitar), both plucked from their beloved Glasgow hometown scene. “When Nick left the band and it came to doing something new, we thought, ‘if we can make a record with Ron and Russell, we can probably make a record with anyone’.” You didn’t consider doing a Killers, letting Nick just be a studio member? “That didn’t seem very cool.”
And last year’s one-off anti-Trump single ‘Demagogue’ appears to have exorcised Alex’s urge to document the dire state of world politics.
“It’s almost like an anti-political record in some senses,” he says of Always Ascending. “It does touch on a couple of issues, it’s almost unavoidable in the age we’re in at the moment, but after we wrote ‘Demagogue’, we kinda decided to almost go in the opposite direction. Say ‘fuck, that’s going on over there but let’s make a piece of art that lifts you up, allows you to ascend from this stinking situation we find ourselves in’.”
It’s an attitude riven into the deepest undertone of the album’s title track. A heady piece of electro-rock full of imagery about a kind of anti-gravity world and built around the Shepherd tone – a note that appears to keep rising endlessly - it’s a sound that both unsettles and disorientates (“You don’t know where you are, you don’t know what’s rising and what’s falling”), but also fills you with a dizzying sense of optimism, like overdosing on helium. Disorientation is key to this artfully off-kilter pop record – Alex’s vocals seem eerily askew throughout, as if purposefully shifted an unsettling sliver off-key, and the very next track, the bed-bound ‘Lazy Boy’, sets out to literally wrong-foot the listener.
“I was trying to write a piece of dance music in an odd time signature,” Alex explains. “Rather than make it four-to-the-floor, make it five-to-the-floor. It’s dead easy to dance to because the beat’s really regular but you find yourself landing on your left foot when you think you should be landing on your right foot. It’s also subverting the whole premise of math rock, which has always been proving to your listeners how brainy you are. It’s not that brainy, counting to an odd number, human's have been doing it from the age of two or three. It’s dumb but it’s slightly fun, and it makes you feel slightly seasick while you’re doing it.”
Always Ascending hides its dark edges well. At first listen, the opiated pop of ‘Finally’ sounds like a 60s hippy cult recruitment song, Alex praising the “springtime shine” and declaring “finally, I’ve found my people… god how it feels good to be with the people like me”. But the roots of the song are much more harried, inspired by the Jack Black (not that one) book from You Can’t Win, the story of a career criminal and drifter in the USA at the turn of the 20th Century which also inspired William Burroughs’ novel Junkie.
“It started off with verses that didn’t make it to the final song,” Alex says, “they were probably the bleakest verses I’ve ever written. At the end of the book there’s a phrase that ended up in the lyrics – somebody’s being interviewed who knew the guy and they’re asked what happened to him and they say ‘he probably did what most people in his situation do, fill the pockets of his overcoat with rocks and take a walk off a bridge’. The verses were originally along that sort of theme, exploring absolute existential bleakness and seeing no point in continuing. I was talking to Bob about it, about what it’s like when you’re in that situation and when we’ve been in that situation before. We were talking about how sometimes it’s worth going through that because maybe you’re feeling absolute alienation and alone-ness and having nothing and nobody in your life – how it can be worth experiencing that and getting through it for when you do meet the people that you’re supposed to be with or that do give you some sort of solace, you appreciate it so much more intensely.”
Was that all from personal experience? Alex pauses. “I don’t think I know anybody in my life that hasn’t felt like that at some point. Pretty much every sensitive type who goes off and forms a band has felt that situation. I’m not saying I’m particularly special because I felt that way, I’m not, it’s a universal sensation.”
Other tracks accidentally touch on bleaker themes. The Hollywood-based ‘The Academy Award’ was written well before the Weinstein revelations, but could easy be read as a response to them, with its sinister refrain “show me the body” and lines like “the secret to longevity is to stay away from men”. In the wake of #metoo the demands for greater respect for women have flowed into other entertianent industries, including music - how do you feel about campaigns such as the one to achieve a 50/50 gender balance at festivals within a few years?
“I’d like to see there being more female bands,” Alex says, “and talking to a lot of my female friends in the music industry - and I’m not talking just about musicians but people working in the music industry as a whole - there are definitely barriers there. Life can be really fucking miserable if you’re a woman working in the music industry and a lot needs to be addressed both in terms of attitude and opportunity. When I first started playing in bands and putting bands on it was the height of the Riot Grrrl movement and that seemed very powerful at that time. It felt like there was a radical change happening. That was maybe overshadowed by the lad generation that followed it immediately. I don’t know if the change is definitely gonna happen, but I’d like to see some change.”
One change none of us wants to see in the world is America’s Big Pharma hawks getting their poisoned claws into the NHS. It’s a topic Alex addresses on the album’s most overtly political (and vaguely hip-hop) track, ‘Huck And Jim’. “My head was full of what was in the news at that moment, which was, in the UK, our government trying to sell of the NHS through the back door, the dismantling of the NHS and the absolute catastrophe that that is, whereas in America, it was at the time when Trump was desperately trying to destroy the Affordable Care Act after Obama had not introduced a version of the NHS but made a slight step in that direction. The first thing Trump did when he came to power was to try to destroy it, because the black man had once ridiculed him in public. Most people in bands are not in a situation where they can actually afford health care for themselves in America. It’s something we take for granted over here, you assume that if you break your leg you go to hospital and you get it dealt with. I’ve got friends who just cross their fingers that they don’t end up in a situation like that because they wouldn’t be able to afford it. It’s a fucked up situation over there.
“I do generally believe that it is a basic tenet of civilisation that you educate, you care – in other words provide housing and support if you’re poor – and you provide health care. Those are the three basic elements of civilisation. To follow the American model where pharmacy, drugs, medicine are seen not as an opportunity to care for people but an opportunity to make a profit, it literally turns my stomach and makes the blood run cold in my veins at the thought of it. I was up to see my grandmother in South Shields in Newcastle a couple of weeks ago and we were talking about the situation and she was born in 1928 and I was talking to her about what health care was like before the NHS. That’s living memory. She was talking about how there was a wee woman that stayed on her street and if you had a headache and you could afford it, you could get aspirin tablets off her. People would only call the doctor out if they could afford it, and most people just did without. She was talking about how radical a change it was, the opportunity for everyone to have these things that we take for granted. Often the things we take for granted can easily slip away because we don’t realise how precious they are. We have to be vocal about it, we do have to say ‘look out, this is a dangerous situation we’re in at the moment’. This government we have seem desperate to destroy it.”
The racists and conmen that Huck Finn and his runaway slave friend Jim encounter on their adventure seemed “A powerful clue to what’s fucked up” in the state of modern America to Alex – “the two conmen, The King and The Duke, that they pick up on the raft as they’re going along, they hold a mock religious meeting to do over the gullible folk of this town they stop off in. These canny hucksters, they’re basically the prototype for Donald Trump.”
The right-wing fascist infection infiltrates the silk synth pop of ‘Louis Lane’ too, telling the story of a young journalist who dreams of saving the world and investigating corruption, but comes up against the overwhelming right-wing media bias. “Unfortunately there’s another side to the power of journalism that we’re seeing around about us,” Alex says, “the Fox News coverage and the wider news coverage, that journalism or reporting can change the world for the negative as well, which we’re seeing quite powerfully at present.”
If only the social media algorithms did anything other than echo back everyone’s embedded opinions, plus the occasional Russian Brexitbot, eh? “I think people approach social media as if it’s the opposite, as if it’s a form of liberation,” Alex argues. “They get to speak their minds freely. Which is maybe what’s dangerous about it, the fact that people are indulging a lot of ideas that should be kept to themselves sometimes. Also with celebrities too, you see people and go ‘fucking hell, what a disappointment, now I’ve gotta associate these opinions and your personal beliefs with your work, which I like?’ It’s sometimes maybe too much information.” You sound like the archetypal lapsed Morrissey fan? “Fortunately he’s never been on social media. Hasn’t he got a website that he posts his outre remarks on? Via fax, I presume.”
It’s the key to Always Ascending. In a world of bigmouths striking again and again and again, Franz Ferdinand rise above.
Words: Steven Kline