Big enough for both of us

If Franz Ferdinand and Sparks had charted in the same era they may have been rivals. But the generational gap makes for a theatrical collaboration, says Richard Smirke

The first time that Alex Kapranos can remember hearing theatrical American art rock duo Sparks was when he bought a handful of assorted 7” singles at a flea market in Glasgow in his early twenties.

“You would usually have a 2 percent hit rate,” recalls the Franz Ferdinand singer, now aged 43 but looking a good ten years younger.

On this occasion, he struck lucky and unearthed Sparks’s 1974 single Amateur Hour. “I really loved it,” he continues between mouthfuls of coffee cake in an East London Turkish café. “It sounded odd and unusual and there was this one great line in it: ‘It’s a lot like playing the violin/You cannot start off and be Yehudi Menuhin.’ I just thought that was great. I remember thinking ‘What kind of pop group has lyrics like that?’ It immediately made me go out and search out more Sparks stuff.”

Fast forward 20 years and Kapranos is not only still a huge admirer of Sparks, he’s done the ultimate fan pilgrimage and formed a new band with them. “My motivation in doing this is almost a bit selfish,” he says of FFS, a cross-generational, transatlantic supergroup featuring all four members of Glasgow-formed Franz Ferdinand alongside Ron and Russell Mael, the two Californian brothers that formed Sparks back in 1971. “I think everybody’s is when you do a collaboration,” continues Kapranos. “You want to inflict your music taste on the rest of the world and I want everybody else to love Sparks as well and realise how great they are.”

The origins of FFS, who released their acclaimed self-titled debut album earlier this summer, date back to 2004 when the two groups met for the first time. The rendezvous took place in Los Angeles at the behest of Ron and Russell, who had read an early interview with Franz Ferdinand in which they cited Sparks as a formative influence. At the end of the meeting, the two parties talked about one day working together. “Like all bands do – half meaning it and half just being polite,” remembers Kapranos.

“We never felt paternalistic towards them. It was always six people who were all on the same level.”

Nevertheless, the seeds for a future collaboration were sown and when Kapranos – trying to find a dentist to mend a broken tooth – unexpectedly bumped into the brothers in San Francisco in 2013 the long-delayed project was suddenly resurrected. “It felt exciting and we thought that we should really try and make this work,” he says.

“We’re not actually friends with many musicians, but we just felt a real kinship with them,” states Sparks’ moustachioed keyboardist Ron Mael, speaking to Big Issue North from his home in Los Angeles. “It seemed like their ambition and sensibility was something that in a really abstract way would work if we did something together. But there was never any thought of it getting to this point. It was more ‘let’s just do something.’”

Over the next 18 months the two groups would regularly send each other song ideas, lyrics, instrumental arrangements and vocal melodies that each side would work on and then send back for further development. One of the first pieces of music they worked on originated from the Sparks camp and was called Piss Off. A subsequent composition was entitled Collaborations Don’t Work, crystalising the arch, acerbic tone that would come to characterise FFS.

Having amassed an album’s worth of songs, the two groups convened at London’s Rak studios late last year and spent two highly productive weeks recording their self-titled debut with the aid of Grammy-winning producer John Congleton (St Vincent, Sigur Ros).

“We wanted to get in a producer because that way it’s his call. I don’t have to turn around to Ron and say: ‘You’ve got far too much reverb on your keyboard.’ And he doesn’t have to turn to me and say: ‘Alex, your guitar is out of tune,’” says Kapranos, crediting Congleton’s foulmouthed good humour with adding to the bonhomie of the sessions. “I’ve known my fair share of creative cursers, but he’s incredible,” adds the singer with a smile.

“It was infinitely quicker than we usually work. For better or worse we tend to spend a long time on our recordings and FFS was done in 15 days, which for us is absurd,” says Mael, who says that the near 30-year age gap between the two bands was not evident when making the album. “I may be self-delusional but we never felt paternalistic towards them. There was never that thing of us being the elder statesmen. It was always six people who were all on the same level.”

“There was a certain amount of mutual respect between the two bands – everyone was on their best behaviour and super-polite, but it didn’t feel forced in any sort of way,” elaborates Kapranos. “We were enjoying it and genuinely felt very inspired by the music that was coming out. It felt new and different.”

For both groups the resulting album is a source of pride, with Mael extolling the “spontaneity and energy” of the material, while Kapranos hails the idiosyncratic mix of rock, pop, new wave, opera, glam, post punk and cabaret that derives from bringing two very different sets of musicians together. “It is undeniably both bands and also something new,” he enthusiastically states. “I’m really glad that we made it now rather than 10 years ago. With more time and perspective to appreciate how unique an opportunity it was, we went further and did something that neither band has done before.”

“Right from the beginning we’ve gone at this without any real plan,” expands Mael, who says that while there are no concrete plans for FFS to continue beyond their current European tour, on which they headlined Glastonbury’s John Peel Stage and visit Manchester’s Albert Hall later this month, it is not something that either camp is ruling out.

“When we first started doing this we had no idea where it was going to end up,” states Kapranos. “We didn’t know if we were going to make an album, a one-off single or maybe just write some songs and leave it at that, and that’s how I still feel about it now. Who knows what the future holds.”

FFS’s debut album is out now on Domino Records. They play Manchester Albert Hall on 25 August

FFS talk chance, Blurred Lines and why they’re not the indie McBusted

“I think Pharrell has had the piss taken out of him, to be honest.”

“I actually can’t think of any examples of bands that have completely got together like this. Somebody said to me it’s like the indie version of McBusted. Well, not quite, because we’re writings songs for a new project, but maybe people will now think: ‘We can do that as well.’ I’d certainly recommend it. Also working with guys from a different generation. First of all you get loads of good anecdotes about working with Giorgio Moroder, Todd Rundgren and Tony Visconti, but also they have a different outlook on music. Russell is in his mid-sixties and Ron is going to be 70 this year, but they have still got such a youthful approach to life. It makes you think: ‘Maybe in 30 years I’ll still have that kind of energy.’ I hope so.” Alex Kapranos

“We had no idea what it would turn out to be when you take two bands who have a really specific kind of identity and then merge them and try to come up with new material. There were lots of potential roadblocks to it ending up the way that it did musically, but we’re really excited. Russell’s singing is really different to Alex’s, but both of them are special vocalists and both bands try to expand what pop music can be. We’re on the same wavelength and the way that the album was recorded, in a really short time, really lends itself to a live performance.” Ron Mael

“I get the feeling that a lot of people involved in the Blurred Lines court case weren’t musicians and didn’t really know about song writing. How can you copyright a groove? I find it a bit weird. After all, how many Marvin Gaye songs sounded identical to a dozen other Tamla Motown songs? I think Pharrell [Williams] has had the piss taken out of him, to be honest. In Franz Ferdinand we never talk about: ‘I want a song that sounds like this.’ We’ll say how a song makes us feel and think of it in terms of emotional response. What’s next? Are you going to copyright that?” Alex Kapranos

“So much of what happens with musicians and bands has a lot to do with the way that you respond to random circumstances. It was circumstance that brought me and Nick [McCarthy, Franz Ferdinand guitarist] together at a party back in 2002. We had a fight and then we asked him to join our band. It’s what you do with the circumstances that counts. In this case, we probably needed to bump into each other again. If we hadn’t, I don’t think we would have made this record.” Alex Kapranos

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