Scottish art-rock heroes Franz Ferdinand are back in action and back to basics. “What did they expect? Fifteen minute prog drones?” asks drummer Paul Thomson. David Vincent listens in.
With 2014 marking the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, Franz Ferdinand – who took their name from the archduke whose assassination was the spark for the global conflict – found themselves with an unexpected invitation. And it was one they were quick to decline.
“We were asked by members of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s extended family, his distant ancestors, if we’d like to play in Sarajevo on the anniversary of his death which…” cries band drummer Paul Thomson, “…is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard! Especially the way the world is now, you’d be asking for it!
“We’d be going out there with targets on our t-shirts,” he laughs, still horrified by the invite.
The ill-advised and questionable call to play a concert to mark the centenary of the war coincides with the return of Franz Ferdinand as a well-oiled fighting force. A decade on from their self-titled debut and lauded indie dancefloor anthem Take Me Out, Thomson, frontman Alex Kapranos, bassist Bob Hardy and guitarist Nick McCarthy are back with Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action, an upbeat, jaunty, critic-pleasing collection that finds the band recharged after 2009’s Tonight.
“We toured that album for 18 months,” says Thomson of the four-and-a-half year gap between Tonight and Right Thoughts. “After being that close for so long, you just need a break from each other, to go back and deal with normal life. And then there’s the process of getting back together again.”
That process was measured, with the band keen to avoid repeating Tonight’s chequered gestation – cancelled sessions, various producers and so on.
“We started to hang out socially first, and then we started playing each other things we’d written, so it came about gradually. Eventually there was the four of us in the same room together, and we’d identified all the pitfalls of the previous record: we didn’t want to spend hours in the recording studio with this record, we wanted to do it quick. So we did three or four songs in a weekend, then the next weekend did three or four more, and we could go away and look at them. All the songs had their different strengths, and we could cherry pick the ones we wanted.”
Previous albums saw the Glasgow quartet dip into a catalogue of unrecorded songs penned over a period of time. “Even the third record, Tonight, we pulled in songs that were written from before the first album to record – Can’t Stop Feeling was written for the first record, but not used,” Thomson says. But Right Thoughts was a blank slate.
“Was it daunting having a blank slate?” Thomson ponders. “Not really, no. I really liked having the freedom to do what we wanted, that year zero approach to songwriting, it can be liberating. It was like the way the first record came about, it was like being a new band again rather than the touring monster that we’d become.”
Reviews of the album, which was recorded at band studios in Scotland and London, and also in Scandinavia, have praised the band’s back-to-basics approach, a response which Thomson is initially unsure about.
“Back to basics…what do they mean by that? I don’t know. But I guess we kept it to the point. The songs are succinct, we work within the structure of the classic pop song – but we’ve always done that, that’s the format we’ve tried to work with, the three-minute song. “What did they expect? Fifteen minute prog’ drones?” he laughs. “Umm…we have been known to jam endlessly…so think yourself lucky the songs are just three minutes.”
While there’s clearly a certain economy and consistency to Right Thoughts, Thomson admits stranger, more challenging and different sounding tracks were recorded during sessions but held back.
“The way you hear the album, there’s a coherence that comes about when you pull together the tracks. They were pulled from 20 very different songs. When we came to decide what to [choose] we decided on a succinct tracklisting, and we jettisoned the weirder songs. I guess they were stylistically weird,” he says of the rejected tunes. “People have said Right Thoughts is a guitar record that sounds a lot like our first one, but that was not planned. We had a different method for different songs, different tempos…those songs will come out in some form, I’m sure, maybe this year. They’re great songs that we want people to hear.”
With a strong visual identity, previous Franz releases have been influenced by early 20th century Russian artists, such as Alexander Rodchenko, and (with Tonight) New York crime photographer Weegee. For Right Thoughts the vibe is more 50s/60s film credits and legendary graphic designer Saul Bass.
“That wasn’t the plan, but I guess the sleeve before was a high resolution photo and we wanted to move away from that, we wanted something handmade, put together by hand. A few people have mentioned Saul Bass, but that wasn’t what I was thinking about. I just sat there with a scalpel, coffee fuelled…”
In these days of instantly downloadable fonts and Photoshop, it seems a rather lengthy process. But Thomson loved the old school approach.
“It was fine, you’re just focussed on the task at hand. I had a way of doing it, listening to records, on my own, cutting out the text – it was a zen-like approach. I didn’t want the sleeve to look ‘Photoshopped’. It takes time, but it was ultimately rewarding.”
Though there are already plans to begin working on their fifth album in the late summer/autumn, the foreseeable future is Franz Ferdinand: Touring Monster.
“That’s how it goes. You spend ages making a record and then tour it for two years. That’s the way it works for bands nowadays, as record companies don’t get the same returns as they used to, in this age of renting music rather than buying it, so the returns are lower.”
However, Thomson admits he’s looking forwarding to getting back out on the road.
“I quite enjoy touring,” he says. “We just did a tour of Asia in late November/December, and that was really good. We did Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea…and the audiences were super appreciative when we got there. My return luggage had doubled in size with all the gifts from fans, which was really sweet. The way they react to music, they’re excitable audiences, and the food is amazing. I love to do gigs out there.”
Gifts from fans? Sounds intriguing.
“I don’t follow other bands so I don’t know if only we get fan art, but we get TONS of it, drawings of us, a lot done in this Manga/anime style so we all look like 15-year-old boys,” Thomson laughs. “I don’t know why the fans infantilise us, do we put ourselves over like cartoons? I guess we are four distinct characters, so they must be disappointed when they see us in real life, these four middle-aged men…
“People fill entire sketch books, they’re amazing, and I keep them all, every one. Some of the work that goes into them…fabric embroidered badges! Fans must have spent weeks doing some of this stuff, and then they give it to us. They’ve spent so long on them, put so much into them, I feel an obligation to keep them.”
Sounds like the ‘right’ thing to do.
Franz Ferdinand are live at the O2 Academy Birmingham on March 21. Tickets are priced at £25 and are available here.
Words: David Vincent | Photos: Andy Knowles