“You know more about me than I do!!!” said Alex Kapranos as I listed the names of bands that he had previously – and however briefly – been in. I had half-expected him to be annoyed at the fact that the carefully crafted mystique of Franz Ferdinand might be sabotaged by ties to the past. Look at all those (Miles Hunt, Clint Boon, Paul McCartney) who are saddled with the millstone of their previous lives, never escaping from its shadow. The difference is that Franz Ferdinand are brilliant, standing proudly next to the achievements of Kapranos’s previous, just as brilliant, band.
I know what you’re thinking: “I’d never heard of the name Kapranos before Franz Ferdinand?” That is because he changed it. “What do you mean ‘changed it’?” Exactly what I say. “What, like Elton John and Cliff Richard and . . .” Kind of.
Born to a Greek father and an English mother, Alex spent part of his childhood in Greece. To make his passage easier when they back to Britain, he adopted his mother’s maiden name: Huntley.
You’re not related to Ian Huntley are you?
“I think if I was related to him,” said Kapranos musingly, “I would have kept it, that would’ve been quite rock ‘n’ roll . . .”
So, you didn’t change it in a rock ‘n’ roll way, like Lou Reed or Iggy Pop; adopting a cooler name?
“No, it was just something that I had wanted to do for ages, because that’s my actual name and for years I had gone around with this name that wasn’t really mine.”
Although there is no reason why we shouldn’t believe him, it must be said that a name change is also a great way to draw a line under the past. It allows things to feel fresher, unburdened by expectations. So, which bands was Alex Huntley in?
The Yummy Fur?
“Yee-ess,” he said sceptically.
“Who have you been talking too?”
“Och, I can’t believe it. Hey, Bob, he knows more about me than I do!”
“How do you know about the Karelia?” He said, amazed.
Oh, and did you also play keyboards on ‘Kewpies Like Watermelon,’ the early Urusei Yatsura single?
“I think I did, I can’t remember.”
Of all of them it is only The Karelia who really matter. The Karelia are great. Their album, Divorce at High Noon, produced by Bid from The Monochrome Set (whose early material is surely as much an influence on the Franz Ferdinand sound as the oft-mentioned Josef K), is a unique and beautiful artefact. The Karelia was Alex Kapranos’s first stab at fame, incorporating many of the elements – smart lyrics, intuitive song structures and disregard for conventions – that have gone to make Franz Ferdinand so popular. They are all-but-unknown because they were so out of sync with the zeitgeist, or indeed any zeitgeist.
Divorce at High Noon, was criminally ignored in 1997, released at a time, quite unlike the present, when authenticity was prized above all else. It suffered relegation to the pigeonhole of theatrical indie pop (a genre whose casualties include such compelling bands as Gretchen Hofner and David Devant & His Spirit Wife), garnering a few lukewarm reviews in the Melody Maker. Their sound was like a cross between a flapper band of the 1920s and a jazzy French chansonnier of the 1940s, but informed by post-punk inventiveness, with a smidgen of the self-conscious British humour of the Bonzo Dog Band. Thinking back, it is barely conceivable that this sound grew in the same Glaswegian soil as the Delgados, Bis, and the Yummy Fur. But it did; indeed, after the Karelia split up, Alex Huntley joined The Yummy Fur in their last phase. The following pictures illustrate his progress:
The band ended, like so many other bands of the era, shortly after Huntley/Kapranos started experimenting with electronica; their trumpeter, Allan Wylie, having already been kicked out for being a closet football fan (although this may just be characteristic propaganda for a band who drank Earl Grey tea on stage). They had failed to the extent that Kapranos, as he wrote in my earlier questionnaire of him, was literally homeless. It is both necessary and understandable that he should put the ignominy of this failure behind him.
And yet, it is such a good album. On the marvellous ‘Say Try’ we get the classic couplet:
Why do you aspire to be what you need not be?
All that we need is to never need more than to be.
Divorce at High Noon is full of clever, flagrant, and witty lyrics – “Tickle my raspberry nipples so gingerly” on ‘To His Coy Dietress,’ a glorious song wherein a woman of “sickening size” is seduced by Huntley, being told to stop dieting and “eat me.” It is not that Kapranos has sacrificed individuality and complexity for the simple, directness of Franz Ferdinand. Rather, it appears to me, that by narrowing the focus, their power has increased.
The more one understands about Alex Kapranos and Franz Ferdinand (for instance, Nick McCarthy was bassist in a German jazz band called Embryo), the more those comparisons with the Strokes and Interpol seem invidious. A person’s past doesn’t justify their present, but nor should it undermine it. In this case, it adds depth of understanding to our appreciation of 2004’s best and most unconventional pop act.