FFS: PROCEED WITHOUT FEAR
illustration by dave van patten
The most clever, catchy and inventive pop record of the last decade should need no introduction. FFS, the unlikely collaboration of Sparks and Franz Ferdinand, works so immediately well that it becomes modern day science non-fiction, propelled by Sparks’ icy keys and operatic delivery and balanced with Franz Ferdinand’s uncanny knack for confectionary glam guitar tones and near-fascistic metronomic rhythm. It’s the kind of record that makes you feel like you’re on a mission, and if not, you are injected with a will to create a mission for yourself out of thin air. Sparks’ Russell Mael speaks now about provocation, Portugal and how puberty never truly ends. This interview by Gabriel Hart. FFS performs tonight—Tues., Oct,. 13—at the Wiltern and tomorrow, Wed., Oct. 14, at the Observatory.
I can’t think of a time in my life where I got to see a billboard for a Sparks record!
Russell Mael (vocals): That’s a shock, I know!
I’ll be driving my van around listening to the new record and see a billboard for it-it almost makes me feel like a normal pop-culture person. And it’s certainly a triumph for you-Sparks is one of the original trollers of pop culture.
Russell Mael: It’s a nice comment, and we’re happy the label has supported the project in that sort of way. It is something refreshing. In this day and age, it seems like things are going the opposite direction as far as what kind of music is supported on all kinds of levels-not just record companies, but radio-wise. To have that support now in our career, we’re really happy. Creatively, Sparks and what we’re doing-what we have been doing up until this album-we really feel we’ve done special stuff and special music that is not attempting to work within the system, and we’re proud of that. We’re doing things that are outside of, ‘Well, what’s the chart position?’ So when a project like FFS comes along and you not only don’t make any concessions to wanting it to be fitting in-in any way-and you also have the support of a company that thinks, ‘Well, this should be the norm rather than everything else’ … it is satisfying.
This collaboration is really more like two bands fused into one. It’s like Franz Ferdinand gain a keyboard player and another singer, and Sparks gains a seasoned backing band. Did you consider it a whole new band as you were making it?
Russell Mael: It is-we really went at it that way. We wrote songs specifically for this new entity. We think it’s pretty precedent-setting where two established acts that both have their own careers have gone off and done an album of all new songs, for one, and then taken it further and toured together as this new entity. It’s unique in that way. You can think of one-off collaborations-hip-hop things and such-but something to this kind of extent where there’s spending over a year writing material and all … at least from our perspective, the amount of energy we put into it was to try and make it so it wasn’t just a one-liner of, ‘Oh, it’s Franz Ferdinand and Sparks.’ We wanted to avoid there not being real depth behind it. Once people got past the idea of the two bands working together, we wanted there to be music to support it.
It’s worked for me as a fan of Sparks-I’ve been a fan ever since the movie Rad came out when I was a little kid. I don’t know if it was my snobbery in my 20s, but when Franz Ferdinand came out, they didn’t resonate with me. But now I can immediately see the stylistic similarities and the daring movies toward reinvention that the two groups have made on their own. It makes me feel a bit foolish for missing the boat on them ten years ago. Has this collaboration opened you to a younger crowd in the same way?
Russell Mael: We definitely have attracted a lot of new fans from the collaboration. On this tour, we played really big festivals all around the world. There are obviously Sparks fans at those festivals, but there are fans too-in the reverse of what you just said about yourself not being attuned to Franz Ferdinand’s stuff-that were less savvy about Sparks. People come away like, ‘How did I not know about this band that has 24 albums out?’ That’s what’s really surprised people who may not have been aware of Sparks to this extent. It’s been helpful-we’ve gained a lot of fans in this endeavor.
The song ‘Collaborations Don’t Work’-obviously, the ultimate contrarian declaration of intent. Did that come from any actual tension? Or was it just an innocent ironic romp?
Russell Mael: The first song written for the album was by Ron. It was ‘Piss Off.’ That’d been written eleven years ago when we first met Franz Ferdinand. For various reasons, the idea of working together hadn’t quite been implemented then despite there being a desire for both bands to do something. We broached the idea of working together then, but they were very busy and we were doing various projects, but despite that we came up with this song ‘Piss Off’ that we thought was a good opener. When we finally reconnected eleven years later with the idea of, ‘Hey, whatever happened to us working together?’ it seemed like both bands were excited again about that prospect, and Ron wrote that song, ‘Collaborations Don’t Work.’ We thought this would be a good … I dunno, it’s not a mission statement. Maybe an anti-mission statement? Or not a statement you’d normally send to a band you’re about to collaborate with? ‘Hey, guys! Collaborations don’t work, and here’s all the reasons way!’ The potential pitfalls! But we thought lyrically it was really provocative-both to them and an audience as well, saying, ‘Hey, we’re doing what we think is a really cool collaboration and by the way, collaborations don’t work!’ And then musically we felt it was really … it was not conventional, as far as the structure of the song. It was pretty complex, and had various stylistic elements along the way, as we sometimes like to do. We thought if they’d like that song, then we maybe could proceed without fear.
What were the actual creative parameters for this record? Did you ever meet like, ‘Alright, we’re gonna do this …’ Is there a song that is completely 50-50 between the two groups?
Russell Mael: There weren’t any creative discussions about what this should or shouldn’t be. That was really good, I think. We just wanted it to be as good as we could make it. Both groups wanted this to be a unique project. Beyond that … we worked from 6,000 miles apart. We were in L.A. for the whole writing process, and they were in either London or Glasgow doing their bit. The writing was done in a pretty segregated way. We’re pretty insular, the two of us. We’ve not had a lot of contact writing-wise with the outside world. We don’t even really know how you do that process! We have our ways of working. I think the geographical barrier that was imposed on this actually worked to its favor. There were different ways the songs came about. A lot was completely from our side, where we would just have a finished song specifically for this: ‘Piss Off,’ ‘Johnny Delusional,’ ‘Dictator’s Son,’ ‘Save Me From Myself.’ There were some that were hybrid tracks-they sent us like ‘Police Encounters,’ and we did all the melody and the lyrics. Same with the ‘The Man Without A Tan.’ They sent us a backing track with nothing else on it, and we came up with all the lyrics and the melody. And then there were a couple instances where Alex [Kapranos] had a song that was his entire thing, like ‘Little Guy From The Suburbs’ was his. ‘Power Couple’ is Ron’s song. And there was one section in ‘Collaborations Don’t Work’ towards the end where it says, ‘I ain’t no collaborator’ that Alex came up with.
The first two songs on the album-‘Johnny Delusional’ and ‘Call Girl’ are these anti-hero love songs full of yearning, pining, paranoia and self-loathing. They’re from an older man’s perspective-but they’re so timeless, they could also be from a teenager’s perspective. Do you think we ever really grow out of the awkwardness of puberty?
Russell Mael: No-it’s always there. In some kind of way. That’s a good observation. ‘Johnny Delusional’ is kind of universal. The specifics of what’s in that song-the person is delusional, but we all have our doubts, and maybe sadly it’s never gonna happen for this character in that song. But you can expand that to be more universal as well. Having doubts and being delusional about other things. I really like that song-it’s one of my favorite ones, and one we came up with later in the process. There’s something in the melody of that song-it’s really bittersweet, and all about this guy who’s not gonna potentially reach this goal of what he wants in life, but there’s something maybe he’ll get? You’re kinda rooting for the guy despite the obstacles along the way. It’s sad but maybe uplifting as well in some sort of way. Keep on trying-who knows? Maybe you’re not delusional after all!
Most of your output has had this undercurrent of self-loathing that to me always translated into an inexplicable feeling of empowerment.
Russell Mael: ‘When Do I Get To Sing My Way’ maybe touches on a similar yearning for something, and regret that hasn’t happened-when do I get to sing like Sinatra did? When do I get to feel like Sid Vicious did? And it’s not just touching those issues of seeking something you may not obtain or haven’t obtained. It’s also a way that theme is dealt with that makes it special. ‘Johnny Delusional’ is not a typical thing you hear as a pop song. It’s a unique and really personal and special way of treating that kind of theme. That’s what makes those songs different. It’s not only the theme-people can have that theme in a pop song in a general way-it’s the manner you write about it. It’s done in a clever and fresh way, too, and the analogies and metaphors in both those songs are both not hackneyed. That’s the ambition within Sparks songs from the past-wanting to write about things, but write about them in a newer way of dealing with subjects. Maybe it’s a love song, which is a not a particularly inventive topic, but it’s how you treat that topic, and what craft you put into the lyrics that makes it special.
I tell people that it’s hard to write a love song in the English language. Other languages have single words that we’d need a whole paragraph to explain.
Russell Mael: It is-that’s something Ron especially and of course I do too take really seriously.
You use a lot of French on the new record, I noticed.
Russell Mael: That too! There’s a craft to writing. One is having an ability to write things that at least in our minds have some weight to them. But there’s also having the desire just to want to be able to do something in a way that is fresh as well, and not going for the run-of-the-mill lyrics in pop songs.
Are you familiar with the Portuguese term saudade? It’s a type of longing for something completely unattainable. Far beyond nostalgia.
Russell Mael: Maybe we’re a Portuguese group and we don’t know it? I know about fado but I wasn’t aware of that term.
They have a national holiday about that whole phrase-it’s one of those words where you have to explain a whole paragraph to get the word across.
Russell Mael: That’s really cool. I even bought a poster when we were there on this trip-a movie poster of a movie made about a famous fado singer. But I wasn’t aware of that term.
Was there a specific political family that inspired ‘Dictator’s Son’?
Russell Mael: I don’t think so. I think Ron and I, we like the idea of-
It seemed like a universal thing. Like one dictator’s son could easily be the next.
Russell Mael: Exactly. One dictator’s son fits all. There’s something appealing about a song from the viewpoint of the son of the dictator. This guy’s after all the ideal of all things Western that are really crass and capitalistic, and we thought there was something really appealing about that. Which isn’t far-fetched at all-you read about Kim Jong Il and they’re totally in American cinema and all this, and it’s mind-boggling that their country is impoverished beyond imagination and then the guy’s a fan of importing models from Sweden to entertain him and watching American movies while everybody in his country is dying of hunger. There was something appealing about a song from the son’s perspective, like, ‘Yeah, you know, what he’s into is Hugo Boss and dental floss and Buffalo wings and all.’
Is that a lyric? Buffalo wings?
Russell Mael: Well, ‘wings and dip,’ it says-then ‘co-ed knees and BLTs.’
Plus the complexities of being confined in your father’s shadow-that should be a genre all its own.
Russell Mael: I know!
What about ‘Police Encounters’? I know there’s a voyeuristic love story in there, but was there any inspiration from all the recent police brutality caught on camera?
Russell Mael: No-it wasn’t anything to do with that. We liked the idea that was pretty much literal-like if it’s a pop song, it must be some statement about anti-police brutality cuz so much has happened in the past year, but what we liked was it was more a story about this guy who was in love with a policeman’s wife, and when she didn’t wear underwear. It was a literal story that didn’t have a politically correct theme to it.
The album seems pretty lighthearted until the last song, ‘A Violent Death.’ Why that final 180 degree turn? Besides the fact that we’re all gonna die?
Russell Mael: The lyrics to that were done by Alex. So it’s a better question for him. We wrote the music. Again, there were no restrictions on what sort of subject matter could be entertained on the album. Alex had that set of lyrics and asked us if we could do music around those lyrics? The process of the writing on this album is less mysterious than people think. We’re just really excited to play in L.A. with this. We played two shows in Glasgow, their hometown, and now we’re looking forward to the flipside.
What’s coming next for FFS?
Russell Mael: Neither band really knows the next step regarding FFS. We’re just really excited we got the project to this stage. It’s played 31 shows already around the world and it’s been well-received everywhere-playing Glastonbury and that sort of a thing has been very exciting. We never thought this seed of an idea would involve billboards in Silver Lake or Los Feliz! It’s cool it came this far. As far as what comes next, neither of us have gotten to that stage of thinking yet. We have a couple movie musicals we’ve been working on as Sparks-the Ingmar Bergman is still ongoing. We have Czech producers involved and we’ll hopefully be filming in Prague sometime next year. And we have one other we’ve written that no one knows yet. So we’re fully immersed in the movie-musical area.
FFS WITH THE INTELLIGENCE ON TUE., OCT. 13, AT THE WILTERN, 3790 WILSHIRE BLVD., LOS ANGELES. 7 PM / $25-$35 / ALL AGES. WILTERN.COM. AND WITH THE INTELLIGENCE ON WED., OCT. 14, AT THE OBSERVATORY, 3503 S. HARBOR BLVD., SANTA ANA. 7 PM / $35 / ALL AGES. OBSERVATORYOC.COM. FFS’ SELF-TITLED ALBUM IS OUT NOW ON DOMINO. VISIT FFS AT FFSMUSIC.COM.