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Friday, July 24, 2009
Franz Ferdinand ready for Fuji to rock
By SHAUN CURRAN
Special to The Japan Times
Barely a minute into our conversation, and without prompt Franz Ferdinand drummer Paul Thomson begins talking up the virtues of Japan
"Japan is a planet to me, it blows my mind," he says. "It's about as different as you can get from the U.K. There is so much noise, light, passion; it's such an exciting place. There are so many great cities. My favorite is Osaka, I think, it's even crazier than Tokyo, if that's possible."
Speaking from Berne, the "fourth most popular city in Switzerland," Thomson is surprisingly relaxed amid a busy period supporting his band's excellent third album "Tonight: Franz Ferdinand."
After a virtual omnipresence on the festival scene in the U.K. and Europe this year, Franz Ferdinand are preparing to bring their suave, hit-packed festival show to Fuji Rock, where they top the bill on Saturday night for what will be their second headline appearance. Thomson retains vivid memories.
"We're really looking forward to going to Japan, Fuji festival is great. Last time we played a great show and then went out all night and flew straight home in the morning. I'd just had a baby as well, so it was a crazy time for me.
"I can't wait to see some of the other bands, it's a great line up. Melvins and Bad Brains are playing, they are both great bands, as well as Public Enemy, so it's going to be great."
Thomson also speaks highly of the understanding for music that Japanese fans display.
"When the song finishes, they applaud like mad, but then when the applause finishes, they go deadly silent, then it's up to you to fill the silence somehow," he laughs. "Western acts tend to get freaked out by it the first time they visit.
"But the thing about the Japanese audiences is that they are very attentive and so focused on what's going on. They notice every single movement, they understand and appreciate every subtle nuance of a song and react to it. It's an amazing place to play music."
Unquestionably, Franz Ferdinand give Japanese crowds more than most to observe. Natural heirs to the eloquent, quintessentially British guitar-pop crown, Franz Ferdinand were one of those exceptionally rare bands that were perfectly formed upon arrival. Adorned in the same charity-shop chic as Pulp, full of the same suggestive, sexual ambiguity as Suede and armed with the same art-pop leanings as fellow Scots Orange Juice, Franz shot out of the traps with a host of hook-laden pop gems that made good their clear, somewhat modest but strangely idiosyncratic manifesto to make "music girls can dance to."
Preceded by the indie-disco smash hit "Take Me Out," their 2004 eponymous debut sold by the bucket-load, winning numerous awards in the process, including the prestigious U.K. Mercury Music Prize.
A year later, followup "You Could Have Had It So Much Better" maintained the ascent, despite lacking the previous thrills. The title, if not wholly prophetic, cemented the feeling borne out by repeated listens, and by the time 2006 was at an end, so was much of the famed Franz sparkle; Thomson admits as much, saying: "A break was vital for us to continue."
An elongated absence followed, with a promise to return with a more experimental, expansive sound. In fact, "Tonight" was a moderate shift in direction rather than the wholesale change that was hinted — more evolution than revolution — but it nonetheless added a broader aspect to Franz's sound. Why the long delay?
"Well, it was fun to make. Maybe that's why it took so long," Thomson laughs. "We're all contrary by nature, and we wanted to make sure we did something different from the last record. Part of our problem was that the writing period took place at the same time as the recording and the arranging. We weren't quite as structured as we had been, but we wanted to do something more organic, so we constantly jammed and messed about.
"The sound we ended up making wasn't necessarily by design. It wasn't a conscious decision to make the record sound exactly like it does, but if we weren't progressing on some level we'd probably pack it in. We're always looking to progress."
Part of the progression included experimenting with various different producers — including Girls Aloud producing, hit-making machine Xenomania — before deciding on producer/re-mixer Dan Carey, famous for his work with Hot Chip and Lee "Scratch" Perry.
"Dan has a dub sensibility that really appeals to us," Thomson says. "He was great to experiment with. He encouraged us to try new things. In fact, he was part of the reason it took so long.
"We always wondered what it would be like to swing a guitar amp 50 foot (20 meters) from the ceiling, lay a guitar on its back and record the sound. And because of Dan, now we know. That sums up the process. We took more risks, and he understood where we were coming from."
Risk taking is not something Franz Ferdinand have ever been averse to. From the release of dub remix album "Blood" last month all the way back to signing to independent U.K. label Domino shortly after their incarnation in 2003, their journey has been distinctive.
Yet Thomson feels a career path akin to his own is about to become obsolete, and that we are reaching "the last farts of the music industry."
"It's changed so much since our first record, and we realize how incredibly lucky we have been. When a band can have a top 20 hit with only 64 physical sales (as happened in the U.K. last week for band Florence and the Machine) then it's falling apart. The CD is dead."
So where would that leave a band like Franz Ferdinand, renowned for their sense of style, presentation and attention to detail?
"I don't think the concept of the album will ever go," he says. "We still love the idea of an album on vinyl; 12 songs either side of a record, representing the same ideas, packaged in an exciting way and with a great sleeve. True music fans feel the same way; as long as people who buy vinyl care, then bands will still care. We certainly will."
Yet for all their arty leanings, Thomson has recently been indulging in an uncharacteristic pastime, namely eating — and rating — as many hamburgers as possible in an attempt to find the ultimate burger.
"Yes, it's true," he says with a chuckle. "I think I've found the best possible burger in Kansas City. I don't think anywhere else will top it. I got the idea from a book I found, where the author tried to find the ultimate American burger, state by state. I've become a bit obsessed now."
So in Japan, when the rest of the band is dining out on local delicacies, what is he going to do?
"There are a couple of good burger chains in Japan," he says. "Mos Burger is my favorite. The Japanese are good at that, they can crystallize the essence of Americanism and put their own spin on it. They are clever people, the Japanese."
Franz Ferdinand play at Fuji Rock on July 25.