Published Sep 10, 2015In the history of supergroups, it would be difficult to pick out a combination as initially surprising and, upon reflection, perfectly logical as the union of Scottish dance punks Franz Ferdinand and the persistently weird and almost as persistently influential art glam duo Sparks, who this past June released their debut album as FFS.
While there aren't a great deal of clear stylistic similarities between the bands, and they each sit at very different points in their careers — with Sparks settling in as elder statesmen 40 years into a career that has spanned 23 albums, and Franz Ferdinand approaching the collaboration following the tour in support of their well-received fourth LP Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action — both bands agree that they share a certain atypical pop sensibility underpinned by a long-running mutual admiration.
Franz Ferdinand frontman Alex Kapranos has often mentioned that his band attempted to cover Sparks' "Achoo" at their first rehearsal and has a distinct memory of buying the band's 1973 single "Amateur Hour" as a teenager at a flea market in Glasgow.
"When I was kid, before the internet made discovering music incredibly easy," Kapranos tells Exclaim!, "I would take whatever money I had to a flea market in Glasgow and buy as many secondhand records and 45s as I could. One time I'd gone down and I bought a stack of 45s, and it was the usual case — the majority of them were shite and I didn't enjoy them. But there was one that really stood out and that was 'Amateur Hour' by Sparks. I loved it because it didn't sound like anything I'd heard before, it sounded like pop music but not like conventional pop music, and the lyrics were great — it had the line 'It's a lot like playing the violin / You cannot start out and be Yehudi Menuhin' — which was a pretty amazing line. It's still pretty amazing. Every time I hear it it's like 'fuck…' what a great line!"
When Franz Ferdinand first began to attract attention with their 2004 single "Take Me Out," Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks took notice, meeting up with Franz Ferdinand when they were in Los Angeles touring their first album and floating the idea of a collaboration.
"We're always champions of songs and singles in particular that are not the traditional format and structure of pop songs," Russell Mael tells Exclaim! "Songs that stand out from the crowd in some way, that aren't formulaic, and 'Take Me Out' was that at that time. We'd heard that Franz Ferdinand had mentioned us in the British press, so when they were in L.A., we got in touch with them, just socially, and after we finished chatting with them for a while, we said, 'Let's do something together.' And that's when it all was initiated, but they had gotten really busy, their career was taking off and things were happening for them at that time and we had several projects at the time too so it got put to the wayside for 11 years until we reconnected with Alex and the guys more recently."
Nine years on from the seed of the collaboration first being planted, the two bands began a 13-month process of writing the material that would become their self-titled album, largely over a distance via email, which both groups found more a help than a hindrance.
"The writing was done 6,000 miles apart, which I think was to its benefit, because when you're writing on your own and responding to ideas that another person's had, you can take it in a direction that they wouldn't expect you to and surprise them," says Kapranos. "In a way it's the opposite of what musicians do when they tend to write with other musicians, which is get everyone in a room together and 'jaaaaaaammmmmm.' That's the enemy of all creativity as far as I'm concerned, cause when you 'jaaaaaaammmmmm' you tend to pick a chord or pick three chords and all stay on the same bloody thing again and again and again until you're not just sick of music, you're sick of living. It was the opposite of jamming, which is why, from my perspective anyway, the album takes some unexpected turns."
For Sparks, the distance was a necessary condition of the Mael brothers' working relationship. "We're both very insular in how we work, so for us, the distance was a really helpful factor in that we didn't have to sit in a room with somebody and weather the potential rejection of a song," says Mael. "My brother and myself are so used to working together that it's hard to work in different ways so it was liberating to initially work via email, and then once we'd decided on the songs Ron and I came to London and we rehearsed them and recorded rather quickly."
While Sparks are no strangers to collaboration, having worked with several recognizable names over the course of their career including, Todd Rundgren, Giorgio Moroder and the French pop star Lio, Mael acknowledges that the relationship with Franz Ferdinand is more "substantial" than some of their other creative partnerships. And while he remains coy on the future of FFS, saying, "what might be there remains to be seen," he suggests that Sparks' collaborating days are far from over.
"We just did a festival a couple weeks ago in Spain with Public Enemy," Mael reveals, "and we met with Chuck D and both sides threatened to try to do something together at some point. God knows if that will actually happen but it was certainly an interesting thought. We'll keep you posted!"
FFS are taking the album out on some North American tour dates, including a stop in Toronto on September 30. You can see all the dates here.