It would never have happened if Alex Kapranos hadn’t cracked a tooth. In 2013, the 43-year-old Franz Ferdinand frontman was in Uruguay on tour with his band when misfortune struck. He didn’t fancy braving the country’s health system. The next stop was San Francisco, where the band’s manager had an in with Huey Lewis’s dentist. Yes, Huey Lewis of cheese ball ’80s pop rockers Huey Lewis And The News. Apparently Lewis’s dentist was the best. “So there I am wandering around San Francisco looking for Huey Lewis’s dentist,” explains Alex. “I hear this voice behind me saying, Alex, is that you? I turn around and it’s Ron and Russell.”
That’s Ron and Russell Mael, better known as Sparks, the Los Angeles brothers who set down the benchmark for art rock with their 1974 album ‘Kimono My House’ (featuring ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us’). They’ve done a fine job of living up to it on 19 subsequent albums released during an unbroken 44-year career. Sparks were playing that night and invited Kapranos and Franz Ferdinand down. By the end of the evening, they’d agreed they should work on something together. A couple of songs, maybe. Who knows.
Two years later, they’ve recorded a whole album together as FFS. It’s less of a collaboration, more of an entirely new band, a six-piece composed of all four members of Franz Ferdinand and both Mael brothers. The result is similar to both, but with a distinct identity of its own. The choppy, rhythmic guitars and dance-influenced groove on ‘Police Encounters’ are very Franz, but the “bam bam diddy diddy” chorus and swirling keyboards are pure Sparks. Together it adds up to something neither party could manage on their own. Likewise, the jabbing chords and tightly intertwined vocals on closing track ‘Piss Off’ see the two bands’ different visions of art rock combine into four minutes of instantly likeable off-kilter pop. Meanwhile ‘Collaborations Don’t Work’ (a typically Sparks tongue-in-cheek title) is a pop operetta that opens with simple strummed guitar, which then fades into a grand sweep of orchestral/choral pop over which Russell and Alex trade barbed put-downs. “I don’t need your navel gazing / I don’t get your way of phrasing/ I don’t think you’re really trying / What pray tell are you implying.” No, this is not your average collaboration.
Right now, Russell, Ron and Alex are sat drinking tea in the bar of the Montcalm Hotel in London. “Apologies for the level of hipness,” deadpans Ron, a man so unconcerned with what other people think of him that he’s spent a good part of the last 40 years wearing a Hitler-style toothbrush moustache, although today he sports a less controversial pencil variety. Russell is a joker. “Tell us about the señoritas in Uruguay,” he teases Alex, adding in a stage whisper, “That’s how he broke that tooth.” Alex looks barely a day older than when Franz Ferdinand’s debut single, ‘Darts Of Pleasure’, was released in 2003. Not many 43-year olds can pull off stripy trousers and braces. “I wish I could say it was as a result of something as rock’n’roll as a señorita,” he corrects, “but it was just one of those things.”
The two bands have known each other for over a decade. When the Maels heard Franz Ferdinand’s second single, ‘Take Me Out’ (2004), they “reached out”. The result was an art rock blind date in a west Hollywood coffee shop. “We were very excited,” remembers Alex. “Sparks had a big impact on us. At our very first rehearsal we tried a couple of covers and one of them, was ‘Achoo’ [from Sparks’ 1974 album ‘Propaganda’]. It was a bloody awful. People say you should never meet your heroes, but it’s nonsense. It was great to meet them.”
They talked about recording together at that first meeting and Sparks wrote ‘Piss Off’ (so technically the project is 10 years in the making) but Franz Ferdinand were just about to release their debut album, things got “crazy” and the nascent project never came to anything. They followed each other’s careers over the years, but didn’t keep in touch. “Maybe it’s because none of us is on Facebook,” quips Alex. “But if we had been on Facebook maybe we would have just shared selfies of ourselves with some food and the cat.”
The chance meeting in San Francisco nine years later happened just as Franz Ferdinand were about to release their fourth album, ’Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action’, but Alex was determined not to let the opportunity slip by this time. “I remember sitting down with the others and saying, ‘It doesn’t matter how busy we are, we have to make this happen,’” he says.
Sparks started the process in provocative style by sending Franz Ferdinand the song ‘Collaborations Don’t Work’. “It was kind of like a joke to see if we were on the same level,” says Alex, eyeing Ron and Russell just to check for sure. “When Nick [McCarthy, Franz Ferdinand’s guitarist] and I heard it for the first time we thought it was really funny,” he continues. They responded with a double dare in form of a section featuring the line “We ain’t no collaborators, I am a partisan”, equating musical collaborators with Nazi collaborators in WWII. As we were sending it off we said, ‘They’re either going to find this funny or they’re never going to speak to us again.’ I think that song underlines the fact that both bands were aware that collaborations can be pretty rotten. We both approached it not wanting to do something bland and half-arsed.”
Hence they worked in secret for 18 months, sending tracks back and forth. “We kept it all under wraps so there wasn’t any expectation from the public,” says Russell. Alex adds: “Collaborations are usually along the lines of so-and-so featuring so-and-so. They always seem like a shitload of hype. Rather than building it on hype we wanted to have a good body of work before we told the world. We didn’t want to work to other people’s expectations.” They also wanted to avoid the word “supergroup”, which they say is outdated and doesn’t apply because, in this case, it’s two entire bands coming together, not cherry picked members, one from this, one from that, and so on. “We don’t feel any affinity with that term,” sniffs Alex.
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It wasn’t the original intention, but in the end they wrote a whole album’s worth of material. It was recorded in RAK Studios in London in three weeks. The whole thing was, they say, incredibly easy, like they’d been playing together for years. The only problem was Franz drummer Paul Thomson’s thick Glaswegian accent, which Alex had to translate for the Maels. It was Thomson who came up with the name. “We knew it must be funny because everybody laughed,” says Russell. “Once Alex told us what Paul had said, we agreed it fitted perfectly.”
There was much talk during recording about the state of pop music, which they all agree is dire. Ron, no chatterbox, becomes animated on the subject. “It’s really disappointing,” he sighs. “I guess part of it is that we have been around for a while, but it just seems like so much pop music is formulaic now. There are so many possibilities within pop music, stretching things but still relating to people. It angers me that people are doing it for the wrong reasons. It seems abusive to what pop music can be.” Alex agrees, saying that nothing “appalls [him] more” that the current obsession with recreating the sounds of the ’90s. “We share a love of pop music but we’ve never tried to do it in the predictable way other people around us do it,” he says. “You run the risk of it flying over people’s heads, but when it does connect, my God, it’s great. That sums up the attitude of this record.”
FFS is meeting of kindred spirits, for sure, but you also get the sense that both bands know that, at this moment in time, they are more interesting together than separately. The truth is FFS comes at an opportune moment for both sides. It’s been five years since Sparks released an album, while Franz’s last outing, although decent enough, failed to make much of an impression. It’s why Sparks and Franz Ferdinand as separate entities are on hold for the foreseeable future. FFS have a full summer’s worth of live dates ahead of them, including Glastonbury. After that? “We’ve no idea,” says Alex. “When we started this we didn’t know whether it was going to be a song, or what the hell it was going to be. That’s still how we feel. That’s a great way to feel about a band. Not knowing what the future is and not having it mapped out for you. Let’s see what happens.”
They all nod. “Let’s see if people like it,” says Russell. “Let the public speak.” Ron immediately fires back: “And then ignore them.” It’s alternative music’s timeless tenet. If you don’t like FFS, you can piss off.