Franz Ferdinand: Tour De Franz

In just one year, Franz Ferdinand have sold two million albums, won the Mercury Prize, and coined a fresh brand of intellectual rock. Craig McLean joins them on the road in America
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It's the weekend after the week before. On the previous Tuesday, on a September morning exactly one year to the day after they released their first-ever single "Darts Of Pleasure", Franz Ferdinand were named band of the year by GQ magazine. Later that same day, after a quick dash from one posh London hotel to another, their self-titled debut picked up the prestigious Mercury Music Prize for album of the year. Several hours of gong-giving and carousing ended in the wee hours, shortly before they boarded a flight to New York.

It's the weekend after the week before. On the previous Tuesday, on a September morning exactly one year to the day after they released their first-ever single "Darts Of Pleasure", Franz Ferdinand were named band of the year by GQ magazine. Later that same day, after a quick dash from one posh London hotel to another, their self-titled debut picked up the prestigious Mercury Music Prize for album of the year. Several hours of gong-giving and carousing ended in the wee hours, shortly before they boarded a flight to New York.

Thursday afternoon found the band at the offices of their American label, being presented with a gold disc to mark 500,000 US sales of Franz Ferdinand (they're selling 17,500 copies a week in over there). Worldwide the album has sold two million copies. That night, their third US tour of the year began, at Manhattan's 3,500-capacity Roseland Ballroom. In the early hours of Friday morning, three-quarters of the band turned up at their aftershow party in a trendy Bowery bar; singer Alex Kapranos had gone home with his girlfriend, Eleanor Friedberger of the hip New York sibling duo The Fiery Furnaces.

Friday was spent as much of Thursday had been: giving TV and radio interviews. Then a train ride to Philadelphia was followed by a gig at the 2,500-capacity venue The Electric Factory, in a converted power-plant, after which the band got straight on an overnight bus to North Carolina.

And now, finally, at 11am on Saturday, here we are in the car park of a could-be-anywhere Holiday Inn by a freeway, near a mall, by some woods ... We are somewhere in Raleigh-Durham, a strung-out, semi-rural conurbation of small towns, universities, colleges and research facilities. The band have booked day-rooms at the hotel, which they can use for all of three hours to wash or take a swim. It's handy because after tonight's show they have another overnight journey ahead of them, to Atlanta. Then another three weeks of shows up and down, back and forth, across the US and Canada, before returning to the UK for more gigs. I feel disorientated; Lord knows how Franz Ferdinand feel.

It's been a long, busy week in a long, busy, mad, ultra-successful year for the band. So much so that it's easy to forget just how "new" Franz Ferdinand are. Their first gig - in a flat in the centre of Glasgow, where they were the musical accompaniment to an exhibition held by some Glasgow School of Art friends - was on 15 May 2002. They only signed their record deal on 15 June 2003.

Fairly certain of the answer, I ask them if they are exhausted. But Kapranos is upbeat: "Not really. When we first came to America, we'd fly over, go straight to the pub then wake up hungover and jetlagged, wondering why we were feeling so shit. But you adjust. The American tours are actually really laid-back. You get a nicer bus for a start." Bob Hardy (bass) agrees: "American tours are like a holiday! Your bunk is bigger, you've got a DVD-player and there are longer periods between shows, longer drives, you're having a lie-in, so there's less work to do." Still there are undoubtedly some frustrations. "The only thing that tires me out is if we don't write new songs," says Nick McCarthy (guitar, keyboards). "It's weird: this year we've turned professional and we've only practised about three or four times!"

Drummer Paul Thomson is also feeling it: "Before, I was in bands for years and when you weren't working in some shitty job, you'd go and make music in your spare time. But when you turn professional it does become work. The newness isn't there any more." Fortunately, for the fans at least, he adds, "It's really quick how we write. We could write an album in a week."

The band's tour bus, a sleek, silver monster of a thing, makes the short journey from the Holiday Inn to the venue for tonight's show. The Cat's Cradle is a smallish club in Carrboro, North Carolina, located at the end of a short strip-mall. On arrival, Franz Ferdinand will be delighted by their surroundings because: a) it's quiet here, and away from the media hubbub of New York, Los Angeles and the other American cities where they don't get a minute's peace, b) there is a laundry nearby, and c) to the delight of the laptop-toting, email-addicted Kapranos and Hardy, the venue has wireless, free internet access. For bands who have both enquiring minds and raging, non-stop success - a combination that is more of a rarity than you'd think - this is rock'n'roll heaven.

At the back of the bus sits Nick McCarthy. His plan for this unusually schedule-light day involves finding a cheap acoustic guitar on which he can try out new song ideas. Born in Blackpool but raised in Germany, he's a f graduate of the Munich Conservatoire. He can play loads of instruments and is a bit of a jazz buff. He speaks German like a native, has a peculiar accent, and admits that he often forgets the English words for things. He came to Glasgow partly because his German girlfriend was attending the Art School, partly because someone told him it was a "fun city". In the three months before he met the rest of the band he couldn't get a job anywhere. He spent his time cycling round town.

"I've never had so much abuse in my life!" he will later recall over a lunchtime burrito and beer, though he concedes that his bike was "dodgy". He may also have been dressed in his singular style, which is, you might say, a bit German: tight trousers, fitted tops, camply flamboyant. Even though he is deceptively muscled - he can push a cork into a wine bottle with his finger - one time he was punched out of his saddle, "just for the hell of it! I thought, I'm not riding my bike any more. What the fuck is going on with this place? I thought this was City Of Culture?"

"Glasgow's sorta schizophrenic," says Thomson, the band's sole actual Scotsman, at the same Mexican eaterie. "I meet people now who are like, 'Oh, I can't wait to go to Glasgow.' Then they get there and they're like this!" He pulls a quizzical, gobsmacked face. He says that Hedi Slimane, the Dior designer and one of several fashion figures who worship at the feet of Franz (Sir Paul Smith is another), was remarking just the other day how "incredible" Glasgow sounds. Making the city of their birth, still in many respects the gritty, "mean city" of legend, seem like a crucible of cool is one of the more peculiar aspects of Franz Ferdinand's worldwide success.

Right now, with the clock ticking towards midday, Thomson - rail-thin, gap-toothed, an accomplished guitarist as well as drummer - is still comatose in his bunk. So is Bradford-born Bob Hardy, the baby - and baby-faced - member of the band. He's the only art-college alumnus among this supposed bunch of art-rock dandies, having graduated in painting from Glasgow School of Art in summer 2003. He and Kapranos got to know each other working in the kitchen of a swanky Glasgow restaurant/bar. One night in late 2001 he went round to Kapranos' flat to play CDs and drink whiskey. That same day Kapranos, a long-standing figure on the Glasgow music scene, had been given a bass guitar by Mick Cooke of Belle & Sebastian. The proviso was that he did something "useful" with it.

Kapranos and Hardy had a boozy, vaguely philosophical argument. What is a musician? Can anyone be a musician? Is an instrument like a pen or a camera, that anyone can use? Kapranos showed Hardy notes for a new song he had just written, "This Fire", and an early, chorus-free version of "Jacqueline", the song which would later become the opening song on Franz Ferdinand. He duly persuaded Hardy to take up the bass. Onstage, to this day, a look of concentration is never far from Hardy's face.

Sitting up the front of the bus is Kapranos. Even in a semi-bleary state, he's eloquent and enthusiastic. A member of the road crew has picked up a kitsch Sixties Batman fan club set in a junk shop. It's complete with 12-inch record and Official Batman Fan Club Member badge. Kapranos's eyes light up as he studies the design. This is a band who put serious artistic thought into their sleeves, website, merchandise and videos ("Take Me Out" f recently won Best Breakthrough Video at the MTV Video & Music Awards in Miami). Kapranos wonders aloud. Maybe Franz Ferdinand's fan club, which is currently being developed, could have retro-style "official member" badges?

In New York, he says, David Bowie came backstage to pay his respects. Kapranos enquired after his health after his recent heart surgery. Bowie replied that he was feeling good, not least because he had technically died for a moment. Although, added Bowie, "I might have done that at some point in the Seventies too." Kapranos gives a knowing look, acknowledging the melodrama of the Dame's pronouncement. He's gotten to know these famous folks' ways over the year.

So does Kapranos feel famous? "No," says the frontman flatly. "I'm not surprised when people come up and recognise me. But I don't feel any more special than anybody else. Knowing and meeting these figures reinforces that. Although they've done some fantastic things, they're no more special than anyone else. That helps you feel the same way."

Kapranos grew up in Sunderland, moving north of the border when he was a kid with his legal-professor dad's job (his accent is Mackem with Scottish inflections). After a year studying divinity in Aberdeen he moved back to Glasgow to study English. Besides kitchen work he turned his hand to teaching English and IT to refugees. After the war in Kosovo he briefly worked for a mine-clearing charity, driving an ambulance back to Scotland from the Balkans. He's a veteran of several Glasgow bands (The Amphetameanies, The Karelia, The Blisters, The Yummy Fur, the latter also featuring Thomson), most of which tasted "indie-level" success, none of which made it. He also booked bands at The 13th Note, a venue on the local gig circuit. Basically, Kapranos knows his music-biz onions. As well as being a talented songwriter and having excellent cheekbones, he knows what he thinks, what he wants, and how to convey it.

"It does annoy me when bands think it's cool to slur their way through a bottle of Jack Daniels rather than articulate the thoughts that they do have," he says witheringly. "In recent years there has been this trend to affect some kind of thuggish behaviour just because bands think it'll give them street credibility."

I wonder how the band's relationships back home have been affected by all this time away. Not as much as you'd think, says Kapranos. "I was worried that friends might be a bit, 'Oh who does he think he is?'" he says, "but there hasn't been that at all. You go home and speak to your mum and your dad, it's like being asked when you were a kid what your day was like at school. 'What you been up to?' [Teenage grunt.] 'Nothin'. ' 'How was band today?' [Another grunt.] 'Was alright.' Of course, all these amazing things have been happening but the last thing you wanna do is talk about them. Which is terrible, really, 'cause that's all people want to hear about!"

Some are feeling it more than others. Thomson got married in April. "People ask me what married life's like, and I have to say 'I've no idea,'" he says. "We had our honeymoon in Blackpool - I just couldn't face getting on another flight." The financial costs are also high. "I've spent about four grand on calls on my mobile," says McCarthy. "My girlfriend doesn't like me spending a lot of money so I was trying to keep my calls to a minimum. Then I think, why the fuck am I doing this if I can't even talk to my girlfriend?"

Franz Ferdinand have yet to enjoy the fiscal fruits of their success. The band are on weekly wages, and it takes a while for the monies from sales, or from their American deal (reportedly $1.25m), to filter through. "All my money is spent on calls, I've literally got nothing in my account," says Thomson. But McCarthy has splashed out on a new car: a VW Polo (if you're a rock star, the insurance on his preferred model, the Scirocco, is astronomical). And Kapranos has some fancy threads, but most of these were gifts from Dior and Paul Smith, while his downtime in Carrboro is spent checking out second-hand-clothes shops (he gets a nice Breton top, which he shrinks in the neighbourhood laundry to fit his skinny-malink physique).

Zero-credit Thomson, meanwhile, laments that a British tabloid has just printed a story about how his cheque bounced at the restaurant at which he held his wedding meal. He dresses like a chav, but somehow carries off his ensemble of brothel-creepers and white Adidas tracksuit with gold piping.

But there have been other benefits and achievements. The free clothes and audiences with rock royalty. The awards. The rock-hero status in America, where they are the biggest British band since Coldplay. Thomson and Kapranos have DJ'd on Radio 1; the band edited a newspaper supplement. In New Zealand, their record label ran a competition where the winners took a helicopter trip with the band; the band were more excited at this opportunity than the punters. Next summer they will be hosting their own mini music festival in Glasgow. And, in a similar doing-it-for-the-kids manner, they are putting on a matinée show for their younger fans in Glasgow next week. They have talked about wanting to write a football song for Scotland's next World Cup campaign, and already have a song-in-progress - they were only half-serious but it's a wish that will, if they want it to, no doubt come true. (They play it to me at soundcheck. As a Scot it gets my vote.)

"We always joke about this," grins Kapranos as he and Hardy take lunch in an organic café, "but this last year has been like one huge episode of Jim'll Fix It!" "Paul just wants to blow up a chimney now and that's him!" chuckles Hardy. "And then," Kapranos says, "we're gonna have our lunch upside down on a rollercoaster and that'll be it!"

This is what makes Franz Ferdinand such a tonic. They have had huge, brain-crushing f success but are still giddy with joy and wide-eyed with enthusiasm. They have brought a jolt of no-jeans/no-trainers dash to boring, denim-suffocated alternative rock. Like their songs they are clever, persuasive, refreshing and fun. On paper it's a tall order to look and sound stylish, to make cool, poppy rock music to which you can dance, to have artful aspirations and not be a pretentious, aloof boffin - and to make a success of that all around the world. But they've managed it.

The only downer for these creativity-hungry artists is not being able to write and record more. After finishing the year with another Japanese tour, a fourth US tour and a special, one-off show in Glasgow, they plan to start the second album in earnest early in the New Year. When would they like to release it? "Phew," exhales Kapranos, "I'd like to have it out next month to be honest. I'd like to stop touring and go back into the studio tomorrow. But we've made commitments."

Late on Saturday night, Franz Ferdinand take to the stage of Carrboro's Cat's Cradle. "We're from Europe," announces Kapranos, resplendent in his new Breton top, going into cod-cheesy frontman mode, "and this is the song they're all dancing to over there." Cue "Take Me Out", one of the year's greatest singles. They play "This Diary" and "Your Boy", the two new songs they have managed to complete. They're what we might already call classic Franz: taut, brisk, melodic, energetic. The crowd of students, young hipsters and old wannabes is ecstatic.

Afterwards Kapranos is vaguely unsettled by what he felt was a sloppy gig. But Thomson loved it for exactly the same reason. It's been a long day but, approaching midnight, they troop out to meet some fans and sign assorted sleeves, pictures and Scotland football shirts. Then it's outside into the balmy Southern night. The tour bus leaves for Atlanta at 2.30am. There is a conspiratorial huddle at its door as a joint is passed around. It's too much for Hardy, who has possibly peaked too early on the vodka. He wobbles off to bed. McCarthy too disappears. But Kapranos, Thomson, some crew members and a couple who were at the show head off to a late bar for a couple of beers before departure time. It's been a good day and a great week. It can't end just yet.

Earlier I had asked the band about the dangers of over-exposure and over-enthusiasm. "We are over-exposed," agreed McCarthy bluntly. So how do you avoid becoming blasé? When you're fêted not just as a fine group but as exemplars of a new kind of stylish, intellectual pop?

"We're too frustrated to get blasé," Kapranos told me. "We feel we're not doing what we could do at the moment. We don't have the time to write as many new songs as we want to, to go into the studio."

But, typically, there's an intellectual plus-point here. "In fact, we had this debate a while ago," nodded pop-professor Kapranos. "An element of dissatisfaction is a good thing. Once you feel totally satisfied you should probably retire."

The UK leg of Franz Ferdinand's world tour starts on Monday at the Ulster Hall, Belfast, and finishes at the Brixton Academy, London, 28-30 October. For full details, see the website, www.franzferdinand.co.uk. The album, Franz Ferdinand (Domino Records), is in shops now.

Comments