6 Feb 2005: Amy Raphael meets the new wave of bands nurtured by Franz Ferdinand – tipped to win a fistful of Brits on Wednesday.
When Ricky Wilson was seven, he wanted a pair of yellow woollen tights emblazoned with orange stars. Instead, he had to make do with the red tights his mother bought him. Twenty years later, the world’s a stage and he can wear what he likes. As frontman of the Kaiser Chiefs, the former art lecturer is about to have his moment. A year ago, the band from Leeds were without a record deal. They had known each other for years, started the band in 2003, recorded their first single, ‘Oh My God’, in a bedroom and watched it reach number 66 in the charts.
Things were to improve quickly, however. Their second gig was supporting Franz Ferdinand and singer Alex Kapranos was excited by their energy, their aspiration to be a classic British band. He mentioned them to his management; now they are represented by the same company. ‘Alex is ace. Dead nice,’ enthuses Wilson, who these days mostly prefers striped blazers and drainpipe jeans to tights. ‘Which is why Franz Ferdinand have done so well. Not only do they make brilliant pop music, but they are also genuine. They really want to help.’
Wilson and his band mates grew up with Britpop and, 10 years on, they find themselves part of another great British pop movement. Call it new wave, post punk or art rock, it’s all of these things but primarily it’s about pop – angular, urgent pop. ‘We’ve always been anti-elitist as a band,’ says Kapranos. Franz Ferdinand may be indie in spirit, but are happy to be part of the mainstream, to be A-listed on the radio, top the charts, win awards. On Wednesday, they are the first band since Oasis to be up for five Brits.
In Franz Ferdinand’s wake come the Kaiser Chiefs, Bloc Party, the Futureheads, the Departure and Maximo Park: new wave bands in their twenties looking to the same early-Eighties musical reference points, with a dress code of skinny ties, tight shirts, narrow trousers and perhaps a little eye make-up. ‘It’s boring to wear ripped jeans and Converse all the time like the Strokes; I’d rather dress-up in proper trousers and a smart shirt,’ says the Departure’s David Jones, who occasionally buys his jackets from Dorothy Perkins.
Most of them have supported Franz Ferdinand and enjoyed the patronage of Kapranos. They constantly name check one another. As Britpop was a reaction to grunge, so these bands talk of being disillusioned with the latest music press obsession with America. ‘The White Stripes and the Strokes were brilliant when I first heard them,’ says Wilson. ‘But any band to come out of Detroit is celebrated if they happen to know [White Stripes frontman] Jack White. It doesn’t matter if they are any good or not.’ He sighs. ‘Can you imagine if a load of bands came out of Leeds because they were mates with Ricky from the Kaiser Chiefs?’ Well, yes. When a band is as globally successful as Franz Ferdinand or Coldplay, record companies search for another band with a similar sound, look, attitude. ‘The way most scenes work is simple,’ says Mark Sutherland, presenter of Radio 6 show The Music Week and former Melody Maker editor. ‘When one band kicks the door down and becomes hugely popular, record companies will be desperate to find, say, the next Franz Ferdinand.’ Which can be terrible; look at Britpop, where everyone was trying to sign their own Oasis and all we got was Northern Uproar.’
But Sutherland concedes that the Kaiser Chiefs, Bloc Party et al are not pale imitations of Franz Ferdinand. The influences – Joy Division, the Fall, Gang of Four, the Cure, late Clash and the cool end of Britpop – may be similar, but all these bands use post punk in different ways. And they have already come up with some strong songs: Kaiser Chief’s crowd-pleasing ‘I Predict a Riot’, Bloc Party’s fragmented, beautiful ‘Helicopter’, the Futureheads’ brilliant take on Kate Bush’s ‘Hounds of Love’. Franz Ferdinand’s first big pop anthem was ‘Take Me Out’; it was only their second single, but it made them famous.
Sutherland thinks the Kaiser Chiefs’ rerelease of ‘Oh My God’, produced this time by long-time Blur collaborator Stephen Street, might prove to be their ‘Take Me Out’. ‘It could catapult the Kaisers to Franz Ferdinandesque stardom. But whether they have another song as strong …’ On their eponymous debut album, Franz Ferdinand had at least three remarkable singles (‘Take Me Out’; ‘This Fire’; ‘Michael’), songs which haven’t lost their edge despite repeated radio and MTV play.
Although Sutherland is waiting to see how this year unfolds for the post-Franz bands, he acknowledges that the possibilities are exciting. ‘These bands really are quite arty; they’re not just pretending. And neither are they stitched into the conventional music business the way Britpop bands probably were. They’ll do gigs in car parks and DJ at each other’s parties. They are coming from a more unconventional scene than Britpop.’ Apart from the London-based Bloc Party, they are also from supposedly unromantic cities: not only Leeds (Kaiser Chiefs) but also Sunderland (the Futureheads), Newcastle (Maximo Park) and Northampton (the Departure). As such, they have been getting on with their own thing, however bizarre: Maximo Park singer Paul Smith reads a book on stage while performing his momentous punky Pulp-style songs. In other words, they’ve been doing gigs without A&R men from the capital watching their every move, anticipating and trying to mould the next Franz Ferdinand.
The Futureheads’ frontman Barry Hyde, who reads Iris Murdoch and Aldous Huxley, is proud to be from Sunderland but he thinks it may have counted against the band. ‘In the past, we’ve had problems getting radio play because the north east of England is like the deep south in America; DJs can’t be seen to be championing a bunch of rednecks. But we would never change the band, never compromise by singing in different voices. Alex [Kapranos] has a strange speaking voice and that’s how he sings, too. It’s not a quirk, it’s just who we are.’
Hyde is exhausted from months of constant touring and, he admits, felt a bit jaded at one point when watching Franz Ferdinand’s success. ‘Yeah, the whole Franz thing got a bit depressing.’ He sighs. ‘Here we are, together for more than four years, struggling to make our first album, running out of money … But things are looking up.’
Perhaps most complete of the post-Franz bands are Bloc Party. They are clever and experimental, yet never forget about melody; they glide from the Fall to the Cure, taking in hardcore Blur on the way. Their forthcoming debut album, Silent Alarm, may prove to be one of the best of the year. Their story naturally includes Franz Ferdinand: after realising that they had many musical influences in common, singer Kele Okereke sent Alex Kapranos an email. As Kapranos helped the Kaiser Chiefs, so he opened a door for Bloc Party, playing the demo at a party given by his record company, the London-based independent label Domino. Once the band had been blessed by Kapranos, labels started bidding for them: they signed to another independent label, Wichita, last April.
If Franz Ferdinand provide a link for these bands, it is their choice of producers that defines the sound. While the Kaisers Chiefs worked with Stephen Street on Employment, their forthcoming album, Bloc Party and Maximo Park prefer Paul Epworth, who is rapidly becoming the producer du jour. On their self-titled debut album, the Futureheads worked with Gang of Four’s Andy Gill before ‘having to let it slide’ and finishing the tracks with Epworth.
Gill, whose intense, jagged post punk band is enjoying a renaissance thanks, in part, to these new wavers namechecking them, says the Futureheads are ‘fantastic’. They explore four-part harmonies, a cappella and complex time signatures with weird guitar sounds, similar to Gang of Four. ‘But they are also different,’ says Gill. ‘Their music is like some insane jazz-related thing. It’s very clever. Very inventive.’
As well as touring with the Departure, Gang of Four are compiling a double CD of their early work for release this spring. One will feature remixes by Gill, the other by the likes of Franz, the Futureheads and Bloc Party. Alongside a compilation of the new art rockers put together by Saul Galpern (founder of Nude records, home to Suede), such releases mark an exhilarating time in music. ‘The album is a snapshot of the amazing resurgence of new music, which is possibly the most influential and vibrant period for music ever in this country,’ Galpern told Music Week .
Yet it is inevitable that Franz’s success will result in the signing of bands who are nothing but facsimiles. But, first, there is much to enjoy. On Wednesday, FF are set to pick up an armful of Brits.This week, the Kaiser Chiefs will also be in London, warming up the audience for Bloc Party and the Futureheads on the last night of the NME Awards Tour. Franz Ferdinand were first on the bill a year ago.
As Franz Ferdinand return to the studio to finish the difficult second album, their pop crown is there for the taking. Ricky Wilson remains pragmatic: ‘Franz Ferdinand have helped us on our way, but now we’re on our own. This is what I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid. It’s a dream.’