Franz Ferdinand: Like a band possessed

When you've reinvented British pop, sold five million records and spawned a legion of drainpipe-wearing imitators, where do you go next? Craig McLean hits the road with Franz Ferdinand as they pursue their relentless quest for that rarest of rock attributes: longevity.

Published: 26 March 2006

In a punkily black, packed-to-the-rafters club on St Kilda beach in Melbourne, Franz Ferdinand are messing with their founding principles. Not the ones about engaging directly with the audience at all times: singer Alex Kapranos and guitarist Nick McCarthy stare intently at the crowd in the sold-out Palais, as if mesmerised by them (an inversion of the usual performer/punter relationship). Kapranos has even customised his patter. "Evening Melbourne, how are you going?" he says, adopting the Aussie vernacular. "January in Melbourne is a lot different from January in Glasgow."

And nor are they forgetting the edict about putting on a show. Kapranos boings about on stiff, gangly legs, as if receiving jolts of electricity from the stage. Paul Thomson drums with the open-mouthed abandon of Animal from the Muppets. Even bass player Bob Hardy, normally a picture a blank insouciance - and tonight clearly suffering from the effects of six months' touring - gets a little theatrical during "Take Me Out".

The "fifth Franz" is firmly on-message too. Andy Knowles, formerly a member of the road crew and now a stand-in drummer/percussionist, has the regulation drainpipe trousers, pointy shoes, tucked-in shirt and St Vitus' dance moves. "When Andy first started playing with us, some of the hardcore fans were like, 'Who's this usurper?'" Kapranos will say later. Knowles was in the same year as Hardy at Glasgow School of Art. Franz Ferdinand's first gig, as musical accompaniment to a homespun art exhibition on 15 May 2002, took place in Knowles' girlfriend Celia's bedroom in a student flat on Sauchiehall Street. No wonder he gets the Franz aesthetic so completely. Kapranos: "The fans very quickly got their head round the fact that Andy's one of us."

But this far down the line in one of the most frantically progressive, giddily over-achieving narratives in modern music, Franz Ferdinand can afford to mess around a little. Kapranos tells the Melbourne audience that, "When I started writing songs at 14", he vowed "never to write a love song. Well, here's one." He launches into "Eleanor Put Your Boots On", his homage to his girlfriend, Eleanor Friedberger, of New York-based brother/ sister act The Fiery Furnaces - a titular love-note to the semi-famous girlfriend he always said he wouldn't talk about.

And also: "I can't stand guitar solos," Kapranos announces in his hybrid accent, part Mackem (he spent his early years in Sunderland), part Glasgow (his family moved to Scotland when he was a kid after his legal professor dad landed a new lectureship). "They're boring," he continues, "really self-indulgent."

When he began writing songs for Franz Ferdinand, 34-year-old Kapranos took on board the lessons learnt from umpteen years in unsuccessful indie outfits and from a stint booking bands in a Glasgow club. In his new band there would no flab, no waste, no filler. Songs would be as lean and taut as the Franz look. Solos were a boy-rock thing, and Franz wanted to write songs for girls to dance to. They wouldn't even play normal concerts at normal venues: in the beginning Franz Ferdinand put on their own gigs-cum-art "happenings" in an old warehouse and later an abandoned jail complex.

This "reimagining" of what bands did also entailed cool graphic design, innovative videos and eclectic references - not just inspirational new wave bands (Wire, Gang Of Four) but also magical-realist author Mikhail Bulgakov, Dadaism and the choreography of Busby Berkeley. Franz Ferdinand made updated post-punk, clever pop music for the feet and the brain. The complete package. No wonder fashion photographers and designers such as Dior's Hedi Slimane flocked to the band.

For boring old indie music this was visionary stuff. It would beget the dancefloor-friendly, retro-savvy, chart-bound, fashionably attired success of Kaiser Chiefs, Maxïmo Park, The Rakes and Editors, and even, arguably, pave the way for Arctic Monkeys. Almost single-handedly Franz Ferdinand revived British guitar rock - a scene that had been mouldering since the mid-1990s heights of Britpop and Oasis. Here, at last, was a (omega) sharp, homegrown riposte to the dominance of the US bands (The Strokes, The White Stripes) that had filled the vacuum.

And for Franz themselves, the gameplan - the marrying of great songs with strong visual ideas and a rigorous all-round aesthetic - paid off spectacularly: two albums in two years with combined sales of 5.5m; Brit Awards and a US MTV gong; the Mercury Prize 2004; significant US success; on their last UK tour, four sold-out nights at London's Alexandra Palace.

So now, with all those achievements under their belts, Franz Ferdinand can have some fun.

In Melbourne, during the performance of "The Fallen" - their next UK single - McCarthy launches into a big, fat squealing guitar solo. It's not quite as radical as, say, Arctic Monkeys covering Girls Aloud. But for these well-drilled perfectionists, it's a funny and cool moment of abandon. It's good to hear them wigging out.

"We never wrote manifestos or anything like that but we gave ourselves rigid rules to stick to," Kapranos says later. "But all of us are the kind of characters that want to go against rules. There's something satisfying about breaking your own rules. It's exciting. You've got to stir things up, surprise people. If you become predictable, it's gonna get very boring very quickly.

"And also, it's a bit of a laugh. We don't take ourselves too seriously," he insists. "We do take the music very seriously - that's why we still want to go into the studio every possible minute. Being in a band is something I've always wanted to do, always thoroughly enjoyed and, yeah, I am gonna make the most of every opportunity. But because you take that seriously doesn't mean you have to take yourselves too seriously. Doing some daft cheesy guitar solo in the middle of a song is great..."

It's summertime in Melbourne and the tropical rain is lashing down on the boho St Kilda neighbourhood centred on Acland Street. Bunkered inside Hothouse Studios, Franz Ferdinand don't notice. Too much to do.

They've been on tour since last summer, since before the autumn release of second album You Could Have It So Much Better, which came out a scant 20 months after their self-titled debut. Before Australia, they were in Europe. Immediately after, they play southeast Asia. They will come offstage in Bangkok, get a police escort to the airport, fly directly to London, spend a few hours at a hotel at Heathrow, then take a flight to Brazil. A few hours after landing they will be on stage in a Sao Paolo stadium, the first show of a South American tour supporting U2.

But first, the Antipodes. Franz Ferdinand are here to appear at Big Day Out, a travelling festival that criss-crosses Australia and New Zealand. The Glasgow-based band are third from the top, preceded by fast-rising British acts The Subways, The Go! Team and The Magic Numbers, and by hairy Oz heavy rock phenomenon Wolfmother. Above them are the reformed Iggy and the Stooges and The White Stripes.

In between the main festival events Franz Ferdinand are playing their own "side-shows", such as last night's sell-out at The Palais. And in between those, on what are nominally days off, they're in the studio.

Keeping busy is part of what Franz Ferdinand are about. This is their moment, and they aren't going to slip up.

"I was about to give up before this started," says Paul Thomson, 28. Like Kapranos he'd been in a succession of low-key Glasgow bands. "I didn't have a proper job or anything, I didn't know what I was gonna do. I was just starting to think it was a bit fruitless. I really wasn't enjoying making music much."

Nick McCarthy, too, had struggled. He'd followed his German girlfriend to Glasgow where she was studying. In his early days in the city the 30-year-old tried anything to make ends meet. Being, on average, older than most "new" bands, and once- (or twice-) bitten, Franz Ferdinand's ambition pushes them on. This means personal sacrifice: Thomson got married during a brief interlude in touring in 2004, McCarthy likewise, just after completion of the second album last summer. Neither can have enjoyed many days of sedentary domestic bliss. Kapranos couldn't even make McCarthy's wedding in Germany - he had to fly to New York to finish mixing the album. With Friedberger often on tour as well, synchronising schedules must be daunting for Kapranos. But then, his entire life is music.

"When I go back and see friends at home, half the time it's like I've never been away," he says. "It's funny - in the circle of people I know in Glasgow, it seemed that everybody would take a turn to go down to London for a bit then come back. I feel like instead of doing that, I've been on tour for a couple of years."

It's midday in the studio, and there's a lot to get through today. In the studio's small control room, the multi-instrumentalist McCarthy - a seriously jazz-friendly alumni of the Munich Conservatoire - is positioned over a laptop, working on a demo of a new song. The tinny sound of some form of ear-bashing techno bleeds from his headphones.

Thomson alternates between reading Tape Op magazine, playing with the studio engineer's snuffly Shar-Pei dog Juju and logging his own laptop time. He's online, trying to order a new Rogers "Maple Shell" kit from a vintage drums specialist in Indiana. "The older the kit, the better," he says with spotterish enthusiasm. They might be separated from their partners, but Team Franz seem content, like they're in their natural environment. Kapranos is hunched over the mixing desk, next to the engineer. He's trying to complete the recording of "Swallow Smile". It's an old song they played twice at early shows but have never committed properly to tape. It will be the first single given away to members of Franz Ferdinand's soon-to-be-launched fanclub, the brainchild of the founder of the first Franz fans' website. "He was talking about an old-school fanclub rather than an internet one," says Kapranos. "We liked that idea."

Kapranos is applying similar attention to detail to "Swallow Smile". It's a simple, Bob Dylan-like number that he plays on acoustic guitar. "I'm not sure we've got a good chorus yet," he tells the engineer. He goes into the live room and records another version. Listening back to the bits and pieces, and gazing intently at the computer screen full of sonic squiggles, he sucks and his teeth - he's worried about "a sloppy drop", a section with "no relationship" to another, and a dodgy half-bar. "Can we move those 10 milliseconds?" he wonders.

"Does that sound awkward?" he says, turning to McCarthy with a frown. "I don't hear anything," replies McCarthy.

Kapranos is getting increasingly tense. McCarthy wants to do four bars of drums on one of his songs. The engineer suggests Kapranos goes for a quick walk "and I promise we'll finish as you walk back in the door". Kapranos says no. They need to crack on: they have three other songs to do today. Coincidentally, all are titled after people's names. "Lindsay Wells" and "Jeremy Fraser" will both be B-sides for "The Fallen". "Jackie Jackson" is for a children's album being compiled by Belle and Sebastian's Mick Cooke.

But before all that they need to finish "Swallow Smile". Kapranos, grim-faced but polite, requests that everyone apart from the band and engineer vacate the studio.

Two days later Franz Ferdinand are in Adelaide, venue for the latest leg of the Big Day Out. It's a funny place: a beautiful planned urban space built on a grid but with an oversized country-town feel. There's a strangely unsettling half-hour time-difference between here and Melbourne.

The Big Day Out crowd swarm around the Royal Adelaide Showground. A handful of enterprising (OK, mental) fans are pulled from a sewer during The Subways' set, their plan to sneak into the festival rumbled. There's none of the cosmopolitan hipster feel of Melbourne here. How will the Euro-cool of Franz Ferdinand go down in this environment?

Backstage, the band fill some time making a short video with Iggy Pop, who's presenting them with the NME Award for Best Live Act. NME has misspelt their name on the trophy. Franz throw the award around and stick an apple, a plastic cup and a fag on to its outstretched middle finger.

Outside their unfussy Portakabin, Kapranos says that they finished at Hothouse Studios at 4am. But they're pleased with the results of their 16-hour session. Paul Thomson wasn't kidding when he described "Lindsay Wells" (now called "L Wells") as "a bit like the Proclaimers, a bit of a hoedown".

"There's more of a Celtic feel to it than anything we've ever done before," agrees Kapranos. "Jeremy Fraser" is another brilliant departure. It's an atmospheric, eerie death-march, sung by McCarthy. The guitarist, who grew up in Germany, wrote it with one of the kids he used to teach English. Fraser was a character in his English-language textbook, and the kid hated him - "so [in the song] we killed him with a lance of silver," grins McCarthy.

There's another new song about to emerge from this latest burst of Franz creativity: a duet with Jane Birkin on Serge Gainsbourg's "A Song For Sorry Angel". They recorded it in Paris just before Christmas for the forthcoming tribute album Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited. It's the first duet with a female singer that Kapranos has done, and it's a scorching, glam-techno epic. If we take this as another signpost towards the next stage of Franz Ferdinand's musical development, it seems there are further interesting new turns in the road ahead.

Satisfaction with their new material notwithstanding, Franz Ferdinand look knackered. And there's still a long way to go: after Asia and South America there are plans to do another UK tour, albeit in smaller venues than the arenas they played before Christmas. They don't go home until September, after headlining this year's T in the Park, Reading and Leeds festivals.

"But we're enthusiastic, and this is the thing: I love playing in a band," says Kapranos, shrugging off the suggestion that a break might be good. "Getting to go into the studio the other day felt like a real treat. Maybe it's just something instilled in my psyche from all those years when you'd have to save up, working eight months at a crappy job to afford two days in a crappy studio up the road in the Glasgow. I still feel a buzz when I get to record something."

He says he's been talking to Jack White about this. "You know Jack White's spending every available moment thinking about and doing his music. If you really love something, you immerse yourself in it. It's not a chore. It's the thing that is your life.

"I've tried to get that across to some people before, and they go: 'Oh, Franz Ferdinand, they're the hardest working band in rock'n'roll!' It's not hard work! I just really, really like it!"

I watch Franz Ferdinand's performance from the side of the Big Day Out stage. Pretty much from the opening bars of first song, "Jacqueline", the crowd are wildly enthusiastic. The band, too, are energised the moment they walk on stage. Even crumpled Bob Hardy is fired up, jumping on to Thomson's drum riser as Knowles stabs vigorously at a keyboard and Kapranos and McCarthy make like they're duelling with their guitars.

It's terrifically exciting to be standing so close to them, and to see what Franz Ferdinand see night after night, week after week, month after month: a sea of bodies, jumping up and down, chanting along with the "do-do-do-do" bits in to "Do You Want To", thrashing their heads to set-closer "This Fire". For that crazy hour you could see what Kapranos meant when he insisted that three years of practically non-stop recording and touring "doesn't feel like a slog at all".

"It feels amazing," he said. "I tell you what would have felt bad: if I'd sat on my arse for seven months in the middle of all this. I can sit on my arse for the rest of my life. I don't want to be 65 and singing "Take Me Out" to a club full of 200 people - but I'm gonna make sure I enjoy doing it now. Then when we stop, we stop."

'The Fallen' is released tomorrow on Domino Records. Qantas operates 28 flights a week between London and Australia (www.qantas.co.uk). For a copy of the Official Guide to Australia please call 0906 86233 235 (calls cost 60p per minute). For more information about Australia go to www.australia.com

With Franz like these... Since 'Take Me Out' hit the charts in February 2004, the indie pop floodgates have opened

Bloc Party

Bloc Party's spiky art-rock sound has much in common with Franz Ferdinand. Indeed, the band's big break came when lead singer Kele Okereke went to a Franz Ferdinand gig in 2003 and spotted Steve Lamacq in the crowd. Kele gave the Radio 1 DJ a copy of Bloc Party's debut single, and Lamacq liked what he heard and invited the band to record a session for his show. Their debut album Silent Alarm entered the UK charts at number three in February 2005 and was nominated for last year's Mercury Music Prize. Bloc Party are currently recording a follow up, due for release in late summer this year.

Kaiser Chiefs

The Kaiser Chiefs have taken Franz Ferdinand's blueprint for achieving both indie credibility and mainstream success, and moved it on to a whole new level. Their debut, Employment, was the UK's fourth bestselling album last year, shifting over a million copies on the back of a string of hit singles. Their year was capped off in February when they won gongs at both the Brits and the NME Awards.

Maxïmo Park

Signed to ultra-hip Warp records (better known for releasing leftfield dance music), Maxïmo Park found chart success with four singles hitting the UK Top 40. Their debut album, A Certain Trigger, was both a commercial and critical winner, and received a nomination for the Mercury Music Prize in 2005. Their ascent to stardom should have been rounded off by their triumphant headlining slot on the NME Awards Tour earlier this year, but their thunder was stolen somewhat by being booked to play just after young upstarts Arctic Monkeys.

Editors

The rather gloomy rumble of their music and lead singer Tom Smith's baritone voice has had some cruel critics dubbing them "Boy Division". But Editors, from Birmingham, are much more than mere Ian Curtis wannabes. With a Top Ten single, "Munich", and a platinum album, The Back Room, that reached number two in the UK charts, they are now well on the way to achieving the wider recognition they deserve. Their latest single, "All Sparks", is released tomorrow.

Arctic Monkeys

When "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor" went to number one last year, it seemed as if Arctic Monkeys had popped up from nowhere. However, the Sheffield four-piece had built up a rabid fanbase via the internet, which helped their first album, Whatever People Say I am, That's What I'm Not, become the UK's fastest-selling debut ever. They now have their sights firmly set on conquering the US.

Keith Laidlaw

Advertiser Links...

Day in a page


Find articles published on:
Independent.co.uk
The Web