Franz Ferdinand frontman Alex Kapranos discusses his recollections of Glasgow's vibrant indie music scene of the 90s ahead of the release of Niall McCann’s doc Lost in France and GFF's special concert reuniting the period's key players on one bill
Until now, few will have been aware that in 1997 a busload of Scottish bands made their way across the Channel to perform at a festival in the small French town of Mauron. Among them were The Delgados – founders of the trailblazing Chemikal Underground label – and their much vaunted signings Mogwai and Arab Strap. While the event made little to no impact on the public consciousness, it proved a significant watershed for all involved.
Niall McCann's charming Lost in France sees a handful of the weekend's key players retrace their steps to the site of the event. There, they ruminate on art, success and the vibrant countercultural scene to which they once belonged.
What our heroes may not have expected is quite how much interest would surround Chemikal Underground at the time of the film's unveiling. An award-winning record by RM Hubbert has buoyed the label's brand name, as have hugely acclaimed releases from the likes of Miaoux Miaoux and Emma Pollock. Mogwai appear to have been accepted in high art circles following their place within last year's Edinburgh International Festival programme, while recent Arab Strap reunion dates were met with feverish excitement all over the UK.
There's a vast audience for Lost in France certain to find the film funny, vital and sobering in equal measure. A special screening featuring a rare collaborative gig has, accordingly, made for one of the hottest tickets at this year's Glasgow Film Festival.
Chemikal Underground and Glasgow
Alex Kapranos never signed to Chemikal, but was present for both trips to Mauron. An omnipresent figure within the Scottish music scene long before he struck it big with Franz Ferdinand, the star is uniquely qualified to put McCann's offering into context.
“You have to realise the significance of Chemikal,” he begins, acknowledging the label's growing stature. “But also, what I was doing myself when I was involved in that scene... I wasn't thinking of the future or even three weeks ahead. We were very much of the moment and had no plans to create a legacy or anything like that. That's what old people were into!”
Two decades removed from his life in the underground, Kapranos may not yet qualify as an old man, but is happy to look back on the mid-90s Glasgow scene, comfortably drawing parallels between Chemikal Underground and the post-punk era's hugely influential Postcard Records.
“When I read Simon Goddard's recent book on Postcard, it felt oddly familiar,” says Kapranos. “It was a Glasgow that was totally different from the one I knew in the early to mid-90s when we were doing the same thing. Yet in the book, certain landmarks would come up. West Princes Street, Maryhill, things like that.
"But more than anything else, it was the characters I found repeating themselves in that period and the period I was in. I presume they're in Glasgow today as well. It's different people occupying those characters. Or different personalities playing out those parts. I think they've been in Glasgow for a long time and reckon they always will. There's something about the place.”
On Glasgow, Franz Ferdinand, and their contemporaries
Indeed, aside from their resolute belief in an individualistic, DIY approach to music, what unites each of the artists featured in Lost in France is an affinity with Glasgow itself.
“You talk about community and I think that ties up really nicely with the Glasgow scene,” says Kapranos. “A lot of the support has to do with the size of Glasgow. When you go to bigger cities like New York, LA or London, you tend to find that scenes are very localised. Glasgow itself allows for the right amount of interaction between people, without it being too big to splinter off into smaller scenes. It brings people together with completely different tastes in music. There's a total contrast between bands, but people would listen. That's how you get something new.
“I've always been quite contrary,” he continues. “I think that's definitely a trait of the scene in Glasgow. There isn't a sound or single unifying aesthetic to the city. What there is is a general contrariness, not wanting to follow what's happened before or necessarily do what your contemporaries are doing. This is really healthy!”
According to Kapranos, the runaway commercial success he found with Franz Ferdinand was an accident borne largely of the group's perverse impulses, rather than any sort of mainstream pandering.
“I loved what Mogwai, Belle and Sebastian and Teenage Fanclub had done, but when we were getting together, I felt a lot of the music kicking around was very post-rock,” Kapranos recalls. “Head-noddy stuff for blokes, with a tendency toward having fewer lyrics. There was little recognisable melody. The dance music that was around wasn't really played by bands. We wanted to do the opposite of what was going on at the time. The most contrary thing we could do as a band was play music with a very direct melody. It was tougher than you'd think at the beginning. For us it was perverse to play pop music because we aren't pop musicians.”
Their singer may not identify as a pop musician, but Franz's career trajectory has driven a definite wedge between the band and the scene that nurtured them. Throughout Lost in France, a modest, philosophical Kapranos seems to wrestle with a degree of guilt over his own good fortune in the face of his friends' more modest circumstances.
“Looking back on that time, I feel that while there are names from that period which made a massive impact on the rest of the world, there were other characters around then that were the most vivid bands in many ways. Sometimes I look back and am puzzled as to why people like Trout didn't have a massive impact on the rest of the world. There were so many of these bands that were visceral and intensely exciting at the time. It felt very unpredictable. Nobody had any idea where it was going to go. Maybe that's why I get a bittersweet feeling looking back on the period. There were great minds and energies kicking around Glasgow that could've made a great impact but didn't.”
Record labels, and the modern music industry
By his own admission, Kapranos’s stardom has cushioned him from the professional trials his friends have had to endure. Despite this, he shows no difficulty empathising with them. Perhaps the most touching moment in the film is when ex-Delgado and current Chemikal boss Stewart Henderson sheds a tear for the collapse of the music industry as he knew it. “Wouldn't you?” Kapranos sighs. “To invest your entire life into something, only to watch it slowly decay thanks to circumstances outside your control? This isn't his job or career, it's his life.
“I don't get upset about it personally because when Franz Ferdinand started out I was 32 and had been playing in bands for 15 years, totally skint up until that point. The mentality that money could be made from being in a band is still essentially alien to me. When you say to me that bands don't make money from streaming, in my head I'm still like, ‘Of course bands don't make money!’ I'm dismayed about the impact it has on labels though, because their role isn't just to put records or downloads out there, or to put a band in the studio. Their role is both curatorial and nurturing. They collect artists who have something in common with each other and can be seen as a whole.”
Here Kapranos hits upon the beautiful poignancy of Lost in France; it's the story of badly dressed, misfit tastemakers, vindicated by their impact on an industry which has – to some extent – left them behind. If Niall McCann accomplishes anything with his film, it should be to ensure that all involved are assigned their rightful place in history.
“What I felt going over to Mauron, was a sense of being close to the people there,” says Kapranos. “I guess for me, maybe I did think about what they'd done as individuals and groups and had my appreciation focussed. I think that appreciation has got to be a good thing.”
Lost in France screens at Glasgow Film Festival 21 Feb at O2 ABC, Glasgow, followed by a special gig featuring Alex Kapranos, Stuart Braithwaite, Emma Pollock, Paul Savage and RM Hubbert
Lost in France also screens 22 Feb, GFT
If you're not in Glasgow on 21 Feb, this one-off gig is also being broadcast live at 8.15pm to cinemas across the UK & Ireland, including HOME in Manchester, FACT in Liverpool, Cameo in Edinburgh and DCA in Dundee. For a full list of cinemas participating, go to lostinfrancefilm.com