Alex Kapranos is craving some tacos. The Franz Ferdinand frontman, who is such a foodie he recently published a book about his favorite meals, is in San Diego, where his band is wrapping an intimate U.S. tour in advance of its third album, Tonight: Franz Ferdinand. After soundcheck at Canes Bar & Grill, Kapranos zips up his favorite black leather jacket and heads off on foot with no specific destination in mind. "I love to have no idea where I am, because I have no idea what will happen next," he says. "It frees you from patterns that you fall into naturally."
Tonight's adventure ends at Roberto's Taco Shop, where the payoff comes in the form of two carne asada tacos, aside of guacamole and some horchata juice. "You can't get this anywhere in the U.K.," Kapranos says happily. Satisfied, he heads back to the seaside club and to join his band in road-testing cuts from the excellent, synth-heavy Tonight — which he describes as the product of more than 18 tough months of "crazy sonic experimentation."
When Kapranos and his bandmates — drummer Paul Thomson, bassist Bob Hardy and guitarist Nick McCarthy (who doubles on keyboards) — gathered in Glasgow in February 2007 after a lengthy vacation, they had no clue what direction their next project would take. "We jammed for about 30 minutes and Alex went, 'Stop, stop, stop, stop!'" says Thomson. "It was like complete aimless nonsense." They agreed on one thing: They didn't want to recycle overplayed elements from their previous discs, especially the high-hat backbeats and the bouncing, disco-ready bass pattern that powered their 2004 breakthrough hit, "Take Me Out." (Kapranos went so far as to tell Thomson, "You can't play that beat anymore — do something else!") After years of grueling tours, spawned by "Take Me Out" and perpetuated by the success of their second album, 2005's You Could Have It So Much Better (which sold 2 million globally but left the band and many critics a bit cold), the quartet wanted to shake things up. "Just listening to the radio in the U.K., it's all these fucking dull indie-guitar bands," says I lardy. "We wanted to get away from guitars."
The disc came together in a 19th-century municipal building — once a town hall and more recently the site of a rehab clinic — in the rundown Glasgow neighborhood of Govan. The band boarded up the windows for privacy — creating a cocoon-like clubhouse — bought vintage synths and other classic gear and began forming songs. But sessions with Kylie Minogue producer Brian Iliggins, who also co-wrote Cher's smash "Believe," didn't pan out. "It was overtly pop," says Kapra-nos. "It just felt dishonest." By June 2007, when Franz came out of hibernation to play a few shows, they were still working out the kinks: Of the five new tunes they played, only one would wind up on Tonight. "After all that work, you want to go home with a song that you like, and that wasn't happening," says Hardy. "You kind of go, 'What the fuck are we doing here?'"
The breakthrough came with "Ulysses," which opens the album and is the first single. The song began as a Kapra-nos melody, which he hastily titled "Ulysses" because he happened to glance at a copy of James Joyce's masterpiece on his bookshelf. ("If I had a song idea right now, I'd call it'Paper Cup,'" he explains, looking at the paper cup in front of him.) But something about the impromptu title inspired Kapranos to flesh out the song. "Not the Joyce thing but the Greek story," he says. Instead of losing his geographical bearings, as Ulysses does in Homer's text, the protagonist in Franz's version loses himself in a haze of weed.
"It's about cannabis," Kapranos says, addressing the song's central lyric, "C'mon, let's get high." The result — which features a jarring dub-reggae groove, and verses and choruses written in different keys — is an unlikely pop gem. Kapranos avoids discussing any direct inspiration he may have taken from drugs ("My mother might read this"), but it's pretty clear that behind the doors of the former rehab facility, his band wasn't just conducting musical experiments. "Occasionally it's fun for writing and certain things in the studio," he says, without specifying his poison. "It's good to have that influence on your music."
The rehearsal space has three floors, and Tonight co-producer Dan Carey, who's worked with Hot Chip and Lily Allen, encouraged the band to use each of them for the unique acoustics. "Recording in the cellar was the most fun," Kapranos says of the echo-heavy space, which worked perfectly for Tonight's heavier sounds, like the punk-feedback blast of "What She Came For."
Kapranos recorded his vocals in the main hall, taking advantage of its "atmospheric reverberance." And the album's most intimate moments, like the acoustic closer, "Katherine Kiss Me," were muted by the hanging fabrics and thick carpets of the upstairs office. Carey also encouraged Franz to follow through with their most harebrained sonic experiments, including one that seems way more black metal than hipster rock: The percussive tap on the chorus of "No You Girls" is the sound of a human femur hitting a pelvis. (McCarthy bought the skeleton at an auction last year.) On another track, the team created a swooshing sound by hanging a mike from the ceiling and swinging it around a vertically positioned guitar amp. "Maybe it's self-indulgent," Kapranos admits. "But it was a lot of fun."
Several songs touch on obsession, a theme Kapranos came to understand when a stalker appeared in his life. "I don't want to encourage her anymore — it was really unpleasant and a disgustingly gross invasion of privacy," he says. "I do find the idea of obsession fascinating, though. Uncontrollable obsession is at the heart of so much romance, and the way we behave when we're in love is completely illogical, isn't it?"
McCarthy and Thomson are each married (the soft-spoken drummer has two kids), and for years Kapranos has dated Fiery Furnaces singer Eleanor Friedberger, who lives in Brooklyn. Though he'll happily discuss his lyrics, U.K. politics ("People are disillusioned by Labour") and his band's pop peers ("I don't understand that Killers lyric — I thought dancing was one of the most human things you could do"), Kapranos holds his tongue when it comes to his girlfriend. All he'll say is that she hates his tiny Glasgow apartment, which he has kept for more than eight years. "She can't stand it," he says. "She says, 'Why are you still living here?' But everything that's happened over the past five years has been incomprehensible. I go back to that apartment, with the same furniture and the same books on the shelf, and imagine that none of this ever happened. I like to do that."
As the band members were sequencing the record, they discovered that they had inadvertently told a story. "There was a nighttime theme," says Kapranos. Imagine the loose concept of a young man's debauched night on the town, beginning with getting high ("Ulysses"), a first kiss ("No You Girls") anil getting ditched by the girl ("Can't Stop Feeling"). Halfway through Tonight's 10th track, the eight-minute "Lucid Dreams," the album shifts into a superheavy synth-and-drums instrumental section. "That's the climax of the night, coming down off the peak," says Kapranos. Closing the album are "Dream Again," a floaty, Beatlesque gem, and "Katherine Kiss Me," which directly echoes many of the lyrics from "No You Girls." "That's like the harsh light of dawn," says Kapranos, who admits that there is, in fact, a girl named Katherine, whom he "kissed a long time ago."
Onstage in San Diego, Franz blast through fan favorites like "Michael" and "This Fire" for a surprisingly diverse crowd of hipsters, hippies, cougars and a dude wearing a turban — who are all sent pogoing during the one-two punch of "Take Me Out" and "Ulysses." While Thomson and Hardy pummel out rock-steady rhythms, all eyes are focused on the guitar duo, who sway, jump and tap their feet in perfect synchronization. ("People ask us who does our choreography," says Kapranos. "I say, 'You think a choreographer would come up with shit like that?'") And for all the experimentation, the new tunes fit in seamlessly. "That three or four months we took off was about flushing away all of the bullshit that surrounds us," Kapranos says after the show. "Once we got that out of our systems, it was about walking into a room, seeing your three best friends and getting excited about making a record. We were lost, but it's when you admit you're lost that you can discover things."