End of the guitar heroes: Franz Ferdinand's new sound

Franz Ferdinand's third album has a strange new sound. The band tell Elisa Bray why the future is electronic

Franz Ferdinand are having a self-confessed defensive day. In 2003 when they emerged from Glasgow with their infectious rhythmic indie-rock music "for girls to dance to" they quickly became the darlings of the music scene, inspiring a legion of successful art rock bands. Global fame followed with their self-titled debut album, which won the 2004 Mercury Prize, and its speedy follow-up, the chart-topping second album You Could Have It So Much Better. Now their long-awaited third album Tonight is out and reviews have been mixed.

"I'd say it's split pretty much. Some were a bit... harsh," singer Alex Kapranos is quick to state, as the four band members stick to a sensible combination of soda water and gastro-pub food before playing a radio show at London's Maida Vale studios. "On average it's a 3.5 [star review]," drummer Paul Thomson cheerfully chips in.

Kapranos, being one of contemporary rock's most literate and eloquent stars, is keen to analyse what troubles him most about the underwhelming reaction to their latest album. "You know, how I feel about those reviews is that they're not so much a review of an album, they're more about the cultural significance of guitar music now, which is... 'Ah, we've had this for a few years, haven't we.' What's her name?... Little Boots? Florence and the Machine? There's so much hype about girls with synthesisers it's like: 'Whoa, what's the opposite of that? Let's give that a bit of a boot in the balls.'" "Yeah. Boys on guitars," Thomson says, wearily.

The new album is partly like the Franz Ferdinand of the first two albums ("Ulysses" and "No You Girls") and partly full-on electronica ("Can't Stop Feeling" and "Lucid Dreams"). But this last song, and its extended electronic section, is hardly a reinvention of their sound – it's a revertion to their early electronic roots. Kapranos and Thomson, who met at art school, made electronic music with synthesisers until they formed Franz Ferdinand. Their first ever demo featured drum machines throughout.

"That's always been there for us as a band," Kapranos says. "The way we played guitars at the beginning was trying to mimic the sound of synthesisers by using guitars. It's true it has changed a lot – when we first got together as a band we were rebelling against what was around about us. We were into Roxy, Sparks and The Fall. We wanted to be at odds with what we heard on the radio, the bands that we saw, the people around us in Glasgow, even, and things changed over the next three to five years. Now there's a deluge of guitar bands." This is what prompted the band's guitarist Nick McCarthy to move away from guitar-playing and turn to keyboards, which gives the new album that up-to-date synthesiser feel, so redolent of the bands of the moment.

"I think you need to change as a band and a musician. You have to change to keep it rolling. There were certain things on the radio and around us, just the guitar band scene – I'm bored of it and I think a lot of people are. It got to a point when we were playing and it was just boring, we couldn't do that anymore. But we're Franz Ferdinand and we always will be. We can't help sounding like us," McCarthy says. "It's not like we wanted to destroy the identity of the band. It's more a case of allowing it to evolve. I quite like the identity of the band," adds Kapranos, laughing.

So with the help of Paul Savage – one-time drummer of The Delgados, and the engineer who set up Glasgow's music studio Chem 19, headquarters of the revered label Chemikal Underground – they set up a recording studio in a crumbling Victorian town hall in Glasgow's town centre, where the director David Mackenzie shot much of his film Hallam Foe.

By the end of 2006, after a whirlwind journey of non-stop songwriting and major touring, which included four consecutive sold-out nights at London's vast Alexandra Palace, the band were exhausted. Instead of rushing into album three, the band members – three of whom are in their thirties – had a break and went their separate ways: Kapranos went to Vancouver to do some production with The Cribs, McCarthy went to South America, Thomson raised a family and bassist Bob Hardy attempted to make a film.

They all agree the break was essential. "It's important in any relationship to have perspective and distance from time to time – if you're in a close relationship and you don't see the other person for a long time you're running to hug each other when you see each other at the train station. It's a fantastic feeling," Kapranos says, calling to mind the romantic tendency of his lyrics.

But they are still niggled by the impatience for the arrival of their third album, which came three years after the second. "We've had three albums in five years and everyone's gone: 'where have you been?' We've had two children [between us] and we toured for 18 months. And we had the audacity to take three months off," Thomson, who has a baby girl, protests.

"With U2 or Radiohead or Coldplay it's pretty much the same space between their albums – why do people not ask why it took them so long? It's just the way we did it. You're catching us on a defensive day," Kapranos adds, after dismissing a change of producer – from Brian Higgins of Xenomania to Dan Carey – as a factor in the length of time the album took to be finished.

As they leave for their next show, with a slot on the NME Awards Tour lying ahead, it's great to have one of Britain's most treasured bands back.

'Tonight' is out now on Domino; the band tour the UK from 4 to 10 March ( www.franzferdinand.co.uk), and also headline the NME Awards Big Gig at the O2 Arena, London SE10 (0844 856 0202) on 26 February

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