Franz Ferdinand have ruled the absurdist disco-rock roost since 2004’s slugger hit Take Me Out; with fifth album Always Ascending, the Glaswegian five-piece knock it out of the park with propulsive drums, natty synths and frontman Alex Kapranos’ amusingly peculiar lyrics. We spoke to drummer/percussionist Paul Thompson about how to write topical lyrics that won’t date, which Wu-Tang offshoot is the greatest, switching up the usual recording/touring timeline, and the fascinating auditory illusion which underpins the record’s titular track.
The album’s lead single is Always Ascending, which uses an aural illusion called the Shepard Effect (by subtly overlapping smooth notes, it seems as if one note is constantly going upward into infinity). Where did you get the idea?
Yeah, the Shepard Tone, that’s just two tones that… I’m trying to remember the actual science behind it. We decided to lay that under the track. The chord sequence never resolved, so that’s where the initial idea came from. It makes you feel sort of excited and a little disturbed at the same time.
Apparently Hans Zimmer used the same effect in the score for Dunkirk.
I haven’t seen it yet, but that kind of tension… I think with most exhilarating experiences, you have to add a little element of fear. Makes it a bit more real.
My favourite on the album is Huck and Jim; it’s extremely weird and has so many ideas within one track: matching hi-hat and bass, the subtle warps and glitches, and the way Alex’s voice slides creepily downward. How did it come together?
That was the last song we wrote for the record – it just came at the very last minute. We were mucking about and these ideas started to come out, and the whole process kind of steamrolled. It just became more and more ridiculous. We thought the chorus sounded like ‘90s alternative music, like Weezer – it sounded a bit American. We needed a placeholder for the lyric, and Alex started singing [in a silly voice] “We’re going to America!” The next thing was, what would you do if you went to America? Well, let’s tell them about the National Health Service – the health care here is completely f-cked up! And then Huck and Jim, the two characters from [classic American novel] Huckleberry Finn – Huckleberry runs off with the escaped slave Jim. Then the verse is kind of an attempt at rap, and getting it horribly wrong. It’s a daft song. I thought [Alex’s] riffs sounded a bit like Liquid Swords by GZA – the best of the Wu-Tang spin-off records.
The Academy Award is also a brilliant indictment of social media without ever saying that phrase explicitly. I think it has to be abstract to work – as soon as you hear “iphone” or “instagram” the message just deflates. Was that a conscious decision?
Exactly, ‘cause otherwise it just completely dates the music. You want your music to have a timeless feel, and for it to have a little bit of ambiguity as well. I think they’re Alex’s best lyrics – they’re my favourite of his lyrics he’s ever written. It’s just a series of little non-sequiturs that happen to thread together quite well. I like lyrics that are like little private jokes that people can read their own meaning into.
I especially like the line “404 Gateway not found,” because I realised I’d never heard it spoken aloud.
Yes, it sounded like weird poetry or something. It’s just this message that’s everybody’s seen. Nobody actually knows what it is. Well, Julian [Corrie, keys/synths] probably knows what it is – he’s a Millennial, so he knows a bit.
Don’t Kill Me Slow is very achingly romantic, particularly your parts: gentle toms, very controlled hi-hat, and rolled crashes. Is there even a gong in there?
Yeah, there’s a gong! And I just flipped the snare off, and played the tom without the snare on. I played it with beaters [mallets], instead of sticks – you get a softer attack. I would imagine, personally, [we’d play it] at the end of the main set before we go off and pretend that that’s it. When we’re actually standing backstage drinking some water. We just stand there. Take a breather. It’s a break. It’s not an encore. We’re not kidding anybody.
You’ve been playing most of the album live throughout the past year; was it a deliberate test, before you actually recorded anything?
Yes. We wanted to play all the songs before we recorded it because we wanted to capture the band live on record. I find it too stressful if you’re trying to emulate something you did on the record once. Our live sessions are always going to be slightly different; we do subtle variations just to keep things interesting for us. Studio and live are two completely different beasts.
Always Ascending is out Feb 9 via Domino.
Read our review of the album here.
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