With more than 10 million albums sold, 1.2 billion streams, 14 platinum albums, Brit, Ivor Novello and Mercury Prize award wins, Grammy nominations and six million tickets sold for live shows worldwide, it’s fair to say it’s been a busy two decades for Glasgow indie favourites Franz Ferdinand.
However, as becomes very clear from chatting with co-founding bass player Bob Hardy, it seems there was never some kind of arrogant self-belief that it might all lead to such fame, back in the day.
Having signed to Domino in May 2003, releasing debut single, ‘Darts of Pleasure’ shortly after, it was second single, ‘Take Me Out’ that truly launched them, their eponymous 2004 debut album going on to sell nearly four million copies worldwide.
Artistically always forging forward, following albums You Could Have It So Much Better (2005), Tonight: Franz Ferdinand (2009), Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action (2013) and Always Ascending (2018) offered new takes on the template, working with pioneering producers such as Dan Carey, Joe Goddard and Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip, Todd Terje, and Philippe Zdar.
And now there’s Hits to the Head, a 20-track greatest hits collection, released today (Friday, March 11th) on that same label they signed up to 19 years ago. But first off – remind us, Bob – what initially drove this lad from Bradford, West Yorkshire, to Glasgow?
“A couple of things really. I moved here ostensibly to study at the art school, because the painting department was really good, and I wanted to paint. I was either going to London or Glasgow, I guess, but I didn’t really fancy London. Glasgow was more appealing to me. We always came to Scotland on holiday when I was a kid.
“And the music scene was a big draw as well. When I was a teenager in Bradford, I was an obsessive music fan and as a huge fan of Glasgow bands like Belle and Sebastian, Mogwai, Arab Strap, The Delgados … that whole Chemikal Underground scene. So it was a bit of both really.
“And it seemed very manageable, because of the size of the city. I had friends that came to Glasgow the year before, I came to visit them, the energy was great and you just felt … you’d see people from bands that I’d been a fan of since I was 15 in the pub! I felt, ‘This is amazing!’.
Is that right that your first bass guitar came from Belle & Sebastian?
“Yeah, that’s right. Mick (Cooke), who played trumpet in the Belles was in a band with Alex (Kapranos). He had a bass lying around the house that he was getting rid of, and Alex said, ‘I’ll take it off your hands’. Mick said, ‘Okay, make sure it’s for someone useful with it. So yeah, that was kind of the beginning of my bass playing career.”
I tend to think of someone like Jim Lea, obviously an artisan at what he did and a brilliant musician, but someone who chose bass because he wasn’t so bothered about being the guy out front. And I guess in Slade it was easy to hide behind Noddy Holder and Dave Hill if need be.
“Yeah … and I’ve never had the ambition to be a singer!”
Alex said recently, ‘It was just me and Bob in the kitchen, where I was a chef and he was a dishwasher, talking about what we’d do if we had a band. Having a laugh. Playing each other music we loved’. That’s something so many bands have in common. Do you think of those times as the best of all? Because, let’s face it, you won’t be short of highlights down the years.
“That was a fun time, but when we first started chatting about music when we were working together in the kitchen, there wasn’t a band. It was the very beginning. It was me and Alex talking. It was fun. But we’ve never really stopped talking about music. So yeah, that’s just something we do. And the whole band. Our conversation is just talking about music. But it was a fun place to work, Alex and I together in the kitchen.”
Where was that kitchen?
“It was in Glasgow, a restaurant called Groucho Saint Judes. It was brilliant. We had this head chef, Martin Teplitzsky, this Australian, he was pretty rock’n’roll. He would blast AC/DC and Motorhead full volume during service. It was really great, really fun, similar to being in a band, there was a lot of prep, and then a very intense period of service. So it’s similar to like, you know, rehearsals, and then the intensity of playing a show.
Talking to Glasgow’s own Clare Grogan recently, she said she’d come to the conclusion –considering Altered Images’ short spell in the limelight – that most bands last between four to seven years, even the successful ones. But it’s been 20 years for Franz Ferdinand. Explain yourself.
“Yeah, I think bands being around so long is unusual nowadays.”
You’re clearly bucking the trend. Even The Beatles probably lasted around a decade, less so as a studio outfit. There will always be those who prove that wrong, like the Rolling Stones for a start. But 20 years is a hell of a landmark for a band still making interesting and rather dynamic music all these years on. So what’s the secret? A little luck at key stages, the ability and craft to move on and move forward? I mean, one thing that jumps out at me is the fact that you’ve always had the same label – Domino. That’s a rarity in itself, surely.
“Yeah, we chose Domino back in 2003, and we’ve always been happy with that. I can’t really imagine us going anywhere else. We have such a great relationship with them, and Laurence Bell, who runs Domino, is such a great person for us, and he’s just part of Franz Ferdinand.
“I don’t think we’d ever planned … if you told us, you know, 20 years ago, we’d be doing this 20 years later, a greatest hits album, I don’t think we’d have believed you. It’s just something we take as it comes, like, we make a record, we tour it. We never make plans to meet to say, ‘Yeah, let’s start working next month on the next record. It’s never like that. Alex will send along at some point demos of the songs and there’ll be something in there that catches my excitement and I want to be a part of … and we go again.”
That shows, just listening to your product down the years. Having said that, reading about the band, you get the impression you shifted from post-punk to dance down the years. But surely those elements were already there. You’ve not strayed far from the path. And you’re always unmistakably Franz Ferdinand.
“Yeah, we were always setting out to be a band that played these guitars, you know, real instruments, from the rock’n’roll world, but using the dynamics of dance music. So yeah, I think we’ve always had a foot in both worlds really.”
By the time of 2017’s ‘Always Ascending’, the lead single from that following year’s LP of the same name, it’s almost Talking Heads meets Blancmange and Giorgio Moroder. So I guess that also documents that shift. Incidentally, did you ever complete your art college studies?
“I did, yeah, I graduated in June 2003, and we signed our contract the same month, I think.”
Is that something you still dabble in?
“I’m literally sitting here in my painting clothes!”
That’s something so many were switched back on to during the lockdowns and so on, not least with encouragement from the likes of Grayson Perry and his Channel 4 show, Grayson’s Art Club.
“Yeah, and I think it’s good for your mental health to have creative outlets. Definitely. Especially in these weird times. And one of the great things about the age we live in as well is social media, so I follow a lot of people online, such as painters. Not necessarily professional, but you know, there’s some really great stuff. And it’s so available – the same as music really. Everything’s kind of at your fingertips nowadays, so I like to keep abreast of what’s going on.”
I went back to the debut LP today, and it still carries that power it initially had, 18 years on.
I know that was an era for front-loaded records aimed at those with short attention spans, but the blistering early pace and strength of tracks like ‘Jacqueline’, ‘Take Me Out’ and ‘Dark of the Matinee’ continues right through.
“Ah, totally. When we made the first record, we did treat it like a singles collection. We do that with all our records though. We have quite a high bar for what we record and release. There’s lots that falls away. We generally treat each album as if every song has equal importance.”
There’s so much scope within, from the classic disco feel of ‘Auf Achse’ to a Can meets Dr Feelgood and Wire motorik vibe for ‘Cheating On You’. In fact, there’s hardly a moment to take stock throughout. What’s more, this was clearly a band having fun. At the same time, a track like ‘Tell Her Tonight’ suggests to me – and it might just be in retrospect, knowing what happened later – here’s a band that would work well with Sparks. You were always wearing influences on sleeves, I guess.
“Yeah. You know, we were fans of Sparks back in the day. Absolutely.”
And hearing again the splendid debut single, ‘Darts for Pleasure’, it’s good to have that – much as it works so well with ‘Jacqueline’ at the top of the first LP – coming right at the outset of this compilation. And there’s a nice linear quality as well in that you end with ‘Billy Goodbye’, more of a glam-rock stamper meets dance epic.
“Yeah. It has swagger, doesn’t it! It was a fun song to record. We’ve played it live a couple of times now. Because of Covid and what-not, we haven’t done a lot of live gigs recently, but when we have done, it’s been a real joy to play.”
I suppose in a way, Alex becomes Bryan Ferry with early Roxy Music on that. But maybe he’s backed by Slade, seeing as I mentioned them before. In short, it’s a classic single in an era when we don’t really have so many of those.
“Yeah, we’re big Roxy fans as well as various other stuff. And Bryan Ferry’s solo stuff.”
Incidentally, should we read anything into Nick McCarthy pulling away in 2016 then Paul Thomson following last year? More to the point, I guess, I should ask what drives you and Alex to carry on making new music.
“Well, there are other people in the band, you know. Dino and Julian have been with us since 2016, six years now, so there is continuity through the career.”
That’s rhythm guitarist Dino Bardot and keyboard player/guitarist Julian Corrie, by the way. And most recently drummer Audrey Tait has made an impact too.
“Yeah, and to answer your question, I think it’s always the music that pulls me back in, really. Like I said before, we never made plans that the band would go on this long. It’s always that we take each album and each tour as it comes. If there’s still music, if we’ve got songs being written that I’m passionate about and want to play on, want to perform live and record, that’s the most fun thing in the world. It’s always led by the music.”
Even as much fun as those dance moves in the video for ‘Curious’, right?
“Ha! That was incredible! That was probably the most fun I’ve ever had at a video shoot.”
‘Curious’ is the other new recording featured – joining ‘Billy Goodbye’ – on Hits to the Head. Of the video (linked here), Alex said, ‘We’ve always said we play dance music, so why don’t we dance in the video? So we gave Andy Knowles, our old pal who was in Bob’s class at art school and played with us in 2005/6, a shout and he was up for it. You can spot his cameo and, yes, that is us actually dancing’.
And is ‘Billy Goodbye’ your tribute to those you’ve lost along the way?
“Well, that was written before Paul left. And Nick’s been gone quite a while now. Alex wrote the lyrics and was intending to write a song which celebrated the end of platonic relationships. I mean, there’s so many songs about the end of love affairs, but so few about the end of the platonic friendship. So he was kind of leaning for that.”
Regarding the sentiment behind the greatest hits compilation, Alex recently said, “I’ve always wanted to make a ‘best of’. They were such a big part of my life growing up. My parents didn’t have a huge record collection. They didn’t have every Bowie LP, they had Changes. The red and blue Beatles (1962-1966 and 1967-1970). Rolled Gold. For them, it was what they wanted to listen to. The best bits. The hits. That’s the point of this record: the hits to the head, hits to the heart, hits to the feet as they hit the dancefloor.
“For me those records were an introduction, a doorway into the artist’s world. It was more, though. For the artists, it was a retrospective. A way to understand the progression of ideas with the perspective of the long term. An indication of where the future may be taking them. Like going to see a retrospective in the Tate, you could see the curve of development without the distraction of every detail. It was a bit of a curve for us too.”
Talking of art, I get the impression that the band’s Glasgow roots save you from that notion of coming over ‘way too art school’, coming from a city where getting too ‘up yourself’, so to speak, would be frowned upon.
“Yeah, Glasgow’s a very normal city. It doesn’t have the extremities of wealth of places like London, so you keep your feet on the ground. But it also has really vibrant music and art scenes. It punches well above its weight, population size, you know, in what it produces and the quality. Music and art … and comedy, it’s kind of through the roof.”
I mentioned Sparks. That must have been a dream come true, the FFS project. You’ve also worked with Jane Birkin, Daft Punk, Debbie Harry, and Edwyn Collins, among others. Have you a long list of dream collaborators you’re gradually ticking off?
“Ha! Well, as these things come up, you know, we’ll say, ‘Oh, we’ll definitely do that!’. And if you’d listed these names 20 years ago, that you’d go on to work with these people at some point,we’d have (a) thought you were joking, and (b) ripped your arm off!”
And what happens next? Is there another direction coming our way to catch us out? Or do you not know yourself?
“Well, the next thing is touring. We’ve got a European tour. We had to postpone the first half, with Covid things getting in the way. But we start in mid-April, and we’re playing some UK shows and we’re finishing in October or November now. So yeah, there’s that – playing live again for the first time in three years, a huge thing that we’re looking forward to. And simultaneously, since May last year we’ve been getting together in the studio and writing for another record.”
Will that LP come our way soon?
“Nothing’s confirmed. We haven’t finished writing or recording. But yeah, it’s in the works.”
Were there tracks on this new compilation you listened to with fresh ears? For one thing, you couldn’t fit them all on.
“Yeah, there are limitations on how much we could put on with a vinyl release, you know, one of the reasons we decided we were releasing it at this point – before there were even more we’d have to leave off. But I’m so familiar with the songs because we play them all live. Through the pandemic, we did a few listening parties with fans online, so I’ve gone back and listened to records for a first time in a while and enjoyed it. There was stuff on there I’d forgotten about and things in songs that don’t necessarily appear in our live arrangements.”
Meanwhile, of all the awards and nominations along the way, which mean the most to you?
“Erm … I’m not sure. The MTV award involved a very nice statue. I’m looking at that right now. So I’ll say that one!”
And what do you reckon is the most fun you’ve had in the band these past two decades?
“Erm … too many to list really, you know, we’ve been touring the world for 20 years. More highlights than I can think of, really.”
I was thinking of something random that puts a smile on your face, making you think, ‘Bloody hell, what a life!’.
“Yeah, I mean, the first time we played in Glasgow after the record came out, our very first album. That was pretty special. We played the QMU in Glasgow. It was wild, and we weren’t expecting the kind of reaction we got.”
Well, hopefully, we’ll have more of that on this tour.
“I hope so, yeah. Fingers crossed.”
Hits to the Head is available as a CD, deluxe CD, double-gatefold double-LP, limited-edition indies-only gatefold red double-LP, limited-edition D2C exclusive gatefold gold double-LP vinyl, and a cassette. And the CDs and LPs feature extensive liner notes from former Les Inrockuptibles editor JD Beauvallet, and exclusive, unseen photographs. The album is also available digitally, and can be pre-ordered here.