It’s unseasonably hot in Glasgow and Franz Ferdinand frontman Alex Kapranos is experiencing car trouble on his drive up to the city from his home near Dumfries. His bandmate Paul Thomson kills the time with a visit to the Monorail record shop and emerges with a batch of exotically-sleeved vinyl. Then we all admire the fonts. Such details matter to Franz Ferdinand, a band who’ve got it all worked out from top to bottom.
Since they emerged with a confident strut from Glasgow’s grassroots music scene over a decade ago, Franz have always appeared to be a band on a mission. In their early days, that mission was “to make records that girls can dance to,” which still sounds like a thoroughly noble aim to this girl (cough) who likes to dance. Their brazenly quirky debut hit Take Me Out identified them as ambitious contenders. This wasn’t – and still isn’t – generic chart music but it was – and still is – undeniable pop music. At their gigs, fans would sing along to the guitar riffs, always a good sign that a band has a natural grasp of melody.
As their font love attests, Franz Ferdinand are also strong stylists, reflecting the art background of a group who immortalised Glasgow’s Transmission Gallery, or, more precisely, their parties in the lyric – Well here we are at the Transmission Party/I love your friends/They’re all so arty – of their top five hit Do You Want To. Yet somehow, deploying their particular brand of alchemy, they have succeeded in being both arty and accessible. Their songs often come from an offbeat angle, but pack a universal appeal. Their latest single, Right Action, the sort-of title track of new album Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action, is another case in point, featuring an opening line Kapranos cribbed off a postcard from the 1980s which he found at Brick Lane market.
“There was an estate sale with this collection of postcards owned by somebody who had obviously been travelling around the world for years,” he says. “But they were all blank, except this one postcard which said ‘come home practically all is nearly forgiven’ on it. I loved that it suggested a situation and characters. As soon as I saw it I thought that’s a great line for a song, because it’s so evocative yet so concise at the same time, which is what a good lyric should be.”
Kapranos doesn’t leave it there. During the middle eight, you can hear him sing the address on the postcard. Franz Ferdinand have just made public the former abode of Karel Reisz, the Czech-born director of The French Lieutenant’s Woman. It’s true: you can check out an image of the postcard on the band’s Facebook page, addressed to Karel and Betsy Reisz (Reisz was married to the actress Betsy Blair for almost 40 years until his death in 2002). His most famous film Saturday Night And Sunday Morning is referenced in the song’s playful lyrics. But the intriguing question remains: practically what was nearly forgiven?
There are other stories where that came from, and Franz Ferdinand are poised to tell them. So while others bake outside on a concrete patio, we sit down inside the Mono café bar (scene last year of a Franz homecoming show) with lashings of their ginger homebrew – and a beer for Thomson – to talk about their pithy and punchy fourth album.
Franz Ferdinand haven’t really been away, although it might feel like they have, since they have maintained a degree of radio silence in the four years since their third album, the electro-centric Tonight: Franz Ferdinand, was received with slightly less than the usual acclaim reserved for Scotland’s most audacious pop practitioners. For the first time in their career, Franz were no longer undisputed darlings, as the album failed to generate as much heat as its two predecessors, Franz Ferdinand and You Could Have It So Much Better.
Thankfully, they don’t do that irritating thing where a band slags off their previous album in order to big up their latest release, but they do acknowledge that there were lessons learned in locking themselves away in the bowels of Govan Town Hall with a mountain of synthesizers.
“After bands have made an album or two, their labels tend to give them a bit more leeway in the studio and I’m afraid we’ve fallen into that trap before where you spend too long in the room together,” says Kapranos. “What we wanted to do this time was keep playing as a live band because then when you go into the studio you just play and don’t have to explain anything to each other. The way I think about it is the difference between a cat that stays in the house and a cat that goes out and f***s and fights other cats. They’ve got a different vibe about them.”
So while they were writing and recording this alley cat of an album, Franz kept on gigging here and there, proudly introducing new songs to their set as they went along, playing a number of spontaneous shows in tiny venues at home and abroad more for kicks than out of any obligation. The experience bonded the group in a way that the protracted touring and recording schedules of many established bands tends to erode.
“For the first six months of our band it was more of a social thing,” recalls Kapranos. He and Thomson had played together in Glasgow bands for years, bassist Bob Hardy was a friend and Kapranos met guitarist Nick McCarthy at a house party. The quartet famously made their base in a dilapidated warehouse called the Chateau, where they would play live at their own happenings. “We knew that if there was any point in continuing, that had to be there again, just enjoying hanging out with each other. The other stuff’s easy if you can get that bit right.”
This desire to get the old gang mentality back together informed their decision to close ranks around the making of Right Thoughts, working collaboratively with a number of producers – Alexis and Joe from Hot Chip, Bjorn from Peter, Bjorn and John – who were also musicians, rather than allow one individual to influence the whole album.
“We retreated into ourselves a little bit,” says Thomson, “just partly to do with feeling like we were all being scrutinised.”
“When we were making our second record I felt like everybody was staring at me the whole time,” says Kapranos. “I remember there was a group of our fans who were moaning on this forum because we hadn’t set up a 24 hour camera in the studio, reporting back on everything we did like f***in’ Big Brother.”
Apparently, you can watch Newton Faulkner making his new album on a live 24-hour feed. Fortunately, Franz Ferdinand appreciate the value of maintaining a soupçon of mystique and have waited until the album is almost upon us before they start sharing. “Yeah, you might not get to watch us 24 hours a day but, trust me, you’ll thank us for it when you hear the record,” says Thomson.
Now that I have heard the record, I do thank Franz Ferdinand for again putting imaginative songwriting rather than the faux-anthemic bleating favoured by many of their peers at the heart of their album. And for their first and judicious use of saxophone in this glorious year of our pop lord, David Bowie. Franz Ferdinand are always open to trying something new. That’s probably why their music has such zing.
However, Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action has an overall ring of familiarity. It leads off with Right Action, featuring catchy vocal and guitar hooks, quirky rhythmic shifts, a supremely confident delivery and a bold, geometric video directed by Jonas Odell who helmed the similarly stylised, Take Me Out promo in 2003. Like Franz Ferdinand when they’re covering someone else’s tune, it still sounds exactly like Franz Ferdinand. The same can be said of the nine other tracks on the album. When they played that show in Mono, marking ten years of the venue, almost half the set comprised new songs which sounded like old friends.
“I think the songs are quite immediate,” agrees Kapranos. “With the last record we went into the studio and worked on beats and jams – it feels so embarrassing to say that word – but this time we would sit around and talk about ideas, saying ‘I’ve got this postcard, we should write a song about this’, so you had idea, then lyrics, melody, song, and then recording.”
Eleven years after they formed, Franz Ferdinand are still making records that girls – and other mortals – can dance to. But they are equally handy at a heartbreak ballad, albeit from a Franz angle. The Universe Expanded explores the idea that “the only way somebody can recover from a catastrophic love affair is to console themselves with the idea that one day after the universe has expanded time is going to contract and you’ll meet them coming backwards.”
It also features a line about taking the dog back to the RSPCA which Thomson likens to “one of those sadistic directors like Lars Von Trier piling punishment upon a female lead” in its cruel impact.
“It’s like the Hollywood tear shot. Do you know what that is?” asks Kapranos. “I noticed it years ago watching The Green Mile. There’s a point where something very sad is about to happen and they cut away to a picture of someone with a tear just forming in their eye and that’s the trigger, that’s when you’re supposed to start crying yourself. ”
“I get it watching romantic comedies on planes,” says Thomson. “I always come out my comfort zone on planes.”
Kapranos nods empathetically: “Oh yeah, that feeling of isolation you have, crying at a Jennifer Aniston movie…”
Anyway, we digress. But for a moment it feels like being part of a Franz Ferdinand ideas session. Perhaps this moment is the kernel from which a new song called Hollywood Tear Shot will grow. Franz have plenty more where that came from. Right Thoughts was recorded in a succession of short, sharp bursts and, inevitably, some songs from the various sessions didn’t make the final cut. “I see it almost like a compilation of the best songs from a set of EPs rather than going in to make an album from start to finish,” says Kapranos. “But that’s not to suggest that the next album is going to be a collection of the weaker songs,” adds Thomson.
It does appear that Franz are a functioning artistic democracy. Having said that, neither McCarthy nor Hardy are here to confirm or deny that they vetoed one of Kapranos’ and Thomson’s favourite new numbers, Mountains, because they considered it to be “a joke song”.
“It’s not a joke song at all!” counters Kapranos, before launching into a final songwriter’s tale. “There are these scientists in Finland who want to hollow out a mountain to bury radioactive waste. The half-life of this radioactive material is half a million years so they’re trying to work out a way of putting a warning on top of this mountain to tell people to stay away from it. Will a skull and crossbones mean anything in half a million years’ time? What language are people going to speak?”
“Will we have vowels anymore?” Thomson wonders.
But Kapranos has plans for this red-headed stepchild of a song. “We’ll put it on the b-sides and rarities album,” he decides. There are currently no plans for the band to release a b-sides and rarities album. “But when we do, I want to call it That’ll Do.”
Detail. Top to bottom. Welcome back Franz Ferdinand, even though you’ve never really been away.
• Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action is released by Domino Records on 26 August. Franz Ferdinand play the Queen Margaret Union, Glasgow, on 21 August. See www.getmein.com for tickets.