Hawking, Gorbachev, Said... and Kapranos

February 4, 2005

The Franz Ferdinand singer and ex-academic followed in illustrious footsteps this week. Olga Wojtas reports.

It has been a year of recognition for the Glasgow indie band Franz Ferdinand: the Mercury music prize, three MTV Europe nominations, three Grammy nominations and five nominations at next week's Brit Awards, including Best British Group. Less expected recognition has come this week for lead singer Alex Kapranos, who took part in yesterday's prestigious Edinburgh Lectures.

Edinburgh, Heriot-Watt and Napier universities and the Open University in Scotland all present lectures in partnership with the City of Edinburgh Council. Previous Edinburgh lecturers include Edward Said, Stephen Hawking, Mikhail Gorbachev and F. W. De Klerk.

The lecture launched Edinburgh's Institute for Music in Human and Social Development, which brings together researchers from music, psychology, medicine, physics and informatics to explore the powerful role that music can play in our lives, from mother-infant bonding to pain relief.

Kapranos was unfazed about taking part in a debate on Scotland's role in making music, alongside Edinburgh University music professor Nigel Osborne, Exeter University sociology professor Tia DeNora and composer and conductor James McMillan. He said: "When you sing, you're communicating, and it's nice to be able to have a different platform from which to communicate with people."

But Kapranos is used to the lecture platform. Until 2003, he taught at Anniesland College in Glasgow, first in the business school and more recently he was involved in the college's work in assimilating asylum-seekers into the local population. Senior lecturer Rhona Hodgart initiated courses to teach asylum-seekers English through vocational skills such as woodwork.

Kapranos, who took a postgraduate qualification in computing at Glasgow Caledonian University, taught English and IT. "The students felt they were doing something really exciting learning to use computers, and didn't realise they were improving their language while they were doing so," he says. "Good lecturers know that sometimes they're almost fooling people into learning without realising it, without it being a chore."

Musicians and lecturers should share a similar interest in performance and delivery, he says. "If you want to get ideas across to people and the facts to stay in people's minds, you have to entertain them to some degree. When I was a student, I noticed the lecturers who every ten minutes or so would crack a little joke or make a little aside. It refreshes people: you can't take in information in big lumps. We've all been in lecture theatres where you've heard a dull, monotonous voice going on and on, and you tune out."

Kapranos, now 32, first entered a lecture theatre when he was 17, beginning a degree in divinity at Aberdeen University. "I chose divinity because I thought it was a fascinating subject. I did enjoy the course, but it wasn't the right thing for me to do. I was a wee bit of a tearaway, surrounded by lovely, lovely guys all training to be Presbyterian ministers and I left after a year."

He then worked in various jobs for a year, during which time he discovered he was a talented chef, and decided to study hotel and catering management at Strathclyde University. "The history of cuisine was brilliant stuff, but it turned out to be mainly a business course, and I transferred to English."

He left with an ordinary degree because he wanted to get on with playing music, taking the computing qualification because he believed computers were revolutionising the recording industry. "I've been playing music since I was 15. Most people in bands do other things to support themselves while being musicians. During my last year in Anniesland, I was a part-time lecturer and getting the band together. It became clear after the summer of 2003 that I wouldn't be able to put enough time into each. I thoroughly enjoyed Anniesland, but you only get an opportunity to do something like Franz Ferdinand once in a lifetime." Student interest has been crucial to the band's success, he says. "Students tend to have inquiring minds, they tend to be attracted to the new. A band like ours depends a great deal on word of mouth among students, and in their publications, like fanzines and student newspapers."

Now that Franz Ferdinand has achieved mainstream appeal, how important is student interest? "The students always matter. Because if you go wrong, lose your edge and stop being creative, they're the first to notice and they let everybody else know." But he is unimpressed by the Government's 50 per cent participation target. "It doesn't seem to me to be necessarily a fantastic thing to aim towards."

Given his experience in a further education college, he believes vocational courses are essential for society but fears they are being undermined by the emphasis on higher education. He strongly believes that higher education should be open to all and says the Robbins expansion of the 1960s, based on the principle that the Government should subsidise any qualified applicant unable to pay for higher education, was "one of the most exciting revolutions in the country". But he sees current government policy on tuition fees and top-up fees undermining wider access. "Fees is the situation that I find most appalling. I think we've lost (Robbins) to a great degree through the current funding system and I find that unbearable, really. I'm probably quite old-fashioned, but I believe you shouldn't have to pay for higher education now or in the future." Given graduate unemployment, he suggests a more logical approach would be to have fewer degree-level students, who then pay nothing for their courses. "What we seem to have now is just an expansion of the system we had before the 1960s, where higher education was for those people who could afford it, not necessarily measured on academic merit but on social circumstances. It's completely unhealthy."

But if the stardom and international touring ended tomorrow, he has no doubts about how to earn a living. He still misses his Anniesland colleagues and students, he says. "I could quite happily see myself back in that situation."

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