On the brink of a breakup, Glasgow rockers Franz Ferdinand holed up at a farmhouse to cultivate a surprising new sound for their highly anticipated sophomore album
Last winter Franz Ferdinand cut its first tour short after tensions boiled over in Paris and band members came to blows backstage. They nearly called it quits. Instead, they decided to take the song ideas they'd gathered while touring and start on a new album in early March. But it wouldn't be business as usual: Franz relocated to a farmhouse that belongs to frontman Alex Kapranos near the group's hometown of Glasgow, hauled out a recording console and started distilling its ideas into songs with producer Rich Costey, whose mixing credentials include the Mars Volta, Bloc Party, My Chemical Romance and Fiona Apple.
The quartet recorded more than 400 hours of rehearsal jams and rough cuts, the best of which were culled for its second album, You Could Have It So Much Better, which drops on October 8. While recording, the band, which plays the Aragon Ballroom Tuesday 20, lived like the TV Monkees for several months, cooking recipes submitted by fans, drinking wine, making music together and presumably having wacky adventures. (Though we'll never know quite how wacky: A proposal to install a 24-hour webcam was nixed early on by the band.)
"One day we were a bit stuck for what to eat for our dinner," Kapranos says, "so we put something up on the website asking people to suggest something. And within four hours we had 800 replies. So Bob [Hardy] and Paul [Thomson] went through a lot of them, and we ended up choosing seven different things that we ate for every night of the week."
Finding a comfortable place to live and work was key not only for the band's survival but for its creative process. "When we got our band together, we got in places or spaces that we made our own. Being in a band is like being in a gang when you're a kid, and you want your gang house, really."
Franz seems intent on charting its own idiosyncratic course. It's barely been three years since the band played its first show, and to release a second album so soon after a sweetheart debut recalls the days when the Beatles and Stones released LPs and EPs every few months.
"I think we put the record companies into shock and panic," Kapranos says. "The album came out [last] February and we stop touring in December, which is a ludicrously short time period for promoting a record in modern music-industry terms. Most bands spend a year and a half or even two years promoting the same record, and that's why they end up dead and hating being in a band, hating each other and hating the bloody music that they play. And we didn't want to do that. We said no, goddamn it, we feel creative, we've got the urge to write, let's go in and do it now. If you ask any band what their favorite song in the set is, they'll always say the new one. The new one is the reason your band is still alive and still playing."
Franz got its start throwing art-happening parties in an abandoned building in Glasgow known as the Chateau. There, often playing borrowed equipment, the group members created a buzz that carried them all the way to a Mercury Music Prize (which recognizes the best album of the year by a U.K. band), three Grammy nominations and platinum sales in the States.
The band's members aren't all Glasgow natives (guitarist Nick McCarthy grew up in Germany), but "undeniably, we're a Glasgow band," says Kapranos. Like Chicago, Glasgow is a postindustrial, inland city where creative types are insulated from prevailing trends in the cultural capitals. "[Glasgow has] a gritty, down-to-earth attitude combined with an open-minded, intellectual attitude, which is a great breeding ground for creativity."
Though success came quick for these Scots, the members had bounced around various bands for years. Kapranos, 33, played with the Blisters, the Karelia, the Amphetameanies (a ska band) and an outfit called Yummy Fur with drummer Thomson. Franz was formed when Kapranos and bassist Hardy, then fellow chefs at a local restaurant, got together after work to jam. The pair banged around two notes that became "This Fire" on the band's eponymous debut, which topped a million in sales.
You Could Have It So Much Better shows a quirkier but confident side of Franz, more indebted to Scotland's post-punk heritage than Franz's debut. It's just as instantly memorable, but also a good bit meatier and less than polite. "Nobody turns up the good bits anymore," says Kapranos of the in-your-face sounds. "It used to be, when the guitar solo came in, it was the loudest thing. I like that approach. If there's a good bit, turn it up." There's nothing lo-fi about this home recording: Tunes like "The Fallen" sound massive, eliciting a somewhat unlikely Led Zeppelin comparison.
But there's also echo and kooky keyboards. The oddball organs and space race–era guitar effects come together on "You're the Reason I'm Living," while the subtly nasty put-downs of surf rock on "Walk Away" are nestled into a classicist song structure that would have sounded perfectly at home on the radio in 1962. The racy "Do You Want To" even gets nasty ("your famous friend, I blew him before you"). "Eleanor Put Your Boots On" is a Bowie-esque acoustic number; "I'm Your Villain" comes close to the besuited romantica of Roxy Music. But Kapranos, who loves to wax on about his faux crocodile skin–covered Selmer amp and the virtues of a $70 pawn-shop Harmony guitar, seems just fine with being pegged as a little retro.
And he's centered by a consciousness of the band's origins—friends playing gigs in dangerous spaces with no idea whether an audience might show or not.
"I think you have to retain that if you want to do anything in life," Kapranos says. "In a way, every time you go onstage you've got to have a sense of recklessness, because it's quite a ludicrous thing to do, to go bear yourself open in front of all these thousands of people. But you do. You just go, 'Ahhh, fuck—it's great, and it's a good laugh, isn't it?'"
Franz Ferdinand plays the Aragon Ballroom on Tuesday 20.