Are Sparks and Franz Ferdinand better together?

Franz Ferdinand and Sparks. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown

Franz Ferdinand and Sparks. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown

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IT TAKES a confident bunch of minstrels to announce their gleaming new meeting of minds and music with a song called Collaborations Don’t Work. But when those players are the members of Franz Ferdinand and Sparks, trading together under the cheeky acronym FFS, then there is clearly droll wit to spare.

The non-prophetic song in question is a seven-minute epic taking in references to Andy Warhol, Frank Lloyd Wright, political partisans and the assertion that “I’m going to do it all by myself”. It’s a bold inverse statement of intent, all the more audacious for being the first song the two groups wrote together on their path to oneness.

Both bands are idiosyncratic in their own way, so to give up a little of that to be willing to merge, it’s a unique thing

Now there is a whole self-titled album of their collective melodic hooks, imaginative song structures and offbeat lyrics to feast on, with all six collaborators pictured on the cover.

Perched in the rooftop panorama bar of the Saint Georges Hotel in London, Franz frontman Alex Kapranos and Sparks siblings Ron and Russell Mael are all keen to stress that this is a new band, not a casual collaboration, a side project distraction nor a supergroup, and that Sparks and Franz Ferdinand are both on hold while FFS takes precedence. Their gift of a name was coined by Franz drummer Paul Thomson, sealing their union.

“There will definitely be fans of each band who will be thoroughly appalled by it, but if you went on to make music to satisfy the conservative members of your fanbase you’d have a very boring career,” says Kapranos, who has already been quoted as saying that “most collaborations stink – this one doesn’t”.

He elaborates: “A lot of collaborations are just based on hype, on the idea of the collaboration with very little substance behind it. We felt for it to work properly, there had to be something worth doing together. But we embarked on it without a plan just to see how it would instinctively and naturally evolve.”

Russell Mael talks of a mutual bond but acknowledges that their partnership was no done deal. “Both bands are idiosyncratic in their own way, so to give up a little of that to be willing to merge, it’s a unique thing.”

“Sometimes we feel like we’re working in a vacuum,” adds Ron, “and it feels great to know that there are people that we can be open with.”

Sparks seem to occupy their own hermetic pop world. When they formed in the early 1970s, they were like nothing else coming out of Los Angeles at the time (or since, come to think of it). These brothers were the anti-Beach Boys – pale, skinny, camp, weird, arty and avowedly Europhile, like Roxy Music on poppers. Their performance of This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us on Top Of The Pops was a jaw-dropper, a game-changer, a song from outer space performed by alien beings. Many a child of the 1970s (this writer included) was freaked out by Ron, in particular. The doll-like Russell was pin-up material but his big brother was a sinister figure with his stern visage and Hitler moustache. Even now, it feels slightly surreal to be sitting opposite these men whose eccentric pop persona is so ingrained that it is almost shocking to discover that they are so gentlemanly and charming in real life.

But it is no surprise that a band as pop savvy as Franz would be fans of Sparks. Kapranos has no alarming Top Of The Pops memories; he first discovered their music as an adult when he picked up early single Amateur Hour as part of a lucky dip pile of 7-inch singles at Paddy’s Market, that former flea market which kept a generation of Glasgow musicians in clothes and records.

“It was one of those songs I kept on playing again and again, I didn’t care what else was in the pile any more,” Kapranos says. “It’s a great song on so many levels – it doesn’t sound like anything else, though it’s very instant and direct, like a great piece of pop music, but the subject matter is something outside the bounds of regular lyric writing.”

Fast forward almost a decade to the first Franz Ferdinand rehearsal, where the newly convened group have a bash at playing the Sparks track Achoo from their 1974 album Propaganda – “which we murdered horrendously,” says Kapranos. “We thought, ‘We’ll play this cover and find out how we sound as a band’ – we sounded like a bunch of guys who couldn’t quite play yet.”

The Maels’ first encounter with Franz Ferdinand was more straightforward – they heard Take Me Out prior to its release in 2004 and were instantly sold by its pop daring. “People think we’re working in this massive bubble and don’t listen to anything else,” says Ron. “But we are always trying to find songs that inspire us, not in a specific musical way to channel what we’re doing, but just to feel that you’re doing the right thing in making pop music.”

Like Sparks 30 years earlier, Franz had crashed the charts fully formed. Here, they felt, was a band of kindred spirits with, as Ron says, “a respect for pop music and what can be done within those confines”. A meeting was arranged, the idea of working together was floated but then the Franz phenomenon took flight and thoughts of collaboration, non-stinking or otherwise, were put on hold.

Their paths eventually crossed again two years ago with a chance encounter on the streets of San Francisco, where it was agreed that collaborations don’t work unless you actually get to work. The groups began writing together in relative secrecy, firing song ideas, melodies and lyrics back and forth across the Atlantic.

“What’s that game called where you write a line and then someone else writes another?” says Kapranos. “Consequences. I don’t think you retain that much lyrical cohesion if you try to write like that. So a lot of the lyrics would be Ron’s or mine, our voices alone. But otherwise we were trying to push ourselves to go out of our standard comfortable ways of writing and do something that we hadn’t tried before.”

Having initially wooed Franz in 2004 with the glorious, gleeful Piss Off, the Maels’ next overture was Collaborations Don’t Work – how could Franz resist such sweet-talking? Disproving the theory, they ended up with an album’s worth of material and only then did these coy suitors moot the idea that it might be a cool idea to record an album and maybe inform their respective record companies and management of those transatlantic liaisons.

“It wasn’t the sending off of the songs that was the moment that felt like something was happening,” says Kapranos, “but more when the response came, and it sounded like something totally new. It sounded like both bands and neither band at the same time.”

Kapranos has just offered a pithy review of their album, which they recorded together as a six-piece in an expeditious 15 days. In addition to the bracingly catchy single Johnny Delusional, the dashing and diverse FFS features the sleek synth pop of Call Girl, the pacey, eccentric portrait of The Man Without A Tan and the low-key Little Guy From The Suburbs. It is a marriage of two distinct but complementary styles, with carefully crafted lyrics which tackle social satire and sombre self-examination with a devilish flair.

“We don’t like going in and jamming and saying, ‘what are we feeling today?’” says Russell. “We share an aesthetic that’s not rock’n’roll – arty as opposed to sweaty, where cultural things are important and there’s more to life than a rock band.”

“Often rock bands can seem very narrow-minded, that they are just drawing from a very narrow pool of influences,” says Kapranos. “I think both of our bands like to draw inspiration from outside of our worlds.”

The forthcoming FFS tour will feature Sparks and Franz Ferdinand “covers” in the set. The last time Franz toured, they delivered an all killer, no filler two-hour show. Sparks, meanwhile, have released 22 albums to date, so that’s a lot of potential in their playlist.

FFS will begin their live charm offensive at the Glasgow School of Art, a familiar stomping ground for Kapranos and co. Franz bassist Bob Hardy was a student at the Art School when he and Kapranos met, working in the kitchen at Groucho St Jude’s, and the band played some of their earliest gigs in the student’s union.

But when they return to Scotland towards the end of the summer, it is to break new ground at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival. Incoming director Fergus Linehan has delivered on his pledge to broaden the cultural palette of the Festival with a meaty line-up of inventive pop practitioners, including folk pop polymath Sufjan Stevens, piano showman Chilly Gonzales and noir rock diva Anna Calvi. FFS are an inspired choice to lead the popular music charge, although with their Festival Theatre concert already sold out, the likelihood is that the tickets have been snapped up by fans of the feeder bands.

Ron has mixed feelings about traditional perceptions of popular music’s place in the artistic pecking order. “I like Shostakovich and Schoenberg’s serial music, where the whole system is different, and some things in free jazz. I like to listen to music that I have no possibility of making myself and also things that are slightly alien. And I like the fact that pop music can be considered a high art form, but I also love the fact that it’s considered kind of trashy and not a part of the artistic world. Those two things I embrace – the respectability and the lack of respectability at the same time.”

“I agree,” says Kapranos. “Once a medium becomes high art, immediately restrictions appear around about it for it to maintain that status.

“But as for becoming part of the festival, I’m really pleased. You see throughout history how different forms that were considered to be low art have proven they do have substance and merit. If you think of what Shakespeare wrote, it was kind of low art, open to the masses. They were really bawdy performances telling the news stories of the day almost in the manner of a soap opera, but the passage of time allowed it to be accepted as a high art form.

“Of course pop music is instant and can be transient, but you can go beyond the idea of any formulas in pop music and push some boundaries, still within the context of a pop song. But you can only have that ambition if you do really love pop music as a medium, which I think both of us do. We quite unashamedly refer to ourselves as pop groups.”

And now, to paraphrase those pop princesses the Spice Girls, two have become one. So who says collaborations don’t work? FFS are far too polite to namedrop any clunkers and clangers but are happy to nominate a couple of classic collaborations. Ron cites the words and music dream team of Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein which produced West Side Story (“that kind of collaboration where you almost think of it as being one person”), while Kapranos goes for the odd couple pairing of Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra. “I always loved those records because of the contrast between their voices and how they can inhabit the same world somehow.”

But these are examples of individuals working together. FFS is different. As Russell says: “There are not that many other instances of full bands joining forces and doing a complete album of new material – it’s a precedent-setting situation. Everybody had this mission to make it work.” n

FFS is released by Domino on 8 June, standard CD £10.99. FFS play the Art School, Glasgow, 16 June and Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, 24 August

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