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.