Franz Ferdinand are a cultured bunch, that’s for sure. After all, this is the same bunch of clever-clever UK pop professors who’ve littered their works with references to artists Alexander Rodchenko and Man Ray since their 2003 debut single, ‘Darts Of Pleasure’. But this has made them and their rollicking music a tasty target for over-analysis.
‘People think we work to some sort of manifesto, or to an agenda in the way an artist might,’ says frontman Alex Kapranos, clad in an impressive pair of tartan slacks. ‘People have this idea that being art, music somehow comes from an intellectual source, which it doesn’t really.’ In fact, when we met them, the band – Alex, bassist Bob Hardy, guitarist Nick McCarthy and drummer Paul Thomson – were spending down-time before a gig critiquing the latest Indiana Jones film (‘Indiana Jones And The Licence To Print Money’, Hardy calls it), imitating the cast of telly favourite The Wire and christening imaginary upper-class twits: ‘Just pick a posh name and hyphenate two high-street stores,’ says Bob, ‘like Timothy Woolworths-Jessops.’
Then the band walk on stage and tear through a face-melting set of punk-funk-disco refracted through ELO’s anthemia and The Stooges’ burning guitars, and the art in what they do is suddenly apparent. They are unusual in being able to deliver something clever-but-accessible to the masses while taking street-level culture to thin folk in black polo necks. In preparation for their new album, Tonight: Franz Ferdinand, they even went into the studio with the shining knights of lowbrow, Girls Aloud hit-making machine Xenomania.
But sadly it didn’t take. ‘In a way it’s crazy that we end up talking about Xenomania because we should be talking about [Kylie and Lily Allen producer] Dan Carey,’ says Alex. ‘He saved the soul of the band. His records are pretty radical, in his sound and his attitude to melody. Maybe that’s what had drawn us to Xenomania: the way they arrange songs is radically more experimental than any of the bands who would be considered our contemporaries, like the indie bands around nowadays who are extremely conventional in the way they write and arrange songs.’
Paul interjects: ‘When we saw Neil Young the other night you realise how conventional younger bands are. How old is he, man? The way the guitar drones.’ ‘Totally,’ agrees Alex, ‘We were talking to the guy in the radio station about ‘Ulysses’ – what was he saying? “I really like it, but it’s a weird song.” That’s great – it should be odd. It shouldn’t sound like all the other songs on your station. He was like, “Yeah, it doesn’t really sound like your other stuff.” You’re right, it doesn’t!’
He might be quiet in the interview, ceding to a more forceful Alex, but Nick can take a lot of credit for Franz’s electronic update, which includes filthy techno (the end of ‘Lucid Dream’) and a Konono No1-aping breakdown (‘Can’t Stop Feeling’). Pushed on his obsession for all things Moog, Nick just says, ‘Yeah, we’re all pretty hot on synths.’ But brought up in Germany, he’s Franz’s Munich Machine all right: just watch his Moog-tickling stance, or listen to his Box Codax project, released on hip Berlin label Gomma. ‘I think it’s really important, you know? It makes the band stronger, different influences from outside,’ he says.
Having proved that they don’t have a manifesto and can be as mindless and posturing as any other great rock ’n’ rollers worth their beer, Franz Ferdinand almost ruin things when Paul says – like a true art theorist – they spent ages trying to unlearn their sound for this new album. Tonight does, of course, sound like a Franz Ferdinand record, but it comes with an odd twist.
‘I guess our weirdness threshold is slightly… Is it bigger or smaller? How does a threshold work?’ asks Paul. ‘Higher or lower,’ Alex offers. ‘Yeah, slightly higher than people who programme radio stations,’ concludes Paul. So you are you trying to be clever, we ask? ‘We were clever right from the beginning,’ grins Alex.
Tonight: Franz Ferdinand is available in stores now.