Franz Ferdinand: Uncool? That's us!

They are clever, arty and studiously anti-style. Oh, and you can dance to their music. But can Franz Ferdinand really save pop? Mark Hooper has been with them from the bedroom to the big time...
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The Independent Culture

Funny thing, fame. One minute you're playing your first gig to 80 close friends in a mate's bedroom, the next you're getting emails from David Bowie. It's like, well... "It's like being on Jim'll Fix It," suggests Alex Kapranos, lead singer with the band Franz Ferdinand, who are currently enjoying their own heady ride on pop's parabola. "All of a sudden you get to meet all your heroes: Bowie, Morrissey, Jarvis Cocker..." To be fair, they've only met Jarvis Cocker so far. Bowie's email was an invite to meet up in June, when they're next in New York. ("I don't even know what I call him," says Kapranos. "David? Mr Bowie?") in the meantime, Morrissey has asked them along to a little party he's having at the end of this month. It's not exactly private: there should be 15,000 people watching when they open for him at Manchester's MEN Arena, his first hometown concert in 12 years.

Funny thing, fame. One minute you're playing your first gig to 80 close friends in a mate's bedroom, the next you're getting emails from David Bowie. It's like, well... "It's like being on Jim'll Fix It," suggests Alex Kapranos, lead singer with the band Franz Ferdinand, who are currently enjoying their own heady ride on pop's parabola. "All of a sudden you get to meet all your heroes: Bowie, Morrissey, Jarvis Cocker..." To be fair, they've only met Jarvis Cocker so far. Bowie's email was an invite to meet up in June, when they're next in New York. ("I don't even know what I call him," says Kapranos. "David? Mr Bowie?") in the meantime, Morrissey has asked them along to a little party he's having at the end of this month. It's not exactly private: there should be 15,000 people watching when they open for him at Manchester's MEN Arena, his first hometown concert in 12 years.

"It hasn't really sunk in," admits Kapranos. "I've mentioned it to a couple of my pals and they've said, 'My God, won't you be a quivering heap?' But I don't know. I reckon he's just like an ordinary guy anyway." There hasn't been much sinking-in time for the members of Franz Ferdinand so far. The band's own website charts their rise in typically deadpan style. Their first show is recorded for posterity thus: "22 May, 2002: Celia Hempton's bedroom, Sauchiehall St, Glasgow". This, the so-called Girl Art show, was the first time the line-up of Kapranos (vocals), Nick McCarthy (guitar), Bob Hardy (bass) and Paul Thompson (drums), got to put their in-front-of-the-bedroom-mirror dreams into action. Albeit still in a bedroom. Unbeknownst to them at the time, their four song set already included a future number two single. But more of that later.

As a unit, Franz Ferdinand are commonly referred to as "art school". Which, literally speaking, is at least half right. "It was just Bob and Paul that studied art," explains Kapranos. "Bob did painting and Paul did environmental art. I did English and Nick studied music. But Nick studied double bass and ended up playing guitar. He hadn't played the guitar before he joined the band. There was a lot of perverse swapping round of instruments, almost wilfully not doing the thing you're meant to do, just to give it an edge. And Bob had never played bass before too..." Hardy: "Or any instrument." Kapranos: "And Paul would only play drums if he could be seen on stage, so he didn't have any toms." Thompson: "...which is fair enough." That first bedroom event (swiftly followed a month later by a performance in "Nick McCarthy's front room, Hamilton Avenue, Glasgow") pretty much set the template for every gig to follow. There were girls dancing. All of whom had an unencumbered view of the drummer. There was a sense of inclusiveness - not to mention the ridiculous. There was an understanding that any ideas of "cool" would be checked in at the door. There were people feeling like they were 16 again, even though they plainly weren't. Everywhere they've played in the two years since, be they liberated Glaswegian warehouses, derelict Victorian gaols, HMV flagship stores or NME sponsored showcases, there's been the same reaction. This band are a bit special.

We are, of course, talking about the world of pop, where hyperbole comes in huge overwritten dollops. But Franz Ferdinand attract a different class of hyperbole. Instead of the music press they have Morrissey and Bowie to sing their praises. Time and Le Monde want to interview them. While their peers are busy telling Smash Hits what's in their pockets, they get to edit supplements of national broadsheets. Chanel used their music to soundtrack their last collection, while Dior want the band to wear their clothes on tour.

Where did it all go so right? There's an easy answer to that. It's "Take Me Out", the number two single first aired in their friend Celia Hempton's bedroom. An infectious, stop-start epic, it was released at the beginning of the year during the traditional post-Christmas lull, and already sits happily atop the "Best of 2004" polls, cockily swinging its legs, waiting for someone to try and knock it off. "Take Me Out" is the perfect example of what Kapranos means when he talks of "wilfully not doing the thing you're meant to do, just to give it an edge". It's in the way they tease you with a faintly familiar intro - a summation of all the cool, spotty, New York punk reference points that have dominated the indie scene over the past few years - and then abandon it for something completely different, something very angular, very British. And very much better.

It says, in the space of one key change, "forget all that crap you've been listening to. You deserve this". Every time they play the song live, Kapranos and McCarthy adopt looks of melodramatic surprise at this point in the song, as if they can't quite believe what strange force has taken over their instruments. It's very funny to watch, which is another important part of the Franz Ferdinand jigsaw.

Alongside the countless, achingly cool comparisons thrown up by critics in describing the band - Orange Juice, Josef K, Talking Heads... there's one crucial group missing: Queen. They may not seem to have much in common, but Kapranos is adamant. "Freddie Mercury is a huge inspiration, just for his attitude. My favourite performers on stage are the ones that get up and don't give a damn about making a fool of themselves. There's nothing worse than a self-conscious idiot onstage, worrying if his pals will think he's cool. You shouldn't be onstage at all. You've got to be totally prepared for people to turn on you, and if you fall on your arse and everyone laughs at you, not care. Enjoy it. Laugh as well. Because it's funny, you're on the stage." Which isn't to say this art of uncool, this air of effortless nonchalance, is something they don't work on or worry about. You need only contrast the shuffling, ill-coiffured guitar bands barely enjoying their 15 minutes on CD:UK with Franz Ferdinand's tight, sharp unit to see that. "Oh definitely," agrees Kapranos. "I see so much laziness in bands. They couldn't care less about so many important things. Maybe it's because we're so passionate about the bands we like - and we like every element about them, whether it's their record sleeves, or their videos, or the way that they're dressed, or seeing them perform." It's refreshing to find a band who would rather discuss the influence Russian Constructivist art has on their record covers than what's on their stereo. Furthermore, they understand that giving interviews is a vital part of the wider picture, as is the artwork and the videos and the haircuts and the shoes and the on-stage theatrics. It's all a part of conveying the message.

"Quite often the press build up bands who have the potential to be good," says Kapranos, "but they often don't meet that potential. And that's not always the fault of the press, sometimes it's the fault of the bands as well." "But also a lot of expectation comes from the record companies too," adds Thompson. "And at the end of the tax year they have a cull." Kapranos again: "I think the way that we - I was going to say deal with it, we don't deal with it - but the way that we progress, we see the press writing about us, the label that we're on, the publishing deal we have - these are almost on the sidelines in a way. You get a band together to write and play music. Of course the rest of it is important and you need to be aware of it and understand it, but it's not your primary occupation."

Whether they're stealing the show at the bottom of support bills or returning in triumph to headline the same venues,Franz Ferdinand have won people over simply by the force of their conviction, their good humour, and their willingness to treat everyone as if they're Celia Hempton's mates. It's probably this attitude that's preventing the fame thing from sinking in.

"A lot of stuff happened so quickly that there wasn't really time for the full impact of it to hit you," says Kapranos. "Playing Top of the Pops for example: 'Oh, all right, here we are...' We were talking about how we were going to do it, standing on the drum riser and walking forward into the camera, so all these sorts of things are going through your head instead of, 'Oh my God, I'm on Top of the Pops Mum!'" Thompson chuckles. "It felt like one of our first gigs because all our mates were in the front row," he says. "In fact that's why we did that move, because we'd done it in front of 40 of our mates at a gig almost exactly a year ago, and all of a sudden we're doing it in front of the bloody nation!" In fact, it wasn't until their homecoming show this fortnight that the band started to notice those telltale hints of pop stardom. "It was crazy," says Kapranos. "We had underwear thrown at us and everything. And not by our friends!" Was that his 'pinch me' moment? "Well that was one. And also, when I sing the first line of [current single] 'Matinée', 'Take your white finger...' I've suddenly noticed all these fingers appear in the air." Not quite "Radio Ga Ga", but a start. "And people have started knowing all the words. France is the best: everyone singing the lines back to you, but with a really French accent. Jacqueline's a really good one: 'Jac-quelle-een'."

Much is made of the fact that Franz Ferdinand are an "educated" band. There is a perceived cleverness, an artiness, to their music. You can hear it in their lyrics - "Take Me Out", for instance, takes the standard eyes-across-the-dancefloor moment and turns it into a Sartrian conflict, using the metaphor of snipers zeroing their crosshairs for the kill. Again, it's that wilful contrariness, not least in the joyous, singalong chorus of "I know I won't be leaving here with you".

There's no denying the intelligence that the band bring to the indie wastelands. Not so long ago, Noel Gallagher was proudly announcing that he'd only ever read one book in his life. Not only have Franz Ferdinand clearly read a fair few between them, they even started their own book club while they were on tour. But they're understandably wary of being seen as too clever-clever.

"To me, there's nothing worse than singing about 'that book by Nabokov' in your song," says Kapranos. "You mention Oasis, but there's no way I'd ever slag off Oasis. I don't give a damn what their intellectual or anti-intellectual stance is, whether they've read a book or not read a book, because I think they've written some really great tunes as well. And at the end of the day that's what we should be judging them on."

Franz Ferdinand then: your anti-intellectual intellectuals. The most un-rock'n'roll rock'n'roll group you're likely to meet. An art band dedicated to making girls dance and to making everyone feel 16 again. Inspired by Freddie Mercury. And, in a climate dominated by Simon Cowell's production line pop, a force for the good: an alternative band with the potential and ambition to go mainstream.

"To be honest, mainstream pop music just passes over my head," says Kapranos. "Most of the stuff on Top of the Pops and Radio 1. The problem is, it's bland, bland, bland. It's retrogressive. There's nothing progressive in it at all. It makes kids think that to get anywhere they have to have a team of stylists and a Simon Cowell to tell them whether they're any good. It discourages people from creating for themselves. They think they need this big machine behind them. That's bullshit - that's where the worst pop music comes from. The thing is, being in a band is simple. People seem to forget that. And fun." You might even get to meet David Bowie.

Franz Ferdinand: Anson Rooms, Bristol (0870 444 4400), tonight; Wedgewood Rooms, Portsmouth (023 9286 3911), Tuesday; Astoria, London W1 (020 7344 0044), Wednesday & Thursday; Coronet, London SE1 (020 7701 1500), Friday

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