“We didn’t know what we were going to do at any stage…” hmv.com talks to Franz Ferdinand + Sparks
When word surfaced that L.A.’s enduring pop/rock oddballs Sparks and Glasgow indie-pop stalwarts Franz Ferdinand were recording an album together as FFS, initial surprise quickly gave way to genuine curiosity. Indeed, weird as the pairing may seem on the surface, the collaboration idea had apparently been kicking around for at least a decade, with Franz Ferdinand initially musing aloud about cutting an album of Sparks covers.
From there, writing and recording original material was more of a logistical hurdle than a conceptual impossibility. Once the proverbial ball got rolling, the collaboration idea immediately made sense with the two bands, so outwardly different, actually unearthing a shared (if angular) pop sensibility.
This week sees the release of FFS, the fruit of the Sparks-Franz Ferdinand effort. Even more intriguing, the ad hoc band will hit the road, playing multiple European dates this summer, including a plum spot at Glastonbury Festival, a first for Sparks brothers Ron and Russell Mael despite being active since the early 1970s.
hmv.com spoke with Franz Ferdinand main man Alex Kapranos and Sparks' Russell Mael. If the FFS project sounds like it was all kids of fun to produce, that’s because it was.
Do you have any sense of what the critical reaction will be to this project?
AK: “I can’t really tell. People seem to be liking it. But I can never really tell so I try not to think about it too much.”
People who know both bands very well suggest the pairing actually makes a kind of sense… that the sensibilities of Sparks and FF are closer than it may appear. Fair statement?
AK: “Yes I think so. I mean, sonically we are not the same; Sparks have always been led a lot more by the keyboard and Russell’s voice is very different than mine. But our approach to songwriting isn’t so varied. And we both have a love and respect for pop music but have always approached it kind of as outsiders. Neither band really follows the formula of pop music and both are quite happy to be doing that.”
RM: “The bands both share similar sensibilities in a superficial sort of way, yet the music of both bands remains extremely different.”
I would guess Sparks fans skew older than FF fans so this makes for an interesting age mix?
AK: “True and I think there is some crossover. There will be a conservative if small element of both of our fan bases that won’t like the idea at all. But we both feel you can never makes music to satisfy the most conservative members of your fan base; otherwise you’d end up making very conservative music which nobody really wants to do. Plus I think doubters will come around eventually.”
The album was recorded during an intense 15-day period. How did the actual songwriting work? Did you use Skype or what?
AK: “We didn’t write anything in the same room together. We spent a fair bit of time on arrangements and rehearsals but for the most part the songwriting happened thousands of miles apart in L.A. and Glasgow. So that was a new way of working for all of us. Sometimes a complete song would be sent over, sometimes it would just be a piece of music or some lyrics. But we had spent some time hanging out with the Sparks guys so we knew we all got along, which helped. Plus about halfway through the songwriting we were playing a show in Los Angeles and we went round to Russell’s house and were able to review some of the songs.
“The moment when it really came alive was when we were rehearsing the songs and got to hear all six people playing live. It’s one thing having a good song but it’s quite another bringing it to life in performance. We kept that excitement and took it into the studio, so the recording really is the sound of six people playing together. Ron on the grand piano, me and (FF’s) Nick McCarthy jumping between keyboards and guitars, me singing, Russell singing and Paul Thomson and Bob Hardy on drums and bass. I mean, it’s such a strange project – 10 years talking about it, a year-and-a-half sending songs back and forth and then recording a total of 18 songs in 15 days with 12 making it on the album.”
Tell me about working with producer John Congleton (St Vincent, David Byrne et al)?
AK: “Filthy mouth (laughs). We all thought it was a good idea to bring in someone from the outside to help bring this thing together. We figured we could either get someone from the past – Tony Visconti or Giorgio Moroder from the Sparks side or Rich Costey or Tore Johansson from our side. Or we could look to someone. And we all agreed we should strive for a new sound with this new band. John seemed like a great choice because his sound is really cool but it’s also different from record to record. He seemed like someone who responded to a band rather than someone who imposed his own sound. And like us, he wanted to work quickly. No pissing about with drum microphones.”
RM: “It was good having an independent outside arbiter to give an extra opinion since this was a new way of working with two bands who have a history of both working in their own bands and were thus thrown together in the same room . John's a fan of both groups so it was an ideal situation for him as a producer.”
Did you always envision FFS as a touring act as opposed to a studio project?
RM: “It naturally evolved into a touring entity once everyone was so enthusiastic about the outcome of the album. There was no way we couldn't tour with such a special project.”
AK: “We didn’t know what we were going to do at any stage (laughs). It’s fun to have some surprises and unpredictability.”
Are you looking at touring in North America eventually?
AK: “We would love to if it’s possible.”
So if FFS is a hit, would you keep going, maybe make another record?
AK: “Who knows? We are just waiting to see what happens. But that’s a good feeling.”
RM: “And with Sparks, we have no boardroom meetings where we discuss what we tackle next. If something is fresh, challenging, forward-thinking, innovative and new for us to do then we're most motivated to pursue it.”