By Michael Martin
When Franz Ferdinand announced their intention to make a pop record, it was a bit of a head-scratcher. The Scottish foursome -- purveyors of catchy, danceable rock tracks like 'Take Me Out' and 'Do You Want To' -- weren't exactly trafficking in Austrian chamber music before. And what to make of the band's aborted recording session with Sugababes producer Brian Higgins? What exactly did they mean by 'pop'? Were they dipping into Lady GaGa's face paint?
'This is dirty pop,' clarifies lead singer Alex Kapranos. 'My favorite music has always been that: direct pop melodies, but this dirty rawness at the same time.'
Not the worst starting point, and the result, Tonight: Franz Ferdinand, is a fan's relief, the equivalent of being summoned to a 1 a.m. after-party by a reliably engaging friend. Influenced by classic disco, Grace Jones's 'Nightclubbing,' and the '80s art-punk label 99 Records, it evolved into a concept album about nightlife. 'Turn It On' and 'What She Came For' offer a bit more groove and swing than usual, and 'Lucid Dreams' is an eight-minute synthesizer track that dissolves into Detroit house. 'We were really into the idea of dance music that is near your heartbeat, like 104 beats per minute,' says Kapranos. 'That's when you feel like you're hypnotized, when you lose yourself. There's a real heaviness and power to that tempo. American urban stuff is like that, but British bands tend to be too fidgety and fast.'
The group recorded Tonight in a 19th-century Glasgow municipal building last occupied by a drug rehab. Because of complaints about the noise from a nearby school for the deaf ('ironically enough,' says Kapranos), they boarded up the windows with Sheetrock, creating a perpetual midnight. Then they acquired some low-tech backup assistance when Kapranos and guitarist Nick McCarthy found a box of skeletons outside a doctor's office and brought it into the studio. 'We were looking for some dry percussion sounds,' Kapranos explains. 'So we rattled a jar with teeth in it. These are tiny sounds you can't replicate with Pro Tools.'
The band has taken an unconventional approach before, most notably with 'Michael,' a track from their 2004 debut that depicted a sweaty same-sex clinch in a club. The song was considered coolly provocative, and Kapranos's breathless delivery intensely homoerotic. In a year that wasn't short on guys making dance music with guitars, the song's thematic Bowieness set Franz Ferdinand apart from their contemporaries.
'I find it kind of odd there was quite a big fuss made over that song,' says Kapranos. 'We didn't think of it as anything out of the ordinary. We were at a club the night before, and a friend of mine, who is normally straight, went off with a guy. I thought, Cool, let's write about that. I was putting myself into other people's characters to expose their emotions. That happens on the new album also.'
The storytelling, that is, not the sexual ambiguity: 'We're straight guys for the most part, so it might seem a little contrived if we were to repeat that again,' says Kapranos, laughing. But Tonight was inspired by the band's longtime hangout, Optimo, a Glasgow club where sexual and musical pluralism is the norm. 'The point of 'Michael' was that definitions sometimes don't matter,' explains Kapranos. 'That's what it always seemed like in the clubs we hung out in. There wasn't a gay-straight divide. It just seemed like a blur to me. I much prefer socializing that way.'
On Election Night, Kapranos stayed up until 5 a.m. U.K. time to watch Barack Obama's victory speech. 'It was wonderful to hear Obama say it doesn't matter if you're black or white, and then gay or straight as well,' he says. 'It was a magnificent speech, like listening to something by Roosevelt or Winston Churchill.' But Kapranos, who has a married gay friend in London, was troubled by that night's legislative setbacks. 'It is kind of terrifying that gay marriage would be outlawed,' he says. 'That you would want to remove that choice from a major part of society is disturbing.'
Before setting off on a world tour, the singer is finalizing the album's artwork, in which Franz Ferdinand ditch their trademark constructivism for snapshots inspired by Cindy Sherman's imaginary films and the crime scene photography of Weegee. But despite Tonight's more elaborate visual style, Kapranos remains committed to the simple pleasures of the dance floor. 'I'll always be a big fan of pop,' he says. 'You're allowed to be that in America, more than in the U.K. There, the idea is that if you're indie, you can't be pop. I think that's bollocks.'
Tonight: Franz Ferdinand is now available in stores and online from Domino Records.
The band will kick off their North American tour in Seattle, WA, on April 13.
Click here for a full list of tour dates.