Paul Thomson: Fast Fame For Franz Ferdinand
Paul Thomson is locked out of his house. He’s 45 minutes late to our scheduled interview, busily trying to figure out how to break into his Glasgow pad. This was not how Thomson had planned his evening. He may be a jack-of-all-trades – having mastered the roles of drummer, guitarist, bassist, keyboardist, singer, disc jockey, artist, tap dancer, choreographer, and dedicated father – but locksmith apparently doesn’t play a prominent role in his skill set.
It's all good, though, since nothing rattles Thomson’s relaxed demeanor. He and his three bandmates have just put the finishing touches on their newest album, Tonight: Franz Ferdinand, and Thomson is excited to talk about it. The album is a bit of a departure for Thomson and his compatriots, and if the last record sounded “like a teenager having sex,” according to frontman Alex Kapranos, this one sounds like the swinging soundtrack from a lounge on Saturn.
“I think it’s more of a dance record because of the tempo,” Thomson says. “It’s not as fast and furious – 140 bpm-plus. The slower the tempo, the more space there is to put in polyrhythmic stuff. There’s a swing to this record.”
To make the album, the band inhabited a 19th century town hall on the south side of Glasgow whose past life included service as a drug rehabilitation center – a strangely appropriate venue for a band looking for a remedy after an exhausting string of live shows. Inside the building’s center is an enormous auditorium – a “huge grand room, a theater,” Thomson calls it – that served as the band’s nerve center for the album. The building’s former dressing rooms now house a mixing console, and the concrete basement is littered with equipment from basic tracking.
“We weren’t interested in using a proper recording studio,” Thomson says. “We jammed in the dressing rooms, and we wanted to blur the line between recording time and writing time. We wanted it to evolve naturally. We didn’t want to rush that process.”
The band has been here for a little more than a month recording the 12 tracks that are Tonight: Franz Ferdinand. The goal? To relax. “The last record was written off the back of an 18-month tour,” he says. “We felt physically and psychologically baseless, reflected in the furious tempos of that album. This one has a better vibe. It’s a better reflection of my playing. We came back to some songs and kept the vocal melody and remixed the song as a dance remix with a live band. Ultimately, it’s a dance-floor record.”
That marks both a departure and a full-circle return for the band, whose previous record pushed the rock element of their sonic formula to the max. “Previous albums, you write the skeleton of the song, you arrange it to a three-and-a-half-minute pop song or whatever,” he says. “We took our improvisations and cut it down to a few-minute pop song, and then taught ourselves how to play it. A song like ’Send Him Away,’ we were totally in the moment and switched our brains off and weren’t thinking. We just sort of fly. There’s a sort of hypnotic groove going on – it’s like when you hit the dance floor, the first few minutes you don’t know what’s going on, but six minutes in you start feeling it.”
His description couldn’t be more apt. The opener, “Ulysses,” is a slinky dancehall number that has Thomson dueling with synthesizers and Jamiroquai-style falsetto vocals. “Turn It On” and “Kiss Me” are angular pop numbers that precede the spacey “Twilight Omens” and “Send Him Away,” which has Thomson making his best “Billie Jean” backbeat. “Bite Hard” is a rapid hats-’n’-snare shuffle, while “Lucid Dreams” is a driving, percussive performance. From start to finish, Thomson is sitting back in the saddle, playing the part of chief rump-shaker with Earth, Wind & Fire-meets LCD Soundsystem-style flourishes. The challenge now is to bring that feel to the stage in the form of looser sets and arrangements.
“Just getting more exploratory with the playing – there will probably be a bit of that, like that eight-minute track [“Lucid Dreams”] on the album. The songs always evolve after they’re mastered. They live on live. There’s no one definitive version. You don’t want to replay the album version, it’s no fun. Too workmanlike.”
As the drummer of a world-famous Scottish rock band, Thomson began his playing career at a rehearsal, as a 16-year-old emergency substitute for a friend who had plenty of will to play drums but sadly lacked a sense of rhythm. “It was a terrible mistake,” he says, laughing. “A friend of mine had a kit but couldn’t play drums, so I played for an hour and a half. I bought his drum kit off of him after the rehearsal.”
Thomson’s first true band, The Yummy Fur, included Franz Ferdinand frontman Alex Kapranos, but it wasn’t until age 26 that Thomson and Kapranos reformed with two others as Franz Ferdinand, with Thomson on guitar. As the band gained momentum, he switched to drums.
“It was definitely not a conscious thing, to form a band and be successful,” he said. “We knew not to expect any success, because we had all been in unsuccessful bands in the past. We just wanted to get enough gigs to make enough money to make 500 pressed copies of a record. We weren’t careerists. We didn’t know what a career was. People got wind of it, and a bit of interest. We got a manager, and it took off.”
In May 2003 the band signed to indie label Domino Records, and released the EP Darts Of Pleasure later that year. Building steam, it reached #43 on the UK charts and garnered the band their first major award at the NME Awards. With a sudden need to record a proper full-length, the band moved to Sweden to record with Cardigans producer Tore Johansson. In January 2004, the band fired its first salvo in the form of bouncy single “Take Me Out.” It scorched the charts, reaching #3 in the UK. The album, Franz Ferdinand, followed in early 2004.
“We were the last ones to expect that kind of success,” Thomson said. “Barely a year before that, there was already a lot of focus on us, but we were still thinking about recording those 500 7-inchers. We’ve just kind of wondered blankly what happened.”
By the end of 2004, Franz Ferdinand’s “art house rock” began making waves on U.S. shores, and the band sold a million copies of their debut in America. “The first record took us by surprise. I don’t think Domino had foreseen that. We were all making it up as we went along. What was supposed to be a day off became a 24-hour video shoot.”
After capping an award-winning year with an ensemble performance at the 2005 Grammy Awards, the band gathered in Glasgow to work on a follow up, You Could Have It So Much Better. The pressure to expand beyond disco-rock took an enormous toll, and the band recorded with a raw element – both to capture their seasoned live show and because of the tension in creating a sophomore release worthy enough to follow Franz Ferdinand.
“The first one, I felt like it was going to be a [minor] record,” he says. “We had only played live, like, 11 times. By the second, we had played 200 shows a year. It captured that live element – goofing off, rock clichés, tags at the end, playing songs faster. At the time, we were quite highly strung, being on tour together. We definitely had a few blowouts [in the studio], and went right back on tour.”
The agitated You Could Have It So Much Better topped UK charts and claimed the eighth spot in the U.S., but was derided by critics for sounding rushed. Nevertheless, the band assaulted the radio with four supporting singles and toured extensively behind the album, including a triumphant, sold-out four-night stand at Alexandra Palace, North London, in late fall 2005.
After their last show, in Brazil, the four members of Franz Ferdinand went their separate ways: Kapranos went to New York City to be with his girlfriend, Eleanor Friedberger of The Fiery Furnaces; guitarist Nick McCarthy stayed in Brazil and took a road trip through Latin America toward Los Angeles; bassist Bob Hardy returned to Glasgow; and Thomson hightailed it to London to be with his wife and son. It would be several months before the band got back together to record Tonight: Franz Ferdinand.
Now, with the album complete and a tour around the corner, Thomson is reflecting on the band’s latest step of maturity. “More than anything it feels like we’ve started a new band. I don’t feel like we’re the same band that recorded the second record, which is a good thing. Hopefully people have as much fun listening to the record as we did making it. It’s still quite new and fresh, so it’s a good time. I’m not totally jaded.”