Franz Ferdinand and Sparks make for super combo
It's been a long time coming but Franz Ferdinand and LA duo Sparks have finally joined forces. Ahead of their debut album release, Andy Welch meets the latest supergroup
THE concept of the supergroup – a band formed by members of other famous or established groups – is nothing new. Although they'd existed before in the jazz and blues worlds, the idea was popularised in the 60s with the first so-called supergroup Cream, which featured Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker.
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young are also worthy of mention, made up of ex-members of The Byrds, The Hollies and Buffalo Springfield, along with Blind Faith, Bad Company, Humble Pie and, perhaps the starriest musical merger of all, the Traveling Wilburys, consisting of George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne.
After falling out of vogue for some time, supergroups have seen a bit of a resurgence since the early noughties, with the likes of Box Car Racer, Velvet Revolver, Audioslave and Atoms For Peace. They're not always successful, commercially or musically, and there's sometimes a sneaking suspicion that the only people really enjoying themselves are the members.
FFS, on the other hand, are a different matter entirely. They are a supergroup, but unique in the fact they're made up of two whole bands that have joined forces. One half is Glasgow's Franz Ferdinand, originally formed in 2002 and whose self-titled debut album, which featured hit single Take Me Out, later won the Mercury Prize.
The other half is Sparks, who provide the S in FFS, formed by brothers Ron and Russell Mael in Los Angeles in 1971. They've released 22 albums to date, their biggest hit being This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us.
While they're just about getting around to releasing their debut as FFS, the two bands actually floated the idea of working together way back in 2004, with the Mael brothers even going as far as writing a song, the bluntly-titled P**s Off, and sending it to Franz frontman Alex Kapranos and his bandmates for consideration.
"It was really early on for Franz Ferdinand. We'd just released Take Me Out and Ron and Russell had heard it on the radio over in the States. They'd also read an interview of ours in NME that said we liked Sparks," says Kapranos (43). "Things were going absolutely crazy for us, but when we were in LA, we met Ron and Russ and talked about working together."
Their full schedule meant they didn't have time to pursue the idea, however – until, nine years later, Kapranos bumped into the Maels again, while walking along a street in San Francisco.
"From hearing Franz's music, we felt an obvious connection and affinity," recalls Ron (69). "And then meeting them, it was even clearer that we had some sort of wavelength connection. It took 11 years from the first meeting, but we're here now."
Kapranos adds: "There are very few bands this could've worked with. We thought it would work because of the way both bands approach making music. The fact we all get on so well helps, but it was only really when we started exchanging songs that it was clear it was going to be a success."
Nevertheless, they didn't tell anyone, not even their labels, as they didn't want any unnecessary pressure, should the collaboration not come to anything. At that stage, they didn't expect to make an album together, and started off just working on one or two songs. But over time, things grew.
"It sounds hackneyed, but I'd say Franz were generally just inspiring people to be around," says Ron. For a man famed for his odd on-stage behaviour, all sideways glances and quirky movements, he's far less startling in person. The moustache is the same, however.
"Russell and I usually work in such an insular way that inspiration can be limited to certain things," he continues. "But having a new band around, a band whose music means a lot to us, put us in a different space."
Kapranos is equally complementary, saying he was inspired by being around a band like Sparks who, 22 albums into their career, still want to experiment and try new things.
Aside from P*ss Off – which despite being written all those years ago, didn't re-enter the fray for inclusion on the album until near the end of the recording sessions – the first song idea the Maels sent to their collaborators was Collaborations Don't Work.
"'Collaborations don't work' is the opening line, which we thought was amazing," says Kapranos. "We thought it was pretty hilarious that that's how they would start off the work, so we responded with the line, 'I ain't no collaborator'. We weren't sure we had gauged the humour correctly and thought it might backfire, but all these months later, it looks like it might have worked."
Another of the songs on the album is one of Ron's, entitled The Man Without A Tan, and tells the story of a pale and interesting stranger arriving in a Wild West town full of ruggedly handsome, muscle-bound locals, who fear the weedy stranger might offer the women something different to their chiselled looks.
"You're looking quite pale there yourself," says Kapranos to his new bandmate.
"Well, Alex," Ron replies, "I was always told, 'Write what you know'. It is autobiographical, of course it is."
What this collaboration means for both bands remains to be seen. Neither camp seems to want the partnership to end, and all appear blissfully happy with the arrangement. There's a tour to contend with, and then more touring which will likely see them through to at least the end of the year.
"There are shows all over the place," says Russell (66), "and we're looking at a US tour next."
"We're really looking forward to playing in Japan, a country that means a lot to both bands," he adds. "In terms of what comes next, none of us know, which is what's exciting. We have this great album, and that's just the beginning. We're just getting started."
:: FFS's self-titled debut album is released on June 8. They begin a Europe-wide tour on June 16. For details, visit ffsmusic.com.
EXTRA TIME – THE BEST SUPERGROUPS
:: Blind Faith: They only released one album, the self-titled Blind Faith in 1969, but any band featuring Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Ric Grech and Ginger Baker was going to be good.
:: Atoms For Peace: An unlikely pairing as they may have been, Radiohead's Thom Yorke and Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers worked brilliantly alongside producer Nigel Godrich, Joey Waronker, who had played extensively with REM and Beck, and Mauro Refosco of Forro In The Dark.
:: Emerson, Lake & Palmer: Unlike many supergroups, EL&P, formed by ex-members of The Nice, King Crimson and Atomic Rooster, surpassed the fame of their old bands several times over, becoming one of the biggest prog bands of the 70s.
:: Traveling Wilburys: George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne made up this star-studded supergroup. They released two albums, Volume 1 and Volume 3, although Orbison died before the second was recorded.
:: Monsters Of Folk: For fans of beardy Americana, 2009's self-titled album by Monsters Of Folk, featuring Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis, M. Ward and Jim James of My Morning Jacket, was a special occasion indeed.