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Franz Ferdinand's Nick McCarthy (left) and Alex Kapranos at an unnanounced show at Glasslands in Brooklyn, New York, on July 23, 2013. Photo by Frank White.
When a new band strikes it as big as Franz Ferdinand did in 2003 with their danceable post-punk radio hit “Take Me Out,” hardcore guitarists can be dismissive, ignoring subtleties like the intro’s deceptively simple tempo changes, or how brilliantly the lean, snarling dual guitar parts shift and slither within the relentless tide of the band’s lockstep rhythm section.
Such attitudes don’t hurt the feelings of Alex Kapranos and Nick McCarthy, Franz Ferdinand’s guitarists, one bit. The two Scots are completely out of the guitar-ego loop. “I tend not to write parts to show off my skill or new techniques,” Kapranos says. McCarthy is a bit more lighthearted about it, recounting how, while the band was tracking their latest album, Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action, he tried to master a fast picking technique. “I had to stop,” he says. “I was laughing too much.”
If kneejerk dismissiveness hurts anyone, it’s players who could learn a thing or two from Kapranos and McCarthy about composition, mood, and sparseness. Both players have fresh perspectives on the art of guitar, though they stem from very different backgrounds. McCarthy’s guitar work is informed by his training as a classical pianist and double bassist, while Kapranos playing is refreshingly naïve. In fact, he started playing guitar the year before Ferdinand made it big.
We recently spoke to the two guitarists about devising great parts, recording Right Thoughts, their meticulous miking techniques, and their fondness for offbeat gear from Harmony, Silvertone, Hagstrom, Hoyer, Selmer, and Traynor.
What was the writing process like for Right Thoughts?
Alex Kapranos: The majority of writing was done before the recording. We didn’t go near the studio until we had songs that we could all play and we understood how they worked. That’s quite different from our last LP [2009’s Tonight], where we started off with grooves and beats upon which we wrote melodies and then lyrics. Nick and I write most of the music together, although sometimes Bob [Hardy, bassist] and I start with a lyrical idea that I’ll work on with the guitar or piano. This is a very live album. Every song has a live performance of the four of us in a room together at the heart of it.
Nick McCarthy: Our playing is just writing music. It’s not the specific instrument, but the whole thing. Our main goal is always to just write some good songs and then record them.
Did you have any specific visions for the overall sound of the new album?
Kapranos: One principle was the shedding of chords in favor of melody and countermelody. It’s fine to use chords for the writing of the main melody, but when it comes to the final arrangement we’d lose the chords so that progressions were suggested by the melodies, rather than played out.
McCarthy: I think this album sounds very much like us. It’s very honest and open, and it lets you get inside what we are and what we like/ That was the plan. It worked out for some reason, I think. It doesn’t always, of course.
Kapranos: The new sounds came partly from trying new playing ideas, but mainly with the writing and arrangement. Nick and I spent a long time listening to records we liked—particularly classical music—to see how they were arranged. I know our music sounds nothing like that, but the principles are universal.
After you conferred on that more compositional approach, how did you go about writing the guitar parts?
McCarthy: I usually write on an old acoustic that I bought in Germany for 10 Deutsche marks, just because I like the history of it. I take it on tour sometimes or write on it when I have a few hours at home. I really like playing the piano as well, so I switch between the two. Then we usually electrify the whole thing and get rid of the chords and play single notes. That seems to work for us.
Kapranos: I usually write with an acoustic, too. I have an old Gibson, but my favorite is an old Harmony guitar conversion by Colfax Guitar Shop in Denver. They take old Kay, Stella, and Harmony guitars and re-brace them by hand. You’re left with a low-budget guitar that sounds as rich as a Martin, but you’re not afraid to leave it lying around, spill wine on it, or knock it over. When it comes to the final arrangement, I normally pick up one of my favorite electrics—an old ’66 Tele or my ’73 Tele Deluxe.
The Scots revisit the hit that started it all—“Take Me Out”—at the 2009 Glastonbury Festival.
Do you sit down and hash out guitar parts together?
Kapranos: Nick and I always interweave our parts. I think of them like a lattice—woven together, occasionally overlapping, but generally following distinct routes that make up the strong whole. I’d say neither of us plays “lead” or “rhythm,” but we both play “rhythmic melody.” We’ve always seen ourselves as a dance band as much as a rock ’n’ roll band, so the rhythmic composition and playing is as important as the melody.
Tell us about the process of capturing your guitar tones in the studio.
Kapranos: We recorded a lot of it at Black Pudding, my studio in Scotland. Over the last few years I’ve spent a lot of time working on how to record a natural but powerful sound. I’m not a fan of close-miked cabs. I usually place the mic directly in front of the cone, but between one and four feet away, depending on where it will be in the mix. This creates what I think of as a 3D sound—the equivalent of adding shading or perspective to a picture. As I mentioned, most of the playing was live. We work better when we play the parts live rather than building up overdubs. It feels more alive that way. You get more precision from overdubs, but the overall effect is a little anodyne for my taste.
McCarthy: I’ve got two basic tones that I always go for in the studio. One is Angus Young’s tone, and the other is a tone similar to what Talking Heads get. I like to keep it simple, so that I don’t overthink anything. I always prefer simplicity.