LONDON – When I speak to Paul Thomson, drummer with Scottish art-poppers Franz Ferdinand, it is just over 36 hours since James Blake’s second album, “Overgrown,” was announced as the surprise winner of this year’s Mercury Prize, the award for the best record to come out of the U.K. and Ireland in the past year. It seemed like an apt moment to assess the well-being of the Glasgow four-piece: Nine years previously, Franz Ferdinand itself had walked away with the accolade for its self-titled debut, a record that reinvigorated the British guitar music scene with charismatic, intelligent and downright brilliant tunes, making good on the band’s promise to create “music for girls to dance to.”
Yet the band that swept all before it in 2004 — the debut shifted over 3.6 million copies and in “Take Me Out” produced a worldwide crossover smash — has had an uncertain recent past. A decade on from its debut single, Franz Ferdinand has just released its fourth album, “Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action,” its first full-length collection of new material for 4½ years. Reading between the lines, we are perhaps fortunate that Franz is still with us: Frontman Alex Kapranos has intimated as much over recent months, and there seems to have been a period of time in the aftermath of third album “Tonight” — generally perceived to be a disappointing set (more of that later) — that the band ceased to function.
Yet Thomson is in the mood to debunk what we thought we knew. In fact, Thomson is in the mood to contest most things: Still in bed when we chat, hungover after a particularly “heavy one” in Glasgow the previous night where he had been to watch excellent New York garage rockers Parquet Courts, it is perhaps fair to say he isn’t at his conversational best. It certainly explains why there are times during the exchange that it sounds like he probably wishes he wasn’t on the other end of the phone — “12 random people in the country get to decide what the best album of the year is. So f-cking what? It doesn’t f-cking matter” was his take on the Mercury Prize.
Thomson has more pressing issues, like keeping himself, Kapranos, guitarist Nick McCarthy and bassist Bob Hardy together, which is “like sustaining a marriage.” Collectively and individually frazzled by the end of 2010, just how close was the group to getting divorced?
“I don’t know really,” Thomson replies. “All that happened is that we didn’t speak to each other for a few months. There was no big deal as such.”
Was it more of a case of needing some normality in their lives? “Exactly, all the things you miss out on when you’re away all the time. Touring is fun, but you can grow to hate it. We don’t do half measures, we go away forever. It certainly feels like that.”
It does looks from the outside as if relations were significantly strained for a period, though?
“Yeah, but I think every band goes through that at some point. And it was nice to have a bit of time where life wasn’t just Franz Ferdinand, where each of us felt in control of our own lives for a change. It was nice to feel that your whole life wasn’t dictated by the band that you’re in, that you’re a human being as well. I think we all enjoyed not being in the band for a while.”
If in this instance a rest was better than a change, any difficulties have clearly been surmounted listening to “Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action.” From its title (“It sums up the feeling we had making the record, feeling revitalized as people. And making the record was a very positive experience”) to its energetic and strident nature, it is the record Franz Ferdinand needed to deliver in 2013. Produced in turns by Hot Chip duo Joe Goddard and Alexis Taylor, Todd Terje, and Bjorn Yttling of Peter, Bjorn and John, it clocks in at just over 35 minutes and the music contained within is equally as trim and sharp. In going back to basics after the experimentation of “Tonight,” a great deal of it is Franz Ferdinand at its stylish, art-pop best. So how much were minds focused by the reaction to the last time out?
“You always try and do it like that whether it is a bad experience or not, try and do something different from the last time around,” Thomson says. “But you know, the way that I’ve read pieces about us recently, it seems that journalists have this convenient story arc where by the third album we had lost our way or something like that. If you actually listen to it — it is a pretty good record. I listened to it recently, somebody had it on, and I thought the production was great, and some of the songs were great.”
Why do they think that narrative has become de facto opinion for many? “You’d have to ask somebody that writes about music more than us. It’s a good record. I mean, it was a miserable time for personal and private reasons, but I’ve nothing against that record at all.”
Those personal issues cleared up, don’t read too much into the album’s closing lyric, “This really is the end,” left there hanging suggestively as the record draws to a conclusion.
“We didn’t actually realize until we pressed the record that it was the last lyric on it,” Thomson says. “But it’s not Alex singing, it is from somebody else’s perspective. It’s funny that people think that. People can read into it whatever they like. Whether they are right or wrong, that is the fun of writing lyrics.”
For a band that still cares more than most about aspects other than music, like image and artwork (“That’s part of the fun of it, that we are able to be in a position to do that. Otherwise you let somebody else do it, and they have their own idea of how they want to portray you and it isn’t as good as you can do it yourself”), a decade in existence throws up questions about how to present yourself. Does the band approach things in a different manner compared to 2003?
“I don’t think we do: people who speak to us approach us in a different manner. They have an agenda and they want us to fit into that. But the kudos or whatever, and how people viewed us when we first came out, I don’t think that is ever going to happen to another guitar band ever again. Guitar music has hit a wall. It is what it is. What we choose to do is just write pop songs with whatever happens to be lying around. We are very unselfconscious of the way we go about writing music and recording music.
“These days people have this insatiable thirst for something new. In electronic music, for example, if it’s not totally innovative then people don’t want to hear it. And dance music continues to evolve, even month by month. And some of that filters in, some of it doesn’t. We just pick from what happens around us. The good stuff influences us, and the irrelevant stuff just bounces off us.”
The idea of relevance is an interesting one for Franz Ferdinand: Far from elder statesmen, the members are no longer hip young things either, and 10 years and four records into a career that began in such a blaze of publicity puts them in a peculiar position. How does Thomson view the band’s place?
“It’s not for us to think about stuff like that, that is what music journalists do. It is liberating not to be a buzz band anymore, though. It’s the way we approached the last record, we didn’t really give a sh-t. So we feel like we’re in a good position. We’re signed to a good record label and they pay for us to go into the studio and write songs. And that’s it basically. And I am happy about that.”
Happy, too, to return to Japan, where Franz Ferdinand has always been rapturously received. The feeling, Thomson says, is most definitely mutual.
“I love going to Japan. I really enjoy it now as I’ve been there so many times. The first time you go, you’re jet-lagged and culturally it is so different to what you are used to. And those two factors combined, it is really trippy … almost like a crazy dream. But now Japan totally fascinates me and I love going there. I have friends there as well. I can’t wait to go back.”
Franz Ferdinand will play two shows at Zepp Tokyo, on Nov. 19 and 20, before playing Zepp Namba in Osaka on Nov. 22 (7 p.m. starts; ¥7,000). For more information, visit www.franzferdinand.com.