At Home, At Work, At Play: Franz Ferdinand and Sparks discuss their union
Glasgow art-rockers Franz Ferdinand and Los Angeles veterans Sparks may be cut from similar cloth creatively, but few expected them to band together as FFS. We speak with Alex Kapranos and Russell Mael about making transatlantic collaborations work
The unsmiling visage of Ron Mael is one of the most recognisible in popular music. Famed for playing his keyboard while apparently motionless, it was something of a departure for the 69-year-old to take centre stage at the Glasgow School of Art and begin to throw his arms like a speed skater at a dance-off. Mael's breaking character to bust a move was just one of several pleasant surprises for those fortunate enough to attend the debut performance by FFS: a collaboration involving the four members of Franz Ferdinand – skilled practitioners of chart-friendly art-rock – and the Mael brothers, who have made Sparks a captivating musical presence for more than 40 years. "Ron doesn’t require encouragement for standing centre stage and dancing, he was born with a centre stage personality," notes Russell Mael, who shares vocal duties in FFS with Franz frontman Alex Kapranos.
The Art School show was a triumph and reviews of the group’s self-titled album have been almost universally positive. While Franz and Sparks seem a natural creative fit, it's easy to forget just how badly other high-profile collaborations have fared – from the genuinely grim Lou Reed/Metallica Lulu album, to David Bowie's less than impressive Tin Machine supergroup. But FFS is a joy; working with the Mael brothers has pushed Franz to write some of their best songs in recent years. Fans of both bands can enjoy working out who contributed what line in which song, but crucially, the strength of tracks like Police Encounters means the album succeeds on its own merits, rendered more than a pet project by a group of friends for their own amusement.
“I wasn't about to take up the harpsichord or Russell dabble with the flute" – Alex Kapranos
The warm welcome at their debut gig was satisfying for Kapranos. "Whenever musicians spout that 'we play for ourselves and if other people like it, it's a bonus’ line, they're talking bollocks,” he tells The Skinny. "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. I loved that show at the Art School, but I 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 so many people we knew – friends, people we respected, family members. As soon as I'd sung the first line, though, I knew it was going to be a good gig. 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."
FFS have toured vigorously since their Art School outing and return to Scotland this month for shows at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre and the Barrowland Ballroom in Glasgow, as well as a sold-out night at Manchester’s Albert Hall. The Edinburgh gig is part of the International Festival – the serious elder brother to the Fringe – and is indicative of the respect both Franz and Sparks command.
The story of how these two groups – one based in Glasgow and the other 6,000 miles away in Los Angeles – came together to produce one of 2015’s most unlikely albums is an intriguing one. Like much of Franz’s success, it can be traced back to the release of their 2004 single Take Me Out. With its dramatic mid-song tempo change and killer chorus, it elevated the group above their more leaden contemporaries. Among those impressed were the Maels – who know a thing or two about writing great pop songs that take unexpected turns. "So many groups have lost their sense of adventure and prefer to stick to the basic formulas and clichés of pop music," Russell explains when asked why Sparks first initiated contact. "Take Me Out, as well as countless Sparks songs, haven't followed those conventions. There is a difference."
The message was received with glee by Franz; a group of committed Sparks fans who had attempted to cover 1975 single Achoo in one of their first rehearsals. "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," offers Kapranos. "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."
Sparks and Franz met for the first time in the foyer of the Roosevelt Hotel, described by Kapranos as "a Hollywood relic from that Gothic age of dark, flickering silver." There was immediate talk of a collaboration of some kind, which would lead to Sparks offering Piss Off – now a cornerstone of the FFS live set – as a tentative starting point. But given the Glasgow band’s intensive touring schedule, they never got round to sending one of their own tracks in return. It would take a broken tooth and a chance encounter in 2013 before FFS would finally evolve into something more than an aspiration. Kapranos was wandering the streets of San Francisco looking for a dentist when he bumped into Ron and Russell, as you do.
"I'd broken a tooth in Uruguay. It was fucking painful," Kapranos explains. "Our tour manager told me to hang on until we reached San Francisco as his pal knew a dentist there who'd sort me out. When we arrived he sent me off saying that it was Huey Lewis's dentist – 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 on and couldn't find it. 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."
Following this chance meeting, a new commitment to work together was forged. "We wrote in LA, and FF wrote in Britain," says Russell. "We never sat down and wrote together. I think each band prefers not to look the other in the eye while creating." The stand-out album track Collaborations Don’t Work is perhaps the best illustration of their process, with Mael and Kapranos exchanging lyrical barbs: "I don’t like your navel gazing!" "I don’t get your way of phrasing!"
"It really came alive after we responded to each other's songs," confirms Kapranos. "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. We sent them the music for Man Without a Tan and Ron wrote the lyric – there were lots of different approaches," Kapranos continues. "We tried to change it around to keep it fresh. All of the writing was done 6,000 miles apart. Us over here, them over there. Neither of us had worked like that before, but it seemed to work."
A collective decision was made to keep FFS secret until recording had been completed and a release date confirmed. Even Domino, Franz’s long-term record label, was only informed of the project when the writing process was complete and the songs were ready to be recorded. Album in the can, the next decision was how to mesh the two bands together as a single live unit. With Ron occupying his customary position stage right behind his keyboard, and the rest of Franz fulfilling their usual roles of bass, drums and guitar, it was down to Kapranos and Russell to decide how best to share vocal duties. "We're both front-men, so it seemed pretty obvious," the former says. "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 frontmen. 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."
Both Franz and Sparks remain tight-lipped when asked if we can expect another FFS album or whether attention will revert back to their respective bands. Kapranos sheds no light on the subject. "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 – or whether we would actually record them, and whether we would make an entirely new band.
"I still have no idea what will be next..." he lingers. "But if I did, I wouldn't tell you."