Alexandra Petropoulos speaks to the lead singer and guitarist of Scottish indie rock band Franz Ferdinand about his Greek heritage and the rebetika music that helps him connect with it
He may be easily recognised as the frontman of indie rock band Franz Ferdinand, but more than that Alex Kapranos is a man of many talents and tastes. If you haven’t already stumbled across his Guardian food column or book, Sound Bites: Eating on Tour with Franz Ferdinand, you may be surprised to learn that he is an elegantly poetic and engaging writer, and on evidence of his readings and my recent interview with him, he’s also an excellent storyteller. And if that wasn’t enough, he has an insatiable interest in global sounds – a veritable 21st-century Renaissance Man.
Despite his deceivingly fair complexion, Kapranos is half Greek and grew up feeling connected to his father’s Mediterranean roots. “I’m in a funny situation because I feel very attached to my Greek heritage but I don’t speak Greek myself and so this music is really key for me to connecting with that side of my background and personality.” The music he is referring to here is rebetika, the urban music born of the lower classes, particularly of Greek gangsters, in the 1920s and 30s.
“A lot of the music is about more extreme themes than you would have in the romantic music that was popular among the Greek bourgeois of the time. It was like two parallel worlds of music in that sort of inter-war period in Greece. There was what the sophisticated Athenians listened to with romantic, soft lyrics and then you have this wonderful dirty street music. A lot of the songs were about either smoking hash, smuggling heroin, the treachery of some pimp’s prostitute to him or quite often about some kind of brutal death,” as is the case with the first track on Kapranos’ playlist, ‘Mother, I’ve Been Stabbed’ by Markos Vamvakaris, one of rebetika’s leading figures.
Besides growing up with Vamvakaris’ music, it turns out Kapranos has a deeper family connection to the singer. “It’s funny, I spoke to my dad about [Vamvakaris] recently and he said, ‘You know, he was a patient of your granddad!’ Apparently my grandfather had been a doctor in quite a rough part of Piraeus.”
It seems fitting then that Kapranos will feature in a Vamvakaris tribute concert at the Barbican this June, reading from the singer’s diaries. “I find it very exciting because I didn’t know his diaries existed.” He hasn’t yet had a chance to read the diaries, but admits he can’t wait to dive in and find out what Vamvakaris and life in Piraeus was really like. “You hear these apocryphal tales of how these guys lived and there’s a lot of legend. You wonder whether he was living this life, hanging out with these gangsters and was an extreme character, or whether he was more like a Howlin’ Wolf figure, who was singing about these things but actually lived in suburbia with his wife. I suspect the former.”
While many of rebetika’s lyrics touched on these racy themes, some of the music was a bit subtler, like ‘To Minore Tou Teke’ by bouzouki player Ioannis Chalkias. “This is quite different from the Vamvakaris song; it is an improvised piece.” Minore simply means a minor scale and teke is the name of the hash dens where this music was played. “This is a really wonderful piece of music because it’s a one-off performance. It’s an improvisation that is never going to be repeated again… about two thirds of the way through he goes to the wrong chord and quickly corrects himself. That sums up the spontaneity and the uniqueness of a performance like this. It’s just got such an incredible atmosphere, a really spectral sense of suspense that builds up until there’s a great climax at the end.”
It’s clear that Kapranos appreciates a song that can really captivate the listener, whether it is music he’s grown up with or accidently happened across, as is the case with his next selection, a Shawnee Indian stomp dance. “Isn’t it an incredible piece of music, especially with the call-and-response? It is really hypnotic.” When I ask how he stumbled across such a seemingly obscure piece, he admits that he was simply inspired after hearing some recordings at a museum of Native American artefacts in Vancouver and a Spotify search led him to this album of spiritual Native American songs. “To me it sounds almost like contemporary dance music with the strong rhythm, one key, the repetition and the chorus. I can imagine it being in a club and working really well. It just shows that humans have been searching for that kick you get from dance music for a long time.”
As well as performing with Franz Ferdinand, Kapranos sometimes finds himself DJing at events, so he’s constantly on the search for good dance music. ‘Disco Africa’ by Ogyatanaa Show Band is one of his favourite tracks to sneak into his sets. “People always come up to me and say ‘What was that? It was so unusual!’ It’s got its own peculiar sound but it’s amazing dance music.”
He also delves in the cumbia archives, including Los Corraleros de Majagual, who were founded in the 60s. “I love that era of cumbia. Some of the contemporary stuff is alright but there seems to be a lot more character in the older stuff.”
With such an eclectic and inspiring taste in music, it’s easy to wonder if any of these influences creep into his own music with Franz Ferdinand. “Sure, definitely! I can think back to a song on my first album, ‘40’’. The melody line that the guitars are playing is heavily influenced by rebetika. Or on our last album there’s a song called ‘Brief Encounters’ that was really heavily influenced by cumbia. As often happens with music by the time it passed through our filters it ended up sounding nothing like pure cumbia, but I guess that’s how you do something new. You listen back to the Ogyatanaa Show Band and they’re doing their version of disco but it sounds nothing like disco. It sounds like something new. And that’s what I like music to do. I like to see music evolving.”