FREDDIE MERCURY WAS WATCH- ing over Franz Ferdinand while they made their third album, Tonight: Franz Ferdinand. He may only have been present in the form of an action figure, but he heard it all from his perch on top of the vintage mixing desk which frontman Alex Kapranos had refurbished and shipped over from the States.
Sly Stone and Ike Turner used the same type of desk, says Kapranos, so they were also guests at the party in a remote sort of way. And late at night, lurking in the shadows, you might have spotted Jack Nicholson, toying with his axe, poised to go loco in the corridors.
Or maybe that was just me, equating the faded opulence, flock wallpaper, gaudy, patterned carpet and eerie emptiness of the old Govan Town Hall with the Overlook Hotel from The Shining. In reality, the only frenzied axemen running around are Franz, a band with a knack for nesting in atmospheric spaces. Their first HQ, fabled party pad The Chateau, was sited in an old industrial warehouse, then in a former jail and courthouse. Their latest base, by comparison, exudes a Victorian Beaux Arts splendour which neither time nor dodgy carpeting can erase.
When the band first moved in, following a year of touring in support of their second album, You Could Have It So Much Better, then some much needed time off, they had no idea of the intrinsic part the building would play in the making of their next disc. It was just a place to rehearse and store all those vintage synthesisers they had purchased on eBay. For drummer Paul Thomson, it felt like "finally being at home and having the space to use our toys. We made quite a racket."
After their first rehearsal, they received a complaint from the local school for the deaf. Pardon? "Bad vibrations," confirms Thomson, gravely. "We nearly moved out as a result of that."
"But once we'd soundproofed it, it changed the vibe," says bassist Bob Hardy. "It was dark all the time and we felt we could hide away."
Happily ensconced in their lair, Franz maintained a low profile, occasionally breaking cover to play intimate gigs around the country where they would try out whatever new songs they had written. "There are certain songs that you have to play live before you get them as a band," explains Kapranos. "I remember playing Take Me Out for the first time at a gig and seeing the baffled looks on people's faces because we just hadn't got it right."
There were to be several attempts to get Tonight: Franz Ferdinand right, but that was half the fun. "Making this album was more enjoyable than making the second one," says Kapranos. "I got sick of being asked, 'Did you feel the pressure of making the second record after people liked your first record?' Yes! Gonna stop asking me about it?"
"We had so many self-imposed deadlines on the second record that the songs didn't have the opportunity to evolve," reflects Thomson. "So we were trying to get back that freedom of the first record. When we first started writing songs we didn't think we would get as far as releasing an album. We'd all been plugging away in bands for years, rarely having the opportunity of putting an album out."
"We were just a band playing gigs, so you write songs to play at a gig," says Hardy of those early days. "You learn the songs and what works about them. It's a more natural process."
"One of the biggest misconceptions about us is that everything is totally considered and thought out," continues Thomson. "If it was that way we would have no fun making an album because we'd know exactly what it was going to sound like when it was finished. It would be the same process as building a house, when you already know what it's going to look like before it's finished."
"We had a few ideas of what we didn't want to do for the record, more than one grand idea," says Kapranos. "There were certain elements of the sound that had become ubiquitous – you know, that backbeat hi-hat had been everywhere, the octave basslines and certain guitar sounds.
"I think that's because the musical world about us when we got the band together was quite different from how it was when we started writing songs for this album. It wasn't really a period when guitar bands were getting on the radio or were part of popular culture, and they definitely are now. I suppose it was rebelling against that a little."
Franz's riposte to the infestation of mediocre guitar bands that had sprouted up in their wake was to delve into their newly acquired armoury of synthesisers. Guitarist Nick McCarthy would often reach for a keyboard when they were writing songs, finding the clavinet a worthy surrogate for guitar.
At first, the band thought they might produce the album themselves. During their time out, Kapranos had produced The Cribs album, Men's Needs, Women's Needs, Whatever. It was his first experience in that role. "I came away thinking that it's very important for bands to have producers because it's always good to have that outsider perspective."
Before eventually settling on Dan Carey, who has worked with the likes of Hot Chip, Lily Allen and Kylie, the band tried out sessions with some of the hippest names in contemporary pop, including DJ/producer Erol Alkan, James Ford, who has produced excellent albums by the Klaxons and Last Shadow Puppets, and, most intriguingly, Girls Aloud's production team Xenomania. Yet while such an unlikely partnership appealed to the band's contrarian streak, it became apparent quite quickly that this marriage of superlative pop minds was not going to work out.
"I love their unconventional attitude to pop music," says Kapranos. "The structures and sounds of their songs are really radical. But they're a set of writers, even more than producers, and we're a set of writers as well and we didn't want anybody else writing songs for us. It was almost like asking another band to produce your record and write for you. It didn't seem to ring true. But it was a good experience. I came away feeling very positive from it."
The band had also thought about recording in Hansa, the legendary Berlin studio associated with classic albums by David Bowie, Iggy Pop, U2, Nick Cave – and Boney M – but sensed that the studio might exert an undue influence. "That place is steeped in history so it would definitely leave its impression on the record," says Thomson. "We were more interested in the character of this building."
Gradually, Franz started to explore the possibilities of their new HQ, moving beyond the cosy function room they started out in, and experimenting with the acoustics of different spaces. Kapranos conducts a quick tour of the building, pointing out places of interest. There's a bathroom rigged out with microphones. Next to that is a glorified cupboard with a keyboard inside. Most impressive of all is the leaky main hall, where the band would record late at night behind blacked-out windows or under the stage in a bunker-like store room.
"I guess people have been doing that for ages, using unorthodox spaces," says Thomson. "Deep Purple recorded Smoke On The Water in some castle (it was the Grand Hotel in Montreux]. Led Zeppelin too – it was always castles though, not some municipal building in Govan."
It was Thomson who first observed that night-time was a prevailing thread through the recording and that the album followed the trajectory of a night out through to its climax and comedown. The album cover is a hastily staged crime scene homage, shot round the back of the Barrowland ballroom at closing time, while the title implies names in lights and showbiz razzmatazz. Freddie would certainly approve of that.
"The heart of any good record is a group of people enjoying making music," concludes Kapranos. "I think you always feel the atmosphere of the studio when you listen to a record, like you can tell when the relationship between the musicians is tense or awkward or if they're enjoying themselves. It felt a lot more fun making this record."
• Tonight: Franz Ferdinand is released by Domino on Monday. Franz Ferdinand play Barrowland, Glasgow on 4 and 5 March.
Fiona Shepherd first interviewed Franz Ferdinand in 2003, seven months before 'Take Me Out' was released. This is an edited version of her story from that first encounter.
When Scottish Enterprise published a report on the country's music industry earlier this year, it was impossible to refute its findings – that the number of successful Scottish pop groups has fallen considerably of late. Certainly, our bands' current anaemic commercial health compares dismally to the late 1980s heyday of Jockrock, when every Pat, Ricky and Marti was sitting pretty on Top of the Pops.
In recent years, admittedly, we've had Travis and Texas, but since then there has been a lull in Scottish musical visibility at almost every level. In recent months, though, there has been a palpable sense that the tide is turning, both creatively and commercially. "Everybody wants a Scottish band at the moment," says DJ Gill Mills, who presents Radio One's Session in Scotland. "You have bands like Franz Ferdinand, the Sluts Of Trust, August 81 and Dogs Die In Hot Cars, who have all just been signed and yet hardly any of them had even put a demo out. It's based solely on the fact that they were doing amazing live gigs."
The most visible of these bands is Franz Ferdinand. A lean, mean, four-piece from Glasgow, their smart songs and compelling stage presence provoked the proverbial record company bidding war earlier this year before they signed to respected independent label Domino Records. They are being touted as the next big noise before they have even released a record – debut single, Darts of Pleasure, is out in September.
Jim Kerr should listen in. A few weeks ago the Simple Minds singer told Scotland on Sunday that he feels new Scottish bands suffer from a "lack of desire" and drive that prevents them from grasping the critical and commercial plaudits. Franz Ferdinand, though, look and sound like contenders.
Their current HQ, dubbed the Chateau, is a derelict warehouse in Glasgow's East End, which they share with a number of artists. In a previous life it was the Bridgeton courthouse and jail. The band actually rehearse in one of the cells and have hosted a number of illicit gatherings there, which combine live bands, DJs and visuals.
"Glasgow has a great history of independent thought and creativity, and over the last year it seems to be coming round again," says singer Alex Kapranos. "There's something exciting happening right now, mainly because people are being quite open and positive with each other and doing things together. It's all very inclusive."
The other band members – guitarist Nick McCarthy, bassist Bob Hardy and drummer Paul Thomson – all agree they were attracted to the city by reputation. Hardy reckons such an influx of new blood has helped revive the creative scene, which now echoes the situation of a decade ago, when venues such as The 13th Note and Nice'n'Sleazy became vital rallying points for young musicians. At that time, Kapranos ran a regular Note night for new bands, which became a springboard for the likes of Mogwai, Bis and the Delgados.
"It's a great feeling at the moment, similar to the 13th Note a few years ago," he says. "You can't predict what's going to happen but you've got this great buzz. What makes it happen? It's hard to tell, but once you've got a couple of bands doing it, other people who are mucking about think 'if these dumbos can do it, so can we' and you get this snowball effect."