When frontman Alex Kapranos and guitarist Nick McCarthy walked away from an auction last year in their hometown of Glasgow, Scotland, carrying a large wooden box containing human skeletal remains recovered from a dead doctor's office, they never imagined they'd use the bones for anything more than morbid studio decorum. But as it turns out, you can capture some pretty awesome percussive sounds by jangling a femur across the rim of a pelvic bone.
"I remember we were working on a song called 'Kiss Me,' and we wanted to have a real dry, percussive sound in the chorus," Kapranos recalled during a break from the mastering of the band's forthcoming record, tentatively titled Tonight, which will feature guest vocals by Gorillaz collaborator Rosie Wilson. "And we had this skeleton in a box that just ended up sitting in the corner of the studio, and we all sort of looked at it, and decided to experiment with it. Nick had the hands and was clapping the bones together. [Drummer] Paul [Thomson] was working with the pelvis bone and a femur. We put the teeth in a glass jar and rattled that about. We smacked the ribs together and we got this really weird, f---ed-up kind of a sound that was wicked. I can't think of any records with human bones on it."
Turning human bones into percussive instruments was all part of Franz Ferdinand's reaction to the way records are made these days, where sounds are often tinkered with after the fact, through a computer program. The band wanted to manipulate sound in as natural and physical a way as possible, which means Franz's forthcoming LP — which could be in stores as early as January — will be one of their most experimental.
"We were finding new ways of getting the sounds on the record," Kapranos explained. "One of the most exciting moments for me was when we were recording the song 'What She Came For.' We wanted to play with the Doppler effect — like when you have an ambulance passing by, and the siren changes tone as it approaches. I love that sound, and one of the rooms we have in our place in Glasgow was part of an old town hall, so it has 50-foot ceilings. One day, Nick climbed up to the rafters and lowered a microphone cable down to the ground. We put the guitar amp on its back and turned it up, full whack."
Kapranos said that as he played his guitar, producer Dan Carey hurled the microphone through the air — from one end of the room to the other — and over the amplifier. "The sound we ended up with sounds like a cross between a guitar and a World War II dive-bomber," Kapranos said excitedly. "It's wicked."
Franz began writing material for the follow-up to 2005's You Could Have It So Much Better more than a year ago, after taking a much-needed break from being Franz. They took their time with the songs, sometimes popping into hole-in-the-wall bars to test out the new material on an audience. It helped them determine which songs worked and which were "utter crap," and when they knew which tracks were going to make the final cut, they hit the studio with Carey, whom the singer likened to a "mischievous professor."
At times, Franz left the confines of the studio to experiment. Some songs they recorded in the studio's basement with just a single microphone, to capture the live energy of the tracks. And it didn't become apparent to Kapranos until the band was finished recording just what Tonight is all about.
"This record is a nighttime record, and all the songs relate to different nighttime vibes and activities," he said. "It wasn't a deliberate or a considered decision, but a reflection of where our lives are at and the way we were living, and it came through in the music when we were playing. There's definitely that vibe to it, like that part of the night where you're on the dance floor, but also those moments where you're psyching yourself up when you're about to go out for a bit of a hedonistic night out. There's also the other moments: The song 'Bite Hard' is full-on escapism, almost like a chase scene, and by the time the new version of 'Lucid Dreams' rolls around, it's like a full-on freak-out. By the end of the record, it's like those moments where you're sort of sitting alone in your room at the end of a crazy night, wishing whatever's in your system would be out of your system."
Generally speaking, though, Kapranos didn't find Tonight — which will also feature the songs "Ulysses," "Turn It On" and "Katherine, Kiss Me" — to be a challenging record to create.
"Right from the beginning, we set out to make a record that had joy in it," he said. "Even if you're singing about the darkest of subjects or tragedy, there has to be joy in the performance. There has to be that energy in the performance. If it's not there when you put it down on the record, it won't be there when you hear it back through the speakers. Sometimes, you've got to have the guts to reject all of the high-fidelity principals that should be involved in making a record."