Franz Ferdinand and Sparks join forces for album and tour

Mutual admirers launch transatlantic pop supergroup

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 June, 2015, 10:07am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 June, 2015, 10:07am


Musicians often say they admire each other's work, but few ever do anything about it.

At least not to the extent that Scottish rock group Franz Ferdinand and long-running Los Angeles experimental pop duo Sparks have gone with their mutual admiration society.

The bands that span two generations and two continents have just released FFS, a full album of songs written and recorded together after more than a decade of appreciating each other's music from afar.

They're also about to launch a major European tour with plans for a slate of US dates in autumn to showcase the marriage of each group's idiosyncratic pop music, which plays out in lively and provocative ways across the album's spunky, dance floor-friendly songs.

There's also something perversely intriguing about a project that began more than a decade ago with a song called Piss Off and culminates in an epic centrepiece titled Collaborations Don't Work.

"Both bands have a real respect for each other's music," says Sparks keyboardist and songwriter Ron Mael. "There's kind of a shared idea of ambition and a love of the form of pop music and trying to have that be expanded as much as possible within the constraints of it."

Franz Ferdinand leader Alex Kapranos was born in 1972, when brothers Ron and Russell Mael were already a couple of albums into the career of a band that began with the name Halfnelson.

In May 1974, Sparks released the widely acclaimed album Kimono My House, which the duo performed in its entirety this year at The Theatre at Ace Hotel in Los Angeles. Kapranos joined them for a couple of numbers at that show.

"I was just a bit too young, so I kind of missed out on Sparks when they had their huge impact in the UK in the mid-'70s," says Kapranos.

But he vividly remembers stumbling onto Sparks' 1974 single Amateur Hour among a stack of 45s he picked up in the mid-'90s at a Glasgow flea market when he was 22.

"I had no idea what they looked like," Kapranos says. "This was before the internet and YouTube, where you can instantly check out every band you are interested in. The 45 didn't even have a sleeve with a picture. But their music sounded unlike any band I'd heard before."

There's kind of a shared idea of ambition and a love of the form of pop music and trying to have that be expanded as much as possible within the constraints of it.
Ron Mael

Three decades after Sparks were born, Franz Ferdinand came along with their self-titled breakthrough debut and the successor, You Could Have it so Much Better, which catapulted the band into the top 10 of Billboard's albums chart.

In 2004, when Franz Ferdinand were first getting attention from their hit single Take Me Out, the Maels read that the band members cited Sparks as an influence. They subsequently met in LA and exchanged a nebulous "we should work together some time" sentiment upon parting.

The Maels didn't want to let it end there, so they wrote Piss Off and sent it to Kapranos, guitarist Nick McCarthy, bassist Bob Hardy and drummer Paul Thomson to see what, if any, response they would get.

Franz Ferdinand's career was kicking into high gear, so nothing came of it at the time. Flash-forward to 2013, when both bands were booked to perform at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California and while both bands were making related tour stops on the way, the Maels ran into Kapranos in San Francisco.

They renewed the conversation about collaborating, but with no grand vision in place. This time the Maels sent an early version of Collaborations Don't Work almost as a taunt. Kapranos says he and his bandmates welcomed the challenge, and they sent back a response in which Kapranos sings "I ain't no collaborator, I am the partisan rebel in the rocks".

"We were just doing music," Ron Mael says. "Nobody had the courage to say, 'Could this be an album?' So we traded a bunch of things and all of a sudden there were 18 songs and it was like, 'This should be an album'."

Los Angeles Times