Sort of the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of rock, FFS are a tasty smashup of Franz Ferdinand’s melodic, punky rock peanut butter with the chocolatey, witty pop goodness of Sparks. Or is it the other way around?
Ah, forget it. What’s important here is the historic hybridizing of two major bands — one, a rock band known for angular anthems such as “Take Me Out”; the other, a veteran experimental duo whose vast catalog encompasses glam-rock, chamber-pop, electronica and more — into one living, breathing supergroup. The collaborative pop tribe's album, called simply FFS (out June 9 on Domino), bursts with the succulent flavors of both bands while shooting skywards something righteously new in between them.
Apparently Sparks and Franz Ferdinand have been a mutual admiration society for some time now, long having discussed a partnership of sorts.
“We didn’t know if it would work, really,” says FF singer-guitarist Alex Kapranos. “We just started doing it, and went with it and saw how it would go. We first talked about it about 11 years ago, and our schedules at that time were both pretty crazy, and it didn’t really happen, even though Ron and Russell had sent over ‘Piss Off’ and we were excited about it.”
The two bands’ chance meeting on the street in San Francisco a couple of years ago triggered new gusto for finally making the collaboration happen. In short order, songs from each group began zinging back and forth, and before they knew it, they’d gathered a sufficient number for an album.
Yet neither band knew what exactly the plan was — which worked out for the best, says Sparks' Ron Mael.
“Even when we did know that we were going to be working together, we never had a direction,” says the keyboardist, joining his brother Russell Mael and Kapranos for an interview at the Chateau Marmont. “There was never any discussion about the touchstones of where this would all go, other than that we really admired each other, and knew the ambition of the two bands, and knew that if that kind of push could be put into some kind of new musical entity, that it could be something really special.”
The mechanics of long-distance musical collaboration can be tricky. In this case, it meant two crews writing material 6,000 miles apart — Sparks in their hometown of Los Angeles, FF back in the U.K. — then trading files across the Internet. But that distance proved beneficial for each.
Says Kapranos, “There was something quite nice about that –– it meant that you didn’t have that feeling of being intimidated by somebody in the room. That first time you sit opposite somebody whose music you respect, you do feel a little, 'Oh, what am I gonna do here? Is it gonna be right?' And to be able to write in the comfort of your own place and to send the songs to each other was quite liberating.”
Ultimately, getting out of each band’s respective fortes via this collaborative process taught both Sparks and Franz Ferdinand a little something about their own musical strengths. Even so, during the initial writing phase, neither was writing with the other band in mind as such.
“Neither of us wanted to be timid with it and play it overly safe musically,” says Russell, Sparks' elastic-voiced singer. “There are some songs on the album that are a little bit more conventionally structured, then there’re ones like ‘Collaborations Don’t Work,’ where we were happy that we could do something lyrically and musically not in a traditional form.”
“Both of us ended up doing things that we might not have normally done,” says Kapranos, “and the really exciting moments were when the two came together, and you can recognize the elements of each, but it sounds like something new. I remember the first time I heard it, we’d sent over some music for the song that became ‘Police Encounters,’ and it sounded kinda Franz Ferdinandy, then when Ron added music to it and Russell’s voice appeared on it, it’s like, wow –– I recognized the elements but it didn’t really sound like either anymore.”
Having traded ideas across the Atlantic for a few months, it was finally time to gather the tribes in a London studio to put it all together. Producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, Swans, The War on Drugs) helmed the proceedings, which was done with all members of both bands closely together in the room, and as quickly as possible, in order to pump spontaneity and life into the recording.
That there were no fisticuffs involved over the direction and tone of the album owes to the fact that all the songs were well-prepared prior to recording –– and that these musical friends happen to like each other and get along nicely.
“It was fortunate,” says Ron, “that the setups of the two bands were ideal for coming together because there really isn’t a whole lot of overlap of roles, at least instrumentally.”
“The lineups of the two bands do sit together really well,” says Kapranos. “It wasn’t like we had two bassists in the room battling each other, ‘No, I’m gonna play the bass runs on this song!’”
“The one overlap is having the two vocalists,” says Ron, “and we wanted to play that up, having them either work together or else having the voices clashing against each other, like in ‘Police Encounters,’ where they’re trading lines back and forth.”
“To record that way rather than trying to layer it and build it up part by part,” says Kapranos, “it does bring everything together, because you’re responding to everybody in the room, and it gave it a unified voice.”
For the last few years the Sparks duo has been touring as a self-contained, two-man band, occasionally accompanied by a full orchestra as at their recent Ace Hotel performance in L.A. But playing with a real live rock band is something that Ron and Russell have been missing. They’re looking forward to taking this FFS thing on the road.
“It’s fun now to be in a band situation again,” says Russell. “We feel this band is really good, and it’s worked out to be something really exciting.”