As their silver bus speeds down a dark Dutch highway, half the band -- drummer Paul Thomson, 30, and baby-faced bassist Bob Hardy, 25 -- have already retreated to the cryptlike bunks that take up the vehicle's upper deck. Nearby, frontman Alex Kapranos, 33, is awake, if weary. He has fixed his intense stare on a laptop; the glow from the screen flatters his silent-movie-villain cheekbones, but not the dark circles around his green eyes.
Mindful of his sleeping bandmates, Kapranos begins to sing softly, reading the familiar lyrics of David Bowie's "Suffragette City" from the computer: "Oh, leave me alone . . . Oh, Henry, get off the phone." The band's sound engineer and I can't help ourselves: "Hey, man," we chime in. "This mellow-thighed chick just put my spine out of place," Kapranos continues, in a sweet tenor that's missing the snarl of his onstage voice.
"I always thought that it was 'that mellow fat chick,'" Kapranos says a couple of minutes later. "That would be a much better line." Franz Ferdinand's leader is well qualified to make that judgment. After spending most of the last nineteen years either diligently dissecting great rock songs or writing his own, he can offer up expert opinions on everyone from Queen to obscure power-poppers Sparks (who recorded the Franz-appropriate tune "Rock & Roll People in a Disco World"). But tonight's lesson is a crash course in Bowie, with a final exam on the way: In forty-eight hours, Kapranos has to perform "Suffragette City" for the first time in his life (as a duet with Jake Shears, of American disco-pop act the Scissor Sisters) in front of 60,000 or so people.
Such are the stakes these days for Franz Ferdinand, who release their second album, You Could Have It So Much Better, on October 4th. Just last year, the band -- four fey, dapper Scottish guys playing visceral rock songs with disco beats and brain-eating choruses -- put out their debut on the tiny indie label Domino Records. They were riding a wave of the kind of U.K. press hype that almost always sinks into U.S. obscurity. Instead, Franz signed a million-dollar distribution deal with Epic Records, and their little indie album went platinum here. Their thrilling fireworks show of a single, "Take Me Out," shook up the playlists of even the most retrograde rock-radio stations, opening the door for the Killers, the Kaiser Chiefs and other Eighties-style New Wave-y bands. Franz even played the Grammys, albeit as part of a ridiculous "live mash-up" that also included Los Lonely Boys and Black Eyed Peas. ("We tried to get out of that," says guitarist Nick McCarthy, 30, who shares songwriting duties with Kapranos.)
The band didn't quite grasp what it was up against in the States until after it had already broken through. Last December, it played between Korn and Papa Roach at something called Claus Fest, a K-Rock-sponsored show held in the swamps of New Jersey. In what may go down as new metal's last stand, the crowd booed Franz -- who had all applied extra eyeliner for the occasion. "It was great -- all these meathead metal fans with their middle fingers raised up," Kapranos recalls, grinning, as he perches on a garishly purple tour-bus couch. He's taken off his shiny leather boots, unveiling a pair of bright-red socks that no goateed metal dude would touch. "That was when it really struck us how much a set of outsiders we were," he continues, "taking on the establishment of rock music in America. And that felt really exciting."
For many years, Kapranos' father -- a Greek-born law lecturer -- had no idea why his wife had insisted on a certain middle name for their son. It turns out that Alex Paul Kapranos is named after his mom's longtime crush Paul McCartney. If the intent was to send a message to her son, it worked. At fourteen, Alex and his friend Andrew Conway (now an astrophysicist) became the only obsessive Beatles fans in their Glasgow neighborhood and started playing guitar in a quixotic effort to master the Lennon-McCartney catalog.
Kapranos has always been fascinated by the Fabs' marriage of upbeat music and downcast lyrics. "'Take Me Out' is a perfect example of that," he says. "To most people it feels like this great life-affirming song, but it's using a metaphor of shooting each other for the end of a relationship. I was watching the Beatles Anthology recently, and they were singing 'I'm Down': You watch them shaking their heads and the audience is screaming. It was amazing. The lyrics are saying 'I'm down' -- but the music is saying, 'I'm up,' you know?"
Needless to say, Kapranos is also a sucker for a great pop hook. He's wearing a Gwen Stefani pin on his vintage Members Only jacket because he adores her song "What You Waiting For." And when his cell phone rings (more often than not, the caller is his girlfriend, Eleanor Friedberger, singer for the arty Brooklyn band Fiery Furnaces), you hear the whistling keyboard solo from Del Shannon's 1961 hit "Runaway." "The Germans have an expression for something that's catchy -- they call it an ear worm," he said over a dinner of shrimp and tofu (no peanut sauce -- he's deathly allergic). "And I love 'Runaway,' because there's so many ear worms in that song."
By that standard, Franz Ferdinand's new album is positively infested. "Do You Want To," the first single, begins as Sixties British Invasion rock, morphs into a robotic glam-disco stomp and then dissolves into a Buzzcocks-ian punk rave-up -- with a final guitar blast that rips off the Knack's "My Sharona." In the spirit of the first album's homoerotic "Michael," the new single also finds Kapranos yelping, "Your famous friend, I blew him before ya." "Franz are very laissez faire in their gender attitudes," says Scissor Sisters singer Shears, who interviewed the ambiguously hetero band for the gay magazine Genre. "They're also intensely adorable boys."
More diverse than its predecessor, the new album largely pulls Franz away from their much-imitated brand of dance rock. "There's more to life than disco-beat guitar music," bassist Hardy says the morning after the bus ride. "The Outsiders" is their first stab at Ohio Players-style funk; the album opener, "The Fallen," is a manic rocker with a woozy, psychedelic chorus; and the likely second single, "Walk Away," is a slow-building song in the style of the Smiths. The quieter songs are the most radical departures, including the tender piano ballad "Eleanor Put Your Boots On," on which Kapranos directly addresses his girlfriend. It's an odd move for a man so intensely private that he declines to even speak her name in interviews.
In the early days of the band, Kapranos was widely reported to be twenty-nine years old. He was actually thirty-two, as a Scottish tabloid revealed last year when it published his birth certificate. "What people want is a band of seventeen-year-olds who play with the confidence of someone who's been doing it for twenty years," he says, shrugging. Kapranos spent his twenties booking bands like Mogwai and Belle and Sebastian for the Glasgow club the 13th Note, while playing in a series of his own groups, including the Specials-like ska band Amphetameanies. "It makes me feel like laughing whenever people ask me about the pressure of my second album -- because this feels like my seventeenth," says Kapranos, who began recording as a teenager on a cassette four-track. By the time he was nineteen, he had concluded that he would never become a rock star.
The band that would prove him wrong came together gradually, out of an incestuous circle of friends in bohemian Glasgow. Kapranos first teamed with the soft-spoken but hard-hitting drummer Thomson when he briefly played bass in a local indie band, the Yummy Fur. The pair hit it off and eventually began recording danceable electronic pop songs together -- bits of which still show up in Franz Ferdinand's music. Around that time, Kapranos decided to teach Hardy -- an art-student friend eight years his junior -- how to play bass. "I just knew he was a great guy and that he liked music," Kapranos says. "Anybody can move their fingers over a fretboard, but not anybody can appreciate good music."
As Kapranos speaks, guitarist McCarthy is on the other side of the bus' top level, editing some Franz B sides on a computer. Later, Kapranos says good night (Eleanor's on the phone again), and I head downstairs, ready to curl up on yet another purple couch. Then McCarthy shows up, wearing the same Freddy Krueger-style red-and-black-striped shirt seen in the "Do You Want To" video: It's 2:30 a.m. and he's ready for an interview. McCarthy -- who looks vaguely related to Kapranos, with the same lean build and floppy haircut -- has an easy laugh. He's the kind of guy who gets you drunk at dinner and then dares you to steal the silverware, according to a friend. He's also the only member of the band who will admit to smoking pot occasionally -- although, along with his bandmates, he declines an offer of a legal joint while we're in the Netherlands. "I can't concentrate on things if I do, and we've always got such a schedule that there's no point," he says. While on the road, the band is disappointingly clean-living. "We go out and get a drink, but not every night," McCarthy says. "And we don't smoke on the tour bus. But when we're home for a week, then we go out all the fucking time."
When McCarthy first arrived in Glasgow back in 2001, fresh from the Munich conservatory where he studied jazz bass, he wasn't having much fun. "I couldn't find a band -- I even answered some ads in the paper, and it was really bad," he says, wincing. "It'd be, like, a balding guy who wanted to play Iggy Pop songs. Then I met Alex, and he played me an early version of 'Darts of Pleasure.' I was like, 'I think I got the right guy here.'" McCarthy pauses and goes off to look for a bottle of wine. Unsuccessful, he settles for nibbling on some bread with fake butter spread.
He reflects on his relationship with Kapranos, who told me that he and McCarthy's vast differences helped make them an effective writing team. What did this mean? "Maybe he's got a bit more of an evil side than I have," McCarthy says after a while. "I'm upbeat and happy, and he's more like [growling noise], which is good."
A few minutes later, our interview ends when the bus comes to a sudden halt near the ferry that will carry it across the English Channel. There's a bunch of bored, star-struck immigration officers outside, and they're insisting -- for some reason -- that the rock stars wake up, get off the bus and have a chat. "Are the Kaiser Chiefs coming next?" one of the flashlight-wielding officers asks the other.
Carley Jones, a pretty young redhead, is trembling: "Oh, my God, oh, my God -- he's right there," she mumbles, approaching Kapranos. It's the next afternoon, and we're at the teen-heavy V Festival outside Birmingham. The members of the band -- dressed in their trademark slim-cut suits -- sit at a table, patiently signing autographs for some of the roughly 2,000 fans lined up for a meet-and-greet. "He's so cute," Jones says, still shaking after grabbing a photo with Kapranos. Here in England, Franz Ferdinand are Justin Timberlake-level pop stars; earlier, as they posed for a magazine shoot backstage, fans kept coming up to take pictures ("Fuck off," McCarthy told one, with a smile.)
That evening, at dusk, they walk onstage and face one of the biggest crowds of their career: tens of thousands of people, stretching to the horizon, looking like they could fill seven football fields. As the band kicks off with "Michael," girls climb up on their boyfriends' shoulders and risk nasty falls as they start dancing. The band's stage moves, which seemed flamboyant in its club days, are now just right: Kapranos repeatedly scissor-kicks across the stage and leaps off the drum riser, and McCarthy mirrors his moves with near-choreographed precision.
The group's second song is the throbbing, punky "Evil and a Heathen," from the new album. The crowd doesn't know the tune yet but acts like it does, pogo-ing by the thousands. Kapranos can't help smiling, even as he spits out some of his darkest lyrics: "I'm a heathen and evil, like you." And as his great band surges behind him, Alex Kapranos shakes his head from side to side like a Beatle, with all the joy in the world.