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.”