Oh, FFS: A Q&A with Alex Kapranos
Alex Kapranos used to listen to second-hand Sparks records while living in a grim pre-trendy Finnieston flat. Now the Franz Ferdinand frontman is making records with the Californian group under the name FFS. This is the full transcript of our interview.
The Skinny: When Franz Ferdinand rose to prominence in 2004, Sparks were cited as a personal favourite of yours. When did your appreciation of the band begin? What was it you liked about them?
Alex Kapranos: I first discovered them in my early 20s at some point in the '90s. At that time I used to find out about music by going down to Paddy's Market by the Briggait and buy stacks of LPs and 45s then sift through them back at my flat. It was the equivalent of scouring the far reaches of Spotify or YouTube today. As was usually the case, about 95 per cent of the records were crap, but that didn't matter as it was worth it for those masterpieces that stood out: in this case [1974 single] Amateur Hour by Sparks.
I'd heard their name, but didn't know too much about them. I was a too young to have seen their infamous Top Of The Pops appearance in the '70s and until that point they'd been in exile in the USA. I loved this song, the sound, the weird falsetto vocals and – most of all – the lyric about the fumblings of suburban sexual awakenings, the stand-out line being 'It's a lot like playing the violin/ you cannot start off and be Yehudi Menuhin' – not what you expect to hear in your average pop song. I was hooked, went out and hunted down everything I could by the band. I loved the Muff Winwood, Visconti and Moroder recordings, then discovered that they were still making records and had recently released Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins which has one of the greatest Sparks songs: When Do I Get To Sing My Way.
We were briefly label-mates when we were both signed to Roadrunner – they had released the re-workings (1997 album) Plagiarism on the label while The Karelia were notching up sales of literally dozens of CDs with Divorce At High Noon. Around this time I went to see them at the Astoria in London, which was an incredible show. I was in a Denmark Street instrument shop on the afternoon of the gig and Ron was standing there, talking to the guy at the counter who was doing that thing that some of those guys do, spouting off loads of technical jargon about some dreary keyboard or something. Ron seemed like a decent guy, but I didn't say anything. Why would I bother the guy when he's obviously out for a bit of a break and doesn't want to be bothered? What would I say? 'Oh, I like that line about Yehudi Menuhin? Are you going to play Equator tonight? Was your mother really Doris Day?' No, our paths weren't aligned. What was he going to do? Turn round and say he was pleased to finally meet me, that it was obvious that we were destined to make music together and should book a studio ASAP? No, I didn't think that way. I still don't. Too shy.
Was your love of Sparks originally shared by the others in Franz?
Yes, we covered (1975 single) Achoo in one of our first rehearsals. Well, to be honest, we attempted to play it, but couldn't really work it out so wrote Tell Her Tonight or Shopping For Blood or something like that instead. I've never been great at working out other peoples' songs. I can't properly understand how their musical brains work. It doesn't make sense. Even when we do play covers, they always end up sounding like Franz Ferdinand songs.
Sparks were one one of those bands that we bonded over amongst Schlaraffenland, Prince, Grauzone, Fire Engines, Dr Alimantado, Roxy, Felix Kubin, Rembetika, Mary Poppins etc.
Is it true that Ron and Russell "reached out" out to the band on the strength of Take Me Out? That must have been a shot in the arm for you.
Yes, they'd heard Take Me Out and liked it. I think it was just before Franz Ferdinand came out. They'd then read some article – probably in the NME – where I'd mentioned Sparks in one of their 'Cool Bands That Are Cool And Make Cool Music For Cool People Because Cool Music Is Cool' lists. Funnily enough, I never heard from Steeleye Span, who were also in there... but the Maels' people spoke to our people or whatever happens in these situations and we arranged to meet up. Yes, when that sort of thing happens for the first time, it's very weird – when someone who has made music you appreciate turns round and appreciates something that you've made... It makes your world collapse in a way, as you have built all your reference points upon them being over there in that distant unreachable place where mythical characters create those records that are stacked against the wall of your flat on Gray Street – back when Finnieston was still a pre-hipster forlorn, forgotten wasteland.
You arranged to meet in a Hollywood coffee shop soon after. What are your memories of that meeting? Did you strike a rapport with the Maels from the off?
We met in the foyer of the Roosevelt Hotel, a Hollywood relic from that Gothic age of dark, flickering silver. It was a preposterous location, a cavernous tiled hall, sitting at a massive antique refectory table. All the surfaces were very reflective, so every sound felt amplified in an exaggerated way. The chink of teaspoon against cappuccino saucer. The murmurings of muted mutual acknowledgement of the other's work. It was either the first or second time we'd been to LA. Somebody, probably from the label, had laid on a plate of sandwiches. Afterwards we were perplexed that the Maels hadn't eaten any of them. Free food? They didn't touch it? What was wrong with those guys? Maybe they got free food all the time...
Despite the surroundings, Ron and Russell turned out to be easy to get on with, having a good sense of humour and conversation. We saw each other a couple of other times when we returned to LA and talked about covering a song by the other band. They sent us Piss Off, which we liked. Unfortunately we were just entering the maelstrom and didn't get the chance to write something in return, so it didn't happen.
After having no contact with them for several years, what led to your chance meeting?
I'd broken a tooth in Uruguay. It was fucking painful. Our tour manager told me to hang on until we reached San Francisco in a couple of days, as his pal, also a tour manager knew a dentist there who'd sort me out. When we got there, our manager handed me a bit of paper with the address scribbled on it. Or maybe I scribbled the address on a piece of paper – that's more likely, as the handwriting was mostly illegible. Anyway, he sent me off saying that it was Huey Lewis's dentist, who his pal tour managed and Huey's teeth seemed to look alright, so the dentist was probably pretty good. I got to the block I thought the dentist was and couldn't find it. Couldn't read the handwriting. Kept walking up and down the block. Then I heard a voice behind me say "Alex, is that you?" I turned round and it was Ron, standing beside Russell and his girlfriend Emmi. They'd been watching me walk up and down the block, trying to work out if this hapless specimen was actually me...
"Ron! Russell! What're you doing in San Francisco?"
"We're playing a show! What're you up to?"
"Oh, I'm looking for Huey Lewis's Dentist..."
How did the decision to collaborate come about?
We went to their show that night and afterwards we started talking about the collaboration that had never happened and decided to send each other some songs to see if it would work this time. We sent them a basic version of Police Encounters and they sent over a rough version of Collaborations Don't Work.
Could you tell us how the writing process worked? On some songs it seems you share a line about with Russell.
It really came alive after we responded to each other's songs. We wrote and sang parts over Collaborations Don't Work and they wrote and sang over Police Encounters. It went back and forth a little, but what felt exciting was that, listening to the music, it didn't sound like either band and both simultaneously. It felt like something new, yet with the recognisable personalities behind it all. So some songs were written like that. Others were written more as complete songs, then arranged by the band, eg The Power Couple and Save Me From Myself were written by Ron and Little Guy From The Suburbs and So Desu Ne came from me. Ron wrote the lyric for Things I Won't Get and Nick wrote the music. I wrote the lyric for A Violent Death and Ron wrote the music. We sent them the music for Man Without a Tan and Ron wrote the lyric... There were lots of different approaches. We tried to change it around to keep it fresh. All of the writing was done 6000 miles apart. Us over here, them over there. Neither of us had worked like that before, but it seemed to work.
Why the decision to work in secret?
Because feeling you have to meet other people's expectations is one of the most destructive forces upon creativity. Also, we had no idea where it was taking us. How can you announce something to the world, when you don't know what it is yourself yet? We didn't tell Domino that we'd been working on it until we had written all the songs and were ready to record.
Your debut show at the Glasgow School of Art was rapturously received. Has the public reaction to FFS pleased you?
Sure. Whenever musicians spout that 'we play for ourselves and if other people like it, it's a bonus' line, they're talking bollocks. All of them. I have an ego the size of the Greek national debt, as do all musicians I've ever met. Some pretend they don't, but they're being mendacious. They are deluded into thinking that ego is an exclusively negative force, when it is actually what drives you to create what you create in the first place. It takes a gargantuan ego to presume that your music should exist. Most people don't suffer from that presumptuousness. Ego only becomes a pain in the arse when you apply it to areas where it doesn't belong: eg Do you know who I am? Save it for the stage. Or maybe interviews if you must. Don't bring it out in everyday life. That would be like Bradley Wiggins insisting on wearing his full lycra and helmet when he walked to the shops: it's inappropriate. That's when you become a prick. Anyway, yes, we're all satisfied if people respond well to the music we make. Any musician that tells you otherwise is a liar.
I loved that show at the Art School, but was intensely nervous beforehand. I think we all were. It was our first show, in a place that was so significant to us, to an audience that contained of so many people we knew – friends, people we respected, family members. Man, I was a wreck before I went on stage. As soon as I'd sung the first line, though, I knew it was going to be a good gig. A great crowd. We'd been building up the Glasgow reputation for so long to Ron and Russell, I was so happy when they didn't let us down. Such a warm, good feeling. Good to be home.
Was it an immediate decision that you and Russell would serve as co-front-men?
We're both front-men, so it seemed pretty obvious. I wasn't about to take up the harpsichord or Russell dabble with the flute. Thinking about it now, there aren't many instances of double front-men. The Specials, sort of... Abba... Happy Mondays? Is Bez as much of a front-man as Ryder... or was Bez the real front-man? I don't know. I do know that it seems to work from our end.
Lastly, are we likely to see another FFS record - or is a new Franz LP are a more likely prospect?
I have no idea. When we started working on this, we had no idea where it would end up, whether it would be a couple of songs, never mind a full LP, whether we would actually record them, whether we would make an entirely new band... we had no idea. I still have no idea what will be next... but if I did, I wouldn't tell you.