18 January 2009

Interview/Review: Franz Ferdinand

Although ‘Tonight: Franz Ferdinand’ hasn’t been a long time coming in the ‘Chinese Democracy’ stakes, the nigh-on four years between ‘You Could Have it So Much Better’ and its follow up mean that the band are jumping into the depths of an unfamiliar scene – no longer are they the doyens of the charts, atop every NME reader’s cultural compass. When they assaulted the charts with ‘Take Me Out’ in 2003, they sat alongside Razorlight and Keane as part of a triumvrate of intelligent (that might be generous with regard to Razorlight…) alternative music set to rescue the charts from manufactured pop pap, but as frontman Alex Kapranos sighs, “when we first appeared there weren’t many guitar bands in the chart, just a lot of formulaic pop music, and now, there seems to be a degree of formulaic guitar bands kicking around.” The question seems to be, will the dandified, articulate Glaswegian quartet be able to stand out in a scene of brash, meatheated dirty ladrock?

As the ominous, seductively arch bassline of ‘Ulysses’ kicks in, it’s quite apparent that the pastoral tendencies we saw Franz exhibit on their last album have been left to lie fallow for a while. “Let’s get high,” pouts Kapranos, making way for a filthy, indignant 8-bit electronic riff which writhes contorted like a straightjacketed dancer. The band described their last album as “teenagers having sex” – “magic, but frantic and over quite quickly” - you get the impression they’re trying to restrain themselves, attempting to hold back on a magnificent climax (and boy do they come later on…).

“The story of Ulysses or Odysseus is a great tale, and you can still read it two and a half thousand years later – you really empathise with his characters, and get the feeling he’s never going home – there are always times in your life when you feel a bit like that, certainly when you’re in a band,” says Kapranos. “If you let that get you down, it’s a disaster, but if you can see it as an adventure, then great. It’s more about how you can consider yourself to be a hero when you’re not.”

Unfortunately, they seem to have acquired a horrible production habit on this song which manifests itself throughout the album – disconnected, jarring, echoey middle-eights, with all the panache and subtlety of a horror B-movie. It crops up again on ‘No You Girls’, and ‘Live Alone’, the latter of which is the type of mid-tempo Franz song which just really doesn’t work, straight disco which could have been prised directly from the monochrome bars of Blondie’s ‘Parallel Lines’ LP.

The build-up to this album almost broke the rumour mill – ‘Franz Ferdinand make Afrobeat album’, ‘Franz to record pop album with Xenomania’, but they’re quick to correct the record on the influences which have been foisted upon them.

“When we came offstage from African Express, someone asked me if we like African music, so I said, “of course we do, we’re playing with a bunch of African guys, of course we like African music,” and then that, through a series of Chinese whispers, and the internet, became, ‘Franz Ferdinand to make African album’,” says Alex.

This fatigue with the press reveals itself on ‘What She Came For’ – “I’ve got a question for ya, where d’ya get your name from?” snarls Alex, mocking journalists’ lack of imagination. Unfortunately for the band, ‘What She Came For’, although biting in message, is one of the record’s weakest tracks – Kapranos’ delivery is affected and whiny, and the chorus breaks into what’s seemingly the band’s unconfident-sounding attempt at a football terrace shoutalong chorus – if the rest of the songs on the album weren’t so strong, you could be forgiven for thinking this song a glib attempt at staying relevant.

Those strengths reveal themselves when Franz are at their sparsely arranged best - on ‘Turn It On’, the bass kicks its pointed-toe brogues under call and response vocals, and a screeching, cricket-like alarm sound. The sessions with Xenomania obviously paid off – it’s not hard to imagine Girls Aloud covering this track in the Live Lounge, nor ‘Can’t Stop Feeling’, with its dub bassline contrasting stylishly with Kapranos’ purred Scottish brogue. ‘Bit Hard’ is all pseudonyms and kissers, regrets and revelations, stalkers and dirty looks on the dancefloor. “I won’t resort to kissing your photo,” they sing, proving that we can always rely on Franz Ferdinand for decadent dandified aesthetics in an instance where Arctic Monkeys might bookmark your Myspace photos.

The imagery of the lyrics is as rich as ever – ‘Send Him Away’ sounds influenced by Merseybeat, which works well, and it’s imbued with rich jealous scenes, to the extent that you can almost feel “his breath in your hair”, the Wurlitzer jittering like an envious hand trying to focus all its energies on holding a glass as you watch someone muscle in on your girlfriend. ‘No You Girls’ wouldn’t sound out of place on their first album, with its film noir imagery put through a 21st century art-pop wrangler. “Kiss me, lick your cigarette then kiss me,” say Alex’s louche vocals, under an insouciant metronic ting. Built around simple motifs, the bassline could fit under ‘Take Me Out’, and the massive chorus and sexual frisson could amount to a kind of modern day ‘Girls and Boys’. Despite these rich images, however, the band have taken a step away from the Russian construtivist artwork which bound their first two records.

“We definitely wanted to change our aesthetic this time around, just because those first two records really reflected the sound of the music, that bold geometry – it looked like the record sounded, those strong jerky movements. This record has a different feel to it, there’s a dirtier, nighttime vibe,” says Alex.

Although whether the record is a massive departure from their previous work is contentious, ‘Tonight’ does mark the band’s first foray into the concept record, supposedly soundtracking the events of an evening out, climaxing in ‘Lucid Dreams’, a massively unpredictable departure from their usual work. Starting as a sickly, heartthrob ballad, it’s a great experiment with structure, an uncharacteristic wall of sound bursting at the seams. Just as Gregor Samsa awoke metamorphosed one morning from troubled dreams, it seems that Franz have undergone an equally profound transformation on this seven minute track. It’s the least lucid, most frenetic, worrying of dreams, chopping and changing every few minutes – from standard Franz, to a kickdrum worthy of a Grace Jones track – it’s not hard to imagine her singing over the crazy electronic ending of the song, sounding like Kraftwerk playing Pong with Kernkraft in the midst of the sort of ear pounding club confusion that we’re all familiar with. Simmering down to an almost minimal techno ending, the closing notes of the song sound as though they’re gasping for breath over a pounding heartbeat. What Kitsuné Maison’s cohort will make of this, I cannot wait to hear. It’s undoubtedly the best song the band have ever made. However, despite ‘Dream Again’ acting as a kind of hazy, hungover epilogue to ‘Lucid Dreams’, any suggestion that this is a subtle hint to the next album being equally experimental was sadly refuted.

It was supposed to represet the idea of a night out, and ‘Lucid Dreams’ has that climax, where it really comes up, and the come-down is ‘Dream Again’ and ‘Katherine Kiss Me’,” says Alex. “With both of those songs, the lyrics and the music, we wanted to give them a dreamlike quality – but different types of dream. ‘Lucid Dreams’ is obviously that kind of chaotic, semi-nightmare of a dream, whereas ‘Dream Again’ is much more positive.” ‘Dream Again’’s romanticized, out of focus vocals, and mildly psychedelic synths lend ‘Tonight’ the feeling of a really complete pop album, the notion of which the band are eager to protect.

Nowadays, we talk about downloads rather than albums – this is supposed to be listened to in the order it’s put together. A lot of work goes into building the dynamic within a song, and the same amount goes into an album – it’s like making a compilation for somebody, you can tell how much someone loves you by how good the compilation they make for you is, whether it flows well,” says Alex.

The record’s coda, ‘Katherine Kiss Me’ might be to Franz Ferdinand what ‘Songbird’ was to Oasis – a surprisingly sweet, honest take on love which avoids the nightclub bravado of its album predecessors. It’s a sister song to ‘No You Girls’, as Alex explained:

“Both songs are about the same event – kissing somebody for the first time. We’re trying to show how we recall big emotional events in our lives depending on the circumstances in which we recount them, and who we’re telling them to. ‘No You Girls’ is how you might tell it to your friends in the pub, where you exaggerate something, everything becomes more glamorous, you make a story out of it. Whereas ‘Katherine Kiss Me’ came from the same events, where you remember how emotionally fragile it was, and how you felt.”

The gorgeous, almost Kinks-esque acoustic ballad features rolling lyrical contradictions – “yes I love you, I mean, yes, I’d love to get to know you”, and the fragility of “how the boy feels” is a welcome shy away from their usual enigmatic bravado.

During the writing of the album, they played the club circuit, testing out new material on audiences to see if they approved, and amending accordingly. The band are about to begin touring the new material in its finite form, supported by Metronomy. Despite the homogenization of London venues in particular, and the current economic climate, the band are optimistic about the future of live music.

“I think people will always want to hear live music,” says Alex. “There have always been press stories about the death of live music – I’m sure they were doing it in 1962 or whenever the jukebox was introduced. I don’t like seeing the homogenization of the venues – that’s definitely happening with Live Nation. It’s nice when you come to a town, and it’s got these quirky little venues that you wouldn’t see anywhere else.”

“Someone asked me earlier today if streaming live gigs on the internet meant the death of live music,” adds Paul. “I thought, “you don’t go to many live gigs, do you…””

After a drop in form with ‘You Could Have it So Much Better’, ‘Tonight’, and in particular ‘Lucid Dreams’ seem as though they’re not only going to be a saving grace for the band, but “formulaic guitar music” in general. From a personal perspective, I’ll never forget the excitement I felt when Franz Ferdinand came around the first time – they were undoubtedly many tentative teenage music fans’ first foray into guitar music, a band to be admired with their defined aesthetics and cerebral knowing. Hopefully, ‘Tonight’ will inspire a whole new generation of music fans to abandon generic scally rock for something significantly more fulfilling.

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