First things first: you need to know who Sparks are, and it’s a crime against the humanities that you don’t already. The LA-based band has been making unique, eccentric music since the year the Kinks became the Village Green Preservation Society. Having formed in those days, they wished as so many bands did that they could’ve somehow been part of the British invasion. “When we first started out,” Sparks keyboard player Ron Mael remembers, “we wanted to be an English band, we wanted to be like the Who. I really wanted to be Pete Townshend, that’s who I wanted to be. But being a keyboard player, that was impossible. So, I kind of just went the other direction and became really stoic.”
It’s a declaration of which only someone with the artistic sensibility of Ron Mael could really make sense. Together with his younger brother Russell, Mael developed and honed a keyboard sound and texture, as well as a taste for performance theater, that was fresh and distinctive, all stamped with a signature style that was seemingly a direction for pop music brand new at the time. Their records evolved and morphed as quickly and as smoothly and with as much variety as the portraits at the end of Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” video did, while the diligence in their craftsmanship remained constant: the songs were always thoughtfully composed, the lyrics cerebral without pretense, the band ironically self-aware without ever being self-serious, or losing a trademark sense of humor that was all their own. If The Darkness have anyone to thank for their careers, it’s really Ron and Russell Mael.
And if at first you might wonder about a collaboration between a self-styled 70’s glam-dance-prog-pop band and present-day pop-friendly and multi-platinum Franz Ferdinand, listen back with fresh ears to a song like Franz’ 2004 hit “In The Dark Of The Matinee” after you’ve familiarized yourself with Sparks’ seminal record Kimono My House, recorded thirty years earlier, and you might get a sense for how easily this working relationship came to the members of both crews.
“I don’t think we really changed our approach that much as a band,” Franz and FFS bassist Bob Hardy observes. “We kind of aspire to drama within popular music as much as they do, I think. It was quite an easy thing for us to do. It very quickly became clear that we had the same ideas about what made a good performance, it just gelled very naturally. ”
Mael concurs. “I think one of the reasons why maybe we felt there was a possibility that it could work from the beginning is that I think both bands felt that the other band had a certain similar general feeling about pop music. I think the styles of the two bands aren’t necessarily similar – [in terms of] the sounds – but there is kind of a sensibility behind the two bands that is similar. I think both bands felt comfortable in working with the other band.”
The idea for this – let’s just get this over with: supergroup – isn’t new. FFS was a courtship ten years in the making, beginning with a mutual man-crush for both bands, lunch dates, demos sent back and forth, and culminating finally in a record written largely via email across the Atlantic. “The writing was definitely a collaborative thing,” says Mael, “and it was done over six-thousand miles apart. I think it was the kind of thing where if we had to sit in a room and actually try to work together that way to write, it would never have happened, because you kind of feel too timid, and when you’re that far apart you say, ‘ah, they’re that far away, I don’t care, if they think this is stupid we’ll never see the look on their faces, so it’s fine.’”
That sort of self-doubt underscores a modesty from all involved that may have been integral to the collaborative process. In such a creative setting, members of both bands contend that, at the very least, putting egos aside was crucial. Collaborating on album execution and songwriting, as Mael put it, “was something I think that was new for both bands. Both bands have big egos, and so you have to kind of let a little of that go in order to have somebody else writing with you, either adding stuff to what you’ve done, or you working on something that they’ve given you. So I think that that was something that each band had to decide at the beginning.”
Perhaps not surprisingly for a rockstar as down-to-earth as Bob Hardy, a bassist who says he learned his instrument specifically to be able to be a part of Franz Ferdinand, he takes that self-deprecation even further: “Because we have been fans of theirs for so long, having grown up with their music – I’m speaking personally, for me – going into the studio [I] just [wanted] to play the bass as well as possible and not make a fool of myself in front of these figures whose music I’ve been listening to for however long.”
As Mael and Hardy both noted, another element both of the creative and performance process that worked in FFS’ favor was role logistics for each member. Hardy observes that they were lucky in this respect. “One of the reasons it works, perhaps: there isn’t really any concern instrumentally. [Sparks are] just a two-piece – keyboards and vocals – so it wasn’t like there were two bass players or two keyboards [in FFS].”
In fact, Mael and Hardy seem to agree on nearly everything with respect to this project, suggestive perhaps to the creative or collaborative concord of the group at large. Everything from writing to recording to performing has been going smoothly for FFS, to hear them tell it, an artistic arc that Hardy dubbed democratic. “We try to approach it as much as possible like a new band, when the six of us talk about the things we want to do.”
About the relationship between the bands, Mael adds, “Maybe we’re kidding ourselves, but we kind of don’t feel a generational difference when we’re working with Franz. We just feel that we’re working with four other musicians whose stuff we really like, and that we really like playing with. We don’t feel a separation or paternal feelings [laughs] or any of that kind of thing. We all feel equal as far as contributing to the process. People on the outside might see it differently and I can completely understand that, but from the actual working situation it feels as one thing.”
FFS have been touring Europe, Asia and Canada before hitting the States this Fall. They’re scheduled to be in Philly on October 3rd at The Electric Factory, and you can expect their show to feature a setlist studded with both Sparks and Franz favorites, as well as new cuts from FFS’ eponymous debut that came out in May. “When I hear the album,” Mael said, “it seems like something that neither band would’ve done on their own, so I don’t see it weighted one way or another. And most of the time you kind of can’t see whose influence is really on things.”
Hardy and Mael agreed, with respect to the shows they’ve done to date, that their crowds have been a good mix of loyal fans from both sides. Hardy’s interactions with his fans at FFS shows have been positive, as he gets feedback from people who have “said ‘oh I’ve been really getting into Sparks records, thanks for introducing me to these guys!’” He continued, “But there’s also a large percentage of our crowd who would’ve already known who Sparks are and be pretty big fans and quite excited to see them onstage with us. And I’m sure there are a bunch of Sparks fans who come to shows and get exposed to Franz Ferdinand for the first time. It’s a big mix, really.”
For Mael’s part, he can appreciate that. “There are more younger people coming to see us just because of our being a part of FFS. It’s a good thing for us, that people can maybe become aware of what we’d done in the past forty years, that’s a good byproduct.”
If the cohesive sound of FFS belies the fractured-mirror-portraits aesthetic adorning the cover of their debut album, it’s because this is music made and performed by kindred pop spirits, and with both a mutual respect for one another and a shared sense of humility at the altar of the creative process. And if their show at the Electric Factory is testimony to that relationship, it’s because this project is a collaboration between six individual veterans of the performance arts, collectively informed by the same study of pop culture, with the same vision of what the polished material might look like up there in the bright lights.
FFS performs at The Electric Factory on Saturday, October 3rd. Tickets and more information on the show can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.