FFS is the modest title of a groundbreaking collaboration between LA’s glam rock godfathers, Sparks, and Glasgow’s 21st Century hit-makers Franz Ferdinand. Both bands have proven to prioritize innovation over most everything else in recent years, without losing any trademark groove or sincerity. In a musical milieu that is increasingly oriented toward genre and branding, the decision to take a break from their independently successful projects to pursue something uncharted and relatively genre-less was bold, but consistent with each band’s existing ethos.
My interview with Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks and Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand took place in the depths of Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont. While some of my nervousness upon arrival was derived from the fact that I was about to meet three of my longtime heroes, the setting, known for lodging A-List celebrities, was not helping. I worried, in the brief moments climbing the hotel’s convoluted staircase, that these gentlemen wouldn’t be the down-to-earth rock ‘n’ rollers that the music and lyrics suggested they would be. My fears, however, were eliminated as Alex welcomed me into the room with a smile, and the Mael brothers made their warm introductions as well. Even Ron, despite his stoic and imposing stage persona, was smiling eager to hear the first questions of the day. Though all-involved parties were slightly groggy at 10am on a Tuesday morning, it was clear that the trio were very excited to talk about their new project.
Let's get right into it. You recorded the album in 15 days. Was that a pre-set time constraint or did you finish with time to spare?
Russell: We didn’t finish with time to spare. It was a short period of time that was dedicated to the physical recording of the album, but there was a year and a half or so of prep time that went into it. That involved the most important thing–for us to make sure that we could get away with only fifteen days of the actual recording; to have solid material that we knew was “all there,” so that when we got to the actual recording process, there could be room for spontaneity. But we knew exactly what we would do, material-wise.
Alex: Yeah, so we’d written the songs beforehand, but we did want to keep it a short period of time in the studio so there wasn’t too much time to over-consider it, and over-think it.
Ron: By the time that we actually played together, the writing was done 6,000 miles apart. The first time we played together was a week before the recording. We went to London and fortunately it worked out.
Why did you choose London as the setting for your recording sessions?
Alex: For Nick’s babysitting.
Russell: Nick has, uh-
Alex: Nick has two children. He’s in London.
Ron: I don’t know. For us, it doesn’t really matter where we record, and so, in a certain sense, it’s more liberating to feel rootless where you’re recording. It was at Rack Studios, which is a really great studio. Plus, the producer, John Congleton, checked out the studio and he thought that it was up to his standards.
Russell: The mixing was done in Dallas. He has a studio there so it was sort of international in that kind of way. There’s four Franz and two Sparks, so it also seemed logistically easier for us to go there. Only two have to uproot rather than four.
Ron: Of course, one Texas guy too…
Russell: And a Texas guy!
As a producer, why was John Congleton an appealing choice for this project in particular?
Alex: He seemed to be somebody that was looking forward. We liked his work that he’d done on recent albums, like the St. Vincent stuff and Angel Olsen. Also, he didn’t seem to have one specific sound. He seemed to respond to different artists as well, rather than inflicting the “John Congleton sound” on something. He seemed to draw something new from them while feeling very contemporary and forward-looking. That’s the kind of record we wanted to make. We didn’t want to make a record that was looking back on either of our past careers. We wanted to make something new and he seemed like a good guy to do that. Another thing that really appealed to me was the work that he’d done with St. Vincent and David Byrne, which was a collaboration, and also a collaboration between artists of different generations as well. So he was used to that kind of environment, it wouldn’t be a surprise.
Being six musicians in a studio with, I’m sure, a wealth of ideas, did you have to define any limitations before going all-out with the recording process?
Ron: No, that was one thing. We never set any limits to what we were going to do, and the limits were dictated partially just by the songs, because both bands are pretty song-oriented, as opposed to jamming or instrumental, and then kinda adding stuff on top of that. So there was that restriction, but as far as anything else, it was kind of “anything goes” all along the way. There never was really a plan at any point along the whole process. It was all kinda done step by step and, “Well, let’s see where this leads.” Even the point of it being an album, no one had any idea, it was just, “Oh let’s do a song or two, and see what happens,” and then it kind of piled up and it became what it became.
But it was enough songs for an album by the time you were in the studio?
All: Oh yeah!
Ron: Too many, actually, yeah. And the scheduling thing made us have to be– even though it was fun– really efficient in the studio as well, because there were, probably, 18 songs to do in 15 days.
Assuming FFS doesn’t have an unpaid intern to handle such duties, you’ve created a Spotify playlist compiling your favorite collaborations of the past. Did you take any practical cues from the collaborations or supergroups of the past?
Alex: No. We didn’t really see ourselves as having anything in common with those supergroups because they were something different. They were like different members from other groups come together, rather than two groups joining together. This was unprecedented; it was the first time two groups came together. In the same way that we weren’t looking to our own pasts, we weren’t looking to the pasts of other bands, either.
As a side note I specified practical cues, because FFS has few discernible sonic influences outside of Sparks and Franz Ferdinand. Was that very intentional or is that automatic?
Russell: One thing is the two bands have their own– we think for the better– their own personality and stamp on what they do, but having said that, we wanted to make sure that this was something that was neither Sparks nor Franz Ferdinand, that it was something completely fresh-sounding too. With this kind of combination, obviously you can’t get rid of Alex’s singing or my singing, and those two elements are going to be there, but then there’s a question of finding out how we could make those two elements work together. So there wasn’t a specific goal, but one thing we all had agreed on was just that we wanted this to be an album that sounded fresh, and didn’t sound like it was one band or the other; that it sounded like a new entity.
Moving onto the album itself, there seems to be a great deal of thematic unity. Is that a face value misinterpretation, or is that the design?
Alex: I think it’s probably a misinterpretation.
Ron: I mean it’s fine if that’s there, but it wasn’t intentional. The songs are written discreetly, you know, and kind of assembled, but if there are those kind of thematic things, it adds a richness to the whole thing. But we never set out to have a theme, at all, lyric-wise, or even in a musical sense.
What I got out of it was, it seemed like there were a lot of struggling young people, artists, lonely kids, and characters who have yet to learn how to take themselves too seriously. Are young people maybe target demo for this album?
Ron: Well they weren’t written with that spirit, really, because I don’t think either band writes down, you know? I think both bands are lucky– well, it kind of is more extreme from our standpoint, just because of the age thing, the, [in a deeper voice] the “age” thing– because we try to be honest and not write down to people, but are fortunate that there are younger people that respond. So even if that’s the subject, it wouldn’t be something that was intentionally trying to reach an audience doing that. It’s just kind of what we do. And also the characters maybe, even if they seem like they’re young; in a certain sense, it’s us also identifying with those characters. So it isn’t really stepping outside of the songs and seeing, “who this is for,” I don’t think either band would do that. If it works in a mass kind of way for either band at any time, or for FFS, hopefully in the future, it’s kind of a good by-product of what we’ve done, but that’s never part of the process.
How did you pick the three songs to release before the album (“Collaborations Don’t Work,” “Johnny Delusional,” and “Piss Off”)?
Russell: We were told that they would be the three songs… For that issue the label had some input into that.
Alex: It was all the label’s choice, really. Yeah, I guess “Johnny Delusional” is the first single, and then the others were sort of teasers. The label wanted to put out “Collaborations Don’t Work” because they thought it tied in with the UK political situation, and we were just like “Argh, no! I don’t want to be involved in that at all!”
Russell: They stretched the metaphor into something that wasn’t there.
Alex: Yeah, because it looked like we were going to have another coalition government in the UK, which would’ve been a lot better than what we’ve ended up with, obviously. So yeah, I think it was a weird marketing spin.
You have a few live dates set up. Was the album recorded in a way that was primarily set up to be performed live?
Alex: Well yeah, when we recorded, it was all recorded pretty much live. It was recorded with the six of us in a room together. That was a deliberate choice as well, because while we’d been writing quite separately– sending songs and then responding to them, and not being in the same room together– we wanted the recording to sound like a band; six people playing together at the same time. I think that’s what’s given it a lot of its life and a lot of its energy, is the fact that it was like that. So I think the step from the studio to the live performance is gonna be a lot easier, because we already know how to perform the songs.
Ron: We liked the fact that there is a stylization also, even though we kind of performed it live, there is a real stylization to the sound of the album, and a lot of that is due to John Congleton. But as a good by-product of recording it in this way, it won’t be as difficult to translate to a live thing.
Russell: It’s even more than a few dates, too. It’s pretty substantial. We’re hoping to come to the States in November to play.
Written by Greg Krish