Franz Ferdinand: The Heather's On Fire
What were you doing five years ago? Revising for the next round of exams, breaking up with the last girlfriend but one, recovering from the mother of all hangovers at the office - whatever it was, chances are that Franz Ferdinand’s double-headed monster smash Take Me Out provided the soundtrack. In the dull spring of 2004 (yes, you are that old), the desperation in frontman Alex Kapranos’s come-ons struck a chord with those bored senseless by the pastel emoting of the British indie bedwet set. Soon, the band’s eponymous debut had replaced Is This It in heavy rotation on your CD player (you hadn’t sold it yet).
Five whole years though, eh? By now, Take Me Out’s dazzling mid-song shift from Strokes Xerox to lolloping, stomping art-punk-disco-WTF moment has ingrained itself in your psyche to the point that it’s as predictable and familiar as the pips that sound the hour on Radio 4. Kapranos doesn’t sound half as engagingly up for it when he sings those opening lines, because, in real life, everyone’s been clamouring to take him out, from the Observer’s food supplement to paramour Eleanor Friedberger of the Fiery Furnaces.
Meanwhile, Franz Ferdinand, now an established act with over 3 million album sales under their belts, have released two intermittently brilliant follow-up records which haven’t exactly left the heather scorched in their wake. This is more a problem of context rather than content. After all, it’s difficult for any band to live up to a successful debut, never mind one that’s been dubbed as “The Album That Saved Indie” and voted best album of 2004 by NME ( once they'd clinched the Mercury Music Prize that year).
How, then, does Alex Kapranos characterise the last five years? “I try not to think back too much at all, really,” he says. “You’d have to be pretty self-obsessed and navel-gazing [to do that] all the time. I listen to other people’s music. I don’t listen back to our own records, I play them live.”
Indeed, Franz have spent much of the past year performing latest LP Tonight, everywhere from tiny pubs in Fort William to the main stage at T in the Park in July. This autumn sees them embark on another UK tour. How does Kapranos feel about playing the band’s big singles for the nth time? “A living band does have new material that comes into the set, but we’re certainly not one of those bands that have that perverse resentment of the material that introduced them to the world – that’s crazy.”
Kapranos’ refreshingly down-to-earth refusal to reject Franz’s pop classics is perhaps down to the fact that the band’s humble roots are still fresh in his mind. “We never intended to write ‘hits’,” he explains. “Paul [Thomson, drummer], Nick [McCarthy, guitarist] and I had all been playing in other bands for over ten years before Franz Ferdinand had any success. There were years of travelling up and down the M6 in a transit van, playing to fifty people in some pub in Camden. When we wrote the songs on our first album, we thought we’d maybe find an independent label that would put out 500 copies, and if we sold 500 copies and we didn’t still have some left under our bed, then we’d be really fuckin’ chuffed.”
After all, you can take the band out of the 13th Note and put them in any number of stadiums, but you can’t take the 13th Note out of the band. Franz’s lasting indie attitude led to strained relations during the recording of what eventually became Tonight, when their initial choice of hitmakers, Xenomania (better known as the backroom bods behind Girls Aloud), to man the boards proved a misguided one. Hindsight allows Kapranos to be philosophical about the aborted collaboration, although he admits that he told someone to “fuck off” during the sessions (he’s tight-lipped about who).
He explains that their differences came down to one crucial element: “the motivation for writing songs”. According to Kapranos, “It’s not some abstract concept of what a ‘hit’ is… that’s what Xenomania do, they write songs to be ‘hits’. I’m not saying that that’s cold, but it’s definitely written from a different place.”
In the end, the band recorded the album in a disused drug rehabilitation centre in Govan, that most quintessentially Glaswegian of areas, which is fitting, given that one of the band’s greatest achievements was to repackage Glasgow as a glamorous, darkly exciting city to live in. From lyrics which made myths of mega-supermarkets in Springburn to magazine features hipping the haircut indie-loving masses to venues like Stereo – if Glasgow City Council weren’t slipping the boys a quid or two for their promotional work, then they bloody well should have been: one reference to Transmission parties in Do You Want To? did more to freshen up the second city’s image than any amount of Smiling Better ever could.
What keeps them coming back to Glasgow? “I suppose it’s home, really,” Kapranos muses. “Certainly as a band that’s where our roots are, it’s where we formed, it’s where our friends were. All of our influences came from Glasgow. It’s a very fertile breeding ground for bands. While you’re in it, you’re not aware of it, but when you’re away, you do realise what a great environment it is.”
However, in the year that Franz spent holed up in Govan, meanwhile, on the East Coast, our usually flaccid capital has seen more musical activity than it has in the thirty years since Franz favourites Josef K and the Fire Engines were propping up the bar at the Tap o’ Lauriston with Penguin paperbacks hanging out their coat pockets. Indeed, Edinburgh seems to be going through a similarly fertile period to that enjoyed by Glasgow in the 1990s, when Kapranos was responsible for putting bands on at the 13th Note: “Stuart Murdoch would be playing songs, and you’d kinda think, ‘Fuck, he’s gonna do something amazing’, and then Belle & Sebastian happened. Stuart Braithwaite and the other guys from Mogwai were all playing in other wee bands and then suddenly Mogwai came together and you thought ‘… fantastic! Of course!’” he reminisces, enthusiasm undimmed by the passing years.
As a result of Edinburgh’s resurgence, however, Kapranos no longer finds himself at the vanguard, divorced from Auld Reekie’s tight-knit scene, which has had many a blogger give themselves cramp at the keyboard in their rabid excitement. Franz’s original contemporaries have had a busy five years too; the post-post-punk scene whose flames the NME were ardently fanning in the mid-Noughties has petered out. Good riddance, as far as Kapranos is concerned: “I find the whole concept of a post-punk revival a little bit repellent. We certainly weren’t trying to revive anything – when we got a band together, we wanted to create a sound that was new.”
Once US critics had cottoned on to the currency that the New Wave of New Wave of New Wave (repeat ad infinitum) briefly had with the UK’s music press, Franz also had to put up with the obligatory comparisons with Leeds godfathers of angular, Gang of Four. “None of us had even heard of fucking Gang of Four before the critics started saying that we were influenced by them!” Kapranos has little time for critical trends, and one gets the impression he’s happier to exist outwith any kind of conventional ‘scene’. “To me, it’s the progression of a band that’s important, independent of musical fashions and trends… how the progression will be seen from the end, either when we’re dead, or when the band’s dead.”
So how would an obituarist characterise this period in Franz Ferdinand’s history? While You Could Have It So Much Better, 2005’s sophomore effort, is in many ways a better crafted record – the hooks are subtler and more affecting, the guitar work more inventive – it was a victim of its predecessor’s success. Franz Ferdinand’s initial mission was to make “music to make girls dance” – revolutionary at a time when Travis were the last big Scottish band - but once they’d accomplished it forty-three seconds into the first track on their debut, where next?
Now, girls are dancing to music made by other girls (such as La Roux and Little Boots, who recently had Kapranos man the desks for a remix of one of her tracks). This year’s Tonight was another album full of floorfillers, but you’d be forgiven for feeling a frustrated sense of expectation: okay, the odd extended instrumental passage and synth texture is all very well and good, but when exactly are they going to deliver the next game-changing LP that’ll have us on our knees again?
Kapranos feels that it’s slightly unfair to demand an artistic left turn of the band. “There has been a trend recently to expect a band to reinvent themselves for every album. I think that’s an unhealthy attitude to take, because it’s not appropriate for all bands. There should always be progression, but you should never be ashamed of your character, and what makes you a good band.”
Franz certainly haven’t discarded what makes them a good band – they’re just as deft with a tune, and their enthusiasm for making music marks them out as a band who still have the power and energy to push pop’s boundaries. “We’re still four really close friends who enjoy what we’re doing a hell of a lot,” says Kapranos, without a hint of jadedness in his voice. “Sometimes I think people can forget that when they see that you’re on the telly, but we are just the same four guys, and we don’t feel any different.”
In the traditional west of Scotland fashion, it seems he can’t quite get over how well he’s done. “I’ve always appreciated how fuckin’ lucky we are as a band that we managed to keep it together long enough to make a record. I’m never going to moan about this life, and if I find myself where it seems like a chore or a job then it’s got to stop, it has to. It certainly doesn’t feel like that at the moment.”
And so, rather than living off the back of Take Me Out and its parent album for the next half-decade, Kapranos finds that the joy he takes from songwriting keeps his creative fires burning. “You write songs because it triggers that juicy pearl of pleasure within you that you can’t get from doing anything else in your life,” he says, with a hunger in his voice. Has he started thinking about the next instalment of the Franz Ferdinand adventure? “I’m starting to write songs, if that’s what you mean, yeah.”
Whatever the outcome of Kapranos’ next songwriting spurt is, it’s bound to be nothing less than interesting. Come back to me in another five years. I’m sure we’ll have a lot to catch up on.