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Life in the Belfast lane
**View the corresponding photo gallery here**
A flyover near the old Harland & Wolff shipyard was the starting point for a remarkable three months that has seen Franz Ferdinand challenging U2 and Coldplay for the title of ‘Biggest Band In The World'. Daredevil photographic exploits completed, Hot Press jumped on their tour bus and got the lowdown on Snoop, Bono, Kanye West, Natasha Bedingfield and nights of debauchery with the Scissor Sisters.
Stuart Clark, 01 Nov 2005
REWIND: It’s 3.30pm on Tuesday August 23 and yours truly plus HP snapper Graham Keogh are stood under a flyover in East Belfast praying to Michael Fish that the black clouds rolling in from the Irish Sea do a U-turn.
Normally a bit of precipitation wouldn’t bother us, but we’ve been informed by management that the tiniest drop of rain and our outdoor photo rendezvous with Franz Ferdinand is off.
Before you dispatch missives to the band accusing them of turning into girly prima donnas, I’d better explain that Alex Kapranos has been struggling all week with superflu and, by rights, should be in bed rather than preparing to entertain 12,000 people in the Botanic Gardens. Standing there getting soaked while Keogh does his David Bailey routine is definitely not what the doctor ordered.
Thankfully, our meteorological prayers are answered with a sudden burst of sunshine, which is Franz’s cue to pile round in a black taxi.
Despite having the sweats and a throat that feels like it’s been sandblasted, Alex still looks like he’s stepped out of the pages of Indie Vogue. Note to fashionistas: don’t even think of leaving the house this autumn without a quilted satin bomber-jacket (as worn in the ‘Do You Want To’ video).
The reason we’ve made him swap his lovely warm Malmaison hotel room for a contraflow system near the old Harland & Wolff dockyards is the “Teenage Dreams So Hard To Beat” graffiti that appeared there the day after John Peel died.
No shoddy act of vandalism, its bold four-foot lettering celebrates not only the DJ, but also the philosophy, which got a lot of locals through the dark days of old.
“It’s one of the all-time great lines, isn’t it?” Alex agrees whilst getting his band into formation for the shoot.
He’s never been a shrinking violet, but today, disease-ridden or not, Kapranos is displaying the self-assuredness of a man who knows that the album him and his mates have just recorded is going to blow the opposition out of the water. He’s a brave bugger too, agreeing with Keogh that the dangers of Franz standing in the middle of a motorway slip-road are justified if it means getting a shot of them with the famous Harland & Wolff cranes in the background.
Stroll through the rush hour traffic completed, it’s back to the Malmaison courtesy of a taxi driver who’s delighted with the forty quid he’s earned for himself waiting.
Given that quality wife/girlfriend time is going to be at a premium over the next few months – actually, make that years – the band have flown their loved ones in for tonight’s double-header with the Scissor Sisters who are near-as-dammit family themselves these days.
If Kapranos & Co. are nervous driving out to the Botanic Gardens it doesn’t show as they variously discuss Celtic’s poor early season form (Alex), the merits of getting married in Blackpool (Paul) and the thrill of seeing The Edge sans hat (Bob).
Were this the Babyshambles tour bus we’d be regaling you with tabloid tales of tourniquets and hypodermics, but sadly the strongest drug in evidence is a Benson & Hedges.
It’s the same story backstage, with Jake Shears emerging semi-naked from the portashower the only thing you wouldn’t want your teenager seeing.
The gig confirms what I thought listening to You Could Have It So Much Better With… on the way up, which is that in this sort of form there’s no height that Franz Ferdinand can’t scale.
Jake Shears concurs, pausing halfway through the Scissor Sisters' set to tell the crowd that his friends’ sophomore effort is “a work of genius.”
FAST FORWARD: The mood in the Franz camp is ebullient as first-week sales of You Could Have It So Much Better With… exceed even the record company’s wettest dreams. Along with a UK #1, Irish, German and Swedish #2, Norwegian and Swiss #4 and French #5, they’ve done what few other British guitar outfits have done in recent times and cracked both the Japanese and US top 10s.
Bono complained in Hot Press last year that there was nobody trying to wrestle the ‘Biggest Band In The World’ title off them – well, now there is.
More remarkable still is how Alex manages to maintain a 29” waist when he goes ordering soup, feta cheese, olives and “a big pile of bread” for what is supposed to be a between meals snack. Not to be outdone, bassist Bob Hardy wolfs down a plateful of tortellini while we consider the magnitude of recent events.
STUART: I wouldn’t swear to have got the maths right, but by my reckoning it took the Stones Roses 5 years, 10 months and 9 days to follow up their debut album as compared to your 1 year, 7 months and 28 days.
ALEX: (Laughs) I think their second album was slightly more difficult than ours. Our attitude going in to the studio was very much, “The last record was alright, but this one has to be a classic.” We really weren’t sure it would be because only half the songs were written.
At what point did you realise it was mission accomplished?
ALEX: When we went to New York to finish off the vocals and do the mixing. You can’t tell if a song’s great or merely okay until everything’s been done to it. That was especially true of two of the slower ones, ‘Eleanor Put Your Boots On’ and ‘Fade Together’, which nearly didn’t make the cut. I’m so relieved now that they did because them and ‘Walk Away’ are what gives the album its dynamic range.
BOB: It’s human nature to want to stay inside your comfort zone, but we’d be angry with ourselves if we hadn’t moved things on. And anyway, it means we’ve some nice acoustic songs we can do on GMTV With Lorraine Kelly.
I know you were excited about seeing The Edge minus his hat, but what were the other highlights of touring with U2?
ALEX: Them generally being so hospitable. There was no overbearing egotism or sense that they thought they were doing us a favour. I’d imagined it’d be a bit like Oxegen or Glastonbury, but there’s no comparison. The first night going up on stage I felt like an ant scurrying about in a bathtub. The dimensions are so much vaster than you’re used to, but then you get to thinking, “It’s still people coming to a gig wanting to be entertained.”
BOB: For me, the fear factor diminished when I realised that, same as us, U2 are four friends who love the excitement of being in a gang and sparking their personalities off each other.
ALEX: It’s easy to forget that some of the greatest solo artists were groups as well. If you look at David Bowie, he wouldn’t have made some of the amazing records he has without The Spiders and Eno and the band he had with him on Young Americans.
There seemed to be rather too much ‘sparking off each other’ last year, Alex, when you and Nick came to blows in Paris. How bad were the tensions between you at the time?
ALEX: It wasn’t so much “tensions” as two people living in close proximity having a silly argument over nothing in particular. The mistake we made was having our disagreement in front of 400 journalists who, through French-Chinese whispers, turned it into World War III.
BOB: “Ze Franz Ferdinand are having ze argument.” “No, zey are having ze war!” By the time the story got back to England we’d gouged each other’s eyes out and were unlikely to breath again without the aid of a respirator.
ALEX: Which was great for our gangsta rap cred.
Talking of which, there can’t be many British rock bands who’ve been bigged up recently by both Kanye West and Snoop Dogg.
ALEX: The boy West described us as “white crunk”, which I discovered after a bit of research is a compliment. Standard crunk, like Lil’ John, is a raw, in your face type of hip hop. The lyrics are really blue, but amusingly so. The compliment actually belongs to Bob and Paul because what those guys are into is the rhythmic side of the band. We’ve not met Snoop yet, but I did see him do that a capella version of ‘Take Me Out’ on MTV, which was pretty intense.
BOB: If he asked us to collaborate with him, we’d have to do it just to say we’d hung out with Snoop. I caught a bit of his set at T In The Park and he genuinely seems to love his rock ‘n’ roll.
ALEX: You never know what you’re going to get when you go to a hip hop gig. Kanye West and Black Eyed Peas were astonishing but the Wu-Tang Clan, who I’ve loved from the get-go, couldn’t have cared less about putting on a show.
Kanye West is like you in that he’s desperate not to be ghettoised. Have you managed to broaden your audience in the States or is it still predominantly white?
ALEX: No, it’s definitely getting wider. When we were in New York, for instance, the people who recognised and came up to us were mostly black guys. It’s hard in America to break out of your box, but it can be done.
Going back to the celebrity fan thing for a moment, when I interviewed Ralf Hutter recently he said one of the few new bands he’s listening is Franz Ferdinand.
ALEX: No way? That’s amazing.
BOB: Again, we saw them in New York and it was incredible. Not just in terms of it being Kraftwerk up there on stage, but because they’d given everything a tweak to keep it sounding contemporary. ‘Radioactivity’, in particular, had a far beefier kick drum than it did on the record.
ALEX: I still can’t get my head around the fact that four middle-aged guys from Düsseldorf helped shape Bronx B-Boy culture. And they in turn were influenced by people like Joe Meek and Silver Apples who you could argue are the true Godfathers of Hip Hop.
A few years ago bands seemed to be competing with each other to see who could appear the most tortured, whereas now they can’t shut up about the fun they’re having.
ALEX: “I’m successful so therefore I must beat myself up!” The only thing worse than indie guilt is the snobbery of thinking your music is superior to the people who might get to hear it. A certain part of the population isn’t good enough to listen to the crap coming out of your brain? What a load of old bollocks! One of the reasons I wanted to be in a band was to appear on CD:UK.
Gary Lightbody said he knew Snow Patrol had made it when he was told backstage at CD:UK by Pink that Final Straw was her favourite record.
BOB: (Laughs) With us it was Natasha Bedingfield. She’s from the poppiest end of the pop spectrum, but I’m as happy talking to her as I am Thom Yorke.
ALEX: The way it should be is that you go onstage because you love it. You make records because you love it. You talk to The Sun because, well, you don’t necessarily love The Sun but you want as many people as possible to read about those records.
The lovers tiff with Nick aside, it doesn’t appear that your first two years in the rock ‘n’ roll spotlight have caused you any undue harm.
ALEX: I think cracks might have started to appear if we hadn’t turned round last December and said, “That’s pretty much it as far as the first record’s concerned.” I know people whose debut album came out when ours did and are still touring it, which can’t be healthy.
BOB: For bands the best song in the set is always the new one, so not having any makes you feel like you’re stagnating.
Was needing time off the reason you didn’t do Live 8?
BOB: No, the reason we didn’t do Live 8 was that Nick had selfishly arranged to get married that day. We tried to get him to un-arrange it, but you know what he’s like.
ALEX: It was portrayed in some circles as us snubbing the starving people of Africa, which wasn’t at all the case. Stepping out of the public eye for a while meant that we were able to do what bands are supposed to do, which is write tunes. I used to wonder how the whole of Led Zeppelin II was written and recorded on the road, and then I realised it’s because they never did any promotion.
BOB: Or month-long tours of key Ukrainian markets. “World tours” were a lot shorter in the ‘70s because half the countries you weren’t allowed into.
Sorry to be cynical, but after the summer that was in it, I’ve had enough of being asked to free ‘X’ from ‘Y’ and make ‘Z’ history.
ALEX: I’ve no qualms talking about something I feel moved by, but what I don’t want to do is tag on to a cause just because a load of other people are doing it. We were asked to get involved in Make Poverty History, but they’ve already got public figures like Bono and Bob Geldof doing a fantastic job on their behalf. For me to piggyback on to that would actually dilute the effect they’ve had. I’d rather pick a different organisation and highlight their work. Another thing I’m not comfortable with is preaching from the stage.
BOB: Bono gets away with it because most of what he talks about is an extension of U2’s music.
ALEX: While all that matters to us is that the lyrics rhyme.
One of the places where you road tested the new songs was Russia. What’s their grasp of Glaswegian English like there?
ALEX: Better than in some parts of America! I haven’t been subtitled like Bobby Gillespie was on MTV, but I’ve got some seriously blank looks from journalists who were too polite to say, “Sorry, I don’t understand a word!” Russia was great and very different depending on the venue. Our first Moscow show was in a tiny club that holds at most 300 people, and the second at the Soviet Olympic Stadium, which had 15,000 in it.
Cliché or not, I’ve never known a band to come back from Moscow without at least one Mafiya moment.
ALEX: The thing that got me was the number of cars with blacked out windows. Not just the side and back ones, but the windscreens as well which definitely makes you think they’ve got something to hide. At gigs too, there were always a couple of big guys in suits trying to look inconspicuous and failing. They could be Health & Safety, but I doubt it.
The recording of You Could Have It So Much Better With… sounds like The Monkees, with all of you living together in the same house.
BOB: It was just like it was when we started out – the four of us jamming away in a room with no record company people for 500 miles.
ALEX: I’ve always loved the Joe Meek thing of having the drums in the bathroom or, in our case, the conservatory which had stone walls and a glass ceiling. The sound we got from sticking the kit in there was incredible.
BOB: By the way, if you read about me climbing into the oil-tank to get some reverb that was Alex winding a journalist up!
ALEX: What is true is that on ‘Fade Together’ you can hear birds singing picked up on the piano mic. We finished the song at dawn, which is when they’re waking and having their first chirp of the day.
I know you operate a no booze before gigs policy, but what about whetting your creative whistles in the studio?
ALEX: ‘40ft’ on the first album was recorded under the influence of several bottles of malt, but this time we confined the drunkenness to the writing. I came up with the ‘Do-you-do-you-do-you’ part of ‘Do You Want To’ hammered after a party, and finished it off the next day whilst dying from a hangover.
BOB: You can tell!
I’m not for one minute condoning illegal downloading, but there’s a great bootleg MP3 of you and the Scissor Sisters belting out ‘Suffragette City’ at the V Festival. Whose idea was that?
ALEX: We were having breakfast with Jake in New York and somebody – I can’t remember who – said, “Let’s come up with a cover that we can play at these gigs we’re doing together.” Our biggest shared love is of David Bowie, so then it was a case of, “Which of his 85 classics is it going to be?” ‘Oh You Pretty Things’ was in the lead for a while, but I wasn’t sure if I could hit the high notes so we changed it.
BOB: Our careers have sort of run in parallel with the Scissor Sisters – we made our Top Of The Pops debut the same week as they did, and felt like nobodies together at the festivals where we were joint bottom of the bill.
Has Jake ever taken you clubbing in Manhattan?
ALEX: No, but he’s promised to the next time we’re over, which I’m excited/frightened about because I know the sort of stuff he gets up to! Ana, apparently, is even worse when she goes out so it should be very educational.
So this ‘mad perv from hell’ image is for real.
ALEX: When they’re in ‘mad perv’ mood, yeah, but there’s another side to them that likes to chill and go for a quiet meal. Everything in its place!
Going back to illegal MP3s, I can’t imagine Metallica turning a blind eye to a site like www.franzferdinand.org that had virtually all You Could Have It So Much Better… on it in demo form.
ALEX: Aged 14 one of my most prized possessions was a bootleg of Abbey Road outtakes, which had them walking the other way and Paul with his shoes on. I played it non-stop for a year, but it didn’t stop me buying The Beatles Anthology or the Number 1s album when they were released. We could phone up lawyers and arrange to get those sites crushed, but we’d be hypocrites because I go hunting on the internet myself for old Smiths, Sparks, Roxy Music and Adam & The Ants bootlegs. I love it because I’m a huge music fan.
BOB: I tell you what’s brilliant, and that’s the version of London Calling that came out last year with all the outtakes. I found it quite inspiring in terms of our own recording to see how the Clash’s songs evolved in the studio. They also had this total nutter of a producer, Guy Stevens, who got them going by smashing chairs up and standing over them on a stepladder.
ALEX: It was like Rock ‘N’ Roll Bootcamp!
Now there’s an idea for the Sky Reality TV department to toy with. As your profile increases, you must get more and more offers to do stuff other than music.
ALEX: There was that Harry Potter thing last year which would’ve been good to do, but we had to choose whether we want to be four guys in a band or four guys who dabble in acting. We’ve a lot of records to make before we think about diversifying.
Has it sunk in that on top of being very talented and handsome individuals, you’re now incredibly rich?
ALEX: I spent years being skint and not really thinking about it, and now I’ve a bit of money I’m not really thinking about that either.
BOB: The main thing is, have our relationships and friendships changed, and the answer is “no”.
ALEX: The one difference is that I can go for a meal anytime I want rather than before seven o’clock when they’ve got the early bird on. That’s what rock ‘n’ roll stardom’s all about!