Franz Ferdinand still pushing limits
In a song on Franz Ferdinand’s 2009 record, frontman Alex Kapranos seemed to mock the trend-obsessed music press by mouthing the question: “Where do you see yourself in five minutes time?”
But the longevity issue is a real one for any band that explodes onto the scene with as much glittery confidence and snide swagger as this one did, when it unleashed a single (“Take Me Out”) in 2004 so coercively catchy that it somehow managed to set the pace for hipster rock and also became a rev-up anthem at NBA games.
Across four albums (the newest, “Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action,” was released in August), the Glasgow band has tinkered with its sound, but the parameters of its urbane style remain unchanged: sticky, stylish dance-rock grooves propelling tales of sexually confident hedonists that might sound glamorous if they weren’t so nasty. The band plays the Orpheum Theatre on Sunday night.
In fact, the sum total of Franz Ferdinand’s musical approach, and even its natty sense for fashion, was so influential at the time of its debut that the band now risks seeming dated by just sounding like itself. When asked if his work still speaks to the current musical moment, Kapranos says he’s not too concerned.
“When we stated playing, we had absolutely no desire to fit in with the contemporary musical landscape, whatever was going on,” he says, on the phone from a Nashville hotel room. “We didn't want to be the next Radiohead or the next Oasis, we wanted to be the first Franz Ferdinand. And we still are.”
Kapranos says the band — which also includes bassist Robert Hardy, guitarist Nick McCarthy, and drummer Paul Thomson — consciously set out to be a pivotal point in music, wherein what came after would be different than what came before. So did they succeed?
“I can’t really do that bragging that you often get from British bands. It’s just not my nature,” he says, sounding fully earnest. “I don’t know, in 2005 and for a few years afterward, were there a bunch of bands that sounded like Franz Ferdinand? Possibly. Possibly not.”
The band’s songs are populated by characters who could be the overly privileged offspring of a seedy Steely Dan protagonist, high-strung and ready to hit the clubs. Full of tense hookups and cruel kiss-offs, Kapranos’s lyrics push and pull with biting irony. “I’m not saying our love is the greatest, but I’m in love with you,” he sings in a tune off the dizzy, disco-spiced 2009 album “Tonight: Franz Ferdinand.”
“Certainly on the last record, probably because I felt quite emotionally vulnerable when I was writing it, I know that when I was getting to something particularly painful to sing about I would usually stick in a line that was like a deflector. Like a piece of armor to protect the soft and vulnerable matter on the inside,” he reflects. The band’s latest album will never be mistaken for a folky confessional, but Kapranos says he aimed for a less defensive approach this time. “When I was writing the lyrics for this record I consciously decided that I wanted to drop as much of that armor as I could and embrace the vulnerability. Because I think that actually makes you stronger at the end.”
Still, fresh quips (like “Sometimes, wish you were here, weather permitting”) find Kapranos’s deft hand for the wry, backhanded compliment in fine form. Frequently, signifiers of the high life serve as ironic measurements of emptiness. In “Fresh Strawberries,” the titular fruit serves as on-the-nose symbol of existential angst. The lonely narrator of “Treason! Animals.” declares, by turns, to be in love with his nemesis, pharmacist, or analyst — and the indication is that he is all three.
“I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of dropping in inappropriate lyrical content to the music. Because there’s a presumption that you’re making dance music so therefore the lyrical content should be bubblegum, at best,” he contends.
Kapranos recently revealed that the band strongly considered breaking up after the tour behind its last record, burned out from a too-fussy studio approach and fatigued by the publicity demands it had admittedly courted. After its longest break between albums, the band decided to go about the new one quietly, without the hype that had been a near-constant companion.
It also put more emphasis on songwriting than sonic tinkering in the studio. For a band with a fistful of near-perfect singles on its resume, Franz Ferdinand seems dedicated to the notion of the album as a unified statement. “There were songs we wrote and recorded and mixed that we really loved and thought would be big moments on the album, but we couldn’t get them sit right, to give the album that unified feel as if it’s part of one body of work,” Kapranos says.
He maintains it was “liberating” to stare break-up in the face, if only because it reinforced the sense he was sticking with the cause because he truly wanted to, rather than feeling obligated.
“That sounds incredibly selfish, doesn't it? I'm doing it because I want to do it. But that's probably the best reason to do something.”