WHEN TWO BANDS UNITE

Mu­tual fans Franz Fer­di­nand and Sparks make good on a vow to col­lab­o­rate.

Los Angeles Times - - ARTS & BOOKS - By Randy Lewis

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 lon­grun­ning L.A. ex­per­i­men­tal­ist duo Sparks have gone with their mu­tual ad­mi­ra­tion so­ci­ety.

This week, the bands that span two gen­er­a­tions and two con­ti­nents are re­leas­ing “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 U.S. dates in the fall 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-ready 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 anepic cen­ter­piece num­ber called “Col­lab­o­ra­tions Don’t Work.”

“Both bands have a real re­spect for each other’s mu­sic,” said Sparks key­board ist and song writer Ron Mael, who was sit­ting a few feet away from his younger brother Rus­sell in the lat­ter’s Bev­erly Hills home, where they do much of their record­ing. “There’s not a sim­i­lar­ity in the sounds, there’s not a sim­i­lar­ity in the singing, but there’s kind of a shared idea of am­bi­tion and a love of the form of pop mu­si­cand try­ing to­have that be ex­panded as much as pos­si­ble within the con­straints of it.”

Franz Fer­di­nand leader Alex Kapra­nos was born in 1972, when the Maels were al­ready a cou­ple of al­bums into the ca­reer of aband that be­gan as Half-Nel­son and was later re­named Sparks. In the ’70s, Sparks re­leased the widely ac­claimed “Ki­mono My House” al­bum, which the Maels per­formed in its en­tirety this year at the The­atre at Ace Ho­tel down­town. 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 U.K. in the mid-’70s,” Kapra­nos said sep­a­rately. But he vividly re­mem­bers stum­bling onto Sparks’ 1974 sin­gle “Am­a­teur Hour” among a stack of 45s he picked up in the mid-1990s at a Glas­gow, Scot­land, flea mar­ket when hewas 22.

“I had no idea what they looked like,” Kapra­nos said. “Thiswas long be­fore the In­ter­net and YouTube, when you could in­stantly check out ev­ery band you were in­ter­ested in. The 45 didn’t even have a sleeve with a pic­ture.

“But their mu­sic sounded un­like any band I’d heard be­fore. And there was this line in the song, ‘It’s a lot like play­ing the vi­o­lin / You can­not start out like Ye­hudi Menuhin.’ That’s not your reg­u­lar lyric writer. I’ve al­ways been a fan of lyri­cists who love the pop form and who also stray out­side it quite rad­i­cally, and that’s some­thing Ron does reg­u­larly.”

Go­ing ex­per­i­men­tal

Sparks also col­lab­o­rated with Ger­man techno-wizard Gior­gio Moroder on sev­eral al­bums that in­flu­enced the early evo­lu­tion of techno dance mu­sic— the prime ex­am­ple be­ing the in­ter­na­tional hit sin­gle “No. 1 Song in Heaven” in1979.

In the ’80s the band flirted with main stream suc­cess with “Mu­sic That You Can Dance To” and “Cool Places,” a hit sin­gle and video col­lab­o­ra­tion with Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s. The group spent­much of the ’90s ex­plor­ing facets of dance and­pop­mu­sic be­fore largely aban­don­ing the con­ven­tional rock for­mat in the early 2000s with broadly am­bi­tious sonic ex­per­i­men­ta­tion on the al­bums “Li’l Beethoven” and “Hello Young Lovers.”

Three decades af­ter Spark­swas born, Franz Fer­di­nand came along with its break­through de­but al­bum, “Franz Fer­di­nand,” and the suc­ces­sor, “You Could Have It So Much Bet­ter,” which brought the band into the U.S. Top10 of Bill­board’s 200 Al­bums chart.

In 2004, when Franz Fer­di­nand was first get­ting at­ten­tion from its hit sin­gle “Take Me Out,” the Maels read that the­band­mem­bers cited Sparks as an in­flu­ence. They sub­se­quently met in L.A. and ex­changed pleas­antries as well as a neb­u­lous “We should work to­gether some­time” sen­ti­ment upon part­ing.

TheMaels didn’t want to let it end there, so they­wrote “Piss Off” and sent it to Kapra­nos, gui­tarist Nick McCarthy, bassist Bob Hardy and drum­mer Paul Thom­son to see what, if any, re­sponse they­would get.

The idea was tan­ta­liz­ing, but be­cause Franz Fer­di­nand’s ca­reer was kick­ing into high gear, noth­ing came of it at the time.

Flash-for­ward to 2013, when both bands were booked to per­form at the Coachella Val­ley Mu­sic & Arts Fes­ti­val in In­dio, and while both bands were mak­ing re­lated tour stops on the way, the Maels ran into Kapra­nos on the streets of San Fran­cisco.

A mu­sic chal­lenge

They re­newed the con­ver­sa­tion about col­lab­o­rat­ing but with no grand vi­sion in place. This time theMaels sent an early ver­sion of “Col­lab­o­ra­tions Don’t Work” al­mostasa­taunt. Ratherthan be­ing put off, Kapra­nos said 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,” RonMael said.“No­body had the courage to say, ‘Could this be an al­bum? Could it be some­thing more se­ri­ous?’ 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, don’t you think?’”

Among those songs (16 of which are avail­able on the al­bum’s deluxe edi­tion) are the­mat­i­cally off­beat num­bers such as “Dic­ta­tor’s Son,” sung from the per­spec­tive of the have-it-all prog­eny of an un­named for­eignde spot; “Po­lice En­coun­ters,” about a hap­less guy who runs into dicey sit­u­a­tions on a visit to Har­lem; and the al­bum’s first sin­gle and video, “Johnny Delu­sional,” a throb­bing mi­norkey plea from a ro­mance chal­lenged man who rec­og­nizes the tar­get of his love is far be­yond his sta­tion.

“Tell me, are per­sis­tence and stu­pid­ity the same / Tell me, is re­sis­tance so en­tic­ing, please ex­plain,” Rus­sell Mael and Kapra­nos sing in tan­dem, part of their strat­egy for in­te­grat­ing their forces.

“The idea was to see how we could make it work as a new en­tity rather than just mak­ing it two sep­a­rate bands play­ing to­gether,” said Rus­sell Mael. “You’re giv­ing up a lit­tle of your soul, in hopes of find­ing a new soul some­where.

“It’s al­ways in­spir­ing to take your­self out of the mode of op­er­at­ing in which you’re com­fort­able,” Kapra­nos said. “It’s al­ways good to feel slightly un­com­fort­able, slightly pushed.”

“For us this was a re­ally chal­leng­ing new idea,” Rus­sell added. “You don’t like to over think too much the im­pli­ca­tions of what you’re do­ing if you your­self think it’s ex­cit­ing and re­fresh­ing to do some­thing you haven’t done but some­thing you also think could be re­ally cool and still provoca­tive and for­ward think­ing.

“Another thing is that we can’t think of many prece­dents. It sounds kind of ob­vi­ous— two bands work­ing to­gether — but we re­ally couldn’t think of a lot of other in­stances where two fully formed bands that have sub­stan­tial ca­reers would do an al­bum of com­pletely new ma­te­rial.”

And that, mem­bers of both groups say, was the mo­ti­va­tion for chanc­ing the pos­si­bil­ity that the whole en­ter­prise might fail and alien­ate both bands’ fol­low­ings.

“We didn’t think about it too much,” Kapra­nos said with a laugh. “If we had thought about the risks, we prob­a­bly wouldn’t have made it.”

David Edwards Domino Records

THE MEM­BERS of the Los An­ge­les duo Sparks and Scot­land’s Franz Fer­di­nand have a new al­bum: “FFS.” From left are Paul Thom­son, Ron Mael (in hat), Rus­sell Mael (cen­ter), Bob Hardy (back), Nick McCarthy (striped shirt) and Alex Kapra­nos (denim).

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