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Cover Story: Franz Ferdinand - reigning rock star geeks

Cover Story: Franz Ferdinand - reigning rock star geeks

It looks like Andy Warhol’s fabled Factory in New York. Walls, windows, doors and furniture are all encased in tin foil. Silver balloons add a surreal, festive touch. It’s a photo shoot for Franz Ferdinand, the reigning dukes of pop-rock, and the four band members are happy to play along. After tossing and kicking many rolls of foil, more tin-foolery follows. First, the group mummifies drummer Paul Thomson. Then, hamming it up like Ringo, Thomson turns into a crack-head Tin Man, puffing on a dubious-looking foil pipe. Blame it on their roots. “We’re a product of the Glasgow scene,” says singer Alex Kapranos, “where artists play in bands and bands perform in art galleries. There’s a great crossover between the two scenes.”

Franz Ferdinand isn’t the first rock group deeply rooted in the art world. But like New York’s Talking Heads, the skinny Scottish rockers are rapidly becoming both revered and wildly popular with their arty, dance-friendly sounds. The band’s self-titled debut album, featuring the exuberant hit “Take Me Out,” fulfilled the group’s stated mission “to make records girls can dance to,” having sold more than three million copies. The group’s brilliant followup, You Could Have It So Much Better, is a little more downbeat. But it’s garnering rave reviews and promises to avoid the sophomore jinx by winning even bigger sales. “Some of the album is a little more introspective,” admits Kapranos, the band’s singer and chief songwriter with guitarist Nick McCarthy. “But other parts are intensely euphoric and optimistic as well.”

franzferdinand betterThat euphoria was in abundance this past October at Toronto’s Ricoh Centre, where Kapranos, McCarthy, Thomson and bassist Bob Hardy rocked through a set list that featured urgent, anxious new numbers like “This Boy,” “Evil and a Heathen,” “You’re the Reason I’m Leaving” and the kinetic hit single “Do You Want To.” One of the new album’s most adventurous tracks, the slow, piano-laced ballad “Eleanor Put Your Boots Back On,” wasn’t included. But Franz Ferdinand, named for the Austro-Hungarian Archduke whose murder sparked the First World War, did perform the album’s mid-tempo masterpiece, “Walk Away,” with its film-noir guitars and tale of romantic tragedy. And when the band came back for its encore and delivered “Outsiders,” the last song on You Could Have It So Much Better, it indicated how the group members see themselves amid the madness of sudden fame. “There’s been some changes,” sang Kapranos, “but we’re still outsiders.”

Nothing reflects the friendship within the band, nor that “outsider” stance, better than the spirited video for “Do You Want To.” Set in an art gallery, it features Kapranos and his mates, all dressed in matching Japanese jackets, striped shirts, tight black pants and pointy boots, colliding with a party room full of pretentious hipsters. “Here we are at the Transmission party,” sings Kapranos, “I love your friends, they’re all so arty.” Like many of Franz Ferdinand’s songs, the references are to real people and places. “One of the first gigs we ever played was at the Transmission gallery in downtown Glasgow,” explains Kapranos. “It’s a world we’re pretty familiar with, because Bob and Paul both went to art school. Plus, a lot of our friends are artists and we often invited them to display their work at our early shows.” Still, he adds, the brotherhood of the band rules supreme—especially when the group is on the road. Says Kapranos: “We’re like a gang of friends.”

Like Coldplay, Franz Ferdinand has broken through in North America in a way that can only leave other top British acts like Oasis and Robbie Williams deeply envious. The band has done it with an indefatigable work ethic, performing a staggering 300 gigs in 18 months (currently, the group is touring Europe before heading to Australia, New Zealand and Japan in the new year). And everywhere Franz goes, it picks up new fans, including celebrities like Kanye West (who proclaimed Franz to be “white crunk”), Snoop Dogg, David Bowie and Elton John, who dropped in to catch their show recently at the Hard Rock Café in Las Vegas. A brand new double-disc DVD, titled simply Franz Ferdinand Live, is bound to thrill those fans. With two full concerts, additional live clips, interviews, behind-the-scenes footage and a pair of bonus karaoke videos for “Take Me Out” and “Dark of the Matinee,” it’s an audio-visual bonanza that captures the band in the eye of the storm of global popularity. Kapranos, for one, is relishing every moment of the current ride and refusing to slow down. “I hate to read interviews with bands that moan about how they had to ‘get up today and do some promo,’ he said, imitating an unnamed spoiled English rock star. “For god’s sake, think about how lucky you are and what you were doing before.”

Before the band hit, Kapranos and crew were either students or worked in boring jobs. While Hardy studied at the Glasgow School of Art and Thomson worked there as a nude model, McCarthy studied jazz at the Munich Conservatory. Kapranos, born to Greek-English parents, emigrated to Scotland and later studied computer technology and divinity at Aberdeen University (“if things hadn’t turned out as they did, I might have been wearing a dog collar,” he quips, in reference to his religious studies), before working as a bartender, chef and taught English to new immigrants. The band came together in 2001 and began rehearsing in a run-down warehouse they called, rather grandly, the Chateau, where they eventually held performances featuring visual art. “Those gigs were really rave-like events,” recalls Kapranos fondly. “They certainly weren’t your standard rock and roll shows.”

It was at one of those noisy, illicit art parties that Kapranos first met McCarthy. A classically trained pianist and double bassist, McCarthy, born in Blackpool but raised in Germany, showed up dressed as Adam Ant and was caught trying to steal Kapranos’ vodka from the fridge. Rather than fight, the pair forged a friendship and McCarthy wound up joining the group. Still, despite the bonds, success and the pressures of touring have at times placed a strain on their relationship. In November 2004, McCarthy almost quit the band after he and Kapranos had a major disagreement over a minor issue. The argument wound up clearing the air. “Mine and Alex’s friendship was born out of a fight anyway, so it’s fine,” McCarthy later said. “Living together 24 hours a day for a year and a half had just got to the point where if you dropped your pencil, it was the other guy’s fault. I’m quite glad it happened.”

During the Warholian-like photo shoot, the day after the Ricoh Centre concert, the band was admirably patient with the photographer and visibly warm and good humored with each other. During a break in the session, both Kapranos and McCarthy spoke earnestly about their respective musical obsessions (the Beatles and Roy Orbison). Avid record collectors, they have spent time on the road scouring second-hand vinyl stores (often traveling around cities on bicycles). Kapranos talks fondly about some of his best finds (bootlegs of the Smiths and Abbey Road), while McCarthy raves about a Harry Belafonte recording that features Bob Dylan on harmonica and waxes dreamily about a rare album by jazz pianist Bud Powell that he recently scored in St. Louis. But Kapranos now claims to have curtailed his record buying while on tour. “It was getting ridiculous,” he admits, “carrying these massively heavy bags full of vinyl through airports. Lately, most of his purchases have been online, although, he adds, “being drunk on eBay is a dangerous game.”

franzIf this makes the members of Franz Ferdinand sound geeky, that’s because they are. The band has even started a book club, and holds meetings on the tour bus. Kapranos, in particular, is an avid reader and cites Charles Bukowski, Graham Greene, Ernest Hemmingway and Norman Mailer as favorites. “When I knew I was a freak, around 13 or 14, I embraced it,” Kapranos said. “I despised people who were desperate to be cool.” Although considered ultra-cool themselves by their fans, Kapranos and his bandmates are decidedly mature and down-to-earth in person. Kapranos, McCarthy and Thomson are all in their early 30s, while Hardy is the youngest at 25. McCarthy and Thomson are married (Thomson’s wife accompanied the band on this tour), while Kapranos has been romantically linked to Eleanor Friedberger, of New York rockers the Fiery Furnaces (see “Eleanor Put Your Puts Back On”).

As fame grows and incumbent pressures rise, Franz Ferdinand will be challenged to stay grounded and remain together and inspired as a band. Although the group has stretched itself artistically with You Could Have It So Much Better and is already working up new songs for a third album, it will have to keep pushing itself as a live act to stay on track. Advice from stadium-filling veterans like David Bowie and Elton John can only help. “We opened a couple of really big shows for U2 in Spain recently and it was some eye-opener,” said Kapranos. “Bono gave us some simple but great advice on how to keep growing as a band. He told us that most great rock ’n’ roll gigs only last 20 minutes, so it’s up to the bands to keep on making the show interesting for the fans.” Drawing inspiration from both the art and music worlds, Franz Ferdinand will undoubtedly succeed in taking its act to the next level. “Right now,” says Kapranos confidently, “I feel we’re really just at the start of what we’re capable of doing.”

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