Originally published in AU magazine, February 2009
I’M SITTING in a restaurant in trendy Shoreditch, London, with one of the most popular British bands of the past decade. “Oooh, Rhubarb Crumble” says Alex Kapranos, gleefully eyeing the menu just handed to him by a star-struck waiter. “That sounds amazing. Can I have some of that, please?”
It’d be impertinent of me to ask whether the dessert is good enough to have made it into his former Guardian food column (cannily dubbed ‘Soundbites’), so I don’t. Besides, we’ve got more pressing matters to talk about – like his band’s exceedingly-anticipated third record.
Having set up their own studio in Govan, a suburb of Glasgow most famous for its shipbuilding and former residents Alex Ferguson and Billy Connolly, the foursome began work on ‘Tonight: Franz Ferdinand’ as far back as February 2007 after a break of several months.
“It wasn’t hard to get back into it, no,” says a chiselled, smartly-dressed and exceptionally smiley Kapranos. “I think probably the opposite, actually, it was more refreshing. I think if we’d gone straight into [recording] after touring for that amount of time, it’d have seemed like a bit of a drag. We probably needed a bit of a break from each other, as well.”
A punishing tour on the back of their sophomore effort meant that spirits in Team Franz were perhaps a little depleted. Although all four members deny that they would have done anything differently over the past five years, Kapranos concedes that album number two was a slightly less enjoyable recording experience.
“The only thing I’ll say from a personal perspective is that it was quite stressful making that record,” he nods. “We maybe did knacker ourselves a little bit by making it so fast. I think because it came out so quickly afterwards, people were kind of like ‘Oh, really, another one? Already?’ We didn’t really take a break when we made it, and I think the break was so long between the last record and this one because it was so stressful. We needed to kind of get over that.”
“It’s still a good record. There’s still good songs on it, and we still play them live,” adds a slightly defensive Hardy. “It’s just where we were at that point, as a band. It represented us. We’d come off this tour, and we were a live band, and we were playing loud and fast. This record is consciously slower, in a more relaxed or ‘standing back’ kind of way. You can never get back that initial ‘whoah’, I think. No one’s expecting anything when you first arrive.”
“It probably didn’t hit people in the same way the first one did, because the first one came out of nowhere,” agrees Kapranos. “There was nothing else really around that sounded like that at the time, and the second record followed on with that. And also, it was quite different from this [new] album, insomuch as it seemed to be a continuation of the ideas that we had for the first record – whereas this one seems to be like a new sound.”
He’s not wrong: ‘Tonight’ contrarily moves forward by returning to their initial ‘Making music for girls to dance to’ mission statement. It’s a more easygoing, yet perversely more immediate album than its predecessor, made with the disco dancefloor in mind, rather than what drummer Paul Thomson describes as “the circle of hate”.
“Yeah, we were kind of playing to a crazy bunch of guys down the front of the gigs, rather than for the dancefloor,” Kapranos chuckles. “It’s funny, because I kind summed it up by accident when I said the second album was like teenagers having sex. It was really great fun, but very frantic and furious, and over quite quickly.”
The recording and writing process for ‘Tonight’ was also similar to that of their debut’s – something which, along with returning to their Glasgow roots, made a difference to the album’s overall sound.
“I think we wanted more space for writing this time,” says guitarist and co-songwriter Nick McCarthy. “You also need something to write about, too. I didn’t wanna write about being on tour, I think that’s boring. I just wanted to hang out with people and find some more stories, I guess. Just to lead a normal life you can write about, really. [For the second album] we were writing while we were recording, and we didn’t wanna do that again. We really wanted to let the songs get their own life, play them live and see how they worked live, let them breathe and just see how we felt about them.”
As a result, the new album contains a mixture of brand new songs as well as some oldies; Kapranos revealed that ‘Turn It On’ was destined to be You Can Have It So Much Better’s lead single at one point.
“On this record, Lucid Dreams and Ulysses were very new, whereas songs like Turn It On and Can’t Stop Feeling are a lot older. Can’t Stop Feeling was written around the time of the first album, but then again, Darts of Pleasure was written about six years before we recorded the first record. So just because you’re recording a song at a particular time, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s from [that period].”
Their Electric Picnic performance last September was testament to their fans’ patience: their main stage set drew a huge Saturday night crowd, eager to hear the new material as well as dance the night away to the hits. I wager that it must have been a relief to draw big audiences to their festival performances after being away for so long.
“Yeah, it was,” he nods, “because you can never presume that people are gonna remember you or come back and see you again – so it’s very reassuring and quite touching when you get that sort of support. You obviously mean something to people. That gig was fantastic. We had a series of gigs like that over the summer. Because really, you don’t know. You think ‘Are people gonna like this?’. You can’t presume that people are going to be into it because they liked you four years ago.”
And even though they’re well-known name on most continents – particularly South America, where Hardy claims they’re treated like The Beatles – maintaining a relationship with that loyal fanbase, they say, has always been an important factor.
“Our fans have been really good to us,” says Kapranos. “Coming back after all this time and seeing them be so supportive, you feel like it’s a good human bond that you have with them. I think ‘human’ is the right word as well, because you want to keep it human. When we do talk to fans after gigs, or bump into them on the street, I don’t want to act like an arrogant rock star. I just wanna act like a guy that can talk to people.”
During the interview both Kapranos and McCarthy make several references to the ‘new sound’ they’ve cultivated over the past year and a half, citing bass-driven acts like ESG and Dr. Alimantado as influences; yet perhaps one of the most interesting elements in the creation of ‘Tonight‘ was their brief meeting with enigmatic pop producer Brian Higgins, the mastermind behind the Xenomania writing/production team. Despite its ‘elephant in the room’ status in recent interviews, they’re nevertheless keen to answer questions on why they’d considered working with the people behind Girls Aloud’s and Sugababes’ biggest hits.
“Of course people are gonna be curious, because it was an unusual thing for a band like us to do, and that’s why we found it appealing,” says a candid Kapranos. “I guess we are quite contrary and it’s good to do the thing that people don’t expect from you. I like Xenomania, they’ve got some original ideas. But, y’know, unfortunately their methods of working were so different from ours that it wasn’t really ever going to work out.
“I like pop music. You get this thing in indie bands where it’s cool to like pop music if it’s from a decade in the past. It’s cool to like The Shangri-Las, but if you say you like someone like the Sugababes, it’s like ‘Whoah, hold on, what do you mean? They don’t do what we do’. It’s like ‘No. I like melody. I like really good melody.’ And that’s what I liked about Xenomania. They were more original than a lot of bands that people’d call our contemporaries, indie bands who just write ‘verse, chorus, verse, chorus’ in a traditional sort of way. But the difference in method was at the heart of why we didn’t work with Xenomania. They write songs for other bands, we write songs for ourselves – that’s it. I remember saying at one point, ‘If that’s the situation, it’s almost like going to the Arcade Fire, or going to The Cribs and saying ‘Could you write the songs for our albums?!’.”
Sessions with Erol Alkan and James Ford were also road-tested, but in the end, the job went to Dan Carey, who’s previously produced and mixed tracks by the likes of Hot Chip, Kylie and CSS.
“I think the way it would appear to outsiders is that we did a session with Brian Higgins and it all went dreadful, so we aborted it – but it didn’t really happen like that at all,” says Thomson. “We tried a bunch of people and we just happened to click with Dan. He was ‘the one’, simple as that.”
“Dan he had a massive impact on this record,” enthuses Kapranos. “He was a great producer and really wonderful to work with, but because he doesn’t have the same glitzy PR as Xenomania do, people don’t want to talk about him, which is a shame.”
The quartet claim to avoid reading reviews (“They’re usually filtered through via our parents!”), but they’re very aware that there’ll be one or two critics surprised by certain moments on ‘Tonight’. “The electronic section at the end of Lucid Dreams, for example, that feels very new for us. I think that’s one that’s split people – some people love it, some are bemused by it. I gave my mum a copy of the record and she was like ‘Yeah, I love it, but I don’t like the end of that song Lucid Dreams. It reminds me of those terrible songs you couldn’t listen to on Beatles records’,” Kapranos laughs loudly. “But Send Him Away, too – I really love the feel and the mood of that song. It sort of reminds me of 40′ on the first record.”
As our time – and a by now, very sloppy-looking Rhubarb Crumble – comes to an end, the conversation turns to the tenuous state of the music industry in the current financial and download-happy climate.
“I think it’s really sad,” Kapranos says. “The elements of the industry that I love, like… Domino Records. We wouldn’t have made any of our records if we hadn’t had them, especially the first one. But for a label like Domino to keep putting out records, somebody’s gotta buy them and pay for the music! It’s that simple, but everybody wants something for free.”
Does being one of an indie label’s main breadwinners bring a certain degree of pressure with it?
“Not pressure, no. I want to continue, and be successful – of course I do. But particularly for the passion of the people that work there – it is everything in their lives. It’s Laurence Bell’s life, so of course you want them to continue with what they have.”
Hardy takes a slightly tougher stance. “I just don’t think that we can worry about that. It’s not our job to wake up and worry about people downloading music, it’s not our problem to solve. We’re a band, we play music, we’re not businessman. I don’t think a worldwide problem like illegal downloading can be solved by the four of us sitting around a table, saying ‘Right, I know what to do…'”
For now, however, they have less worries on the financial front than most; with an excellent third album in the can, the quartet are preparing to tour it across the continent in the coming months, starting with a date in Limerick on February 28th. This time, and in keeping with the anti-stadium vibe of ‘Tonight’, they’ll forego the enormodromes in favour of more intimate venues, although perhaps not as intimate as their debut Irish shows in 2003 – supporting Interpol in The Village and The Limelight – the latter of which Hardy remembers fondly.
“Smaller gigs are a treat for us, really,” Kapranos nods. “Personally, I like seeing a band in a small a venue as possible – so if I feel like that, I think there’s an element of our audience who does, too. We’re not one of those career bands who says ‘OK, we’re gonna go to that country and play that stadium so everyone can travel for miles to see us’, even though I think it’s kind of almost essential for us to play big ones too, to keep ourselves vivacious and alive.”
And have they reached a stage of their career yet where they can look back retrospectively, and realise that that debut heralded a new generation of intelligent art-rock bands? That one day, their output may be viewed as influential as the records they were once inspired by?
“Well, we don’t wake up in the morning and go ‘Yes!’,” deadpans Hardy, throwing his arms up in the air. “It’s nice to think that we could inspire people to form bands, though,” interjects the ever-placid McCarthy. “Yeah. I really like that thought.”