The Scottish music scene takes place inside a space the size of a college campus. Visit a few selected pubs and clubs in Glasgow's West End, and it's likely you'll bump into a member of Belle & Sebastian, Mogwai or Franz Ferdinand. I've been writing, talking about and following Franz Ferdinand since the beginning. Like most Scottish heroes, they are surrounded by myth, the odd bit of legend and some right old bullshit. So what's the truth?
Time magazine has proclaimed the band to be hotter than a Paris Hilton download; Brad Pitt, Robin Williams and Elijah Wood are avowed fans; Kanye West says the "white crunk" are his favorite rockers; Snoop announced on stage that he wants to perform with those "'Take Me Out' guys"; and the band's songs promote the latest PlayStation Portable, as well as appearing on EA Sports' recent Madden NFL and NHL games.
Franz Ferdinand is adored by Scotland, despite three band members' being (whisper) English. Yep, that's right. Scotland's greatest export since Ewan McGregor is predominantly English. But Scotland doesn't care. They've adopted them as their own.
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Franz Ferdinand appears with Death Cab for Cutie on Thursday, March 30.
After graduating with a degree in theology, Alex Paul Kapranos (named Paul because of his mother's crush on the Beatle) worked as a welder, a van driver and an English tutor for asylum-seekers. Another job before pop stardom involved wearing an orange boiler suit and face muzzle while running around terrorizing people with a petrol-driven chain saw. But his job at the haunted house didn't last long after he turned up drunk, wearing a stale and sweaty boiler suit.
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Kapranos, a regular on the Glasgow music scene for years, worked as a promoter at the 99p Club. Local bands wanted cash for playing, so Kapranos created a venue where music fans paid 99 pence to enter, allowing the bands to split the money. Mogwai was one of the groups Kapranos helped. He still remembers front man Stuart Braithwaite as a pudgy 15-year-old in a velvet jacket.
Later, Kapranos performed as keyboardist with '90s indie group Urusei Yatsura, and as guitarist for ska-punks the Amphetameanies (which also included Belle & Sebastian's Mick Cooke on trumpet). He spent time playing bass for indie-pop collective the Yummy Fur, before fronting the eclectic group the Blisters, which later became the Karelia. That band recorded one album, Divorce at High Noon,whichsold 500 copies.
Guitarist Nick McCarthy moved to Glasgow from Bavaria, the apparent drug-death capital of Germany. Excited by the Germans' inability to lock their cars, he spent his youth as a teenage joy rider, irresistibly nicknamed "McCar-Thief." Obsessed with Roy Orbison, the compact, brittle Englishman earned a reputation for dressing wildly, often walking around Glasgow looking like a circus ringleader in top hat and tails.
He first met Kapranos at a party while dressed as Adam Ant. McCarthy stole Kapranos's vodka, and the pair exchanged blows, with Kapranos bursting McCarthy's lip and smashing a tooth. The feud ended when Kapranos spontaneously asked McCarthy if he could play drums. McCarthy, a classically trained pianist and double bass player, lied and said he could. Kapranos still believes McCarthy exaggerated his drumming ability to put an end to his beating.
Bass player Bob Hardy moved to the Glasgow School of Art from Bradford, England. He shared mutual friends with Kapranos, but their own friendship was delayed when Kapranos overheard Hardy telling jokes about dead babies. The pair did eventually bond, and Kapranos started teaching Hardy to play the bass guitar after receiving one as a gift from Mick Cooke (you remember him: the Belle & Sebastian guy). Hardy, a former gardener's assistant, had no musical experience prior to these lessons, but had actually gone to Glasgow because of his love for the music scene, and particularly for his future benefactors in B&S.
Drummer Paul Thomson is the only true Scot in the band. Thomson met Kapranos while posing as a nude model at Glasgow School of Art. Kapranos saved the drummer from a life of getting naked, working as a laundry assistant and literally offering his ass to science. Thomson had sold fat from his buttocks to a clinic for 250 pounds: They took a chunk from each cheek, stitched him up, and within a few weeks he was able to resume a sitting position. Despite the pain, three months later and desperate for cash, he did it again.
The band started playing gigs around Glasgow in 2002. After considering the name Partee Styx (phew!), the band approached its fourth gig nameless. Struggling for ideas, the quartet settled down on the sofa to watch some horse racing. A stallion named Archduke Ferdinand raced home to victory, both in the race and in their pursuit for a band name. And thus was a moniker born, referencing the unlucky Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose 1914 assassination triggered World War I.
Franz Ferdinand played for the first time on May 22 of that year in a teenage girl's bedroom. The girl was Celia, and the show was titled "Girl Art." The bedroom was transformed into a neon-lit art studio, and the band performed before 80 screaming girls.
Initially, the boys took a casual approach to playing, often switching instruments. McCarthy and Thomson started out as drummer and guitarist, before swapping roles permanently.
The four friends found a permanent residency after persuading a landlord to give them the keys to his unused art-deco warehouse, which they promptly christened "The Chateau." The venue became legendary in the city for art shows, gigs and free parties -- all with illegal bars. As The Chateau's reputation grew, the Glasgow Police Department spent a month trying to find it. They eventually succeeded and arrested Kapranos. However, the charges of running an illegal bar were dropped, as a result of an ingenious loophole discovered by the band, wherein it's actually legal to raffle off drinks. Everyone who entered The Chateau had received a raffle ticket, and when the police arrived Kapranos explained that everyone had won the contents of their cups.
Still, The Chateau was fast crumbling anyway, so the band took up residence in an abandoned Victorian jail in Glasgow. The buzz surrounding them continued to grow. One performance, titled "Franz Ferdinand Sells Out," was memorable. It was damp, the windows were all blown out, and everyone drank tea and coffee. The crowd, all wrapped up in scarves and hats, spent the gig shivering and wondering if the ceiling or floor would collapse, while Kapranos feverishly sucked his baby-blue inhaler to sooth his asthma.
At this juncture, record companies started taking note, and at one gig, 40 label reps turned up en masse. The band eventually signed with Domino records, describing most of the other label execs as coked-up industry types.
Domino released the band's first EP, Darts of Fire, in 2003, not long before FF signed on with Epic Records in America. Despite some initial bad press stateside -- when Epic's promotions department was accused of bribing an upstate New York DJ to add "Take Me Out" to his playlist -- the band won an Ivor Novello award for the same song.
Since then, the foursome has conquered the world with its new-wave, poppy dance-rock, all the while sporting Freddy Krueger-style sweaters. Both Kapranos and Thomson had coincidentally purchased identical black-and-red sweaters in separate secondhand shops in New York and London within hours of each other. Deciding to accept fate, the band members adopted their trademark attire.
The guys continue to pursue other interests. They recently edited an edition of the London newspaper The Guardian, and Kapranos writes a regular food column for their lifestyle magazine. His reviews read like an alternative dish guide, as he is allergic to both peanuts and animals. Kapranos also occasionally uses the column to correct rumors. When one newspaper claimed he was dating Kate Moss, he explained that it's difficult enough finding time to see his real girlfriend -- Eleanor Friedberger from the Fiery Furnaces -- let alone a supermodel.
McCarthy and his wife, Manuela, are the dynamic duo behind the raw, synthesized pop group Box Codax, wherein the pair seeks anonymity, going by the names of Mr. Box and Mr. Cox. Another married music duo is Thomson and his better half, Esther, who team up under the name Polyester to DJ at nightclubs around the world. Thomson also works on some of the band's choreography: He was something of a child prodigy, having performed in London's West End as the Artful Dodger in Oliver! and spent years training as a tap dancer. For his part, Hardy continues his passion for painting, and occasionally puts on art exhibitions in Glasgow. The whole band partakes in the Black Hands project -- a cunning pseudonym they occasionally employ, referencing the organization that murdered Archduke Ferdinand. (Furthering the historical-reference sweepstakes, the most famous of several Franz tribute bands is named after Gavrilo Princip, the assassin who shot the Archduke.)
The band refuses to get caught up in what they call the VIP bullshit, and can generally be spotted mingling with the crowd at their gigs. One of Eminem's bouncers will testify to the band's refusal to accept arrogance, after they were warned at a recent U.S. awards show to move away from Eminem's door by what Kapranos described as one of Eminem's "25-stone, bling-bling, fat bastards." Kapranos, McCarthy and tour manager Glen Thomson all got sneaky pot shots off at the bouncer before flicking his cap off his head.
Franz Ferdinand may look all arty, but there's Scottish steel hidden behind the streetwise quartet's sleek exterior. Just ask the lead singer of the Cyanide Dolls, who turned up at a Glasgow FF show exuding rock star arrogance, thereby prompting Kapranos to punch him out. Our Alex may be skinny, but he's all muscle.
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