Two years ago, Alex Kapranos was walking up and down a street in San Francisco, looking for a dentist. The Franz Ferdinand frontman stopped when he heard familiar voices call out his name.
He turned and saw Ron and Russell Mael of veteran Los Angeles band Sparks, who, like Franz, were set to play Coachella a few days later. The Mael brothers invited the band to their gig that night and the two bands decided to get the ball rolling on a collaborative project they’d kept in the back of their minds for 10 years. And so, FFS (Franz Ferdinand + Sparks) was born. Their self-titled debut album is out this week.
It’s a story years in the making. The Mael brothers, whose 1974 album Kimono My House set a standard for art rock, took a liking to Franz’s breakthrough single “Take Me Out” when it was released in 2004.
“You get jaded after a while if you’ve had a long career,” Russell Mael recalls. Sparks has released 22 studio albums in its 44 years as a band. “You wonder if it’s just you or if you’re losing faith that people can come up with really good pop songs that are unique and not rechanneling the past. When we heard ‘Take Me Out,’ we thought, ‘Aha, this is really fresh.’ To have the ability and desire to challenge the public a bit but also do something that’s striking—we were eagerly impressed.”
When they read that the Scottish quartet cited Sparks as an influence—Kapranos had been a fan since he picked up their single “Amateur Hour” at a Glasgow flea market in his early 20s—they arranged to meet up in L.A. They got along well and when they parted, they exchanged the pleasantry, “We should work together sometime,” which sounds a bit like the music world’s equivalent of “We should get lunch sometime.”
But Sparks meant it, and they sent over a demo called “Piss Off,” which Kapranos and bandmates Nick McCarthy, Bob Hardy, and Paul Thomson loved. That was a busy time in the chronology of Franz Ferdinand, though. They’d just released their eponymous album, “Take Me Out” was storming the charts, and they were taking home the Mercury Prize, a Grammy nomination, and spots on a cornucopia of best-of lists.
Recording an entire album together would mean sessions and a joint tour, and that was time neither band had. The nascent project was shelved, until Kapranos chipped a tooth on tour in South America and decided he’d rather brave the healthcare system in San Francisco.
There’s something immediately appealing about a collaboration that started out with a track called “Piss Off.” Even better, when the amorphous project started to take shape, Ron and Russell put their foot forward with a track called “Collaborations Don’t Work.”
“I remember thinking that was pretty funny,” Kapranos says with a laugh. “We responded with the ‘I ain’t no collaborator’ section of the song. We sent it back thinking they have a pretty good sense of humor, which is why they’ve sent this and if they do, they’re going to appreciate this. Otherwise, we’ve read it wrong, and they’re going to be incredibly offended and never going to want to speak with us again.”
Fortunately, they share a sense of humor, and it set them up for an open-minded collaboration, both interpersonally and musically.
“There’s this myth that you should never meet your heroes because they’ll disappoint you. I don’t think that’s true,” Kapranos says. “When you actually get into the room and start working with them, you forget [their status] instantly and they become your contemporaries. That’s the coolest thing of all. The artists I’ve admired and have had the fortune to work with in the past have become friends.”
FFS is delightful in its lyrical cleverness (it rhymes “Hugo Boss” with “dental floss”) and musical compatibility, as you might from these two artists practically made to work together, but that’s where expectation ends. The album isn’t set up as Sparks featuring Franz Ferdinand, or vice versa. Mael and Kapranos don’t swap vocal duties; they share them.
“If there was any kind of intent at all, we didn’t want it to be a watered down version of either band.” Mael says. “We really wanted this to be a new entity with new material. We wanted to figure out how to incorporate both Alex’s and my voice into the song seamlessly. We wanted to make it sound like a new third voice that was actually combination of our two voices.”
To do that, both bands wanted to bring in a third-party producer. They were drawn to John Congleton, who is adept at working with artists of different generations and creating something entirely new, as he did with 2012’s Love This Giant by St. Vincent & David Byrne.
“It would be the best compliment if someone heard this and thought it was a new band. ‘Who is this FFS thing?’” Mael says. “It’d be most satisfying to pick up new fans based solely on the music.”
The band recently made their live debut on the U.K.’s Later…With Jools Holland and they’ll hit Europe and Japan before touring America in the fall. They’ll also play songs from their respective catalogues, but filtered through this new band, which Kapranos says will give the music “a new kind of life.”
“If we play ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us,’ it isn’t going to sound like Sparks, and if we play ‘Dark of the Matinee’ or ‘Michael,’ it’s not going to sound like Franz Ferdinand,” Kapranos says. “It’s FFS.”